2021 and her late father, trumpet player Ralph Collins, would have been a hundred. Amanda Brown had always known that her father was a musician and about his war service in the RAF. “I used to enjoy hearing all his anecdotes. I was always very amused as a child that Dad had been one of Sid Millward's Nitwits pre-war when Dad was in his teens. I remember Sid arriving out of the blue at our house in Manchester when I was about 6 years old. He showed us an old cine film that involved Dad and some other musicians all dressed in black, jumping out of a van and running down a country lane. It was like something out of Keystone Cops."
"It was only after my mother died in 2020 that the photos came into my possession and I really studied them and decided in 2021, his centenary year, to research his RAF bandmates. I also used other photos and keepsakes to research his civilian musical career too.
Many of the photographs featured a drummer, Tommy Wilson, so Amanda decided to start looking into Tommy’s career and discovered that Tommy had been Snakehips Johnson's drummer at the time of the March 1941 Café de Paris bombing.
“Tommy Wilson was a corporal who led an RAF dance band in WW2 in which my father played trumpet. Tommy had been the highest profile pre-war musician in the band,” says Amanda. “However, when I researched the band members, I couldn't find anything about him after the war. The names also link to the attached photo which my dad helpfully labelled at some point. In the photo, Jack Seymour, became the highest profile musician and has an entry in John Chilton's Who's Who of British Jazz.”
Bandleader and dancer (hence his nickname) Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson was a leading figure in black British music of the 1930s and early 1940s before his death while performing at London's Café de Paris in the Blitz. Johnson was killed instantly, as was the saxophonist 'Baba' Williams; the cafés manager, Martin Poulsen was also killed in the blast.
The band's guitarist Joe Deniz later recounted: "As we started playing there was an awful thud, and all the lights went out. The ceiling fell in and the plaster came pouring down. People were yelling. A stick of bombs went right across Leicester Square, through the Café de Paris and further up to Dean Street. The next thing I remember was being in a small van which had been converted into an ambulance. Then someone came to me and said: "Joe, Ken's dead." It broke me up."
Here is a significant video interview with Joe Deniz who looks back at Snakehips, the band, that night when the bomb hit and some great footage of the band. Although the personnel are not named, Tommy Wilson is most probably the drummer referred to.
Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson
“I had just about given up looking when, a few months ago, a friend asked me if I'd ever found anything about Tommy" says Amanda. "This prompted me to have another look. I did my usual search but surprisingly this time it resulted in an obituary from Billboard dated March1955.“
“Using this information, I was able to find out more from family history websites. Tommy was born in 1905 in Newport, Monmouthshire. His father was a Guyanan seaman and his mother was from Kent. This made him a lot older than my father who was born in 1921, and also other musicians in Snakehips' band. They were mainly born around 1914/15. “
“At some time, Tommy had played at the Samson and Hercules dance hall in Norwich, and I also found another press cutting from the Leicester Evening Mail in 1944 about the RAF band - this time called the RAF Thunderbolts- and it says here that Tommy had also played with Ambrose. “ (Ambrose made hundreds of recordings and I have not been able to find a discography that includes the many personnel who must have been involved - Ed)
"I read an interesting article on the Sandy Brown Jazz website from 2018 by Lionel King about Black British Swing. It provided some pre-war information about Tommy Wilson. Here is another photo of Tommy Wilson that includes two other black musicians. In 2021 I posted this photo on Twitter referencing JazzFM's Definitive History of Jazz in Britain to see if anyone could identify the musicians. There's been a great deal of interest and to date it's been seen over 12,000 times but no names have been forthcoming. The National Jazz Archive couldn't help - they even called on Digby Fairweather's assistance!
"It would be great if anyone knows more about Tommy Wilson's career after the war, and it would be a huge bonus if anyone could identify the other musicians."
(If anyone can add further details about Tommy Wilson please contact us - Ed)