Beginning his working life in the coal pits of Yorkshire Shirley Crabtree followed in the footsteps of his brothers and father, and entered the world of professional wrestling. He wrestled under various names such as The Blond Adonis, Mr Universe, Yukon Eric, and The Battling Guardsman.
After becoming the independent promoters British Heavyweight champion in 1960 he largely disappeared from the rings during the late 1960s but continued to work for promoter Cyril Knowles using various names.
In the first phase of his career Crabtree tended to rely on his strength though did show more wrestling skill than when he returned to the ring in 1972, and soon to be transformed in to Big Daddy a couple of years later. Shirley was brought back into mainstream wrestling by Norman Morrell, not brother Max as is commonly thought. It was to be another two years before Max was appointed manager of the northern Joint Promotions group.
In September, 1972, he shocked television fans when he destroyed the popular Pat Curry in less than a round. Within weeks he was back on television with his destructive force quickly eliminating Pete Roberts and Steve Haggetty. The spectacle was repeated night after night in halls around the country, until the immovable object met the irresistable force, Kendo Nagasaki. In those days Crabtree, nicknamed The Battling Guardsman, was a villain, and remained so for two more years after adopting the name Big Daddy in 1974.
In the autumn of 1976 the transformation to the people’s favourite began. The dressing gown was swapped in favour of the a glittery cape, later to be followed by the trademark top hat and union jack jacket.
Big Daddy would stand centre ring clapping to the fans’ chants of “Easy, easy,” which it invariably was as his signature “Big Splash” move brought about another ko win over his unfortunate opponent.
As brother Max reinvigorated the British wrestling scene in the late 1970s Big Daddy became an instrumental part of that revival. Fans around the country would pack the halls to witness the destruction of his next victim. His popularity spread far beyond the wrestling world with the marketing of a range of Big Daddy memorabilia, children’s tv appearances and even the opening of the famous red book in his honour in “This Is Your Life.”
Fans soon became divided between those who loved the Yorkshireman and those who disliked his winning, yet increasingly unconvincing style. Similarly wrestlers divided between those who saw Big Daddy removing the credibility for the business and those who realized his drawing power meant extra work for all.
In the 1980s an increasing number of Big Daddy’s bouts were tag contests, following a pattern of Daddy’s lightweight opponent receiving a beating only for Daddy to enter the ring, quickly take control and end the contest with one of those famous belly splashes. It all seemed so easy. Easy easy.
Shirley Crabtree and his brothers were also big names on the Halifax nightclub scene. Read more
Brothers Max and Shirley Crabtree were born in the Wilson Street area of Halifax and by the early sixties had been very successful on the wrestling circuit. Their other brother was Brian and between them they thought that it might be a good investment to get involved in promoting dances and concerts in their home town. There was a buoyant market for entertainment as the fifties ended and with the optimism of a new decade, they thought the time was right to venture out with their project. Max was the first to see the possibility when he was asked to work as a doorman/bouncer at the Alexandra Hall during the late fifties. His sharp business brain registered that all the takings on the door were in cash and the taxman would not know whether 50 or 500 had passed through into the dancehall on any one night. He saw all this in his trouble-shooter role and whilst he was only paid 15 shillings for doing the bouncing job he realised that the people running the dance were onto a real money spinner.
An advert in the Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian on Friday December 11, 1959 telling that the Marlborough Hall was available for hire was the boost that they needed. They were well connected in the entertainment world and felt they could attract some big names to perform as well as develop local talent. However, there were problems because the YMCA Pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ran until the end of January 1960 and existing bookings had to be honoured including the Asquith Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society’s production of ‘Rose Marie’ which would not finish until the end of April. Unable to wait, they initially promoted dances on Sunday nights at the Kings Hall in Belle Vue, Manchester and later on Saturdays at the Victoria Hall in Halifax. They then decided to open the ‘The Everlys’ club in premises at St. James’ Road, formerly occupied by Halifax Labour Party. The club took its name from the American singers Don and Phil Everly who they had meet along with promising young Southowram singer Phil Griffin. Phil was booked as the opening act at the clubs launch on Saturday May 7, 1960 along with local group the Teen Beats.
Shirley always acted as spokesman for the brothers and said that his aim was to give teenagers a good time and he wanted all youngsters – groups or individuals – who can sing or play an instrument to come and have a go. He was quoted as saying “If they are any good I’ll do my very best to see they get a chance. I’m in touch with all the top agents”. In fact it was reported that the Crabtree’s backer was none other than Paul Lincoln, owner of the famous 2 I’s Coffee Bar in Old Compton Street, London. Max confirmed to me that Paul Lincoln and his partner Ray Hunter were both wrestlers who saw the opportunity to provide a London venue for the ‘kids’ to play their music and escape from the music that their parents liked. Their coffee bar attracted Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele as well as becoming the centre of the skiffle craze, popularised by Lonnie Donegan. This was the place to where Phil Griffin hitch-hiked each weekend to perform and he had maintained the connection with the owner and the Crabtree brothers in Halifax.
Phil remembers that the wrestling manager of the Crabtree brothers was a guy called Norman Berry. Norman looked the part, with a huge moustache and big overcoat as he worked from an office above Liley’s pram shop in Commercial Street. Phil got the job of driving the wrestling ring around to venues ahead of the matches, travelling as far as Scotland and Stafford as well as a popular venue at Skipton Town Hall. To test out the new idea of promoting music dances they used these venues before (and after) opening in Halifax. The unreliability of some of the name groups proved to be a nightmare, so contingency plans were hatched to have standby local groups on call if the big name did not appear. Shirley’s intentions were very YMCA but unlike the charity, he was hoping for a profit from his ventures – and why not? He and his brother Max were often featured wrestling at the Victoria Hall, with the likes of local farmer John Allen, Bob Sweeney (later a Health Club owner in Halifax), and my own favourite, Billy Two Rivers. Their time was divided, but wrestling was becoming big business with TV exposure and Kent Walton giving the sport (or was it just entertainment) a better name. It was four months later, in September that ‘The Everlys’ closed and when it reopened it became ‘The Flamingo’. Max confirmed that the club had been bought by Ken Smith, who previously ran a jazz club and now felt it was time to give teenagers a chance to express themselves. The capacity of the club would remain at 250 and it opened under the new ownership on September 22, 1960. Just over a week later, on Saturday October 1, 1960 the YMCA presented ‘Marlboro Rock’ from 8.00 until 11.30pm and this was the format that the Crabtree brothers would adopt when they eventually took over promotions at the hall almost two years later.
The 1961 YMCA Pantomime was Jack and the Beanstalk followed in 1962 by Dick Whittington and his Cat and still wrestling was taking all the time that Shirley and his brothers had available. Then it happened! An advert in the Thursday newspaper confirming that there would be the first of weekly dances held at the Marlborough on Saturday June 2, 1962. Sharon Kristy and The Jaybirds were the first act of many that would appear at the Saturday dance. The adverts were zany, the names were confusing but in amongst some really quality artists were booked to appear. Early bookings featured Tony Sheridan plus The Big Three who were another Liverpool outfit to appear at the Marlborough. Pictures of stars were featured in the adverts, but the performers were sometimes either local or out of town groups. One particular advert amused Phil Griffin when he was billed as ‘Flip Griffin’ supporting Toni Kitten and The Cats, with a photograph of Georgie Fame underneath. When Toni Kitten appeared she was a girl singer looking nothing like the picture in the advert which had attracted the crowds of girls to the dance! Jive competitions on Wednesday were started and then in November 1962 Jackie Lynton was billed to appear with his backing group The Jurymen. He was a recording artist, but not really a star, with only three Piccadilly discs cut by the end of 1962. He did eventually release a dozen forty-fives but never made the charts although he was a 2 I’s Coffee Bar boy and was managed by Larry Parnes. He regularly appeared on the one-night package show circuit with the likes of Billy Fury, Terry Dene and John Leyton, who were all fast runners from the Larry Parnes stable who used Lynton as a support act.
Shirley Crabtree was born on November 14, 1937 and like the character in the Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue it was a tough upbringing having a girl’s name. He was named after his father (who had a spell at Thrum Hall as a rugby player) and the name was the idea of his grandmother who got the idea from the Charlotte Bronte book Shirley. He could look after himself at school and as a teenager he became a lifeguard and took up bodybuilding before starting wrestling at the age of sixteen. The interest rubbed off and his brother Brian became a wrestling referee and his other brother Max, initially a wrestler, became one of the most powerful wrestling promoters in the history of the sport in Britain with his company Joint Promotions. The advertising experience that was used in the wrestling world was used to good effect at the Marlborough to promote the Saturday dance.
The success of their promotions at the Marlborough, not only provided a nice weekly cash flow of income for the brothers, but also had the added benefit of creating a safe environment for young people to enjoy themselves on a Saturday night. There was no alcohol on sale and only soft drinks and coffee were the readily available ‘drugs’ of the day. The doormen were local bodybuilders and whilst ‘pass-outs’ were allowed, anyone who had been to the town centre pubs and was suffering the effects of too much Ramsden’s or Whitaker’s best, bitter or mild, were not allowed back into the dance hall. They soon realised that some of the groups were not reliable and if they had a hit record, after being booked but before appearing, they would renege on contracts and accept bookings with more money. After it happened a couple of times the shrewd business brains of the brothers decided that an alternative was required. They were pals with Jimmy Savile and visited the Mecca Ballroom in Briggate, Leeds to see the twin turntable record machine used by the king of the dance halls. Returning to Halifax they contacted Arnold Williamson, an electrical wizard who had his own business in Pellon Lane and took him across to the Leeds Mecca to measure up and copy the design of Jimmy’s double deck music system. Arnold was a little grey haired old man but a skilled electronic engineer and it didn’t take him very long to build and complete a system that could be used at the Marlborough as back up for the groups. Max found good looking lads like Phil ‘Flip’ Griffin to spin the records and even if the group did not appear, there was a full evening’s musical entertainment on hand to keep the customers satisfied. Phil recalls that several times when bigger named bands did not arrive (broken down on the A1 was a regular excuse) he and a hastily booked local band would keep the customers satisfied.
The dances were a great success and the brothers packed the punters into the Hall in great numbers every Saturday. They introduced competitions for the patrons, including ‘Mr Muscle’ where they encouraged the boys to remove their shirts. By1964 Brian Rayner and his future wife Jean were regular Marlborough Hall dancers and the irony was that underneath Brian’s sombre suit, white shirt and tie, he had a Charles Atlas physique. Whilst all the seven stone weaklings were strutting their stuff 18 years old Brian looked on with the amusement of a future body building champion. In 1969 he was crowned Mr Yorkshire, won numerous competitions throughout his life including in 2005 the senior Mr Yorkshire title again to add to being the British, European and World Bodybuilding Champion. He still works in the fitness industry and along with his wife Jean they help run the Queens Squash Club gym in Savile Park. Max Crabtree always said that he and his brothers held the view that people wanted the extraordinary not the ordinary and if Brian had taken his shirt off they would have got it in abundance. Laughter and entertainment was the Crabtree motto and a couple of local regulars helped them with this aim, they were Phillip ‘Darkie’ Boylan and Alan ‘Manfred’ Ackroyd. Both of them loved to be the centre of attraction and ‘Manfred’ would often strip down to his underpants, have a toilet seat around his neck and being only small and wearing ‘pop bottle bottom’ glasses he really was a vision of culture. Darkie sold newspapers outside the White Horse pub to earn extra money above his wages as a demolition worker and most people rightly said that he was a ‘rum bugger’. He had thick black hair and a pugnacious personality and after work was always black as the fire back – mucky. There was a wrestling ring in the upstairs room of the Saddle Inn (now the Portman and Pickles) which was used by local wrestlers, the Crabtree boys included, and Darkie would often be there looking hard as he eye balled even the toughest wrestlers. Saturday was his night and he helped create the fun image that the promoters required. The Crabtrees were a team, with Brian Crabtree looking after the artists and the stage, Max working the door and security with Shirley as the figure head, doing the announcing and generally sorting out the needs of the customers in his larger than life way - particularly if the advertised band had not arrived.
Shirley later used his philanthropic hat in his negotiations with the Council to acquire the former Collinson’s Café, on the upper floors of a building at the top of Crown Street, over what is now the Dolcis shoe shop. It was to be converted into a club for teenagers. He sided with Alderman W. Higgins who had publicly said that not enough was being done for the youth of the town, and followed it up by saying that as the Marlborough Hall would be closed in April 1964, the town needed another hall to maintain three dancehalls for Saturday nights. In fact whilst Shirley opened his new club ‘Big Daddy’s’ on Sunday March 15, 1964, the Marlborough remained open, featuring Saturday dances promoted by the brothers until Saturday September 23, 1967, three and a half years longer than had been anticipated. The last advert featured a group called The Bird Hunters and offered as a forthcoming attraction The Pink Floyd, which never happened. The hall lay idle for six weeks before a new club called ‘Square One’ opened on Saturday November 18, 1967 with The Applejacks as the opening attraction. Live groups continued to be booked to maintain the previous formula for the first four months, but they were generally accompanied by a disc jockey from the DRM Company. Eventually it became all DJ based, not surprising really as David Mitchell from DRM was the promoter of the dances, in conjunction with the YMCA.
Big Daddy’s Club was opened by Leeds lad and Britain’s most famous D.J. - Jimmy Savile. Jimmy had wrestled and his proud boast was that he had lost his first 35 fights. The opening began with a procession from Harrison Road led by the Leeds City Pipe Band and Jimmy Savile, with blond hair, big cigar, mink slippers and a zebra coat, riding a white horse. The club which was on two floors did not hold a drinks licence and operated more like a traditional youth club. Saturday afternoons from 2.00 to 4.00 were for juniors followed by the regular dance, but later night sessions were also billed with midnight starts and 3.00am finish. The plans were to cater for all types of music with specific music nights including a Rhythm and Blues night in direct competition with the well established Plebeians Jazz Club, as well as every lunch time and every evening opening. The Plebeians only opened three nights and this was a declaration of war by the Crabtree brothers against their nearest rivals.
Despite such a grand opening the Big Daddy club only lasted around two and a half years before it closed and re-opened as The Scene. The original name was The New 2 + 2 Club and it was advertised as being fully licensed with drinks at normal pub prices. It opened on Saturday October 22, 1966 from 7.45 until 11.45pm with membership costing just 10/6d which included free admission for one week. The mod chart group The Pretty Things appeared on November 12 and then nothing. It opened again with a change of name, this time as The Scene and Shirley explained to the press “We are giving it a modern image. The old club was based on the Liverpool Sound and it has run its course. The trend is different now – modern dancing, modern atmosphere”. The new club, in the same premises, opened on Saturday December 10, 1966 just in time for the Christmas raves and the adverts stated there was no bar. The first star was Wayne Fontana on the Saturday before Christmas. The last advert for The Scene was in January 1967, but alongside that advert there were others in a familiar style for dancing again at the Marlborough. Long before there was any talk of changing the name Shirley had shrewdly applied to the Halifax Borough Licensing Magistrates for a club licence to serve alcohol. He applied in July 1966 and he had a good reputation for running all his dancehall functions in a strict, no nonsense manner and during his time at the Marlborough had developed a flawless image of ‘no trouble’. But at six foot six inches tall and weighing over three hundred and fifty pounds, you would not expect many people to give you trouble! After agreeing to comply with Fire Service regulations and brighten up the darker parts of the premises he was granted his licence.
The last advert for The Scene Club was for the weekend of January 14-15, 1967 and by March they felt that their run as Crown Street club owners was coming to an end. Increased competition from a new breed of music and dancing entertainment was hitting the numbers coming through the doors at town centre dancing venues. The town centre pub jukebox had been mild competition for the last year or so, but the advent of the mobile disco had arrived and compounded the problem for Shirley. At the forefront were the Halifax based DRM whose happy band of mobile disc jockeys (they included me later) were taking the music out to pubs and sporting clubs around the greater Calderdale region. In the town centre the Acapulco Club had opened, the Bulls Head installed flashing lights to supplement the juke box, and there was increasing newspaper coverage of a drugs scene in Halifax with the Plebeians Jazz Club in the Upper George Yard coming in for more than its fair share of criticism.
The Crabtree brothers began to circulate the fact that they were prepared to sell the lease of the club and this information soon found its way to Paul Mountain, the leading light at the Plebeians Jazz Club. John S. Wharton in his book ‘Plebs – The Halifax Jazz Club 1961 – 1968’ describes the meeting and the story behind the change of name to Clarence’s, which opened in December 1967.
Now that the flirtation with the music scene was over, Shirley, Max and Brian could concentrate on their respective careers in the world of wrestling. Shirley moved to Blackpool and carried on wrestling in his own name and was nicknamed ‘The Blond Adonis, ‘The Battling Guardsman’ and even ‘Mr Universe’. He won two titles with the British Wrestling Federation, retiring for many years before being persuaded to return by his brother Max who had concentrated on the wrestling promotion business. The start of ITV’s World of Sport hosted by Dickie Davis gave Shirley massive exposure and he took on the name Big Daddy. The name had initially been taken from the Tennessee Williams character, Big Daddy Pollitt, played by Burl Ives in the 1958 film Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – but which had more latterly been the name of his Halifax club. His wife Eunice made him the distinctive leotard, featuring a huge ‘D’, out of their chintz sofa, and even Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were said to be fans of the gentle giant. He was the subject of This Is Your Life on March 7, 1979 and took on the mantle of ‘The People’s Champion’ as the good guy fighting the evil forces of the likes of Mick McManus and Giant Haystacks. Tragedy struck in August 1987 when his trade mark final ‘belly splash’ was used on Mal ‘King Kong’ Kirk during a bout. Sadly for everybody, including Shirley, his opponent died and although Shirley was cleared at the coroner’s inquest he always blamed himself and retired soon after. Greg Dyke axed wrestling from ITV the next year and Shirley suffered a stroke in 1993 before he died in Halifax General Hospital on December 2, 1997, aged just 67.
As a footnote and away from the wrestling and night club scene more brotherly extravagances were to come after they decided to open a clothes shop in Westgate. It would be called ‘The In Crowd’ after the Dobie Gray record, and would stock all the mod gear that guys and gals would need to cut a dash on the dance floors of Halifax, preferable they would hope, at the Marlborough Hall or Big Daddy’s. The store was billed to be opened on Saturday May 15 1965 by Irish singer Donovan. He was known as the British Bob Dylan and beginning with him we look at the top fifty two Crabtree promotions during their time in Halifax.
Thanks to Trevor Simpson
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