IT was February 1960, and the newspapers – the tabloids, if not necessarily the broadsheets – were excited by the imminent arrival of the American ‘beat’ army of bands and singers.

Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, two influential figures in early rock’n’roll, were currently touring British theatres. The following month would see Bobby Darin, Duane Eddy, Clyde McPhatter and the British singer, Emile Ford, play UK theatres. The Everly Brothers were due in April. Other US acts, such as Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Ricky Nelson, were rumoured to be in the pipeline. Of Elvis Presley, who was then in the US army, there was, regrettably, no sign.

But otherwise it was all happening. “With rolling drums and twanging guitars”, declared the Evening Times, “the American invaders are here!”

Lonnie Donegan and skiffle had mesmerised huge numbers of young people, inspiring many of them to form their own skiffle groups. The advent of rock’n’roll had a similarly electrifying effect. “And then, after skiffle”, as Paul McCartney once remarked, “when rock’n’roll arrived and we heard Elvis, Gene Vincent, Fats Domino and Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, the game was up. That was it. All hell broke loose. We knew we had to do it for a career. And the rest is sort of history”.

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The concerts at the Glasgow Empire in February 1960 by Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran illustrate, even now, the gap between their frenzied young audiences, who adored rock’n’roll, and the suspicious and frequently hostile older generation. Youth culture stirred a considerable degree of scorn and apathy. (When teen idol Cliff Richard played the Empire in September 1959, the Evening Times noted with bemusement that a 19-year-old female fan in the stalls had squirmed, wept, and pulled “viciously” at her hair).

Cochran and Vincent both had solid records of achievement. Cochran, from Minnesota, had had a run of chart hits – Summertime Blues, C’Mon Everybody, Somethin’ Else, and Twenty Flight Rock. Vincent, an unpredictable rockabilly maverick from Norfolk, Virginia, had had a hit in 1956 with Be-Bop-A-Lula (an “anthem of incoherent lust”, in the later words of music historian Peter Doggett).

Both artists went down really well with their Glasgow fans, but less so with newspaper reviewers. “The Vincent act was a series of pointless gimmicks”, complained the Evening Times’s Gerry Kilgallon. “Leather jacket and trousers, the crouch, pulling off the right shoe in the first number and leaving it off for the rest of the act.... Cochran showed up as a fine guitarist, but vocal-wise he couldn’t compete with four amplified guitars”.

HeraldScotland: Eddie CochranEddie Cochran (Image: free)

This newspaper’s critic, contemplating Vincent’s stage outfit and Cochran’s tight black leather trousers, wrote: “Within their casings Mr Cochran and Mr Vincent jerk, twitch, and take it out of themselves so much that one begins to feel quite anxious for them”. Cochran furthermore “has hit on the unusual device of being discovered with his back to the audience and keeping it there for the first part of his act”.

Vincent and Cochran, it was reported, were taken with Scotland and bought tartan to take back with them to the States. Cochran told the Evening Times that though Scottish audiences “may not be quite so wild as they are back home”, they were very enthusiastic, “and I really appreciate them”.

Though the tour attracted dismissive reviews, it has come to be seen as something of a landmark in the development of British rock music. It ended tragically on April 17, however, when Cochran died, and Vincent was injured, in a road accident outside Chippenham, Wiltshire, as they were heading for London to catch flights for the US. Cochran was just 21 years old.

Within two months, Vincent was back in the UK, part of a package tour that was in part a tribute to Cochran. At his run of shows at the Empire in early June, he topped a bill that included Billy Fury, Lance Fortune and Keith Kelly.

One Friday evening show was curtailed, however, after ashtrays and whisky bottles were hurled onto the stage. Police and attendants cleared the theatre, and hundreds of fans protested outside, furious at being denied the chance to hear Vincent. One of the performers suggested that the men who threw the missiles were jealous of the girls screaming at the male singers. Several men later appeared in court.

HeraldScotland: Gene VincentGene Vincent (Image: free)

An irate Glasgow bailie, who had seen the disturbances for himself, was alarmed by the “inflammable” nature of the show and the “writhing and squirming” of some fans. City magistrates wrote to the Empire management, asking for their co-operation to avoid any repetition, and asked the Chief Constable to keep an eye on such shows.

It had been a characteristically busy spell for the old Empire, as it continued to host its usual wide array of acts, from the Bobby Darin shows in March to singer Robert Wilson, the Joe Gordon Folk Four, Cliff Richard, and the colourful American entertainer, Liberace. Stars such as Eartha Kitt and Andy Stewart visited in 1961 (to say nothing of King Kong (“South Africa’s dynamic stage musical!”).

But the sun had been setting on the Empire. The arrival of ITV in central Scotland in 1957 had had a damaging effect. “Desperate times, desperate measures”, recalled The Herald’s entertainments editor, Andrew Young, in 1989. “Skiffle groups, anything, was pushed out onto the stage. It might have brought in some young fans but it chased away the regular family audiences”.

Later, other Glasgow venues, such as St Andrew’s Halls and Green’s Playhouse, were staging concerts; and, more damagingly, the variety shows that had once been the Empire’s staple were now to be seen on plentiful TV programmes on Saturday evenings. The writing was on the wall.

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In March 1963 it was announced that the Empire’s very last show would take place on the 31st of the month. It would take the form of a tribute staged by the Scottish section of the Federation of Theatre Unions, produced by comedian Johnny Beattie, vice-president of Scottish Equity, and Rikki Fulton.

The line-up of stars included a young Albert Finney (he was playing at the Citizens at the time), Jack Radcliffe, Andy Stewart and Dave Willis, Fay Lenore, the clown Charlie Cairoli, Iain Cuthbertson, the Alexander Brothers and more. “We hope the impact of the Empire closing”, said Scottish Equity, “will be such a shock to Glasgow that the same thing won’t be allowed to happen to any more theatres in the city”.

Stars such as Jessie Matthews, and members of the public, contributed their memories of the old place to newspapers, recalling the great nights, and the acts they had seen. Their memories extended back to shortly before the First World War.

A great many tears were shed that Sunday night, March 31. Christopher Small, our distinguished theatre critic, was present, and wrote: “The last rites ... produced an extraordinary and lavish variety of talent; the house was packed from floor to roof; after the decline, the fall at least was a brilliant, at times almost a joyful occasion. Melancholy, of course, was never quite banished...”

Dr Henry Farmer, who once was the theatre’s musical director, said that old people often shook his hand and spoke of the old Empire days. “To experience an audience of 2,000 – twice nightly – rock with laughter, and see their faces lit up with joy at some jocundity”, he wrote, “made life worth living to me”.

HeraldScotland: Billy Fury at the EmpireBilly Fury at the Empire (Image: free)