Autumn 1967, Edinburgh International Festival Fringe, the crypt of an Edinburgh church, sometime after midnight, jammed with bodies, most drunk, talking loudly, shouting, drinking, arguing, fighting even.
Some poor soul was just coming to the end of their set, completely ignored by the rabble - their departure from the stage was more in the nature of grateful retreat than graceful exit, barely acknowledged by half-hearted tapping together of palms from a few of those closest to the stage.
The compere's voice could hardly be heard above the mayhem echoing around the stone crypt. I was standing close to the rear of the room and by straining hard, was just able to pick out the words "Banjo", "Portland, Oregon" and "Derroll Adams". His announcement was met with indifference by the revellers.
I saw a cowboy hat move above the sea of heads and stop, turning to face the hall, fixed in the one spot. Then the most astonishing thing happened. Silence began to slowly move backwards from the stage area, an almost physical wave creeping through the hall. People stopped in mid-shout and turned to see what was causing everyone else to fall silent.
Gradually the sound of a banjo being gently frailed became audible as the roar subsided. It continued until the entire room had fallen totally silent.
Once the silence was solidly established, a deep, rough, lived-in voice began to sing.
"I was born in Portland Town ....... "
For the rest of his set, the audience sat in awed silence, entranced by the songs and stories and the sheer power being projected from the stage and he finally left to a massive ovation.
This was my first experience of Derroll Adams and was a master class in that oft-discussed phenomenon, "stage presence".
I was not to actually meet and become friends with Derroll until many years later but the lesson I learned from him that night stayed with me.
Contributions and copyright
©Dick Gaughan February 2001. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form, material or electronic, without the written permission of the author.
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Followup emails received about Derroll
The following email was sent by John "Jock" MacKenzie
In the mid sixties in London I drove Derroll around for a couple of days, having met up with him at Les Cousins in Greek St. We left after the pubs shut and Derroll wanted a bottle, so off we went round Soho's sleazy bars trying to buy some whisky, well eventually we got one at a vastly inflated price, and headed for home. On the way we stopped off at a Wimpey bar almost next door to Earls Court station and had a bite, after about 5 mins of silence during this snack he looked straight at me and said " ya know you're the ugliest bastard I've ever met", and then shut up again. Strange to say I wasn't offended, somehow coming from him and the way he said it, it sounded like a compliment. Some guy eh!! Anyway we went back to my place in Richmond where he insisted in sleeping on the floor rather than a bed, and from what I hear this was typical of the man.