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Oral history interview with Newton Dunbar


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Oral history interview with Newton Dunbar

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Oral history interview with Newton Dunbar (born 'late 1930s' Jamaica, died 2024). Newton was a founder of The Four Aces nightclub in Dalston, one of the first venues to play music of African origin in Britain.

Associated Organisation

The Four Aces Club (Founder)

Associated Person

Dunbar, Newton (Subject of)

Associated Place

Dalston Lane (Place)


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Music in Hackney

Hear about Blues parties, sound systems and the Four Aces Club from owner Newton Dunbar.

People Power: Black British Arts & Activism in Hackney 1960s - 2000s

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Photograph - copyright Arnau Oriel

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MAPPING THE CHANGE: Hackney Museum oral history project

Summary of interview with:
Newton Dunbar one of the founders of the 4 Aces night club

Newton Dunbar
Collection Title: “Mapping The Change”
Item Title: Newton Dunbar interviewed by Tony T
Speaker: Newton Dunbar (interviewee)
Speaker: Tony T (interviewer)
Recordist: Rebecca Goldstone
Purpose of recording: Interviewed for ‘Mapping The Change’ (Dalston)
Recording Dates: 21st July 2010
Recording Location: At interviewee’s home, Hackney, London.
Access restrictions: None
Recording equipment: Marantz PDM661 & 1 Sennheiser lapel mic - ew112-p
Recording notes: WAV
Documentation: Typed summary
A portrait photograph in jpg format
00:13:11 Entertainment Colour Bar: Black music excluded from mainstream; UK impact of Desmond Decker in 1969

During those days, Black music was not accepted in the system. There was no radio station that would play any form of Black music. This was at the time of Ska or Blue Beat, which eventually evolved into Reggae. But at the time no radio station would play any of these sort of music. And actually no places that catered for what would be called respectable music, contained that sort of band because it wasn’t accepted by the system.

But then came along Desmond Decker, who went into the British charts. By then we’ve gone into the year 1969. He went into the British charts with a song called “The Isrealites” – which became number 1… And he became the first Reggae superstar.

00:16:18 Middle years at 4 Aces – Reggae Sound Systems

The middle years we progressed into putting on top Sound Systems such as Sir Coxone, and Fat Man. And all the top Sounds in London was actually vying to play at the 4 Aces, because by then we were established – and we had established - that we were a main venue for Black entertainment. 00:16:49
00:18:10 Explaining Blues and Shabeens: What Black entertainment mean to Black people in the early years

Well it was very limited. And we had to find ways of alleviating the stress. Because you know those were the days that people worked a long week, and lots of overtime – as much as they could get during certain periods of time as it provided itself. So naturally people wanted somewhere where they could let their hair down and relax, and get rid of the stress that they incurred during the working week. So we had to find ways of creating this. And one of the ways was what you used to call ‘Blues Party’ – which was a pay party. And it was held in a house. And it was covered by a ‘Sound System’ - who would move their equipment into this house. And people would pay – I’d call it a nominal sum – to enter. They would sell beer etc, and whatever they could think of as being something for making a little bit of money… So this was what was meant as a ‘Pay Party’ or a ‘Blues’. I personally attended several of those – which led me into the ideas of providing the facilities I eventually did provide. 00:20:08
00:21:36 First impressions of 4 Aces location: Newton, a pioneering club-owner - naïve but ambitious

My impressions in Hackney was a bustling community. Because it was in a vicinity of the market. And of course the station which has now been resuscitated in Dalston Junction. And as you know, where there’s a station there’s a lot of activities. So my first impression of especially Dalston Lane was that it was an area that was very active. And especially on a weekend, where people were out in droves doing their shopping, or whatever it is that a weekend promotes. But it was something that we fitted in with.

And the fact that the business that I was going into… I was more or less a pioneer in the club business, and I didn’t at the time consider any possibility of any kind of repercussions. In fact I entered into the club business quite innocently in the sense that I thought it was going to be fun, and it was going to make me lots and lots of money. 00:22:56
00:24:22 Impressions of West Indian Community

Where we’re (Black people sic) present, whether in large numbers or small numbers, we become rather prominent. Even if we’re small in numbers we’re more or less a contrast to what I would call the indigenous population. So to my mind at the time, we were quite prominent, in the sense that our procedures – as you know – in those days people used to be on the level where they come out to do specific things. Whether it was shopping, some of it was just to facilitate their living. The way they lived was to do their shopping on the weekend. And the rest of the week was devoted to work, etc. So that was my impression. That the weekend was more or less the main time for West Indians. Because within that period of time, they would actually set themselves up for the coming week – basically to do their shopping and whatever other facilities 00:26:01
00:26:02 Ridley Road Market:

Ridley Road was a market that had multi-facilities. In the fact that things you could acquire from the market. And at that time they were just coming into the knowledge that to facilitate the new population that came into Dalston – which were mainly West Indian. They were actually experimenting with the different sorts of food. And they actually facilitated the people that wanted to buy foods that came from the West Indies. And coupled with that, there was also the English – I would say the indigenous population – who shopped as they normally would.
But the extra flavour was added because of the West Indian population. And some would live in the vicinity of Dalston. Some would probably live further afield. But some things actually got through the grapevine in the sense that people would know that at Ridley Road they could get foods of a varied kind. And some of the foods that they were looking for and they were used to from the West Indian outlook of things were actually slowly but surely being included in the facilities at Ridley Road. 00:28:44
00:28:44 4 Aces club: Pioneering live music venue

I actually know I was a pioneering club, But to go into the intricacies of applying the term pioneer to my actual venture. It was only looking back in retrospect that I am able to place that, and I have the knowledge that this was actually so. But at the time I was just focussed on doing this new venture that was quite exciting. And would actually bring me, not just the monetary rewards, but I would actually have fun or enjoy doing it. So, as I say, looking back in retrospect and looking at the full outlay of how things were at the time – that it was no other venture apart from the nearest which was in Holloway Road, that was a much smaller club than us. And then further afield there was the West End. I now accept that I was indeed a pioneer. Especially in the venture of putting on live groups or live bands. Bands that came from far afield. And not just from Jamaica – which is also far afield – but from America. And this was quite a buzz. 00:30:28

00:31:50 4 Aces’ early years: booking one Sounds System evolves into booking two ‘Sounds’ for a clash.

A lot of things was done on a very casual basis... I’m from Jamaica, and as part of the Caribbean set up, ways of doing things were completely different - not as strict or as firmly based as it should have been from a business perspective. But the way that things came into play was by Sound Systems that knew that we were functioning, made overtures to us. They came and they wanted to know what the possibilities were in playing at this venue. And of course they had in their minds the possibility of earning lots of money.

One of the local Sounds was ‘Chicken The Thunderstorm’. He was a very popular Sound with the Blues dances. He came along, and for a while he did very well. In fact he was playing the night that Desmond Decker appeared at the club in 1969. And it’s a rather infectious thing. Once you break the mould and you start employing the different Sound Systems, the other Sound Systems would hear through the grapevine. And they would also make overtures to you. So we progressed into other Sounds. Some did well. Some didn’t do too well. But over the years we were in a position to acquire the top Sound System in London, which was Count Shelley. And also there was Admiral Ken, who was another top Sound. And in fact what would eventually happen was that the Sound Systems would come two at time. And they would create an atmosphere of competitiveness. And to increase the atmosphere they did competitive Sound-playing. This created a very good atmosphere. And by that time the top Sound was Sir Coxone – who would play in the West End. And when his business in the West End was finished, because one of the clubs closed, he made an overture and started playing at the 4 Aces. 00:34:00
00:34:00 4 Aces middle years, experiments with special events: Talent competition is big break for west London-born singer, Louisa Mark - her iconic first release “Caught You In A Lie” is a hit.

And during that period of time we pulled in a phenomenal amount of people. And we did various things, like. Like an adventure side. We had competitions. And we had talent parades. At one talent parade we discovered someone by the name of Louisa Mark. And this was a phenomenal hit – her record. After she was discovered at the 4 Aces in a talent parade. She went into the charts, and it was a phenomenal number. And up to today it’s regarded as one the top female reggae icon songs. So we did things like that. 00:34:54
00:35:03 4 Aces later years - in collaboration with Labyrinth: ‘Prodigy’ get first big break

And further on – coming up to the end years – we created the opportunity for a band called ‘Prodigy’, who up to today is still functioning on a top level. They were discovered at the 4 Aces when we were amalgamated with ‘Labyrinth’. And the first night that they played there, again this was quite an occasion, because the queues started from the door and went around the block. Right all the way into Kingsland Road. And they’ve never looked back since. Because they went on to be top entertainers today. They’re still highly regarded. 00:36:00
00:36:00 4 Aces’ early years: Running the club weekends, while still doing a weekday job

I still used to work because the club business – initially we started doing this on a weekend. In keeping with what we knew, was a pattern where Black people who worked just needed the weekends to let the steam off etc. As I say, I still used to hold a job and so did the partner and partners that I actually did get involved with. So it would be going to work during the week. And from Friday night, Saturday night, and, later on, a Sunday night, we would involve - I would involve my activities surrounding running the club. But I did adjust to that way of life. And where eventually after things developed, I had to give up the day job. And eventually concentrated seriously on the club, and running the club as a business. And taking care of all the ancillary facilities that involve running a club. And, as I say, during the week I used to work. But the club at some point, developed to the stage where I needed the week to do what I needed the week to do what I needed to do to facilitate the club opening on a weekend. And I mean things like decorating, and the work involved in adjusting and preparing the building itself, to make it possible for it to open on a certain level for the weekend. So even though I gave up the day job as such, I still acquired working during the days to facilitate what I was doing on the weekend. 00:39:15
00:41:27 Description of the unique 4 Aces sound.

The sound was phenomenal. Because the building was quite a size, the sound had to develop into being number 1 – efficient, number 2 – as clear as it could possibly be with the technology that they had at the time. And the comparison between two Sound Systems. is always the yardstick by which the music that is being promoted in any building - or in any venue – is judged by… I know that the building that we had, helped to develop the Sound Systems, and the technology that helped them to develop. Because it needed to be efficient, and it needed to be clear. And it needed to be on the right frequencies. 00:42:53
00:43:09 Building helped create the unique 4 Aces sound

The fact that it was a solid building – it was well built.
In those days when that was built that was well-built. And sound bounces off of walls. A building has got to be able to withstand what I would call ‘heavy duty frequencies’. So that was a part – that this building was able to help us develop the unique sound, which attracted people to come to that venue. 00:44:00
00:44:05 4 Aces club: Whites welcomed in a Black-dominated crowd.

We had a mixed crowd – always, from the beginning. And in most venues you have what you would call a dominant crowd. At the time because I am Black, and the venue was geared to entertaining Black people. But you see entertainment is entertainment. And the fact that other people would want to partake in this was just part of the atmosphere. And we actually welcomed that mixture. 00:44:07
00:44:48 4 Aces middle years: Police raids decimate 4 Aces’ reggae Sound System nights

years, that particular aspect was taken advantage of – the fact that it was a Black club and with a stable Black crowd. The powers-that-be eventually demolished us on that platform. And I’m speaking now of the forces – the security forces – which is Police Forces. We got into a scenario where we used to be raided probably three times a month. And of course when they came in all the people in the club ran out. And that was the procedure. In fact that used to be done quite frequently for that purpose. So eventually my business was decimated. Because when that happens people just don’t want to come.At one stage, and this is progressing into the end 00:46:01
00:46:01 4 Aces turning point: Acid House scene saves the club – because Police-raid has no effect.

But then providence lends a hand. And it was during that period that we went into the Acid House scene. And, like, the last Sound System that played there, which was Fat Man’s Sound, and he had his sons actually running the set. On that particular night, we had quite a drastic visit (police-raid sic). And it frightened them so much that they took their set out and they didn’t want to come back. But the following week, immediately after this particular incident when I thought ‘this is it’, providence again provided the circumstances where we had our first Acid House party. And of course the followers of the Acid House scene were 99.9% White. And we started that following week. And we changed the whole atmosphere with banners and lighting etc. And we had a phenomenal amount of people came up. Completely different to what we normally have as a regular. And of course we had a visit (police-raid sic) to see what was going on. But instead of as the previous clientele would do, run out through the door. This crowd stood their ground. Just continued dancing. And ignored what was happening around. So that procedure had no effect. And in fact they had to walk out back through the door, because what normally happen didn’t happen. And the following week we went even stronger. We had more people come in. And of course the powers-that-be had to go back to the drawing board. And we progressed from those two incidents (police-raids sic) into nine years of continuous progression. 00:48:50
00:49:18 Stars come clubbing at 4 Aces: Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Chrissie Hynde

Well it used to be the lighter years… Where we were established and we went through many phases. In this particular phase, we were well-established both as the live venue and on the Sound System venue. And the two in that sense connected itself, because we were then playing music from some of the artists that appeared on stage – like Alton Ellis, and Hortense Ellis. Like Pat Kelly.
People like that used to actually come to the club. Bob Marley – he never actually performed there, but he used to hang out there. Sunday nights was quite a good night where a lot of artists used to hang out there – including Bob Marley.
And it was quite a nice atmosphere during that time. I can’t say things were always dark. But the club by then was very well known. And because it was by some stage the happening scene, it attracted people on different levels. Bob Dylan, when he was in London, came in, pulled up outside – his Mercedes. And his two bodyguards. And he came in to have a look at what the scene was. Because he probably heard through the grapevine that the 4 Aces was the happening place. And people like Chrissie Hynde – who used to come up to the bar and talk to me, etc. And things like this – lighter moments which are quite intriguing. 00:51:32
Running the 4 Aces: Pressure, stress, and Race Relations

At the time, my involvement and the pressure which I probably took on board… And some of it I was fully aware of the pressure as ‘ie’ pressure. I looked on it as jus what was happening at the time.

Of course in retrospect you look on things and know that ‘I must have been going through a lot of stress’. And I must have been heavily involved in trying to survive. But when you’re subjective and you’re involved in dealing with the moment – which is now – it is only in retrospect you can sometimes view things from all the different angles.

And I suppose I should have been one of the most stressed-out person in Dalston. But I was not aware as such that I was stressed out. I was just involved in making sure that my way of life came to fruition in the way that I basically planned it. 00:55:23
01:01:40 How the 4 Aces club came to an end after 3 decades

Well we were actually subject to what is known as a ‘Compulsory Purchase’. And we know that this was coming on phase. Because the old troubles started to rumble again, where the forces-that-be started the frontline attack. And we know that what was the offing – that the time had come for me to move on. Because the Compulsory Purchase – which completely disenfranchised me from a business that I’d built up over three decades. I looked at all the options and there was no way out. And without actually making what I didn’t have – which was a superhuman effort – I knew I had to gracefully give in. And this I did. Because I didn’t run away. 01:03:18

01:03:34 Seeing the building that had housed the 4 Aces demolished.

In actual fact yes, I saw part of it being demolished. I mean, it’s a building. And it’s a building that I occupied for many years. But I learnt after leaving it for seven years – because it was kept shut for seven years after I left it... I visited it on other occasions where it was occupied by security people. And it had changed. Some of it deliberately so. Because the roof was taken off. It was several fires that started in it that nobody knew how they started. And it had gone from the building that I’d left behind. So I was able to take the shine off of a lot of the emotions that would have been there if it had been exactly the same as it was like a week or so after I’d left. And I’d by then put things in its right perspective in my head. So I knew what was coming. And in fact it was good to experience seeing what was coming, because – again – that was a reality. 01:05:10

01:05:19 Feelings for Dalston today: The changes to enable the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games – Dalston’s face-lift

Dalston again is a very unique place. It’s got great historic value. And it is very unique in the sense that it attaches itself to you in more-or-less an emotional way. Because people who live in Dalston, and who have lived in Dalston, always will and always have some kind of affection for it. And it’s changing. Some of it is cosmetic. Some of it is artificial. But I am aware that that change is taking place to facilitate a certain event. And that event, which everybody knows, is the Olympics.

There has been some drastic changes made. That’s not been favoured by a lot of people. And you see in some cases, if there’s an important event, or an important visit, that everything’s cleaned-up. Even the backyard is tidied-up. And sometimes in tidying up, you throw out quite a few valuable antiques and icons. And this is what happened with Dalston. But again one could call it a face-lift. It’s having a face-lift. And this face-lift will progress into the times that I have experienced. Because the novelty moves on into a time-factor where it becomes ancient. And one day this new face of Dalston will become ancient. And perhaps the cycle will have repeated itself. 01:07:46

01:10:06 Newton’s pride in an achievement marked in the building’s history – he made it live

It was not just the 4 Aces. It was a building with great historic value. It has seen many many different manifestations. Even before my time. That was changed. That made progress for what I did there to take place. And now that I am no longer there, that building has been replaced by something completely different. And even that has got a time-factor on it. So life is like that – it goes in a circle. 01:09:17

The building itself, which is inanimate. But then that’s looking at it in the cold light of day. It’s inanimate, but I had the privilege of making that building live. Become alive. And that’s a privilege that I view from my humble perspective. And that in itself has been recorded. And is and has become a part of the history. So it lives on. And like the Phoenix, I shall rise from the dust in some providential way. 01:10:05

The little that I have done is just a part of that complete whole picture. And I am privileged to be able to set that down in some form of record, either by the history, or by talking about it with you. 01:10:28
The most satisfying aspect of Newton’s work at the 4 Aces club: When people felt resuscitated when they left the building

My favourite night? Showtime. It was I suppose in the initial days that Desmond Decker was quite something… He launched us. He put us on the map. He’s no longer with us - he’s passed on. I’m fortunately still alive today to tell you some of the stories.

My favourite times were spent – and it’s not just one occasion - I call it my favourite times, because phases were the time when everything was functioning, the music was good, the crowd was there, and they were enjoying themselves. And we’ve come to the end of many many nights where people actually left that building having resuscitated their self – from an entertainment perspective. And they were going home to actually reminisce, or to plan their week ahead. And that to me, `I felt I was able to put them on that perspective of having experienced an inanimate thing which is a building – and being part of making it alive. So that’s where I would say is my most satisfying aspect of the work that I did. 01:13:02
01:13:15 Some favourite Soul and Reggae artists who performed at the 4 Aces: Ben E. King, Jimmy Ruffin, Roy Shirley, Alton Ellis

Ben E. King was a terrific performer. And there was a Soul artist that attracted lots and lost of Soul people , was Jimmy Ruffin – who also was a magnificent performer.

There’s Roy Shirley who was what one would call a ‘show-stealer’ because he initially was sometimes billed as a ‘warm up artist’. But once he performed, the main artist might as well go home. Because he would steal the show. And there’s Alton Ellis, who was a great performer. I saw him three years ago in Camden. And he was performing on stage at the Jazz Café in Camden, and spotted me in the audience. And he jumped off the stage, ran up to me, shook my hand, went back on stage. And these are highlights. And he used to come there (4 Aces sic) regularly – namely every Sunday night, Alton would come in through the door. 01:14:46
The 4 Aces crowd: Security & crowd-control

At some point they were (a tough crowd sic). But you see, during these days, if you check our records, we had very little fights. We didn’t have any violence as such. We had the facilities – so we thought – to deal with circumstances that we didn’t plan for. But in comparison to how things are today and even at the later stage where during the ‘Labyrinth years’, when we’d progressed into twenty-odd years of running then. The security then, and still is the main aspect of any club.

During those early days we had a doorman. We had somebody to walk around – walk through the crowd to see that everything was ok. And if there was anything untowards that did happen, they would send for me. That was the basic structure of what security we had during those days. And nothing really diabolical happened at the 4 Aces. We didn’t have the level of violence that is around today. We had a few fights. Obviously, you know, happens when human beings meet together in a crowd. But nothing of any consequence where weapons or things of that calibre was involved. 01:17:56
The 4 Aces crowd: Numbers and security control

As you know, today things have changed drastically. If a club doesn’t have a proper security there is no way it can function. And that is what I look back - and I try to fathom what the difference is. Because we had nights where we were completely pack out. And we had no problems.

…Well we had the full capacity crowd I would say. Because we had a license that permitted us to have a set amount of people. We’ve had 400 people in. And we have go through nights where we have no problems. We go through phases where we have no problems. And we didn’t have the heavy security that with a hundred people you need to have in today’s terms. 01:18:50
01:18:49 Pioneering lessons for licensing clubs today: Pride in the 4 Aces record for crowd control - as good or better than today

So, during those days we were pioneers on many fronts. And I suppose the powers-that-be, and the people that dictate the licensing laws, have learnt from us how to facilitate the venues that are happening today. But the record will show that we didn’t have any violence. And, as I say, today’s experience where clubs are concerned, even though security that is needed is well catered for, there’s still violence. 01:19:40
01:21:57 Security: Preventing trouble

But you know, you establish a procedure – you know, according to what’s happening. If we expected trouble we would be geared for it. And we would, kind of, to some extent vet the people that came in that we knew could be troublemakers. And in that way we avoided a lot of trouble. And this is something that we were able to do. 01:22:25
01:23:05 4 Aces middle years: militant rebel music - easing the pressure

During one phase… the militant phase, people found messages in the music. The drum and bass would portray a militant rebellious answer to things people were facing. The prejudice system and the restrictive system, people rebelled against it - and the drum and bass was like a militant aspect coming from the music. It didn’t come out in the sense that they acted on it. But mentally it allowed them to alleviate the frustrations and the stress that they were experiencing. From that perspective, the music did portray certain times.

During the times where the Rastafari aspect of things came in, where there was green and gold displayed, people were rebelling against what society portrayed to them from a restrictive point of view and from a prejudicial point of view... They had problems also with the forces-that-be during a certain period of time. They got quite a lot of stick from the police who brought – well the politicians brought in the ‘sus’ law, and the police carried it out. And people were being picked on etc. We went through all those phases. Fortunately it’s not as bad as that these days. But all those periods were times when the music reflected it. And it actually was a very good thing, in the sense that it stopped people from acting in a physical way. They were quite prepared to let off their frustrations in the music and dancing. And in that way they were able to cope with what was being portrayed by the system. 01:26:30
Copy Material Location: WAV copies held at Hackney Museum:
1 copy stored on a portable hard drive
1 copy stored on a DVD-R (Gold Archive Standard)