It was mid 1979 and circumstances found us in London sharing a rented home with musician friends from Johannesburg who introduced me to some of their contacts. Before too long I started finding my way around, and after having done a duo stint in a drag pub in Vauxhall playing Hammond (with pedals) and doing lead vocals along with drummer Richie Dharma (who had worked with Lou Reed), I was able to move up the ladder of "progress" into my first West End nightclub.
They said that you hadn't played London if you hadn't played the West End. Did one really want to play the West End? I wondered as I took the 8pm tube from East Acton into town each night, taking the night bus home from Marble Arch after 1am the next morning, or when I drove into town at 9:30pm to begin a 10pm thru 4am gig, arriving home the next morning with the milk cart - in both cases stinking of stale tobacco and cheap perfume. These places were no more than glorified brothels!
However, putting all of that aside, I used the opportunity to meet other musicians, learn new repertoire, get more practice at reading obscure cabaret parts, and generally put the practical hours in. And sometimes we got lucky: Richie, our friend Earl Lewis (bass) and myself got to play for an empty room (well, not quite - there were the waiters laying tables ...) in the Empress nightclub for two hours each night before the club opened (at 9pm) simply to comply with Musician Union rules that a foreign (middle eastern) band was not allowed to play at the club unless a British band also got some work at the same venue. So each night we played our hearts out for the pure fun of it, and got paid for our efforts! I would get there early, and spend hours setting up my Fender Rhodes piano, carefully adjusting the position of the pickups and tynes to optimise the tonal quality and ensure evenness in volume as one played the instrument from the bass to the treble registers. We recorded our tracks (including some originals penned by a flute and saxophone-playing friend John Koen from the USA).
There was some light at the end of this tunnel, and over time I migrated out of the dives into the prestigious wine bars, brasseries and social clubs in the Mayfair / Knightsbridge areas, playing (and, as always growing) a solo piano repertoire, choosing my favourites from the repertoire of jazz standards. What a delight - being paid to learn! It mattered little that there were seldom any real listeners in the audience - that was yet to come ...