MY favourite band are playing their annual hometown Christmas gig on Monday, December 29, at the Rolling Mills Club in Darlington. Here’s who they are, and what they do. Gig details at the end of the article.

First published in Darlington & Stockton Times, December 2014

A SOUL band that can trace its roots back more than 35 years is marking Christmas with a new CD and a home town gig.

The Smokin’ Spitfires have been performing their unique combination of soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues originals and covers of Stax and Atlantic classics since 2003.

But the band can trace its origins back to 1978 when the still-remembered East Side Torpedoes played their first gig in the upstairs room of the Travellers Rest in Darlington and set off on a journey that saw them get very close to the music business big time.


The Smokin’ Spitfires 2014. Back, from left, Alan Thompson (sax), Bob Garrington (guitar), Ian Rigby (bass). Front, from left, Gary Cain (drums), Mike Hepple (keyboards), Steve McGarvie (sax), Terry O’Hern (trombone), Neil Hunter (vocals). Picture supplied by the band (copyright unknown).

Then, as now, the lead singer and songwriter was Neil Hunter. The East Side Torpedoes started as a five-piece, adding players until there were eight or 10 on stage, often including a four-man horn section. Terry “Ernie” O’Hern on trombone is the other constant in the two bands.

The East Side Torpedoes recorded an album called Coast to Coast, produced by Chas Chandler, formerly of The Animals. They were played on radio by John Peel and John Walters and a single featured as the weekly powerplay on Radio Luxembourg, then a key pop station. They appeared at the Knebworth festival and Tyne Tees TV made a 30-minute film about them.

Along the way they were the first band to play at Darlington Arts Centre, in what would become the Garden Bar. In July 2012 the Smokin’ Spitfires were all but the last band to play there before the centre closed.

The East Side Torpedoes split ­- “gave up” according to Hunter – in the mid 80s. He and O’Hern stuck together in North-East bands the Blue Sharks , the D7s and, for a while, a re-formed East Side Torpedoes before forming the Smokin’ Spitfires.


Retrospective features ten tracks from the Smokin’ Spitfires

The new ten-track CD which was made available at the Spitfires’ monthly Sunday gig at The Cluny in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago is called Retrospective.

Hunter explains: “In the early days of the Spitfires we decided we would release some CDs of original material, five CDs of five tracks each and we called them Five for a Fiver.

“The original idea was we’d release them over about ten months. It took closer to 10 years. We still get asked for them and there haven’t been any to sell for a long time. We felt we needed something for those people who wanted it so we looked at what we had and polled the band on their favourite two tracks from each of the five CDS. Retrospective is what we’ve come up with.”

Producing the CD was a task for the band’s youngest member, tenor sax player Steve McGarvie. According to Hunter: “He reckons I’m old enough to be his granddad.”

“Steve got hold of what was left of any masters and went to work,” says Hunter. “He’s done a pretty good job really, considering what he had to work with. Then Gary Consiglio, who has done the artwork for CD, has come up with some new branding that’s so much better than anything we’ve had in the past.”

The Spitfires are a band happy in their work, which shows on stage. “Everyone in the band gets on so well together,” says Hunter. “The age range doesn’t matter. If you love the music and love what you’re doing anything else is irrelevant. We’re happy as a band, we’re a good band. I think it’s like BB King says, it’s 60 per cent personality, 40 per cent musicality.

Many musicians have passed through the Smokin’ Spitfires over the years and some will return for the Christmas gig being staged at the Rolling Mills Club. For that one evening the band becomes The Mighty Smokin’ Spitfires with 11 on stage.

As well as the Spitfires’ original songs the audience can expect a selection of soul classics made famous by the likes of Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley, Sam and Dave and James Brown.

“We’ve been doing this gig between Christmas and New Year in Darlington for about 10 years,” says Hunter. “We started in the Travellers, then the Arts Centre and since that closed this’ll be the third one at the Rolling Mills. It’s always been a good opportunity to play more of our own stuff than we get to do normally. The Cluny gig has taken that on too. We’ve almost had to start learning our own stuff again.

“It’s definitely a Darlington-based band. I lived in Darlington, Terry, Steve and Mike (Hepple, keyboards) are all based in Darlington, Ian (Rigby, bass) is from East Layton.

“The important thing about this gig is that people can have a good time, dance, drink some beer, have some fun.”

Smokin’ Spitfires, live at the Rolling Mills Club, Longfield Road, Darlington, on Monday, December 29, 2014. Admission at the door £8, doors open 8pm. Retrospective will be available at the gig.

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