"Not everyone can say they played with David Bowie and Jimmy Page." Drummer Michael Whitehead on working with two giants of British music

Manish Boys at the BBC
Manish Boys: Woolf Byrne, Johnny Flux, David Bowie, Michael Whitehead, John Watson, Bob Solly, Paul Rodriguez (Image credit: Alisdair MacDonald/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

When five young gentlemen with long hair walked into his hair salon in Gillingham, Kent one afternoon in 1964, Michael Whitehead’s initial reaction was, “Crikey me, how am I gonna cut that lot?” The hairdresser couldn’t possibly have imagined that the chance encounter would lead to him playing in a band with David Bowie, recording with Jimmy Page, and hanging out with Marianne Faithfull, but that’s exactly what happened.

Taking a proper look at the five dandies shuffling around the salon, Whitehead recognised an old friend, Johnny Edward, who he’d known since the age of 13. Edward, aka Johnny Flux, had previously played guitar with local bands Reg Black and the Black Jacks, and Beau Kent and the Cortinas, and he introduced his friends as The Manish Boys. The R&B group were facing a setback, the guitarist explained, in that they urgently required a new drummer, as their most recent sticksman didn’t want to commit to touring: maybe, he suggested, Whitehead might fancy trying out for the now-vacant position? One hastily arranged audition later, Michael Whitehead became a Manish Boy… but he wouldn’t be the group’s new boy for very long.

“A couple of weeks later, we were rehearsing in (tenor sax/trumpeter) Paul Rodriguez’s parents’ house in in Coxheath, Maidstone, and someone said, ‘We’ve got this singer coming down, with his manager, who’s looking for a group’,” Whitehead recalls. “So this young, thin guy with long blonde hair like Keith Relf of The Yardbirds showed up, wearing thigh-length boots and a brown waistcoat, and introduced himself as Davy Jones. He sat in with us, and sang and played sax on the bluesy songs and it just seemed to click. So then we had a decision to make, because there were already six of us in the band, and adding another member would mean dividing whatever fees we were paid for shows seven ways. But we decided to take the chance.”

With assistance from their new frontman’s manager/booking agent Leslie Conn, the newly-expanded Manish Boys began gigging extensively around the South-East, performing at venues such as the Eel Pie Island Jazz Club in Twickenham, The Witch Doctor in Hastings and Maidstone’s own Star Club Ballroom. The addition of Jones added a new dimension to the group, Whitehead remembers.

“Davy was very flamboyant, very friendly, and a very talented musician. He was one of the lads, and popular with the girls too. I remember one day we were rehearsing at my parents’ house during the day, and there was a knock at the door, and a lady was standing there. I thought, Oh, hello, she’s going to be moaning about the noise, but instead she said, ‘Can I come in and listen?’ So we invited her in and she was happy, and we took that as a good sign.”

In December 1964, The Manish Boys landed their biggest break yet, when they were added on to the final six dates of a Brian Epstein co-promoted national tour featuring Gerry and the Pacemakers, Gene Pitney, The Kinks, and Marianne Faithfull (“A real thrill,” Whitehead recalls). Encouraged by the reception the group received, the following month, Conn arranged a recording session for The Manish Boys with American producer Shel Talmy (The Kinks/The Who) at IBC Studios in London, where the group were given two hours to record two tracks, I Pity The Fool, previously recorded by Bobby Bland, and one of their new frontman’s originals, Take My Tip. For the session, Talmy brought in an additional musician, a young guitar player called Jimmy Page.

“Jimmy had this effect called a Fuzz Box which added this kind of fuzzy noise to the guitar lines,” Whitehead recalls. “I was excited about him being there, but to be honest, I don’t remember an awful lot about it: he he did his bit in the background, and off he went. Seemed like a nice enough chap, very professional.”

With the single set for a March 5, 1965 release, The Manish Boys were booked onto BBC television show Gadzooks! It's All Happening, but not without a certain amount of controversy. The show's producer, Barry Langford, initially demanded that young Davy Jones cut his hair for the performance, which he refused to do: “I wouldn’t have my hair cut for the prime minister, let alone the BBC!” he was reported to have said.

The argument led the singer to form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men, and in fact The Manish Boys’ first TV appearance saw their singer interviewed by presenter Cliff Michelmore about the abuse he received for his mop-top.

“We’ve had comments like, ‘Darling!’ and ‘Can I carry your handbag?’ thrown at us, and I think it just has to stop now,” reasoned Jones/Bowie. After supporters demonstrated outside BBC Television Centre with banners stating 'Be Fair To Long Hair’, Langford relented, on the condition that if the BBC received complaints, the group's fee would be donated to charity. Their performance of I Pity The Fool was duly broadcast on BBC 2 on Monday, March 8, 1965: no complaints were received.

This, however, would end up being the peak of The Manish Boys’ success: when the single failed to chart, Bowie decided to move on, and exited the group, going on to join The Lower Third. The Manish Boys split at the same time.

“I remember being shocked,” says Whitehead. “I turned up for rehearsals one day and someone said, ‘Sorry Mike, we’re finished.’ There was no ‘Sorry lads, thanks for everything’ from Davy, he just moved on. The record didn’t do as well as he expected, and I think he was probably looking for a new sound, which is fair enough. I thought we might carry on, but everyone was getting older and I suppose they felt they’d taken it as far as we could go. A bit of a knock, but what can you do?”

For Michael Whitehead, the group’s dissolution meant that his vanishingly brief time in the spotlight was over. But Davy Jones/Bowie wasn’t the only Manish Boy to make a name for himself after the group’s demise: guitarist Johnny Edward went on to invent iconic ‘80s kids TV robot Metal Mickey and, even more randomly, create cheesy pop duo Renée and Renato, for whom he wrote the two million-selling Save Your Love, the UK’s Christmas 1982  number one single.

“Funny how things work out,” Whitehead says with a laugh. “I might not have become a pop star, but not everyone can say they played with David Bowie and Jimmy Page, can they?”

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.