Fame At Last – Speedy Acquaye 1931 – 1993

Neeomi (Sometimes spelt Nii Moi) ‘Speedy’ Acquaye was born in James Town, Accra, Gold Coast (now Ghana) on 7 June 1931. He began playing drums from an early age after his parents bought him a drum as a gift. He began attending Royal School in Accra at the age of 12. Despite encouragement from family and friends and a couple of teenage bands, Speedy showed no interest in a musical career at the time.
After a brief period in the armed forces as a company boy he travelled to England in 1947 at the age of 16. He settled in Leeds in West Yorkshire and undertook a factory job before beginning his career in showbiz. His first taste of show business came when he played the role of Man Friday in a pantomime in Nottingham. He then bought a pair of bongos but didn’t yet take up music full time. Instead, he joined a travelling circus as a dancer, fire-eater, and conga player.
During his time in Leeds, Speedy spent a lot of his time dancing in the local ballrooms. Most pubs in the city would close at 10pm and couldn’t compete with the excitement of the ballrooms. While some pubs had a ‘colour bar’ in place, ballrooms were more welcoming to African and West Indian punters. They were not, however, free from racism. Africans living in Leeds discovered that some of the best places to dance were Leeds Town Hall and Armley Baths, where wooden boards were places over an empty pool to create a dance floor. A highlight was Saturday nights at the Mecca Ballroom in

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David Oluwale, one of Speedy’s friends from Leeds.

the Country Arcade where Jimmy Savile was the general manager and DJ. Savile held no prejudices and African and West Indian men found a warm welcome at the Mecca. The ballroom had two floors. The downstairs room had a ‘strictly ballroom’ pre-war polite atmosphere and Ross McManus’s band would play there. (McManus would father Elvis Costello in 1954.) The upstairs room allowed jiving and became popular with the black community in Leeds and visiting African American GIs. Speedy became known for his dance moves and wild antics. He would delight the girls by pulling up his trousers and setting fire to his legs. Speedy also made a lot of male friends at the ballrooms including Nigerian David Oluwale.

 

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Speedy in Soho.

Speedy left Leeds around 1953 and moved to London to begin a career in music. A regular at Soho clubs, Speedy became friends with African and local Jazz players. He first played with Tubby Hayes Group and made his recording debut with the group on the 1961 album ‘Equation In Rhythm’. Speedy then joined Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists who blended British Jazz with African sounds. He later played with Ronnie Scott’s group for a time before meeting Georgie Fame in 1962.
Speedy met Georgie Fame at the Roaring Twenties club in Carnaby Street and the pair became instant friends. Speedy joined Georgie Fame’s group The Blue Flames in May 1962. The group had originally been Billy Fury’s backing band until they were sacked in 1961. The Blue Flames continued on without Billy and Georgie Fame took over on vocals. Speedy played with the Blue Flames at the Flamingo Club during the group’s three-year residency at the club, showcasing a new wave of appreciation for African musicians. Speedy was a pioneer in introducing African instruments into Western Pop music. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones would soon follow suit. Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames’ debut album ‘Rhythm And Blues At The Flamingo’ was released in September 1963 but didn’t feature Speedy on percussion. Speedy had  recently been busted by the police and was in prison on a drug offence during the time of recording. He was briefly replaced by Tommy Thomas. The album and the follow up singles failed to chart. During his time with The Blue Flames, Speedy played alongside drummer Jimmie Nicol for a time before the drummer left to replace Ringo Starr for 13 days during The Beatles’ 1964 Australia tour. The group’s first chart success came in October 1964 with the album ‘Fame At Last’ which went to number 15 in the UK.  ‘Fame At Last’ was Speedy’s recording debut with The Blue Flames. The group had a number one single in January 1965 with their version of ‘Yeh Yeh’ and a couple of notable TV appearances followed including ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ and ‘Top of The Pops’. The Blue Flames even made an appearance on the American TV show ‘Hullabaloo’ in 1965 where they were introduced by Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein.

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Speedy (far left) with Georgie Fame And The Blue Flames.

Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames achieved a large Mod following and helped introduce Ska music to the subculture. Speedy plays on the 1964 EP ‘Rhythm And Blue Beat’ as well as a number of other Ska songs by the group. Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames also recorded a version of Lord Kitchener’s Calypso classic ‘Dr. Kitch’. While Speedy enjoyed some elements of Mod culture (he was known to take Purple Hearts) he refused to give in to Mod fashion and often wore traditional Ghanaian dress on stage and especially when appearing on television. Speedy ensured that he became part of group’s stage act and would sometimes step in front of his instrument to perform African dances. Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames toured across the UK and were part of the popular Tamla-Motown UK Tour of 1965. The tour came to Leeds on 31 March. Georgie Frame and The Blue Flames would return to Leeds the following year, playing at the Odeon on both occasions.

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1965 Leeds poster for the Tamla-Motown tour.

The Blue Flames underwent several line-up changes throughout the group’s time together. In December 1965 Mitch Mitchell became the group’s drummer. Georgie Fame disbanded the Blue Flames in October 1966 to pursue a solo career and Mitch Mitchell joined the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Speedy went on to join Herbie Goins and the Night Timers. He appeared on their 1966 EP ‘The Incredible Miss Brown’ and their 1967 album ‘Number 1 In Your Heart’. Herbie Goins and the Night Timers made an appearance on French TV in 1968 performing ‘The Same Old Song’. During the same period Speedy also recorded with The Small Faces after building up a friendship with Ronnie Lane. Speedy appears on their self-titled 1967 album. Speedy left the Night Timers around 1969 and began working as a session musician, playing with Poet and the One Man Band on their debut self-titled Psychedelic Rock album. Around this time he joined Alexis Korner’s live band, bringing him to the attention of a new generation of musicians including Denny Laine, Rod Stewart and Ginger Baker.

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Speedy (far left) with Herbie Goins and The Night Timers, 1968.

Speedy joined Ginger Baker’s Airforce in September 1970 and appears on the group’s second and final album ‘Ginger Baker’s Air Force 2’. The group were popular in Germany were they were given their own television special on the series ‘Beat-Club’. Airforce also toured the UK throughout 1970, playing at Leeds Town Hall on 20 November. After the band’s breakup in 1971, Speedy went on to form the group Akido. Akido were managed by Ronnie Lane and performed regularly at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. Going back to his days with the travelling circus, Speedy would perform fire-eating on stage during the band’s gigs. Akido worked the college circuit and in 1972 they released their self-titled album.

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Speedy as a member of Airforce, 1970.

Speedy continued to work as a session musician throughout the 1970s and became the go-to-guy when it came to African drumming. He made recordings with Third World War (1971), Rod Stewart (1972), Faces (1973) and John Martyn (1973). He is also reported to have recorded with The Animals and The Rolling Stones but details are lacking. Speedy’s session work often saw him working alongside friends and in 1979 he began working with Georgie Fame again. He played on Georgie Fame’s albums ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ and ‘Right Now’. He also worked with Denny Laine again who he had previously played with when both men were members of Airforce. Denny Laine went on to join Wings and Speedy features on their 1979 album ‘Back To The Egg’ as a member of the Rockestra. In December 1979 he performed at the Concerts For The People of  Kampuchea as part of the Rockestra and appears on the 1981 album of the concerts.

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A selection of albums Speedy played on during his career.

In the mid-1980s Speedy began working with Adzido. Formed by George Ozikunaj in 1984, Adzido was Europe’s leading traditional African dance company. Speedy later returned to Ghana and worked with the Ghanaian band Dade Krama. Speedy took ill in 1990 during a visit to Ghana and had to return to Britain to seek medical attention but wasn’t diagnosed with liver cancer until shortly before his death. Speedy died in London on 15 September 1993 aged 62. Georgie Fame, who had been working with him shortly before his death, helped pay for his body to be flown back to Accra where he was buried following a wake at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden, London.

Full Album Discography

Equation In Rhythm – Costanzo Plus Tubbs (1961)
Fame At Last – Georgie Fame And The Blue Flames (1964)
Sweet Things – Georgie Fame And The Blue Flames (1966)
Number 1 In Your Heart – Herbie Goins And The Night Timers (1967)
Small Faces – Small Faces (1967)
Poet And The One Man Band – Poet And The One Man Band (1969)
Aireforce 2 – Ginger Baker’s Airforce (1970)
Third World War – Third World War (1971)
Never A Dull Moment – Rod Stewart (1972)
Akido – Akido (1972)
Solid Air – John Martyn (1973)
Ooh La La – Faces (1973)
That’s What Friends Are For – Georgie Fame (1979)
Right Now – Georgie Fame (1979)
Back To The Egg – Wings (1979)
Concerts For The People of Kampuchea – Various artists (1981) (Recorded 1979)
Home From Home – Heads, Hands & Feet (1995) (Recorded in 1968)

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