Oldham Astoria: 'I took Jimi Hendrix for a couple of pints'

·5 min read
Jimi Hendrix in 1967
Jeff Garner said Hendrix's flamboyant style was something not many of those in the pub had seen before

Oldham's former Astoria Ballroom, which is facing demolition after being home to a variety of entertainment for more than a century, has lived many lives.

It was opened as the Grand Theatre in 1908, but went on to be a concert hall, a snooker hall, a roller derby training rink, a cinema, a bowling alley and a few different nightclubs.

However, it was as the Astoria that the King Street venue had its heyday and it faces its final curtain, one man has recalled it as being the place where he met a legend.

Jeff Garner remembers one night in January 1967 like it was yesterday - the night when, as an 18-year-old 'cub reporter' on the Oldham Evening Chronicle, he enjoyed a chat over a couple of drinks with music icon Jimi Hendrix.

Jeff Garner
Jeff said Hendrix was "a very quiet, charming person to speak to"

The Jimi Hendrix Experience arrived in Oldham at the start of a UK tour, buoyed up on the success of single Hey Joe, which brought the legendary guitarist his first chart hit, and ready to promote the soon-to-be-released debut album Are You Experienced.

Despite that, Jeff said the gig "wasn't absolutely full", but about 300 people provided the band with a good crowd.

"It went down well, but it was extremely loud," he said.

"The amplifiers filled the stage so much, I've never seen anything like it."

'Everything went quiet'

Once the show was over, Jeff said he wandered over to the side of the stage to grab an interview, but Hendrix had other ideas and asked him where he could get a drink.

He said he recommended The Star Inn across the road.

"He said 'I'll come with you then', so we went across to the pub," he said.

"We opened the doors and there was smoke everywhere, people with flat caps on, and... everything went quiet.

"We'd never seen this before; Jimi was in a flamboyant shirt [and] had wild, crazy hair.

"We walked over the bar and he asked what I usually drank and we had a couple of pints of bitter."

Jimi Hendrix in 1967
Jeff said he talked to Hendrix about Oldham Athletic but he "didn't understand what soccer was at all"

Jeff said they talked about Hendrix's music, but the guitarist was more interested in asking him questions.

"He was a very quiet, charming person to speak to," he said.

"He also asked me about Oldham and I talked to him about things, such as Tommyfield Market and the delicacy which was tripe."

He said he also talked to Hendrix about Oldham Athletic, but he "didn't understand what soccer was at all".

"I said, 'Well, there is also a rugby league club called Oldham Roughyeds' and he seemed to understand a little bit more about that and compare that to American football."

He said Hendrix's manager then arrived and whisked him away, leaving Jeff with nothing but happy memories.

'Screaming females'

Jeff was not alone in enjoying a legendary performer on the Astoria stage.

The venue hosted a long list of stars in the 1960s, including the biggest of them all, The Beatles.

Mike Dunkerley was there to see the Fab Four in February 1963 after his girlfriend saved him a place in the queue.

The Beatles in 1963
The Beatles played what was then the Astoria in 1963

He said hundreds were stuck outside unable to get in, while he was inside, trying to listen to the band.

"I could hear most of what they sang, certainly not all of it, because it was just a mass of screaming females," he said.

"They went off and came back again and continued singing amongst the hysteria.

"And when they went, girls tried to get on the stage and they had bouncers at the time who stepped in to push them away."

Oldham's Grand Theatre
The venue has been a theatre, nightclub, cinema, bowling alley and roller derby practice rink across its history

It is almost unimaginable that such big stars played venues in towns like Oldham, but music historian Richard Houghton said bands needed to do it at the time.

"There was no pop radio in those days, so if you were trying to make it in the music industry, you needed to get out and play gigs," he said.

"A lot of bands were out on the road all across the country and the Astoria was one of those places where the people who ran it would just put a band on.

"But the roll call of the bands who played there in the sixties is quite impressive.

"Legend has it that The Beatles were in the dressing rooms at the Astoria when they got a telegram from Brian Epstein saying, 'Congratulations lads, you are number one in the singles charts with Please, Please Me'."

Such days are long behind the venue now and after being unused for some years, its owners have lodged an application to demolish it to make way for a new development.

When it goes, it will leave only the memories of those moments in Oldham's history, some of which were pretty incredible.

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