Dougie plays the closing down blues

 

Election campaigns will be with us always, but during this one Belfast lost a landmark. On April 30th, Dougie Knight's record shop on Botanic Avenue closed; for a long time a great place to find jazz and blues classics and briefly, at the end of the 60s, it was an unlikely showcase for live music, writes Fionnuala O Connor

Thanks to a still-youthful man whose name became synonymous with a modest little shop and the sessions in its basement, Sunday nights in Belfast had some zing.

Those under the age of 40 will have trouble imagining how much that meant. With the other stalwarts of jazz, in lean times Dougie Knight brought legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims, Memphis Slim and Muddy Waters to Northern Ireland. But older customers remember best the smoky, noisy excitement in a very small space, an experience that defied the stuffy city fathers.

In much of the North, Sunday then was dour for those whose beliefs did not dictate that they keep dry and unsocial the Sabbath day: cinemas and theatres closed, and pubs, of course, shut fast. A Belfast Sunday night was a trial. Except downstairs in Dougie Knight's, where people sat on the floor while bluesmen such as Champion Jack Dupree pounded the upright piano.

There were about 80 cushions, Dougie insists. "We rolled the stands back against the wall and left the door to the yard open so people could get some air, or go out and be sick."

Dupree came back several times, plagued by arthritis but still a showman. He liked the spotlight fixed so it made the diamond in a front tooth sparkle.

George Chambers (who ran his own band) and Dougie arranged that visitors who might not have filled a bigger hall would play in the Jubilee bar in Cromac Street on Saturday and, occasionally, Friday. On Sunday, the Jubilee would run a bar in Dougie's basement.

The place meant a lot to young players. The pianist Bill Rodgers describes on a website that he learned blues piano "at the feet of the great Jim Daly. Quite literally. You didn't see much of the keyboard, but you learnt a lot about the use of the pedals!"

It couldn't last, says Dougie philosophically. "A new sergeant arrived in Donegall Pass. The previous one was very easy-going but this one was a holy roller. A detective came in to see me and said it had to stop. I asked was it the drink. Ah Dougie, he said, we didn't tell him that! But he'll go daft about the music."

The business was a family one, originally a bicycle shop in Great Victoria Street. Dougie joined his father and added records to the bikes in 1953, married Rae three years later, and set up home above the shop. They ran concerts there too, with barrels of Merrydown cider - "A shilling in the box for a fill".

They rented out the rest of the building. Van Morrison and his band of the time rehearsed in an attic.

"Van had the large attic for twelve and sixpence, Tommy Thomas the drummer had the small one for seven and six. We had two music teachers on the first floor.

"And a gospel hall - well, the Exclusive Brethren. They didn't sing, now, they just mumbled. They met on the first landing beside the toilet. They had this poster: 'There is but one step between thee and death.' Some of the boys in the band coming down to the toilet would deliberately miss the first step beside it."

He tells true fan stories, none of them self-aggrandising. The late Jesse Fuller came to Belfast in 1960: wouldn't walk on the pavement because back home in San Francisco whites would "walk straight into you" and refused to eat in restaurants." Too much hassle in them all his life. So we fed him in the house."

But the basement sessions are Dougie Knight's real legacy. "Jim Daly always knew lots, but I think we introduced blues to a lot of jazz people. Van came to listen. I believe Rory Gallagher said he'd been there too."

Deals between the major companies and superstores finished off Knight's, like most independent record shops: "One price to Tesco and Sainsbury's, another to the rest of us," says Dougie.

With his son, Paul, who ran the shop through recent years, Dougie will work for a couple of months to "refresh" their website to sell second-hand CDs. After that he'll help with concerts, listen as always to music - "My favourite piano player at the minute is Ahmad Jamal; he's a year older than me" - and play tennis.

Dougie Knight is 72. He's the current Irish over-70s indoor tennis champion and thinks ahead to the World Championship over-85 singles. "My wife says I'm hyperactive, but I say as long as you've got a goal . . ."

The Dougie Knight website: second-handcds.co.uk