The Velvelettes

Cal Gill-Street

California Roadshow, Bedford

Review of 10th November 2006


All photographs and content copyright California Ballroom


"I've got something up my sleeve" was Paddy Grady's comment when I rang him back in June to discuss the next California Ballroom Roadshow. No amount of persuasion would get him to reveal it though. All he would say was that it was "in the pipeline" or "subject to contract" and that it would be "BIG!"

When he finally, under the onslaught of emails, phone calls and threats, revealed he had booked the legendary Velvelettes, I was bouncing off the walls. I saw many, many great Motown artistes at the Cali but the Velvelettes were not amongst them and given that I was a big fan of their music it was an omission that absolutely needed to be rectified.

My first port of call was the gig list on this site to find out when they had played the California and imagine my surprise to find that they hadn't! Surely that couldn't be right?

Talking to Bertha Barbee who with Mildred Gill was the founder of the group back in 1962, it quickly became apparent that this was because of the short lived life span of the early group.


The five original ladies, Bertha, Mildred, Calden, Norma and Betty became 4 when Betty was asked to step in and fill a gap in the Vandellas who were just about to embark on a European Tour. Now the Vandellas did play the Cali, but the Velvelettes were left at home recording. Subsequent marriage and family life meant they split up in 1969 just when Motown was really taking off in the UK.

Happily for all of us, families raised and College Graduations well out of the way, Bertha rounded up all of the ladies, apart from Betty who was by now firmly ensconced in the Vandellas, and got them back together for a one off performance in Detroit that went down so well, they reformed and started touring again.

That was back in 1984 and they've been together ever since and take any opportunity they can to catch up with the British fans who they've heard about for so long but never really had the chance to meet until recently.

Paddy took the fairly unprecedented step of booking the ladies for a mini tour of four events, all of which he organised himself, so I was unsurprised to arrive at Bedford for the first night of the tour, to find a totally shattered shadow of a man with a great big beaming smile saying that all the hard work had finally paid off. Tickets had flown out the door despite this being a Friday night. The Northampton event which immediately followed on the Saturday had been sold out for 3 weeks and there wasn't an hotel room to be had for miles around.

I arrived in time for the sound checks and walked into the hall to find a somewhat crowded stage. Paddy had booked Soul Patrol to back the ladies and they were being put through their paces, coping admirably. John, a great friend and fan of the Velvelettes was concerned that they hadn't eaten and would need something when rehearsals were over. I offered the Pasta salad I had omitted to eat at lunchtime in the rush to get out of the house but it was politely turned down in favour of a large platter served up in the bar.

Velvelettes laughing

Will somebody kindly stop making the act laugh!

This was a delight for me as it gave me a chance to go and talk to them. We got on so well that when they were called to go and get ready I realised I had been chatting to them for two and a half hours. The time had flown and been hugely entertaining into the bargain.

The ladies are lovely, totally down to earth and we discussed everything from Bob Marley, Hitsville, BB King and the knock on effect of hurricane Katrina through to the price of decent jewellery and whether there was any point in them fighting their way over to Paris, or if they would be better off saving time and money by doing London and then nipping up to Blackpool for a quick squint at the "almost Eiffel Tower".

There is however one really sickening thing about them and for any females reading this I should warn you to go get a bucket or a paper bag right now....... Bertha announced that she is 65! NO WAY!!!! Millie then countered she is 67!!! By this time I'm making mental notes to check out the local cosmetic surgeons as I'm not doing anywhere near as well as I thought I was.


Whilst they were getting changed I had the chance to go into the Ballroom and catch up with the guys who had been 'slaving away' (well that's what they call it but it's money for old rope and never let a DJ tell you otherwise :-) ) All California Roadshows must have at least two original DJs in attendance and the decks this evening were being manned by two:

 Carl Edwardes - of vintage Cali origin circa 1968-1973, and still moving despite having celebrated his 60th birthday the day before.

Paul Gray, longest running Cali DJ from 1971 to 1978 and prior to that working the petrol pumps in the old California garage on the forecourt.

They were preceded by warmer upperer Rob James, ex Pink Elephant and doyen of Soul Academy which he runs jointly with another ex Cali DJ, Louie Martin.

I was delighted to see other old California people there as well; notably DJ Clive Mason and 80s soul singer Keni Stevens, who informed me later that he had worked on the door at the Cali! Well you learn something new every day. Which reminds me, keep an eye out for the gigs Keni will be organising in and around the Bedfordshire area. I've asked him to keep me and this site updated.

11pm and Soul Patrol took to the stage, kicking off with a fine rendition of 'Green Onions' and following up with Junior Walker's great hit 'Shotgun'.... Ooooh love that sax! And then the ladies were due................. but in true California tradition..........

we'd lost them.

A slightly flustered Paddy arrived, puffing a bit, asking if I knew where they'd gone as they weren't where he thought they ought to be. Ahhhh, memories of the missing Elgins who were finally tracked down in the bar of the Windsock pub after Little Dennis had lost what was left of his hair.


Paddy, myself and assorted bouncers shot off around the hotel listening at various doors to see if we could find our missing stars. Luckily most of the residents were in the Ballroom watching Soul Patrol running through an extended introduction or we might have been arrested, it can't have looked good. The staff in Reception had no idea where anyone was as they'd just come on duty so it was with some relief that I passed a bedroom some distance from the Ballroom just as Bertha came out of it.

The room erupted as the ladies entered and everyone was up and on the dance floor for the whole of their set. I was pleased to see that they stuck to their well known numbers rather than succumbing to the temptation of other acts to cover an assortment of songs from the Motown stable that were not their own. This may be due to the fact that these ladies are all originals and know what their fans want to hear.

We all sang along with every word to "These things will keep me loving you", a fact which was not lost on the Velvelettes. I found I was particularly good at the La la las and Ooo Ooo Ooos so shall be putting myself forward as a stand in for backing if required.

The ladies' voices have matured over the years, haven't we all, but they can still belt them out. Cal has a superb and powerful voice for lead vocals and you can see they enjoy themselves immensely as they run through 'Bird in the Hand', 'He Was Really Sayin' Somethin', 'Lonely Lonely Girl Am I', ' Since You've Been Loving Me' and of course 'Needle in a Haystack amongst others. We danced, we sang, we cheered and clapped. Finger clicked to the right bits, double clapped to other right bits and took our part in the backing vocals for 'Needle'.

L-R Bertha, Norma and Millie

All photographs copyright California Ballroom

All too soon it was over and the ladies left the room to cheers and roars of encore. I doubt this hotel in Bedford has ever seen the like before. Many of those attending were intending to follow them to Northampton for the performance the following night and I myself will be heading for Kettering. The Legendary Velvelettes certainly live up to the hype! Good on you ladies.