Geoff Docherty – We meet the man who brought Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Who to Sunderland
Whenever John Peel was asked to describe his “all-time favourite ever gigs”, the legendary Radio One DJ would reel off list of who’s who in rock music and a where’s where of iconic venues; before finally settling on Rod Stewart and The Faces, in the unlikely setting of Whitburn’s Bay Hotel in 1973. The man behind it was Sunderland’s Geoff Docherty, described as “the best promoter in the world” by Mick Ralphs of Bad Company, and the stature of bands he brought to the city has never been seen since.
When I asked Geoff to start his story from the beginning he laughed and said “I’ve had a long, long career.” He was only a baby when his mother passed away, forcing him in and out of homes due to his father working throughout the day. “I decided when I was 17 to join the Ark Royal Fleet, I was desperate to get away from home. I was a trained mechanic and it was here that I started listening to the underground scene of music, such as David Bowie and Deep Purple.”
It was after this Geoff started to get in a bit of trouble around Sunderland. Two heavies (or bouncers to you and me) approached him about working for them; “The Bay Hotel in Whitburn was looking for bouncers. The manager had heard about my reputation. Initially I wasn’t interested as doormen don’t have the best names for themselves and I got in enough trouble as it was, I didn’t need to get into anyone else’s!” However, due to the lack of money Geoff decided to work one day a week on the doors of The Bay.
It was the mid-60s and pop music was filling clubs, pubs and bars across the country. Having worked at The Bay for a while Geoff decided to change some of the records in the jukebox to bands such as Family and Pink Floyd, to cater to a more intelligent crowd. “It was college lecturers, nurses and other career driven folk who listened to the underground scene and I thought this would fit well with the venue of The Bay. It was such a nice ballroom and location.”
After working at The Bay Hotel for a few months the manager approached him and asked if he would like to put on some bands on a Friday night when the ballroom was empty. “I was thrilled; however, the manager did say I only had £50 to spend on each band, which was a lot of money, but not enough.” He started hiring local bands but soon realised that people wanted something more and something different. “I wanted to put Family on, a band that ultimately started my career. However, they were charging £150, the manager didn’t approve of this, so I decided to hire out the ballroom myself. I took a massive chance, I was sweating all week, I had used my own money to get Family to Sunderland.
“When I arrived outside The Bay that Friday night there was a massive queue and I ended up making a £40 profit from that night, which was a lot to me, it was more than my week’s wages”. It turned out that Family were a huge hit. “People were coming up to me in the street afterwards and saying “Family were great who you getting next?’”
“I started to realise that the quality of the crowd had begun to increase, the upper classes started coming to The Bay, not that I’m a class conscious man, I was brought up working class. This made the venue more attractive to more well-known bands and singers.
“I knew the next band had to be big”, Geoff continued; “I wanted Pink Floyd, but to get Pink Floyd wasn’t easy.” Geoff had to travel to their manager’s office in Mayfair, London to try and get the already famous Pink Floyd to Sunderland. “I walked up the steps of 3, Hill Street in Mayfair and I was allowed into the office, Tony Howard, their agent, approached me and said “have you come to book some groups?” I took a deep breath and said ‘I’ve come to book Pink Floyd!’”
Geoff had to meet their manager Steve O’Rourke before anything was agreed upon. “Steve was a real nice fella. I talked him around, saying The Bay was a right nice venue, nice crowd and that was it, Pink Floyd were coming to Sunderland!” Pink Floyd came to The Bay Hotel on the 17 February 1969. Geoff made the entry price 35p in order to make it popular. “The gig went down fantastic; people were coming up to me as though I was a celebrity”
Geoff started to book unknown groups and bands which he thought were ones to watch out for. “I booked an unknown band called Free, you won’t have heard of them”, he said to me, “they cost me £35 and not many people turned up, so I decided to give them a chance and put them as a supporting act to someone more well-known. So I decided to put them on with Tyrannosaurus Rex,” Geoff told me, not to be confused with T-Rex who came after and were of a slightly different genre. “However, I got a call from them quite late on in the night they were supposed to be playing saying they’d broken down and would I pay for a taxi to get them there. Well there were 1,000 people waiting in The Bay Hotel so I had to get them there as soon as possible. Eventually they arrived and were fantastic.
“Forget One Direction; Marc Bolan was so good looking all the girls loved him!” That night made Free and they have personally thanked Geoff for his contribution to their career. By this time Geoff had a larger audience and decided it was time to move to a bigger venue. He moved to The Locarno or as Geoff named it, while he promoted there The Fillmore North.
“I wanted The Who to open The Fillmore North. I not only wanted The Who for myself, but I wanted them for the crowd and for Sunderland. So I went down to their office in Soho and met their manager Pete Rudge. People had said you’ll never get The Who, but I had The Who!” Geoff always wanted a band in Sunderland at the time they had a number one; “I never achieved it, but The Who were number four when they came to Sunderland with Pinball Wizard, a fantastic track.” The Who was the best gig he ever put on “Pete Townshend smashed his guitar at the end, it was all part of the act of course, but we’d never seen anything like it!”
Perhaps Geoff’s most celebrated promoted band was Led Zeppelin, who had become the biggest band in the world almost overnight. As soon as Led Zeppelin formed Geoff booked them knowing Jimmy Page’s previous work, but by the time the date came around Geoff received a call from Peter Grant their manager. “He phoned me quite abruptly and said that Led Zeppelin would not be in Sunderland because they were in America. I said “I’ve got a signed contract”, and I will always remember Peter Grant’s exact words: “well that is your prerogative, but they will not be there”. I was upset because I’d never been treated that way, but no one crossed Peter Grant- he was a big man.
“However, it all ended well in the end and we actually became friends eventually.” Geoff repeatedly called at Peter Grant’s office, but every time he did the band was always in America. Then totally out of the blue Geoff got a call from Peter Grant saying he had Led Zeppelin if he still wanted them. “He said to me, can you be in London tomorrow morning, and I said yes of course! I had to travel on the mail train which took a long time to get there; I thought I’d never make it”.
Geoff was asked by Grant if he would promote the band in not only Sunderland but Newcastle as well. “When I got Led Zeppelin I became the biggest promoter in the North of the UK, including Scotland, no one else could get Led Zeppelin.”
Geoff’s story is one of significance and is still going today, he carries out public speeches on his experiences, and is the author of number one best seller A Promoter’s Tale and his follow up book Three Minutes of Magic. To contact Geoff or find out more information on him, you can visit his website.