How a ’60s girl band (almost) ruled the world

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Original Girl Power – The Fabs started out as a seaside show “novelty” but ended up playing all over Europe, Mexico and the US

“You are fabulous, fabulous to be with.”

So sang 1960s girl band The Fabs of their imaginary loves.

But in truth, the fabulous ones were the performers on stage.

It was a time when few women played guitar and drums, but band leader Wally “Waldini” Bishop wanted to change that.

He formed the quartet that would become The Fabs, whose story is told in the Cardiff Music History: The City of Sound exposure.

One of the four was Sarah Wrigley, née Johnston, a 19-year-old Cardiff girl whose musician father had taught her to play the guitar.

She said Wally Bishop had a show with dancers in Ilfracombe, Devon, but decided in 1963 to form a girl group in the same vein as the Beatles.

The band's three guitarists - Maria Kitsom, Margaret Lewis and Sarah Wrigley (Johnston)

The band’s three guitarists – Maria Kitsom, Margaret Lewis and Sarah Wrigley (Johnston)

Sarah said Wally heard about her through her father and gave the other girls, who did not play instruments, the equipment and lessons they needed.

Sarah said the quartet – she on lead guitar, Barry’s Linda Mazey on drums, Bedwas’ Margaret Lewis on bass and Newport’s Maria Kitsom on rhythm guitar – was a bit of a ‘novelty’ to those watching. in the summer of 1964. .

“We did three or four numbers that day that only required three or four chords…and we were very popular with the public.”

“They just sat hypnotized”

After the season, an offer came in for a running contract for US bases in Germany for US GIs.

Linda Mazey

Linda Mazey on drums, when the band performed at an American base in Germany in 1965

Sarah said the group all had “good figures” and wore “all the gear all the time”.

“The guys absolutely adored us,” she added. “To be perfectly honest, it didn’t matter what we looked like, but I have to say after four months of playing six nights a week, four hours a night, we quickly improved.”

This led to the band traveling back and forth to Germany as well as playing clubs in South Wales.

But the band faced derogatory jokes made by boy bands they played with, including a future rock star.

The Who - Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, John Entwistle, Roger Daltrey - photographed in 1965

The Fabs worked with The Who, whose lead singer Roger Daltrey(r) told them ‘you’re not going anywhere’

“We worked with The Who at one point. Roger Daltrey said to me as I walked off the stage from our seat, ‘you’re pretty good, my love, but you’re not going anywhere’ because pop bands were ‘all boys’.”

She said the band knew they were a “new thing”, but also knew they had gotten good at playing and said they weren’t put off by Daltrey’s comments.

After a year, Wally Bishop died. That didn’t stop the Fabs.

Sarah said: “We had done quite a bit of back and forth in Germany, and we could drive, we could take care of ourselves, we kind of knew our way around, so we decided to go on our own. “

The Fabs

A promotional photo for the band – do these haircuts look a bit familiar to you…?

Sarah said the group, although young and feminine, were well treated, well paid and “having a great time”.

The group performed covers of popular songs, but Sarah wrote “a few songs”, including their theme song You’re Fabulous.

“We could throw [them] in the show so didn’t totally do all the covers. We don’t care about learning new songs all the time.

“Linda used to do a roof-raising drum solo and they loved her doing that.”

The women also found the attitude abroad towards them quite different, facing less sexism when they traveled to Spain, the Azores and Turkey, proving popular wherever they went.

The Fabs in black and white photography

The band was the traditional four piece drum, bass and guitars except played by young women rather than men.

The Fabs

The group was very popular with its first male audience, both on and off stage.

In 1967, the group was offered a contract for a residency at a nightclub in Mexico City, where the Olympics were to be held in 1968.

Although they were offered six months, they stayed for a year, living in an apartment and traveling to Acapulco on days off.

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen pictured in 1966, a year or two before he met The Fabs

They even rubbed shoulders with Hollywood. One evening, a rumor circulated that movie star Steve McQueen was there.

During a break, Sarah slipped away to see if she could catch a glimpse of The Great Escape star, before feeling a tap on her shoulder.

“I turned around and he said, ‘Hi, my name’s Steve. I saw you play. You guys are great, what are you doing here?'”

She had to get back on stage, but – although the band initially didn’t believe her – McQueen arranged to meet the quartet afterwards.

They went to an all night dinner together, and Sarah said he was “so interested in us” and “wanted to know what four Welsh girls were doing here”.

The band also set a record in Mexico for being sold into the club.

“In the UK people would spend weeks, months or even longer making an album. We did it in a day,” Sarah laughed.

The Fabs on stage in Mexico City

Image from film camera archive footage showing The Fabs on stage in Mexico City

They didn’t have work visas for the United States, but American businessmen who befriended the girls paid for them to come to San Francisco to perform at a charity concert. .

“Coming home and telling people that we were in San Francisco, in 1968, 1969 – that was a huge moment for flower power and everything that happened there.”

Encouraged by a visiting British singer who said they should be back in the UK “being a big hit”, they returned home, changed their name to The Jonson Sisters and appeared on the popular show talents Opportunity Knocks, which drew 20 million viewers.

Sarah Johnston (now Wrigley)

Sarah Wrigley had learned the guitar from her musician father

“We kept going and surprisingly we won,” Sarah said. “We started thinking, maybe this is it, maybe this is going to happen. We’ve had a lot, a lot of work, we’ve been criss-crossing the country.”

They were also offered a record deal, but despite cutting tracks to Rockfield Studios at Monmouth in 1971, the producer told them he still couldn’t sell the idea of ​​a girl group to the major record labels.

Sarah Wrigley

Sarah has remained involved in music all her life

After eight years together, things were also changing within the band.

“Linda was married, Maggie was engaged, I think Maria was engaged, I was seeing the guy who was our road manager. We had other people to consider where we were going and what we were doing.”

Their final appearance was at the panto of the New Theater in Cardiff in the winter of 1971–72.

They all remained friends, even attempting a comeback in the late 70s as Honky Tonk Women and Sarah later became a solo artist.

David Taylor, who directs Cardiff Music Historycame across the group while doing research for their site.

David Taylor

David Taylor rediscovered The Fabs while doing research for his Cardiff Music History site

He found no other all-female band in Wales from this period.

“I think that’s what I found interesting, that it was about four girls from South Wales at a time when it was so totally male dominated.

“And not only that they were four girls, but the music is really good. They were a really good band.”

The Fabs feature in the exposure as part of Llais at the Wales Millennium Centre, while Sarah will speak a 100% female panel there Saturday.

Sarah Wrigley

Sarah wrote a memoir of her time in The Fabs during lockdown

During the confinement, she used the imposed time at home to write her memoir, titled Twenty Pairs of Trousers and a Passport.

She said: “It’s the travels that have really made our lives so adventurous and exciting.

“Yes, it was great to get on stage, we loved it, but to be in Mexico, in Acapulco, in San Francisco – when you look back, traveling was actually an incredible event for us.”

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