Stephen’s music festival aims to jazz up the town

The Galleon bar owner Stephen Pierre is organising a jazz festival in Blackpool
The Galleon bar owner Stephen Pierre is organising a jazz festival in Blackpool
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Blackpool-born entrepreneur returns to his home town with a hope of reviving the live music scene

Five years ago Blackpool-born entertainer and entrepreneur Stephen Pierre re-launched the iconic Galleon Bar in premises on Abingdon Street.

We all had a bit of a musical background but in particular I liked the piano and the organ sound

Since then the 43-year old has loved and lost a promenade karaoke bar and town centre café, become a regular letter writer to The Gazette and commutes between here and London – where he still gigs, teaches and co-owns a restaurant.

Born at Glenroyd Hospital on Whitegate Drive and one of six children, his mother was a midwife and his father worked on the buses and trams.

“We all had a bit of a musical background but in particular I liked the piano and the organ sound,” he says. “In the 1970s when I was growing up, every pub you went into there would be someone playing the organ. We were staunch Catholics so we’d go to Sacred Heart Church and after the mass on a Sunday we’d walk along Talbot Road and at nearly every pub you passed there would be an organ player so I was very, very passionate about listening to music from a young age.”

Despite his now weekly commute from London, he said: “Blackpool is my home birth town and still my home town.”

A regular pub and club performer he felt he had to change direction.

“I’d done about seven or eight seasons here and at the time there were so many superb vocalists around like the late Colin Areety and the now world famous Russell Watson so I thought goodness me I’ve no chance against these heavyweights so I went to London to change direction.

“I read an article by Gary Wilmot or Russ Abbot which said things were changing, they wanted to change direction from summer shows and variety into musical theatre.

“I thought that might suit me, but I didn’t know anything about it, so I did a foundation course at Blackpool and The Fylde College, just a Thursday night acting thing and it was great, so then I thought right, I’ll go off to London now and got a place at London School of Musical Theatre.”

With Blackpool jazz musician and teacher Colin Hadley as a mentor he added jazz piano to his keyboard skills and honed up on his vocals because even musical theatre has a shelf life, he said.

“You become too old for some things, too young for others and it’s harder to do eight shows a week in your 40s.”

But where does the once legendary after hours showbusiness and music venue The Galleon fit?

When his father Darrell Pierre passed away in 2009 Stephen led an eventually successful campaign to clear his name of blame in the worst tram crash in Blackpool’s history.

“It was controversial at the time and I went to every party political conference with my campaign flyers. In every town I found a place like the old Galleon. I thought to myself Blackpool needs to have a Galleon again.

Having invested in property in London ‘at the right time’, he said he was lucky to be able to borrow against his flat to buy a freehold in Blackpool.

But the original boarded up Galleon was due for demolition.

“The council wouldn’t let me have it so I started looking elsewhere,” he said.

He nearly landed the basement Pepe’s Bar on Talbot Road before happening upon his present site almost by accident.

He was having a drink in The Washington, ready to get the 6.30pm train back to London when he got a phone call saying something had come up that day.

It turned out to be the former Jack’s Sports Bar (or The Dying Swan as it was known in the pub trade because of its regular change of identity) and by chance the keyholder was also in The Washington.

The rest is history.

“As soon as I walked in I knew I could recreate the old Galleon – so that’s what brought me back to Blackpool. It inspired me.

“I’d always wanted to open a bar in London but the overheads were outrageous. I’ve got the Perivale Bar & Bistro in South East London now with partners and it’s doing very, very well, but five years ago I’d put in offers for bars in London, but they were crazy rents and Soho where I wanted is not for the small operator any more.

“So I thought I’d invest in my home town because the overheads are so much less.

Even so he trod cautiously.

“Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet – selling cheap drinks, doing karaoke or having a bloke in a dress as a dj hoping to attract thousands of people. Maybe a couple will work but five or six all doing the same thing won’t.”

So he rented at first, saw it working, bought it and now reckons it’s worth three times what he paid.

“I think a lot of people expect too much when they open somewhere in Blackpool,” he said and is dismissive about the cheap drinks philosophy. “To be making a profit and be operating legitimately, a pint of lager has to be sold for no less that £2.50 to cover things like door staff and live music.

“People come unstuck, they leave their little b&b’s where they’ve done OK on the bar. It’s nice to see small businesses open but you’ve really got to be very careful in Blackpool, because of the fierce pricing competition.

“If you sell cheap you are trapped into attracting the sort of daytime drinkers the town could do without and you are making their problems worse.”

So if it was his Blackpool rather than just his Galleon what would he do?

“What it needs is a creative and positive fly on the wall TV series following the lives of working people in the town – perhaps a Funnygirl, a bus driver, taxi driver, a nurse, so people see something that’s not exploitive TV.

“And small business enterprise. Nice people attract nice people. It’s like a carriage clock with its cogs and wheels - big stores need little businesses. Invest in little shops and b&b’s because they then spent at bigger places.

“There will always be the £20 a night places to go for a jolly and I don’t mean just stag and hens. It’s a misconception to assume any same sex outing is out for mischief.

“People come to Blackpool to have a good time and we can’t afford to lose that trade but there is an over-supply of cheap b&b’s. I feel very sorry for people who bought at the wrong time because they are stuck soldiering on. If they say no groups of lads or girls, who else have they got?”

Maybe a few more familiar high street names would help?

“I’ve nothing against national chains, they’re needed, but small businesses need supporting better,” he said. “I opened a coffee shop on Topping Street, spent £30,000 on it and it failed because I tried to make it a Little Brighton. Had it been in Brighton or London, Leeds, Manchester’s Northern Quarter – it would have worked.

“I was a little over ambitious, the town’s not quite there yet, but I was willing to put my money where my mouth is and give it a go on the back of this place.

“I failed miserably because I didn’t have the demographics right. I’ve got the financial scars to prove it but it was a learning curve.”

Likewise his short stay at Nellie Deans karaoke bar on North Promenade?

“My heart was never really in it. Thwaites gave me it on a good deal because of the success of The Galleon but I left because £430 a week business rates over 52 weeks is a lot.

“It was the wrong part of town in winter – a stone’s throw can be a thousand miles in Blackpool. I’d rather have a small place full than a large one rattling around. I bowed out gracefully.”

Part of the problem is keeping up with changing markets, he feels.

“Older visitors midweek have died off. You could have packed theatres mid-week with variety shows 30 years ago but not now.

“Winter weekends like Showzam and my own Jazz and Blues festival are now getting support but money to back them is in short supply.

“Do people get their bins collected or do we put on a ballet? Performing arts is never going to win that one.”

Reduced parking rates maybe in the much maligned Talbot Road multi storey?

“Make it £2 or £3 for the day. People would stay longer, shop longer, eat longer, instead of clock watching and leaving town.

“Or link up with tram Illuminations tours in a park and ride type scheme. Keep people in town – encourage them to spend more.

“And why aren’t there more disabled concessions?”

The recent bad Blackpool headlines upset him.

“Coleen Nolan went to the same school as me and I’ve always been quite a Nolan fan. Maybe she said some good things too and they were edited out?

“What upset me more was Jeremy Clarkson’s approach because he’s successful, wealthy and didn’t gain anything by slating Blackpool.

“There were actually a few home truths in there but it’s no different to any other seaside town.

“Jim Davidson had a go at Blackpool all the time but with Coleen it’s her home town so perhaps it should be the less said the better about knocking it.

“There are people trying really hard but when I travel up and down by train I overhear lots of conversations and the thing people criticise most is substandard accommodation. We need more modern purpose built hotels for people who have never been before – affordable and clean.

“Small ones have got to up their game.”

Despite actively promoting live music in The Galleon he feels the Blackpool music scene could be better.

“The town needs a good purpose built pub or venue that could attract the rock band circuit.

“The Galleon is too small and we can’t make too much noise. The pub circuit has gone but there’s room for something.

“The music scene for holidaymakers is fine, backing tracks and karaoke.”

So what does he like most?

“The Tower Circus and Tower Ballroom. The night I performed there with the Eric Delaney Band at a Valentine’s Ball changed my whole thought process about entertaining.”

But he is sure Blackpool will survive.

“We need that positive TV series and something to attract the declining Monday to Thursday coach market trade.

“Winter weekends out of season are better than they used to be but Blackpool had it too good for too long. It boasted about the millions of visitors but it was an ageing population with a year on year decline.

“Twenty or so years ago council meetings were like a working mens club committee. Slow, it didn’t keep up.

“More has been achieved in the last few years than in the previous 20. Well, more money has been spent.

“I think they are trying hard but the money isn’t in the kitty. We need some Second World War camaraderie, share the sugar, that’s why last week we had our annual end of season party here for local businesses. It needs that kind of joined up thinking, it costs us a few quid but for example, taxi drivers are the best form of advertising, the best tour guides a business like this can ever have.”

Now he’s ‘trying desperately’ to bring the One Show to Blackpool in a special programme hosted by Gyles Brandreth - and wants to team up with Richard Taylor and his renovated Regent Cinema on Church Street.

“He’s done so well with it as an arts, crafts and antiques centre. It would send out the right message about what can be done.

“We’ve so much to shout about – the Tower, the oldest tramway, the Winter Gardens just for starters. When the new museum comes – and I hope it does – Blackpool could capitalise on educational school trips, link the businesses together with social history about Blackpool’s glory days.

“Children remember things like that for life. They’ve seen Strictly Come Dancing, they can see the Wurlitzer come out from the ground – they would go on Facebook, Twitter, all sorts, it would be so good for Blackpool and we all know, it desperately needs it.”

And then there are plans for a Galleon Bar in London – housed in the old Limelight Church on Charing Cross Road.

“I can see it working together with what we have in Blackpool,” he says.

Next up though is next year’s Blackpool Jazz and Blues Festival – back by popular demand after this year’s success and set for April in the Regent, the Winter Gardens and The Galleon.

“Anyone any age can come and it’s free – like the Illumination Switch-On,” he says. “People can’t afford £20 a ticket. Free is good.”

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