The Kestrels are scarcely remembered today, if at all, even in England, except as the group through which the songwriting team of Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway first met and started composing jointly. They were one of the busiest vocal groups in England during the late 1950s and early ’60s, Touring with The Beatles, Helen Shapiro, singing backup behind Joe Brown, Billy Fury, Eden Kane, and Benny Hill, among many others, and made dozens of television appearances between 1958 and 1964.
The group members went through the army at the same time, continuing to work together whenever possible, and it was during this period that they got their name. They’d initially started working together as the Beltones and the Hi-Fi’s, but their manager, taking his lead from the manufacturer of the pencil he had in his hand at the time, decreed that they should become the Kestrels. It also fit in with an American tradition of harmony vocal groups that were named after birds (the Crows, the Penguins etc.).
This wasn’t just a conceit. Listening to their records 40 years on, it’s possible to hear the quality and dedication of their music making. Comparing themselves to The Platters might seem overly ambitious, especially as they also later covered country numbers like “Wolverton Mountain” as well as they did, but there is respect there for the sound of groups like The Platters and The Penguins. They were definitely English, not American, but they had a fresher sound than virtually any rival singing group in England.
They were still in uniform in 1958, but managed a winning effort in a vocal competition in Bristol, which led to a series of television appearances and more competitions — these televised — which they also won. Those appearances, in turn, led to their first, short-lived recording contract, yielding a single for the tiny, independent Donegal label. “We Were Wrong” b/w “Down by the Riverside” never charted, despite a featured spot promoting it on The 6.5 Special, then the biggest youth music showcase on British television. More television followed, and then their big break came when they were offered a contract by Pye Records.
At that time, Pye was one of the big three record labels in England. A relative upstart founded in the early ’50s by an electronic equipment manufacturer, in barely five years they’d carved out a serious competitive niche alongside giant recording conglomerates EMI and Decca. Quite apart from classical, where they were picking up numerous ex-Decca and EMI artists and making money licensing the recordings to labels like Vanguard Records in America, they were having international success with trad jazz and the music of Mr Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball. They’d also capitalised on Decca Records’ mistake in letting Lonnie Donegan get away from them, signing him to a long-term contract that yielded more than a dozen hits over the next six years, and also put Pye on the ground floor of the skiffle boom, which was the first youth-driven music boom in the whole history of England.
The Kestrels’ debut single for Pye, “In the Chapel in the Moonlight,” originally released as the B-side of their cover of Jack Scotts’s “There Comes a Time,” came close to charting and probably would have if they’d only been able to promote it — the army came first, however, and it just missed getting them on the charts in late 1959.
The group bounced briefly over to Decca before returning to Pye Records, and a long-term contract to record for that label’s Piccadilly imprint. Their subsequent releases failed to chart, but they remained busy on their own performances and also backing Pye’s resident star, Lonnie Donegan, on some of his records and his live performances. The Kestrels finished their military service early in 1960, and were able to resume their music work full-time. They carried on, trying several different approaches to choosing their songs, but mostly covering American hits, which may have been part of their problem.
Though it was happening slowly, almost imperceptibly, the music business in England and the public’s taste was changing — the best and most popular artists weren’t covering American songs as much anymore, and, increasingly, were introducing new material, some of it original. Additionally, the public in England was beginning to buy music that featured a much more aggressive instrumental attack, which was definitely not part of the quartet’s focus.
They did go through a membership change in 1962 when Roger Maggs, who had married and was looking for a more stable livelihood, left the group. He was replaced by Peter Gullane.
The group had little luck in selling their records, but not for lack of trying. Their version of the Rooftop Singers’ American hit “Walk Right In” was lively enough, but was still displaced by the original. Their cover of the Lennon-McCartney song “There’s a Place,” which they reportedly cut at the suggestion of the two songwriters, was a beautifully sung reconsideration of the song, a little more dramatic and less exciting than the original. It should have been a hit, and was even picked as a hit, but failed to sell when Parlophone issued a Beatles There’s a Place EP that displaced The Kestrels’ cover of the song.
Their version of the Four Seasons’ “Sherry” is even more impressive, slowing it down ever so slightly and emphasising a slightly more elegant approach to the singing than the original. They learned to rock out a little more easily on numbers like that with the recording of their Smash Hits LP, featuring their covers of current rock & roll hits — “Speedy Gonzales,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and “Rhythm of the Rain” are delightful vocal workouts, each with a good beat, but they still have room for a gorgeous treatment of the ballad (associated most closely with Nat “King” Cole), “When I Fall in Love.” And their cover of “Please Please Me” is worth the whole rest of the album.
Heard today, The Kestrels music is difficult to categorise. Their late-’50s work is clearly influenced by R&B vocal groups like the Platters and the Penguins, though it is, equally clearly, done in a pop vein. Their early-’60s records, with some rhythm guitar and sightly heavier drumming, is closer to rock & roll. This flexibility may have doomed them anywhere but in the industry itself, where it would be a prized attribute of any session group.
By 1964, it was clear that any moment that the Kestrels might’ve seized as their own was past. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, and the other new wave of rock & roll artists were playing a heavier, more formidable brand of music than The Kestrels could ever emulate, even if they’d wanted to try. There were still live engagements and lots of session work, however, and when Pete Gullane left, he was replaced by Roger Cook.
The handwriting was probably on the wall, if one could have read it, with the booking of their final tour, where they were billed with Billy Fury, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, and The Pretty Things — one admirable but slightly dated star, one throwback group, and a blues-rock band that never made it despite an abundance of talent, and The Kestrels. The group split up in 1965 after a disastrous final performance where the quartet fell apart in hysterical laughter.