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Charlie Collins: Reggae pioneer and founder of Dalston’s legendary Four Aces Club dies aged 81

PUBLISHED: 09:40 28 March 2018 | UPDATED: 09:57 28 March 2018

Charlie, second right with his wife Phyllis. Rock steady star Alton Ellis is in the middle.

Charlie, second right with his wife Phyllis. Rock steady star Alton Ellis is in the middle.

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Reggae pioneer and co-founder of Dalston’s legendary Four Aces Club Charlie Collins, aka Sir Collins, has died aged 81.

Charlie Collins has died aged 81.Charlie Collins has died aged 81.

Charlie launched the Dalston Lane venue in 1967 with Newton Dunbar, naming it after the image on the soundsystem he had built and toured the country with.

The club was at the heart of the black music scene that emerged following the arrival of Afro-Caribbean immigrants, and played host to Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley. It was housed in the old Dalston Theatre, the foyer of which Charlie was already running as Rambling Rose and Club C. It was there that he was MC for a 1966 concert by Motown’s hottest new act Stevie Wonder.

The same year the Four Aces opened, Charlie returned to Jamaica to produce rock steady records with childhood friend Bunny Lee.

The first track he brought back to London, Sir Collins Special, became a huge hit in reggae circles – helped no doubt by relentless promotion at the Four Aces.

The Aces Band perform at The Four Aces in Dalston Lane, picture courtesy of Newton DunbarThe Aces Band perform at The Four Aces in Dalston Lane, picture courtesy of Newton Dunbar

On the back of the success, Charlie would issue dozens more songs on his Collins Down Beat label over the next decade, mostly backed by Lee. They are now some of the most sought after records of the genre.

Music was in Charlie’s blood. Born in the economically poor but musically rich seaside district of Greenwich Town in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1937, he grew up in a musical family in which his elder brothers Livingstone and Wallace played in his father’s showband, the Collins Brothers and Their Swinging Aces.

Aged 20, Charlie arrived in Southampton with a small suitcase and stayed with Wallace and another brother Ivan in their Kentish Town flat.

Speaking in 2007, Charlie recalled: “The first thing I did after coming to England was build a sound system in Kentish Town called Sir Collins Downbeat. I would play merengue, calypso, US R&B, people like Shirley & Lee, Rosco Gordon, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up and the twist. I used to go ballroom dancing at venues like the Lyceum in the Strand and Hammersmith Palais.

Ben E King at the Four Aces in 1969Ben E King at the Four Aces in 1969

“Then after I built my sound system I started to hold house parties where I lived. I met up with Duke Vin in Ladbroke Grove and we started to play together all over the country, in places like Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Reading, Leeds and Nottingham. I also used to play every Sunday evening at the Flamingo Club in Soho with Georgie Fame.”

Charlie opened his first venue, Sir Collins Club, in Caledonian Road in the early ’60s, and was also involved with Morgan’s Club in Holloway. He acquired his first Dalston venue after attending a car auction and chatting to the landlord, who told him he had a big hall going spare. He ran it as the 007 Club, and from there moved to Dalston Theatre.

His life came crashing down in 1981, when his son Steve, one of eight children, was among 13 youngsters killed in a fire at a New Cross house party. Steve, a promising singer with Trojan Records, had been DJing on a sound system built by his father.

The blaze sparked huge protests and was seen as the catalyst for the Brixton riots. Charlie credited it with ruining his life, and his marriage to Phyllis Lee. He planted 13 trees in the garden of the Four Aces in memory.

Charlie meeting Princess Diana.Charlie meeting Princess Diana.

During the ’80s he also became involved with the Old Generation, Young Generation community centre in Haggerston, before helping transform a derelict synagogue in Montague Road into Roots Pool, a place of refuge for Jamaican teens.

Regular police raids had brought about the decline of the Four Aces by the late ’80s, but it was given a new lease of life as Labyrinth, one of the top rave venues in the country at the height of acid-house and subsequently drum’n’bass.

When Hackney Council shut it down in 1998, Charlie was unsurprisingly one of the many campaigners to oppose the demolition of the building.

In 2006 he was one of 60 people to occupy the building in protest – and the last to leave. Campaigners wanted it to be restored for community use. Instead it was flattened and replaced with the Dalston Square development.

Charlie was removed from a town hall meeting in 2006 after protesting against the demolition. He was eventually allowed back in and spoke about its heritage.Charlie was removed from a town hall meeting in 2006 after protesting against the demolition. He was eventually allowed back in and spoke about its heritage.

Go there today and you can find Wonder House, Marley House, Dunbar Tower and also Collins Tower, which houses the CLR James Library and was often visited by a proud Charlie and his grandchildren.

Charlie Collins leaves behind seven children, 22 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, with two more on the way.

His funeral is on Friday next week, from 12.30pm at St Mark’s Church in Dalston.

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