The DJ that rocked

Date published: 20 April 2009

THE heady days of pirate radio have been captured for the big screen by “The Boat That Rocked”, director Richard Curtis’s evocation of a period in the 1960s when pop music was almost an underground experience.

And Oldham has its own star of the airwaves who lived the life of a pirate DJ.

Higginshaw boy Tony Prince, whose real name is Tommy Whitehead, went to Oldham Art School and then almost became an engineer at Vertoma Jig and Tool company at Moorside.

He also sold radios and TVs at Oldham Co-op, and for a while he was an apprentice jockey, sharing a room with a young Willy Carson.

But his first love was music and after a spell as a guitarist in The Jasons — resident group at the Savoy Ballroom in Oldham — in 1963 he became a DJ at Top Rank ballrooms.

It was a young Tony Blackburn who told Tony about pirate station Radio Caroline, as he compered a show called Disco-a-Go-Go for TV, and introduced Blackburn, then a young singer.

When the TV show ended a year later, Tony Prince joined the pirate ship. His colleagues included a host of future mainstream radio stars in Kid Jensen, Emperor Rosco, Mike Reid, Blackburn, Dave Lee Travis and Simon Dee.

Teenagers in the early 1960s could only hear a couple of hours of pop music on BBC radio, but the success of the pirates eventually led to the creation of Radio One, a dedicated music station.

Caroline operated outside Great Britain’s jurisdiction, beyond the three-mile limit, broadcasting from a ship in the North Sea.

And the hairy scenes in the film — like climbing the mast — really did happen, Tony confirmed.

Talking exclusively to the Chronicle, he said: “I’ve seen the film and it really captures the spirit of those days. The characters are good and there are one or two you can identify.

“The couple climbing the mast were Tony Blackburn and myself. The wedding really took place on board, the captain had a licence to marry people, and we lost the bride’s and guests’ boats in the fog.

“And I threw a chef overboard one day, I recognised that — the writer really has drawn from real life.”

The pirates’ reign lasted only a few years, sunk by the Government passing the Marine Offences Act in 1967.

Faced with a possible jail sentence if he carried on broadcasting, Tony Prince returned to his parent’s house in St Stephen’s Street, Oldham.

But a year later he was back on the airwaves legitimately — in 1968 he joined Radio Luxembourg, broadcasting from the Grand Duchy with Noel Edmonds, Paul Burnett and Kid Jensen, where he stayed until 1984.

They were a very close-knit team in a very small community he recalled: “There was a very small English-speaking community, mainly airline staff, and we became friends. The DJs wined and dined together, but now when they finish their shows they go off into their own private lives.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, he became famous with another generation of fans, launching Dance Music Community, a record club purely for DJs.

He also launched Ibiza nightlife holidays, and became a publisher with Mixmag, a bible for clubbers around the world.

A lifelong Elvis Presley fan, among his proudest moments are two meetings with the “King” in 1972 and 1973, and he also introduced him on stage at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Tony is still married to the love of his life, Christine Hall, who comes from Vulcan Street, Derker. The couple wed at Oldham Register Office in Greaves Street in 1970, and now have two children, Daniel and Gabrielle, and a grand-daughter, Bluebell.

And it was the arrangements for Gabrielle’s wedding four years ago that inspired Tony to start his latest career — as a TV producer with Wedding TV which launched on Sky in 2006.

But his home town still holds happy memories for him. “I have to say the best years of my life were singing with The Jasons around Oldham, at The Savoy in particular.

“I’d met some guys at Butlins which led to us forming the group around 1961, that led to me singing with the Johnny Francis Orchestra at The Astoria and eventually moving to the Top Rank in Bristol, where I was thrown out of the Musicians’ Union for playing records in dancehalls. That was a test case and the only person it ever happened to! That was 1963-4 when I became a full-time DJ.

“I owe so much to the Chron. It followed my career for many years and I was always deeply appreciative.”