The 2i’s Coffee Bar was an integral part of British pop music history. Although London’s first skiffle bar was the Gyre & Gimble in Charing Cross, the 2i’s was where British rock ‘n’ roll began.
Situated at 59 Old Compton Street, Soho (London) it was originally owned by two brothers called Freddie and Sammy Irani (hence the name “two i’s”) but on 22 April 1956, it was re-opened by two ex-wrestlers, “Rebel” Ray Hunter and Australian Paul Lincoln (pictured below left, with Wee Willie Harris), who had wrestled under the name Dr Death.
It was Hunter and Lincoln who came up with the idea of using the basement of the coffee house for live performances, and skiffle band The Vipers – featuring a young singer called Wally Whyton who went on to become a well-known children’s television presenter – became the first group to earn a residency there.
With a capacity of around 80 in the cellar (although the lack of stringent health and safety regulations back then meant it regularly exceeded 100) and an entrance fee of 1 shilling, the 2i’s quickly became the hottest new music venue in town.
It even saw off competition from the coffee bar next door – the Heaven and Hell, with its brightly lit upstairs ‘Heaven’ and dark basement ‘Hell’.
During a break at a Vipers gig in September 1956, a young upstart called Thomas Hicks appeared on stage and launched into Elvis Presley‘s Heartbreak Hotel.
Agent John Kennedy had been invited to the venue by one of the coffee bar’s co-owners in order to check out the main attraction, but after witnessing Hicks’ impromptu performance, Kennedy signed him up.
A repeat appearance at the same venue was specifically arranged for Decca’s A&R man Hugh Mendl, and within a month Rock With The Cavemen by Hicks (now re-born as Tommy Steele) was in the shops.
From that moment on, The 2i’s became the place to be discovered, and hundreds of wannabe rock & roll stars flocked to the venue from all over Britain in the hope of becoming the “next big thing”.
Music promoters such as Jack Good, Larry Parnes and Don Arden also frequented the 2i’s regularly, and artists such as Cliff Richard, Terry Dene, Adam Faith, and Vince Eager were all discovered while appearing there.
Tom Littlewood took over the 2i’s in 1960 and managed some of their artists – including Vince Taylor.
Songwriter Lionel Bart and music producer Mickie Most worked at the 2i’s as waiters (Bart was responsible for painting the cellar, decorating it with a black ceiling, large, stylised eyes on the walls, and cubist shapes behind the small stage platform). Jet Harris – a future member of The Shadows – worked behind the bar and Led Zeppelin manager, Peter Grant, was a bouncer there prior to his career in the music business.
The 2i’s rapid success led to the opening of a second branch at 44 Gerrard Street, in what had been a folk and skiffle club run by John Hasted, but it soon closed due to intimidation by organised crime. The 2i’s closed in 1970.
The premises later became the Dome Café Bar before hosting a variety of restaurants and a Fish & Chips shop.