Folk Cousins Of Soho

Soho GrillLES COUSINS at 49 Greek Street was one of the most important and influential venues of the folk music boom of the 1960s.

DIANA MATHEOU remembers listening to Donovan and chatting with Cat Stevens.

WHEN LOUKAS and Margaret Matheou took out a lease on the ground and basement floors of 49, Greek Street they were unaware that an iconic club would be born under their care.

The Soho Grill opened in 1960, offering classic French cuisine, and in 1964 a manager was employed to start Les Cousins in the basement. The intention was to follow the trend of other French discotheques springing up in Soho.

However, it wasn’t until Loukas’s son Andy got involved that the club became a success. In the 50s it had been known as the Skiffle Cellar and what followed was something of a continuation of this. Musicians and songwriters were drawn into the club and when Donovan declared in a tabloid interview that he “dug Les Cousins” the place was brought to the public’s attention and the queues started to form.

But it was from a combination of the high calibre of musicianship and Andy’s programming that the club was to draw its real strength. New young performers made Cousins, as it came to be known, a central part of the whole 60s ethos with singers, musicians, and poets, gathering to play and socialise in the club and at the Matheou family flat round the corner in Frith Street. Peter Cook’s Establishment club was across the road and a new wave of folk music, sharing a common base with blues and skiffle, was on the rise.

Copyright:Ray StevensonThe innovative musicianship of club regular, the mercurial Davey Graham, led the way for emergent talents like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Diz Disiey, Wizz Jones, Roy Harper, Ralph McTell, Sandy Denny, Al Stewart, the Incredible String Band and Van Morrison, who all played there. From the States came Darryl Adams, “Spider” John Koerner, the tender lyricist Jackson C. Frank and a young Paul Simon. Even Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix showed up and jammed at Cousins.

Alexis Korner, Duffy Power and Long John Baldry played the blues and more traditional music was presented by skilled interpreters like Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, Annie Briggs, the Watersons, the Young Tradition and many more. Cousins became a melting pot where artists gathered to exchange and share skills, and play together.

When I came to London as a young singer songwriter my first experience of the club was an “all-nighter”, sitting on an old sofa listening to Darryl Adams and talking to Steve Adams, another young hopeful, soon to be famous as Cat Stevens.

All this flourished with the hard work and generosity of the Matheou family who nurtured and fed many young artists, often helping them out financially in return for washing up in the restaurant or peeling aubergines for moussaka. By 1967 Loukas renamed the restaurant the Dionysus, cooking Greek food, and the kitchen was moved upstairs while in the basement the club was redecorated and enlarged.

Les CousinsTowards the end of the 60s the music scene changed. With increasing fame and recognition singers started to open their own clubs and earn higher fees on the burgeoning college circuit. But at Cousins people were still flocking to hear Bridget St John, Steve Tilston, Dando Shaft, Nick Drake and John Martyn. John became a lifelong friend of Andy and one summer’s day bounded into the Frith Street flat saying, “I’ve written a song for you!” lt was “May You Never”, a beautiful work about friendship which expressed the warmth and brotherhood of the times.

The club closed in April 1972 and two years later, after an absence of forty years, Loukas and Margaret returned to Cyprus. Within a year the Turkish army invaded and they were forced to come back to Soho. Margaret was dying of cancer. In only 18 months Loukas lost his home, land and beloved wife. He died in Soho in 1995.

At its close “Les Cousins” had over 80,000 members worldwide. It had caught the breeze of a generation and left an indelible mark on the hearts, lives and music of that luminous era.

Diana Matheou

Reproduced with kind permission of Diana and The Soho Society.
Please note that the Les Cousins logo and the photograph of the Soho Grill in this article are copyright of the Matheou Family and are not to be reproduced without written permission. The photograph of John and Andy Matheou is copyright of Ray Stevenson.