Johnny Edgecombe: Hustler and jazz promoter who played a key role in the Profumo scandal

Chris Salewicz
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:08

On the late morning of 14 December 1962, armed with a Luger pistol, John "Johnny Edge" Edgecombe fired six shots at the door-lock of 17 Wimpole Mews in central London.

The property, off Harley Street, was the home of Stephen Ward, the society osteopath and self-styled MI5 agent, who had become a pimp-like mentor to the soon-to-be-notorious Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. Sheltering inside the house, giggling until the bullets were fired, were the two girls.

Sleepless, rattling with purple hearts which exacerbated a jealous rage, Edgecombe had taken a cab to Wimpole Mews. When the police seized him – administering a sound beating – at his home, to which he had raced to dispose of a further clip of bullets, the arrest unleashed a court case leading to a seven-year prison sentence for Johnny Edge, but also to the unravelling of what became known as The Profumo Affair: John Profumo, Secretary of State for War in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's Conservative government, had ill-advisedly had an affair with the then 19-year-old Keeler, unwittingly sharing her with Yevgeni Ivanov, the senior naval attaché at the Soviet embassy. The resulting scandal helped secure the downfall of the Tory party at the 1964 election, ushering in the Labour government of Harold Wilson.

Although cursed from time to time with a furious temper, Edgecombe was largely an affable, personable man. He was born in St John's, the capital of Antigua; his father operated a schooner, shuttling gasoline, and often his son, around the Leeward islands. When the boy was 10 his father disappeared to the US. Taking employment as soon as he was old enough on a freighter to the UK, Johnny Edgecombe jumped ship, ending up in Cardiff's notorious Tiger Bay. This was where he first smoked hashish, which he would do for the rest of his life: in years to come, he occasionally would be employed as a "hash-taster", sent to Amsterdam by professional smugglers to test the quality of their purchases.

From Tiger Bay he stowed away on a boat bound for Galveston, Texas, to search for his missing father, a recurrent theme of his life. Discovered, he was sent back to the UK, serving a 28-day prison term for his illegal passage. Moving to London, he posed as an African prince, shoplifting expensive jewels, for which he was eventually sent to a Young Offenders Prison.

Back in London, Edgecombe pimped his girlfriend, and in Notting Hill's Colville Terrace used the proceeds to set up what he claimed was the UK's first "shebeen", an illegal, after-hours drinking-club frequented by black immigrants and outsider whites; as proprietor of his club, Johnny Edgecombe personified the era's collision of cultures between slumming pseudo-bohemians, serious gangsters, and the more criminal end of the first generation of West Indian immigrants. Much of the venue's cash came from the hash and grass he openly sold.

Meeting Christine Keeler, a patron of his shebeen, he fell in love with her, a love that would remain with him for the rest of his days. Similarly stricken was Aloysius "Lucky" Gordon, aJamaican jazz singer, who had already encountered Edgecombe in suchjazz haunts as Wardour Street's Flamingo Club: Edgecombe loved jazz – a close friend was Phil Seamen, the legendary drummer. Encountering Keeler one night in the Flamingo with Edgecombe, who pulled a switchblade, Gordon boxed him to the ground. But although it was an associate of Edgecombe who then slashed Gordon across the head with a knife, necessitating 17 stitches, it was the Antiguan who was charged with the wounding, for which he was acquitted.

When Keeler accused Gordon of having assaulted her, the Jamaican was sentenced to three years in prison. Finding himself in Wandsworth with Edgecombe, Gordon interceded to prevent Reggie Kray, a friend, from having his rival killed. When Keeler admitted the falsehood of her accusation against Gordon, he was released from prison; she was jailed for perjury. Gordon handed £1,000 to his solicitor to secure an appeal for Edgecombe, a legal process that failed. "He said bad things about me, but I felt sorry for him," Gordon said.

Released from prison, Edgecombe resumed life as a drug-dealer, using the profits to fund Edges, a jazz club in south-east London; there, he promoted the likes of such personal favourites as Dudu Pukwana, the South African saxophonist, and the pianist Django Bates. "It was a white working-class area, and Johnny had some run-ins with heavy white gangsters who didn't like him being there," his friend James Plummer said.

Although Edges closed, in the early 1990s Edgecombe promoted regular jazz-dance nights, a vibrant, multi-cultural scene, at London's Jazz Café;he also put on events involving thehash smuggler Howard Marks; in2002, he published his autobiography, Black Scandal.

"Johnny felt he'd been made a sacrificial lamb for the ruling classes," Plummer said. "He was very angry he'd essentially taken the rap for the Profumo scandal, when he'd played such a minor role."

In more mellow times, Johnny Edgecombe would wax philosophical. "My clothes may be of late, but my soul's up-to-date" was a favourite autobiographical tag-line.

John Arthur Alexander Edgecombe, club owner and jazz promoter: born St John's, Antigua 22 October 1932; married Vibeke Filtenborg (marriage dissolved; two daughters), one daughter from a subsequent relationship; died London 26 September 2010.

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