Words Cary Gee
Photography Etienne Gilfillan
“Everyone was welcome, and being famous made no difference. I knew Francis and was more than friends with Lucien!”
Eddi McPherson arrived in Soho with a plan. “It was 1959 and I was going to the ‘Big City’ to become a famous singer, and live happily ever after.” Like many before her, and countless others since, Eddi soon discovered that Soho contains enough crooked alleys to confound even the most determined visitor.
“I had no real picture of how or what it would be, just this blind optimism that it was all going to be wonderful.” This sounds almost touchingly naïve coming from McPherson, a woman who, to many in Soho, epitomises the very character of the London village she came to live in. “Challenging”, “open-minded” and “tolerant” are just some of the carefully chosen epithets friends use to describe her. I put it to her that less cautious acquaintances might describe her as “exigent”, “unyielding” and “refractory”. It’s safe to say that despite an uncommonly fierce loyalty to her friends, Eddi Mcpherson has no time for those she regards as fools.
Eddi was just 18 when she interrupted a promising career singing in the jazz clubs of Manchester for a new life in London. How did friends and family react to her departure? “I didn’t tell them!” Headstrong is another often-used sobriquet to describe the woman in front of me. Remarkably, Eddi had never even visited London before. “I loved a musician; he lived in London, so I just thought I’d come to London myself and make sure everything was alright. I knocked on his door. He was absolutely shocked to see me!” I ask who the musician was but Eddi either can’t remember, or is maintaining an unusual degree of discretion. “I was still a virgin! Not a promiscuous lady!” she laughs, reaching for a glass of Prosecco, the only drink you’ll ever see her in her hand. “I wandered into Soho and just skippered for a while. It’s what they used to call sofa-surfing. Or I’d sit up in cafes all night. In those days, Soho was still filled with prostitutes, pimps, artists. Proper Bohemian society. It felt very welcoming, very safe. I had no enemies. I mean for a young girl wandering about on her own… nowadays it would be horrifying.”
Despite her ambition to pursue a singing career Eddi had no gigs lined up in London. Instead she worked at coffee bars or cafés, often working all night and sleeping on other peoples’ floors during the day. “When you’re young you have all the energy in the world.” Is it a life she would recommend to a girl in her position today? “God, no!” Eddi downs her fizz and looks aghast. “But in those days, it felt safe. There was a group of prostitutes who worked Dean Street. They clubbed together to raise the fare for me to return home to Manchester. They were so worried about me.” In the end, Eddi defied expectations – as she has resolutely continued to do – and opted to pursue her dream in London.
She soon managed to save enough money from gigging as a jazz singer, often performing in the same coffee bars she waited in, to find a place of her own. “It’s all so long ago, it’s a bit of a blur. But I didn’t drink. I didn’t do drugs, and was so innocent I wouldn’t have known if the people around me were.” After a year spent in Jersey – not somewhere she has any desire to re-visit – Eddi returned to London, where she met her future husband and promptly lost her innocence. “He was a heroin addict. I had no idea.” How did she find out? “I walked in on him in the bathroom one day. He was injecting into his hand! I flushed his gear down the toilet and smashed his hypodermic. It was a crazy thing to do, but he did come off heroin.”
Despite the New Musical Express having already bestowed upon her an award for Best New Jazz Singer, Eddi was no longer performing by this time. She and her husband moved to Hastings, where her son Graham was born. If the name McPherson sounds familiar, it’s likely because Graham grew up to become Suggs – Madness singer, renaissance man, and one of the most recognisable faces in Soho. Realising that her marriage was “a joke” – by now her husband had replaced heroin with alcohol – Eddi beat a retreat to Soho, where, after a few false starts, she was offered the flat where she still lives. “I just couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” she says. I ask if she had any concerns about raising a child in Soho. “No. Not at all.” She dismisses my question with a slightly imperious wave of her arm. “Graham was always a very sensible kid, alert to the potential dangers of city life.” Perhaps wishing to save her son from disappointment, Eddi hoped he would become a graphic designer. “But there was always music in our house.”
At what point did she stop telling Suggs to get a proper job? “I think it really hit home that he was famous the first time he appeared on Top of the Pops. I watched it with a neighbour, clutching a cushion. Graham was wearing a little plastic trumpet as a brooch. It fell out and all I wanted to do was pick it up and stick it back on.” Eddi admits to a vicarious prestige from being the mother of a ‘national treasure’ but takes no credit: “His success is entirely down to him.” The bars and clubs in Soho where Eddi continued to work, including the legendary Kismet on Wardour Street and the Mandrake on Meard Street, no longer exist. “Each year the old faces of Soho become fewer. I really do feel like a survivor.” Indeed, Eddi is now considered something of a celebrity herself, not that she sees herself as one. “It’s something other people tell me.”
I ask what makes Soho Soho? Eddi quickly changes the tense of my question. “It was the diversity. Everyone was welcome, and being famous made no difference. I knew Francis [Bacon] and was more than friends with Lucien [Freud]!” How long did the affair last? “About a week! He was a terrible gambler and the worst driver I knew. We once crashed into the back of a police car. He told me to scarper, so I did. I’d walk into the Colony and Lucien would wave his hand and shout, ‘Give the lady a bottle of Champagne’.”
Eddi has witnessed is the evolution of Soho’s ‘gay village’. “In the old day, nobody cared if you were gay or straight. Why have gay pubs and straight pubs? We just need pubs!” She blames the need for separate venues on decades of homophobia, and it makes her furious. That’s not to say that she doesn’t still enjoy a night on the town. A perfect day might entail “watching what’s left of my world go by” while lunching with her son at Bar Italia or Prix Fixe, a bottle of fizz on an overstuffed sofa at Quo Vadis or a nightcap at Gerry’s, which (like Eddi herself) has somehow survived. It would seem that after more than half a century of whipping up a storm in Soho, this particular force of nature is not ready to blow over yet.