Nero & The Gladiators

Nero & the Gladiators were an instrumental band led by keyboardist Mike O'Neill for more than 3 decades.
They actually evolved out of another British band called The Cabin Boys who were touring in Italy, backing Tommy Steele's brother Colin Hicks.

Mike O'Neill hitch-hiked from Leigh, Lancashire, to London, where he was instantly hired-first by Clay Nicholls in late 1958, and then Vince Taylor in Summer 1959. He then lived in a madhouse flat at 39 Old Compton Street in Soho, London.

In September 1959, he was recruited by Colin Hicks as pianist of his backing group The Cabin Boys along with Dave 'Zom' Tick on guitar, Rod 'Boots' Slade on bass, and Jimmy Nicol, the original drummer.
They accompanied Hicks for 4 months work in Italy, where they had rave reviews about their rock'n'roll show through a Cameo in the Italian financed and directed documentary movie “Europa di Notte” (Europe By Night).
In the Alessandro Blasetti film, Colin Hicks and his group appeared singing "Giddy Up A Ding Dong", which had proved to be a big hit in Italy, resulting in a lucrative invitation to tour there.

In late 1959, Jimmy Nicol left to join Vince Eager and his Quiet Three (1). Laurie Joseph Jacobson aka "Laurie Jay" from a Tottenham-based band called The Nu-Notes replaced him.
At this time, The Cabin Boys always opened the show just before Colin.
Probably inspired by the surrounding scenery and the Italian "Peplum" movies, The Cabin Boys decided to change their name to Nero & the Gladiators, backstage at the "Teatro Olympia" in Milan. They then parted company with Colin Hicks who choose concentrate on Italy.

Upon their return to England in January 1960, O'Neill and 'Boots' Slade got a publishing deal-and spent the advance on an echo unit (Binson echo chamber), which gave the New band their “Italian sound” - as advertised on the posters when they were supporting Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. On the same bill was another Leigh lad Georgie Fame, who moved into Mike’s flat when he was in Italy. Georgie Fame introduced them to Colin Green who was then the lead guitarist with Billy Fury's backing musicians the 'Beat Boys'.

O'Neill originally recruited Green to play guitar on their debut single, “Entry Of The Gladiators”, a dramatic instrumental recorded at IBC studios. It was released on Decca only in March 1961, reaching #39 in the British 45 rpm single charts, and later became the Leigh Rugby club's official hymn.

At that time, their manager was Joe Roncoroni and they were on contract with the George Cooper Organisation which handled the bookings (2).
Shortly thereafter they’d abandonned their resplendent orange suits in favour of roman legion’s outfits - Helmets, breast plates, boots, swords, shields... - formerly used in the movie "Quo Vadis", with Mike O'Neill out front in toga and laurel-leaf crown like a roman emperor (remaining the craziest, who enjoyed circus games and The Gladiators: Nero?) (3).

The follow up, also released on Decca in June 1961, was a rock version of the Edvard Grieg's classic, "In The Hall Of The Mountain King", and featured the guitar work of Joe Moretti (4). Unfortunately BBC Banned it because it differed from the original, and it only reached #48 in the British charts... (5)

After recording their third offering "Czardas" (which missed the charts), Colin Green moved off in May 1961 to take care of what he presumably saw as a more secure future with the Beat Boys who would become the Blue Flames first backing Billy Fury then later Georgie Fame. The Gladiators then went through about 30 guitarists (7): e.g. Don Adams, Keith Charles, Buddy Monroe, Diz Disley, John Urquhart from Aberdeen, Tony Harvey from Vince Taylor’s Playboys to whom he returned after only a few months...

Laurie Jay (8), who was also drumming for The Echoes at the same time, left to front his own band The Laurie Jay Combo, and was replaced with Tommy Brown, previously with Chas McDevitt and Johnny Duncan & His Blue Grass Boys. Tommy Frost (later with The Echoes and Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames) depped when Brown broke ribs in a car crash.

Joe Moretti also spent for about six months on the road with the band (9-10) until the heavy winter of 1962 (11), after a short stint with Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames and before joining Jet Harris & Tony Meehan.
After a gig as supporting band to the Beatles at Liverpool Cavern Club (12) towards the end of September 1962, Boots Slade left to join the Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames too, who offered a more secure future as resident group in The Flamingo Club. Incidentally it was Mike O'Neill who recommended Georgie Fame to the Flamingo's manager, Rick Gunnell.

By the end of 1962, Moretti and Slade were replaced with 18-year-old Mick Jones from Surrey (13), and Jim Cannon.
They went to France with the Gladiators who were happy to accept an offer from Vince Taylor there, backing one of their pop stars, Dick Rivers. Unfortunately, Mick Jones succumbed to the charms of Dick’s girlfriend Marie-Claire and was fired...

Jones and Cannon were in turn replaced with Ralph Danks and Alan Bugby, who were both touring the Continent with Johnny Taylor & The Strangers. After seeing the Beatles at Paris Olympia (14), France, in early 1964, The Gladiators decided to call it a day.

Danks and Bugby teamed up with Bobby "Clarke" Woodman first backing Vince Taylor (Bobbie Clarke Noise) and then later French Mods, Ronnie Bird & Les Poppies. In early 1967, Alan Bugby went to Italy with the Lebanese singer Patrick Samson.

Tommy Brown stayed in France, and then reunited with Mick Jones not only playing but also composing for Sylvie Vartan and Johnny Halliday.
Mick Jones eventually returned to the UK and struck platinum with Foreigner in the 70's and 80's.

Colin Green later became musical director for Shirley Bassey.
"Boots" Slade became a member of The Alan Price Set in 1965. He died in May 2013 in Spain.
Joe Moretti passed away in 2012.

Following the demise of The Gladiators, Mike O'Neil returned to England and played in numerous bands, including The John Barry Seven; Tony Colton & The Crawdaddies; The Division Two first backing The Ivy League and then The Flowerpot Men (15); The Echoes backing Dusty Springfield; The Jimi Hendrix Band (16); The Poet & The One Man Band; Heads, Hands & Feet; 20th Century Crox ect. before reforming The Gladiators from 1991 to 2005. He eventually reunited with several musicians of the 60's in The "Pioneers Of Rock 'N' Roll" such as Big Jim Sullivan, Frank Farley, or Brian Gregg, keep on rocking...
Sadly Mike O'Neill died on 10 October 2013 of liver cancer.

· (1) Jimmy Nicol
brieftly replaced Ringo Starr when the Beatles toured Australia in 1964

· (2) Barry Edwards
"For our first gig at the Cali, I recall two stages one at each end of the large auditorium. Nero & his boys (Nero & the Gladiators) were at one end whilst we (Barry Edwards & the Semitones) were at the other. Lance Fortune starred. All three acts were on sole contract with the George Cooper Organisation at that time.
The amazing Colin Green was on lead guitar for Nero's Gladiators that first night with "Boots" Slade on bass guitar - he later moved over to Georgie Fame's Blue Flames (also with the George Cooper Org.)..."

· (3) Joe Moretti
"You had to get your band noticed in any way possible and Mike O'Neil told me that in the first instance he had somehow managed to acquire some Gladiator uniforms from Elstree studios after the filming of "Ben Hur" or "Quo Vadis" or some such epic. Helmets, breast plates, swords, shields..."

· (4) Joe Moretti
"I first met Mike O'Neil around 1960. At the 2 I's I believe. And He was on the tour I did with Gene Vincent around 1960. Colin Green was the Original guitarist with the Gladiators and you can hear his fine perfomance on "Czardas"..."

· (5) Joe Moretti
"Unfortunately " Hall of the Mountain King" met with the same fate as "Cadillac" - no air play. This was a composition by the Classical composer, Greig, and that was a no-no then. You just didn't get air play if your version differed from the original."

 · (6) The photo above was taken during the second Gene Vincent - Eddie Cochran Tour, in Spring 1960.
"The pink suits were provided by Bernard Bresslaw of "You Need Feet," fame. They were delivered to Brighton by special carrier, from London. They made it just in time for the first house, where the Glads. were backing him on the show. A very nice a cordial man... The Gladiators were booked to back Eddie and the Beat Boys were to back Gene. Unfortunately Eddie Cochran was killed and the Gladiators went on to back Jerry Keller and perform in their own featured spot." (Don Adams)

 · (7) Mike Larcombe
"I was also one of the '30' guitarists who played on tour with Nero & the Gladiators in 1961. I have a photo of the group playing a double with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates at a club opening in Stretham. I have lived in Cape Town for the past 45 years"

· (8) between jobs with The Gladiators, Laurie Jay joined the Shadows for a few weeks, touring Wales and Scandinavia, when Tony Meehan complained of stomach pains in early 1960.

· (9) Joe Moretti
"The band wagon was named Brutus and just getting into it was like entering a war zone. The guys never cleaned the wagon out, so the crap on the floor was about a foot deep.
After one gig in Brighton we managed to "accidentally" load about 30 metres of curtain material into the truck along with our equipment.
A lot of personnel changes followed and the group managed to record only one further single, 'Tovaritch' which no longer credited 'Nero' in the roll call."

· (10) Joe Moretti
"I cut one more record with Nero called " Bleak House " by Ken Jones, a very accomplished composer / arranger for Movies
The line up for the recording was : Mike O'Neil - Piano. "Boots" Slade - Bass. Tommy Brown - Drums , and myself on guitar. Boots also did the announcement over the introduction."

· (11) Joe Moretti
"One unforgettable time was during the Heavy winter of 1962, we had played at Manchester and we got stuck in the snow on the way home..."

· (12) Nero & The Gladiators also played there Lunchtime Sessions on Wednesday 29 August 1962

· (13) Mick Jones
"Nero was a guy called Mike O'Neill. He's still around, I think, playing piano. I haven't seen him for some time. I was approximately the 24th guitarist the band had had. While we were in France, we broke up."

· (14) In mid January 1964, the Beatles played Paris Olympia as supporting band to Sylvie Vartan whose lead guitarist was none other than Mick Jones.

· (15) Mike O'Neill, who was part of Southern Music studios house team, became a prolific session man and his organ can be heard on many tunes of that era: e.g. “Funny How Love Can Be” and “Tossing & Turning” by The Ivy League; "Let's Go To San Francisco" by The Flowerpot Men; Donovan's "Wear your love like heaven" ect.

· (16) In September 1966, as Mitch Mitchell and Kevin Lang recalled, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was originally planed to be a quartet including Mike O'Neill on organ:

Mitch Mitchell
"I went down to this little basement strip club in Soho and there was Jimi with a Fender Stratocaster upside-down with a kind of fake London Fog raincoat on, with his wild hair, and Noel Redding, who had been playing with Jimi I think for a couple of days, playing bass. I think there was a keyboard player from Nero and the Gladiators. That was the idea first off, to maybe have a keyboard player."

Kevin Lang
"... when I knew Mitch he was Jimi's drummer, previous to that they borrowed a guy from Nero and the Gladiators... he played when I auditioned with Hendrix for the bassist's job which I turned down..."

· Discography
45s (UK):· Entry Of The Gladiators / Boots Decca F11329 03/1961 #37
· In The Hall Of The Mountain King / The Trek To Rome Decca F11367 06/1961 #48
· Czardas / That's A Long Time Ago Decca F11413 12/1961
· Tovaritch / Bleak House HMV POP1134 03/1963

EP (France):
· Dick Rivers avec Les GLADIATORS Pathé EG 696 - France, 09/1963
Tu n'es plus là / Mon coeur, tu remets ça / J'en suis fou / Dans ma vallée

· Tram Pout : More / Wigwam / Jumpin / Tram France LKF 106 - France, Early 1964

Lineups of Nero & The Gladiators

Nero & The Gladiators #1 (January 1960 - May 1961)
  • Mike O'Neill (Lead Vocals/Keyboards) "Nero"
  • Colin Green (Lead Guitar)
  • Don Adams (Lead Guitar)
  • Keith Charles (Lead Guitar)
  • Mike Larcombe (Lead Guitar)
  • Joe Moretti (Lead Guitar)
  • Rod Slade (Bass/Vocals) "Boots"
  • Laurence Joseph Jacobson (Drums) "Laurie Jay"
  • Tommy Brown (Drums)

Nero & The Gladiators #2 (May 1961 - June 1962)
  • Mike O'Neill (Lead Vocals/Keyboards) "Nero"
  • Tony Harvey (Lead Guitar)
  • Diz Disley (Lead Guitar)
  • Buddy Monroe (Lead Guitar)
  • Rod Slade (Bass/Vocals) "Boots"
  • Tommy Brown (Drums)
  • Tommy Frost (Drums)

Nero & The Gladiators #3 (July - December 1962)
  • Mike O'Neill (Lead Vocals/Keyboards) "Nero"
  • John Urquhart (Lead Guitar)
  • Joe Moretti (Lead Guitar)
  • James Tomkins (Lead Guitar) "Big Jim Sullivan"
  • Rod Slade (Bass) "Boots"
  • Jim Cannon (Bass)
  • Tommy Brown (Drums)

Nero & The Gladiators #4 (January - August 1963)
  • Mike O'Neill (Lead Vocals/Keyboards) "Nero"
  • Mick Jones (Lead Guitar)
  • Jim Cannon (Bass)
  • Tommy Brown (Drums)

Nero & The Gladiators #5 (August 1963 - April 1964)
  • Mike O'Neill (Keyboards) "Nero"
  • Ralph Danks (Lead Guitar)
  • Alan Bugby (Bass)
  • Tommy Brown (Drums)

Nero & The Gladiators #6 (1991 - 1995)
  • Mike O'Neill (Lead Vocals/Keyboards) "Nero"
  • Colin Green (Lead Guitar)
  • Chris Gillies (Bass)
  • Richard Walsh (Drums)
  • Bobby Woodman (Drums) "Bobby Clarke"

Nero & The Gladiators #7 (1995 - 2005)
  • Mike O'Neill (Lead Vocals/Keyboards) "Nero"
  • Colin Green (Lead Guitar)
  • John Barber (Lead Guitar)
  • Ray Smith (Bass)
  • Bobby Woodman (Drums) "Bobby Clarke"
  • Dave Gibbson (Tenor Sax)

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  1. I have been researching 1961 release 'That's a long time ago', a favourite of a friend of mine.I did not realise there was a link with Georgie Fame and Jimmy Hendricks. Very comprehensive article if you can remember that far back

  2. Hi, I was also one of the '30' guitarists who played on tour with Nero & the Gladiators in 1961. I have a photo (from Disc)of the group playing a double with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates at a club opening in Stretham. I have lived in Cape Town for the past 45 years
    Mike Larcombe

    1. Hi, do you have a photo with Tommy Frost, my husband and Tommy were great friends but they lost touch and my husband talks fondly of Tommy and I would love to find out exactly where he is now or what happened to him.

    2. Hi Mazza
      Tommy play with The Echoes from May 1962 till August 1963. We had finished a summer season in Jersey everyone in the band returned to England to work, but Tommy wanted to stay a bit longer as he had brought a car and wanted to ship it back to England. However after about a month he hadn't come back. I flew over to see what was happening as we were using another drummer who couldn't play like Tommy which was sad as while he was in Jersey we auditioned for Dusty Springfield who wanted to use the band. We missed Tommy a lot but he never came back in time and so we had to rehearse with another drummer This was 1963. I have tried for years to contact him myself as I am in touch with all the other members of The Echoes. We had quite a lot of pictures taken which I still have. Would love to hear about him. You are welcome to copies of any pictures of him. Sorry it has taken so long to get back yo you.. Douggie Reece.

  3. Hi, As a veteran of the fabled 30, I have to say, thanks for the memories. Some of my old friends from those days are still in touch and share some of the great stories of the Parnes days. Others I would love to be remembered to. Time and distance makes it a little difficult though. So thanks guys. Best Regards to all. Don.

    1. Hi - is that 'the Don' I think it is - from the Rugby and Mr Rivers days etc?

    2. Hi, do you have any memories of Tommy Frost, my husband and Tommy were great friends but sadly lost touch with each other, my husband speaks fondly of Tommy and the days in Wimbledon. If you have any info on what happened to Tommy I would be so grateful.

    3. Hi Mazza
      I replied to an earlier post. Miss Tommy.. Douggie Reece

  4. I just wanted to see if the band is still around as I have played on the same bills with Mike and the band years ago. My band, Carl Fenn & the Mysteries (1961 - 1962) from Sutton Coldfield, went to London around spring '62 where 'Nero' was based. They were quite an inspiration to us from the Midlands outpost. After a session at 'The 2 i's' we added a keyboard player off the Gene Vincent tour (Ian Hines) and tenor player Ricky Barnes. We changed our name to 'The Krew Kats (with Jim Sullivan's blessing as he and Tony Meehan were setting up a recording studio together and their original Krewkats were disbanding. The Brians, Bennett and Locking, famously joined The Shadows at this time. Next stop for us was as The Top Ten Club, Hamburg house band. Later we went to Paris bumping into 'Boots' again. - Transitional world Rock'n'Roll! In Paris 1964 we recorded our version of a Nero & the Gladiators instrumental 'Bleak House'. A long term friend, Ralph Danks (guitar) was 'a Gladiator' at this time also in France until the band folded. The Gladiators took over our gig as backing band for France's Dick Rivers. Ralph now lives and works in Tokyo. I lost touch with all the others except Alan Bugby who sadly died a few years ago. He came from a Leicester band 'Johnny Taylor and the Strangers. ATB, Rob.

  5. Hi Robert,That would be me on the top right of the picture at the top of the page.Most of the peole you mentioned I know. I worked with Brian Locking and "Big Jim" and myself were Parnes musicians during the same period. I have toured the UK a number of times with a lot of great people and many celebs. You and I probably missed each other though as I returned to the US circa. late 61. I played Johnny's home town with Terry Dean and others.My best to you. Don.

  6. Tommy Frost also had a long stint with my band, Barry Edwards & the Semi-tones. This was a great backing trio with Jeff Beck (later Big Jim Sullivan) on lead guitar; Brian Gregg (Bass) Tommy Frost (Drums)and myself on vocals. We often appeared with Nero and the Gladiators. The great Karl Denver, at the height of his career, once told Tommy: "Tommy boy I don't need a drummer in my trio but if I did it would be you!"

    1. Hi, My husband was a great friend of Tommy Frost and they lost touch and he would love to know how Tommy got on and what happened to him. Do you have any idea.

  7. Hello, this is for Carl Fenn. Do you remember Charles Edward Henry Murcott and Dominic? FSE Wimpy's 1961 or so

    Be great to hear from you.

    D O'Donnell

  8. Just a quick note,to correct a slight mistake in your story of "Nero & The Gladiators" drummer Laurie Jay. His full real name was Laurence Joseph Jacobs.He was never known just as Laurie Joseph.
    I hope this helps
    Tom Casey
    a.k.a. Rockin' T.C.

  9. Just found out that a guy I went to college with,who was never off the piano in the assembly hall (1956) by the name of Michael O'Neil of Nero and the gladiators fame has just passed away with cancer.God bless 9th Nov 2013

    1. Went out with him for a while when he first came to London, before he went to Italy with Colin Hicks and the Cabin Boys, great keyboard player and lovely guy. RIP

    2. Hi, do you remember Tommy Frost, any info on Tommy would be gratefully received as my husband and Tommy were friends but lost touch, he would love to know what happened to Tommy.

  10. Sadly Rod 'Boots' Slade died last May in Spain.

    1. Just now I'm playing Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames (Rhythm and Blues at "The Flamingo") with Boots Slade on bass.
      Do you know which city was living in Spain when he died?

    2. Hi im boots slades grandson he died in murcia last may where he was very much loved by everyone and to this day still missed every second .

    3. Hi, your granddad was born in South London in 1943, is that correct? Can I aks when in 1943 and where in South London?

    4. Hi, do you have any photos or info as I am trying to find out what happened to Tommy Frost as my husband was a great friend of his and I would live to know what happened to him.

  11. Hi Everyone, not sure how this works but here goes.
    I am looking to find any information on Tommy Frost. My husband and Tommy were great friends but they lost touch and as my husband talks very fondly of Tommy I would love to find out where he is or what happened to him.
    I do hope someone can help.
    I notice the posts on here are many years old but I am hoping someone will read and get back to me.

    1. Me too. I have been trying for years to find any trace of Tommy. We played together in the Echoes.

  12. Jimi Page did lots of session work for Parnes as did Big Jim and many more
    I understood that Page did some session work for The Gladiators but I see the great Colin Green has been credited with their first instrumental released

  13. Mike O'Neil worked for me as a volunteer in a charity shop I ran before he died. We discovered our joint love of music whilst sorting through some records, when he discovered one of his own. Being young enough to be his granddaughter, I hadn't heard of Nero & the gladiators, so he set about educating me. He often used to tell me stories about his life, not only with the gladiators, but also Heads hands and feet. He showed me photo's of the bands and people he had met and gave me copies of his albums to keep. A lovely and interesting man, who I miss.

  14. Fascinating to read so much about Mike O'Neill. I'm currently co-writing a book on the history of The John Barry Seven, with whom he played during 1964, but sadly Mike passed away before I was able to make contact. He was the vocalist on their single, "Twenty-Four Hours Ago", released in late '64, but after he had left, probably to join The Ivy League's backing band.

  15. Anyone know what happened to Tommy Frost ? I was with him in the Echoes for two years in the early 60's. Have located the others in the group but can't find any trace of Tom.

  16. I would love to get in touch with Tommy Brown
    who was with Nero & the Gladiators as well as working with Mick Jones. I used to go to the same school as him in London and we were friends in the same class. Tried to leave a message on one of Nero & the Gladiators In The Hall Of The Mountain King Youtube track, but it was posted several years ago with a comment from his son Olivier. If you have any idea or can help please let me know. Thank you..🤗

    1. I'm so sorry to tell you. Tommy Brown passed away almost forty years ago.

  17. I would just like to say that I met John Urquhart in Selmer's Music Shop Charring Cross Road in 1964. We were looking for a lead guitarist and when we entered the shop, there was this guy in there who had just taken a guitar off of the wall and started playing. We approached him, explained our situation and asked him if he knew of any lead guitarists that were looking for work. He said that he was looking for work. We explained who we were and what we did (We were The Guild from Exeter Devon) and John agreed to join us. We took him home to Walthamstow where he packed a bag and joined us on the trip back to Devon. I hired a local village hall, we had one rehearsal with John and he was with us for the next two years. A superb guitarist, good friend and a very funny guy. If anybody knows of his whereabouts now, I would be grateful if they could let me know.
    Ken Strange - Lead Singer The Guild.