Those old enough to remember legendary Dalston nightspot The Four Aces may need no introduction to Newton Dunbar, its charismatic owner.
Jamaican-born Dunbar opened the club in 1967, naming it after a brand of Jamaican cigarettes, and remained in situ for over 30 years.
Early on Dunbar booked Ben E. King, Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker to play at The Four Aces, establishing it as the place to hear pioneering soul, reggae and ska. Even when the club transformed into Labyrinth in 1988, with reggae making way for acid house, jungle and happy hardcore, Dunbar still had an office upstairs.
It’s no surprise then that 45 years since the club opened, music is still Newton Dunbar’s main occupation. Only now, no longer the boss watching from the back of the room, he has reinvented himself as a DJ.
Going by the name DJ Newton Ace, Dunbar plays old school reggae on Haggerston radio and has a weekly residency at Charlie Wright’s.
“When The Four Aces was taken away I was left in a void with nothing to do,” he says. “But I saw it coming and I prepared mentally. When it finally went, I decided to have a good rest and I looked around. Travel-wise I went back to Jamaica a few times and then I got back and it was reality time.”
The “void” was the result of the club being forced into a compulsory purchase order by Hackney Council in 1998. It was then boarded up and left to decay until being demolished to make way for luxury flats in 2007.
Dunbar took the original sign for The Four Aces, which was taken down “very ceremoniously”, and uses it as a prop for his DJ sets. In this way, he says, The Four Aces lives on as a concept.
“I decided to use the sign as a concept, and when people ask me what that means I say the New Four Aces is wherever I play. I take the concept of the original and I manifest it in what’s happening now.”
Dunbar came to London in 1956 with the idea of studying law. When that didn’t work out he got a job on the railway, then worked as an engineer before starting out as a club proprietor. As such, it’s no surprise that Dunbar says becoming a DJ was more the work of “providence” than any grand plan.
“A friend of mine asked me to DJ in the Eastern Curve Garden in 2007,” he recalls. “Over 300 people turned up. They liked the music and I could pick up the vibes so I was allowed to play on carte blanche. When we got to the final hour they all walked to the side where I was playing and applauded. I was blown away.”
Now in his 70s, Dunbar says his new occupation “keeps me from looking for the carpet slippers and for my brain to wither.” Clearly, though, there is more to it than just keeping active.
“Sometimes you realise that music is a very spiritual thing,” he says. “If you are fortunate enough to be able to dispense something that relates to spiritual aspects then that’s a very good fortune, and I’m lucky to be doing what I’m doing.”
Listen to Newton ‘Ace’ Dunbar on Haggerston Radio every Tuesday from 4–6pm