A Minstrel in Spain
Chapter Thirteen

Bert, Wally, Woody and Liza

It was my mother who told me that Bert Courtley had died. I was on a short trip from Berlin, and she showed me a cutting she’d kept from the Evening Standard.

I phoned Tommy McQuater at once, to find that the funeral was the next morning.

Here comes the weird bit. Normally, I’d travel as light as possible when I flew to Lon­don, only wearing what I stood up in, with a few changes of underwear. This time, for no reason that I’m aware of, I’d packed a dark suit, white shirt, dark blue tie, black socks and black shoes. I didn’t have my trumpet with me, so there was no ques­tion of my wearing these clothes on a gig, or anything.

I don’t think that I even knew I’d packed the stuff until I looked in the case to see what I could wear to the funeral. I got a hell of a shock then.

The funeral was to take place at Mitcham Cemetery. When I arrived there it looked as if all the trumpet players in London had turned up. Humph was there, Tommy, Stan Roderick, Kenny Baker, Bert, Duncan and Eddie, as well as my old pal from Coventry Pete Warner, Ronnie Ross, and dozens more.

Stan and I shared a hymn book. I couldn’t sing or even speak for tears. I could see that Stan was having trouble as well.

Kathy asked me to bring some of the guys back to her house after. I knew the way, of course, which many of them didn’t, so it was like a fu­neral parade all over again, with all the cars following me. No one seemed to think it strange that I’d turned up suddenly like that.

We managed to cheer Kathy up a bit. The only one we didn’t manage to cheer up was Ronnie Ross’s wife, who all but collapsed during the ceremony.

I don’t know what happened to Ken Wray, except that he died shortly after in Man­chester.

I saw Kathy every time I visited London, stayed with her a few times. I really enjoyed her company, and the three boys were great. She took me down to Wimbledon one night to see Bobby Breen, who was singing in some club with the tenor saxophonist Jack Duff. Bobby was overjoyed to see me again. After the date we drove him home, to Mitcham I believe it was. All the way there he never stopped talking, bubbling over with stories of his family, his plans for the future, and so on. He seemed to be in great shape.

When we dropped him off he asked us to wait for a moment, dashed into his house and emerged almost at once with a new LP he’d only just made with Jack, which he gave me. I heard later that Bobby had dropped dead on the very next day, from natural causes. For some reason I have never yet played that recording of his. I am still stunned by the awful suddenness of what happened.

But now, before this all happened, the Heath band was in Berlin. Our radio band was playing opposite. The only piece we had to play was an accompaniment to a trio of comics who were singing a number called The Hunter Blows His Horn. This was a very funny bit of busi­ness, with two or three straight men and one guy falling around all over the place.

I was supposed to play a bugle call after every chorus. The lead comic had previously asked me to cod it up a bit, so I cracked and farted around on it each time. This broke up the guys in the Heath band, sitting on the other side of the stu­dio.

After the show Ted said to me, gravely, ‘I have never heard you play so well.’

I visited a specialist in Berlin, right beside Tempelhof. He was the regular Pan-Am ear doctor, and I supposed that he knew what he was do­ing. Francy Boland and Åke both started go­ing to him, too. Francy was starting to have problems with both ears, and Åke was still suffering from a tremendous box on the ears his wife Jerry had once given him when she caught him with another woman.

The doctor used to pop my ears with a Pollitzer Bag, clearing out the Eu­sta­chian tubes. After a while it became a waste of time, and I went into hospital for a month for ozone injections.

I lay there, in Berlin’s West End hospital, with my Rolex pressed close against my ear, trying in vain to hear the tick. I got the injec­tions in my throat at ten o’clock every morning. They hurt like hell and paralysed my larynx. This was the cue for Pepi to start phoning me, exactly af­ter the injection.

I couldn’t say a word, and the nurse used to get the phone and tell Pepi not to be so stu­pid, but still she phoned, regular as clockwork.

Åke came to see me. I must have looked pretty bad, laying there with tubes in my arm, and my neck all bandaged up.

My room overlooked a cemetery. Underneath my window was a freshly dug open grave. The hole was surrounded by red lights to prevent people from falling in. Only Germans could think of things like that.

Åke was delighted. ‘Hey! They’ve made it easy for you. They only need to drop you out the window, and you’re in it.’ I learned from him that the band was managing without me, and that Carmel Jones had joined the trumpet section. Carmel was the trumpet player who had caused such a sensation in the Gerald Wilson band back in the fifties.

The doctor came by and told me that my health insurance was no good. It barely covered the cost of my meals and the room. His fee was adding up to be so large that he had decided not to charge me anything at all.

‘Treat it as an experiment’, he said.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After I insisted, he accepted a thousand marks for his trouble. I believe that he saved my hearing, because twenty-five years later my audiogram hasn’t changed very much for the worse. I’m still deaf, but not as deaf as I might have been.

The new film My Fair Lady came to Berlin. I went to see the premier in the Theater des Westens. As soon as the film started it was obvious that the Ger­man distributor had really gone to town on this one. Normally, all foreign films shown in Germany have a German dialogue superimposed. This guy had gone one further and had synchronised all of the songs in German as well.

This meant that instead of, for instance, hearing the voice of Rex Harrison singing The Rain in Spain we were treated to the performance of some hick Ger­man, singing a badly trans­lated inane German text about Der Regen in Spanien, out of tune, and in the jolly bouncing way German singers have of being almost half a beat ahead of the music.

It wasn’t long before the whole audience was standing up screaming in protest. The film was stopped, and the manager came out to say that it wasn’t his fault, but they didn’t have the equipment to switch over to the original soundtrack, which was still on the film somewhere.

I didn’t see the film again, but I heard that it went on to be shown later with all the songs in their original form.

Now Wally Heider was in Berlin again. Last time he’d visited he had banged a hole in the lid of the boot of my car. He had come over with the Bee-Gees to record their concert in the Philharmonie, bringing three Ampex 24 track tape ma­chines with him. We had fetched one from Tempelhof, put it in the boot, and he had smashed the lid down on one sharp corner.

I left the hole there. I was proud to point out who had made it. By now Wally had the biggest recording company in Los Angeles, and was re­sponsible, among oth­ers, for all the Buddy Rich and Woody Herman record­ings now being made.

He hadn’t changed since Glasgow. Always in a hurry, he could hardly sit still long enough to get served in a restaurant. He had an authorisation from the State De­partment which allowed him access to all AFN archives. He intended pulling out all the wartime V-Discs he could lay hands on of the great bands. Most of the discs had been made from live broadcasts during the war.

I went with him. It was spooky down in the basement in Clay Allee, where the discs had been stored. Seeing thousands of those wonder­ful, huge, floppy records which had brought me so much pleasure as a boy on programmes such as Midnight in Munich, and Lunchin’ in Munchen brought shivers up and down my spine.

Wally didn’t have time for nostalgia. He went through the V-Discs like a cy­clone, whipping them out, playing a few bars and saving or dis­carding. In this way he went through the lot in six or seven hours. I kept him supplied with coffee and ham­burgers from the AFN canteen upstairs.

The V-Discs were nearly all badly worn, but Wally enhanced them electron­i­cally, and gave me about twenty LP’s he’d made of them for his friends when he came the next time. The performing rights restrictions wouldn’t allow him to sell the records, because he didn’t have the com­plete line-up on each recording, neces­sary for the pay­ment of musician royalties. The collec­tion I now have is an amazing bit of big band history.

Wally was by now very fat, had heart problems, and walked with dif­ficulty. This didn’t prevent him from his next, most rewarding coup.

During the war years we cinema-goers had, on rare occasions, been able to see jazz clips, which were usually sandwiched between the main and secondary films. These were shots of big bands like Ellington, Dorsey or Herman, or groups like Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway. Mostly there would be dancers in the clips, because the film-makers couldn’t compre­hend that anyone would want to just stare at the musi­cians. This had al­ways infuriated me.

Wally had discovered an archive of these clips at MGM and had started a na­tion-wide poll to discover just how many people would be in­terested in seeing these films again. He asked every disc jockey in the USA to advertise the project, offering to pay one dollar for each name they could give him. People began writing in by the thou­sand. Soon, Wally had paid out one mil­lion dollars to the jockeys, and had a list of names as thick as a telephone book.

Before he had even had time to start negotiating with MGM he’d re­ceived of­fers of over a million dollars from several record compa­nies, just for the list.

MGM agreed to release the clips, but stipulated that Wally would have to take everything, and sort the stuff out himself. This meant that he came into pos­session of things like the Our Gang short films and a lot of other stuff, a lot of it utter rubbish, but, once again, of histori­cal value.

Wally began to fit all this on to video tape, to be sold commer­cially. When he died around 1989 he was a multi-millionaire. He’d come a long way from being an un­successful lawyer in Portland, Oregon.

Johnny Keating turned up to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I was so overjoyed to see him again that I drank a whole bottle of 5-Star brandy all alone while we talked. I never noticed that he wasn’t drinking. I subse­quently remember very little of our conversation. Seeing him at that moment did won­ders for my constitution, because I was begin­ning to get depressed at being so far away from all my old colleagues.

Joe Temperley was with the Herman band on the next jazz festi­val. It was wonderful seeing him again after nearly fifteen years. He’d had trouble getting into the New York scene when he first arrived there, so his wife May, whom I knew well, took a job in an estate agent’s office.

May displayed a hidden talent for selling property, and in no time at all she was running the place. Apparently, as a musician in New York, if you weren’t pals with Al Cohn you didn’t work; in Los Angeles it was a similar set-up with Shelley Mann. Wally Heider had just managed to close Shelley’s Manhole the last time I saw him, be­cause the noise of the club was pene­trating through the steel girders of the building right up to his recording studio.

I took Joe and the drummer Jake Hanna for a few drinks after the concert, and they asked to see the Brandenburg Gate. Joe was very happy by this time, and hung out of the car window shouting ‘How are you, Kraut?’ at every German he saw.

It was midnight by the time we reached the Gate, and the place was de­serted. A West German border guard toting a machine-gun appeared from nowhere and told me that one of the rear lights on my car had gone out.

I said that I would see to it at once. He said that I’d have to leave the car there, as it was illegal to drive it without two rear lights.

I opened my mouth to protest. At that moment Joe got out of the car, stag­gered over and said, to the guard, ‘How are you, Kraut?’

I was petrified. The guard’s eyes narrowed and he fingered his ma­chine-gun nervously. .

‘Was hat er gesagt? Kraut?’

‘He—er—asked you if you had any – ah – cabbage on you. He’s fallen in love with the way you Germans cook it. They don’t make it back in America like they do here.’

There was a moment’s silence, during which you could hear the East Ger­man guards talking on the other side of the wall, deciding whether to shoot at us or not.

‘Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,’ I said.

‘Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,’ said Jake and Joe, together.

‘Amerikaner, wa?’

I told him that Jake and Joe were in the Woody Herman band, and that I was just giving them a peek at the famous Berlin Wall before they went back to the Big Apple, and told everyone how marvellous the German policemen were.

His interest pricked up at that, Herman being a good old German name. It turned out that he played flute in the border guards’ army band. He began talking to Joe, through me, about the instrument, which was a shame, because as far as I know, Joe has no idea of how to play the flute. But he plunged right into it, and, for one moment, I thought that he was about to demonstrate the Böhm system fingering on the guy’s machine-gun. A lot of highly skillful gamesmanship foloowed, with the result that we were allowed to proceed, with his good wishes ringing in our ears, and never mind the rear light.

Next morning the whole of the Herman band got stranded at Tempelhof. No one had realised that you need a passport to get in and out of West Berlin, and all the passports were in the luggage, which had al­ready been loaded on the plane.

The passport control officer was adamant—no one left without him first see­ing all the documents. The plane was delayed already, and the loading officer re­fused to get all the baggage out again.

Rolf Schulter-Bahrenberg, who had organised the festival, was run­ning up and down the airport as if a rat had got caught in his knickers.

I asked the passport officer if he would be so kind as to allow me to call the airport manager on his telephone. He grudgingly gave permis­sion, muttering that it wouldn’t change anything.

His eyes popped a bit when I started talking to the manager in English, call­ing him by his first name. Only a week or so earlier I had done a comprehensive survey of the airport, and the way it was run, for the Deutsche Welle, spending several hours in his company to do so. During the discussion I had taken the oppor­tunity to point out a schoolboy howler that was causing great mirth to many of the several million pas­sen­gers who used the airport.

The big arrival and departure hall in Tempelhof had two long mov­ing bag­gage transport belts. Above each was a large sign with letters a foot high, reading: LIFE ANIMALS MUST BE CARRIED.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ he asked. ‘The animals are life.’ I pointed out the mistake. ‘But that would be live, pronounced like sieve,’ he protested. We agreed that anything liable to cheer up so many people had best be left as it was, and parted the best of friends.

Now he could do me a favour. He was a big jazz fan anyway, and had ac­tually been to the concert the previous night. He came down at once. I introduced him to Woody, and some of the other cats. Normally an unflappable man, he was highly impressed at coming face to face with one of his jazz idols. The passport officer disappeared into the background. Within min­utes the whole band had passed through the gates.

Joe gave me a hug. ‘I see you’re still Mr. Fixit,’ he said.

‘Music hath charms,’ I said, smugly

My interview with the manager coincided with another which had taken place on the other side of the airfield, this time with the colonel in charge of the American Air Base. All these years later I am unable to recall his name, but he had become famous during the Berlin Airlift as the Chocolate Pilot.

Templehof is right in the middle of a sea of houses, and planes, when landing, literally skim the rooftops. Noticing the dozens of waving children gathered on the perimeter, right under the flight path, the colonel had hit upon the idea of attaching tiny parachutes to Hershey Bars and dropping them on the kids just before landing. The idea caught on quickly. Back in Cologne girls in the service were coerced into making the little parachutes—soon all the pilots on the Airlift were dropping the candy bars, now on to the hundreds of ecstatic children clustered below.

The SFB radio band did gigs out of town sometimes. To get anywhere out of Berlin by road we had to pass through East Germany.

At the Drewitz control point the bus would be boarded by a couple of East German guards who shouted, ‘Ausländer ‘raus!’ (Foreigners out. )

Some of the Americans in the band used to fill their pants when that hap­pened, thinking they were about to be shot or kidnapped. I was an old hand, due to my regular visits to Pepi’s mother.

Coming back from a gig in the winter once, we hit the border at two in the morning. There had been an important football match between West Germany and Russia that evening, and we still didn’t know the result.

The guards, dressed in long greatcoats, with Russian style fur hats, came, un­smiling as usual, up inside the bus, staring everyone in the face, comparing the faces with the passport photos. As they never spoke, it was impossible to tell what national­ity they were.

When they reached me I said, ‘Who won the match, then?’

One of the guards stared at me for a moment, then he said, in German, ‘We did.’

‘Who do you mean by we?’

There was another pause. Then he grinned, happily.

‘Deutschland, natürlich.’

Everyone clapped, that broke the ice, and we received a blow by blow report on the match.

It was the report I made on this incident that landed me the job with the Deutsche Welle.

I was sent to do an interview with the High Chief Justice of Ghana. I took the tape recorder, not too eagerly, up to his room in the Hotel Kempinski. Apart from discovering that he was known as the Hanging Judge, I knew nothing about him, except that he was interested in football.

Our subsequent conversation took up two reels of tape, and mostly consisted of my giving him a run-down on the German team, run by Beckenbauer, and a de­tailed discussion of some of the great classic goals by Gerd Müller.

When he heard the tape, Meier was apoplectic.

‘We can’t use that!’ he shouted, flinging the tape across the room.

‘Not now, we can’t,’ I agreed. ‘Would you have preferred that I talked to him about his hangings? Blood sports with humans? Cannibalism?’

The most enjoyable interview I did was with Liza Minelli. The film Cabaret was being partly shot in Berlin, and I ran her to earth in the lovely gar­dens of the Charlottenburger Castle.

There’s always a certain amount of tension between celebrities and reporters, due to the ever-present risk of them being misquoted. I broke the ice by saying that I had known her mother, and had made many record­ings with her in London.

Judy Garland had been married to a man named Sid Luft at the time, and they had come into the studio, in absolute secrecy, to avoid sightseers, surrounded by his gangster bodyguard. Liza had been there with her mother. She’d been about five years old at the time.

After that it was different. Musicians are OK. We’re in the same business.

Liza told me about her life, and her ambitions. She didn’t want any quotes about her mother. Maybe she was tired of it always being stressed that she is Judy’s daughter.

We talked about music, and musicians. She couldn’t have been more friendly. I completely forgot to ask her about the film.

The day drew on. We talked between takes. It grew too dark to film any more. Her co-star, Joel Grey came over, and said that they wanted to go and take a look at the Reichstag building, which was actually a ruin, down by the Brandenburg Gate. I would have loved to have taken them, but had to get my interview ready for transmis­sion. I told them to make sure both rear lights on the hire car were work­ing, and left them mystified.

In the end, the interview was all about Judy anyway.


Chapter Fourteen >>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved