In May of 1945 Cyril found a summer job for us in Clacton-on-Sea. This was to be my first out of town engagement. My friend Bunny Roberts also took the gig. He was a very good local drummer, and we’d been pals ever since I left school. The three of us drove down to the coast in Cyril’s car. We had to pass through London, and arrived there at midnight just after the V-Day celebrations, driving through street after street covered in debris from the festivities.
In Clacton we were to play on the pier with the Teddy Dobbs band. Several things bugged me almost at once. The music was terrible. Then we had to sit on upended tree-trunks, to match the jungle-like ballroom decor. This was most uncomfortable for me as I needed the resistance of a backrest to play properly, at least I did then. The only way I could get one was by shoving my tree-trunk back until I leaned against the piano. The pianist, name of Nat Derfield, Bless him, was a man who believed in playing every note on the instrument with maximum force, so that he shook the piano, and me, violently whenever we played.
The only good thing that happened there was the fact that the Squadronaires dance band was playing in the nearby Butlin’s Holiday Camp. This was the great wartime band, led by the singer Jimmy Miller, with Tommy McQuater, Jimmy Watson, Archie Craig, trumpets; George Chisholm, Eric Breeze, trombones; Tommy Bradbury, Monty Levy, Jimmy Durant, Andy McDevitt, Cliff Townshend, saxes; Jock Cummings, drums; Arthur Maden, bass; and Ronnie Aldrich, piano. A fierce, wonderful band.
The style was what one might call Big Band Dixieland— everything the Squads played was a foot-stomper. Unusual for those days was the use of the soprano saxophone, some of the arrangements featured no less than three. The unison trombone passages of George Chisholm and Eric Breeze were unique show-stoppers. Jimmy Watson had joined just after the war, taking the place of trumpeter Clinton “Froggy” F. ffrench, and he had added even more fire to the band.
Even though I could go along and listen to the Squads during some of the afternoons we had free, to save my sanity, I couldn’t stand the Dobbs band and I quit after a few weeks. Of course this was a deadly blow to Teddy, because he would never find another player in the middle of the season, but I left anyway. I’d have gone crazy if I’d stayed.
I went back to Coventry and carried on with Jack Owens, who was getting a lot of work around the Midlands, now that Neale’s Ballroom was gone.
The most important local dancehall was now the Arden Ballroom in Bedworth, where the stage was very low down. Because of this I usually managed to get right up close to the bands when they came, and so found myself, one evening, standing right beside the music desk of Johnny Grey, who was playing tenor sax in the Ted Heath band at the time.
Noticing that I was watching his music like a hawk Johnny suddenly stopped playing and banged his finger down on his part to show me exactly where he was. This was my very first brush with royalty, and I never forgot that moment, particularly as Johnny had pointed to the wrong bar. Johnny was enormous, like a giant, and had a huge handlebar moustache. He was a dedicated drinker, one of the best, so much so that, when he later ran his own band, he was once heard shouting aggressively at a new member, ‘Here! Why weren’t you in the pub in the interval?’
When Cyril returned after the summer season he and I began practising together. We used a book of solos by Dizzy Gillespie and started to play them in unison. These were Dizzy’s ad lib solos which had been transcribed from some of the records he had made with Charlie Parker, and some with his own big band. They were, frankly, terrifying. After a while we both got pretty good at playing them.
When I told Dizzy about that in later years he said, ‘I can’t play that stuff. Man, I can’t even read it.’
Cyril’s wife used to come in and moan at us for dropping spit all over the carpet. Before we started she would completely cover the floor with newspapers. Later on in life, every time I was called upon to play one of Dizzy’s solos, I would imagine standing once more in that sea of newspaper. They were marvellous people, the very best.
So, there was I, sitting on top of the world. The Owens band found a job in another ballroom, I had a wonderful girl-friend—what more could a man want from life?
I found out just before my eighteenth birthday. There was a knock on the door and a man wanted to know why I hadn’t registered for National Service.
‘I’m Canadian,’ I said.
‘I don’t care if you’re a bleedin’ Zulu,’ he sneered. ‘Main thing is—you’re British. Sign here.’
I had the choice of becoming a Bevin Boy, down in the coal mines, or joining one of the armed services.
I was dead keen on sticking around town and keeping up with my gigs, so I decided to sign on at the Keresley Colliery, nearby. On the way I stopped off at Lew Stacy’s house. Lew had played alto saxophone in the very first gig band I ever worked with, and he’d taken the trouble to write me out very many jazz choruses, explain what all the chord symbols meant and encourage me in all manner of ways. He already worked in the mines, and I reckoned he could give me a few tips on what to do.
When I got to his house all the curtains were drawn. His wife was just letting the doctor out of the door.
‘What the hell’s happened?’ I said in alarm. ‘‘Lew’s been gassed,’ she said. She looked tired and deeply concerned.
She took me up to see him. Even in the dim light of the drawn curtains I could see that he looked terrible. His face was a sickly yellowish-grey colour, as if someone had freshly painted it with a mixture of coal-dust and distemper. There was a fearful smell in the room. He was coughing his guts up when I came in.
‘Christ, Lew,’ I said, ‘I’m just on my way to the pit to sign on.’
He waved his hand feebly at me. ‘Go in the army—go anywhere. For Christ’s Sake keep away from that place.’
I signed on as a clerk in the Royal Air Force. It seemed to me to be the one service job where you didn’t have to travel, get wet, muddy, or shot down.
The war was over by then, anyway. My job for the next three years was going to be to prepare some of the poor devils who’d been in the thick of things for civilian life.
I was called up just before Christmas of 1946. My memories of the first couple of months are rather hazy, because nothing productive was going on. I was fitted out with various bits of uniform and equipment up in a dreary place called Padgate, in Lancashire, the most important pieces being the china mug and irons, i.e., knife, fork and spoon; the implication being that if I ever lost them I would starve to death.
For the first week, shivering with the cold, clutching whatever equipment with which we had just been issued, a couple of hundred of us were grouped together and told, by anyone who felt like it, to stand over on one side of a hangar for a while, only to be told by somebody else, later on, to stand over on the other. This went on for the whole week. No reasons were ever given for any of these senseless commands.
We were known as Erks, and were less than the dirt. We were afraid of everybody, and did exactly what we were told at all times. Sergeants arrived to sell us their watches. We bought them. Aircraftmen 2nd Class screamed at us to put our hats on straight. Drill Corporals told us that we were an absolute shower, what were we? An absolute shower, Corporal Sir. Right, and don’t you forget it.
Now and then an airman would turn up and warn us not to drink the water because they’d put something in it to stop us getting randy. As I couldn’t imagine getting randy while standing in a freezing hangar in Northern Lancashire I drank the water, which smelled of chlorine.
I was moved to Innsworth, in Gloucester, for my initial training.
I managed to survive my three years in the air force solely on a diet of NAAFI cake, known as Yellow Peril, and NAAFI beer, known as Cat’s Piss. The canteen food was disgusting by any standards. You lined up to get it, took a plate and edged up in a queue until you stood in front of a greasy scowling cook, with black greasy hair, wearing a greasy apron and a pair of hands that looked as if he’d just done an oil change on a Churchill tank.
He would scoop up a dollop of horrid looking gunk with a long iron spoon and wham it down with all his strength on the plate. Sometimes the plate would break cleanly in the middle, leaving you only holding an inch or two. The rest would fall into the stinking morass below. Those were the times I used to consider myself lucky.
During this initial training period, known as square-bashing, we had to march to the canteen whether we wanted to eat or not.
On church parade every morning the order would be given for Jews and Roman Catholics to fall out. They would form a line on the edge of the parade ground, looking down at the ground, as if being punished for not being Church of England. A short prayer would then be given to our God, to which they were, presumably, not supposed to listen. There were no provisions for them to contact their own God, who apparently wasn’t given to hovering above parade grounds of the Royal Air Force.
I kept quiet about being a musician. Some hulking NCO would say, ‘Any musicians here? Yes? Well come and shift this piano, har, har, har.’ Under the circumstances I didn’t want to belong to any minority group.
On the other hand, in the German army after the war it was a definite advantage to be a musician. They were the only ones who had it good. The ones I met later on in Munich told me that every musician to be found was pressed into service, playing in the American camps. For this they received no money, but were allowed to take as much food as they could carry back home for the family. It was great food, they were able to trade some of it for other things, and lived a life of comparative luxury—while we, back home in Britain, were still on meagre rations, and had only miserable places like the British Restaurant if we wanted to dine out.
The Flight-Sergeant and Corporal responsible for turning us into marching men were, needless to say, assholes of the highest order. Flight-Sergeant Smith had been an air gunner on a Wellington bomber, so I suppose that he was brave enough. That didn’t prevent him and his crony from treating us like dirt. His main object in life was to make our stay there as unpleasant as possible, and, in that, he succeeded admirably.
I was never able to understand why my task as an office clerk in the Royal Air Force should require an initial training of six weeks of marching up and down in the snow carrying a rifle manufactured during World War One, which was scrupulously clean, but had no firing pin. The idea was to make us obedient to the point where we would obey all commands, however outrageous, without question. All the orders I received in the air force were either bullying or stupid.
Flight-Sergeant Smith was very fond of the once-popular pastime of Straight Line Marching. In this idiotic game a team of men was supposed to march from A to B in a dead straight line, overcoming, instead of negotiating, all obstacles. This involved climbing walls, wading through swamps, marching through houses and gardens, and, no doubt, over cliffs, if there were any handy. Smith would set us off through a field or woods, and then double round the back roads on his bike to the place on the map where we were supposed to emerge. One of the routes, obviously his favourite one, took us over farmland and through outbuildings, so that we always ended up covered in a heady mixture of cow, pig, and chicken shit. Once back in camp there’d be an hour of PT, which we performed still stinking to high heaven.
The intricacies of the Sten Gun were explained to us—there were none—the thing looked as if it had been welded together by an idiot. At the firing range we were allowed to fire off one rifle round each, and spray a few shots from the Sten into some sandbags. Flight-Sergeant Smith was careful not to be present on this occasion, as someone would have wasted him for sure. The NCO in charge ran up and down behind the line of loaded rifles screaming at us not to turn round, and not to point the bleedin’ things at him. Someone missed the targets completely that day; the bullet shattered a kitchen window a few hundred yards distant, causing the woman in there to drop a kettle of boiling water on her foot.
Some of the nastier Geordies in our billet made up their minds to ambush the Flight-Sergeant and do him some grievous bodily harm, but he wisely kept his door locked at night, and was always careful to be surrounded by his mates during leisure periods. There were too many RAF police around in camp, so it was decided to set about him during one of the route marches. We must have had a spy amongst us, because on that very day, Flight-Sergeant Smith fell ill with a mysterious virus, and his place was taken by a very kind old Sergeant, who marched us up into Gloucester and let us spend the afternoon in the cinema watching The Wizard of Oz. I didn’t see Smith again for another six months, under greatly altered circumstances.
I managed to phase out most of the bad things that happened there by running through all the Woody Herman and Artie Shaw records I could remember in my mind as I stomped about that parade ground in the freezing mid-winter, being barked and snapped at by that couple of morons.
I was put on guard duty one night, at a gate situated on the camp perimeter, in the middle of nowhere. This was the gate through which dodgers without a pass were wont to sneak back into camp, and I was supposed to challenge them, and, if necessary, book them. I carried my unloaded rifle, of course, but had no means of calling out the guard, which was situated on the other side of the camp, neither did I have any materials with which to take names and service numbers. I also bore no mark of authority, not even an armband, or whatever sentries are supposed to wear.
At midnight it began to rain freezing rain. Simultaneously figures started popping up, slipping through a hole in the fence only yards away, and disappearing into the darkness of the camp. I stood there stolidly, looking straight ahead, like a good soldier, until I was relieved several hours later.
The sergeant of the guard was a kind man, not suited to the job in hand at all.
‘My Goodness!’ he declared. ‘You’re soaking wet. Why didn’t you come back inside?’ I told him that I could not have properly served my country from the warmth of the guardroom. He insisted that I walk back with him.
‘No one comes through that gate. You know that as well as I do. They all hop through the hole along there. Right? Just play along with the system, laddy. Next time don’t get wet.’
At home I’d got into a habit of listening to AFN’s Midnight in Munich, which played all the records we couldn’t get hold of in England, including the new and exciting bands Stan Kenton, Boyd Raeburn and all the V-Discs of bands like Tommy Dorsey and Sam Donaghue. Here we had lights out before midnight, and no radio anyway. I couldn’t imagine it being any worse in prison.
As we lay there in the dark I was forced to listen in to the highly intelligent conversation of my colleagues in the Nissen Hut, most of whom seemed to come from Carlisle.
The favourite pastimes after lights out were seeing who could belch or fart the loudest, and being disgustingly, drunkenly sick all over the rifles, which were racked up at one end of the hut. The bunch of people I was shoved in amongst must have been the most evilly depraved lot in the whole air force. Luckily I was only there for six weeks, and then I got posted down to a place called Wythall, near Birmingham.
I was delighted. Birmingham was a half-hour on the train from my home. I was in business again.
Wythall was officially an RAF school of administrative training. That is to say—they taught clerks there. As I was to be a Clerk, General Duties, one step above the lowest form of life, I might add, I assumed that I was there for that purpose. When I turned up at the school for roll-call they couldn’t find my name anywhere on the list. I had visions of being able to sneak home, totally forgotten.
A bass player I knew had done just that. He had been on a train that had been badly bombed during the night. He had extricated himself from the wreckage, gone home, and hidden. He had subsequently been reported as dead, his wife had received the King’s telegram, and a widow’s pension. He had grown a moustache and carried on living quite openly as a civilian. I really don’t know how he got away with it. As we weren’t allowed to address him by name in public we knew him only as “G”.
Someone suggested that I report to the HQ office. There I was greeted with open arms, believe it or not, by yet another Welshman.
I was joyfully told by this gentleman, whose name was Corporal Geoffrey Paddison, that not only did I not need to attend the clerks’ course in the school, but that I was to begin my career with a promotion, and was now an Aircraftman 1st Class, which was actually one foot out of the swamp sooner than I had expected. Nobody knew why.
Geoff was a really great guy, and he was more or less in charge of the Orderly Room. After he was demobbed he changed his name to David Hughes, and became a singer, one of the most popular the country has ever known.
He put me into a small office with a WAAF called Joan Duncan and told her to teach me the trade.
It was clear from the start that she resented my intrusion into her own little private world intensely. She was the kind of person who hated anyone getting near her when she was working. To have someone touch her precious typewriter, or interfere with her secret documents was too much for her. Apart from that, in my new, rough, badly creased uniform I was coarse, vulgar, and scruffy.
In her neat uniform she was a joy to behold, and she had the most glorious bosom I’ve ever clapped eyes on. Whoever had designed the WAAF uniform had not taken the fact into consideration that women will have bosoms, whatever anyone would like to think to the contrary, with the gratifying result that they always seemed to be bursting joyfully out of the tightly buttoned tunics.
I wasn’t wanted in that office, and the fact was made crystal clear to me from day one.
Just before joining the RAF I had started working in Les Pearce's band in Hinckley, near Coventry. They kept the job open for me, so that I was now able to play with the band again any night of the week they wished. The only stipulation I made was that they somehow got me back to the camp on time every morning.
The bandleader, who owned a successful building company, solved that little problem by having his chauffeur pick me up at my house at seven o’clock in the mornings, and drive me the thirty miles or so to the camp.
The car was a long, black Humber Super-Snipe, the sort of car normally reserved for Air Vice Marshalls and royalty. I sat in the back like a king. When we turned up at the camp gates each morning, the chauffeur, in full livery, peaked cap and all, would stop right in front of the guard-room, open my door and give me a fantastic salute, right under the noses of the MP’s. This, of course, impressed everybody no end.
He did this one morning just as Joan was walking past on her way to the office. I gave my chauffeur a cool nod and strolled off, ignoring her.
Something else had happened that morning as well, but I only found out about it later. When I got into the office Joan was all over me like a frisky puppy. She became so friendly all at once that it became embarrassing.
Of course I loved all the lavish attention, but I had to go into the Orderly Room before I found out what the hell was going on.
Geoff waved a file at me. ‘Your papers have just come in,’ he said. He shook them at me playfully.
‘You know, you’re a very naughty boy,’ he said. ‘You didn’t tell us about your IQ.’
‘What’s so special about it?’
Whatever my IQ was, I forget now, but Joan the WAAF had cast a casual look over my papers when they came in, and seen the IQ, which was supposed to have almost given her a heart attack. Apparently it was pretty high, and it explained my instant promotion. I could only remember having to do some sort of kid’s puzzle during my initial training, and I suppose that was the basis for the IQ score.
Anyway, the IQ, coupled with my right royal entrance at the gates had caused her to totally flip out.
This started a relationship between us which went on for the next ten years or so, long after we had both been demobilised.
Ours was a purely platonic relationship. As we were to spend a year together, closely confined in that tiny office, anything else would have been a grave error. I didn’t fancy her, either.
She became my greatest fan, though. Having her around later on used to keep the other women away, too, because big bands in those days used to attract the same kind of fanatical followers that the pop groups do today.
She was always doing little things for me, putting flowers on the desk, getting little tit-bits for our tea break, giving me little presents, things like that. She was highly intelligent, and we had long interesting conversations. During the whole of the time that I knew Joan I only embraced her once. I had taken her home from a dance at the Grafton Rooms in Liverpool. We had walked, in the rain, to her mother’s place in a very run-down area called Dingle. She was so embarrassed about the poor neighbourhood that she wouldn’t let me take her up to the door.
We stood in the drizzle by a little park, pretty close to one another. She smelled so good that I kissed her without thinking about it. It was a pretty good kiss, at that. Her lips were soft and warm and I felt the landscape revolving slowly around us, the way it did during that epic kiss between Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Just before I got married in 1951 Joan asked me to meet her in a small park in Paddington, near her apartment. Sitting on a bench she begged me not to go through with the marriage. She said that she valued our friendship, but that it would be impossible for us to continue seeing one another. I asked her if she would rather that I marry her instead. She left the question unanswered. I never saw her again. It was all very unfortunate.
By this time I was able to play a lot of Dizzy Gillespie’s solos, plus some Roy Eldridge ones and one or two from Harry James, including his well-known Trumpet Blues & Cantabile. I used to play this as a solo up in the original key, which was a lot higher than the printed version most bands were using.
I got Les Pearce's band to do a dance for nothing in the camp once, and did my big solo act. After that even the Military Police in the guardhouse used to tip their hats when I went by. I never knew that music could have so much power.
Billy, the second trumpet player in that band was a wartime service colleague of Reg Owen. Reg was playing second alto with Ted Heath in those days, while writing most of Ted’s arrangements, and was loaded with such a dizzying amount of prestige that his name was always spoken by the rest of us in hushed tones. He had sent us two arrangements: Lady be Good, and Body and Soul to play in the annual Melody Maker Contest. The latter was a trumpet feature for his old pal. This turned out to be an unfortunate mistake. However well Billy may have played when Reg was marching around beside him, or whatever they had done together in the RAF, he was not doing so now by any means, but his name was on the part, and that was that.
The contests took place in Belle Vue, Manchester, an enormous arena calculated to strike terror into the stoutest of hearts. In later years I was to see many talented players in the name bands turn to jelly at the thought of playing a solo in the place. In order to get up there at a reasonable time we had to leave very early in the morning, so I had to sleep over at Bunny’s house in order to be ready on time. We slept together in his single bed. It was a momentous occasion for both of us as he had a tendency to snuffle and scratch himself loudly all night—something which he hotly denied the next morning—while I, for my part, went through the agony of playing the contest arrangements through in my head time and time again until dawn. This entailed hissing phrases through my teeth and fingering imaginary valves nervously on the bedspread, causing him to rear up every now and then to snap at me crossly, ‘Will you stop doing that!’
We drove up from Coventry in his Austin 10, which at times reached the giddy speed of 40 miles per hour, but that was only downhill. It was a little foggy, and raining, of course. The trip was a lot of fun, we got lost, and almost broke down, but not quite, and finally we were there, and it was time to start panicking.
We had a small bandroom, buried somewhere in the gloomy depths of Belle Vue, which greatly resembled Alcatraz below ground level. We rehearsed our miserable effort, and the sound in that tiny room depressed us so much that it was a wonder we didn’t leave for home at once. The band manager cheered us up by making a short excursion around the other rooms and returning to say that the other bands sounded even worse, so we took heart at that.
The bands went on to a strict rota. We were almost last, and I stood at the side listening to the other bands, which all sounded absolutely marvellous, and nervously waggling the valves of my trumpet, which tended to stick on most important occasions, and which now gave the impression that they fully intended doing so on this one. As I waggled them feverishly they seemed to get heavier and heavier. Suddenly there was a Ping! and the middle valve went down and stayed down.
Trumpets in those days often had the springs under the valves, huge ugly affairs, and the spring under my second valve had, on this day of all days, decided to give up the ghost and broke neatly into two pieces. There was no way I could repair it by stretching, or rewinding around a pencil, and so on, and no time to go into Manchester to look for a music shop. So I did the next best thing and began touring the other bandrooms, asking politely whether anyone would be so kind as to loan me a trumpet, or even a spring, for the ten minutes or so required. I was greeted with derision and four-letter words. Gone was the great wartime camaraderie, and not yet arrived was the bonhomie for which the music profession later became famous. I was given the Bum’s Rush in every sense of the word.
Dejected I returned to our bandroom. With my trumpet kaputt the band couldn’t go on. Up jumped my friend Bunny, the engineer.
‘Not to worry,’ he said, and examined the situation. He now owns three factories making small tools, and, even in those days, was capable of repairing any car you cared to name, using only a ball-peen hammer. I demonstrated for him, and proved that it would not be possible to pull the valve up and down during performance without dislocating several fingers.
His first move was to unscrew the bottom valve cover, remove the broken spring, and push a bit of pencil up inside, with the point inserted into the small hole in the bottom of the valve. Why the hole is there anyway no-one knows, but the pencil stayed firmly jammed in there, and with it I was able to push the depressed valve up with my left hand. Not bad, and we were halfway there, but my friend was by no means satisfied with this, and began looking around for bits of elastic. Finding none he ordered me to remove my trousers at once, and hand over my underpants. By now we had quite an interested crowd around us, with several of the unfriendly trumpeters jeering and adding comments, while I stood there skinny, naked and shivering, as if awaiting a doctor’s examination.
With his trusty Scout knife my friend ripped out a good length of elastic from the waistband of my shorts. Luckily the shorts were new, and the waistband still had a bit of go in it. The elastic was firmly knotted fore and aft to strategic parts of the trumpet, and greatly tensioned, with the widest part running under the valve casing. Once the pencil had been firmly embedded in it the whole contraption shoved the valve up strongly just as soon as I let it go. We were saved! The crowd dispersed grumpily. My instrument now looked very much like a trumpet which had been crossed with a catapult, and, with this affair in my hand, we now went on stage.
‘It doesn’t matter whether we win or lose,’ hissed Les, in a marvellous last-minute burst of psychological perspicacity. ‘Go on and have a good time.’ That made us all feel a whole lot better.
I did my best, and the band played remarkably well, considering that we had only rehearsed our three titles some two hundred and fifty times. My valves worked like polished silk, and I began to seriously consider taking out a patent on the new active suspension. The fact that my underwear kept falling down was only a minor irritation.
Due to all the excitement I’d completely forgotten about Billy, but during Lady Be Good he began to fidget around quite a lot on his chair. By the time we got to his solo in Body and Soul he was in a state of panic, and once it started he had the most colossal attack of stage–fright I have ever seen in my life. He managed, when standing, to knock over both his chair and the music stand, which didn’t help an awful lot. Usually quite a strong player, he now produced a thin windy trembling sound, a ghastly whining that made my hair stand on end. In the dark, echoing, cavernous wastes of Belle Vue it sounded like a death dirge out of Valhalla. On and on the number dragged. Around the middle of the solo his lip went completely, so that, at the end he could only splutter away, neither reaching the written high note, nor the one an octave below. He grovelled around instead miserably on the last chord, ending up on what was probably the one single note that didn’t fit the harmony, and fizzled out into a deathly silence.
When he sat down afterwards he stared at me, white-faced and shaken. He seemed to have aged considerably during the past few minutes.
‘It’s only a game,’ I said, through tightly clenched teeth. Some of the members of the other bands standing nearby gave me the V-sign, and one of the friendly trumpet players fanned his armpit and held his nose.
The Ted Heath band went on then, and Kenny Baker played Dark Eyes, just to show us how it was done. ‘Jolly good,’ said Reg to us later, but I didn’t believe him.
At the end of the contest the judges awarded prizes, the one for Best Trumpet Player going to the gentleman who had held his nose. The celebrated drummer Maurice Burman handed out the prize, saying that the winner should go far, and calling particular attention to a succession of perfectly controlled squeezes he had managed during his solo.
I thought, well yeah, I’d managed a few perfectly controlled squeezes of another kind myself, and I had my underpants down around my knees right now to remind me of them. I received an Honorary Mention, which was rather like an end-of-term report where the teacher has written Shows Promise. Bunny won the Best Drummer Award. He should have received one for action above and beyond the call of duty.
After playing the gig at Hinckley one Sunday night Les said that he had to drive me back to camp right away, as he needed the car in the morning. He drove the car himself. On the way back from Birmingham he hit a truck that had been parked in the road without lights and totalled the Super Snipe. Les was badly injured. That was the end of the band, unfortunately.
I had hardly got home the following weekend when Bunny came round to see me.
He told me that the great Tommy Sampson band had played in town the previous night. This was one of the really tremendous British post war big bands, the most exciting of them all. The place had been packed, the Sampson band came on and they started to play. At once it was obvious that something was wrong. The drummer, Dougie Cooper, who wasn’t even eighteen, had suddenly gone down with chicken-pox. Sampson had brought a dep along and the guy was no good, so Tommy went up to the mike and made an announcement.
‘Is there a drummer in the house?’ he said.Everybody started to shout, Let Bunny play! so he went up and took over from the other guy.
By all reports he played really great that night, read the book at sight and played one or two very impressive drum solos. Well I already knew how good he was, but on this night he must have excelled himself because Tommy booked him for the rest of the tour. He also asked him if there were any good trumpet players in town, as he would soon be needing a new one. Bunny told him about me, and he said to try and get me up to Redcar, on the Yorkshire coast, at once.
When I heard that I grabbed my trumpet and ran.
I had to change trains at about two o’clock in the morning in Birmingham. As I waited on the freezing platform I suddenly saw my pal Cyril Narbeth standing there with his trumpet case. He had been the lead trumpet player in my first big band, the Jack Owens band at Neal’s Ballroom, in Coventry. All the big bands had visited there on a regular basis until it burned down during the war.
It turned out that we were both going up to Redcar. I couldn’t have taken the job anyway, being in the air force, so I was glad that he was getting the chance. To tell the truth—I didn’t think I was ready for such a giant step. I was really only interested in hearing the band.
On the train we talked all night. He was telling me about the fantastic sound of the band when he heard it. He described the lead trumpet player at length, saying that he had big brown eyes like a spaniel, a sound as big as a house, and played like a dream come true. The more he talked the more excited I became.
We arrived at the Pier Pavilion in Redcar at eleven the next morning, just after the Sampson band had started to rehearse.
I just couldn’t believe the sound of that band. It really defies the capabilities of even the best, most modern piece of hi-fi equipment to capture a big band sound as it is in the flesh. That sound I was hearing actually made the hair at the back of my neck stand on end. I was trembling with excitement.
They were playing Stompin’ at the Savoy, real slow. There were four trumpets, led by Stan Reynolds, the guy with the big brown eyes, four trombones and five saxes. Bunny was still on drums. I had tears in my eyes just listening to them.
One of the trumpet players came off and Cyril went up to do his audition. The guy who’d come off stood by me and we started to talk. His name was Bert Courtley, and he was leaving the band to go and play with a group run by a girl tenor player named Kathleen Stobart.
I said that he must be mad to leave such a great band. He told me that it was a great band, all right, but that he’d be able to play more jazz in Kathy’s group, as he’d be the only trumpet player.
Later on he married Kathy, we bought houses near one another, and the three of us became great friends.
While we were talking Cyril had played a couple of numbers in the band on stage, and it looked as if he would get the job. Now Sampson was calling for me to go up and play. Up to now Cyril had been auditioning for third or fourth trumpet, but as soon as I got up there the first trumpet player went off. I don’t know what had been discussed, but I suddenly found myself having to play lead with the band.
I had never played before with such an enormous brass section. To tell the truth I was about ready to fill my pants until I saw the number I was supposed to play. It was a Woody Herman arrangement called The Good Earth.
This was a stroke of luck because it was one of the tunes that I used to hammer out in the bedroom back home with the record player when I was just beginning to learn to play the trumpet. I knew the first trumpet part backwards.
I looked at the music for a moment, pretending to study it. What I was really doing was making sure that it was the same as the one that I already knew all the way through.
‘Right,’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’
The band started. It was a pretty wild fast number, with lots of long loud high brass passages, and I really tore into it. I had nothing to lose, anyway, and if this was to be the only time in my life I’d get to play with a great band I wasn’t going to waste it. When we finished I could see that Sampson, and quite a few of the other guys were quite impressed. The trombone players were looking around at me, nodding.
Duncan Campbell, one of the trumpet players, said ‘How the hell did you manage to do that? We’ve been rehearsing that one for days.’
‘Oh yeah, well—I’ve heard the record,’ I said.
So I got the job as well. I was to turn up whenever my RAF duties would allow, play fifth trumpet, and double up on first trumpet to give the other guy a rest sometimes.
Apart from Stan Reynolds, the whole of the brass and sax sections were Scotsmen. The rhythm section, with the exception of Dave Simpson, the pianist, was all English.
The Scots quickly became my favourite people. Joe Temperley, one of the tenor players, went on to become world famous. He now lives in the USA. The second alto player, Alan Davey, whom we called Jesus because of his enormous beard, became a successful artist in New York. Henry MacKenzie, the other tenor player, is still a busy session player in London. Johnny Keating was a very talented arranger, especially so after rock music became popular, and he eventually went to Hollywood, where he wrote the scores for several major films, amongst them Arthur Haley’s Hotel. When that band folded I went on working for years after with Duncan Campbell, Alec MacGregor, George Hunter, Johnny Keating, Jimmy Wilson, Maurice Pratt and many others. Most of the musicians in Tommy’s band ended up in the London session business.
Tommy Sampson himself was the son of an Edinburgh scrap iron dealer, who made his fortune after the war out of surplus tanks, guns and army vehicles. Both Tommy and his dad were devout Salvation Army members. This didn’t prevent Tommy from quickly going through all of his dad’s fortune after he died, within the space of the next couple of years.
The arrangements in the band were all from a guy named Edwin Holland, who lived in some remote place in Midlothian. He was supposed to be only a mediocre accordion player, but he was a wonderful arranger. He was responsible for the great sound the band had. I don’t believe that Edwin ever arranged for any other band, even after Sampson disbanded, but his scores were unique, so much so that I can still remember most of them note for note.
Edwin had a trademark, a small theme that he used in every arrangement he wrote. Somewhere in the score, often almost hidden, reversed or transposed, this tiny collection of notes would pop up to put his personal stamp on the chart.
As a matter of fact — I never played with any other band that sounded so warm and exciting, or one that had such sensational arrangements as the Sampson band, until I went to Germany and started playing with American musicians. I think that everyone ever associated with the band regrets that it died such an early death. Certainly people still talk about it, even today.
I started to work with the band every weekend. Wherever they were I got there on the train somehow, and played every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. During the week, when I wasn’t playing with the guys in the band, I dreamed about them.
By the time I’d been with the band for six months I had gotten such tremendous confidence from playing with them that I was ready to take on the world.
We did a BBC broadcast nearly every other week, and Tommy had special lead parts written for me on those jobs. I didn’t realise it at the time, but he was schooling me to take over the brass section one day.
Every time I saw the band there were one or two new guys there. Tommy was pretty good at forgetting to pay up, and the married ones were the first to leave. But he always seemed to have a steady source of great new players ready to join.
All the people who came through the band, then and later—Johnny Keating, Maurice Pratt, Wally Smith, Phil Seamen, Danny Moss, among others, were to play a big part in my later career.
Suddenly, without warning, a lot of the guys left to join Ted Heath. I was one of the very few left out of the original band. I don’t know why Heath suddenly needed so many players, but I suspect that a lot of his men went into the rapidly developing London studio business.
Almost simultaneously, I was posted to a new RAF camp near Gloucester. I was as mad as hell. The move put another hundred miles or so on all my journeys to the band jobs, and made some of the rail connections almost impossible.
I’d only been in the new camp a couple of days when I had a phone call from the RAF Records Office nearby in Gloucester. The guy on the phone introduced himself as Tony Hayes. He was the bandleader in the camp there, and he wondered whether I’d like to join the band. I went along to take a look.
It was a small group, with only one trumpet, one trombone and a saxophone. The sax was new, as the previous man, Danny Moss, had just been demobilised. I was impressed. Danny was already well known in the jazz world.
The drummer was Kenny Clare, who later on became one of the most sought after drummers in the world, recording with Ella Fitzgerald and touring around with Tony Bennett. At the peak of Kenny’s career, if he ever walked into a place where the Buddy Rich band was playing and Buddy saw him he used to throw down the sticks and walk off.
‘I’m not going to play with you watching,’ he’d say. ‘You play, and I’ll watch.’ And Kenny would play in Buddy’s place, and bring the house down.
I’d done quite a few gigs with the band, when one day the bass player, a guy named Peter McGurk, told me that they had fiddled my records to get me posted down there, so as to get me into the band.
When I heard that I was so pissed off that I quit playing with the band. I had my weekend jobs with the Sampson band anyway.
I started to get the pressure put on me after that in various different ways. Officers would command me to report to them, making weird requests. These would always occur just as I was getting ready to dash off somewhere to play with Tommy. One Squadron Leader called me into his office and kept me fidgeting about for ages one Saturday morning, finally telling me to go up to the shopping area and help his wife to carry the shopping home.
At that I flipped out. Making sure that I wasn’t being overheard I suggested that the Squadron Leader make a quick trip to a taxidermist, Sir, adding that if he wanted to have me arrested for disobeying an order he should go ahead. I dashed out and caught my train. Of course he did nothing about it.
I was a sergeant by now, and in charge of the Aircrew Allocation Unit documents section on the camp. I had to get hold of all documents for wartime bomber aircrews awaiting discharge, see about medals, pay, and all kinds of other things, and actually get the people concerned out of the air force and into civvy street as quickly as possible.
When I arrived at the camp I found the office being run by a sergeant whose sole occupation was building ham radio sets, and an enormously fat warrant officer who spent one part of each day staring at the (much younger) photo on his identity card with tears in his eyes, and the other in ogling the five or six WAAFs in the office, whose main interests in life were getting married, having babies, and getting the hell out of the service.
No one was interested in the job in hand. There were hundreds of aircrew awaiting discharge, and thousands of documents to be processed. The aircrew used to besiege the office every day shouting for attention. As most of them were officers, or senior NCO’s some of them started to get quite nasty with us lower ranks.
My first task was to get them out of the room, so I let it be known, sort of casually, that anyone who bugged me too much would go to the bottom of the list. If complaints were made to the Group Captain I would adopt a work to order routine that should see them still waiting around another couple of years. I told the WAAFs to read books, knit baby clothes, do anything but interfere. Then I got busy on the telephone.
In practically every Orderly Room in the camps spread all over England and Scotland there was a musician working as a clerk. Most of these guys knew about me already through either seeing me with the Sampson band, or by word of mouth. Hell, I don’t know how it happened, but I only had to phone one of these guys and we had instant rapport.
Instead of wading through the massive paperwork necessary for ordering the documents by post through the usual channels I used the phone. Documents which had been awaited for ages began arriving on my desk in cartloads. The sergeant couldn’t believe it. He said that he’d never seen anyone have such success on the job before. I was working nights off my own bat to get the place straightened up. I told him to get the Warrant Officer to fix it so that I had no parade duties, no kit inspections or anything.
They were so glad to have the pressure taken off them that I got practically everything I wanted. I took over a room at the end of the barrack hut and kept the door locked. If an inspecting officer asked to have it opened the WO used to fob him off with some excuse.
I only had to do a parade once. We had a new Wing Commander, who couldn’t see why I should be let off parades. Everyone else had to do it, and so should I.
Out I went. I had to lead the Unit, about two hundred men. We were supposed to march past the saluting base, where the Group Captain would get an eyes-left. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, and led them off to the right, away over on the other side of the parade ground. The parade, as far as my unit was concerned, was a complete balls-up. I led them about all over the place. Even the Warrant Officer was having trouble keeping a straight face.
I got called to account afterwards. The WingCo wanted to know what the devil I thought I was doing. I asked him, with the greatest respect, whether he wanted me to make a fine turnout on the parade ground, or keep the unit working at the high level of efficiency it was now enjoying. He asked me if it was possible to have both. I said no. With that he excused me parades, saying that he wasn’t going to go through that bloody shambles again. I thought that he was a reasonable man and said so. We parted friends.
I asked the sergeant to find out who was trying to mess me about. Someone had tried to put me down for fire duty over Christmas, and I wanted to know who was responsible.
He came back later and said that everything seemed to be emanating from the Entertainments Officer in the Records Office in Gloucester. They were pissed off because I wouldn’t play in the band.
Tommy wanted to know why I was having to turn down some of the gigs, so I told him the story. Sampson was a very elegant guy, very slender, good-looking, with slicked down shiny black hair and enormous black horn-rimmed glasses. The ladies used to go for him in a big way. His current girl friend was Frances Day, the actress. She must have had some really high connections in the Air Ministry, because shortly after he told her about the troubles I was having at the camp the Entertainments Officer got posted to Japan.
One of the WAAFs had been holding the fort in my absence. When I returned to the camp I was told that a very nasty piece of work had been causing chaos in the office, trying to get released. No one could find his documents.
It turned out to be my old friend, dear old Flight-Sergeant Smith, the square-bashing drill instructor. He didn’t recognise me, though.
He screamed, insulted and threw rank at me. He’d been waiting a year for his release, and wasn’t going to wait any longer. Everyone around the place had got to get their fingers out, or he’d want to know the reason why.
I placated him. All was being done. His documents would be found.
Meanwhile I phoned one of my pals from Coventry, the guitarist Stan Bacon, who was working in the Orderly Room up at the initial training unit in Padgate. He found the documents immediately. I explained the situation and asked him to dispatch them at once.
He understood me perfectly, and sent all the papers necessary for the demobilisation of one Flight-Sergeant Smith, Air Gunner/Drill Instructor/Asshole 1st Class off at once to Royal Air Force GHQ, Bombay, India, registered, express, and, for all I know, in the diplomatic bag. The documents were marked Da Capo, senza Coda. The musician clerk in Bombay would know what that meant (i.e., repeat indefinitely).
I came straight out of the RAF into Tommy Sampson’s new band. I travelled up to the demob centre in Wolverhampton, grabbed my demob papers, told them to keep the fancy suit, and rushed off to London and my new life.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved