A Perfect Gent
By Ron Simmonds
I first made eye contact with Ted Heath at a Jazz Jamboree in the Royal Albert Hall. I was with Jack Parnell’s band. Jimmy Deuchar, Derek Humble and Joe Temperley were on that band, and Jimmy Watson and Jim Deuchar had, between them, written a stunning library for it. Parnell’s The Champ was one of the high spots of the night, containing a tremendous drum duet between Jack and Phil Seamen which always brought the house down.
The Champ was also Ted Heath’s show-stopper. It was an entirely different arrangement, of course, but there the trouble started. There were about five or six bands in the jamboree programme, and Ted’s band, accepted as being the best by popular acclaim, naturally went on last. Jack’s band went on just before Ted, being number two in the pecking order.
Because of his enormous prestige, Ted Heath was able to dictate terms with quite a lot of muscle. On this occasion he stipulated that only his band should play The Champ, otherwise he would not appear in the jamboree. This didn’t please Jack one little bit, and he argued about it bitterly with Ted, and with the Jamboree promoters. Ted was adamant—no Champ.
We did the mass rehearsal, and played some other tune as a finale, probably Catherine Wheel, which was another of Parnell’s sensational features.
On the concert, just before our last number, Jack went down to the microphone to make an announcement. I heard a shuffling sound, turned my head and saw Ted standing only a few feet behind me, trying to see the name on the next piece of music on my stand. He was out of luck, because I very rarely got out any of the music, having memorized it all. From where he was standing he couldn’t see what the other guys had up.
‘Normally, at this stage of our performance,’ said Jack into the microphone, ‘We would have played the number for which you have probably all been waiting. I’m referring, of course, to The Champ.’
There was a stir in the audience, turning to excited, spontaneous applause. He waited until the noise had died down.
‘Unfortunately, we are not allowed to play this tonight, as the Ted Heath band claims exclusive rights to the number.’
Uproar! Cries of ‘shame!’
Speaking over the angry commotion, he continued calmly, ‘So we are going to play another piece instead, and we hope you like it. Here it is—The Joke.’
He sat down at the drums, gave us the beat, and we tore right into the introduction of The Champ.
Ted didn’t get it for a moment. He probably hadn’t listened to our record properly, but it started off with one of those thrilling trumpet unisons of Jimmy’s at an truly incredible pace. By the time we’d sat down again we were well into the number. I was able to steal a look at his face, and he’d got it by then, all right. There was very little he could do about it now, though—he could hardly refuse to let his band appear at this late stage of events.
We tore the hell out of the number, with extended drum solos, great solos from Jimmy Deuchar and Joe Temperley, the whole works. The delighted audience saw through the gag at once, and went haywire after we finished. When I found the time to turn around again Ted had gone.
His band came on a few minutes after we had ended. Of course, his was the slickest presentation of all. The band was immensely popular, and, with Dickie Valentine and Lita Rosa coming on in a blaze of glory at the end it was wonderful show business, but it wasn’t a jazz band like Jack’s, and that stood out a mile. He played The Champ, too, of course, but after our version it came as a bit of an anticlimax. Of course, he was furious afterwards, which didn’t make a whole lot of difference to anyone.
My wife at that time was very friendly with Emily Keating, and also Mamie, Ronnie Chamberlain’s wife. Both of their husbands were with the Heath band at the time, and I came home one night to find her in a high state of excitement. Stan Kenton had quite recently made a record of the Mardi Gras, where all the musicians had brought along their wives and children to sing. Now Ted was going one better and wanted all the band wives to appear with the orchestra on television. This didn’t affect my wife one little bit, because I wasn’t in the Heath band, but she panicked and threw herself around as if she’d just received a personal invitation from the Queen.
The frenzied discussions, the long hectic phone-calls, the agonies of choosing an appropriate dress for the occasion all turned quickly into high comedy. What to wear, the hair-do, make-up, jewelry, shoes, stockings, and, for all I know, the colour of their knickers, was all changed, re-changed, discarded, and panicked over a thousand-and-one times. Once everything had been decided upon it all became changed yet again in a burst of despairing indecision. Spies were sent abroad to ensure that no two girls turned up in identical outfits. I was positive that my wife was going to have a nervous breakdown.
‘For God’s Sake,’ I said, ‘You're not even on it. They are only going to be standing around in the background. Some of them may not even be seen by the camera.’ I was wasting my breath, and she quickly took this golden opportunity to attack me bitterly for not being in the Heath band myself, thereby depriving her of a chance to share in the glory. On the TV show the girls huddled together in the background, smiling nervously and positively glistening with terror when the camera came anywhere near.
A few weeks after the Champ episode in the Albert Hall Ted phoned and invited me to a band party at his house in Wimbledon. Until I stepped through his front door and shook hands with him I had never met or spoken to him before. Maybe he’d taken a liking to the back of my head. His lead trumpet player Bobby Pratt was having a lot of trouble with his health at the time, and later on I was called once or twice to a BBC studio to do a broadcast with the band right at the last moment. This often happened just before the red light went on. Shortly afterwards I joined the Heath band properly.
The band was full of good players, all pals of mine, many from the great Tommy Sampson band. The arrangements were still mostly from Ted’s old library. The band hadn’t changed an awful lot over the past twenty years.
Ted was in a state of advanced nostalgia by this time. If we played one of the really old arrangements, like Mountain Greenery, or Bakerloo Nonstop, he would often wander around behind the trumpet section and mutter in my ear while I was playing.
‘I remember old Rochey playing this one,’ or, ‘Kenny used to bring the house down when he played this.’
‘Do you mind, Ted,’ I’d say. ‘I’m trying to work here.’
‘Who cares? Do you honestly think that anyone’s listening?’
One of my first jobs with the Heath band was in Brighton, just down the road from where I lived in Norbury. I went down on the band bus, but after we’d finished Ted asked me to come back with him in his car.
As soon as Jimmy Coombes heard about it he began to laugh. Jim had been in Ted’s band on bass trombone right from the start, and he knew all of Ted’s tricks.
‘What’s up?’ I asked, a little peeved.
‘Oh, nothing. You’ll see.’
As soon as we got outside Brighton Ted stopped the car and asked if I’d like to drive. I was delighted. Ted always had the latest model Jaguar automatic, a huge brute of a car, and I was dying to try it out.
He climbed into the back of the car. ‘Pretend you’re my chauffeur,’ he said, and promptly fell fast asleep. I didn’t have the heart to awaken him at Norbury, so I took him all the way home to Wimbledon. There I dumped him at the door and drove the car back to my place.
‘You could take a taxi,’ he shouted as I drove away. Oh, right! Why didn’t I think of that? A taxi, in the wilds of Wimbledon, at 3 am. Anyway, I wanted to impress the neighbours.
Ted carried an enormous amount of clout in England, and he had already made it known to the powers-that-be at Heathrow Airport that he would never, ever, fly on any airline other than British European Airways. When we turned up one day for a flight to Frankfurt he saw that we were to board a British United plane and pulled us back off again. Then he disappeared back into the airport with one of the officials who had accompanied us. We waited for half an hour until the airport had provided us with our own private BEA plane. I was impressed.
Ted was always on the lookout for new ideas and he asked me one day if I had any. We were all standing around in the bandroom in the Dorchester hotel at the time. It was a Costermongers’ Ball, a right Cockney affair, with loads of money being tossed around by the barrow boys, who were all dressed up in expensive tuxedos, with their wives greatly overdressed, heavily perfumed, and absolutely loaded down with jewelry. We were on after the band of the Queen’s Own Scottish Borderers, and we could hear them firing up their bagpipes in the next room.
‘Yes, I have an idea.’ The guys gathered around, smiling maliciously. ‘How about the band making an LP of some of our best jazz arrangements, without a lead trumpet, and sell it with the printed first trumpet part? Then the kids learning would have a chance to blow along with it...’
I only managed to get halfway through this little speech before Wally Smith started hooting with glee. Then everyone began shrieking hilariously, even drowning out the sound of the pipes next door. Duncan Campbell’s face turned such a bright red that we had to thump him on the back to help him get his breath back.
‘Make a record—without the first trumpet—and then sell them the parts! Jesus wept! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,’ shouted Wally, the tears streaming down his face.
‘Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,’ howled the others, beating the floor.
‘Yes. Well,’ said Ted, when the noise had died down. ‘Anyone else have any ideas?’
Six months later Music Minus One came out in America and became an enormous success.
Harry Roche was a very tall, handsome and debonair trombone player who had spent the last few years in the Ted Heath band. Harry and I had made some hair-raising trips together on his Harley–Davidson, which was good for about 200 mph. I sat on the back, hanging on like grim death with my arms clamped around his stomach, while we tore through the night back home from Birmingham and places north.
It was Harry who told me how the Ted Heath band had started. During the war Geraldo had played a concert for the troops in Malta. Ted had been one of his trombone players. When the job ended Geraldo flew back to England, on a plane with Winston Churchill, who had also been on the island at the time. The rest of the band returned on an aircraft carrier.
The ship came under attack by German planes and submarines, so much so that Ted spent the entire voyage on deck, wearing a Mae West. The whole thing upset everyone so much that they all vowed never to work with Geraldo again. They named Ted as their new band-leader. As soon as they were back in London he quickly gathered a music library, formed his new band, and never looked back. I never bothered to ask Ted to verify this. True or not it’s a pretty good yarn.
Ted had a very fair method of paying the band. The musicians received a set wage on Fridays. Over the weekend his office would sort out the week’s takings, deducting his cut and the overheads. The rest was split up evenly between the musicians and paid out the following Monday. This was a very generous way of doing things, actually allowing us to share in the profits. The only trouble was that the first amount we received was quite small. Tenorist Red Price hadn’t been told about the system when he joined the band, and when he opened his Friday packet for the first time he rushed up to Ted, shouting, ‘What’s going on? I can’t live on this!’
We made some of the first stereo recordings with that band. The rhythm section recorded their track first, then the saxes, trombones, and finally the trumpets. We had to synchronise things that way because the engineers still hadn’t figured out a way to banish crossfeed. This involved a lot of hanging about. By the time the trumpets went in to do their bit we’d discovered some errors in the other parts, or even wanted to alter some of the phrasing. As it was only two track this wasted a lot of time, but we finally got it right.
On one of the sessions we used some of the Edmundo Ros rhythm section, with the brilliant Barry Morgan on timbales. Edmundo insisted upon coming along with them and playing the conga drum. For a Latin king he was pretty bad. We fiddled around a bit, pretending, and then Ted called his office from the engineer’s phone and got his secretary to call Edmundo out of the studio on some pretext. As soon as he’d gone we made the recording. He was quite upset when he came back, but it was too late.
On studio recordings Ted usually stood in the engineer booth listening. Being deaf he didn’t like to make the final judgment on the take so he’d key the mike and ask us if it had been all right. ‘Ask Ron!’ they all cried. He’d look at me. If I nodded he’d send the band home. What he didn’t know was that I was probably deafer than he was.
The guys used to make jokes about the way I would sometimes misunderstand Ted’s announcements and get out the wrong number to play. They would test my memory. Right at the last minute, after I’d loaded my lungs, ready to start blasting, someone would mutter, ‘Wrong number’, and then the band would start.
When I told him I was leaving to go with John Dankworth’s band he couldn’t believe it. ‘Where will you go after that,’ he demanded. ‘You can run out of bands, you know.’ He was right. After Dankworth I left for Germany. He had the last word, though, when his band came over to Berlin later on. I was playing with the SFB radio band.
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 fumbled around on it each time, missing notes and playing out of tune. This delighted the guys in the Heath band no end.
After the show Ted said to me, gravely, ‘I have never heard you play so well.’
When June Christy and the Four Freshmen came to London Les Gilbert gave a party for them in his pub. I wandered around taking pictures. The only one I took of Ted has him holding a wineglass and looking regally at the lens. I was proud of my camerwork. He was less than pleased at the shot.
‘Why did you have to take it there, of all places?’ he said, crossly. He had been standing over near the toilet. Over his shoulder one could see quite plainly the word GENT. The rest of the sign was blocked from view. ‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘You are a gent. Stop complaining.’
Ted was the ideal bandleader. Always polite, considerate and respectful, rarely a word of complaint. He never told anyone what to do or how to play. Ted was a perfect gent. He stood in front of his band with what almost seemed like a look of disdain on his face. But there was no doubt that he enjoyed listening to his music. Now and then I’d turn up in a studio and Bert Ezzard would warn me: Play these things in the old style, Ted gets all nostalgic when he hears them. They would be scores from his early days, back in the ‘40s. And it was true: once we started he’d close his eyes and be back in the days of Paul Carpenter, Reg Owen, Kenny Baker and Stan Roderick. We didn’t disturb him.Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved