A portrait by Ron Simmonds
Photo by kind permission of JKM Music Publishers, London.
John Keating was born in the Royal Mile, Edinburgh on September 10th, 1927. It was only natural, then, that our paths should cross up there later on in the Eldorado Ballroom in Leith, where we both played in the fabulous Tommy Sampson orchestra. The personnel was always changing in that band, and John suddenly appeared on first trombone. He was already writing great charts for the band, and it wasnt long before Ted Heath signed him up.
We played together, in the early days, in various other bands: those of Leon Roy, Oscar Rabin, the Squadronaires and Vic Lewis. I was the lead trumpet in those bands, and John led the trombone sections. We even lived, together with our wives, in the same house for a while. John was, meanwhile, getting more and more involved in the pop music scene. Those were the days before rock; long before the advent of electronic aids. With Oscar Rabin we were still making 78 inch recordings on wax discs.
John used unusual methods to achieve the effects on his records: things like amplified bass harmonicas, or wordless voices. The musicians would be sworn to secrecy about all this, to prevent others copying.
He was always a late starter. If he received a contract to write something, two weeks before the event, he would begin writing the night before. His apartment would be filled with copyists, writing furiously as he filled in the score pages. I remember a song contest run by Lou Preager in the Hammersmith Palais, a contest won by two old ladies with the song Cruising Down the River. We sat through the night before the contest copying away until he rushed off to the rehearsal. I believe it was twelve titles, or maybe more. But John could only write like that. He couldnt sit down and stare at the blank score paper two weeks before.
I remember John writing his first song, called Emily after his wife. It was a most beautiful song and we played his lovely, haunting score of Emily with a couple of the big bands. It should have been a hit, but almost as he lay down his pen after composing it, a song with the same title was published and recorded by Johnny Mandel. I think John Keatings Emily was the better song, but it vanished into obscurity.
These were all early days. I moved away, bought a house elsewhere, began my long period of work with Jack Parnell. Every now and again, exhausted after a long drive up to a job in Edinburgh, Id drop by his parents place in Portobello, by the sea. Sometimes Id even take a nap there, before driving on. How I loved that family! John has a brother Eric, and two sisters, Moira and Pat. I met them all again at his 70th birthday party a few years ago. They are wonderful people: the closest family I have ever met. John has three children, Martin, Kevin and Jill, all musicians. Jill has a night club in London, in the exact same suite of rooms that was once Oscar Rabin's office. There is a tremendous amount of affection between the members of that family.
John was suddenly whisked away to America, Hollywood, no less. There he wrote the score to the film Hotel, the dance sequence in Ed Wood and the music for many other shows, including the Jean Arthur TV Series.
Back home again he scored for the films Robbery and Innocent Bystanders. He wrote two classical compositions, Overture 100 Pipers and Hebridean Impressions, both premiered at the Royal Albert Hall, London in the presence of the Right Hon. The Earl Mountbatten, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. Hebridean Impressions was subsequently recorded by the same orchestra, and by Bernard Hermann conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra. John also programmed and produced a synthesized version for EMI, recorded by the Electronic Philharmonie Orchestra.
Johns original songs have been recorded by Petula Clark, Percy Faith, Ted Heath, Carmen MacRae, Stan Kenton, Tony Martin, Andre Previn, Shani Wallis and Nancy Wilson and Shirley Horn (on the CD I Remember Miles where she won the 1999 Grammy Award for Jazz Singer of the Year).
Johns Theme from Z Cars, a No. 5 Singles hit, was adopted by Everton FC as their theme song 35 years ago and remains so to this day. Other hits have been Theme from the Onedin Line, John Keating Conducts (with the London Symphony Orchestra), Ireland with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Big Band Percussion (Ted Heath) and the album Space Experience. Because of its special sound techniques Space Experience was used by practically every hifi store in the country to show off their equipment.
A complete list of Johns achievements would fill this website; he seems to have written for everybody, including Ray Anthony, Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jnr., Johnny Hodges, Mel Tormé the list is unending.
In his copious notes for the booklet accompanying his 4album boxed set Forty Years The Artistry of Tony Bennett (87 titles) the singer says, of John Keatings The Very Thought of You, This was my alltime favourite record to date. At the time I was in London I had been commissioned to sing for the Queen Mothers Command Performance. Bobby Hackett and I recorded with the Queens Orchestra of 100 players. The next day I received permission to have the orchestra play for me on this recording. Unforgettable!
As founder and principal of the Johnny Keating School of Music, Edinburgh, John has been directly responsible for the musical education of many students who later became successful professionals.
Over the last eighteen years, from 1980 to 1998 John has been almost exclusively engaged in the writing of a large, fourvolume academic reference book dedicated to the art of professional songwriting: Principles of Songwriting: A Study in Structure and Technique. I read parts of this study while he was working on it and Ive seen the finished work. It makes fascinating reading; a deep, thorough, exhaustive analysis of the structure underlying the compositions of most of the songs we know today. The book contains many surprises, no doubt about that, and it will be, as far as I know, the only text dealing with this subject.
From the lounge of his highrise apartment John has a panoramic view of nearly the whole of London. He is right in the middle of Notting Hill. Carnival territory. Just up the road from Shepherds Bush, where we lived all those years ago, in the glorious big band days.
Copyright © 1999 Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved.