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The Great Big Bands


We had a good trumpet section in Monte Carlo, with Stan Reynolds, Ronnie Hughes, and the Jamaican, Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson. It was a very good, slick band, but we were much too good for the people there, who were only interested in eating, drinking, and socialising.

Leslie Hutchinson was quite a bit older than the rest of us, and he’d already been around all the bands. He was one of the few survivors of the Café de Paris bomb that had wiped out most of Ken Johnson’s band during the London Blitz. He was a great trumpet player, but his head got up into the clouds now and then, and we had to look after him.

Many times he came up to me in one of the London studios to ask me to break into his car for him. I never figured out why he only asked me, as if I had a reputation for such things, but I’d go out and take a look, and he had usually locked the doors with the keys in the ignition, and the engine still running. I showed him how to block the exhaust pipe with his boot, and began carrying a length of wire in my trumpet case to fish up his door handle.

Les had an accident on the way to Manchester one night, and slid his car into a ditch. While he was still sitting there, stunned, a truck driver stopped and looked into the car. With Les being black and all he saw nothing, and went on his way.

Like his fellow Jamaicans, Les had problems with the British landladies, but he never seemed to have any trouble getting girls. Wherever we went with Geraldo Les was soon surrounded by astoundingly pretty girls. This made some of us a bit jealous. If Les seemed to be showing special attention to one of the girls Harry Roche used to call out, ‘Go on, Les. Show her the old bottle of Guinness.’

Now and then Geraldo put on a show with his concert orchestra, and we played things like Ravel’s Bolero. This is a pretty deadly piece of music to play because it goes DUM-dadada-DUM-dadada-DUM-dadada-dadada-dadada-DUM right the way through, and seems to go on for ever. The trumpets only come in near the end, after having had to count several hundred bars. The throbbing rhythm is hypnotic, and the first time I played Bolero on a concert I quickly lost count. I turned in panic to Stan Reynolds.

‘Quick! Where are we?’

‘The Royal Albert Hall,’ said Stan. This was a standard musician’s joke, very funny, but I wasn’t feeling like laughing at the time. ‘Look at Les,’ he added, kindly, ‘He knows when to come in.’

I shot a glance at Les, over on the end of the section. He seemed to be comfortably asleep. I made a motion towards him, but Stan frowned, pursed his lips, and shook his head, ever so slightly.

The orchestra thundered on, and Geraldo was now taking time off to smile in amusement at me while he conducted away furiously. He knew I was lost, and he, too, indicated that I should look at Les, who was still fast asleep. The climax built and built, the noise was incredible. We were getting near the end of the piece. I gripped my trumpet, panic-stricken, looking wildly around.

‘Wake him up, for Christ sake!’ I hissed. At that moment Les opened his eyes, whipped up his trumpet, and said, ‘Now!’ We came in, right on the nose.

After we’d finished, and Gerry had taken the applause he looked right up at me again with a little grin and nodded.

Leslie’s piece de resistance was a quite literal misunderstanding of the English language. Morning studio sessions in London were always from 10 am to 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The contractor only had to say, over the phone, that the session was from ten to one, and we knew what he meant. One day we had to play the recording a man short, because Les was missing. He turned up just before the session ended.

The contractor confronted him angrily. ‘What does this mean?’ he barked. ‘I booked you quite clearly—Star Sound Studios, ten to one.’

‘So what?’ said Les. ‘It is ten to one.’

As I’d only just bought our house in Norbury we had no car, so we went down to Monte Carlo in Tommy Cook’s Volkswagen. Tommy was my old pal from the Sampson days. He was a good solid trombone player, and ended his career as a member of the BBC Dance Orchestra, which was a civil service job carrying a pension. I was pleased for Tom when I heard about that.

When we arrived in Monte Carlo Tom dumped us outside the Hotel de Paris and went on to a place he’d already booked for himself by telephone. It was clear just by looking at it that the Hotel de Paris was going to be too expensive for us, so we wandered up the road a little, with me carrying the bags.

I went into a little Parfumerie to ask for some instructions. A woman was standing by the counter getting served. My wife started eyeballing all the ridiculously extravagant perfumes longingly, many of which seemed to be sold in litre bottles.

‘Can you direct me to a good hotel, please? Not the Hotel de Paris,’ I added with a cheap laugh.

The shop assistant didn’t know what I was talking about, but the woman at the counter turned slightly. She was very thin, and wore a head scarf and enormous sunglasses, which together almost entirely obscured her face.

‘The girl doesn’t speak English,’ she drawled. ‘Try the Hotel Russo opposite the Casino.’

I thanked her profusely. She turned back to the counter, paid the girl, took her little package and left the shop.

At once the girl hurried around the counter, grabbed my arm and rushed me to the door. The woman was just crossing the road prior to going up the hill towards town.

‘Greta Garbo!’ she hissed excitedly. ‘Greta Garbo!’

OK. So Greta and I—big deal—we bought perfume together, breathed the same air, had a little chat.

The Hotel Russo was not half bad, except that the council were determined to dig up the whole of the street outside with machine-guns beginning each day at 7.30 a.m. excepting Sundays. The noise when we were thus awakened had a distinctly Continental flavour, a mixture of pneumatic drills, unsilenced motor scooters, loud radios and the anguished screams of the disturbed residents.

In Monte Carlo we played in the Sporting Club some nights and the adjoining Sea Club on the others.

Friday nights were the big gala nights at the Sporting Club, and Prince Rainier used to turn up with Grace Kelly, his new wife. When he did arrive he always went over to his table at great speed, rushed into his chair and started in on the wine and nuts, while Grace was still making her way over all on her own.

I don’t remember seeing Rainier smile. Even when he came into the Sea Club and we were close enough to stare angrily at one another he never smiled. Neither did she, now I come to think of it.

The place was crammed full with millionaires and playboys. To entertain them we had a steady stream of Hollywood personalities. Kirk Douglas was there wearing a beard. He was in the middle of making the Van Gogh movie. Liberace came, Danny Kaye, Anne Miller, Yma Sumac, Maria Callas, Jack Warner, of Warner Brothers, Gina Lollobrigida, Red Skelton and many more.

When he was drunk, which was always, Danny Kaye used to come around and demand to play drums in the band. Dougie Cooper used to send him around to the trumpet section where we told him to bug off, whereupon Danny would say that he could buy the band, right now, showing us a big wad of bills, and fire us all. We then directed him around to Geraldo who also told him to bug off. So the evenings passed pleasantly.

Geraldo, who could keep his head up among millionaires, had driven down in his Rolls, with his wife Plum sitting all alone in the back. If she wanted to talk to him she had to blow through a speaking tube to gain his attention. There was a glass partition between them, probably bullet-proof. When I asked her why she didn’t want to sit up beside Gerry in the front she said what was the point of having a Rolls if she did that?

Leaning over the balcony of the Sporting Club one evening I drew Gerry’s attention to the snaggle of Rolls, Bentleys and Ferraris outside, all pavement-parked, each with its busily polishing chauffeur.

‘Just look at that cream-coloured Rolls coupe,’ I said.

He gave it a bored look.

‘All right I suppose. I used to have one once.’

To my surprise, with all of that money around, the waiters and other natives around the place were still speaking in hushed tones about the way Ambrose had gone through the town several years earlier. According to the various tales he had lost all of a million pounds quite quickly in the Casino, and had to borrow a hundred from the drummer, Jock Cummings, in order to get home again. Unfortunately this turned out to be true, verified by Harry Roche who also knew a thing or two about losing money.

Harry, nicknamed Flash Harry, had run through a few fortunes of his own. He 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 motor-bike, which was good for about 150 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 which most likely had also carried 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.

It never occurred to me to ask Ted when I was in his band but I saw Moira, Ted's widow, shortly after he died and asked her to verify this. She could no longer remember, but the arranger Arthur Birkby reckons it all happened in a completely different way in Cairo. Still, true or not, it's a good story.

For the trip to Monte Carlo Harry had a brand new Triumph TR2, which was a very elegant sports car at that time. It was white, and he looked good in it. Almost at once Harry was in with the jet set in Monaco. He went around with gaggles of girls on each arm and was wined and dined by millionaires right and left.

It all came to an end one day when he was invited out to dinner on someone’s yacht. When, later that evening, he was asked by the owner of the yacht, in all seriousness, what kind of business he was in, he replied with a smile that he was a trombone player.

Everyone laughed heartily at that, and he was thrown off the boat.

Something similar happened to me later on in Munich when Johnny Scott and Bill Le Sage came over for a cultural visit. They were invited to a reception at the British Consulate, and took me along with them. The place was full of delightful people, lovely ladies, their eligible daughters, and the three of us were the focal point of interest.

I found myself talking to the Consul’s wife, a charming person who asked me with great interest just where it was that I lived in London.

‘Oh, I don’t live there any more—I live here in Munich. I’m working with Max Greger’s band. I just came along with Johnny and Bill.’

‘A gatecrasher! Oh how delightful!’ she screamed, clapping her hands.

A muscular servant appeared.

‘Look, this is Hoskins,’ she said. ‘I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch your name?’

‘Simmonds. Ron Simmonds. Like S-I-M...’

‘Good. Hoskins, this is Mr. Roy Symons. Would you please throw him out? So nice to have met you’ And she stalked off, smiling attentively at the other guests.

Johnny intervened to save me in the nick of time. But Harry really did get the toss.

My fondest memory of Geraldo in Monte Carlo is the time we had to accompany Gina Lollabrigida in what must surely have been her one and only singing debut.

She looked absolutely delicious, but couldn’t sing for toffee and she knew it. The tune she was singing was called Falling in Love with Love, played at a fast waltz tempo. As she was obviously in a hurry to get the ghastly thing over with as quickly as possible, she couldn’t wait to hold out all the long notes, and was consequently skipping every seventh and eighth bar.

On the first night the orchestra had not noticed this as she was piping away weakly at least a hundred yards away in the middle of the enormous dance floor. The result was that she had finished her song and was preparing to receive applause while we were still halfway through the arrangement.

The next evening we were treated to the immensely rewarding spectacle of seeing Gerry shuffling slowly backwards across that vast space, conducting away, until he had reached Miss Lollabrigida’s side.

There they stood, alone together under the spotlights, a small portly figure, immaculate in white tails, vigorously conducting the slight figure of the performing diva.

We could see that he was muttering out of the side of his mouth to her, and stabbing the air with his baton, apparently under the impression that he was totally invisible to the audience. He was without a doubt snarling things at her like, ‘For Christ’s Sake—One-two-three, One-two three. Not yet! - not yet!

He must have snarled a little more than that, too, because she wouldn’t speak to him afterwards, as if it had all been his fault.

Maria Callas did a week with us down in the Sea Club. She had obviously upset her boyfriend, or some other lover very much, because every night, just as she was about to reach the peak in one of her arias, hitting some of those fabulous high notes, the guy would start up his Ferrari just outside and rev it up with earsplitting whoops until she’d finished.

The clientele in Monaco was, naturally, mostly millionaire class, but that didn’t prevent some of the people behaving like slobs. One night, while Maria was singing, a man sitting alone in the club tried to flirt with the wife of an eminent brain surgeon at a nearby table. At once the enraged husband, assisted by two other highly respected doctors at his table, hustled the offender outside and beat him up so badly that he had to be admitted to the local hospital, where he was treated the next day by the very same people who had put him in there.

And all the time Danny Kaye never managed to close his mouth. Wherever he sat there would be a stream of loud stupid remarks emanating from his table. One of his favourite jokes at the time was to call out ‘Hi, noon,’ and everyone was supposed to answer, ‘‘Lo, tide.’ This was very funny the first time but Danny was using it on a regular basis. He was invariably drunk, and really got on everyone’s nerves after a while. He’d dropped his threatening behaviour towards us by now and started pleading.

‘Why won’t you let me play drums with the band? You let Mel Torme play drums with the band.’

‘That’s because Mel’s a nice guy and you’re an asshole. Get lost.’

‘Thatsh no reason.’

I was glad that he wasn’t Aldo Ray. Aldo had wrecked a whole night club in London once when they refused to let him play in the band.

It had taken sixteen bouncers to throw out the boxer Gus Lesnevich when he wanted to sit in with the band in Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow. He laid out most of them before someone bopped him over the head with a bottle.

Life without a car in that town was pretty rough. They wouldn’t let musicians travel on the millionaires’ bus that commuted between the Club and the Casino, so I had to walk up and down the thousand steps between beach and town several times a day. I learned to buy food in the market and curse in Monégasque.

Some of the guys tried their hands in the Casino, but I kept well away from that place. Bob Adams and I had a stroll around the Formula One circuit, and took a look at the place where Alberto Ascari went through the rails and into the Med, just before the cliff straight where they’ve now built the tunnel.

Our singer Roy Edwards and his wife Joyce had rented a houseboat through a travel agency. They were supposed to sleep on the thing with Dougie and one of the other musicians. The boat was moored in the harbour right beside a monster Chris Craft that throbbed day and night with air-conditioning generators, and emitted a permanent haze of diesel fumes to match. This and the gentle rocking of the waves made Joyce seasick in no time, so they quickly joined us in the Russo.

It was a hell of a hard job for me in Monte Carlo, because we were playing all of Geraldo’s normal arrangements, quite a lot of which had been written by people like Bill Finnegan and Gerry Mulligan. They were all high and loud, so that the trumpets had to play everything in bucket mutes to avoid damaging all that expensive VIP ear tissue.

As a matter of fact—the only thing I enjoyed about that gig was the Friday night fireworks display. This always took my breath away. I guess that everyone else in the band had a good time. There again, they were only comparing it with dirty old London.

It was a very good band, though. Geraldo always had top-class musicians and superb arrangements. The line-up for the Monte Carlo band was:

Ron Simmonds, Stan Reynolds, Ronnie Hughes, Leslie 'Jiver' Hutchinson, trumpets;

Harry Roche, Frank Dixon, Tommy Cook, Joe Cordell, trombones;

Dougie Robinson, Geoff Cole, Bob Efford, Bob Adams, Jock Faulds, saxes;

Ralph Dollimore, piano; Dave Goldberg, guitar; Frank Donnison, bass; Dougie Cooper,drums; Roy Edwards, vocals.

There was another band by the name of Armando Orifice playing at the Sea Club when we weren’t there. This band was from Cuba and was a real showband. The musicians always stood up when they played, even for a single note, so that people were leaping up and down all over the band all the time. They were very good, and one of the trumpet players named Lenny had a range every bit as good as Maynard Ferguson.

Some of them came out of the Perez Prado band. I don’t think they were getting paid too much, but for them it must have been a holiday just to get away from Castro for a while. Lenny used to break us up when he spoke in English. In Spanish the letter 'V' is usually pronounced as a 'B'. He told us a story about Kenton’s high note trumpeter Ray Wetzel, whom he knew. When some Mexican bandleader once asked Ray to play quieter he replied, ‘You want someone play quieter you go get yourself a biolin.’

Although he looked and behaved like an extremely wealthy man, Geraldo was uneducated, and spoke with a Cockney accent. We had to correct the grammar in some of the announcements he made.

During the cabaret we played the background music for a dancing act.

‘And nah,’ said Gerry, ‘we’re gonna play a nummer called Chinese Fishes.’

Harry quickly informed him that the plural of fish was also fish. Next time he made the announcement Gerry said, ‘We’re going to play a number called Chinese FISH!’, turned around, and, in full view of an audience including Prince Ranier and family, blew an enormous raspberry in the direction of the band.

His best gaff was when announcing one of the latest pop tunes.

‘‘Nah ere’s anuvver Briti-shit ...’

I stayed in the band for a while when we returned to England, but eventually found myself back in Jack Parnell's band, now for the third time.

Geraldo's signature tune, sung by the whole band, was as well—known as any popular song of the day. Just before I joined the band to play the season in Monte Carlo I learned that there were no vocal parts to this song. It had been handed down by word of mouth over the years. Freddy Clayton, for many years first trumpet in the band, kindly supplied me with the words. When we sang it on my first broadcast with the band I realised that I was the only one who knew them.

Geraldo continued to book me on his broadcasts and TV shows. After every performance, without fail, he would walk through the orchestra and shake hands with me. This used to mystify everyone no end. Apparently he had never done that before with anyone. No one was more mystified than I.

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Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved