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The Great Big Bands

Ted Heath

During the run of the West Side Story I joined the Ted Heath band, something I’d always wanted to do. I had several times been called into a BBC studio to do a broadcast with the band. Ted's first trumpet player Bobby Pratt was far from well in those days and I was often called in at the last moment, just before the red light went on, so that I had to sight-read the parts.

The very first time that happened I just made it to the AEolian Hall in Bond Street with time to run through a couple of numbers before the broadcast. One of them was Ted's well-known arrangement of How High the Moon. I'd heard the number before on the air. Right at the end of the piece the whole band hit a last chord and then proceeded to wail up and down on it like an air-raid warning. I had no knowledge of whose idea that was, but I wasn't going to do it and I said so right away, so they stopped doing it and just held the chord on properly. So there I was, not even in the band, and already telling everyone what to do.

I now found myself booked often with the Heath brass section on TV jingles—those short bits of music behind commercials. These were the best paid sessions there were. Finally Bobby just slipped away out of the band and Ted offered me the job permanently.

I didn’t think much of the Heath band musically, but it was full of good players—all old pals of mine. The arrangements were pretty old-fashioned, being mostly from his old library. Because of that the band hadn’t advanced too much in style over the past twenty years.

When I joined the lineup was:

Ron Simmonds, Bert Ezard, Eddie Blair, Duncan Campbell, trumpets
Don Lusher, Wally Smith, Johnny Edwards, Jimmy Coombes or Ken Goldie, trombones
Les Gilbert, Ronnie Chamberlain, Bob Efford, Henry McKenzie, Ken Kiddier, saxes
Derek Warne, piano; John Hawkesworth, bass; Ronnie Verrell, drums 

Ted was in a state of advanced nostalgia by this time. If we played one of the old arrangements he would often shuffle 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 working 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 for me from 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 crossly.

‘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 and drove the car back to my place.

‘You could take a taxi’ he shouted as I drove away. Oh yeah! A taxi, in 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.

We flew to Berlin on that trip to play in a television show in Radio Free Berlin (SFB). The big band there, led by Jerry van Rooyen, was very good, with Benny Bailey and Ack van Rooyen in the trumpets, Herb Geller leading the saxes and Joe Harris on drums. I found Berlin to be a wonderful city, never realising that within a few years I would be working in that very same building on a regular basis.

When we arrived back in Heathrow I was immediately surrounded by a PR group holding important looking clipboards. Cameras flashed. Someone gave me a bunch of flowers. A smiling woman thrust a microphone under my nose.

'Congratulations,' she said. 'You are the millionth passenger to fly to Heathrow airport this year.'

The rest of the band gathered around us.

'Don't hang about,' said Ted. We were in a hurry to get to the recording studio.

The girl looked at him. Everyone in the country knew Ted's features from his hundreds of dances, concerts, magazine spreads and television shows. The PR boss had managed to pick the one person in perhaps the whole world who didn't recognise him.

'This will just take a minute,' she said, and turned back to me.

'Now then, this must be a thrilling occasion for you. Are you with this group? What kind of a group is it? Is this a football team?'

'That's it!' I cried. 'A football team. And I must fly! Sorry.' And we left her standing there. Ted gave her a nice smile as we walked away. I handed him the flowers as I went by.

Coming back from Cornwall after a one-nighter with Ted’s band I had a fearful crash with Ken Goldie’s car at around two in the morning. I had overshot the turnoff at a fork leading back to Torquay, where we were all staying at the time. When I'd turned the car around I saw a car coming down the road towards me at high speed. The highway had three lanes at the junction to allow people from my direction to turn right without interrupting the flow of traffic, so I pulled over into the centre lane and stopped to let the oncoming car go by, but for some reason it veered right and ran smack into me. Ken said later that he had thought I was crossing in front of him and tried to pass behind me. 

The impact knocked me backwards down the road for about a hundred yards, smack into a telephone pole. Both cars were badly damaged, and Les Gilbert, Ted’s lead alto player, banged his lip on the console. An ambulance came eventually and took Henry MacKenzie, Wally Smith, Ken and Les to hospital for a check-up. But Henry, Wally and Ken only suffered from shock.

I took a look at the accident site the next morning and then called in at the police station. I was pretty mad, too. In my opinion the junction was not marked clearly enough in the northern direction. From that direction, especially at night, it would seem as if a car waiting to cross were blocking the left-hand lane. That would explain Ken's emergency manouevre. 

I wanted them to hold an investigation into the accident. I certainly didn't want to get blamed for it. The police admitted that it was a notorious black spot and that slow signs were soon to be put up in both directions. Not that they expected anyone to observe them.

Later on Les reckoned that he couldn’t play any more, although he still sounded fine to me. He sued my insurance company, and received enough compensation to start his own pub on Kew Green.

A weird thing happened that night because only minutes after the crash a car drew up beside us and a trumpet player from Manchester called Jack Bell got out. I knew him as a fairly successful player up north, and he later on became involved in Maynard Ferguson's management.

Jack was our guardian angel that night. He arranged everything for us, ambulance, police interviews, hotels and repair garages. Then he disappeared. I don’t know what he was doing down there at the other end of England.

I wrote to thank him afterwards, and sent him a small travelling clock by way of thanks, but I never heard from him again until I attended a Stan Kenton Reunion in 1997. And there was Jack, now working for the Zildjian cymbal company. He’d known I was coming and had brought the clock to show me.

When we returned to London I had to make some recordings of the West Side Story music in the Conway Hall with one of the symphony orchestras. There were some of the regular orchestra members present, but Harold Jackson and Willy Lang were the other two trumpet players again. Phil Seamen was booked on drums. He came a half hour late, and forgot to bring his drums.

Years later, in 1972, while I was working in the Berlin radio stations, I made a short visit to London. I was on my way to a studio in New Bond Street at eight in the morning when I suddenly saw Phil leaning up against a doorway in Soho. He looked terrible, his mouth was gaping open vacantly, and he seemed to be on the point of collapse. I stopped the car and went up to him.

He seemed to have no idea of who I was, and when I offered to drive him home, or anywhere, he opened the door behind him and vanished inside without a word. I suppose the place was an all-night jazz club, but I’d never heard of one in that part of Wardour Street.

That was the last time I saw Phil. Indeed, it may have been the last time anyone saw him, because he was found dead a few days later. In a profession well overstocked with eccentrics he had probably been the most colourful.

Ted was always on the lookout for new ideas and, when I eventually joined his band, he asked me 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 tuning up their bagpipes in the next room.

‘Yes, I have an idea.’ They 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.

‘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. 

The Ted Heath band was often booked by London studio contractors as a unit, without Ted. One of them gave me a session one morning in an area of Paddington with which I was not familiar.

‘Is this a new studio, or what?’

‘Just turn up. There’s only one building there, and that’s it.’

When I got to the address he had given me it turned out to be a bombsite. There was a sea of rubble as far as the eye could see. Right in the centre stood the magnificent old church of St. Mary Magdalene. Apart from that the place was a moonscape, although man had yet to land on that satellite to confirm me on this.

A road of sorts had been bulldozed through the ruins. On the perimeter of all this mess stood a lonely gutted apartment block. I had problems getting past the place because a film unit had set up giant arc lamps, scaffolding and cameras right across the road and was in the throes of production. There were about a hundred windows in the three-storied block, gaunt and eyeless, staring blindly out at the bleak prospect. In each window stood a fashion model, posing prettily. Down below a man in a cowboy suit was yelling instructions through a loud-hailer.

It must have been pretty scary for the girls up there, all alone in the empty ruin, not knowing what kind of weirdos might be prowling around just behind them. The place looked as if it might collapse at any moment. I sincerely hoped that we weren’t going to be expected to play inside. Just one of our famous brass chords would have started an avalanche. You’ve heard the saying: They brought the house down?

The assistant director of the film unit told me, with clenched teeth, through his megaphone, that I was not wanted anywhere around there, and that I should continue on up to the church. He had already told fifty people the same thing, and how many more of us were there, for Christ’s Sake? All this at 200 decibels at a distance of two feet.

It certainly was a magnificent church, built, as I later discovered, by G.E.Street in 1868-1878. Inside all of the pews had been removed to make way for the London Philharmonic Orchestra in its entirety. We were sitting opposite. We jolly-good-morninged one another, blowing on our fingers and stamping around a bit, for it was freezing cold in there.

Nobody seemed to know what was up. I suspected one of those atrocities that otherwise serious composers would get up to from time to time; Stravinsky, Seiber, Zimmermann and countless others. Ooohh! Let’s write something for jazz band and symphony orchestra. I’d played one such composition once where the whole of the second movement had been written out to sound, presumably, like the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Our baritone player had done his best with what he had to play, while right beside me the classical trombonist, reluctant to surrender his part, pumped his way grimly through a collection of written notes which were supposed to make him sound like Bob Brookmeyer.

I was greatly mistaken, because when the music was handed out by the grinning lackeys of some publishing firm, it turned out to be rock and pop music of the day. It was embarrassing to sit in that lovely old church and have to play stuff like that.

To my amazement the members of the LPO didn’t seem to worry about the rubbish they were having to churn out. I knew one of the cellists slightly. He always had a cigarette in a long holder clamped between his teeth when he played, dropping ash all over the instrument and his trousers, and causing the other cellists to recoil in disgust every time he did so.

I wandered over and stood beside him. He was practising one of the less obnoxious pieces, I believe it was called Rock Around The Clock. His left hand was waving around wildly up on the neck the way cellists’ left hands do when they are firmly locked into the throes of romantic vibrato.

‘Aren’t you disgusted?’ I said. ‘Playing rubbish like this, in here—isn’t it sacrilege?’

He blew a cloud of ash down over his kneecaps and spoke around the cigarette holder, without looking up. ‘Get the money, and get out,’ he said. ‘Look here, how do you jazzers play these quavers?’

‘It wouldn’t make any difference if I told you,’ I said.

The Boston Pops (which also hadn’t yet been discovered) it was not. During one of the breaks we heard a dull crump from outside. Some bits of plaster fell from the ceiling. No one looked up, we were war-hardened.

When I left the church the film unit had gone, and so had the girls. Where the apartment block had stood was now a pile of fresh rubble, the dust still rising from it. Bulldozers were beginning to move in. A man in a yellow hard hat waved me past.

‘Mind the church,’ I said.

Some years later, the first experimental recordings in stereo were made while I was in the Ted Heath band. Turning up at Decca studios I found the whole of the brass section standing out in the street. Bert Ezard told me that the saxes were making their tracks first and we had to wait outside. This was all very new and exciting. However it was being done it was obviously not being separated on the twin tracks properly, because when we went in to dub our parts several wrong notes were discovered on the saxophone recording, and we had to go back out into the street while they did the whole thing over again.

Now and again Ted made a record using the percussionist Barry Morgan, from the Edmundo Ros band. Hearing that it was a Latin-American recording Edmundo turned up with him and insisted upon playing the Conga drum with us.

He wasn't very good at it, so Ted arranged for an urgent phone call to lure him out of the studio. While he was away we made the recording.

The funny thing about all the recordings I made with the Heath band was that Ted often looked at me after each take and raised his eybrows. It was his way of asking whether the take had been any good. If I nodded he moved on to the next title.

If we were getting near the end of a session and he called from the engineer's box to ask if the take was OK the guys  used to shout, 'Ask Ron!' The joke was that Ted was deaf, but I was even deafer than he was. Recordings used to run like clockwork in that band, anyway. There were very few mistakes. These were all superb musicians.

By now I had been playing some jobs with John Dankworth's band. His regular lead trumpet player was Derrick Abbott, but he was very busy in the session world, and had problems getting to some of the more distant towns.

I played a gig with John in Sunderland one night and thoroughly enjoyed it. This was a completely different musical environment to the Heath band.

At the time John was running a big band, with eight brass and five saxes, with the Dankworth Seven over on one side. Dickie Hawdon and Danny Moss were in the Seven. Kenny Clare was on drums.

After the gig John asked me if I'd like to join the band. I said I'd think about it, but my mind was already made up.

When I told Ted he was greatly amused.

'You can run out of bands, you know,' he said. He was right. After Dankworth there was no one left. I'd played with them all.

Dankworth >

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved