The Great Big Bands
Jack Parnell 2
‘Don’t forget your passports,’ said Jack, the night before we left for Johannesburg. We were travelling back from a job up in Leeds. His words were enough to set off Johnny Edwards, and few of the other cats. They got out all the Latin American gear they could find in the bus, and began a rhythmic African chant which contained the words, ‘DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT — OLÉ, DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT — OLÉ’ and very little else, repeated ad nauseum.
This seemed to go on, without any variations at all, well into the early hours until Norman Stenfalt, our piano player, who had been trying to sleep, got up suddenly, walked back and snatched the bongos, maracas, and all the other Latin paraphernalia from the busy hands of each foolishly grinning player, staring each one grimly right close up in the face as he did so, nose to nose, like an angry Brigade of Guards Sergeant-Major. He took everything back to his seat, dumped it, sat on it, and went back to sleep. We were lucky. I’d half expected him to throw everything out the window.
When we arrived in Johannesburg to start the tour we were treated like royalty. There was even a band playing American Patrol to greet us at the airport.
The band that went to South Africa was:
Ron Simmonds, Bill Bedford, Terry Lewis, Jo Hunter, trumpets;
Johnny Edwards, Bobby Lamb, Derek Tinker, Clarry Baines, trombones;
George Hunter, Kevin Balenzuela, Jimmy Walker, Jack Fisher, Don Honeywill, saxes;
Norman Stenfalt, piano; Hughie Curry, bass; Kenny Clare, drums.
Irene Miller, Dennis Hale, vocals.
The theatre in Commissioner Street was packed to overflowing every performance. The people down there had never seen a big band in the flesh before, and this was one of the real good ones.
I’d only been staying in our hotel for a few days when a man turned up and asked me if I’d like to come and stay with him in his house outside town. He’d been a trumpet player in England years before, but now owned a night club and recording business.
He told me that he’d been sitting in the theatre for the past few nights watching me play through a pair of field glasses. That put me off a bit, but he seemed to be a nice guy, so I said I’d give it a try.
It was great. Charlie and Sadie Berman were wonderful people. Sadie was a beautiful dark-haired highly intelligent Lithuanian woman in her early forties. They had a roly-poly teenage son named Gideon and lived in an enormous house out in Observatory, with a black cook, maids and a gardener, and I should consider the place my home, which I did for the next four weeks.
One of Charlie’s pals was a doctor called Bocky Rabinowitz, brother of the London bandleader Harry Rabinowitz, who worked for the BBC.
Bocky was a genius, and never more so than when we played Scrabble, because he knew just about every damn medical word in the Oxford English Dictionary, and used them constantly. I considered this to be unfair, and challenged him on everything, but he was always right.
He said that life in the Jo’burg hospital was quiet, all except for Saturday nights, when the blacks would start rolling in with concussion, and knife wounds and such things. It all happened because they were allowed to drink beer on Saturdays.
We were all quite amazed at the way of life down there. The people seemed to have been in suspended animation since the Victorian age. They still called the cinema the bioscope. I was once so misinformed as to go into a cinema in Johannesburg to see the film High Sierra. I went at two in the afternoon. In England I’d have encountered a film running on a non-stop basis, looping round and round all day long. Here I sat watching commercials until 8 p.m. Then the film started. People were only coming into the air-conditioned cinema to cool down.
In the evening Johannesburg was as dead as a doornail. In each shop doorway you’d find a bundle of rags. These were the night watchmen.
Trams had signs on them: segs Blanks. They were only for white people, and there were benches at the stops exclusively for whites. Trams for the blacks were old and filthy. They ran through different routes.
I had been told that a white man walking alone at night ran the risk of being attacked and stripped of every stitch of clothing. Because of the dangers Charlie or Sadie used to pick me up in the car every night after the show. When they couldn’t come they phoned and told me to take a taxi. But I walked several times out to Observatory, and was never molested. There was a curfew on the blacks then, so that the only ones you saw had to be criminals.
One evening, when Charlie’s family were out, the house next door was burgled. Charlie’s black gardener heard the noise and phoned the police. When they arrived he was standing in the street waiting to point out the house being ransacked. The first thing the cops did was to beat him unconscious with their clubs.
As far as music was concerned South Africa was a catastrophe. There was a slump in record sales because the black Africans always scratched off the label when they bought a record, so that they would have more or less exclusive rights to playing it for their friends, thus making them more popular. This ruined the market.
Charlie had reasoned that as the American blacks all stemmed from Africa, and as they had originated jazz, then the Africans should also be natural jazz players.
He bought lots of instruments, recruited likely subjects, and tried to teach them. They managed to learn the instruments after a fashion, but had no idea of rhythm.
I found the same thing out years later when I played with some Latin bands from Brazil. They looked and sounded great on the stage, but when you sat in and played with the bands they had no rhythmic feeling at all. Inexplicable. Whenever any of those marvellous rhythm bands from Mexico and southwards wanted to record in Europe they had to book studio musicians because they just couldn’t play well enough together to make a recording.
Some of the most terrifying outings I went on with Charlie and Sadie concerned the black African gold mine workers. They’d put on an exhibition of native dancing on weekends.
We would sit on one side of a big square while they put on their show in the centre. It took strong nerves to sit without flinching when they roared up en masse with painted faces and levelled spears, especially when you’d been brought up on the diet of King Solomon’s Mines and Green Hell that I’d had as a boy.
Charlie took me to a small hall deep in Alexandra Town to see a concert put on by the locals. It was like a poor church hall, with loose benches instead of chairs, and packed solid with black men. Up on stage a steady succession of talentless Negro crumpet came on to sing. The girls sang loudly and horribly. No one took much notice of them, everyone in the hall seemed to be in a trance. Every now and then, while the screeching was going on up on stage, a black guy would fall backwards off his bench and lie unconscious on the floor. No one bothered about him, so that, very quickly, the room resembled what I imagined the Italian restaurant must have looked like after the Valentine’s Day Massacre.
‘Christ,’ I murmured, ‘What happens if we get attacked?’
Charlie showed me the handle of a gun he had stashed in his inside pocket like a Fed. I felt a tiny bit safer. That would at least account for some of them, assuming that they didn’t get us first.
Shortly after this our pianist Norman Stenfalt disappeared in the middle of one of the theatre performances. There was no sign of him anywhere, and we had to carry on without a piano.
He turned up next morning saying that he’d been kidnapped. There were always street vendors wandering up and down in the streets of Jo’burg, and Norman had bought a bright red sausage from one of them just before the concert on the previous evening. Almost as soon as we started to play he’d felt sick and had rushed off stage into an alleyway to throw up. There he’d been grabbed and bundled onto the floor in the back of a car with a couple of big black heavies sitting on him.
They’d finally pulled him out, half suffocated, in a dark street miles from the theatre and shoved him through a doorway on to a brightly lit stage.
By his description he’d landed in hall similar to the one I’d visited with Charlie. It was another talent contest, and he was to be the judge.
Once he knew they weren’t going to kill and eat him Norman perked up a bit. He began making notes, and soon sorted out the better screechers from the not-so-good. But the muscle man sitting beside him, who only spoke in primal grunts, vetoed each one of Norman’s choices of winner. An elbow in the ribs told him when the real winner came on stage. She was one of the least talented, but Norman’s companion eyeballed her lasciviously like King Kong giving Fay Wray the once-over, and Norman wasn’t going to try and stop the course of true love.
‘They only wanted me along to give the proceedings a bit of class,’ he cackled.
Something rather unusual and very touching happened to me in Johannesburg. The Bermans had a huge garden, with a pool. Somewhere right at the bottom of that garden lurked a beautiful full-grown collie dog, like Lassie. She never approached anyone and only ate the food they put out for her if everyone retreated out of sight. I often saw the dog way in the distance through my bedroom window.
Sadie said that the dog had appeared some months ago and had lived in the garden ever since. No one had been able to get near her.
The whole family went out one day, with the servants. I don’t remember why this happened, but I found myself alone in the house.
I swam a little, and lay myself down in the sun by the pool. A little later I noticed the dog come out of the bushes down at the bottom of the garden.
I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. After about five minutes I saw the dog standing beside me. I made no move. Very gently the dog lowered herself on to the grass until she was laying beside me with her head on my stomach.
Without opening my eyes I reached out carefully and began stroking the dog’s head. When I finally looked at her she was asleep.
I dare not move. Thus we lay for the next couple of hours. Now and again the dog opened her eyes. The look she gave me was one of utter devotion.
Suddenly a car came up the drive. With a lurch the dog was on her feet and streaking for the bushes.
‘I don’t believe it,’ said Charlie. ‘Did I see the dog laying beside you? She never did that for us.’
I couldn’t explain it. Even after that I could never coax the dog to come near again. It was one solitary moment in time of perfect rapport. The fact that it had happened elevated me in everyone’s eyes, and they never stopped talking about it until I left Africa.
It goes without saying that we all fell hopelessly in love during that trip. Four weeks of invitations everywhere with free brandy and countless beautiful girls breathing all over us was too much for even the staunchest family man. As far as the local girls were concerned we were Gods from the North. What was even better—we were leaving afterwards, for ever, as far as they were concerned, so there’d be no nasty repercussions.
On the train journey to Cape Town Eve Boswell threw an enormous birthday party. The whole of the dining car had been rebuilt for the occasion, and we sat at one long table that stretched from one end of the car to the other. It was a feast, the like of which I have never seen since. We ate and drank ourselves full of the rich goodies, only pausing in our revelries momentarily each time the train stopped outside some pitiful shanty town or other where the local children would line up begging beside the train. When that happened we’d throw all the food we could lay our hands on down to them, with handfuls of money, to try to cheer them up a bit.
When we got to Cape Town I shared a room with Kenny Clare. Someone had loaned us a tape recorder and some great Les Brown tapes with which we played ourselves to sleep each night. Ken’s wife Marjorie, who had travelled down by boat, was staying in Jo’burg with her parents.
Our hotel in Seapoint was right on the promenade. There were a lot of bushes out there which were filled with huge crickets. They made such a noise that conversation in the dining room was only possible if a waiter went out and beat the bushes with a stick every now and then to shut them up.
Eve’s husband Trevor came along on the trip and acted as her manager. He was an incredibly nice guy, and I could never have imagined him losing his temper.
The personnel of the Durban theatre had it in for us for some reason. Maybe they were on overtime, or couldn’t stand the British. Whatever it was they did their best to make our lives miserable with microphone drop-outs and curtain blunders. They managed to do something drastic in every show, but they saved their piece de resistance for our final night.
We were right in the middle of one big jazz feature, where Jack and Kenny Clare were playing a drum duet, when every light in the theatre went out.
Playing in the dark, without any point of orientation, was rather like floating in a black void. I could have been upside down and not known it. My memory didn’t let me down, and I was able to carry on playing, but no one else managed it except Kenny and Jack, so that I suddenly found myself all on my own. I stopped, of course, and let the two of them play extended solos until the lights came on again.
I heard Trevor remark to the stage manager that something like that had better not happen when Eve was singing.
They had something better planned for Eve. As soon as she came on the lights would normally dim and she would be lit by a single spotlight. This night the lights dimmed all right, but the spotlight stayed a couple of feet over to her left. Every time she tried to move into the little circle of light it would move away again.
I looked over at the wings. Trevor was nowhere to be seen.
Eve continued singing in this fashion, almost invisible on the stage, while the spotlight moved around temptingly a few feet away from her.
All at once the spotlight jerked madly, shot across the stage, lit up some of the guys in the band briefly, and then settled down exactly over Eve, where it remained faithful to her every movement until the show ended.
It had taken Trevor all of ten minutes to rush up the hundreds of flights of stairs to the spotlight chamber just under the roof. Once there he had felled the operator with one mighty blow and taken over the job himself. When the manager appeared later he threw him out of the chamber and locked the door.
‘You should see him when he really gets mad,’ said Eve proudly.
Shortly before we left Johannesburg we played a concert in the huge Wembley Stadium. We sat on a bandstand that had been erected in the centre. When I looked at the grandstands they were all packed with black people. Even at that vast distance it was clear that the place was sold out.
Being in the open air, and beautiful weather, the band played really superbly. Afterwards Jack paid me a rare (from him) compliment.
‘Yeah, Ron,’ he said. ‘Today you sounded just like Diz.’ Praise indeed.
As he walked away Kenny Clare leaned over and said, ‘He doesn’t like Diz.’
At the end of the concert the blacks broke the barriers and a great tidal wave of them swept across the field towards us. We had already experienced one shock of fear at the traditional war-dances, where a whole army of them had rushed up at us with levelled spears, stopping only with big smiles when the spear tips were only inches away from our jugulars. This time it looked even more sinister, but, once again, they were friendly.
Parting was sorrowful. When we looked up at the visitors’ area just before boarding the plane there was a long row of girls up there, all waving like mad, and crying their eyes out.
Only two members of the band were spared this highly emotional scene. One was the bass player, Hughie Curry. He got on to the plane drunk, and got off again thirty-six hours later in London, still drunk. The staff there tried to get one of us to assume responsibility for him, but we all pretended that we didn’t know him. It was this same bass player who had wanted some of us to drive down with him from London to Johannesburg in a minibus. Jack had vetoed the idea. We all thought that Hughie was crazy for even suggesting it.
Norman Stenfalt was seen off by a married couple who had taken him into their home and looked after him royally all the time we were in Johannesburg. As they said their farewells he told the man that he was a stupid cunt. So we took our departure.
The flight took thirty-six hours, as before, only this time we all slept most of the way. Our fame had spread, and the captain wasn’t going to go through the experience of the outward flight again, where we had all gathered in the bar at the rear of the plane, greatly upsetting the aircraft’s trim. Once there we had managed to drink the plane absolutely dry. On BOAC flights in those days drinks were free. They should have known better. This time we got a little less oxygen and behaved ourselves.
At Cairo there was a rush to the souvenir counter. With all of the screwing around no one had remembered to buy things for their wives and kids. Everything we bought was stamped Made in Egypt, which must have caused a few raised eyebrows.
I now had an offer to join Geraldo's orchestra. I had long been doing all of Gerry's broadcasts and TV shows, now I was to join the band on a regular basis. This was a really great band, with lots of prestige attached, and I joined them a few days before they left for a couple of months in Monte Carlo.
Jack Parnell was hopping mad at my leaving, probably because I told him just before we left for South Africa. I didn't want to miss that trip, but I'd be leaving straight away when we returned and he got pretty upset about that.
Before I left I had to go up to the Lew and Leslie Grade office for my insurance cards. Jack’s dad, Russell Carr Parnell was running the office at the time. Russ had, earlier in life, been a ventriloquist on the boards. He gave me my cards and told me that he never wanted to see me again. When I rejoined the band a few months later he was one of the first to tell me how pleased he was that I was back again.
Not long after I returned to London from the season with Geraldo in Monte Carlo I took on a gig with Basil and Ivor Kirchin’s band. Basil was a great drummer, one of the best, and I really enjoyed playing with the band, mostly on record dates and TV shows. This time they were going to play a dance in Coventry.
When I got to Baker Street to pick up the bus I saw the Parnell bus right behind it. All the Parnell guys swarmed around me. The two bands were booked on the same bill that night. When they discovered that I was also going to Coventry they talked me into travelling up in the Parnell bus.
I sat at the back, where I’d always sat on the bus trips.
When we picked Jack up at Abbey Road nobody said anything. He got in, said hello to everybody, and sat down.
During the journey I talked to the other guys as usual, and I saw Jack’s ears prick up after a while. Finally he turned around and then pretended not to see me, but he knew I was there all right.
That night the Kirchin band was on first. It was a demanding book, especially exciting for trumpets. Usually either Bobby Pratt or myself would get booked to play these parts on Ivor’s record sessions. On the records Bobby went by the pseudonym of Big Tarp, because he was under contract to Ted Heath at the time.
While we were playing I noticed that Jack was standing nearby, listening to the band. I travelled back to London afterwards in the Kirchin bus. Next day trombonist Tony Russell, who acted as Jack’s road manager, phoned early and said I was to get over to the EMI studios as fast as I could to record some things with Jack’s band.
‘Are you sure he said he wanted me? He doesn’t love me any more, remember?’
‘He loves you, he loves you. Now will you get out of bed and move it?’
I went into the studio and played some titles with the band. It still sounded good. Terry Lewis, my old buddy in the trumpet section, told me that the recording was a repeat of a session they’d already done a few days before. Jack hadn’t been satisfied with the trumpet section, and the session had been cancelled halfway through.
Parnell greeted me warmly, as if nothing had happened between us.
Next thing I knew I was back in the band for the third time, and with a lot more money.
There were some new guys in the band now, and right away we started having trouble with some of the wives. There were only one or two members of the band chasing after crumpet at the time—most of us were too tired after the gig for all that. The wives wouldn’t have that, and a really nasty whispering campaign went on that got so bad that one or two of the guys threatened to leave. Finally Jack banned the wives from travelling with us on the bus. I got very uptight about that until he told me privately, with some justification, that my wife was one of the ringleaders.
A few years later Bill Russo told me that the greatest Kenton band of all had almost broken up completely for the same reason.
Around this time Stan Kenton brought his new band to Britain. This was the Cuban Fire band and Stan had added two French horns to the brass section. The first trumpet was a classical player named Ed Leddy, who did that difficult job admirably well. Lennie Niehaus led the saxes and the trombone section was graced with the presence of the great Carl Fontana.
Not long after the band arrived in Europe two of the sax players got busted for possessing drugs, so Kenton had to fire them. He replaced them with Don Rendell and Ronnie Ross, but when Ronnie had to quit due to other commitments Stan asked Don Honeywill to play the gig on baritone.
Of course we were all just as excited as Don about the offer, and I insisted upon driving Don and his wife Rita up to Wolverhampton for his first job in the band.
The band was tremendous, as usual, and to look at and listen to Don one would have thought he had been born into the band. As far as I can recollect he played the rest of the tour with Stan. Kenton told me many years later that he had always been astounded at the sight-reading proficiency of British musicians, together with their other impressive talents.
It was during that evening that I had my one and only brief meeting with Carl Fontana. I had gone into the Gents toilet and was standing there, staring at the wall in the approved manner, when I suddenly realised that he was standing beside me, also staring at the wall.
I introduced myself, and then asked him a question that had been burning in my mind for some time.
'Are you all having to pull out further to get down to the tuning over here?' I asked.
'Funny you should ask that,' he answered. 'Seems to be way down. I'm pulled pretty far out. Why's that?'
'Don't ask me. It's just that we all seem to have to pull out the slides of American instruments much further here. Makes them harder to play in tune. Is the pitch higher in the States, then?'
We then got into an animated discussion about the standard concert pitches of our respective countries, a commodity that I had always assumed to be identical. We did all this while still standing, staring at the wall. After a while we realised that a lot of the other users of the toilet were looking at us rather strangely.
'We can't go on meeting like this,' I said, and we parted.
Parnell took a summer season in Douglas on the Isle of Man. Ivy Benson’s band was also playing in the Isle of Man that season. It was a very good all-girls band, and they packed their dance hall every night. All of us musicians got into a habit of visiting a certain pub on Sunday lunchtimes, where the owner played a mean baritone sax, accompanied on piano by his wife, who looked like a mortician, was thin, compressed, and dressed entirely in black.
There was a fairy bridge on the road between the airport and Douglas. Everyone passing over the bridge had to say ‘Good Morning Fairies’ or whatever time of day it was to the fairies. Otherwise they’d get mad, and terrible things would happen to you, like your dick would fall off and so on. The driver of the airport bus used to stop just before the bridge and warn everyone about it. It was pretty funny seeing all the reps and bankers in their somber business suits mumbling away as we crossed.
All at once we were a studio band, playing over at Wood Green Empire for the new ATV television station. The entire road band vanished overnight. I was the only one Jack retained. Suddenly the band was filled with London studio musicians.
There were four main contractors for the London studios, and they were Charlie Katz, Harry Benson, Jack Simmons and Nobby Clarke. Charlie was a first violinist, and Nobby had played trombone in the previous TV orchestra. These contractors, known as fixers, could make or break a studio musician, so you had to be very careful indeed in all dealings with them. I didn’t know any of them at the time.
I suddenly found myself leading a section of all of the great lead trumpet players I had worshipped in the past—Tom McQuater (Squadronaires), Basil Jones (Teddy Foster), Freddy Clayton (Geraldo), Derrick Abbot (John Dankworth), and, sometimes, Stan Roderick (Ted Heath).
To my great amusement Derrick and Basil, two of the players I’d admired the most, used to turn up in the studios extra early just to grab the third and fourth trumpet parts. Only Stan Roderick seemed to be immune from this. Alone of all the great and famous big band lead players, only Stan still had the motivation necessary to play first trumpet. If he was handed a part that was too high for him to play he wasn’t too proud to ask for some help on it.
Most of the brass players in Parnell’s television orchestra were heavy drinkers. Some of the trombone players used to fool around like schoolkids during the transmissions, playing all kinds of practical jokes. One of the things they got up to was firing wads of wet paper through the trombone at the big tam-tam during the show. Because of the noise going on in the Eggbox Nobby told me that the engineers had to turn our microphones off until the time came for us to play something. Still, the band managed to play extremely well, and with great precision. Alas—many of those musicians have died before reaching old age, often from the results of too much alcohol.
One of my biggest pals, Freddy Clayton, managed to rescue himself after having been an alcoholic for years. He wrote a book afterwards about his fight to recover as a help to others, and the book became a best-seller. He died in 1990 of cancer after having fought that, too, for many years.
Derrick Abbott stopped playing after a while and went back up north, where he died soon after. He had been a keen pilot, with a twin-engine commercial licence, but had to give that up when he was grounded after a medical had revealed sugar in his blood.
Derrick looked like a very mild sort of person, a little plump, and very good-natured. In his spare time he was very interested in the martial arts, and was well on his way to becoming a Black Belt.
Driving home late one night he was attacked by three youths on motor cycles while waiting at a traffic light. Within seconds of their assault he had knocked one of them unconscious, broken another's arm and captured the third. He then got his very frightened captive to help him load his car with the others, in order to drive them to the nearest hospital.
Basil Jones died comparatively young. He had always been very fat, with a bright red face, and an enormous RAF-type handlebar moustache, which was always in great danger when he lit a cigarette. At the time of writing only Tommy McQuater and myself are left out of Jack Parnell’s original Wood Green trumpet team. They were a wonderful bunch of people.
In the interval before TV shows we often drove up to a bar inside Alexandra Palace, the pioneering BBC television studio on top of a nearby hill, known to Londoners as Ally Pally.
When Basil had rather a lot to drink he had a tendency to walk to the left. Tommy, on the other hand, went to the right. It was only possible to get them both going straight ahead when we came out of Ally Pally if I arranged them with Basil on the right. Then they banged together and supported one another.
Basil was unfortunate enough to live right beside an American Army base in Uxbridge. This was the home of the American Army Band, famous for its playing of the Saint Louis Blues March at a fast trot. Whenever some big event was in the offing Basil, together with everyone else in the neighbourhood, was treated to day-long rehearsals of the piece.
From his window he could see the soldiers running up and down the compound while they played. This may have pleased some of the locals, but for a musician it was murder. When someone brought in the Glenn Miller arrangement for us to play on a TV show Basil flatly refused to play it at first. Tommy and I had to take him up to Ally Pally to cool him down.
Tommy’s wife’s name was Twinkle. I never knew her real name. During the war, when he was stationed at Ruislip with the Squadronaires dance band, she sent him up to town to do the shopping. Having done that he visited several pubs, then took the train home. When he arrived at Ruislip station he staggered out and went immediately to the right, fighting his way through several hedges and over a muddy ploughed field. He got home covered with scratches, his clothes torn, minus the shopping bag and the ration books. He told me this story himself.
It was hard for me working with these people at first, because the lead player was always paid extra, and the other guys expected him to spend this extra money on drinks for everyone. I did it a couple of times, then I said that I wasn’t going out boozing with them any more before the shows. I was earning the extra money anyway, while they had the heat entirely off them on the lower parts. I wanted to keep a cool head when I was playing.
A television show is always made up of bits and pieces, and you have to have your wits about you in a live hour-long show, where something could be happening every few seconds. Jack Parnell mastered the technique of conducting this fearfully difficult type of work very quickly, and became an expert at it. Why not? A musician’s work is very similar to that of a mathematician in many ways, and none more so than that of a drummer. We count, add, subtract, and permutate continually while we are playing.
The whole of the rest of the orchestra was taken over by the most prestigious of the London studio players. Bob Burns led Dougie Robinson, Bob Adams, Frank Reidy, and Phil Goody in the saxes. Laddy Busby had George Chisholm and Jack Irving with him in the trombones. Jackie Armstrong, Ted Heath’s lead trombonist, came into the band on bass trombone. Norman Stenfalt, Dave Goldberg, Lenny Bush, and either Jock Cummings or Bobby Midgeley made up the rhythm section, with a large string section led by Alec Firman, and the elegant Russian Countess Marie Korchinska on harp.
Quite a few of the London musicians had nicknames, mostly given to them by Stan Roderick, who had a caustic wit. The celebrated conductor Robert Sharples was called, behind his back, the Pre-war Lesbian, due to his horn-rimmed glasses and slicked-down black hair. There was a small fat Jewish violinist called The Pawnbroker, and another, with mad staring eyes, Guilty but Insane. Dave Lindup was the Japanese Tram-Driver, due to his meagre stature, and the thick bottle lenses of his glasses. Roy Willox was The Policeman, and Sir Malcom Sargent Flash Harry. There were many more.
Now and then we had a couple of horn players on the session, usually a man named Jim Buck and his son. As his son was also named Jim Buck, we called him Jimbukto. Jimmy Blades, the man who had recorded the ominous V-sign on the timpani for the BBC wartime station identification signal sometimes came along. He’d also become famous as being probably the only musician ever to sue the BBC and win damages after falling from an insecure rostrum and breaking his leg. His brother Tommy also played timps with us on various occasions. Tommy had been blessed with a curious face, rather like a Spitting Image of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, which usually prompted Stan to say that Tommy was on loan to us from Madame Tussaud’s (London's famous Wax Museum).
I was particularly friendly with the viola player Bert Powell. He sat over in the string section behind Alec Firman and Charlie Katz, who were the first violinists in the Parnell TV orchestra. Charlie was the big contractor for most of the sessions in the London studios, so he was king. If you fell out with Charlie you might as well give up the instrument. Although Alec was the orchestra leader, Charlie was the one with the mouth, and he ran that section like a schoolmaster. ‘Don’t you ever dare demonstrate golf strokes while you’re in my section,’ I heard him say one day. He had turned around suddenly and caught The Pawnbroker standing in a circle of colleagues and addressing an imaginary ball with a double grip on his violin bow.
Being a viola player Bert was the constant butt of all the viola jokes. According to Cecil Forsyth: 'It is a wretched instrument...imperfect in construction...difficult...somewhat uneven in tone-quality, and undeniably clumsy to manage'.
‘What are the two coldest things in the world?’ said Bert to me one day. We were standing in the pub on the top of Hampstead Heath at the time, on the way to Wood Green.
I shook my head.
‘The tip of a polar bear’s tool, and a viola solo.’
Over a period of five years Bert gave me most of the viola jokes. Here are some of the best ones, preserved for posterity:
What is the difference between a
viola and a lawnmower?
What’s the nicest sound a viola
What’s the difference between a
run-over hedgehog and a run-over viola player?
What do you call four viola players
in a Mini driving over a cliff?
How do you get a viola player to
perform a tremolo?
What’s the audition piece for a
viola player to get into the Juillard School?
Most of the independent television studios at that time were in the Empire chain of cinemas, at Hackney, Shepherd’s Bush, Chelsea, and Wood Green. Part of the auditorium at Wood Green had been screened off for the orchestra, and, to render the room sound-proof, thousands of the small, square, indented papier-mâché templates normally used for holding eggs, had been nailed all over the walls and ceilings, covering them entirely, and thereby earning the studio the name of The Eggbox.
There is something unique about the top professional musician. Skilled, disciplined, and precise, he has little need of rehearsal. He instinctively knows which style he should be playing. If he plays with the Basie band, then he plays Basie style, and makes a Basie sound. Be it Les Brown, Kenton, Herman, Buddy Rich, Billy May, Glenn Miller—even Lawrence Welk—he knows exactly how he has to perform in every line-up. At one moment he can be a wildly individualistic soloist, and in the next a highly disciplined team member. He greatly respects his colleagues, and is respected by them in turn. He is also, unfortunately, exploited by many. It is very rare that an instrumentalist will become rich. I doubt that even the best known of all, Louis Armstrong and Stan Getz, received all the profits from their highly successful commercial recordings.
The most financially successful playing musician is purported to have been the drummer Buddy Rich, while working in the Tommy Dorsey band, but Buddy lost most of that money later on when he ran his own band.
With the Parnell television orchestra we accompanied everybody who was somebody, and a whole lot of people who were never going to be anybody. There was hardly a New York or Hollywood stage or screen celebrity who didn’t pass through those doors. The canteen was small, so we literally rubbed shoulders with the stars.
Eric Sykes was the standard comic at Wood Green, with the boxer Freddy Mills, Hattie Jacques, and Charles Hawtrey in his team. The shows were all live, of course. These were the heady days of television before video recording and colour came along. Now and then Charles came on the transmission so drunk that Barney Gailbraith had to jump in at a second’s notice to fill the role. Barney led the vocal group, and had probably been told to keep an eye on Charlie.
We were by no means impressed by the flood of show-business personalities. Every time the singer Johnny Ray did a show with us, for instance, some producer would hit on the idea of having him emerge from behind the curtains at the far end of the studio in a long-distance shot, and slowly make his way towards the camera, singing his big hit Cry.
We all knew that just behind the curtains there was a Gents’ toilet. When this happened Tom McQuater remarked dryly, ‘Och, here comes Johnny Ray again, straight out of the khazi.’
Visiting stars often came out with the most outrageous requests. One American singer came over to the trumpets in the Wood Green TV studio and complained that we weren’t playing high enough. ‘Back home the guys really wail into this stuff,’ he said.
I pointed out that the parts were written in a normal register.
‘Well, can’t you play them higher?’
‘Which parts would you like to have higher?’
‘Oh, what the hell! Play everything higher.’
So we played everything in that man’s act an octave higher. This put me right up in the upper reaches of the trumpet, screeching about high A’s and Bb’s, even on the occasional bits of melody. It sounded terrifying.
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ said the singer. ‘That’s what I want!’ Parnell looked at me with raised eyebrows. Bob Burns called the singer over and asked him, with an absolutely straight face, whether he would like the saxes to play an octave higher as well. Luckily the guy was called away before he could make a decision on that, but the trumpets played it all up on the show, an incredible performance. This was probably a milestone in television broadcasting, never to be repeated.
The Ted Heath band accompanied Johnny Mathis on one show, and Bert Ezard had some extremely high notes on his part that he belted out good and loud on the rehearsal. The conductor, Allyn Ferguson, stopped the band just after and wandered over to the trumpets.
‘Which one of you guys plays the screamers?’ he said. ‘We usually have someone playing some high notes just there.’
‘What the f— do you think I was just doing?’ said Bert.
One night, in the canteen bar, I got into an earnest conversation with the film actor Trevor Howard. Like most talented actors he didn’t talk about himself, but showed great interest in the work I was doing. This was very flattering, but that's the way most artistes were with musicians. I had a similar experience with Mel Tormé. I've also had the most interesting conversations with eminent surgeons, racing drivers, and even a German Minister-President, whom I once met on holiday, and with whom I regularly played chess without being aware of who he was. Charlie Chaplin said, in his memoirs, that musicians make the most interesting conversationalists. We don't talk about ourselves, or our profession, but mostly about other musicians.
Back in my semi-pro days I had often thought that several of the top-line big band musicians were arrogant, or unfriendly. In fact, many of them were extremely shy, and put up a stone face to avoid contact with the public. One such person was the trombone player Jimmy Wilson, who had, at one time, been married to the vocalist Linda Russell.
Jimmy has an extraordinary technique on the trombone which I have never seen equalled. There are seven playing positions on the trombone, and for each note played, the slide has to be placed exactly on one of those positions to obtain the correct note. As some of the notes could quite possibly be up to three feet apart the trombonist is often seen pumping away for dear life to get to them in time. Jimmy eschewed all that effort, and moved his slide with a smooth, almost imperceptible, lazy indolence that won the admiration of all onlookers. No one knew how he did this. Ken Goldie, on the other hand, played with almost grim, military precision, jerking the slide violently down to each note and stopping dead on each position, almost robot-like. When the two of them sat side by side it was hilarious to watch, and we called them, secretly, Maggie and Jiggs.
I got that job because of a little introduction I played when the Palladium conductor Cyril Ornadel was running one of our television shows at Wood Green. He brought along a piece of music called Blow Gabriel, Blow which I believe was from one of the Donald O’Connor/Mitzi Gaynor films, the title of which escapes me for the moment.
The introduction to this piece of music was coincidentally the very beginning of the show. That is to say—the red light went on—Cyril pointed at me, and off I went all on my own.
The concept was, frankly, terrifying.
Just looking at the part gave Tommy Mac the horrors. I had to start
down on the bottom G of the trumpet and do a half-valve glissando covering
three octaves and landing up on a high F. This had to be held for a
slow count of three before a kind of jazz fanfare that took me down
to the middle register once more. This whole unaccompanied bit lasted
for about thirty seconds and was fraught with dangers. Missing a note,
or even fluffing the first one would have turned the show’s opening
into a fiasco.
I didn’t miss it—as a matter of fact it wasn’t half as difficult as some of the stuff I used to play every night in the touring bands, maybe just a little more exposed.
Although I played with Jack Parnell's band for many years, more than I worked with any band prior to moving to Germany, I don't think Jack really liked me. We probably had a personality clash anyway, but I always had the impression that he'd be glad to see the back of me.
Jack was one of the very few bandleaders I worked for that didn't praise his musicians too often for their performance. Sampson, Rabin, Geraldo, Heath, Dankworth were always very complimentary. Vic Lewis congratulated me after every performance, and praises my playing even today when I see him, some fifty years after. In Europe Stan Kenton, Lionel Hampton, Don Ellis, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Henry Mancini, Peter Herbolzheimer and many others showered compliments on me. Such appreciation certainly gives one's confidence a tremendous boost. Jack only praised me once, in Johannesburg, as I've already mentioned, and Kenny Clare damped that down somewhat afterwards as a joke. Still, I think I did a reasonable job for him. He certainly kept booking me. (Jack finally did tell me he liked my playing, forty years later. It was all the more agreeable praise mellowed with age, and, what's more, I really believe he meant it. When he told me it certainly made my day.)
Now the fabulous West Side Story was coming to London. The American stars would play on for the first six months in England until the British actors had learned the parts. Phillip Jones, the classical trumpet player and member of the Sinfonia, who was booking the orchestra in London, phoned and offered me the job on first trumpet.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved