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The Great Big Bands

The Squadronaires

After about a year I left the Vic Lewis band, just before it folded, and joined the famous Squadronaires, which still had a lot of the old RAF members in it.

One of these was the first alto player, Cliff Townshend, who had moved over from the baritone chair. Almost as soon as I got to know him he started complaining to me about his teenage son Peter, who kept getting his pals around to the house and making a fearful row with amplified guitars and things. None of them understood anything about music, and it was driving him crazy.

But his wife thought that they should be encouraged, and she was right, because Peter later formed a group called The Who and started making more money in one day than his dad made in all of his life.

The band was now, alas, a ghost of its previous glorious self. Ronnie Aldrich had taken over as bandleader, and the band had gone completely commercial. Most of the arrangements had been written by him, and they were absolutely dreadful. At least ten of his scores had the exact same ending. We used to reckon that his notes to the copyist would read: Use ending number 3 on this one, and so on.

The only vestige of the past remained in the number South Rampart Street Parade, with which we opened every performance. This we played from a small published printed part, and it was probably the only good arrangement in the book. Just before I left the Vic Lewis band we had heard a Squads broadcast in the band bus. The guys at once called on the driver to stop, got out, and started beating the road with their hands with glee at the corny style of the band. Bobby Lamb told me, some years later, that the members of the Woody Herman band had done exactly the same upon hearing one of Ted Heath’s live broadcasts, made while he was touring the United States.

The Squads was traditionally a drinking band, and to get your money you had to go up to a pub in Charing Cross Road on Saturday morning and buy the manager a drink before he handed it over. He was none other than Arthur Maden, who had played bass in the original line-up. Because of the heavy drinking this was a very sociable organisation to be in, but that was all.

We had some marvellous parties in that band, most of them in tenorist Cyril Reubins’s flat in Baker Street. Kenneth Horne or Harry Secombe would often turn up at some of these gatherings and put on an impromptu show for us.

The young Scotsman Tommy Cairns was the drummer during my time with the Squadronaires.

My memories of those parties are understandably dim and somewhat confused, but I do remember, on one occasion, wandering into the kitchen and finding Tommy standing stiffly to attention up against the wall staring straight ahead. The floor was wet, and, as I watched him, his feet slid from under him and he hit the deck with a crash, still stiffly at attention. I stood him up again. As I left I heard another crash.

In the other room Red Price grabbed my arm. ‘Did you see Tommy in there?’ I nodded. ‘Did you prop him up again?’

‘Only once,’ I replied. He rushed off at once into the kitchen. There was an extraordinary amount of love between the guys in that band.  

The most famous Mrs Mac in Britain, apart from the one in the Mission in Paddington, ran a boarding house up in Hyde, Manchester. Her premises were at the end of Hyde Road, right beside a small park containing, as a small monument, a chunk of a meteor, buried in the ground where it had fallen, presumably in ancient times.

Mrs Mac was greatly loved for her superb breakfasts. The table would groan under enormous china bowls containing boiled eggs, poached eggs, legs of chicken, devilled kidneys, kippers, bloaters, sausages, tomatoes, bacon and so on. Eat one of Mrs Mac’s breakfasts and you could go for another week without food. Musicians used to fight to get into her place.

On the mantelpiece in the breakfast room was a large photo of the Queen signed Thanks Mrs Mac, Liz and Phil. No one laughed at the photo. It was probably true.

Upstairs was a mysterious room called Charlie’s Room. Someone was supposed to have committed suicide in that room, or been murdered, we never found out which. Mrs Mac wasn’t saying either. All we knew was that there was a ghost in the room and it walked at midnight.

We avoided that room like the plague, but the time eventually came when, due to overcrowding, I found myself sleeping in there with Charlie Hall, the road manager of the Squadronaires dance band, who, in a band famous for its heavy drinkers, was one of its most dedicated.

It was the ominous similarity of names that did it. I determined to bury my head under the covers at midnight and not stir, whatever happened.

I heard a church clock strike somewhere in the town. Next moment there was an earsplitting scream from Charlie.

My blood curdled. If he was getting murdered, then hard luck on him.

Another scream, then another. I heard heavy footsteps and risked a look. Ronnie Aldrich, the Squads bandleader was there in his pyjamas. Big strong enormously brave Ronnie could have killed a bear with one hand—we were saved! Nothing would dare to try and hurt us while Ron was there.

The bedroom was lit in ghostly fashion by the yellow streetlights. Charlie was sitting up in bed pointing with shaking finger at the window. His mouth was working, but no words came.

An indistinct white figure glided past the window slowly, accompanied by a low, tortured moaning sound, and surrounded by a weird blue fire which flashed and flickered eerily until the apparition disappeared once more.

I felt the hair stand up at the back of my neck.

‘Th-th-there it is a-a-again!’ stammered Charlie.

‘What is it?’ I croaked.

Ronnie thundered over to the window, stared out for a moment, then spun around to look at us craven cowards. ‘Run for your lives,’ he shouted, and rushed out of the room sniggering. I got out of bed to look for myself.

A repair tram was gliding noiselessly along further down the street. On its roof a man in white overalls did things to the overhead wires with an electric welder.

Due to the heavy drinking going on the Squad’s band bus had to pull up quite often to let the guys out for a pee. Shortly after the ghost incident the bus stopped by general request. We were in the country and it was pitch dark outside.

Ronnie Aldrich was first out, and, noticing a ditch full of water just under the exit, jumped over it to the grassy bank. As he turned to warn the others Charlie stepped out right into the ditch and disappeared completely.

The rest of us watched with interest. After what seemed ages Charlie came up again slowly, all covered with mud and weeds.

A  voice said, gravely, ‘The Return of Frankenstein.’ At the sight Charlie’s wife, no mean drinker herself, immediately collapsed into an uncontrollable fit of laughing and peed herself.

Cliff Townshend was a very quiet man, with a wry sense of humour, but something used to worry him about the sax section. On the bus, going home after a gig,  he would quite often leave his seat, walk along the bus to Monty Levy, the second alto player, and seize him by the throat. 

Cliff had a very charming wife, who sometimes accompanied him on the tours or turned up in the middle of them. She arrived in Burton-on-Trent once without warning, to surprise him, she said. Cliff was delighted, the landlady less so.

‘Where’s your marriage licence?’ she demanded.

‘You what?’

‘Come on! I don’t fall for tricks like that. I know your sort, oh yes.’

‘I don’t carry my marriage licence around with me.’

‘Well that’s your hard luck, because she’s not staying in one of my rooms with you.’

They compromised with twin bedrooms, and when Cliff, who hadn’t seen his wife for a couple of weeks, tippy-toed out to join her in the night, there was the landlady, asleep in a chair parked right across her bedroom door.

We played a dance at Booker, which had been RAF Bomber Command Headquarters during the war. Cliff had been stationed there for a while, together with Jack Parnell. As no useful work could be found for the two of them, they had been set to work building a road. Cliff took me through the woods to show it to me.

‘There it is! My war effort,’ he said, proudly. It was a short, fine, straight road about a hundred yards long, which started nowhere, and ended nowhere.

Andy Reveley was the band singer. He was quite a belligerent chap, for a singer, and, when drunk, his favourite phrase was, ‘I’ll cloomp and thoomp thee.’ Andy was great pals with the tenor saxophonist Red Price, which automatically made him pals with me. During his spot he sang a number called Down in the Glen. He sang it straight, without cloomping or even thoomping, while various bits of idiocy went on all around him. At one point Cliff and Ronnie appeared at the side of the stage and sang:

C & R:            I know where...

Andy:            I know where...

C & R:            I can get...

Andy:            I can get...

C & R:            A bottle of whisky...

Andy:            A bottle of whisky...

C & R:            For four-and-six...

...whereupon wee Archie Craig appeared from the wings saying, ‘Wheer the heck’s thaat?’

Later on Andy sang, ‘There’s the call of the pibroch...’ and I tippy-toed out from stage left clutching a squeaky rubber contraption with which I blew a tremendous raspberry. The audience loved that, and it was probably the only bit of fun I ever had in that band. It was certainly the only band I’ve played in that had catastrophes during live broadcasts. Ronnie used to get extremely uptight during broadcasts and more than once he turned two pages of a score by mistake and brought the band fully off its stroke.

On one memorable occasion he cut the band off only a few bars after we had started a number. He had written an alto saxophone solo to Kiss of Fire that he used both to start and end the piece. On the broadcast Cliff had only just finished playing the intro when Ronnie brought his hand down and stopped the band, thinking we had reached the ending. Realising his mistake he panicked, turned to the band and gave the signal for a last chord.

Why he wanted to do that remained a mystery. The only ones in the band anywhere ready to play were the trumpeter Terry Lewis and myself. We both came in, and for some reason, we both played a unison G sharp, a note that had nothing to do with the key we had been in. It sounded ridiculous and he waved his arms around, shouting, ‘No! No! No!’ so we all left him to flounder out of it the best he could. After that we could hardly play any more for laughing.

The Squadronaires were the only musicians who managed to get the BBC’s celebrated Engineer Fred so drunk during a broadcast in the Ĉolian Hall that he threw up all over the switchboard.

Now and again Tommy McQuater and Jimmy Watson came in for a broadcast or recording. These were the only times I enjoyed myself in the band. I was absolutely devoted to Tommy. He was one of the backbones of the business—first with Lew Stone, Ambrose, then the Squads, and now in the session world. He was very tough, strong and grizzled, a real old soldier, a fine player and a very good man. One of his hobbies was collecting elderly citizens from a local home for old people and driving them around in his car, either to hospital or just to give them a day out. He did this free of charge, and was on call for them whenever he was at home.

Quite often one would come across a cinema advertising a short film of Woody Herman or Duke Ellington. I was always greatly disappointed with such films, which invariably showed dancers or jugglers, with only a rare glimpse of the band. The films had been shot early in the careers of the leaders and had no connection at all with the current organisations. Such nonsense more than likely put the man in the street right off jazz. I never thought that I would take part in anything like it, then, one day, Ronnie announced that the Squads were to make a film.

‘Great!’ I thought. Now was our chance to set things right. A film of the band wailing away—we’d show everyone what the Squadronaires were made of.

The pianist Don Innes had just written his first arrangement for the band, entitled Riot in Rio. In spite of what the title might have suggested the number was neither a riot, nor was it in Latin American style. It was, in fact, a very ordinary quickstep, such as might have been played, without comment, by any palais band. Ronnie seized upon it with glee, and used it for the film. As a showcase for the band it was totally unsatisfactory. We protested at once, but Ronnie was adamant.

To make the film we journeyed deep into the Epping Forest. It was night-time, chilly, damp and foggy. Once the arc-lamps had been set up and lit we were besieged with insects. Theme of the film was a breakdown on tour. There we stood, shivering in the fog, and fighting off the insects, thoroughly miserable. Up came the bus-driver, acting for all he was worth.

‘Trouble with the mota. Take a bitter time ter fixit, Guv.’ To my astonishment he actually touched what would have been his forelock, had he had one.

Up jumps Ronnie, grinning foolishly and glistening with embarrassment. ‘Right, chaps. Let’s play Riot in Rio.’ We at once produced our instruments like magic, as if we carried them at all times in case of such emergencies, and launched into the number. A couple of tramps and some ponies appeared, stunned by the noise. The film ended with Don and Ronnie poring over the score, pointing importantly at various bars and nodding seriously. The whole thing was repeated several times until the director was satisfied.

Many years later I made my only other band short with the Max Greger band in Munich. This one was a feature for the fourth trumpet player, a nationally famous clown named Fredy Brock. As far as I can remember his act consisted of falling off the rostrum now and then during the film. That was about it. Nobody ever made films about musicians the way they really were, but how the directors thought they should be. This is probably why Stan Kenton couldn’t get any TV companies interested in the films of his highly successful nation-wide university clinics. ‘They don’t look or behave like musicians,’ said one producer to Stan. He wanted more animation, a waving of instruments, musicians smiling. ‘Musicians aren’t like that,’ said Stan. ‘Well they should be,’ said the producer, turning him down, flat.

The line-up for the Squadronaires during my stay was as follows:

Ron Simmonds, Gracie Cole, Archie Craig, trumpets;

Bill Geldard, Ric Kennedy, trombones;

Cliff Townshend, Monty Levy, Andy McDevitt, Duncan Lamont, Don Honeywill; saxes

Don Innes, piano; Harry Firth Archer, bass; Tommy Cairns, drums

Ronnie Aldrich, leader, piano, arranger; Roy Edwards, vocals.

Later on Terry Lewis, Johnny Keating, Red Price, Ken Kiddier and Andy Reavely replaced Cole, Geldard, Lamont, Honeywill and Archer.

Parnell >>>

Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved