The Great Big Bands
One thing that Ive always felt sorry about is the fact that I never played in a regular trumpet section with Kenny Baker. He was long established as the Number One trumpet player in Britain, even while I was still at school. Together with Stan Roderick he had led the wonderful brass section of the first Ted Heath band. When I moved into the London session world he moved out and started playing solo engagements at working mens clubs all over the country.
Now and again he would do a broadcast with a group which he called Kenny Bakers Dozen, using Albert Hall and myself on trumpets. But he was always out front playing solos, and I never ever sat beside him. I even used to play one of his recorded solos on Dark Eyes with the Parnell band. I played it pretty badly, I guess, because I could hardly make some of the extremely low notes at the beginning. Still, I played the high part OK, and finished up on the high note hed written at the end, getting lots of applause, so probably everyone thought all of my fumbling around in the beginning were part of the act.
Kenny used a fluegelhorn on the Bakers Dozen broadcasts, probably the only one in use in the country at the time. It was very old, French, and sharp-pitched. Neither Albert nor I could play it in tune, but Kenny lipped down all the notes perfectly when he played.
I took him to task over his desertion from the session world. Why play all those silly working mens clubs? As an answer he took a pint glass out of his case and said, And now, ladies and gentleman, with the aid of an empty beer glass, I will perform my fifty guinea version of the great Louis Armstrong playing Blueberry Hill. At the time the rest of us were getting paid £8 a session.
At the time of writing Kenny has just made several albums of Louis Armstrong solos. By all reports the results are fabulous. Kenny is ageless. He has a baby face which, with him over 70, still shows no lines.
On a trip to London from Germany in the 70s I went down to the BBC Maida Vale studios to see the reconstructed Ted Heath band, now led by trombonist Don Lusher. All the old members were there, and Kenny was leading the brass section.
When I walked in the band was playing Ill Give You Something To Remember Me By. As soon as he saw me Kenny shouted out, Ill give you something to remember me by, and at once played, perfectly, an incredibly difficult bit of high trumpet lead, keeping his eyes on me all the time to see if I was watching.
Rosemary Squires was singing with the band. On my way out of the studio she pulled me aside. That Tommy Sampson was a bad man, she whispered. She didnt elaborate, however, and I left. In those days, when we said someone was bad it usually meant he was good. When Jimmy Deuchar liked something he would say, 'How bad!' When we all met Tommy thirty years later Rosemary had her arms around his neck, kissing him, so I guess she still loved him, as we all did.
Laurie Johnson had the idea of making a jazz style recording with all of us playing brass band instruments. For the trumpets that meant hiring cornets, as only Stan Roderick had his own. Although the cornet is supposed to be be easier to play than the trumpet we found them devillish difficult to play, and none of us enjoyed the session. Kenny Baker played soprano cornet, impeccably of course, but the trombone players cursed continually as they struggled with the unfamiliar tenor and baritone horns.
Only Jackie Armstrong seemed to feel at home on the euphonium. Stan played a marvellous solo on The Midnight Sun Will Never Set, but I dont know whether the record was ever issued. Later on we played some of the numbers in a concert in Hammersmith, but we used regular instruments, and I played the soprano cornet parts on the trumpet. It sounded much better, but the experiment was worth a try.
Many of the session conductors had their pet first trumpet playersomeone with whom they felt comfortable, and upon whom they thought they could rely at all times. Some of them were social friends, and, quite often, the trumpet player was not a whole lot of good.
Now and again I would get booked on a session with a conductor with whom I had never worked before, and come across one of these people sitting like a king in the middle of the trumpet section, giving out the parts. I turned up at the EMI studios one day to find the huge main studio crammed with musicians. There were hundreds of us there, taking up so much room that the conductor, Norrie Paramour, had to address us through a megaphone. We were to make an epic recording of the music from the film Exodus.
There were five trumpets, and I found myself way out on the right-hand end of the section playing fifth trumpet, with a guy named George, whose other name I have, mercifully, completely forgotten, playing first trumpet. Alan Franks was out on the other end playing fourth. Tom McQuater and Stan Roderick made up the rest of the section, so there was nothing wrong with it, apart from George.
Once we had started it quickly became obvious to everyone in the brass section that George was not going to make it on first trumpet. He should never have been there in the first place. The part was too high and too strenuous for him. If hed had any brains he would have handed it over, straight away, to any one of the other players, without losing face. We were in the business to make musicthere was no gamesmanship involved. But he struggled on, until he had messed up on four run-throughs. A split second before we made the first recording he handed the part over to me.
Play this for me, will you, Ron? he said.
I liked that for me, as if Id be doing him a personal favour.
We made a take at once, before Id even had a chance to draw a proper breath. Leaping up more than an octave higher from the parts Id been previously playing, I misread a couple of notes in the introduction. Norrie stopped the orchestra at once, and wended his way through the huge mass of players, with a resigned look on his face, until he came up in front of the trumpet section.
Come on, he pleaded, Cant you get it right? I havent heard it right once yet.
Ronnies got the lead, said George, at once.
Norrie looked at me. Before he could open his mouth Alan leaned over and said, But hes only just received the part.
Oh, said Norrie, and walked back out to the front of the orchestra. By the time he got there Id had enough time to look through the part. George had, by now, gone bright red, because most of the nearby musicians had heard the exchange, and were looking around at him with amusement.
I played the recording and it was OK. Paramour came over and thanked me afterwards, which I believe was a quite unusual event. Even Geraldo used to thank me after broadcasts, which was also unheard of, especially for him. Whoever it came from, getting praise after a performance always made me feel pretty good.
There were quite a few people in the bands who goofed off all of the time. Most of them should never have been in a professional job. Sitting where I was I could only see what was happening in the trombone section, but I knew it was going on all over the place. The guy would sit there in the middle of a number, dreaming away, or staring at the women, and miss all the cues to play. Sometimes the man beside him would pick up his horn suddenly to catch him out, and the dreamer would panic, lift up his own instrument quickly and search the part anxiously to find out where he was.
Carelessness of this nature was usually covered up by the guys who were paying attention, but there was a piece of music that most bands played called Skyliner, which invariably showed them up. This tune was made famous by the Charlie Barnet band, mostly because it contained an unusual passage, known as a pyramid, which always made a big hit with the listeners.
In the pyramid, which came several times in the arrangement, the members of the brass section had to play sustained notes, ascending one after the other, producing a sound rather like the consecutive striking of eight differently pitched bells. The idea was unique to Skyliner, indeed, I have only ever heard this bell-note effect in one other arrangement: that of Ellingtons original score of Take the A Train. In Take the A Train the bells were descending, and irregular, making it even more difficult to play, but most bands gave this arrangement a miss, or else jumped over the bars containing the pyramid.
Of course, to get it right everyone had to be wide awake. Some of those players were seldom in that condition, and when one of the trombones goofed on his note it threw off everyone playing after him. Id say that I played that tune roughly a couple of thousand times in my career, and maybe only heard it played correctly 50 percent of the time. For this sort of lax behaviour to occur in some of the top-ranking bands of the day was nothing short of disgraceful.
About twenty years after leaving London I met one of the biggest culprits working in the joke band Sid Seymour and his Nitwits. I observed him closely during the stage show, and he was still goofing off, although in that band it was a distinct advantage. Still, hed made a career out of it, and looked fat and prosperous.
Nobby Clarke, who contracted for the Parnell TV orchestra, also booked the orchestra for a man named Billy Hill-Bowen, who often made recordings with huge orchestras in the Walthamstow Town Hall. I turned up there one day to find that we were to record the Richard Rodgers film music for Victory at Sea.
Alan was there, with Tom McQuater and Freddy Clayton, and it was obvious right from the start that they expected me to play the first trumpet part. There was a long slow, drawn-out classical-type trumpet solo in the middle of the piece, and I protested at once. Any one of them would have been better suited to play that, my being a big band raver, and all. They were all far better players than I, anyway. But Alan said, straight-faced, that theyd voted the part on me because I didnt have any nerves.
In those days there was no chance of a playback, or the extra dubbing on of parts which is nowadays an integral factor in recording music. You had to play live, and, if one musician made a mistake, it was back to the beginning for everyone. This called for fierce concentration by each of the players in an orchestra which could be of anything up to a hundred and fifty musicians.
As soon as we reached the solo during the rehearsal I saw what Alan had meant about nerves, because at that spot the whole orchestra died away to almost nothing, leaving the solo trumpet in the predicament commonly referred to by musicians as roasting.
The solo had to be dead quiet, and without vibrato. If the player got the nervous shakes on it, it would come out loud and clear on the recording. (In musicans slang a fit of the nervous shakes was usually referred to as an attack of the pearlies, proporting to be derived from the Cockney Rhyming Slang for Pearly Gates, although I have always failed to see the connection.)
Billy Hill-Bowen, after he had heard it for the first time, went and had a conference with the engineers, who decided that the best way of recording the solo would be if I played it in one of the town hall corridors. In this way they would get the necessary haunting echo effect, so important to this part of the work.
Alan arranged everything for me. Boy, was he glad that he didnt have to play it. He fixed up the music stand in the long corridor, while the engineer ran cables in for the microphone. Earphones were hooked on to the stand, so that I could keep in contact with the rest of the orchestra. We made a test, and things seemed to be OK.
I had about sixteen bars to get off the trumpet rostrum, tippy-toe in my socks over to the corridor with my music, and get ready to play. The first time we tried it I rushed over to the door leading to the corridor and found that the caretaker had, for some reason, come by and locked it. This caused everyone to fall about laughing, all except Hill-Bowen, who personally went and found the culprit and gave him a blasting.
Off we went again. We had to play quite a long bit of music before the solo came up, and I kept on looking over to make sure that the door was still open. Alan caught my eye and gave me a reassuring nod. When the time came for the solo he rushed over to the door and opened it for me. I put my music on the stand, clapped on the earphones and prepared to play, my heart thudding in my ears like crazy from the mad rush.
Alan gave me a thumbs-up and closed the door. The wind of the closing door lifted up my music and wafted it along the corridor. I rushed after it, forgetting that I was still wearing the earphones. The stretched cable pulled them off suddenly, together with my glasses, and several parts of my head. I tripped and fell, just managing to save my trumpet from destruction.
Other doors opened, and curious heads looked in. What are you doing? said Hill-Bowen, crossly.
I arranged for someone else to play the half page of my part before the solo and stood in the corridor for a minute or so awaiting my entrance. This time nothing went wrong, and it came off well. There is quite a lot of drama in the background to many such recordings, things of which the listener can hardly be aware. Alan told me, however, of one such incident in the Royal Albert Hall, which happened before an audience.
I cant recall the name of the symphony orchestra, or the player involvedsuffice it to say that they were all very eminent, highly respected classical musicians. The work, the name of which also escapes me, called for a trumpet call somewhere in the middle. This was given by one player on the stage, followed by an echo from another trumpet player high up on the balcony.
During the performance of the piece, the player responsible for the echo made his way surreptitiously from the podium, through the corridors, up the stairs, and into the back of the balcony, which was crowded with people. When the time came for him to play he walked down to the front of the balcony and raised his trumpet. He was at once seized in an iron grip from behind by the balcony attendant.
What do you think youre up to? he hissed, trying to pin down the struggling musician. At that moment the trumpet call from the orchestra was heard, loud and clear. The conductor, who was none other than Sir Thomas Beecham, bowed his head, awaiting the answer. During the struggle the trumpet player on the balcony managed to get his instrument up to his lips, with the attendant furiously trying to get it away from him. A strangled farting sound was all he could get out.
Sir Thomas looked up in amazement, while the orchestra, ninety-nine men, good and true, began to titter. The audience quickly realised what had happened, and the place was soon in an uproar.
Hm. Well play that one again, said the eminent conductor.
Sir Thomas Beecham was well known for his wit. If any member of his orchestra sat before him with a streaming cold he never failed to recommend the famous powders manufactured by his familys pharmaceutical firm. Listening in awe to a tuba player struggling for the fourth or fifth time to get his solo right he stopped the orchestra and said, kindly, Why dont you try rolling it on the floor?
To a lady cellist he is reported to have said, 'Madam, that is a wonderful thing you have there between your legs. Don't scratch it - stroke it.'
During a performance in the Albert Hall he is reported to have pointed at a trumpet player, who was waiting to come in with the solo in Petrushka, and mouthed the word, Sharp.
Afterwards the trumpeter asked him why he had said that.
I hadnt even played up to then, he said.
No, said Sir Thomas, But you were going to, and when you did play you were going to be sharp. I know you.
I never made a technically satisfactory recording in England up until I left in 1963. Even the German studios turned out better quality stuff. It was frustrating to know that the Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller 78 rpm recordings were years ahead in quality, and yet no one could find out how they did it.
Finally Decca soundproofed their studio completely, in an attempt to get a better sound. This had the effect of completely destroying the sound of the instruments, and undermining the confidence of the players. Everything coming out of the horns was damped down, without overtones, and sounded like dead men playing. To get an echo effect on the recordings the engineers put a microphone near a loudspeaker in one of the toilets, and played the whole affair through that. While we were making some Billy May type recordings under these conditions I complained bitterly to the engineer.
Why cant you make it sound like Billy May? I said.
The engineer gave me a thin smile.
You try and play like him, and Ill see what I can do.
The problems with recording were exacerbated by the knowledge that the Glenn Miller band of the AEF had made all their wartime V-Discs in an army drill hall in Bedford. Tom McQuater had travelled up there to listen to the band, and he said that they were getting a natural echo in therejust the thing that the London studios were fiddling about trying to get in the toilets. The shortage of mutes in those days caused the Miller trumpets to use empty spam tins as plungerssomething eagerly copied at once by the British players.
Standing there one day, thrilling to the sound of the band, Tommy became aware of a soldier standing beside him.
Out of tune, out of tune, he kept muttering. As the band continued playing he picked out faults, one after the othernot together, rotten phrasing, wrong notes.
Here! Who the hell do you think you are? said Tommy suddenly, not being able to stand it any more. But the guy wasnt listening. Striding up the hall he waved his arms and shouted, Stop! Stop! It was Sergeant Jerry Gray, the arranger, probably the only man Miller ever respected in his whole life. That Miller was not a particularly nice person is legend; when they made him an army major he became insufferable.
A certain British trumpet player was loaned to the Glenn Miller AEF band when one of the regular trumpet players had to lay off for some reason or another. He was welcomed by the band with the usual camaraderie that abounds amongst musicians and they showed him where to sit. It was all very pleasant and jolly, and then, suddenly, Miller walked into the room. The silence that fell was so total and icelike that he felt suddenly cold. At the end of two gruelling hours of almost bar-by-bar rehearsing of such Miller arrangements as Tuxedo Junction (It was just as though they had just got it, not played it a thousand times, said the trumpet player ruefully. Even I had played it hundreds of times with other bands), there was a short break. The trumpet player was so knocked out with the precision and sound of the band, that he felt he should say something to Glenn Miller, who had ignored him completely, looking right through him on occasions. So he went up to where Miller was discussing something with one of the arrangers, waited till they were finished, and then spoke. Er, Major Miller, Sir . . . I would just like to say Miller wheeled round on him. Speak to me through a Warrant Officer, please! he said. The trumpet player was so taken aback that he almost cried. I didnt have any conversation with Miller the rest of the two weeks I was there, he told me. When I left to go back to my own service band, he didnt say goodbye, thanks, or anything. Everybody else in the band was great. If Miller had only smiled once it would have been the happiest time of my life.
The Beatles were now in the news. The Abbey Road engineers had already told us about this group, and how theyd spend all day working out the melody and text for just one song. In the beginning they also had to use professional guitar players for their recordings.
In the yearly Melody Maker popularity poll, the name of Ringo Starr suddenly appeared, above that of the fabulous Buddy Rich, who had been winning the drum poll as long as most of us could remember. Shortly after that issue of the magazine came out we turned up at Decca one day to find a strange guy sitting there on drums.
Right away we started firing questions at the producer. Who the hell was he? Did he have a union card? Could he play?
Of course he could play, they said, hadnt he just been voted the best drummer in the world?
We started to record a title. After a couple of minutes we took a break. When we came back one of our regular session drummers was there. Ringo had disappeared. He should worry.
I was offered a job by Cyril Stapleton in the BBC Show band. When I turned it down he offered me a retainer of £40 a week just to be on call for him. This was the same money as I was getting for a whole week in the West Side Story, in those days a great deal of money.
Meanwhile, Bill Metcalf, one of the trumpet players in the Show Band, told me that Cyril only had one half-hour broadcast every Saturday lunchtime on his schedule. I signed the contract, which was for two years. Apart from a couple of BBC TV shows, practically all I ever did with Stapleton was that Saturday broadcast from the Paris Cinema, right beside Piccadilly Circus.
We did the TV shows in a studio down by the Thames in Hammersmith. They were huge affairs, with a large string orchestra. Bill had already made me aware of the fact that Stapleton was somewhat of an authoritarian. He insisted that no one came on the stand drunk, which was fully understandable, but he also stipulated that every instrument in the brass section be gold plated, or gold lacquered, and that every musician should wear black patent leather shoes.
When I first turned up for one of the jobs I was using my normal trumpet, which was silver-plated, and normal black shoes. The rest of the guys kept nudging one another, and waited for the storm when Cyril saw me. But he said nothing, didnt even appear to have noticed. Later on Albert Hall came in on some jobs, and he, too, had a silver trumpet. I doubt whether Cyril would have really expected anyone to go and buy another instrument just to satisfy his own personal whim.
Bill Metcalf, having seen all this, decided to show a little defiance of another kind, and crashed into the bandroom one evening stoned right up to the eyeballs, stumbling around, giggling, knocking into things and babbling utter nonsense. Cyril just stood there with his jaw dropped, watching Bill cavort around for a while. Then he grabbed him and shouted angrily that he was fired and he could get out, right now. With that Bill straightened himself up with the utmost dignity, and said, That is no way to speak to a gentleman, sir. The Leith police dismisseth us. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppercorns. I shall now walk along this white line, after which I shall blow into that bag. He said that, or something like it, so effortlessly that it was obvious to all that he was stone cold sober.
I made one record with the Show Band. Cyril had the idea of making an LP of all the army bugle calls, jazzed up in the Basie manner. Each title was preceded by the original call, which Albert Hall played on a borrowed bugle. The idea was good, but the recording was a catastrophe. Cyril had little or no knowledge of jazz phrasing, and insisted that the brass section was consistently dragging behind the beat.
We told him that he was hearing a time lag in the studio, but he demanded that we play quite a lot earlier on everything, anyway. What he wanted was, of course, almost impossible, and we told him so, but he was adamant, so we did it. It wasnt easy but we managed to greatly anticipate each and every note we played, and still managed to stay together. The result, when I heard the finished tape, was ludicrous. I don't believe the recording was ever released.
The bonanza ended when Cyril took a summer season at Butlins Holiday Camp in Scarborough. He knew I wouldnt go up there with him and he bought me out of the contract. It wasnt his money anyway.
I came across a similar display of pedantry when I joined Max Gregers band in Munich some years later. The drummer, Pierre Favre, brought along a beautifully compact American Slingerland drum kit, which he said was a dream to play, and certainly sounded marvellous. Max didnt go for the pale blue decor of the kit, and made Pierre use a kit he had bought locally, a big ugly set of drums covered entirely with a fierce red plastic with glitter-gold sprayed all over it. Max said that it was ideal for television. It looked and sounded ghastly, but Pierre had to play on it and keep his mouth shut, otherwise Max would probably have thrown him out of the band.
Cyril Ornadel was so pleased (and relieved) at the trumpet introduction Id played on one of his shows at Wood Green that he offered me the regular Sunday Night at the London Palladium job. This required a two or three hour rehearsal in the morning, and the live show at night. (Click here to read all about that)
Ornadel had a charm that was distinctly his own; put kindly hardly anyone could stand the guy. He wasnt much of a conductor, but he made up for that by a demeanour that was decidedly schoolmasterish and bossy, and he soon let everyone know right away who was in charge. This didnt go down well with the musicians who worked with himthey knew what they were doing without him eternally giving instructions.
One really stupid thing he did still has its own special place in my brain.
On most of Cyrils record sessions he used an arranger called Johnny Douglas. The music was light opera and musical comedy stuff, and Johnny wrote that kind of thing very well. Ornadel always found fault with the arrangements, doing so in the worst possible way in front of everybody. I admired Johnny for his passive calm. I knew a lot of guys who would have belted Ornadel for some of the things he was sayingJohnny Keating, for one, would have clocked him one.
We recorded a tune called Shall We Dance? Normally the word dance in this tune is sung the American way, with the short a, so that it will rhyme later on with romance.
Ornadel wasnt having any of that.
Id like to point out that we happen to be in London, England, he said, snootily. If I want you to sing like people from New Jersey Ill let you know. Now thendaaahnce if you please.
One of the vocal group pointed out that this wouldnt fit the rhyme later on.
Then for Goodness Sake sing romaaance as well! Do I have to tell you everything?
Most of the orchestra started to laugh in disbelief until he banged angrily on his desk and said that the discussion was ended. Romaaance it was, and it sounded ridiculous.
Up in our usual digs in Glasgow Id made friends with a man named Don Arroll, who was the son of our landlady. He later became a showbiz personality. Don took over as compère on the Palladium shows one Sunday, and seeing me in the pit he came over to say hello. Not realising who he was, Ornadel gave him a rollicking. How dare you interrupt my rehearsal! he thundered. Then, as Don just stared at him with his mouth open, he waved his hands impatiently.
Go on, go on! I dont know who you are, but get off my stage. Off with you!
Sorry, said Don, calmly. I thought it was supposed to be my stage.
A few weeks later Roy Castle was guest star of the show. Roy had just returned from a very successful engagement in Las Vegas. Id worked with him before and he had completely stolen the show every time, singing, dancing, and clowning with the best of them. He also played a mean trumpet, so hed worked out a little routine for just the two of us to start the proceedings off.
He would sit beside me in the orchestra during the overture and play trumpet. After wed finished hed continue playing and I was supposed to stop him by angrily wrenching the trumpet away from him. Wed have a big argument, and then hed clamber up on to the stage and say, Its safer up here. That would start the show off.
All very funny, and easy to do, but Ornadel got his nose into the routine and started telling us how he thought we should do it until I mentioned that if anyone should know how to wrest a trumpet away from anyone, surely that person would be me, rather than him. I had, in fact, been doing it all my life.
This went down very well, of course. Luckily for me, this was the occasion when we were to play excerpts from the West Side Story, and the great Harold Jackson happened to be sitting beside me looking through the music.
Ay, the lads right, tha knows, he said, and Roy joined in, mimicking him, Aaar, thas bluddy right until everyone broke up.
Ornadel never forgot that, and when I went away to Germany with the Heath band one weekend he gave the job to someone else. The guy was a typical bandleaders crony, and Cyril knew he wouldnt get any arguments from him. I hoped that the trumpet solo that had got me the job turned up again for him to play, because he sure as hell wouldnt be able to manage that, but I had no such luck.
I became quite pally with Eddie Roll, who played Action in the West Side Story. When we had a weeks vacation in the summer he took his wife, two kids, and the Alsatian, on a trip around Eire in his Volkswagen bus. He did the whole island in one week, including the two boat trips.
I found this impossible to believe, but when I quizzed him on all the places I knew in Ireland he answered correctly. I dont know how he did that.
While I was still doing the Sunday nights at the Palladium, and Parnells TV shows, Nat King Cole turned up for a week, bringing his own first trumpet player with him, a man named Irving Bush.
They had just finished a tour of Scandinavia with the Quincy Jones band. Irving was supposed to play all the lead parts for Nat, but I hadnt known that, so Id already played them all on the rehearsals before he arrived. After he heard me doing that he split the book and we played half each.
It wasnt long before Nat was standing beside us, listening. The leader of the group hed brought with him was the drummer Lee Young, Lester Youngs brother, and he had apparently complained to Nat, because he reckoned that Irving wasnt fulfilling his contract if I played some of the lead parts.
While Nat was over by us I introduced him to Norman Stenfalt, and they got into a huddle over at the piano. I believe that Norman was actually asking him how he did some of his things, because Nat sat down and started to play with Norman hanging over him, and Id never seen him do that before. Pretty soon it was clear that Lee was getting a bums rush from everybody, and he stomped off after a while to sulk over by the drums.
Irving was really a classical player, from the Los Angeles Symphony. Like Ed Leddy, who had played with Kenton, he fit in with jazz orchestras finesomething that the classical trumpet players in England, with the exception of Alan Franks, could not do.
Several American singers had already asked me if I wanted to go back with them to the States. I couldnt see myself working over there. The distances were too great for me to visualize. Later on Kenny Clare went, under contract to Tony Bennett, and thoroughly enjoyed himself.
Through Irving Bush I made contact with the trumpet manufacturer Elden Benge, who made his instruments in his garage on the Los Angeles Burbank Boulevard. Id always had trouble finding a really good trumpet. I played a Martin, which had a good sound, but a terribly unreliable valve system. These would stick at the worst moments and cause a lot of anxiety when I should really have been concentrating on playing the music.
I had tried every one of the trumpets available in London. They were mostly American horns, but not one of them pleased me. The trumpet is so difficult to play anyway that you tend to try and find an instrument that makes things easier for you: one easy to blow, in tune, and with a good high register. I just couldnt find a good one.
At that time there were no Benge trumpets to be had in England. Now, after a short burst of correspondence with Elden Benge, and his two sons, I became the European distributor for him. Once this became known I quickly sold dozens of the trumpets. As I was doing this for friends and colleagues I did it all without making a profit. It actually used to cost me, because I had to drive to London Airport each time to pick up the trumpets.
Once I got to Germany, and was providing them to the music shops there I realised just how much money there was to be made from selling instruments. I would get a hundred percent commission at once when I handed the trumpets over in Berlin. The shop would then sell them for four times the price.
Elden had been a celebrated classical trumpet player himself. He was infatuated with a pre-war trumpet made in France known as the French Besson. He pressed me continually to get information on the mixture of Fullers earth and brass theyd used to make the metal for the Besson. He was basing his trumpet on that old French masterpiece.
Elden used to talk so energetically in his letters that I got the impression that he was a pretty athletic sort of person. I found out later from Tom Scott, the Los Angeles sax player, that Elden was over 70 and half paralysed. He died quite soon after I went to Munich and the sons Donald and Ronald took over the business.
I wasnt really allowed to run a business in Germany, under the terms of my residence, so the Benge franchise was eventually taken over by the King Company.
One of the perks of being a musician in London was that it was easy to get in to see any of the West End showsyou only had to ask someone who played in the orchestra. When the film actress Betty Hutton came to the Empire, Tottenham Court Road, Stan Roderick was playing there, and he phoned and told me that Pete Candoli was fronting the orchestra. I wanted to see that, because Pete was probably the most prestige-loaded trumpet player ever to emerge on the big band scene. He had been featured soloist with the Woody Herman band, and performed some really sensational feats of trumpet playing on Woodys records. This was too good a chance to miss.
I turned up at the theatre, prepared to sit by Stan and watch the show from the orchestra pit. But on this night, of all nights, Betty locked herself in her dressing room, raving drunk, and refused to emerge. Even from the pit we could hear Petes voice as he tried to get her out of there. In the end he had to give up, and the show was cancelled. As Ronnie Scott would have put itBetty had been suddenly taken drunk. Drinking ruined her career, Pete divorced her and she finally took refuge in a Rhode Island rectory, cooking for Catholic priests.
Stan Roderick had been the stalwart of the big band trumpet scene for many years. While I was still at school Stan had led the great Ted Heath orchestra trumpet section, together with Kenny Baker. When I left for Germany, many years later, Stan was still king of the studios.
He had rather a fierce face, and could easily have served as a model for the cartoon character Fred Flintstone, but he had a heart of gold, and never ever put a foot wrong in all the years I worked with him. Stan was always ready with a joke, even under the direst of circumstances. Only once did I hear him make a tiny fluff during a recording session, when he passed out momentarily from lack of oxygen during a high sustained brass passage.
What happened there, Stan? said the conductor.
I dont know, said Stan. I was seeing the Red Mist at the time.
He only lived down the road from me, so we saw a lot of one another socially. On one New Years Eve he gave a party in his house in Thornton Heath. Id made sure that I had no dates in my book for the next couple of days, and determined, for once, to get plastered. I was well on the way to achieving that aim by two in the morning, when Stan, who was even further gone than I, staggered into the kitchen, white-faced, and said, Oh God! I forgot. Ive got an 8 oclock broadcast in the morning at the Playhouse.
Youre kidding. What idiot takes sessions on the first of January? Who the hell will be listening to anything on the radio on New Years morning?
Do it for me! Please. Ill pay doubletrebleerquaderaderple.
OK, Ill forget it, and he collapsed into a chair, out to the wide. I began drinking pint after pint of cold water. Standing at the sink I sloshed it down, half of it going down the front of my shirt. By three oclock Id decided that I detested the stuff intensely, but I was stone cold sober.
What happened to Stan? said the bandleader next morning, bright and early, standing outside the Playhouse on the utterly deserted Embankment. Oh! Ernever mind, dont tell me.
I walked into the studio, to be greeted with enthusiasm and fussed over, as usual, by Engineer Fred, who did all the BBC big band work. It was all ultra-modern state-of-the-art electronics there in those daysbig heavy pre-war, possibly Pre-Cambrian, Marconi microphones, a primitive pre-amp with huge hot glowing valves that sometimes exploded without prior warning, and a switchboard with pitifully few controls. Fred raised and lowered the microphones by adding or subtracting from the pile of old telephone books upon which they rested. Bits of cardboard torn from fag packets clipped back and sides to the mikes with elastic bands assured absolute directional control.
True to the occasion everyone booked on the job had sent deps, and in the trumpet section I had one of Phil Parkers prize students, who shall be nameless, on my left, a Nat Gonella clone on my right, while on the far right sat the greatly dreaded Jimmy MacAbre, who was so short-sighted that he had to get right up close to the music stand, which caused him to play almost vertically downwards into the floorboards. When he saw us Fred flipped out completely.
I cant record that! he screamed. Look at them! Theyre blowing all points of the compass! It was true. The Parker student, valiantly adhering to all of the considerable rules and regulations of the No Pressure System, played in the officially approved style, with arms held high, horizontally, as if preparing for take-off, and the trumpet pointing straight up at the ceiling. Worst of all, he needed a whole lot of room for this playing position, which we now didnt have, up on the tiny BBC rostrum. This caused him to poke me painfully in the eye with his elbow every time he lifted up his horn. Of the four of us I was the only one pointing the trumpet front and centre in the normal way, and that was only because my mother had screwed my head straight the moment she first clapped eyes on me.
Fred was on his knees beside me, hands clasped in prayer. Cant you do something, he moaned.
Not unless you want to set them in concrete.
After a bit of nudging and some well-chosen snarled Scottish oaths he managed to persuade Jimmy to play with his head up and back. Very uncomfortable that was. Then he wrenched the NPS guys elbows down with both hands, staring him aggressively right up close in the face while he did it, leveling his trumpet, and daring him to raise it any higher.
The Gonella clone he put over on my other side and told him to sit sideways, which he absolutely refused to do, saying that he then wouldnt be able to see the bandleader any more, something which I would have personally regarded as being a distinct advantage. Now we were all correctly lined up with the microphone, but nobody could play at all, and I at once started getting the left leg of my trousers all covered in spit from the Gonella clone's water key.
We finally came to a compromise. I sat on one end, blowing over against the wall, and the others played the way they always did: one up there, one down yonder, with the clone back into his famous sideways crouch. Now no one was aiming at the microphone, but everybody was happy and relaxed. For his part Fred opened up the mike as far as it would go, right to the stops. It sounded terrible, and we even had a huge unnatural echo filtering through all the other mikes in the studio which bugged the rest of the band like crazy, but on New Years morning no one in his right mind was listening anyway, and we got away with it.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved