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The Great Big Bands

Vic Lewis

Vic Lewis was a big personal friend of the legendary Stan Kenton, and had formed a band on the same lines as Kenton, earlier on, even using some of his music. This band was different, and we only played two Kenton numbers: Hammersmith Riff, that Stan had written especially for Vic, and Evening in Pakistan, a trombone solo I had transcribed for Johnny Keating to play.

Stan Reynolds, Dennis Shirley and Dave Usden were in the trumpet section, with Johnny Keating and Ken Goldie in the trombones. Ron Chamberlain was on lead alto when I joined, with Pete Warner and Wally Moffat on tenors and Jimmy Simmons on baritone. Arthur Greenslade played piano, Alan (Weed) MacDonald on bass and Peter Coleman (who Phil Seamen called Bludgeonfoot) on drums. Derek Francis and the beautiful Marion Williams took the vocals. Later on Bert Courtley replaced Dennis Shirley and Kathy Stobart replaced Wally Moffat. Some time after that Ronnie Scott took over from her. When Bert left later on Terry Lewis joined, and then there were the three of us from the Tommy Sampson trumpet section together again.

Stan Reynolds and I shared the lead in this band, with Stan taking the sweet leads and sweet solos. I took all the high, loud and, yes, brutal leads, and, believe me, there were plenty of them in that band. One of them comes to mind right now, over fifty years later. I reckon I could still play that one now by memory. It was a very slow Johnny Keating arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue. For some reason John had written this in the Key of E, so that the trumpets were in F#, i.e., six sharps. My first note of the long, slow lung-busting melody began on a high A#, and from there it just went on and on. That is something you don't forget in a hurry.

As a matter of fact, Vic used to call me to stand up in the middle of each concert and then praised me quite embarrassingly to the audience. When I meet him today he still does things like that. Vic really appreciated the musicians in his band.

In his book From Holyrood to Hollywood, published in 2003, Johnny Keating quite erroneously states that Stan Reynolds was lead trumpet at that time in Vic's band. As it all happened fifty years ago, some allowance might perhaps be made for lapses of memory. However, John sat right in front of me in the trombone section, and I was blasting away every night, right into the back of his head, from a distance of only three or four feet. Not something one would normally forget. (See Comments)

The trumpeter Dave Usden was a little guy who used to follow Ronnie Scott around so much that we nicknamed him The Shadow.  When Ronnie went shopping Dave would be there with him, and if Ronnie bought something, say a pair of shoes, Dave would buy the same pair.

Ronnie was well aware of all this devotion, and he would often stand in the middle of the room, stick a cigarette in his mouth, and, looking down at the floor, snap his fingers a few times until Dave ran up with a light.

Dave took me home in Manchester once, and his mother gave me an enormous Jewish meal which almost put paid to my playing for that evening. This was the first time I ever ate chopped liver the way it really should be prepared.

Ronnie Scott was famous for his dead-pan wit. He would often stand behind another soloist and pull his saxophone sling tight around his throat and hold it up high as if he were being hanged. One of his jokes went like this:

Man: ‘Waiter! Bring me a steak and kiddley pie.’

Waiter: ‘Surely you mean kidney, sir?’

Man: ‘I said kiddley, diddle I?’

This amused Dave so much that he went around for weeks afterwards repeating the punch line.

One evening, when we were all sitting around in the hotel, Ronnie stood up, with a face like granite, and said:

‘Ladies and gentlemen:

Little Muss Miffett

Sat on a tiffet

Eating her wurds and khey;

Along spame a kider

And sat sidebedown her,

And frightened Miss Weyfitt amuff.

Thank you.’ And sat down again.

Ron and I were pretty damn hot on the table football game. We had a lot of time to spare in Geneva, because it was pouring with rain all the time. There was a game in the bar of our hotel and we soundly beat the rest of the guys in the band. Ron played the strikers and I was his goalkeeper. Nobody, but nobody could put one over us.

Vic’s was a great band to play in, and he never ceased to praise and encourage his players. He’d thrown away his Kenton book and now had a whole new library, written mostly by Johnny Keating.

In that band I got to play the Dizzy Gillespie feature Our Delight. This contained one of those terrifying solos of Dizzy’s that he reckoned he couldn’t read any more. Whether that was true or not, someone had taken his solo right off the record and I used to play it note for note every night. I even got into the Melody Maker popularity poll on the strength of that one, but right at the end at number twenty-five.

Bert Courtley used to go down to the front to play his solos, of which he had a great many. One night, while he was out there, we whipped away his music stand and chair, moving up the other desks to make it look as if we only had three trumpets. When Bert came back he never turned a hair, and sat down on the floor, playing his parts by memory.

Benny Bailey told me, many years later, that the guys used to do the same thing to Dizzy Gillespie, when they were both in Billy Eckstine's band.

Vic’s band played at the Fasching in Basel, Switzerland. This was a costume carnival rather like the Mardi Gras that lasted a whole week. We were playing in one of the big ballrooms, but there were parades continually going on all over the place, up and down the streets, and even marching through the ballrooms.

We were fascinated by everything we saw. The costumes were weird and wonderful. There were two girls who sat at a table in front of the band every night wearing Coca-Cola towers on their heads, and nothing but a wispy pair of tights underneath. They had absolutely stunning figures, and we could hardly wait to see what they looked like at the unmasking at the end of the carnival.

One of the guys in the band fell in love with a slender young blonde girl dressed as a milkmaid, with a dainty virginal bosom, and wearing a tiny white innocent little-girl dress over long black silk stockings. She let some of us have a private peek at her face one night during the week and she was a raving beauty all right. After the carnival ended on the Saturday night, and all the masks had been removed, she let the player take her home, with our good wishes ringing in his ears.

Before we’d even packed up our instruments he was back again, red-faced. As soon as they’d entered the taxi the 'girl' had ripped off his blonde wig, revealing a crew cut, dropped his voice a couple of octaves, and begun haggling about prices.

The Coca-Cola girls turned out to be a pair of quite homely fifty-year-old twins. That’s why it’s called carnival, and that’s why they all mask up. I suppose everyone enjoys a bit of fantasy.

Although he had originally been a guitar player, in a group called the Vic Lewis/Jack Parnell Jazzmen, Vic also fancied himself on trombone. Stan Kenton had written Hammersmith Riff in Vic’s honour, and this number became the high spot of our performances. There was a lot of show business at the end, with the trombones standing up and throwing their slides in and out. In Geneve Vic suddenly whipped around and took Ken Goldie’s trombone away from him before he could protest, playing it down front up in the air, left and right, and up and down with plenty of raucous trumpeting elephant noises, and fierce ripping sounds. Ken was petrified in case Vic broke his horn.

On the next night he tried the same thing again but this time Ken was ready for him. The band, and the audience, were then witnesses to a fierce chase, with Vic rushing all around the stage, and eventually around the ballroom, trying to wrest the trombone away from Ken.

At Dover, on the way back from Switzerland, we all got busted for smuggling. The watches in Basel were so cheap that most of us had thrown our old ones away and bought new ones. I got caught with mine, which led to the Customs people impounding the bus until everyone gave up their watches. We then got fined double the amount, and the watches were confiscated.

Reporting to his superior, my customs officer said, ‘When apprehended the defendant said: “I’ve just fought a bloody war so that people like you can still walk around free.”’

The inspector looked at me kindly, my passport still in his hand.

‘Now that is interesting! You were only eleven when it started. Which regiment were you in?’

A Dutchman named Lou van Rees booked the band, together with Cab Kaye’s Latin American band, for a tour in Holland. It was just before Christmas, very cold, with ice on the roads, and right on the first night we got stuck in a raging snow storm while travelling to Haarlem. Visibility went quickly down to nothing. Suddenly the bus stopped with a jerk and the driver leapt out, shouting, ‘Ochey-dochey! Ochey-dochey!’

Ronnie Chamberlain, who was sitting up front, shouted that the bus was slipping into a canal. There was a tremendous scramble, and we all managed to get out just in time to watch it plunge into the water. The only guy left in the bus was Cab Kaye’s conga player called Wee Chico, and he got out through one of the tiny upper sliding windows at the back, through a gap of about eighteen inches by twelve. I spent the subsequent thirty-odd years firmly believing that the cry of ‘Ochey-dochey’ was a sort of Dutch emergency call, and it was not until I met my present Dutch wife that I realised that he had been shouting his version of ‘Okey-dokey’, no doubt the only English words he knew. We trudged back to Amsterdam in the storm, arriving back at the hotel looking like snowmen, and spent the evening drinking rum grogs, and sampling the various delights concocted by the Bols company.

In Amsterdam we stayed at Hotel Wiechmann, in the Prinzengracht, and were at once greatly enamoured of Herr Wiechmann’s absolutely stunning sixteen-year-old daughter Gerda, who took to the band at once. Twenty years later, while visiting Amsterdam, I parked my car outside on the banks of the canal and climbed the almost vertical stairs into the hotel once more. An enormously fat woman met me at the top of the stairs. She seemed to be surrounded by children and babies of all ages, peeping out from behind her, clinging to her skirts, crawling around on the floor—quite clearly all her own.

I asked for Herr Wiechmann. ‘My father has been dead for several years,’ she said. ‘Are you Gerda?’ I asked, in disbelief. It was her all right. I told her who I was and she perked up a bit, and we chewed the fat for a while before I made my escape.

I’ve learned many things in life, and that was one of them: never go back to places you loved in the past, and never, ever, go and take a look at one of your old girl-friends, unless you’re prepared for a shock.

On the tour with us was the Norwegian trombonist Peter Rasmussen. He was a very funny guy, and clowned around on the stage a lot. For his last big show-stopping number he played the Rafael Mendez/Harry James Flight of the Bumble Bee, at speed, and then he wasn’t clowning around at all. This is probably the only time that anyone in the band has ever heard a trombone played like that, and it is something you never forget.

Peter’s bass player had just married a beautiful young Swiss girl. They spent most of their time in the band bus canoodling and whispering sweet nothings to one another. As neither of them could speak the other’s language, they conversed in very broken French. I couldn’t help wishing an eternal language barrier for them, so that they could remain forever in this ideal situation.

Our last concert in Holland was in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. This was a kind of a jazz festival, and we were playing opposite the famous Dutch Skymasters band. Lou van Rees was pretty nervous, wanting the festival to be a success, and he fussed and fidgeted around in front of the band waiting until we were ready, then he opened the curtains just wide enough to slip through and stepped out to announce the band.

There was a thump, a gasp from the audience, then a burst of laughter. At that moment the curtains opened majestically and revealed us to the waiting auditorium. There was no sign of Lou at all, then we noticed his head sticking up out of the stage, as if it had been cut off and plunked down there. He had stepped out straight into the hole for the prompt box, which someone had forgotten to close. Not to be outdone, he announced the proceedings from that position, as if nothing untoward had happened. It was a great start to the event.

The grand finale that night was a two band head arrangement of C Jam Blues, the high spot being a tenor sax battle between Ronnie Scott and one of the tenor players from the Skymasters.

The idea was good, but, once he’d got started on his solo, the Dutch guy didn’t want to stop. After he’d played about four choruses, Ron went up to the microphone, lifted his tenor, and got ready to take over, but the Dutchman just went straight on. At the end of the chorus Ron did the same thing again, with the same result. By now the audience had cottoned on, and he began to cod it up. Now he started doing his box of tricks behind the soloist, including pulling his saxophone sling up high, and pretending to hang himself, with his tongue sticking out. You could hardly hear the soloist any more for laughter.

Ronnie let the man go on a few more times, then he suddenly seized the microphone, carried it right over to the other side of the stage, and started to play with his back to the Dutch guy. Of course, everyone loved that, and the place went haywire.

When I joined the Vic Lewis band Gordon Langhorn was in the trombone section. He was one of the few left-overs from Vic’s Kenton-style band. Gordon changed his name shortly after, chopping off the extremities to call himself Don Lang, and went into the song-publishing business. Together with his partner he wrote a highly successful tune called The Creep.

Compared with most of the other bands I worked with, the members of the Vic Lewis band were very elegant. Ken Goldie was so elegant at all times that we named him Lord Jim. Later in life, after a very unhappy first marriage, Ken married Marion Davis, who had developed into an extremely beautiful and successful singer.

Drummer Peter Coleman’s wife was the singer Jacqueline Jennings, a very elegant, educated woman, who came to see the band quite often when we played in London.

The most elegant of all was the second alto sax player Peter Howe. Peter’s second name was Liberty, and he was, indeed, related to the Liberty’s who owned the huge store in Regent Street. This caused him to wear a city suit, complete with bowler hat, at all times. We would often pick him up in Golders Green with the band bus. There he would stand, in a bus queue, with his briefcase and rolled umbrella, the perfect city gent, amongst other perfect city gents. When the bus pulled up to let him board, with its huge posters advertising the band, the jaws of the elegantly groomed would drop. One day one of the guys took off all his clothes and stood by the door. When the bus stopped to let Peter on he opened it and made the jaws drop even further.

Peter lived in a big, Victorian style house, full of heavy expensive furniture, with his wife Margaret, and a huge Alsatian dog, at which he spent most of his time shouting to get down, damn you.

Peter was a chain smoker, and coughed a lot. On the telephone it was easy to identify the caller because he rarely managed to get a word out at first. One would pick up the instrument and hear a strangled choking sound in the background for almost a minute. Eventually he would say, in a voice thick and streaming, ‘Hello, old boy.’ If he recommenced coughing at any time during the conversation, there was usually time to go and make a pot of tea, without him being any the wiser.

His briefcase, which never left his side, contained only soap and towel, with the occasional copy of the Financial Times. Everyone knew Peter as The Colonel.

The only time this elegant band of young men behaved badly was in Montreux. We had finished the dance and were awaiting the bus to take us to our hotel when it was announced, by the band manager, that Vic's wife had been taken poorly, and Vic had comandeered the bus to take her back earlier.

We had to wait.

The wait grew longer, and the longer it grew the more the band grew restless.

It was the night before Guy Fawkes' Night, or its equivalent in Switzerland. There was a giant bonfire prepared outside the dancehall which we lit to keep warm. Soon the police, fire brigade and, for all I know, Interpol, were gathered around us. In the middle of it all Vic turned up with the bus.

We hopped in, pointing at Vic.

'He's in charge,' we said.

The members of the band, during my time there, were:

Ron Simmonds, Stan Reynolds, Dennis Shirley, Bert Courtley, Dave Usden, trumpets;

Johnny Keating, Ken Goldie, Jack Botterill, trombones;

Ronnie Chamberlain, Peter Howe, Pete Warner, Wally Moffat, Ronnie Scott, Kathy Stobart, Jimmy Simmons, saxes;

Arthur Greenslade, piano; Alan (Weed) McDonald, bass; Peter Coleman, drums; Derek Francis, Marion Williams, vocals.

Vic Lewis, leader, trombone.

Famed singer Denny Dennis also sang in the band, after he returned from working with Tommy Dorsey in the USA.

Vic's was one of the few British bands I really enjoyed playing in..

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Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved