Having written odd bits and pieces about my early forays
into music, I thought I would collect them into their own
This is Page Two.
The swanning about all over this and other countries was All Very Well, but you spent much of what you were paid for it just finding accomodation, food and the like. With Jet Harris & Tony Meehan, we band members were paid a flat wage—I think it was around £35 per week (remember, this was 1963!). There was always the unspoken promise of more if the records made the act more successful, but then poor old Jet was injured when travelling as a passenger in a car, and never worked with us again. I blush to admit that it was I who suggested the name "The Tony Meehan Combo", which sounds a bit twee today, but remember, this was… well, you know.
The obvious thing to do was to have Joe Moretti move out front. When we made the records Scarlett O'Hara and AppleJack, Jet was having trouble learning the arrangements, and because studio time was limited, Joe laid the solo tracks. None of us said anything for years, until Joe himself told the story in an interview. He was, I think, rather bitter about it: he'd had a small lift in his wage from the group, and been provided with the same luxury hotel accomodation as Jet and Tony enjoyed. Meantime the rest of us found digs where we could. Any old how, Joe was obviously the man for the job. Joe's accompaniment role was covered by a young jazz-oriented musician, very clean-cut, who favoured the same kind of Ivy-League suits as Glenn Hughes. He also turned out to be a massive talent—his name was John MacLoughlan.
We now had a very nice group, which played out the remaining bookings, and promoted a new record, another Jerry Lordan number, Song of Mexico. In the middle eight I provided a trio of soprano saxophones, courtesy of Ampex multi-track recording, and had a few bookings from other producers on the strength of that sound. Nice.
It was on one of our last gigs, in Lowestoft I think, that we came off stage to hear that President Kennedy had been shot—they say you don't forget where you were and what you were doing when you heard that news, and they are right.
It wasn't the touring that kept many of us going, it was the fall-back, the residency. Resident jobs were to be found in ballrooms, theatres, clubs… When the Tony Meehan Combo fizzled, I called Denny Boyce on the telephone, as he had published the Cannons' number, Bushfire, and I had hacked out an arangement for his band, so he at least knew me. Wonder of wonders, he offered me a job! When I turned up to start, I discovered that, unbeknown to me he had sacked somebody so that I could have their chair, which made relations wih the rest of the band a bit sticky to begin with.
At this time I was living with she who later became my first wife. She was still married, as it turned out to one of the trumpet section in Denny's band! We had already met, and things were amicable. Anyway I settled in at the Empire, Leicester Square and on Saturdays at The Lyceum. Denny, bless him, still had some good commercial arrangements in the pad, as recorded by Ray Connif, The Kirby Stone Four and the like, which brightened up the evenings. We did our fair share of Music While You Work radio programmes (three-quarters of an hour, live, segue!) and the dreaded Come Dancing TVs. Then the chopper fell: we were to move to the Stevenage Locarno, and that with a smaller band. So now, rather than the brass and saxophone sections we had four wind players, trumpet, alto sax, tenor sax and trombone, four rhythm plus percussionist. This put Denny in a difficult position, as he had to have a whole new set of arrangements, which didn't come cheaply. To start with we had just about enough music to get through a night, with nothing with which to vary the programme on subsequent evenings.
To begin with I caught a Green Line bus out to this "new town", and got a lift back with Denny at the end of the evening. Then for £100 I acquired a bubble-car, a Heinkel, and took my life in my hands up and down the A1. It had meagre 6-volt electrics, and the headlamps put out a weak beam that reached about three yards away and then faded out. For much of the time I was relying on the proper headlamps of other traffic to see where I was going. Madness!
The smaller band actually worked quite well. On bass we had Dave Bishop, with Clive Hicks on guitar and Norman Stevens playing keyboards—I seem to remember a Lowrey organ, but I can't be sure. Jim Lawless was the excellent percussionist, on vibes and (I think) marimba, as well as all sorts of 'toys', as they are fondly referred to by musicians—tambourines, maraccas and things. Vocalist Johnny Towers stayed on from the earlier band, but the names of the drummer, girl singer and trumpet and trombone players are gone, hiding in the mists of time—this was in 1964 which is a l-o-o-o-ng time ago…
I have no memory as to where and when I first met Don Lang, but I do know that I ran into him one day in London, and that we walked along Charing Cross Road, talking, and that as a result I joined his band. He was resident at the Empire Leicester Square (back there again!) playing opposite Ken Mackintosh's band with his five-piece group. Don, real name Gordon Langhorn, had at one time been a member of Ken's orchestra and had co-written a successful instrumental number with Ken—The Creep, which had been a big hit. Later, as Don Lang, he had been one of the regulars on the original TV pop show, The Six-Five Special, and in fact had recorded the signature tune. He, with his Frantic Five, had scored a hit with Cloudburst, a 'vocalese' (like scat singing but with real words!) display of his dexterity and jazz feel.
Now, he was a Mecca bandleader. The band was a sort of second generation of his Frantic Five, although it was no longer called that, with Don on trombone and vocals, and Fender Bass, Guitar, Drums, Vox organ and Tenor Sax, the players being Bill Stark, Dave Christopher, Peter Boita, Cliff Hall and your humble servant. The distaff side was represented by a young singer named Joy Rose. After a while, Peter Boita departed and we auditioned a young drummer who had been playing polite music on a cruise ship, but seemed to be able to play like anybody to order—having listened once to a Led Zeppelin album he instantly reproduced John Bonham's licks. He was also a good sight-reader. His name was Graham Jarvis, and he later carved a place for himself in the session scene, and worked a good deal with Cliff Richard. Pianist Cliff Hall, brother of the session trumpet player Albert Hall, went on to be featured as the fifth Shadow with Hank Marvin and co. With all this talent it was a pity that there was a tendency to play the same few numbers at every session, which we did, particularly for the afternoon Ballroom sessions, which, incidentally, attracted some very stange people. Joy got fan mail from one such, written on Friern Mental Hospital paper… which came as no surprise.
A few of the regulars: Mr Kelly, a very nice very energetic man whose idea of dancing involved a lot of shuffling along in his blue suede shoes, much finger clicking, and occasional spasmodic leaps in the air. In the fullness of time he acquired a partner, Elvira (from Vienna, I think), who followed him around the floor, also clicking her fingers. There was the one we referred to as Charlie Chaplin, who applauded with just his finger-tips, and spent much of his dancing time apparently trying to kick his own behind. Less frequently we were visited by The Woman in White. Dressed from head to foot in white, with milk-white hair, always in white gloves, she carried a white cloth with which to cover anything she fancied leaning on. In the other hand was a white card, with which she fanned away any noxious emanations from people getting within a yard of her. Sometimes she would parade the side of the dance floor, pausing here and there to make mystic gestures at those participating. Still, at least she didn't put her white umbrella up, as we heard she had done in the stalls at he Duke of York's Theatre. She arrived one day with a husband in tow—suddenly hauled off and kissed him, and he had to be taken out with a heart attack.
There was Old Billie, in fur coat and gold pixie hood, sitting in the balcony playing her mouth organ, and the Maraccas man, who, with his instruments in a brown paper bag would sit waiting for us to play a samba so he could shake them along with us. One one occasion he had fallen asleep when the time came—so Don sent someone to wake him, and he immediately produced the maraccas and leapt into vibratory action.
In 1969 Don's group was shifted (this is where I came in) to—of all places—the scene of my entrée into the professional game, the old Streatham Locarno. Only now it was being refurbished, and re-launched as a cabaret venue. The plan was that whoever was appearing at Bertie Green's Astor Club in Berkeley Square would be shipped down to Streatham with the girl dancers from the club, and then returned to play the Astor. This didn't seem to me as though it was going to run for ever… At the rehearsal for the opening, The girls included one who had had to return from holiday and was peeved. She expressed herself loudly in non-parliamentary terms, and I rather took a fancy to her. In fact a couple of years later I married her!
We looked forward to backing the various acts, because it brought variety into the job. Among the more successful were Syd and Eddie, later renamed as Little and Large, Lennie Bennett, Keith Harris, and a variety of comics known from appearances on The Comedians. In the course of some special night or another, Deryck Guyler joined us for a number on washboard, and Joan Turner sang and clowned.
Two years running, the band shipped aboard the Canberra for a Mediterranian Cruise—the deal being that if we did the odd cabaret show, we travelled as First Class passengers, and could either claim expenses or bring a spouse on the house! It made for a very acceptable and very luxurious holiday at no cost. We also, with an augmented band, spent a month on the QEII, as holiday relief for the regular orchestra, cruising twice from New York to Caracas, stopping at various islands on the way there and back. For that we had to be members of the Seaman's Union, and I have the card to prove it, complete with photo—unshaven, wet (it was raining outside) and looking thoroughly unsavoury.
New York was… cold! When we arrived, there were snowdrifts on the decks of the QEII, but once she was under weigh a mere day later, we were basking in tropical sunshine. We called in at Port Everglades, near Miami, and then threaded our way through all the various island groups. I think my favourite was St Thomas, in the Virgin Isles, where Bacardi was $1.40 a bottle, enabling us to stock up our cabin supplies very reasonably! The temperature there varies only over a range of 7 degrees F. during the year, and I cherish the memory of Sapphire Beach, snorkelling lazily (how else) over a magnificent display of marine life, while pelicans dived into the sea a few feet away, completely unconcerned with our presence. A magical place.
On the second cruise we had chummed up with the ship's Casino staff, and they had reserved Miami rental cars in advance—the staff weren't allowed ashore until all the passengers had disembarked, and of course by then cars would all be snapped up. This way our transport waited for us! As I was driving an automatic at home, and none of the rest of our group did, I was designated driver.
Waiting for us was a Plymouth Fury, brand new with only 97 miles on the odometer. The engine capacity was 360 cubic inches, which I have since calculated was six litres! (there was a 7.2-litre model too.) No wonder it didn't go 'brrrm', but instead merely went 'shhh' when I pressed the gas pedal. We toured all around Miami Beach and downtown Miami, feeling very hip (once I had figured out the air conditioning and the radio) and laid back. For some reason we also visited the Fontainebleu Hotel, about which all I remember is that the reception area was enormous, and just one of the chandeliers would have completely filled most hotel lobbies in the UK.
Coming a close second to St Thomas was Barbados, where we had the use of the exclusive Sandy Lane Hotel's private beach, composed of soft pink coral sand… We had a Mini Moke there, quite a contrast, and once again I was the designated driver. We picked up four local lads, and gave them a lift up a long hill. To the Moke's credit, it didn't boil despite having to schlep ten passengers! Once we reached the guys' destination, they cut us each a lump of sugar cane, before waving goodbye, and we happily sucked sugar all the way back to the ship.
Getting back to resident jobs, some are great, many are dreary, tending to be enlivened only by bad behaviour on the part of the musicians. Seared into my memory is the last night of a year's engagement at one of the West End of London's night-clubs… as a band we looked forward to last nights of shows, because we could roast the performers a little, with wrong tempos and interpolated sound effects, a good time being had by — well us. But on the night in question, things went a little beyond such shenanigans.
It was my birthday. We had been to a nearby diner in our breaks, where they had served us a teapot, full of champagne and teacups to drink it from – a wise precaution as the place was visible from the police station.
What nobody had bargained for was the fact that our leader, who shall remain nameless, was that rare being, a drummer who had no tolerance for alcohol at all. Usually, of course, he just didn't drink, and all was well. But on that July night in 1974… he did.
We returned to the club and played a usual dance set. I should explaiin that the way things were set up, you could only see the band from the chest up, so the wife of one of the players was able to sit on the floor with a large bottle of wine, passing it out to the band in paper cups. Unfortunately, she passed some of it to the drummer, who emboldened by his cup of 'tea' at the diner, tossed it down his neck with gay abandon. Then, it was show time - at which our drummer stood up, waved 'bye-bye' to us and disappeared. Consternation! Eventually the drummer from the relief trio (who we knew couldn't read music) arrived on the stand, shrugged and sat at the kit.
We gingerly picked our way through the show music, like a band walking on egg-shells, playing it as straight as possible to give the drummer a chance. Meantime…
Strange and unattractive smells permeated the club. People got up to leave, in protest. Yes, our chum had procured stink bombs from somewhere. Because of the walk-out the staff of waiters were not getting their expected tips, and this led them launch a physical attack on our friend, who managed to fight them off, being a big lad. The manager threatened to call the Police to eject the band from the premises, and we could see that this was not the best time to bring up the subject of the holiday money that we were owed.
Next morning, I had a call from the drummer, who asked if I didn't think that the evening had gone off quite well? I asked him if he didn't remember this, and that, and that… and at each query his cheerfulness deflated that little bit more, until he was near weeping. Oh dear…He had no memory of events at all. The upshot was that we were called as witnesses at a Musicians' Union enquiry — and we never did get the holiday money!