HE NEVER WENT AWAY
The hilarity of watching a chorus of grown Minstrels grind to a halt due to power failure and the opportunity to become the world's first nearly nude trombonist stand out as rare moments of excitement in the otherwise brain-numbing routine of a long-running stage show. This is what I can't understand about actors: the ultimate goal for many of them is a part in a West End play with the staying power of "No Sex Please, It's Caught In The Mousetrap". Three years of Minstrelcy at the Victoria Palace was the most I served and there were rare nights of sanity when I got time off for good behaviour. And then there was the night I took off to see Milligan.
He was appearing in a typically surreal opus called "The Bed-Sitting Room" which he'd co-written with John Antrobus. The plot was about as easy to follow as directions in Hampton Court maze but basically it dealt with a post-nuclear situation where many of the characters were mutating into inanimate objects - so it was possible for someone to play the title role. This distinction fell to an actor best known for his radio triumph as "The Man In Black", Valentine Dyall. In the first act, he appeared as Lord Fortnum of Alamein but during the interval he metamorphosed into Lord Fortnum the room, later to become Lord Fortnum the well-known room. Graham Stark was cast as the play's equivalent of Neddy Seagoon, an heroic idiot called Captain Pontius Kak, and other comic stalwarts like Bob Todd, John Bluthal and the diminutive Johnny Vyvyan assumed a variety of roles including an underwater vicar. The music was provided by the Temperance Seven (who else?!) and Spike was in one of his favourite incarnations, the grumbling Cockney petty official known simply as Mate. Etta and I had made the mistake of sitting quite near the front, amid the American tourists. I should have known better than to think Spike would be too engrossed in the action to notice me. That night, the only action he was engrossed in was the public humiliation of the person in charge of props who'd failed to change the Milligan drinking water from the previous performance. He was so intent on getting the audience on his side over this issue that he came to the edge of the proscenium to ask us directly if we would put up with it. It was then that he saw me. The sight of my petrified Scottish face put all thoughts of dirty drinking water from his mind and he launched into a medley of Caledonian gibberish before insisting that I come up and join him on stage! Not likely, I thought, it's my night off! Besides, there's no greater punishment on this earth than being dragged into the spotlight when someone else is in control. If you try and top them, you're in danger of doubling the amount of egg on your face, so you just have to stand there and take the embarrassment with a smile that'll hopefully make the rest of the audience think you're not hating it. And sadly, once someone (especially someone like Spike) decides you're going to get up and join in, there's not much you can do about it.
To be press-ganged into taking part was one thing, but to be deserted by Milligan the moment I got there was quite another. I didn't know the play so I had no idea what was coming next and all I could see was the tail of Spike's threadbare Mate overcoat retreating into the wings. All the other cast members whose characters hadn't been turned into items on the props list were there with me but I drew no comfort from this, mainly because they all seemed to be looking at me as if it were my turn to speak! I don't know if they thought Spike and I had cooked this up to confuse them but it became obvious that they were waiting for the next line before the plot could advance any further - and as Spike wasn't there and I was, they expected it to come from me. Oh Gawwwwd!!! I'm told by actors that this is the stuff recurring nightmares are made of - sod the nightmare, this was real! Well, I knew I had to do SOMETHING so I looked round for a prop to help me out. There's never a trombone about when you need one but there was a voluptuous blonde woman in a low-cut Hungarian blouse sitting up in bed. Purely in the interests of art, I decided to join her. All eyes were still on me as I spotted a hairy false hand which I quickly seized and proceeded to muck about with. Part of the mucking about involved using the hand to grope the well-endowed blonde - well, it WAS a desperate situation! Understandably, she began to scream and, down in the stalls, poor Etta wasn't too delighted about it either. At this point, God must have decided we'd all suffered enough because he cued the stage manager to bring the curtain down. The dismayed audience started applauding (possibly from a sense of relief) and the almost-as-dismayed cast gathered me into the line-up for the curtain call. This must have led everyone in the building apart from Etta, Spike and me to think my involvement had been deliberate. It was time for Milligan and me to have a little talk! But where was he? The moment when he was due to take his bow came and went without him. Further enquiries revealed that he was last seen on his way to his dressing-room. Right!
"What do you mean, he's not seeing anyone tonight?", I demanded of the burly commissionaire posted outside. "Sorry sir, Mr. Milligan has given strict instructions not to be disturbed."
A bit late for that, I thought. But short of waiting around all night for him to come out of hiding, I simply had to leave it like that. No further mention of the incident was ever made by either of us and to this day there are probably some theatre-going American ex-tourists regaling the folks back home with stories of how progressive British drama is.
* * *
My first inkling that the three and a half years I'd spent in the Victoria Palace show were probably enough came when I was walking past the theatre one Saturday night, looking forward to a day off, and a fellow came up to me and said,
"What are you doing now?"
He might as well have asked, "Excuse me, didn't you used to be George Chisholm?", particularly as we were standing beneath a 25 foot high blown-up photograph of all the principals from the Minstrel show, self included! That's when it struck me that, although the show and my part in it had been very successful, here I was, buried alive in Victoria Street. Everyone from the jazz world seemed to think I'd deserted the business because six nights a week at the theatre and often a TV recording on Sunday left me with no time to play in clubs. It was time to get out.
So get out I did, and Max Jones (who was still writing for the "Melody Maker" at that point) did an article saying "He's back!" - I felt like saying "He never went away!", the phone didn't ring, that was all. In fact, when I began the Minstrels stint, I came in for copious amounts of stick from that Ku Klux Klan of the jazz world, the purists. I had to put up with cries of "Traitor!" and similar rubbish, and I was tempted to reply, "It's okay for you. Your dad runs the local bus company, but I've got to pay the rent."
Eventually though, the phone did start ringing again and I was being asked if I could do the So-and-so Jazz Club on the 24th of Such-and-such, and when I got there, the purists would come up and say,
"What about doing one of those wacky ratatata numbers in a striped jersey and a George Robey hat?"
Were these the same people whose previous utterance on the subject of Chisholm was "Traitor"? Still, it goes to prove an important point about jazz, that it has to be fun. There's no need to make it serious and sepulchral; no matter how well you play, you'll drive people away if you do. The first time I saw the Modern Jazz Quartet on stage, I thought I was in the wrong building. With their dour faces and three-quarter length frock-coats, they looked like they were at an undertakers' convention. Now there's no doubt that they play beautifully, but the feel is more like that of a chamber recital than anything to do with the spirit of New Orleans. For me, the trick is to have audiences coming away saying, "Well if that's jazz, it's fun. I'll be back for more!"
That's very much the type of response I've tried to bring out in people throughout all these decades of freelance gigging. I've been lucky enough to combine the jazz dates with radio and TV guest spots as well as the odd film (sometimes very odd). We're not talking starring roles here, I've always been more of a cameo artiste (bit player), but the dedicated, unblinking buff might have spotted me as a wine waiter in "The Mouse on the Moon", a sequel to "The Mouse That Roared", in which David Kossoff and Bernard Cribbins beat America and Russia in the lunar race and proudly placed the duchy of Grand Fenwick's flag on the moon's surface. They got there by means of an unusual brand of rocket fuel discovered inside a wine bottle served by me. I remember having to react as the uncorked liquid frothed and bubbled its way out of the bottle. Reacting was my main function in films. It's a pity they don't give Oscars for it. Mind you, I have heard it said that top stars like Audrey Hepburn and Michael Caine have it written into their contracts that they get to hang on to all the fabulous designer costumes they've worn in a film. Maybe I should have insisted on keeping the wine waiter's jacket.
"The Mouse On The Moon" was directed by Dick Lester, a year before he made "A Hard Day's Night" and his name, in that order. One of his earliest pictures was a short called "The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film" which achieved the near-impossible by getting the humour of the Goons to work in vision almost as well as it did in sound. Fortunately, he seemed to like casting me in small character roles, doing my reacting. In 1965, he made "The Knack" and I was called upon again, this time to don the uniform of a railway porter (I didn't keep that one either) and "react" as Rita Tushingham made various abortive attempts to get to grips with a stubborn left luggage compartment. I was so convincing as an unhelpful attendant, I'm amazed BR didn't give me a job. But one Dick Lester film I didn't appear in was his version of "The Bed-Sitting Room". I didn't go to see it either, for fear that Milligan's hand would reach out of the screen and drag me into it!
TV guest spots came up pretty regularly through the 60s and 7Os. On BBC1, the big Saturday night variety spot was in existence for most of that time and I often cropped up on "The Billy Cotton Band Show" which took that spot in turn with the Minstrels and Val Doonican. I had a lot of time for Billy, and for Joe Loss too, because they kept as big a band as was economically possible for as long as they could. They were very loth ever to sack anyone. The oldest guy in Billy's band would just be given the cymbals to clash but it meant he was still working. One of the featured Cotton vocalists was Alan Breeze (no relation to the aforementioned Eric), the possessor of the most dreadful stammer imaginable. The only way he could get rid of it was by singing. This meant that whenever he had lines to say in the show, he'd half-sing them. Anyone who didn't know why he was doing this must have assumed he had some kind of surreal delivery. I'm surprised he didn't get an Arts Council grant.
ITV's big variety night was Sunday when Val Parnell staged his London Palladium show. I cropped up on one of these, helping the host, Bruce Forsyth, to assess a number of amateur trombonists and award them marks out of ten for spitting into the right hole. It was such a prestigious show that visiting American stars would almost always top the bill. Some even made the journey just for that one appearance. When Jack Benny came over, someone had the idea of getting the Happy Wanderers to join him. Weekend visitors to London's West End won't need reminding that these merry peak-capped troubadours could be seen (and heard!) parading through the streets like an ensemble of mobile buskers. Their fund-collecting tactics were lethal and if ever I ran into them, I knew it was going to cost me a fiver at least. It'd be "Hiya George, there's something wrong with me slide, look!" and the trombonist would be have the cheek to start showing me his "faulty" slide.
"Are you aware," I used to say, "that I've only got a Boosey and Hawkes trombone, whereas you've got a Conn Conqueror?!" This was the Rolls Royce of trombones. In fact, it was better than that. You don't get much of a tone by blowing through a Rolls Royce. Anyway, after a while I decided I'd walk on the other side of Oxford Street... which I did, only to find there's another guy there with a collecting-box. No wonder the trombonist could afford a Conn Conqueror!
When the Palladium people approached them about teaming up with Jack Benny, they were probably expecting a grateful "Yes please" but instead the Wanderers wanted to know what it would entail. When told they'd be needed for rehearsal on Saturday, they said,
"Oh, can't do Saturday. We're doing Oxford Street."
I doubt if any of the show's previous guests had turned them down with a reason like that; but undaunted, the Palladium folk were prepared to let them skip the rehearsal and simply turn up on the Sunday.
"Oh, can't do Sunday. We're doing Regent Street."
So that was that: the Wanderers busked in Regent Street and Jack Benny made do with the pit band!
* * * *
Kids' TV has been a good source of employment for me over the last thirty-odd years, thanks early on to "Crackerjack" in which I was reunited with Leslie Crowther, and later to BBC2's "Playaway" with Brian Cant. Quite often I'd appear in sketches with Brian as well as playing a few numbers with the band led by Jonathan Cohen. The sketches were daft stuff and fun to do: the only one I can remember had a western setting in which Brian, Derek Griffiths and I were three tough gunslingers (to picture that, you'll really have to use your imagination). Brian announced that he was called Lou because he came from Louisiana, Derek told us his name was Tex because he hailed from Texas. I was highly reluctant to reveal my name, so they asked me where I came from, to which I replied,
It was a short step from (hopefully) amusing the smallies on the screen to (hopefully) amusing them on stage, but the main differences are to do with energy and money. On telly, you get a fair wedge for what's usually a single day's work. In panto, you get the thin end of the wedge for a schedule that would leave Seb Coe breathless. In all, I did four pantos and my memories of those tiring Christmases include throwing the villain, wrestler Jackie "Mr TV" Pallo to the ground (all I did was give his arm a tug, he did the rest), kissing ventriloquist Peter Brough' s daughter-in-law, Ayesha in an extremely desirable place (Norwich) and appearing twice as the Dame, but never shaving off the moustache. Well, for one thing, Etta wouldn't let me and anyway I couldn't go in for the full drag, I mean how do you play the trombone with a mouth full of lipstick? Well, I'm sure the old Ivy Benson girls must have managed it somehow but it was beyond me. So there I was as the hirsute Dame, appealing to a new kind of public (probably the Vice Squad). But I wouldn't have you think the old recording career was being neglected. Far from it; I was busier in the studio than ever, mainly as a session man. It's an interesting and varied life: one day you're playing music, the next it's rock and roll. In the early 60s, I worked on an album at EMI fronted by a very popular singer of the day - I think the day was Wednesday. We arrived to find that our charts for the number "Mean To Me", which should have been arranged in A flat, were in the key of C. Now there was a good reason for this: it was the only key the arranger could write in. So the first thing we had to do was transpose it. Still, it passed the time till the star turned up. When eventually he did arrive, he was accompanied by the impresario who treated us to a selection of expressions he'd obviously heard other people use in recording studios. They probably didn't know the meaning of them either. The first of these was,
"Let's run it down!"
As it was, there were a number of ways in which we'd happily have run it down, but we guessed he meant play the melody, so we did. Then he offered us another choice phrase,
"Can we hear the rhythm section?"
At a guess, he didn't have the remotest clue as to why he needed to hear the rhythm section, nevertheless the boys obliged. Then he decided he wanted it louder. This wasn't easy for Dave Goldberg who was playing an acoustic guitar! But Dave's an accommodating sort of bloke so he gave the strings a bit more welly. No, this still wasn't enough. So Dave, white-knuckled from applying extra plectrum pressure, gave it his all and then some. Surely the impresario would balk at the level of distortion.
"That's great," he said.
The next problem was that our singing star couldn't pitch the middle section without lapsing into a sort of Jimmy James castrato which was hardly appropriate for this number. The impresario was highly embarrassed by this (though not as highly as the singer) and another take was called for. Unfortunately for any dogs or bats within range of Abbey Road, the same thing happened again. The singer, incensed at this rather public admission of failure, did what any star would have done in the circumstances: he threw a tantrum.
"Either we did it my way or we don't do it at all!" These words had echoes for me (and for you if you remember Chapter 7) of Frank Sinatra, but there the similarity ended. So we had to re-arrange all the parts to fit his impression of how the piece should sound. It was a mess - and the bloody thing became a hit! That's the kind of incident that makes you wonder who should be wearing the white coats and who the straitjackets.
Sessions, though, are essential fodder if a musician has any aspirations towards eating. Sometimes they can bring you together with the great names of jazz, as happened in 1968 when I was booked to work at Philips' studio on a small group recording date with the King of Swing, Benny Goodman. Unlike some grandiose nicknames, this one was no misnomer: Benny really had been at the forefront of the swing era in the mid 1930s when the audiences went so wild that one time he and the band stopped playing, sat on the stage and watched THEM! Needless to say, the other guys and I were really looking forward to working with him. Benny arrived slightly late with a small cloth-covered holdall containing a clarinet, an apple and a banana. I thought, "Surely he's not going to play the banana". I was right: he played the apple instead. Then he expressed his partiality for the work of the Beatles and how keen he was on wacky choruses. He turned to me at one point and said,
"You've got a solo there, I want you to play it funny." I asked what he meant, fearing the worst.
"You know, ratatatata-ratata!"
I thought, "No way am I going to do that", all too conscious of the fact that if I did and the record got issued, the dreaded puritans would come up to me and say,
"Couldn't you be serious just for once?! Mucking about on a Benny Goodman session indeed! Sacrilege!"
As it turned out, of that whole session I was only able to blow on one number, a dreadful cod Dixie version of "Octopus's Garden" which grieved me greatly. Talk about a missed opportunity! I'm told that at record fairs, copies of that disc now change hands for as much as 5p. If you paid that dearly for it, my apologies.
Of course, I don't object to being funny when the project's a comedy album. In fact, I find it helps. That same year ('68, do pay attention), I assembled a backing group called The Inmates for an LP entitled "Clinton The Clown" featuring... no, not Clint Eastwood but that star of the BBC Light Programme and latter-day hotelier, Clinton Ford. It was a great opportunity to muck about with daft old numbers like "Burlington Bertie", "When It's Night Time In Italy, It's Wednesday Over Here", slightly newer daft numbers like "The Old Bazaar In Cairo" (one of Clinton's own, along with Ken Morris and Charlie Chester) and more recent daft numbers like "My Baby's Wild About My Old Trombone" which Johnny Stevens cleverly managed to make sound like an old music-hall piece. I thoroughly enjoyed arranging it and had just as much fun seeing Clinton trying to sing it with a straight face. The middle section usually got him and we had to do three takes before he could get all the way through it. Basically, it's the sorry tale of a man who has been left an old trombone by his grandpapa, but alas the woman in his life seems more taken with his horn than with him. She even plays it in the ladies' powder-room! Type-casting being what it is, I played the girl playing the trombone, again without removing the tache. I keep thinking I must nick that one and incorporate it into the stage act.
But I guess one of the most significant developments for me on the recording scene has been the formation of the Gentlemen of Jazz (a purely snobbish title, of course). By their names shall we know them - and you won't better this line-up - Tommy Whittle on tenor sax, Henry MacKenzie on clarinet and alto sax. On trumpet it varies: sometimes we have Eddie Blair and sometimes Dave Hancock. Brian Lemon's the pianist, Lennie Bush is on bass, Bobby Orr's at the drums and Jack Emblow's on accordion. You might wonder what an accordionist is doing in a jazz group - at times Jack probably wonders that himself - but hearing him immediately puts all misgivings from your mind. Mind you, seeing his baby face has you wondering if he was Dorian Gray in a former life!
We didn't consciously come together as a band: at the time, we were all UNconscious. I'd got a date and I rang them individually, the partnership gelled and we sort of fell into the pattern of working together whenever possible. I suppose the real reason we called ourselves the Gentlemen of Jazz was to dispel the image too many people have of jazzers as a bunch of clock-watching ruffians who can't be bothered to do an extra take if something needs improvement. The truth is that jazz isn't an area of music you go into in order to make a packet - you'd soon go into liquidation if you did! Those of us who play it actually care enough to want to make it as good as possible.
So far, the Gents' recording career has included numerous sets for BBC Radio 2's "Sounds Of Jazz" (produced by Keith Stewart who never quite gets round to retiring and hosted by the late and much-missed Peter Clayton) as well as its successor, "Jazz Parade", a Terry Carter production, introduced by Britain's cheeriest trumpeter, Digby Fairweather - and there have been a couple of albums too for Bert Wilcox's Zodiac label. If you haven't heard us and you're wondering about the style, it's not dangerously progressive stuff, neither is it "mouldy old fig" music, it's sort of somewhere in the middle. The nearest equivalent I can think of is the kind of sound John Kirby's band produced. And if you're wondering what THEY sounded like, well, they were rather like the Gentlemen of Jazz. I'm glad we've cleared that up.
Hopefully we strike a reasonable-ish balance between standards and new material. You can't go putting too many originals in because people complain they don't know the tune, but I try to write stuff that's as catchy as possible so that it doesn't take too much getting used to. So far, all the new numbers have come from me - I shall have to have a word with them about that! Mind you, as I'm the one getting the royalties, maybe I should keep quiet. Or perhaps I'll do what the publishers do. The publishers say,
"Yes, we'll take half the royalties for that, we'll publish it."
So they row themselves in, happily take the money, not bother to publish it. and there it stays on the shelf dying of old age. My standard response to publishers now is,
"No thanks very much, I'd rather have twelve twelfths of the money, rather than the six twelfths you're offering me." Sentimental old fool that I am.
We were able to combine the elements of live and recorded performance in 1980 when Bryan Izzard at Scottish Television produced a series of six shows, simply entitled "The Jazz Series" (I believe it took a team of 20 creative consultants to think that one up). The idea was to have the Gentlemen of Jazz as a regular fixture, playing a total of about half a dozen numbers each week (usually standards) and for me to introduce a whole range of guests who would reflect the various aspects of music all of which come under the "jazz" umbrella. So it was that we could feature players as diverse as saxophonist Kathy Stobart, singer Carol Kidd, acoustic guitarist John Williams, those jazz-funksters Morrisey-Mullen and the modern Scots band Head, all in the same series. Sadly, the show was only seen in Scotland and we never got a second run but it's good to have been involved in one of TV's all-too-rare forays into jazz.
Casting an eye over these last few pages tires me out when I realise how busy I'd been up to and including the early 80s. In the light of that, I suppose I was lucky it didn't happen on stage. Instead, it happened at home.
Etta and I had moved to a part of Bedfordshire called Silsoe and over the Christmas of 1982, I was helping with the decorating. The action of stretching to put up one of those long pieces of paper was suddenly accompanied by a feeling of indescribable fatigue and a furious heartbeat thumping away in a time signature even Buddy Rich would have found hard to keep up with. That was what was happening as far as I was concerned. The medical definition was that I was having a coronary.
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