UNDERNEATH THE PIANO
After the inter-denominational rough-and-tumble of Bridgeton, we moved to a land of comparative peace: the Gorbals. Granted, it wasn't wise to go parading through the streets kilted in the Chisholm family tartan (or any other design for that matter), but at least life and limb no longer depended on belonging to the right church. Besides, even if I had nursed a smouldering urge to do some kilted parading, I would hardly have had the time.
On top of my schoolwork, I was having to do extra piano practice. Unlike many parents of young would-be musicians, my mother and father actively encouraged me to head off in the direction of an "artistic" future. They even got me involved in a children's pierrot concert troupe.
The manager of the local cinema manfully took on the task of instructing us kids in the finer points of stagecraft, no mean feat in a company ranging in age from 11 to 14. The range of talent on offer was pretty wide too: we had two comedians, several singers and dancers and, for the comic songs, one lone pianist. But in the event of flu or other distractions, the lone pianist would snap into action as Superdep. If a comic went missing, suddenly I was the comic. If a dancer broke a bone or a singer broke a voice, in a flash I was the dancer.. .or singer . ...or both! Have you ever tried waltzing and playing chopsticks?
Still, it put me on my own resources which was just as well since it was that same cinema manager who gave me my next job, playing music for silent films. There was no script so I just had to watch the action and adjust the music accordingly. As luck would fail to have it, the piano was right by the screen, so inevitably I developed a semi-permanent crick in the neck after two or three hours nightly of sitting with my head tilted at an angle of sixty degrees. Mind you, at the time of playing, I felt no pain. All my concentration went into following the plot of the picture or the newsreel item in front of me - - well, above me. So when the hero came on, I'd burst into a quick chorus of "I'll See You Again". When the villain arrived, I'd do a passable impression of "A Night On The Bare Mountain" at speed... but what do you play for "Prince Of Wales Opens Gorbals Public Baths"? What did I play? Something highly jolly and uptempo. He was a very fast mover, the Prince of Wales.
Stiff necks and fast-moving Princes aside, I was happy to be earning £4 lOs. a week at the age of fourteen. I was still at school so I'd go straight from there to the picture house. Looking back, I was probably a bit of a novelty item bearing in mind the cliché image of the cinema accompanist was very much the Margaret Rutherford type.
At the time, I looked nothing like her but even so I dare say my school chums regarded me as something of a softie, especially as I'd be practising the piano while they were out playing football.
As I said, my parents were very supportive of my musical leanings. In fact, my father was a part-time musician himself. By day he was a universal grinder - by night he was The Singing Drummer! It was a curious combination of skills, made all the more so by the fact that he was a rotten singer. In those pre- microphone days, he made his voice heard over the drums by means of a giant megaphone erected on a stand beside the kit. Quite where this monstrosity came from, it's hard to say. I don't remember any megaphone shops in the Gorbals so he can't have just gone into one and bought it. Maybe it was something he knocked up while he was universally grinding. It was almost as big as the bass drum itself which was one of those great Salvation Army jobs with a hole in the top so you could lower in a 30-watt bulb to light up the name of the trio on the front skin. We were The Clifford Trio. Why I'll never know: my father wasn't called Clifford.. .and I don't think my mother was.
Transport arrangements for The Clifford Trio were very simple: there weren't any. We'd have to make our way to whichever venue by bus or tramcar and it was up to the conductor whether or not we worked that night. If he wouldn't let us on laden with banjo, drums and megaphone-with-stand (to say nothing of the 30- watt bulb), that was it. And sometimes, the thumbs-down from the tramcar conductor would save me from an evening of purgatory trying to pick tunes out of a chronically disabled piano. One of the greatest drawbacks of being a keyboard player was that, until the recent innovation of lightweight portable electric models, you couldn't take it with you. So you'd just have to rely on the object provided by the management, often covered in cigarette burns and hideously unmusical (the piano, not the management).
If a piano is seriously out of tune, it can drop dramatically in pitch. This would make it well nigh impossible for the banjo player to fit chords, so usually I would have to transpose the thing into another key and regard it as a tone away (sometimes it really would be a full tone out). Often this would land you in interesting key signatures like B and F sharp, but whatever musical atrocities this caused, it certainly was good practice for me. There'd be no point in rehearsing beforehand because if a piano's that badly out of tune to start with, it'll do something different every time you use it. Instead, we'd have our rehearsal and performance all at once!
For The Clifford Trio, gigs were by no means regular. We were lucky to get any, and they tended to average out at about one a month. It was the ballroom circuit, playing popular tunes of the day and catering for the variety of dance styles in vogue. Each venue boasted a wall-mounted contraption telling the punter the tempo of whichever dance was imminent. It would simply bear the legend "Waltz" or "Foxtrot" or "Quickstep" and at the end of the number, one of the band (usually the drummer) had to suffer the indignity of standing on a chair and turning the handle on this thing till the name of the next dance appeared. Perhaps it was the ever- cautious management's way of ensuring that couples knew which steps to adopt, even if they couldn't pick up any clues from the band!
The clientele in these joints were more the middle-aged marrieds than the frantic youths you get thrashing about on dancefloors today (Acid House had yet to reach the Gorbals), although there were those who came to meet and mate. From my vantage point at the piano, I was able to fill in one or two gaps in my somewhat undernourished sex education, but by and large it was all pretty genteel, especially when compared with the two ballrooms I went on to work at after leaving school.
One was the Tower, an evil place! Every Friday night with sickening regularity, the lights would go out and all hell would be let loose. When the lights came on again, there'd be bodies lying everywhere. Including mine. Using my position at the piano as a lookout post, I was always able to spot trouble when it was no more than a gleam in some villain's soon-to-be-blackened eye. With a deftness that improved with practice (and I got plenty of it), I would immediately slide under my instrument and remain there till danger passed. No one could accuse me of bravery. Once the hooligan element had exhausted themselves and each other, they'd be ejected down some stone steps and a little, self-appointed MC in a muffler and a cap would come on and say "Carry on dancing, please" in a brisk and jovial way that'd almost have you believing you'd dreamt the carnage of a few seconds before.
At the piano - or under it - may have been the safest spot in the house but there were times when it didn't seem like it. Not everyone respected the sanctity of the bandstand. One notorious character who frequented the Tower always used to bring an iron hook with him. He had to, it was attached to his arm. He was called Wingy and he introduced himself to me by shambling onto the stage in the middle of a number and joining me in a duet. Wingy's concept of piano virtuosity was a touch primitive. It consisted of banging hell out of a few keys with his hook, then shooting me a belligerent, what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it look. With the same brand of courage that took me under the piano on other tense occasions, I said,
"That was very good. That was excellent!"
And he seemed to think, "Nobody's ever said that to me before". And as he wandered away pondering on this, I'll swear I detected a tear in his eye! The ultimate hard man was weeping at what he thought was my unbounded generosity. Then back he came, the hard man again, and offered me the greatest means of repayment by saying,
"If you have any trouble, call for Wingy. I'll fix it." Thank God I never had to take him up on it.
My other "residency" was at the Playhouse. As a ballroom, it was a cut above the Tower and we used to play on a bandstand with an overhanging balcony all the way round, but even there bodies would be thrown from above, drop thirty feet and bounce onto the dance floor, giving off a cloud of resin particles. Then these guys would get up, not having hurt themselves thanks to that miracle-working anaesthetic called drink, and hurl threatening abuse at their enemies upstairs. Talk about not knowing when you're beaten!
Then as now, order would be kept by a squad of burlies in tuxedos. At a ballroom named Barrowland (so-called because it was in the midst of a street-market area), they had a ring of bouncers right across the front of the bandstand and I'll never forget the little man who came up and tapped the bandleader on the shoulder. That was the last thing he did from a vertical position. In a flash, these neanderthals threw him down the stairs. Lying there in a state of severe bedragglement, he just about found enough strength to say,
"All.. I wanted. . . was a request."
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