SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH
Anyone leafing through what I've scribbled so far might somehow get the impression that certain parts of Glasgow were a little rough. Of course, that was all a long time ago. Since it became the European City of Culture in 1990, things have changed. Now they don't head-butt you with a naked brow: they put a nice designer-label scarf on first.
I wouldn't say violence was a way of life in the Glasgow of the 20s, but it was one way of making a living if you were good enough. If kids like Benny Lynch hadn't been given the chance of a career in boxing, they might easily have ended up dying of drink on the slag-heaps. As it turned out, Benny had a formidable career in boxing and STILL ended up dying of drink on the slag-heaps! But for a time, he was real heroic material. I remember the great homecoming when he brought the World Flyweight Championship title to Glasgow. The entire city was ecstatic and Benny was feted all over the place.
I was particularly aware of these events because we were living just over the road from the Gorbals Jewish Institute, 122 South Portland Street (one of my favourite numbers). It was decided that they'd throw a celebration lunch for Benny there. There was just one problem: after all the plaudits that were lavished upon him, etiquette demanded that Benny should reply. A great pugilist he undoubtedly was, but coherent speech was not his forte. So some bright spark came up with the idea of letting Benny's manager speak on his behalf.
Accordingly, the manager staggered to his feet and with the best intentions in the world, said... (this next bit to be read in broad Scottish),
"Well, we're delighted to bring this title back, so on behalf of Benny and myself, we must thank all youse Jews for this party!"
You can imagine the scene. It was almost as punch-packed as the title fight itself. Maybe Benny should have spoken after all.
* * * *
Gradually, I was learning about life. I'd left school at fourteen to become a professional musician (in the sense that I was getting paid for it) and the incidents so far related gave me a pretty thorough grounding in the ways of violence. And then there was sex. From the bandstand, I didn't miss many of the "goings-on" and usually it was pretty easy to tell when two separate bodies were planning a merger. I'd watch in amazement as a fellow musician showed signs of taking a fancy to one of the dancers. Nothing was ever said. All that would pass between them - resulting eventually in sex, I suppose - would be a nod. The muso would incline his head in an affirmative sort of way and get a similar response from the lady. And that was it. Not even a hint of "What did you say your name was again?"
I never got over my astonishment that something so intimate could occur just from a nod. Terrible. Dreadful. I'll be glad when I've had enough!
My own courting days had begun after meeting a local girl called Ella Tierney. A keen dancer, she used to enter competitions at the Playhouse ballroom, the ones where people wore numbers on their backs and you kept expecting to hear cries of "Come in, number seven. Your time's up!"
Before long, I was a regular visitor to (and diner in) the Tierney household, just round the corner from us, where she lived with several sisters. I can't have been much more than twenty when Ella and I decided to get married. I was earning enough for us to afford a place of our own but we'd barely had time to get settled there before I was on the move.
By this time, I was playing trombone as well as piano... and as well as could be expected. It was fairly usual for musicians to tackle more than one instrument, though not at the same time (the likes of Roland Kirk were still a thing of the future). For reasons best known to themselves, saxophonists would often double on fiddle of all things (can't be because the embouchure was the same) and conversely, any number of rhythm players took great pleasure in picking up front-line instruments. It was said to be every backing musician's dream to be out front. Pianists tended to be overshadowed and drowned out by the brass boys so who could blame us for wanting a bit more coverage?
My first choice of portable instrument was a trifle unorthodox: the accordion. Why I'll never know. I hadn't even heard Jack Emblow at the time. But my parents soon found themselves paying out for young George's accordion on the hire purchase. They might have guessed it was a fool's errand: within what seemed like seconds, young George got fed up with it: apart from anything else, I was getting corns on my stomach! So it was back to the shop with it and pay off the odds. Never let it be said that I didn't know how to make myself popular at home.
After this somewhat extravagant false start, I opted for the trombone and had the sense to stick with it. I'd heard records by Jack Teagarden, a wonderful American player whom everyone I knew either slavishly copied or were heavily influenced by and I thought, "That's for me!" -so the long-suffering parents helped me buy my first trombone. I got it in Edinburgh (a little place just outside Glasgow) where I'd been playing second piano at the West End Cafe in Princes Street. All I needed then was to learn how to play it.
I had a course of twelve lessons from a man called Jimmy Chalmers. Jimmy was with the SCWS (Scottish Co-Operative) Brass Band, a very good player who always won the solo trombone prize and still found time to coach pupils every Sunday. I'd take the tram up to his house to be greeted with a cheery cry of
"Come in, son. Let's see what you can do."
and while I played through a few scales, he would reach into a drawer and pull out the most evil set of false teeth, slightly brown in character, followed by a tin of off-white powder which he'd proceed to sprinkle over the teeth before going through the nauseating motions of inserting both plates in his gob to the accompaniment of an obscene sucking sound. I was just praying he wouldn't ask me for a French kiss! One of the advantages of working at the Playhouse was that visiting bandleaders would look in for a bit of talent-spotting. Some of them were pretty big fish and the word quickly got round as to who was "in" tonight. If the whisper had it that someone like Lew Stone was in the auditorium, you'd find all of us dusting off our best audition pieces and snatching furtive upward glances at the celebrity corner in the balcony, hoping to see some kind of positive reaction. I don't know what we were expecting exactly. Maybe we thought Lew was going to stand on a chair and hold up a card with marks out of ten on it.
Mind you, our dreams of being "snapped up" weren't without foundation. Quite a lot of musicians did go on to bigger and better bands as a result of being seen there: trombonist Donald McAffer caught Lew Stone's ear to good effect while his trumpeting brother Jimmy was invited to join Teddy Joyce's band and, merciful heaven, so was I.
Teddy Joyce isn't a name that's as well remembered today as the likes of Stone, Ambrose and Roy Fox, but he was a prominent and popular figure in the dance band era and going with him was definitely an upward move for me, even though it meant a lot of domestic disruption and a move to that mythical place called London where I didn't know a soul. I felt sure it would be worth all the hassle, but sadly my predominant memory of that era is one of unemployment. Having gone through the euphoria of being spotted and signed by a major bandleader, I made the long train journey south only to discover that the orchestra was "resting", a state of affairs which lasted some time. So there I was with a wife and home to support back in Glasgow, rent to pay for lodgings in London and little or no income. Once more, my valiant parents helped me through, supplementing my post office savings, but times were lean and so was I. It was a case of having to work out how many (or how few) meals you could manage on in a day. At that time, Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street was open all night. My first digs were in Brixton but there was a good tram service up to the West End so late mornings I'd generally be found in Lyons making the brunch last as long as possible, then going into pubs and eating all the freebies in bowls on the counter. My "usual" would be a half of beer and six tons of almonds. Evenings would often be spent "sitting in" at various clubs. I was happy about that because it gave me the chance to play, and the club owners were happy because it didn't cost them anything.
London was a shock to my system. I couldn't get over the amount of space there. From then on, whenever I went back to Glasgow, the old home city seemed so small in comparison. Also, the Scottish speech idioms became quite hard to follow through lack of practice. I was told quite bluntly that my voice had gone all posh and when asked why I'd changed the way I spoke, I usually replied that it was cheaper than travelling an interpreter. Really, I wasn't that bothered because it couldn't affect my playing: you don't hear many trombones with upper-class accents. After staying in Brixton for a time, I transferred to the West End and moved into a large and antiquated boarding house very near the Cambridge Theatre. The woman in charge was a cross between the archetypal theatrical landlady and the madam of a bordello. As far as I know, it wasn't what was then quaintly and coyly referred to as ''a house of ill repute'' but a number of prostitutes did live there, along with members of what were known as "race gangs" (people who worked at race courses) and a kind of unholy bond existed among our three groups. If a muso or a hooker or someone from a race gang was in trouble, the others would rally to support them. It was a sort of low-life version of the Masons, although we were spared the indignity of rolling up our trousers.
You'll have gathered that work was a long time in coming for the Teddy Joyce band. Even when it did start to trickle through, financial corners were often cut. We'd be paid on turning up of a Saturday night and the usual question was "How much can you do without?" I'd come into the band with a promise of five pounds and ten shillings a week, ten bob more than I was making at the Glasgow Playhouse, and eventually I worked my way up to a weekly tenner... in theory. The full whack was rarely forthcoming and I tended to be fobbed off with seven quid and the promise of three more to come (I'm still waiting). Teddy's father didn't help matters much either. Don't ask me what his function was in the set-up. Perhaps he had a monetary interest because he spent all his time trying to beat us down to lower wages, coming out with arch expressions like "Hitch your wagon to a star". The essential requirements for dealing with Joyce senior were a lot of patience and a phrase-book. Eric Whitley was our vocalist, but Teddy decided he didn't like that name so he saddled poor Eric with the cringe-making moniker of Tony Lombardo. This struck our leader as having a suitably romantic, open-necked shirt kind of ring to it.
Tony (sorry, Eric) owned a motorbike and he used it to travel between gigs. On one occasion, he offered me a lift to a far-flung corner of Cleveland and, foolishly, I accepted. So there I was on the pillion for several hundred miles, wondering if I'd ever again get any feeling in my lower limbs. Eventually I pleaded with Eric to change places and, after much persuasion and over-acting, he charily agreed. Just one problem: I'd never ridden a motorbike before. Still, I couldn't be doing with such trifling considerations. I quickly got the hang of small technical points like where to find the clutch and the accelerator, then off we roared.
Now, Eric was a tenor and I was treated to a private display of the top of his range as he spent much of the remaining journey screaming his head off. Good lyrics too: they seemed to consist largely of "Stop! Stop! Stop!", a tad repetitive but catchy nonetheless. I suppose he had a point because one time when I looked round, we'd jack-knifed so badly that there he was, right beside me! I don't remember being offered a lift again. Despite economic wrangles, Teddy' s was a good band to be in. He had that quality of showmanship which a lot of the other leaders lacked. While Jack Hylton or Jack Payne would come across as very austere on the podium, Teddy would tear about the stage, a tall and imposing figure in a monkey suit, full of bright ideas about how to make the show more eye-catching for the punters. One of his most inspired tableaux, which looked very impressive out front, involved dividing the band into three rows - one lot kneeling, the second row crouching behind them and the others standing at the back - all wearing white gloves, some with black strips sewn in, and holding out their hands to resemble the three-layered keyboard of a giant organ. Teddy would stand in front and give the impression of playing the thing, all the appropriate noises being made in the right places. Well, mostly.
Visually, it was a great success but, musicians being what they are, the sound effects were sometimes augmented by outbreaks of flatulence from the back row. Few things can be worse than trying to hum accompaniment to a girl singer's genteel rendering of "The Bells of St. Clements" while some drunk's farting away in the middle distance. The sound alone was enough to produce such side-effects of suppressed laughter as trembling voices and heaving shoulders, but add to that the pungent atmosphere and you've got a bunch of grown men on the verge of collapse through hysteria. And the more Teddy spat "How dare you! Don't do that!" at us, the worse we got. Still, having heard some of the sounds an organ's capable of making, maybe our sozzled chum wasn't so far off the mark.
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