Jazz accordionist, friend of Freddie Mirfield.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
Interview Text or Transcript
You started accordion at the age of 13.What made you take up that instrument?
You started accordion at the age of 13.What made you take up that instrument?
Well I hadn't had a music lesson or anything because the war was on. Both my parents were very musical, my mother was a very good pianist and we moved to Southend. During the war both my mother and father played the accordion. When we moved to Southend for some unknown reason the accordion got wrapped up and it got chucked under the stairs. I started piano lessons at the age of 11 when we moved here.
So what year would that have been?
1944. Well two years afterwards when I was 13 my mother sent me into the staircase to get something under the cupboard and I found the accordion, pulled it out, stuck it on and in fact it's out there now on top of that bookcase and it was love at first sight. She being a very intelligent woman said “If you’re going to play that don't mess about with it, you've got to be taught properly”. And as luck would have it we found an advert in the Southend Standard for a gentleman named Don Destofano who had just come out of the Army. His real name was Donato Destofano. He was Italian and he'd been in 'Stars In Battledress' and was in ENSA during the war. But anyway, to cut a long story short: she rang him up and she sent me up to see him and I played for him and he said it was dreadful! But he said he would teach me and he did, he started teaching me. Within a few months he got back on his feet and he moved back to London and he was living in Streatham and he was playing with well known people. He was playing with Max Jaffa, he was playing with Beniamino Gigli the singer, he did all Victor Sylvester’s broadcasts on television and I used to travel to Streatham every fortnight for an hour’s music lesson with him. At the age of 18 I acquired my first car and he was in business in Frith Street in the West End. He went into partnership with an Italian named Firmino Gaudini and they started importing accordions into London.
What year would that have been?
That would have been 1955-56. I know this because in 1957 I bought my first really good accordion from them which was the princely sum of £250. And Don, my teacher, had to come round and have dinner with my parents and persuade them I was worthy of such an instrument.
That has to be about £3,000…
Oh at least today. Anyway my Dad was struggling, my Mum was working, we were very poor but I had national savings certificates worth that money so my father said I could pull them out and buy the accordion, and we did. I had it for 7 years and then it got stolen, and funnily enough when it got stolen I was with Freddie Mirfield. I'd done a gig with Freddie Mirfield and I took him back to his flat in Hans Place, went in for a cup of coffee and I left the accordion in the car. It was a little MG. When we came out the car was gone and so was the accordion. I subsequently bought an American Excelsior accordion which I still have to this day and it's a marvellous instrument. Came over from America and Jack Embelow had bought one also, 2 or 3 of these came over from American in 1957. Jack has still got his and I bought one and we only vaguely knew each other in those days and it’s a straight tune instrument built for jazz, which suited me down to the ground.
There's another photo there of when you were playing at the Ritz in Southend.
Yeah, I was 14, that’s with Dennis Hayward and Les Steele, the bass player. He’s Stan Tracy’s first cousin.
Oh right, and is Les local?
He was local. He lived in Southend, he lives in New Zealand now. We were at music school together the last two years and we used to nick a double bass out of music school on a Friday and walk it down the High Street. He lived in Heygate Avenue. We'd do a gig with it and get it back early Monday morning before they all got in! We got caught one day, boy did we get into trouble.
You didn't mention earlier on that you went to music school.
I did my last two years at school at the Municipal College which was the 'tech'. They had a music department. I was in that. I was there in the building department. It's all gone now. It's the Victoria Circus. And the last two years I was in the music school with Les, that’s where I met him and we became friends. We still are. He’ll ring me next week on my birthday. He lives in New Zealand. He's been out there for about 55 years.
What were you studying at the music college?
Well, there were only about 12 of us in the music department in those days and we had a house, there was a house. It's all gone now. It was attached to the college and that was the music department. It had a piano in every room, there was a violin teacher, a singing teacher, a piano teacher and a man used to come in and give cello lessons and then we used to do theory, we did a lot of theory. But they used to send us over to the main college every week and we used to have to do Maths, English, English literature and French. And I didn't want to know about all that.
How long were you there for?
I was only there for two years, until I left school at 17. My last two years. When I was at the college in the building department, where I left secondary school because I've never been very clever, I didn't do very good at school, I missed out most of my school because of my asthma. But for some unknown reason they used to send us across for a music lesson and we had an old…he was a fiddle teacher from the music, he used to come and do this on the piano, and he used to go out and have a fag most of the time and one day…this is an interesting anecdote because he would have been put in prison today. He was a Welshman named Richard Juice, very good violinist, he played with the Halle Orchestra. And he’s sitting there going like this one day, getting us all to sing There Is A Tavern In The Town and I'm sitting there, I said “My Christ, he can't play that bleeding piano, he don't know what he's doing”, and he heard! And he got up, this is the God's truth, he got up, he walked over, he stood in front of my pal Norman, Norman Duke his name was, and he said “You boy, what are you saying?”. And Norman stood up, he used to chew gum, I can see him now, he had red hair, he stood up and he said “Please Sir, Compton said you don't know how to play the piano”. He got hold of my blazer and he lifted me out of the chair and he shook me! He then dragged me across to the piano, which was a grand because we were in the school hall, and he plonked me down, and all the boys knew that I played, I used to play boogie-woogie when he was out of the room. Go on lad, he said, let’s see what you can do then, and the boys are all going “Go on Compo, play some boogie!”. So of course that was it, they sent for me Mother and they had me in the music school! And that was how I finished up and that was how I met Les. But we got on the train one Saturday and we went to Tooting and we saw Stan, he was a young handsome fellow, he had blonde hair and he played the accordion for me, Stan Tracy. Him and Les are first cousins, and they’re still well in touch. If you ever interview him he'll probably admit that he played accordion. See, George Shearing started on accordion. I had a recording of him, but I was upset with him, he was interviewed on radio one afternoon on a Jazz programme and he slagged off the box, he slagged it off, which upset me.
That was a little group you had called the Be-Boppers?
Well they called us the Be-Bop Trio. I used to wear a coloured shirt and Dennis had a beret and his shirt hanging out. Yeah, Dennis was a fine musician, he was a good keyboard player.
What other little groups did you form around that time when you were at music college because you were the Be-Bop Trio there at the Ritz. Did you do that regularly?
Well we did the Ritz every Sunday morning, we were the Ritz Follies. The manager of the Ritz actually wrote to Hughie Green and I subsequently went on Radio Luxembourg and did a….I don't think I won it, no I didn't win it, but I went on Radio Luxembourg and I remember the band because I met the bass player in the band who is a great friend to me to this day – Nat Parris – and Roberto Inglez was the band, spent the day with…who was the piano player, well known piano player, he used to slag off the accordion as well, I'll think of his name in a minute. Steve Race! Steve Race was the musical director, and we were there all day at the Star Sound Recording Studios in Baker Street – my Mum took me because I was only 16 – and I played a Samba called El Gato that was written by Ben Edwards who was Victor Silvester’s drummer.
Was Parris local?
No, Nat was a bass player. He was a straight bass player. He used to pay Sunday nights with Bunny. He played for 30 years at Covent Garden, he was in the orchestra but he played jazz as well. And his son is now the principal bass player with the LSO. Colin, and I knew Colin when he was that high.
So you've got the Be-Bop Trio.
Norman actually, he was a year older than me, Norm. Norm left school and went into the Stock Exchange, he was clever…
Norman Barron, trumpet player.
And was he local?
Yes, he came out of Southend, born and bred. We were playing at the Kursaal one night when the Basil Kirchin band came in. Now the Kirchin band was, ah, a very exciting band. Norman asked Ivor Kirchin, who was Basil’s father and was in charge – Basil played the drums. Norman went and asked them if he could sit in, he was a very good reader and they said yes, and he sat in with the band and they immediately offered him the job. He left the Stock Exchange – broke my father’s heart, because my Mum and Dad loved him. He left the Stock Exchange and he went on the road with the Basil Kirchin band and he was on the road with them for 9 years and they finished up in Hull at the Locarno I think it was called and it was a resident gig. He got married up there, met a girl up there and got married and settled up there. Then it all finished and he stayed up in Hull and I used to go up and play with him. Now what was I going to tell you about him?
You were saying you were playing the interval and he was in your band in the interval.
Yep, and the Kirchin band was one of the big bands that came down. I used to go and see Ivor and Basil. Basil went to live in Switzerland, it was a very, very exciting band, I think he had 4 trumpets, and big arrangements.
Which band was it who you were playing in the interval with at the Kursaal?
Well I never played with any of the big bands, I only played opposite them.
In the interval I mean, what band was it?
Well this was the Kirchin band and they offered Norman a job and he went with them. He was a lovely trumpet player and nothing high and a good reader, Digby thought a lot of him. In fact when he died Digby and I drove up to Hull and we did a memorial concert and drove back the same night. And he had a 10-piece band up in Hull, Norman, he formed a 10-piece band up there, and at his funeral they had the band at the crematorium and there was no hymns or nothing, he had a humanist funeral and then we had a jam session for the whole afternoon in the local hotel which is what he would have loved! It's what I would like, except me daughter says I'm not having a funeral – she says “I’ll have a jazz concert in your memory for charity” so I said “Alright, you can do that!”
Were you studying jazz at that point?
No, never studied jazz, nobody ever taught me jazz. There was only one instance when I went out to the shop, I would have been about 19, and Don said “Get an accordion, go down in the basement and I'll be with you in a minute”. I sat there and started tearing the backside out of Sunny Side of the Street and unbeknown to me he was listening and he said “That’s a bit corny”. Corny was the expression he used, and he just gave me a little guidance.
But the turning point in my jazz life was when I first heard Dizzy Gillespie. Without any doubt, Dizzy Gillespie influenced me more in jazz than anybody else. And even to this day when people ask me about playing Jazz on the accordion I always say – and so does my dear friend Embelow – listen to other players. That doesn't necessarily have to be the same instrument. Listen to other players. Because you can take something from another player and then put your own ideas into it. But I remember listening to Dizzy Gillespie and listening to his little phrases and his ‘doodle-lidooo’ and stuff like that and it started imprinting itself on me and so I started working it in.
So 19-20 years old you're still having lessons.
Yes. Before that – if I can go back again – I started working with Dennis Hayward and his father, at the tender age of 14. I used to cycle down to Southend High Street with that accordion on my back and we used to play an old-time dance on a Saturday night. Dennis used to play drums, he was a year older than me and his father used to play the piano, old Bill Hayward. It was called Tammy’s Old-Time Dance, it was at the Middleton Hotel in Southend, which is now an Irish pub called O’Malleys up the side of River Island. I used to ride down there, chain my bike up to the railings, go upstairs and I used to get seven and sixpence for the gig, it was 7.30-11.00 and it was old-time dancing. There was no Jazz but I learned a lot.
Then I gradually met one or two other local musicians and we formed a little band called the Mellotones – piano, bass, drums, guitar and accordion and we were doing local gigs. I was sort of 16 then. A very good piano player who lives in Canada now, Dave Pols, and then it went on from there and I met up with Howard Baker who had the big band at the Kursaal and I started doing gigs with him. The man who ran the Howard Baker band, his name was Teddy Lawford, and he taught me more about the gig business than anybody.
If we can digress briefly, there used to be Sunday night at the London Palladium and the music director was Eric Rogers, and Teddy and Eric Rogers were like that, and he was the rehearsal pianist at the Palladium. But he was a lovely. He died a young man because he was a heavy smoker and a heavy drinker but boy did he know the business. And I learned more from him – not just about playing but about behaviour in the West End, how to behave, how to dress. I mean people like Ted used to look at your shoes when you went on the bandstand, if they weren’t polished you were in trouble. I got told off for walking down the side of the grand hall at the Connaught Rooms without taking my coat off!
That’s right, you had to take your hat off in those days when you walked in.
Well that was good manners, you know. Also I got into trouble once at Carlton Tower Hotel walking through the front door.
You’ve got to go through the tradesmen’s entrance!
I don't like dropping names but when I worked in the Hilton, in the roof restaurant, with Judd Solo’s band you weren’t allowed to go up to the roof restaurant. We had to go to the floor below and then walk up the stairs and go through the kitchen to the band room. Bands were treated very badly in those days, very badly. If I'm not digressing, my favourite place was The Savoy. I did three years at The Savoy. Saturday nights I used to dep for the box player there and I also depped at The Hilton for the box player. Because all the London hotels, they all had small bands, and a lot of accordion players; not necessarily jazz but good players.
Were you actually playing in the band at the Kursaal with Howard Baker?
The Kursaal used to run a big band dance once a month. All the big bands that were about in those days - Ted Heath, Johnny Dankworth, Ken Mackintosh, Eric Delaney – they used to come down and there used to be a big dance at the Kursaal. We used to do the jazz in the interval. The trumpet player on there, Sammy, we used to…it was usually piano, bass, drums, me on box and either a trumpet or a saxophone player.
All local musicians?
Do you remember who was in the band?
Well sometimes Teddy Lawford played piano but normally it was the band, Dave Pols, there…he would be on piano, Harold Harris would be on bass, he lives in Los Angeles now . He was a local boy. I can't remember…I think Dennis may have done drums. We had a very, very good local trumpet player named Normal Barron who left the town and went on the road with the Basil Kirchin Band. Do you remember them? He was with them for nine years. Norman used to play trumpet with me. He finished his life in Hull, but he died 58 years old. So it would be a 5-piece band, we used to do the jazz interval.
Was that the be-bop?
Well we played standard jazz.
And Howard Baker was still there at the time?
Howard Baker was the resident band there for many, many years. He had a big band there. Dennis Hayward finished up taking it over.
Wasn’t Dennis Howard Baker’s drummer?
He was Howard Baker’s drummer, then he took the band over and he was a very good arranger, a very good musician and we were great, great friends. 64 years we were close buddies.
What was going on at the Palace Hotel at that time?
Well the Palace Hotel in the ‘50’s, originally there was a man who played with Felix Mendelssohn who was…and this would be interesting, Harry Brooker. Harry played electric guitar, and it's Harry’s son Gary who wrote and did 'Whiter Shade of Pale' (Procal Harum). Well Harry dropped dead and Mauri phoned me up and asked me to come in and help us out because Harry dropped dead and that was 1957. I went in to the Palace and I was busy with gigs in those days, and I said to Mauri, “I don't think I can stay long with you” but I finished up being there 18 months, until they closed the Palace down.
And did they still call it the Harry Brooker…
No, after Harry went Mauri took over, and in those days the Americans used to come over from Wethersfield, the air base; we used to have some punch ups in the Winter Gardens! It used to get a bit naughty sometimes. Winter Garden was a long…I think it's all been re-opened. We sat on the bandstand and if we turned around and looked out the window we were dead along the pier, the Palace Hotel. So I was there for 18 months with Mauri.
Where all your gigs around Southend at that point, or Essex?
Up until I started driving, and then of course I was in the West End most of the time.
So where were you playing locally?
Locally we did dances, in all the local venues: we did the Southend Rhythm Club at the Arlington Hall on a Sunday, we did lots of local functions, we did some ladies nights. Howard Baker used to do a lot of Masonics in Southend, in the old days because there was the Garons Banqueting Suite, they used to have big ladies nights there and I used to do a lot there with him, a lot with Howard and with Ted Lawford, he was always in charge.
Ted was local was he?
No, Ted lived in Chingford.
I used to do some gigs at Lyon’s Corner House. The man who had all the music there was named Eddie Strevens who was a lovely jazz fiddle player. I’ll tell you a quick anecdote about Eddie Strevens: he used to do the Queen Mother’s staff party at Clarence House every year and he rang me up one year and asked me to do it and I couldn't do it. I had a gig with Bunny and it was in Liverpool Street in a clothing factory. And I had to say to Eddie, “Can't do it I'm already working”, and you know being an accordion player it was never easy to get a dep, not many of us. Anyway at this particular gig that we did at this clothing factory it was dreadful. They were being sick, they were having fights and I remember turning round to the drummer and saying to him, “You wouldn't believe it but I could have been at Clarence House tonight with the Queen Mother and I'm stuck here!” I don't think he believed me!
So up until you could drive a car it was all locally?
It was all locally, yeah.
So when did you start getting out and about then?
Well once I met Ted and Howard Baker and I got a car, then I was travelling around.
How old were you?
19, 20. And then the bulk of the work that I did...... I mean I did travel around with Ted, I remember he took me out of town once for a New Year’s Eve do I did with him, and I did some nice gigs. But most of the gigs I did I was working in the West End.
Bunny said he was doing a lot of Jewish events in London and you he knew you from there didn't he?
That's right, we used to work at a Jewish Sunday night pub in Oxford Street, these two Jewish boys ran it, well I'm Jewish, not that it matters, but two real characters – Bernie Barren and Harry Parris. Harry actually played guitar, and they used to pack them in and we played jazz; I mean it was a jazz night. We had a lovely alto player with us, named Leon Campbell, but his name was Camperdelli but he called himself Leon Campbell.
Was it Klezmer jazz?
No. Bunny used to play vibes, he used to double on piano and vibes. We did a lot of work together. Loved him, mad player.
I tell you a funny thing, in 1958 I went to Italy with a couple of girlfriends and we used to go to a nightclub and there was a band leader there with a terrific band name, Fred Buscalioni and they had echo units, never seen anything like it, they had tapes going round. I came back to England…
That would have been an old echo-plex wouldn't it?
No. I went into Jennings on Charing Cross Road and I said to Larry Macari “I've got to have one of these echo units” and he got me one from Italy. It was called a Framez and it had a tape on it and I was probably the only accordion player that was using one with an amp.
Well you were probably one of the few musicians using one, let alone an accordion player.
I actually had three because I finished up with a Benson that had three inputs and the singer in the band used to use one. But Leon Campbell who played with me and Bunny, he used to turn his sax round and he used to blow it into my accordion so that the mics in the accordion picked up the echo – and he loved it!
That was the first time you knew Bunny around that time.
I did a lot of work with Bunny, for several years and then we did some odd gigs together. We did quite a few gigs together out and around. And then he moved down from London. I think he lived the other side of the water, he's at Benfleet now isn't he?
You were saying that all your stuff was in the west end. Are you talking about Jazz clubs in the west end?
No, no, I was doing good functions. I did a lot of work at the Savoy, not only was I playing in the regular band at the Savoy, the Ian Stewart band, but I used to do private functions there with a band leader named Felix King, a piano player, I did a lot with him. But I've always been jazz…I mean even now I don’t play Jazz all the time. I mean I try and play everything but I'm a Jazz man deep down.
So you did all these west end functions, were you still involved in anything locally at all in those days?
Well we're in the 60'’s now. I didn't do much through the 60’s locally to be truthful, thinking about it, because I had a business in Chelmsford. I had a dry-cleaning business and I'd shoot straight up to London. I was averaging 2-3 gigs a week in London. I was at the Savoy and Hilton most weekends because they both had accordion players. I was very lucky. I know this might sound a bit conceited but the accordion player that was resident at the Savoy – there were two bands at the Savoy, there was also a Latin-American band, which I don't know if you've ever heard of Francis Chavez, he played a button accordion, lovely man and a great player. Then there was the straight dance band, Ian Stewart which was piano, bass, drums, accordion, tenor and trumpet, and we used to do 45 minutes non-stop and then we used to play 'change partners' and the band stand used to revolve. And the Latin band used to come round playing 'change partners' with a Latin beat.
Oh it was lovely there. That was the days when the dance floor used to come up for the cabaret and it used to come up level with the bandstand and I mean in those days, in the 60’s, they used to have the Petula Clark, Francoise Hardy, Matt Munro – all the top stars used to be there for 3 weeks in cabaret. It was wonderful there. Anyway, Ian Stewart who ran the strict tempo band, he was one of the directors of this. He was terribly posh, big moustache, they used to call him the major. And the accordion player was Woody Ray, who’s still alive bless him, he lives in Chiswick and he’s in his late 80's now. Anyway, the rule was they weren’t allowed to put deps in but there was such a lot of work in those days that there was always good work out of town at the weekend and Woody rang me up one day and he said “I've got a terrific gig come up out of town, I'm gonna call in sick”, and we had two pianos on the bandstand, the major used to play one… he was Carroll Gibbons, boy pianist if that means anything to you, in fact the piano had a little plaque on it and he would come up and play a few notes and then he'd be swanning about with people, you know. We used to wear band jackets, he used to wear full tuxedo but he was terribly posh! Anyway Woody called in sick and said he couldn't make it and said he was sending me. Now the bass player in the band in those days was a wonderful bass player named Bernie Woods. Bernie Woods incidentally - I know I keep digressing but it's all interesting – taught Len Skeet. So that will tell you….and he was a lovely man. We gelled like that. Anyway he looked after me this first night, I went in, now I did the gig and the next week Woody rang me and he said, “Listen, good news for you”, he said, “Ian Stewart said he knew that he wasn’t ill, he doesn't mind if I have a night off, only as long as only you go in. He said I can send you in! I mustn't send anybody else in!” So I did three years most weekends at the Savoy. I met Johnny McLevy at the Savoy.
I don't know who that is?
You ask Digby about Johnny. Johnny did three tours in America with Benny Goodman and I was there the night he came in and he'd just come back from America, and everybody, we were all round him.
Was he a London player?
Yeah, he played with Frank Chavez in a Latin band and he never played high, he played the middle, but what a player. He came from Dundee. He's gone.
So you're doing all this amazing stuff at the Savoy, Ritz etc etc.
It was all good experience.
So that was keeping you away from…
I didn't do much locally, no.
So how did you meet Digby then?
Well I knew Digby from the library before he turned pro. I used to go into the library sometimes to get LPs, you know we used to be able to rent LPs from the library. I remember walking out with a stack of them. You were only supposed to have two and I had a stack of them one day and somebody queried behind me at the library and Digby said “That’s alright he's a jazzer, he can have ‘em!” And then of course he turned pro and we didn't see an awful lot of each other until we did a charity concert at the Palace Theatre with Maxine Daniels. We did a lot of work with Maxine bless her, because a local critic on the Southend Standard, Don Stewart, who was very good to me and Digby, he dropped dead and they did a charity concert at the Palace and the three of us did it.
When was that?
Cor struth….must have been early 80’s, from then on we started playing together Digby and I. We made a record called ‘Squeezing the Blues Away’ which he may have shown you. We went in to a studio and we made a record and we just started doing gigs together and it worked.
And so through the 70’s you still weren't really involved locally?
Not a lot. I came back to Southend when I shut my business in Chelmsford and I opened a dry-cleaning business in Westborough Road and I was there up until ’97 and I started doing the odd little gig, the odd little function around but I've never sort of pushed myself. I've never gone out looking for gigs.
Did you ever play with Kenny Baxter?
You know Kenny did his very first gig with me and I’ll tell you where it was, it was over at Battlesbridge. There used to be a little night club there and a swimming pool, down the side of The Hawk pub. And he came out and did his first gig with me and I gave him a bollocking for playing Jazz! Because it was a straight dance.
So there you go, gigs locally. I've been doing a lot lately with Digby, well quite a lot and of course over the years knowing Jack Embelow…I mean Jack is now 83 years old, as you probably know the bulk of his living came from 'Sing Something Simple' on Radio 2, but he played with George Chisholm, he was one of his Gentlemen of Jazz. We knew each other professionally, we'd sort of spoken to each other professionally but then in 1986 we were together and we just inadvertently played two accordions together and 'bam', that was it.
He's not local though is he?
No, he lives in Amersham. We’re very, very close friends, apart from the music, but he's a wonderful player.
One thing you didn't talk about was Freddie Mirfield.
I met Freddie Mirfield when I was 19 years old through Howard Baker. I was working for my father at that time. Howard Baker phoned up one afternoon and said “We’ve got a problem down at Selsey Bill (Chichester). I've put a band down there, the accordion player’s gone sick with pneumonia, they've got one more week to do. Can you do it?” I had a little MG at the time and was working for my father and Howard said to me, “Go down they've got one more week to do, and the band leader was Freddie Mirfield; think he had a 5 or a 6 piece band down there. Anyway I was having a bit of trouble with my car, my father had an Alvis, a 14.9, a beautiful car, because he loved…and I said “I've got trouble with me car”, the old man said to me “Go on you can take the Alvis, have a week off it will do you good”. So I drive down to this holiday camp and when I get to the holiday camp I get the VIP treatment, and they waved me in to the VIP…it was cream and maroon this car, it wouldn’t half be worth a few bob today. I drive in to the VIP car park and the guy comes out and he opens the door for me and I got out and I said oh I'm the new accordion player for the band – “oh well you can't park here!” and they threw me out! Apparently there was a bit of animosity going on with the band. Again, you know, lowest of the low – and that was when I met Freddie. We gelled.
Was Freddie from Essex?
Freddie was originally from Chingford I think. And his wife was a darling, Patsy. When my sister got married the first time Patsy made her wedding dress, she was a very good needlewoman, she worked for Christian Dior, but that’s another story. We finished the week and we got on ever so well. I drove him home to Kensington, he lived at the back of Harrods, he had a flat upstairs. I remember it was 4 o’clock in the morning and I fell down the stairs with his bass drum and I can hear his voice now, he had a dark brown voice, “You clumsy bastard” he said! And we just…I used to work with him, he’d ring up and I'd go up to town and I'd do functions with him. Because he played drums most of the time. But he could blow a tune out on a trombone.
What was it you told me earlier on about Freddie Mirfield, about he won….
Freddie Mirfield won the All-England 'Melody Maker' Dixieland Jazz Band contest in 1947.
Was that before the Garbage Men?
I'm not quite sure about that. Because – and just going back to that – and at that time he had two young men in the band, one was Freddy Randall and the other was Sir Johnny Dankworth and I have to say that in all the interviews that I ever heard with Johnny Dankworth he always mentioned Freddie Mirfield. But then of course the Garbage Men, I never actually saw them or knew them. Patsy – there was a lovely story – Patsy his wife, she was gorgeous Patsy, there was a part of it in there about a harp with rubber strings and apparently she used to jump through this harp as part of the act. You know in those days there was Dr Crock and his Crackpots, there was Sid Millward and the Nitwits, Freddie Mirfield and the Garbagemen…they were crazy bands! I can remember going to the Hackney Empire and seeing Dr Crock and his Crackpots and there was a guy used to play a big sousaphone. And he used to sit at the back of the band and halfway through a tune he'd lean over like that and the bell used to go right over the guy’s head in front! Sid Millward and the Nitwits – Sid had a café in the Mile End Road. It was called Millwards, but going back to Patsy, she used to jump through this harp and it had rubber strings, and one night she jumped through it and went wrong and she went into the band pit, hurt herself and the audience went wild, they thought it was marvellous, thought it was part of the act! And she said “I was black and blue all over”. Anyway, so they put a mattress in the pit and they kept it in as part of the act! Funnily enough she never smoked in her life and Freddie died of lung cancer. I was with him the day before he died, and one year later she died of lung cancer and she never smoked in her life. I reckon it was passive. I just finished up doing loads of gigs with him and then he moved to Southend, he bought a little house in Bridgewater Drive and he was toast mastering. He used to do a bit of work for Howard Baker, he used to Masonic. He was a very elegant-looking man, he was tall, thin, he had a little moustache, typical west end musician. Well spoken and that's all I can tell you.
Were the Garbage Men Dixieland?
I think so, because he'd been with a Dixieland orientated band, you know, the original band. When you think who was in that band I suppose there was going to be a jazz element to it.
We had three big bands in the town that I can remember – Bobby Bean, he used to do big functions on the pier with a big band. Stanley Strutt, there were three brothers in the town, Horace, Stan and they had bands. One played the piano, and then there was Ernie…what was his name…I played at the Queen’s Hotel for a long time. They had a resident band every Saturday night and it was piano, bass, drums, tenor sax and accordion. The accordion player was a guy named Stan Buck and I used to dep for him sometimes.
What was that band called, do you remember?
Arthur Hayes was the band leader, we used to wear full tails and that was a bit more upmarket than the Kursaal! But Arthur Hayes, he was a good pianist.
Was that the 50’s?
So you said there were three big bands?
I'm trying to think of the other big band that was around the town. There was a lot, there’s always been a lot of music in Southend, always a lot of music. It was functions, dances, there was dances on the pier, you know, the pier pavilion which was this end of the pier. We used to go when I was a student you know, when I was at college we used to go to big band dances there. Then there was Garons in the High Street, there was another one the Centre House, there was another Garons down at the bottom of the High Street where they used to have a lot of functions downstairs. There was a lot of stuff going on in the town in those early post-war years.
I was trying to find out what was going on on the pier, you're the first one that's mentioned the actual names of big bands.
Well Bean used to do gigs there, Bobby Bean had a big band there. I never actually played for him because it was a conventional band he had I think, he had a couple of trumpets, a couple of saxes, rhythm section. And Stanley Strutt. I'm sure there was another band as well that I can't remember. I'm getting an old git – I AM an old git!
Your memory’s fantastic! You were saying you weren't really gigging much around Southend, there’s a photo I've seen from the Arlington Hall where you were playing with Don Rendell.
That’s Don Rendell and Vic Ash. Nearly every Sunday was the Southend Rhythm Club and we had good bands come down. And we nearly always did the interval, but I was playing with Vic and Don then.
Who’s that on drums?
I don't know who was playing drums that day. I remember Tito Burns coming down. Tito was probably the first jazz accordion player in this country. He lived in London during the war, he lived at the top of our road, I used to see him walking out in the street with an accordion case, because you know he finished up a multi-millionaire, he didn’t play the accordion any more, he was the Rolling Stones agent!
Was he? Oh blimey. Amazing isn't it: a Jazz accordionist managing the Rolling Stones!
He said I was a promising player!
Did he? So you used to do that virtually every week did you?
We did the Arlington most weeks. We were like the base group.
Was that the 50’s?
Do you remember many of the artists that you played with at the Arlington Hall?
Well, Tito Burns, Ronnie Scott, Tony Crombie, Pete King that come to mind. There were several others, I dunno if Dave Shepherd ever…I was very friendly with Dave Shepherd, you know Dave, he lives down in Devon now, or down in the West Country. Him and I did a lot of gigs together. He's in his 80’s now and still playing. And a nice man. Dave’s first wife was a terrific singer named Jo Searle and I did a lot of gigs with her in the west end. She was a very exciting, good jazz singer.