...And the band played on, and on...
- Credit: Archant
ONE-two. One-two-three-four! Strike up the band! A shiver would pass down the spine as the orchestra launched into its familiar up-tempo opening number, attracting dancers on to the ballroom floor, or the seated theatre audience to anticipate another evening of delight.
Alas, the big-band era faded out more than half a-century ago, although one or two notable survivors still remind ageing fans of the style of music they loved. Earlier this year saxophonist Pete Fraser died, a Gorleston resident who taught music and inspired younger generations to swing by forming the East Norfolk Schools Big Band in the Eighties.
The esteem in which he was held by professional musicians, and the accomplished performances of his young protegés, resulted in some of the great names from Britain’s postwar swing decades coming here to guest with them.
Before teenage guitar-led groups achieved dominance and melody died, it was the norm to dance proper steps to an orchestra, the evenings enhanced by the glitter ball, best suits and pretty frocks. When the lights dimmed for Who’s Taking You Home Tonight? as the last waltz, the romantic atmosphere was almost tangible.
For patrons of Gorleston’s circular Floral Hall (long-since the Ocean Room) the final strains of that last waltz and the National Anthem preceded a hasty dash to cloakrooms to reclaim coats, followed by a brisk exit to catch the special Great Yarmouth Corporation double-decker buses waiting to take the dancers back to town; Few folk had cars; taxis, even with four sharing, were an expensive luxury.
Recently I jotted down a list of some of the professional and semi-pro musicians I could recall who led or played in bands hereabouts, some belonging to more than one. This being a holiday area, the tempo increased because of the summer demand for local players in holiday camps and other venues.
The names might well prompt memories for readers, as they did for me as I noted them: Bernie Weller, Maurice Share, Eddie Gates, the Heards, Freddie Belcher, Cecil Hewitt, Gordon Edwards, Maurice Iliffe, Harry Miller, Johnny French...
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At the outdoor Marina amphitheatre, Neville Bishop and his Wolves were summer stalwarts, their Billy Cotton-type band-show incorporating comedy routines as well as straightforward playing. Waldini’s orchestra spent at least one summer there, as did Eddie Hemmings and his Band. Along at the Wellington Pier, Josef Hoffer led the orchestra during the Winter Gardens’ years as a Tyrolean Biergarten.
Some summer players were visitors, others locals. Charles Bosomworth and Harold Haddock came here for summers to lead pit orchestras which probably included Yarmouthians, as did other theatres and the Hippodrome Circus.
Also, there were two or three local organists playing for listening or dancing (on roller-skates in the case of the Gorleston Rollerdrome where Freddie Belcher entertained either solo or with his orchestra). The Floral Hall’s long-resident blind band leader Eddie Gates also doubled on the Hammond organ.
The Regal Cinema featured organ interludes at times, with local musician Neville Turner one of its exponents. The mighty Compton, encased in brightly lit panels constantly changing colour, emerged from a pit to stage level.
Regular correspondent Mike King, an ex-Gorlestonian long resident in Lowestoft, recalls the memories evoked by the death of Eddie Gates in 1991. Mike’s late father-in-law, Charlie Howes, who was in Eddie’s Floral Hall dance orchestra for many years, said his leader had been blind from the age of two and had never seen a note of music.
“He had three piles of music, each containing about 150 pieces, with a Braille index. He knew the lot and could quickly tell us musicians the numbers of the tunes we were to play. Eddie was equally good on piano and piano accordion.
“Also, he was a skilled piano tuner, and his wife used to drive him to local RAF bases where he would tune the pianos and even do minor repairs.”
According to Mike King: “Most musicians had their own regular band or orchestra but often appeared in others. Obviously they all knew each other anyway. My father-in-law told me he would sometimes get a knock on the door (no telephone in those days), and such-and-such a band leader would be there asking: ‘Charlie, I’m short-handed tonight at the Goode’s (latterly next to the Tower complex), the Imperial etc. Can you help me out, please?’
“He would help if he did not have another job on. Clearly only those who were good players and could read music received these visits. Players ‘by ear’ could generally not play in the correct key, or could not change keys.
“In his younger days Charlie would cycle to Lowestoft with his saxophone swinging from the handlebars, returning in the early hours. Then he progressed to a motor scooter. It was years before he had four wheels. His last regular job was at the Hippodrome Circus in 1960.”
Mike has a typed note Charlie and colleagues received in 1958 from Bernie Weller, musical director at the Hippodrome: “The circus season terminates on 20th September next when all contracts will then be concluded. The usual two weeks’ notice takes effect from today.”
Charlie Howes also played regularly with the Heard Brothers’ orchestras, based at Stanley Avenue in Gorleston. Proof of the popularity and workload of Bryan and Bernard (Benny) Heard’s bands lies in a 1950 promotional pamphlet when they had celebrated their silver anniversary.
The ballroom orchestra had just ended its fifth successive season at Maddieson’s Holiday Camp in Hemsby, while the Palais Sextet had fulfilled a successful summer at both the Samson and Hercules Ballroom in Norwich and the Lowestoft Palais.
For five seasons they had been on the Britannia Pier; for three at Hopton’s Constitutional Holiday Camp and the Pier and Cliff Hotels in Gorleston; for two summers at the Seacroft Holiday Camp in Hemsby; and had also provided the music at the Floral Hall, the Goode’s, Queen’s, Royal and Victoria Hotels in Yarmouth plus three in Lowestoft.
Sounds like they had good reason to blow their own trumpets!