If it ain't got that swing....
PUBLISHED: 19:41 26 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:45 03 July 2010
THE hairs stood up on the nape of my neck as those powerful and thrilling sounds transported me back half a century to the days when the big swing bands reigned supreme on both sides of the Atlantic.
THE hairs stood up on the nape of my neck as those powerful and thrilling sounds transported me back half a century to the days when the big swing bands reigned supreme on both sides of the Atlantic. The rest of the packed audience - 99pc of whom looked to be over-60s - were similarly enthralled, borne on a wave of musical nostalgia to those fraught decades straddling the second world war.
The 17-piece orchestra was the renowned BBC Big Band under its conductor since 1977, Barry Forgie, and the venue was the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft recently. I cannot remember the last time a top big band played here in Great Yarmouth, so there was no question of disloyalty to my native borough when Mrs Peggotty and I enjoyed the Lowestoft gig that was part of a four-programme acknowledgement of the start of the war 70 years ago.
The band re-created the styles - and distinctive signature tunes - of some of those bands that helped to see the nation through the campaign, like Carroll Gibbons and Ambrose, then traced the American influence that came to dominate the genre.
My love of this style of music is well-documented in this column. But I never learned to play an instrument until I was nearing retirement when the gift of an electronic keyboard opened a new source of pleasure, although I can play nothing by ear.
How I envied teacher John Farmer, prominent on the Yarmouth musical scene from church to theatre, when I wrote about 15 years ago that while on a fortnight's family holiday in the south of France he espied a notice in an up-market restaurant window seeking a pianist, applied, auditioned, and was hired. The problem was, he could play only a handful of numbers from memory and had brought no music from home to fill an evening's programme.
So he bought a drawing pad, pencil and ruler, drew staves, listened to daughter Kate's Walkman tunes, transcribed them on to this make-shift manuscript paper, and quickly rehearsed them in time for his debut.
“My efforts were warmly appreciated and even applauded by diners and management,” he recalled.
His impromptu gig earned him £100 for five nights...plus “some splendid meals on the house!” And there was further reward: his account of that French experience won a £10 prize in a newspaper's “holidays memories” competition.
I admire anybody with musical ability, and enjoyed my recent chat with retired professional musician Joe Harlow, of Humberstone Road in Gorleston, about his 30-year career as drummer and vibraphone player.
During those three decades, he backed an impressive list of performers and played in venues as varied as public houses and hotels, theatres like the Wellington Pier in Yarmouth and the Sparrows' Nest in Lowestoft, and the famed Hammersmith Palais in London - the latter always linked in my mind with the long-resident Lou Preager and his Orchestra and the Write a Tune for £1,000 contest, broadcast live on Saturday night radio, that gave us a hugely-popular winner in Cruising Down the River (on a Sunday afternoon), penned by two middle-aged women in 1945.
As for 54-year-old Joe, a former Claydon School pupil, his interest in music was sparked by hearing the Ken Colyer Jazzman at the Cliff Hotel in Gorleston in 1970; Colyer was Yarmouth-born but his family moved to London when he was only a child. Joe's determination to follow it as a career led to him having lessons from band leader-drummer Trevor Copeman, whose orchestra was resident at the Tower Ballroom in Yarmouth and the Samson and Hercules in Norwich in the 1960s and 1970s.
By then his ambition was fired up, and he went to London to study under jazz drummers George Fierstone and Martin Drew and South American percussionists Bosco de Oliveira and Roberto Pla.
His first public performances were modest, as part of a country and western outfit, the Cumberland Gap Trio, named after a Lonnie Donegan hit. At the time, Donegan drummer Nick Nicholls was living in the Yarmouth area and deputised occasionally for Joe; their relationship strengthened, Joe playing with his band when Nicholls moved to South Africa in 1974.
“Years later, I had the pleasure of backing skiffle legend Charles McDevitt who, with Nancy Whiskey, had a big hit with Freight Train,” continues Joe.
“In the 1970s, I also played with the Roy Reymo Band in the Norwich area and the band of former Radio Norfolk presenter Don Shepherd. In the 1980s I met jazz organist Alan Haven, whose Hammond organ rendition of the standard Image is still well sought after today.
“Also during the 1980s, I played with jazz pianist and composer Derek Warne who was musical arranger for the Top of the Pops orchestra.”
Joe Harlow spent another season playing alongside drummer Eric Delaney, whose kit was distinctive because of its two bass drums. Delaney powered the acclaimed Geraldo orchestra before leaving to form his own big band, the launch of which was delayed because of an accident in which he seriously injured his fingers.
During his professional years, Joe has backed some familiar names, among them comedians Ken Goodwin, Bernie Clifton and Norman Collier; impressionist Paul Melba, ventriloquist Roger Kitter, crooner Ronnie Carroll (who married Millicent Martin),
Wei-Wei Wong (TV's Golden Shot hostess), the Webb Twins (from television holiday camp sitcom Hi-De-Hi!) and Ray Lewis and the internationally-famous vocal group, the Drifters.
Today, Joe lives in retirement away from the bright lights and late
nights, but I wager every time he hears this or that tune broadcast, his mind swiftly harks back to those glitzy years...