The shows must go on!
- Credit: Archant
THAT glum feeling at leaving Gorleston Rollerdrome on a Saturday night after a thoroughly enjoyable few hours on the rink, skating to the music of Freddie Belcher and his Band, was tempered by the knowledge that when I reached home, I would switch on the wireless to hear Lou Preager and his Orchestra in full swing.
Saturday Night at the Palais was broadcast live by the BBC from Hammersmith post-war, with dance music and all the favourite songs of the moment, plus a contest inviting listeners to Write a Tune for a Thousand Pounds, the best contenders aired during the weekly transmissions. One winner was Cruising Down the River, a waltz composed by two middle-aged women in 1946 which became a huge hit.
I adored the big bands, particularly Ted Heath and His Music whose dynamic drummer, Ronnie Verrell, was my idol. I was in the London Palladium audience for some of Heath’s famous Sunday night swing sessions (and I also braved the alleged threat of razor-wielding gangs to walk alone at night to and from his engagement at the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle).
In 1956 the Heath band visited America and, in exchange, the exceptional Stan Kenton Orchestra came to Great Britain, his schedule including a concert in the St Andrew’s Hall in Norwich. I managed to get tickets but, because of problems with the car I hired for the night, arrived at the interval. But it was still well worthwhile, a once-off.
It always seemed to me that Yarmouth did not get its fair share of those top big bands for public dances compared to Lowestoft and Norwich, but the Heath band was such a major draw that it topped the bill for a summer week at Great Yarmouth’s 1500-seat Regal Theatre in a twice-nightly variety show, the musicians bizarrely forsaking their smart uniforms for white V-neck cricket sweaters!
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But change in musical tastes was looming, and melody and big-band swing were ousted unceremoniously by Do-It-Yourself skiffle and guitar-led teenage rock groups, reshaping the entire style of popular listening.
On this side of the Atlantic Ted Heath, Johnny Dankworth, Teddy Foster, Joe Loss, Jack Parnell, Geraldo, Vic Lewis and their like dropped from favour except with their aficionados. Sid Lawrence came along, keeping the swing style alive for the middle-aged fans who today maintain their loyalty and enthusiasm despite the passage of more decades.
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Last month I caught the end of a BBC Radio Norfolk interview with a voice I strove to recognise, hoping for clues as he spoke. To my delight, I realised it was Dennis Lotis who, with Lita Roza and Dickie Valentine, provided the vocals with the Heath band in its prime.
I knew he lived in retirement in Norfolk, doing some local entertaining and playing until his farewell gig at the Mundesley Festival in 2005, so I was delighted to hear that he still takes great pleasure in reminiscing about the big-band era as his 90th birthday approaches next March.
For the Peggottys, it was almost like the old Saturday Night at the Palais last month – apart from the fact that we were seated and there was no dancing! We were in the Gorleston Pavilion audience for a concert by the Norfolk-based Jonathan Wyatt Big Band which deservedly enjoys a faithful following in the county and beyond.
From the familiar opening of Sy Oliver’s Opus One, the 16-piece ensemble had some of us oldies almost emotional as our lives flashed back through the decades to our teenage years. In long outdated parlance, the joint was a-jumpin’ as these talented musicians, spanning a wide age-range, reprised many old favourites of mine - and of the rest of the full house, it was apparent.
The audience was seated mainly at tables, but had there been enough clear floor space, it would have been no surprise if the patrons’ replacement hips and knees had been seriously tested in jitterbug and jive.
That old song from the war years, Don’t Get Around Much Any More, applies to Mrs Peggotty and me nowadays. For years she accompanied me as my reviewing duties took us to many opening nights of the star-studded summer shows that helped to shape Yarmouth into one of Britain’s premier holiday destinations, but that era is long gone, both for us and for the resort.
So we don’t get around much any more, show-wise, although in the past year we have been to Lowestoft’s Marina Theatre for two concerts by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra based there, one featuring show songs and the other James Bond music, and we were at Gorleston Pavilion for another Jonathan Wyatt Orchestra appearance which was more Glenn Miller themed.
So for us, Olly Day was only a name on local playbills, and we had neither seen nor heard him perform. Wrongly, I assumed he was a Norfolk yokel-style comedian with some corny rustic jokes, and I raised a figurative sceptical eyebrow on learning that he would be singing with the big-band.
It proved a monumental misjudgement on my part. Yes, we did get some Norfolk humour much appreciated by the audience, but Ollie Day was a revelation, a vocalist very accomplished in the swing genre who caught the evening’s mood to perfection, looking and sounding the part.
Jonathan Wyatt also presented a woman singer, Jacqueline Dempsey, equally adept and pleasing on vocals.
As we relished my kind of music for the evening, I wished some of 2014’s teens and twenties could have been there, for they might have found the musicianship appealing and even to their taste after their endless diet of groups. Not enough to spark a renaissance of swing, of course, but sufficient to make them realise why their grandparents still appreciate the wonderful music of the big-bands.
Gorleston Pavilion, 114 years old, remains a valuable year-round contributor to the borough’s entertainments programme, principally with summer shows and pantomimes plus one-offs, and merits its loyal fan base. We were delighted to share some of those fans’ doctrine that “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing...”