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Composer Arhur Birkby talks to Ron Simmonds whilst holidaying in Benidorm in 1997.
Source: Jazz Professional
In Benidorm this year a couple of Canadian girls came up to me and said they had a British arranger living in the holiday apartment next door. When I inquired his name they said it was Arthur Birkby. We arranged to meet again, and they brought Arthur along with them, together with his wife Rosamund, and her sister. I knew Arthur from my Jack Parnell days, but we’d never had time to talk then. He looked great: snappily dressed in striped blazer and straw boater, as if going to the Henley Regatta, very fit, lean and wiry, and ninety years of age. He ate and drank, walked all over Benidorm, caught buses, did the foxtrot, and we saw one another several times. Mostly I was the one seated while he stood beside me talking about the past. This embarrassed me no end, but Arthur has about ten times as much energy as other people, and he hopped around while I listened. He had enough to say, too, and the following is only some of it. Note the famous names, some perhaps half–forgotten in many minds, but still firmly embedded in Arthur’s razor–sharp memory. Many of them are amazing: for instance Sid Millward on lead alto with Jack Payne, and Bernard Delfont as one of the dancers.
My first job in London was in 1929 with the Al Lever orchestra. Al Lever led on tenor, with me on bass sax and arranger, Blue Lever (Al’s brother) on trombone, Joe Cordell (a lifelong friend), trombone and violin, Joe Loss! - yes, the great man himself, mostly in a dreamy state. After a few months at the Palais I was back in Archer Street, knowing no one in the business except the Al Lever boys, to whom I owe a debt for introducing me to the music fraternity in London.
On to the Joe Loss band 1930 - 1934, Astoria Ballroom, Charing Cross Rd. I started the band with Joe, as he took the job without knowing anything about bandleading. Personnel: Piano, Harry Kahn; Drums, Jack Greenwood; Tpt, Bert Collier; Saxes, Arthur Birkby, Danny Miller, Harry Norton; Leader, Joe Loss.
During the next four years the band was expanded by Clem Stevens, Tpt, vocal; Harry Case, gtr, vocal; Jimmy Messini, vocal; Joe Cordell, Trombone; Reg Richmond, bass. We also played as relief band to the Roy Fox orchestra. at the Kit-Kat, Haymarket. I left the band after four years to join the Jack Payne orchestra on tour.
Jack Payne orchestra 1934 - 1939. Personnel: piano, Norman Warren; bass, Charlie Asplin; Drums, Jack Simpson; gtr, Ronnie Genarder; vocalist and dummy gtr, Billy Scott Coomber; Tpts, Bert Bullimore, Sid Fearn; Troms, Jack Jones, Alf Edwards; Saxes, Alto: Sid Millward, Tenors: Arthur Birkby, Connie Lamprecht, baritone, Dave Stephenson. Vocalists were: Scott Coomber, Ronnie Genarder, Ralph Silvester, Peggy Cochrane. Dancers were: Phil Trix, Ernie Brooks, Bernard Delfont, Toko. In addition were fiddlers Cyril Stapleton, Arthur Coppersmith and Sid Williams. Artists who toured with the show were Jimmy James and Co; Billy Bennett and Max Wall.
The Jack Payne orchestra was disbanded in 1935 and the musicians dispersed to different combos. My friend Cyril Stapleton managed to get a contract to supply a five piece outfit at Fischer’s Restaurant in Bond St W1. As Cyril himself had only a limited idea of how to run a dance band I agreed to run the show for him: fixing the players, doing all the arrangements, and leading the fellows during the sessions. Cyril, of course, just teetered around in front of the band, playing an occasional chorus on his fiddle. That of course was my usual job with all the bands I played with until I eventually fronted my group Arthur Birkby and his Octet for the BBC. This I managed to combine with my position as arranger/sax/clarinet/bass clarinet/flute and what-have-you with the Geraldo orchestra throughout the Second World War.
The octet personnel: Violins 1: Max Jaffa (or Maurice Linden or Eugine Pini), David Macallum; Violins 2: Charlie Katz, Alec Firman. Cello: Maurice Westerby (or Freddie Alexander); Bass: Jack Collier; Flute: Phil Goody (or Geoffrey Gilbert); Clarinet: Jack Ellery (or Jack Brymer). Piano: the celebrated Billy Mayerl, who was engaged by the BBC as solo pianist but insisted on playing the full programme for no extra fee. We all loved the old man: he was brilliant.
First octet broadcast in 1939 then at odd intervals until 1952.
While playing at the Kit Kat with Joe Loss around 1932 I was asked to transcribe a series of pieces by the great Duke Ellington. This meant lifting them from the 78 records, as his music was not in print. They were required to accompany the cabaret act Buddy Bradley’s Rhythm Girls. As I was already taking some of these tunes off the disc for my own use I gladly accepted the offer, as this was the first arranging job for which I would be paid. I nearly wasn’t - but that came later.
The show duly opened and the Rhythm Girls were a huge success. During the first week I noticed a good looking guy in the balcony. He came in every night about 1 am. I asked Danny Miller if he knew this chap, and Danny said, ‘Don’t you know - that’s Ted Heath, the trombonist.’ I was a bit puzzled by this as I could not imagine the great Ted was trying to pinch any of the limited repertoire of the Loss band at that time. Then the penny dropped. It became obvious to us that what Ted came to see was one of the Rhythm Girls, whom we later identified as the lovely Moira, who later became Mrs Heath.
I might mention that these beautiful young ladies, most of whom later became stars of stage and screen, were the team known as Cochran’s Young Ladies who came along to the Kit Kat from their nightly performance at the Hippodrome. Anyway, Ted married his Moira: a union which lasted until his much lamented death.
Some time after this I was asked to loan the scores and parts of the Ellington material to the Bert Ambrose band then playing at the Mayfair. As I had not been paid for the work I refused to let them have the music until I saw the lolly. The agents hung on until the rehearsal day, then I received a frantic call from the great Bert himself who said ‘Do me a favour kid, bring the stuff at once to the club and I will personally see that they pay the debt.’ I did, and they did, albeit in a rather surly way. Anyway, the show went on, to everyone’s relief, especially mine. I saw Ted and some of the Ambrose band later and they congratulated me on my defiance of the Big Guns.
The next time I met Ted was at the Grosvenor House where he was playing with the Sid Lipton band. This time I had been engaged to take off the records of An American in Paris by Gershwin, played, I believe, by the Stokowsky Orchestra. Some job it was, as the Lipton band was only ten piece. Nobody complained, though, and Ted enjoyed playing the motor horn bits.
I didn’t see much of him for the next 5 years as I was offered a contract with the Jack Payne Band and left the Loss outfit to spend the next five years touring the halls. However, all good things come to an end, and finally the Radio Dance Band packed up.
Soon after this, in 1939, the country was once more at war. I was turned down by the RAF on account of my age (32) at that time, then spent six months in and out of hospital with a badly smashed arm. On returning to London I was offered my old seat in the Jack Payne band which had started broadcasting again. At the same time I moved into the Mayfair with the Jack Jackson outfit, finishing the day’s work at 11.30 pm, after which a quick run round the block took me to the Stork Club, where I honked away until 6 in the morning with the Sid Phillips Sextet.
I sat next to Les Hutchinson, my friend, who was kind enough to prop me up when I started to roll over sideways. Sid was a nice guy and never said a word about our behaviour. I think he knew that Les and I were ‘walking wounded’. Les had been blown up in the Café de Paris band, which was hit by a bomb one night, killing the leader Ken Johnson and many others.
We stuck it out for a month, then Les asked me if I’d had enough. When I said yes he said he had an offer to join the new Geraldo band and the offer was open for me, too. A week later we played our first date at the Paris Cinema in Lower Regent Street. This was to become our second home for the rest of the war.
The Geraldo orchestra 1940 - 1947. Personnel: Conductor, Gerald Bright (Geraldo); piano, Sid Bright (twin brother of Gerald); bass, Jack Collier; Drums, Maurice Berman; Guitar, Ivor Mairants; Trumpet, Alfie Noakes, Basil Jones, Flash Shields, Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson; Trombones, Ted Heath, Eric Tann, Joe Ferrie, Jimmy Coombes (Topper). Saxes: Harry Hayes (Chipper), Nat Temple, Dougie Robinson, George Evans (arranger), Arthur Birkby (arranger), Phil Goody. Vocals: Dorothy Carless, Doreen Villiers, Johnny Green, Beryl Davies, J. Hunter, Len Camber.
That first day the boys started to arrive one by one. First was Phil Goody, my old friend from the thirties, then Jack Collier, the bass player. Then Ted Heath, whose warm greeting helped to steady my nerves somewhat. Soon everyone was busily tuning up. I was in a terrible sweat wondering if my gammy wrist would hold out, as it was still in a weak state. Then Geraldo arrived, my first rehearsal began, and with George Evans on one side, and Harry Hayes on the other I survived.
After the show Ted Heath congratulated me on making it back to the smoke and offered me a lift home. He was one of the few musicians who still owned a car at that time. It was an elderly Austin 10, which lasted throughout the war. I knew the old banger well as Ted, on his journey from Wimbledon, used to pick me up at North End Road, and after the show at the Paris or Trocadero studios drop me at the same place.
One morning, on arriving at the Paris, Ted said, ‘Would you do me a favour?’ He then went on to tell me that he had composed a song to which Moira had written a lyric. This was entitled Lovely Weekend, and he started to play the piece phrase by phrase on his trombone while I scribbled down the notes. I then wrote him out a copy with an accompaniment for piano. When he asked how much he owed me for it I replied, ‘You don’t owe me Ted. I owe you for the free lifts and help you have given me.’
The following day Ted handed me a cardboard box, not to be opened until I was back home. Upon opening we found it contained a dozen beautiful eggs and a thank-you note from Moira. This was much appreciated by my family, as eggs at that time were like gold dust.
The English music publishers had at that time almost ceased production, so it was not easy for Ted to get them interested in his song. Finally it was accepted by Peter Maurice Music Co., and I believe Dorothy Carless of the Geraldo band recorded it. The song became a great hit, and its success helped Ted’s dream of having his own band finally come true. The rest is history.
In 1945, upon leaving Geraldo, I played with Lew Stone for the show Annie Get Your Gun at the London Coliseum. Alas, Lew Stone was a nice bloke but conducting this type of orchestra was not his forte.
Violins: Max Jaffa, Maurice Linden and others; Cello; Fred Alexander, Maurice Westerby. Bass, Tiny Winters - the only one of the old Lew Stone band and a great friend. Piano, Blackstone? Saxes: Arthur Birkby; Trumpet, I forget; Troms, Burgess, a great shot with a pea, Don Macaffer. Drums, Jack Greenwood (my old mate from the Joe Loss band).
Left the Annie show in 1950 to work at Chappells Music Co as staff arranger. In the next few years I must have written arrangements for almost all the bands then broadcasting. I recall the following: BBC Variety orchestra, (conductor, Paul Fenhoulet); Cyril Stapleton, Harry Roy (very good looking, and great guy to write for even if he was the world’s worst clarinet player), Ted Heath, Mantovani, George Melachrino, Frank Cordell, Gracie Fields, Arthur Askey, Bert Ambrose, in addition to all the other singers on the air at that time.
I also smoked 80 cigarettes a day, so it wasn’t surprising when I finished up with pneumonia and a patch of emphysema which still worries me a bit. So much for Chappells.
My son-in-law, the pianist Pete Moore, who was busy at that time churning out arrangements for Billy Cotton, recommended me to the new ATV orchestra led by Jack Parnell, and for the next 5 or 6 years I was busy writing music for the two big shows produced by the Grade Co: Saturday Spectacular and Sunday Night at the London Palladium, which featured the top US artists week after week. Kenny Powell was the piano accompanist. In addition we did two whole series for Eric and Ernie (Morcambe and Wise - never a dull moment).
Personnel of the Jack Parnell orchestra at Wood Green, then Borehamwood: Conductor, Jack Parnell (good lad!); Strings, Alec Firman (fixer), Charlie Katz, Percy Coates, Bert Powell and all the session players; Harp, the Russian Countess Maria Korzynski; Brass fixer, Nobby Clarke. Trumpets, Ron Simmonds, Tommy McQuater, Basil Jones, (plus sometimes Freddy Clayton, Derrick Abbott or Stan Roderick); Trombones, Laddy Busby, Jack Irving, Jackie Armstrong, George Chisholm; Saxes, Bob Burns, Dougie Robinson, Frank Reidy, Bob Adams, Phil Goody; piano, Norman Stenfalt; bass, Lennie Bush; Guitar, Dave Goldberg; drums, Bobby Midgeley (or Jock Cummings).
About 1960 I fell for another attack of pneumonia, and after recovering from this my wife Rosamund persuaded me to pack in and move to Jersey, which we did.
I just walked away from the studio, and the music business. I’d had enough.
(Told to Ron Simmonds when Arthur, now aged 94, and his wife Rosemary were holidaying in Benidorm in 1998)
When Arthur appeared at Wood Green Empire with his first scores for the Parnell TV orchestra trumpeter Basil Jones and many of the others greeted him by the name of Sebag. I was intrigued by this, but never found out why until Arthur told me, forty years later. The guys in Geraldo’s wartime orchestra had discovered that Alfie Noakes, the first trumpet, had a second initial S in his name: Alfie S. Noakes. He would never divulge this other Christian name to anyone, so Arthur said it must stand for Sebag. After that the name stuck, not to Alfie, but to Arthur. Alfie took the mystery of that second initial to the grave with him; even in the Who’s Who of British Jazz the secret remains unsolved. (Ron Simmonds)