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Article Two: Rosalyn's Tribute
Rosalyn Wilder pays tribute to Burt Rhodes in 2003.
Source: Jazz Professional
BURT RHODES – 17th APRIL 1923—21st JUNE 2003
Dedicating a service to the memory of someone is a very special task to be asked to undertake—dedicating that service as a means of giving thanks for a life seems to add another dimension.
I am sure you must all understand that Alison and I have spent a great deal of the time between last Saturday evening and today trying to ensure that this service gave everyone who attended a sense of the life of Burt.
Although the last 6 months have been tough he did manage to celebrate his 80th birthday and—until illness struck last December—he certainly had had a varied and fulfilling life.
When it was decided that I would say a few words I was struck—not for the first time—by how our lives change as we mature—for a while we are young and totally dependent on our parents—then we marry and maybe have children of our own—we celebrate our own lives and those of our friends and families by going to christenings, engagements, weddings—and then time passes and we start to mourn the passing of loved ones and spend more time at funerals and memorial services.
Also, in the course of our lives we live out many roles—son or daughter, brother or sister, bride or bridegroom, mother or father, grandparent—not to mention supporting roles such as aunt or uncle, colleague and, very importantly, friend. Thus all of you will have known Burt in one or other of the many rotes he played in his long life.
He fulfilled many of the roles I have mentioned—he was a much loved son—born in Guiseley and raised—as he often told me—in a rather idyllic childhood. He went off to war and on his way back to England met some people who were to be the first to influence his choice of career. He had learned to play the piano and organ as a child and soon found himself as part of a group called “The Men About Town"—nightclubs where the glitterati who entertained themselves in great style were always looking for acts to please their exclusive clientele—I’ve often thought, given Burt’s penchant in life for always being dressed for the role, that it was strangely apropos he should start his professional life in a group with such an apt name and gave an odd insight into what was to follow.
As a child he had more or less been brought up with a young girl called Flora—leaning, as I understand it, over her shoulder to copy her answers in arithmetic at school—and in 1948 they were married—the son becomes the husband—and in due course the arrival of Alison gave Burt his next role as father.
The success he had with his act led him further into the realms of "Show Business"—and. having taught himself how to arrange and orchestrate—when the act finally ceased to be he was much in demand writing music. This was the era of the Big Band and he played with one of Britain’s biggest bands—Harry Roy. He was young, he was good looking, he was extremely talented and his services were much in demand—times changed and Burt moved with the times—he began to front his own band—mostly for Radio—"Workers Playtime", The Arthur Askey Show", The Richard Murdoch Show", Dickie Henderson, Alfred Marks," I’m sorry I’ll read that again" —for many of these he also wrote the signature tunes—these were just some of the shows he worked on for Radio—he carried on writing, for the bands, for West End shows and eventually for Television—the "new boy on the block".
He was much in demand to act as Musical Director for West End shows—"Our Man Crighton", "Expresso Bongo", “Golden Touch", Fine Fettle”, "Blitz”—he worked with Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse on "Stop the World I want to get off"— and, believe me—MANY others.
When television really started to become popular Burt's talents were much in demand—"The Nixon Line” with David Niven, most of the Benny Hill shows, Beryl Reid, Paul Daniels, the BBC Pantomime. Billy Smart's Circus etc etc. And, while all this was going on he was also working closely with a man called Robert Nesbitt who influenced both our lives, and through whom we met 44 years ago. Mr Nesbitt created London's first theatre restaurant—the Talk of the Town—on the site of the old London Hippodrome—and Burt it was who initially did the orchestrations for the hugely glamorous shows there, and in 1986 became the musical director with his own orchestra.
He acted as musical director for most of the great artists who appeared there—Judy Garland, Cliff Richard, The Supremes, Rolf Harris, Johnny Mathis, Pearl Bailey, Frankie Vaughan, Bruce Forsyth, Howard Keel—I don't have the time to go on—Mr Nesbitt also directed all the shows at the London Palladium, Burt provided 99 per cent of the orchestrations. Mr Nesbitt directed all the Royal Variety Performances and, again, Burt usually worked on the music for them, and when there was a spare moment there were always Royal Galas, award ceremonies, orchestrating the first James Bond movie and other special events.
He was a popular and respected colleague in the world of music. He was closely associated with, among others, Ronnie Hazlehurst, Monty Norman. Don Lawson, Len Hunter. John Borthwick, Phil Phillips and many others with whom he formed lifelong friendships—two more of the roles I mentioned earlier. That is a small précis of his life in the theatre—he carried on writing, advising, acting on committees and generally being a fount of knowledge right until the end of his life.
Now, if all that makes it sound as though he couldn’t have had much spare time—I can assure you that he devoted almost as much time to perhaps the greatest love of his life—family apart—and that, of course, was cricket. It must go without saying that Yorkshire was his main love—as Geoff Cope, who played for Yorkshire and England, and is with us today—will testify. He was, however, thrilled to become a member of the MCC. Listing all the cricketing organisations of which he was a member is a bit like trying to list all the music he wrote, or conducted, but he had a special place in his heart for the group he founded many years ago—the Yorkshire Country Cricket Southern Group—for Yorkshire fans who were now living in the South of England but still wanted to support their team. There were lunches, dinners, awards—help given to youngsters' recognition of triumphs and solace in failure.
Apart from his role as President of the Southern Group he was. of course, chairman of the Coda Club— he served on many committees for the Musicians Union, arrangers and writers groups, he was a Freeman of the City of London and recently he was asked to serve on the committee of the PRS Members Fund which he was thrilled to do. He would never pass up an opportunity to help anyone who asked.
So, there you have it—the cv is complete—but maybe you feel I have not included much about the man himself.
Well I have only known him for 44 years—we met at Robert Nesbit’s office in 1959 and we worked on so many shows I couldn't possibly remember them all. Of course, the way in which one knows someone from a working life and from living with them is rather different, but many of the qualities which endeared him to so many of you were inherent in his character—he was kind, he was always immaculate, he tried always to be fair—acting as he often said as 'devil's advocate' in so many issues.
He worked very hard and it may not be for me to say, but I do believe he was one of the great arrangers and orchestrators of his time—a view echoed by another great man of music—Harry Rabinowitz, to me some years ago. He loved being on stage—he revelled in working with the big names in Show Business—when I was at the Talk of the Town we had some magic moments—Bruce Forsyth swearing me to secrecy when he asked me to find a battered old bicycle and a dirty raincoat and keep it out of the way of Burt. The deed duly done we got to the end of Bruce’s act that evening—he exited to great applause—went off stage and came back on the bicycle and wearing the dirty raincoat and proceeded to cycle around the stage —I leave you to imagine Burt's face—it took quite a few circuits of the stage before he realised who it was!
Sometimes Burt told us he felt the sound balance of the orchestra was not good "out front" —so, always eager to help—the sound engineer, the stage director and I begged Burt to signal discreetly from the stage and tell us |what we might do to improve the situation. We made sure that this involved quite a lot of hand signals and holding hands to ears, lifting arms up and down etc—you get the picture—then we vanished—leaving him to spend hours making futile gestures while we collapsed in mirth at the side of the stage. When asked why the sound had not improved we said—absolutely straight—that we either hadn’t seen the gestures or thought we had interpreted them faultlessly!
Of course, the other side of the coin was when the dancers brushed past Burt every evening—disturbing the immaculately coiffed hair or catching his jacket or even—God forbid—treading on the patent shoes. After rather a long run of this "insolent behaviour" he trapped the full skirt of one of the worst culprits as she made her entrance and she was stuck. She wriggled and pulled—she snarled at him—the orchestra went on playing. Burt smiled enigmatically, the rest of the dancers moved seamlessly but one luckless girl was trapped and he didn’t let her go until she had promised not to muss him up again—she was released—game, set and match to Burt!
Quite apart from the worlds of music and cricket Burt was a much loved member of both his and Flora's families and June and Derek are but two of the family who have come from Yorkshire to pay tribute today. He also had close and lasting personal friendships and Dickie and Barbara Rundle were among those he liked to call friends—a name not easily earned in Burt’s view! I could not speak today without also paying tribute to a group of people who, in quite a short space of time, came to mean such a lot to Burt and who have been such a huge support in the last few months—our fantastic neighbours.
I will leave you with one last story. A couple of months ago I asked Burt to please take some rubbish down to the bins for me—he agreed immediately and went to the hall cupboard to change from his slippers to proper shoes for the journey from the hall to the bin store—just when he had completed the change—with the help of a long, elegant, pure horn shoe horn—I changed my mind and asked him to post a letter as well. He didn’t look too pleased but removed the shoes, put the trees back in and put on another pair—one didn’t wear the same shoes to throw away the rubbish as one did to go and post a letter. I think that kind of sums him up— never less than immaculate—I actually caught him reproving the Prime Minister on Television a few months ago for not wearing a suit!
To Burt standards were vitally important, he couldn’t come to terms with much of modem life—in fact I think he took a certain pride in telling everyone that he belonged to the “quill pen” age—but he made an indelible print on the lives of many people—both Alison and I are deeply grateful for the support we have had during his last illness and since he died. I think it is a tribute to Burt that so many of you felt moved to write and call, and indeed, be here today.
To end this tribute I must say that, although Alison and I have often jokingly said that the first ten loves of Burt’s life is cricket, the second ten is music, and, somewhere down the line after those two, comes family and friends, that wasn’t strictly true, Like most of us, Burt may not have been a great one for saying how much people or things meant to him, but I know he had a happy and fulfilling life with Flora. I also know that he adored Alison and was very proud of the many things she has achieved in her life, and the kindness and generosity which are hallmarks of her lifestyle.
I can't help but think that any "heavenly music" will be much improved now that he has arrived to take up the baton!
Rosalyn Wilder 25th June 2003