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Interview One: They Were Tremendous Times
British jazz trombonist Don Lusher talks to Les Tomkins in 1973 and Jimmy Staples in 1971. He talks about the best moments of his career and the pleasure of working with Frank Sinatra.
Source: Jazz Professional
It’s twenty–five years now, since I became a professional musician. I came out of the Army in ‘46, and for about a year I couldn’t get any work at all. Eventually I started, though; my first job was ‘with Joe Daniels and the Hot ‘Shots—that tots it up to the twenty-five years. I didn’t think it would last that long! Initially, in Peterborough, my musical impressions were pretty general. We were a Salvation Army family. My father played instruments, and I began studying the trombone at the age of six. Everything rather tended to revolve around brass bands. That was the main musical activity, although my father was pretty keen on things like Gilbert and Sullivan. Also I remember hearing quite a bit of church music. Each year we always used to go and see a live performance of “The Messiah” in Peterborough Cathedral.
But, although I was interested primarily in brass band music, other things started to happen. Listening to orchestras on the radio a little bit, my interest was aroused by the sounds of different musical combinations. Which, as much as I loved brass bands, I realised were much greater. It had been a great thrill to be exposed, in Peterborough Cathedral, to the majestic sound of a full orchestra—even though, looking back, it was probably not a very good one. And I became quite interested in the choral works as well.
This went on for some time; then I used to start to listen to some dance bands on the radio—casually, just as music. And I listened to them more and more. When I heard a band called Geraldo, and a trombone player called Ted Heath was mentioned—I’d never heard anything like that before in my life. It was a totally different sort of trombone sound to what we made in brass bands; it was like velvet. He went from note to note like pressing keys down—we didn’t use to play that way at all; we used to slurp around, and everything was a little bit raspy. I envied tremendously every aspect of his playing.
Just before I was called up into the Army, or about that time, I used to go to the local Embassy Theatre, where I was pretty knocked out by Henry Hall, Joe Loss and one or two other people. Not Geraldo—he never came while I was there. Maybe I was a little stage–struck, but seeing these bands really impressed me.
With such good brass players, I suppose, as compared. to what I was used to locally—which was good, but with limitations.
Once in the Army, I went and did the basic training and all the rest of it. Then, just prior to the invasion of Europe, we came down from Norwich. It was all a big secret, but we were going to take part in the invasion. Nobody knew at all—except that all our vehicles were waterproofed. One evening the entire regiment, which was an awful lot of people, drove right down the main street of Norwich, all in their waterproofed vehicles and tanks. We did an overnight journey to London, we went into West Ham Stadium, and were impounded there, ready for the invasion to start.
We were there, I think, about four nights; a tremendous number of troops were massed there. In the evenings, we were entertained by ENSA shows. And on one particular night, they said, Geraldo was coming; of course, I was terribly excited about this. Sure enough, they came, and I remember seeing them unpacking from the coach, then going up on to the stand.
It was then, watching this, that I was completely overawed—by the sound, and by the sheer professionalism of everybody connected with it. And I knew there and then that I must one day be a professional trombone player—if possible, in a band like that. Quite a long shot, because at about four o’clock the next morning we went off and took part in the invasion.
I remember, that night, asking the late Maurice Burman, the drummer, for his autograph, and he was very kind. He knew where we were going, and he said: “Good luck”. Although he didn’t know me from Adam, he gave me some money to spend and buy a drink for myself over there.
I could see this was really a big-time band. There were Ted Heath and Phil Goody shuffling off the stand together, having packed up their instruments and left them on the chairs; then I saw a band-boy come and cart all the instruments away. All the musicians were dressed like a million dollars. To me, it was all another world—and the playing was quite tremendous.
It’s a long time ago now, and one changes an awful lot, but I can still vividly recall the fantastic impact that this band made on me.
Certainly, amongst the best, musicianship was very high in those days—as it is today. I don’t know whether we’ve progressed at all. It’s always ranged from very, very good, through medium to not so good. I still think the best things then were excellent—such as the Geraldo band. Of which, much later on, I was to realise my ambition to become a member.
As I say, from then on, my mind was made up. But for several years I could do nothing about it, as I was in the Army and didn’t have a trombone with me. Then, when the war was over in Europe, I tried very hard to get in a proper band, but still couldn’t. The best I could do was get with the divisional concert party, the Polar Stars, so-called because we used to wear polar bears, as the division had served for quite a time in Iceland.
I was very lucky here. This was run by Hugh Paddick, who’s quite a famous person now, and he was a great help. The band was run by Stan Butcher—he’s a very well-known guy in the profession now, of course. We used to go to Hamburg and broadcast a sort of Band Of The Week thing every now and then, and at BFN you would always meet other musicians. This was how I first met Rick Kennedy, Rusty Hurren and Jackie Armstrong. Plus the fact that on the announcing staff were a lot of names we know today, like Johnny Brandon and Peter King, who later on was the distinctive announcer for all the Tip Top Tunes programmes with Ted’s band.
Anyway, eventually I was demobbed. Stan Butcher and about half-a-dozen of us had decided to form a co-operative band. We went down to Pembroke Dock, where Stan’s in-laws were living, and did indeed pool all our resources, which was about £50 in gratuities. And we got a job playing three nights a week in Tenby, on the coast there. Well, things went from bad to worse. We were not businessmen; so we were pretty doomed from the start. We got so broke that we had to move out of the meagre digs we were in, and we finished up renting and living in one of these trolleys on wheels that workmen used to serve tea in when they were doing road works. We used to use the ballroom for toilet facilities and as a mailing address; we were quite happy. But I thought: “I’m not going to get anywhere like this” and now, of course, I was craving to get into the profession as such.
This was a good little band, but we played far too much jazz; we absolutely crucified ourselves. People hated it; I suppose, because they came to the ballroom to really dance, with all the sequins and such. We played a lot of small band arrangements by Stan, and some John Kirby things we took down, plus a trombone part. Also a lot of busking, as a matter of fact—and it didn’t pay off.
I was listening madly to all the bands on the radio. The Preager band knocked me out at that time, as well as Teddy Foster, Vic Lewis. I’d think: “Oh, if I could just get with a band like that.” It was obvious this thing was going to crumble, and one week I saw that Joe Daniels was advertising for a trombone player, to form a new band. I said to the fellows: “I must go and try this audition.” I didn’t have much money left at all, and the train fare from Pembroke Dock to London was fairly considerable. But I went up, auditioned very nervously, and got the job. It was £12 a week, on tour, and I was absolutely delighted. So I severed my connection with the band down in Tenby right away.
As well as playing trombone, I was sort of roadman/ assistant to Joe. I used to go in the car with him quite a bit, when he had migraine attacks. We were touring hard for a month; then, unfortunately, the band folded. I was out of work again.
Now followed a lengthy non–playing spell, in Peterborough. And I really didn’t know what to do, because I hardly knew anyone at all in the profession. Joe had said: “Phone—we’ll have something”, and I used to phone him in London twice a week. But he was just getting promises; nothing was forthcoming. He was very kind to me; he was my first boss, and both he and his wife were very nice. We still exchange Christmas cards and that sort of thing.
Things looked so grim; I couldn’t get any work whatsoever, and after I’d been out of work about nine months, I decided I’d better go back to my old job, and forget the profession.. I was a salesman for the Peterborough branch of the John Lewis Partnership. Then, not being on the phone, I had a telegram from Rusty Hurren, who was living with Jackie Armstrong at the time, and it said: “Come to London immediately. Job with Lou Preager, Hammersmith Palais.” This was a Friday; I got on the train, and presented myself at Hammersmith Palais, with a trombone and a suitcase. Apparently there was a trombone change. I passed the audition with Lou on the Friday afternoon, and the next night I did my first broadcast from the Palais with the band. Of course, I was thrilled. That was the real big–time; I’d hit it.
We worked very hard at the Palais, but it was a wonderful education being there. Particularly since various bands used to come as guests. Ted came with his band many times. At one stage, I think I’m right in saying that he was there for the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights of every week; I just used to go and stand there lapping it up.
I’d like to go back on my tracks here a little bit. During my Army spell, I’d heard the Heath band on the air; I followed all the write–ups, and I thought it was incredible—right past even what I’d heard from Geraldo. One weekend I went to Peterborough for a leave, and my friend and myself arranged to come up to London and, before going back off leave, to go and see Ted’s band at Hammersmith on the Monday night; then we would catch the midnight train to Harwich and so forth.
I remember all the details of this, because I was young and very impressionable. At seven o’clock we joined the queue outside, which then extended right to the end of the road; at a quarter to eight we were in the building and about six people away from the front of the bandstand, which was all roped off.
Then they started coming up and moving around before the band came on the stand: people like Jack Parnell, Kenny Baker, Les Gilbert, Harry Roche. Maybe this sounds all childish now, and I suppose it is; I wouldn’t think twice of it now. But to someone who wasn’t connected with it then, it was like seeing royalty or something like that, you know. And that original Heath band did have a certain aura about it.
Suddenly the whole of the Palais went into darkness, Paul Carpenter’s voice said: “Forty–five minutes right off the top—with Ted Heath and his Music”, there was a blaze of lights and this sound. I’d never heard eight brass in the flesh before—and I stood there open–mouthed. I could not believe it. The first set just went like that. Fantastic. I’ve got a picture somewhere of me sitting listening to it, completely overwhelmed.
So, when I was working at the Palais myself, I made it my business to get immersed in the Ted Heath product at every opportunity, the way of playing trombones and everything. Again I thought: “I’ve got to play with Ted Heath one day.” No form of cockiness about this; you just used it as a goal, you see. As everybody probably did at that time.
As for the Preager band, it was a very good grounding for me. For a start, the hard work: six afternoons, six evenings, one day off, a broadcast and quite frequently a recording session. And it gave us a chance to meet a lot of other musicians. Not only those in the visiting bands, but the ones who came into the Palais to see these other guest bands. There were always a few good jazz players with the Preager band as well, during this time.
There is another aspect of it that we must come to at this point. I’d noted with approval the band vocalist, Eileen Orchard, but I didn’t necessarily expect to get to know her particularly well. Anyway, during the first couple of days, I was mentioning amongst the fellows and this vocalist that I had nowhere to live, nor did I know what to do about it, being a stranger in London. This girl said: “Well, I think there’s a room going at the place where I live, in Earl’s Court.” Which proved to be the case; so I moved in, and this led to our becoming very friendly. Within six months Eileen and I were married.
Yes, I owe a great deal to Lou Preager. He was a tough boss to work for, but I learned a lot from him, and I’m very glad I had that experience, of working with a hard–playing Palais band. We were playing all types of music.
The band contained a lot of wonderful characters—including Jack Carter. I suppose Jack must be one of the most conscientious players I ever remember, to this day. He impressed me as a clever man, in all sorts of ways. He always had a sense of humour, plus a sort of purpose in life. I have the greatest respect for him, definitely. Essentially, Jack wasn’t the life and soul of the party. Not at all he was too keen on getting on with the job. But when he did speak it always meant something, and there was often a good laugh with it. He’s a very positive person.
Even then, the life of the fulltime musician was pretty foreign to me. You’ve got to remember that I came from a Salvation Army family.
For instance, no one in our house smoked. So, when I woke up the first morning after my call–up, in a Nissen hut with about thirty–five other soldiers, I couldn’t understand it—all I could hear was a barrage of smokers’ coughs, which was something entirely new to me. I didn’t smoke, drink, swear; I was pure. But soon I was seeing guys drunk and so on; I suppose a lot of it was good fun.
And I’d heard various tales, of musicians being fearful types. My mother and father—for my own good, as they believed—said: “You mustn’t go into the music profession. It’s terrible.” But I will say this: once I’d decided to be a professional player, my mother, especially gave me every encouragement possible. My father was very worried about it being insecure, because he’s that type of man. They did everything they could to try and stop me beforehand, but when they knew I was dead set on it, neither of them stood in my way.
I’m pretty anti this bad reputation musicians have now, because I know so many wonderful people, some of them good friends of ours, who are musicians. The press give us a terrible time, as they do people in show business. Well, they’ve got to make interesting news, but if they can get anything bad on musicians, they’ll snap it up, whether it be dope, drunkenness or divorces.
These things happen, of course, but there’s an awful lot of very good, ordinary types who play instruments.
It’s the same as most of us being looked on as very unfit. We work all hours of the day; we never see fresh air. All this sort of thing is such a lot of twaddle now, because a lot of my immediate colleagues are almost health and strength fanatics these days. I mean, there’s an awful lot of sport played in our profession now. People make time to play golf tennis, swim and take holidays. And they look after themselves. There’s a lot of fellows don’t drink at all, and a lot who do. There are many who can drink quite a lot, but they’re always capable of doing their job. Some can’t, but there’s some guys sitting in offices who are like this.
Now, in the Preager band I don’t think we had any weirdies at all. Everybody was pretty keen on practising and that sort of thing. It was a very steady job, and a lot of the guys were married and settling down. I don’t think we had any big drinkers in the band, really; by that I mean guys who couldn’t do the job.
Lou was a very strict disciplinarian, anyway. I remember one incident, when Duncan Campbell joined the band. A tremendous player, and he’d been with the famous Tommy Sampson band—which was renowned not only as a good band, but for its dress, which, to say the least, was not entirely conventional. The Preager band was always pretty smart. Duncan appeared the first night in a dinner suit, but with a very modern cut, and with white socks. Lou took one look, went round to the deputy leader, Jimmy Mayers and removed Duncan from the stand! That’s why I say it was a very good education for me. We had to be seated on the stand, ready to play five minutes before we did play, and things like this. It all sounds a little bit bullied now, but I think discipline like that paid off. It stood me in good stead for Ted’s band, because that was pretty tight in the same respects. We used to have a lot of fun—but business was first.
It was a year that I was with the Lou Preager band. I remember, because I was on £11 a week for the first six months, and then £12 a week after that. At the end of that year, I had an opportunity to go with Maurice Winnick, who was forming a new band to go to the famous Ciro’s Club. It offered considerably more money, and people were ad-vising me to go, in order to get out into a wider musical world. There were some pretty big-time guys in this band—people like Max Goldberg and Jock Bain.So I went, and I got the job. I did the first rehearsal, in the afternoon, and I think two people in the band spoke to me—that’s all. It was a very tough band to be with; not a happy one at all. I’m glad bands are not like that these days. All right, I suppose it was quite an experience watching all these tremendous notabilities come in. But—talk about big–time!
After a month, I got the sack. I was asked to leave by Mr. Winnick, who said: “I only employ stars. You go out on the road, son, become a star, and come back and try again.” What had actually happened was: another famous trombone player wanted to leave a road band. He phoned Maurice up, with the result that he was in and I was out. This was a disaster to me! I was so depressed, because Eileen wasn’t working now, and I had no money at all. I walked back from Ciro’s to Earl’s Court that Saturday night, thinking: “What the hell can I do?” Anyhow—I then did an audition with the Squads. The trombone player Eric Breeze was the first one of the original Squadronaires to leave; so I was to replace him. They put me on a month’s trial. I was highly delighted but very nervous, to say the least, because it was still a very fine band. My colleagues were Tommy McQuater, Jimmy Watson, Archie Craig, George Chisholm, Tommy Bradbury, Jimmy Durant, Andy McDevitt, Cliff Townshend, Monty Levy, Jock Cummings, under the direction of Jimmy Miller and Ronnie Aldrich. I was very lucky to get in a band like that.
The only thing was: at the end of the month, nobody had said anything, and I thought I couldn’t have got the job. We were playing Tunbridge Wells on the Saturday night; I went up to Tommy McQuater, who had been quite a father to me in the band, with me being pretty inexperienced. I said: “Tommy, I suppose this is the end, because nobody’s said anything.” He said: “Well, if nobody’s said anything, that’s all right. You’d better stay.” And apparently I had got the job.
We did a lot of touring, broadcasts, recordings. It was a tremendous experience for me—just to work with these guys, who were all far superior to me, all older guys than myself. And I must pay tribute now to George Chisholm—he couldn’t have been more helpful, during the three–and–a–half years I sat beside him, as a player and as a person. At that time—I know he won’t mind me saying this—he was having tremendous drink problems himself. Although, in all that time, he was never nasty and never unable to do the job, or anything like that. Since then, of course, he’s worked wonders, got completely over it; he’s better than ever now—in all ways, probably, I would say.
Sitting next to him for so long, I learned so much. I was just flabbergasted by the things he did with tunes, the harmonic construction of the simplest of things. His interpretations, his subtleties. his musical conversations—I couldn’t begin to describe the impression they made on me.
Jimmy Miller fronted the band very well, but a lot of arrangements were written and a lot of the band’s rehearsals were taken largely by Ronnie Aldrich. Ronnie was a fine band trainer; we used to sit round in a complete semicircle when we rehearsed. A great amount of detail was paid to dynamics and all that. It was a wonderful education.
I was getting rather fed up with touring now, which we’d been doing pretty extensively. Eileen and I had now got our first child, and I wanted to try and stay in town a little bit more, if I could. And I went with the first Jack Parnell band, right after Jack had left Ted’s band.
Jack formed the band for a show, Fancy Free, with a four–piece brass section of three trombones—Harry Roche, Jim Wilson and myself—and Jimmy Watson on trumpet. I was there for about a year.
That was a good experience, and I suppose I then started doing sessions. No, that’s not entirely true, because I started with the Squads, really. A lot of the Squads fellows used to do freelance work—not as much as it is now; it was a different scene. But I used to get in on some of these sessions. When I was with Jack’s band at the Prince Of Wales, I used to get in on more, and I started to do maybe three or four sessions a week.
Sessions were really the same as they are now—the pop music of the period. I was on the first Alma Cogan session, with Frank Cordell.
Laddy Busby used to look after that work then, for trombones. Ronnie Hilton—I remember him starting about the same time. I was also very thrilled getting on a couple of Bob Farnon sessions as well.
While with Jack’s band, I’d been approached to go with the Geraldo band, which was tremendous at that time; I couldn’t, because I was under contract to Jack, for the duration of that show. When the show ended, I was still asked to join the Geraldo band, and I did. Now, this again—I’ve had a lot of experiences which have set me in good stead, I think—the Parnell, the Squads; now another one came along. I could then go into this Geraldo band, and play under Jock Bain. I went on fourth trombone; Maurice Pratt and Jack Thirwall were there, too. Jock was a very strong leader, in all ways.
Probably, in some ways, that’s the most musical band I’ve ever been with in my life. A different band to Ted Heath’s; it reeked in music, in dynamics and all that.
Very well organised—it was known as Geraldo’s Gentlemen. We were doing broadcasts, in the main—say, three a week, including TipTop Tunes—and maybe one one–night stand.
For about three months, we did a Mecca tour. It entailed a lot of travelling, but it was marvellous. Wherever we went, we had crowds of people, many of them local musicians—even in the afternoons. And the band really got playing good, with doing so much. I remember going. to the ballroom in Glasgow—I think probably the Locarno—on Monday afternoon. We went in, ready to play at about three–thirty, and the place was packed. All round the stand were loads of these Scots musicians; there’s nothing better than having musicians listening in front of you for making you take your fingers out. You really know you’ve got to deliver the goods.
Every arrangement we played was a good one, really. The staff arrangers were Wally Stott, Roland Shaw, and we had things from Robert Farnon, Alyn Ainsworth, Bill Finegan. Loads of the Kenton charts; he used to salute various bands, such as Les Brown and Claude Thornhill—we had these things taken down. Everything was musically first–class. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and stayed quite a long time.
While I was there, I had calls from Ted Heath, and went in. They were doing broadcasts, like a Stan Kenton tribute programme, where they needed to augment to a five–trombone section. A trumpet and a trombone from Gerry’s band—I think it was Albert Hall and myself—used to go in. After doing that several times, I was approached to join the band on a fulltime basis.
As it happened, I didn’t fancy it. It was a wonderful band—it was the band then—but I was so happy in the musical experience of the Geraldo band that I felt I shouldn’t go.
Anyway, Ted kept getting on the phone to me, promising the earth all the way round, from a playing exposure point of view, as well as a lot of money—more money than we were earning with Gerry. And I kept saying no, but still doing odd things with the band, as and when required.
Ted could get quite annoyed. One day he said: “Listen—you’ve got to come with the band. If not, I’m offering this to. . .” The person he named was far higher up in the profession than I was at that time. He would take the job, Ted said.
And I thought: “I don’t know. . . .” I went home and talked it over with my wife. I also talked it over with Jock Bain, who had been very kind to me in the Geraldo band. Jock said, in effect: “I like you here, and it’s good for us all to be here together, but you should take that job. Because you’re then going to have the trombone job of the country.” He’s a very astute man, and he knew Ted extremely well; they were old buddies. He told me to make sure and get my side of it ironed out—what I was going to do in the band, what sort of money would be forthcoming, and that sort of thing.
So I went to Ted—and he laid everything at my feet; I didn’t have to ask for anything. And I decided to go. I did the last broadcast with Geraldo’s band on a Monday lunchtime, and at three o’clock that afternoon I had a rehearsal with Ted’s band for an evening broadcast.
And—I didn’t like it, when I got there. It was funny. I went in, and they were different sort of guys; the music seemed less than I’d been used to with Geraldo. It was a louder band all the way round. I went back to the Geraldo blokes, and I said: “I think I’ve done it all wrong.” Jock said: “Don’t be a fool. It’ll be all right.” Well, very soon, of course, I settled down well in the Heath band.
But it was a new world, and it took a little time to get used to it. I remember the first one–night stand I did with them; it was at East Ham or West Ham Baths. I’d never seen anything like it: we had to remain in the bandroom, until we were sort of ushered on to the stand by a bouncer type. Lita, Dennis and poor old Dickie were with the band, and the reception was just incredible. I had things to play, and I got a great reception; I thought: “What is this?” Anyway, I got caught up into it all, and got on fine with the fellows in the band. Ted was excellent to me. All I can say is: I’ve learned an awful lot from him. He had know–how. People would criticise him, say he didn’t play enough jazz, and all the rest of it, but he was a Governor of this organisation—which wasn’t just a band. It was something else. You felt part of something else.
We didn’t use to have many arguments about anything in Ted’s band; it was always a pretty good feeling. But if there were any arguments or anything, once you were on the stand the band came first. That’s all there was to it. No individual—the band only. You were proud to be there, part of a team.
Needless to say, we had wonderful experiences. We toured all over the place, doing some very interesting jobs. We went to the States—five trips, I think—which was an enormous experience. The band was definitely a greater success there than it was anywhere in this country. Don’t ask me why—but it was, undoubtedly.
The band played extremely well over there—but they’ve got loads of wonderful bands of their own. However, the band was always very smart; in all fairness, some of the bands we’ve seen come over from the States have been mighty scruffy—many have been impeccable, of course. I don’t think people like to see scruffy bands. Our showmanship probably paid off as well. And they liked Ted, because he was a genial type of man, who could get over to the public without a lot of tremendous waving around of arms.
We met an awful lot of big–time musicians in the States. We found that the bigger and higher up the scale they were, the more they would go out of their way to be nice to us; they couldn’t do enough for us.
It was a tremendous knockout for me, because I met a lot of the guys who were sidemen in the early Kenton bands; they were, by then, session men on the West Coast and on the East Coast. Great people—they were very helpful, we heard them play, and generally made friends. So much so that I correspond with a lot of them to this day. They keep saying: “When are you coming over to see us?” Well, all this time has gone, and I’ve done nothing about it, until this year. Now we’ve made up our minds to go and have two weeks’ holiday in L. A.—probably in May. I’m sure we’ll have a wonderful time. I’m really looking forward to that.
There were wonderful experiences in the Ted Heath band. As well as our tours in the States, we also went all over Europe. Then, one very cold Sunday night we left London Airport, and one month later we were back, having been round the world: Australia, New Zealand, returning via the States.
Although I don’t believe you can live in the past, there can always be memories, and when you look back, they were tremendous times. I wouldn’t be doing that now, of course, but it was really a marvellous experience.
And we’re very lucky, because, having all gone our various ways, on nearly every session you go on now there’s old Heath blokes.
We’re together most of the time, and we still have very good times. To this day, there’s a sort of freemasonry of exHeath players. Just the other day. I was working with Ronnie Verrall and Kenny Baker; we had some hysterical moments. I value things like this very much indeed.
Certainly, I was musically broadened by the Heath band. The thing was, Ted paid good money, but he expected every pennyworth of it, shall we say? So he would exploit a player; if he knew you could do a certain thing, you didn’t just sit and play. I think everybody in the band had their position and things to do.
My broadening took place, inasmuch as I played features and took responsibility so much. This surely must have brushed off on me.
I also learned a lot about commercial playing. Some of the arrangements were of a different kind than I’d been used to in the Geraldo band. Not worse, but different. I could see how Ted, in many ways, used to dictate to his arrangers what he would want. I came to appreciate his thinking, in terms of crowd reaction—generating excitement or moods. And today, with my own playing as a section leader and soloist, running my quartet, recording with my own big band recently, I can’t get Ted out of my mind. Not because he’s an idol of mine, but I can hear things he would say—what would be good, bad or indifferent. So I’m very grateful for that.
I stayed there nine–and–a–half years in all. At the end of that time I’d really begun to feel I was getting stale. Plus the fact that things were getting a little bit difficult. The papers were plugging John Dank worth’s band, because of its jazz content, much more than Ted’s “Hot Toddy” band.
According to a lot of people, the band never swung. Well, I’ll disagree with that. But you did get a little bit fed up with the knocks. I suppose, in every field, there must be a certain amount of jealousy; apart from that, people are entitled to their own opinions. It certainly never ever was a jazz band, but I think everyone would agree that there were some fine jazz players in it.
The groups were beginning to come on the scene. Ted was having a little more difficulty in getting the better type of work. There’d been one or two changes in the band; I’d hate to say it had gone off, but for me it was losing something. And personally, I felt I was in a rut; I knew I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my playing days.
The other factor was: the sessions had built up. Everybody in Ted’s band used to do sessions—not just me. We did sessions collectively—the trombones and all the brass did an awful lot together—and individually we did all sorts of sessions. The best way to put it is: the sessions were now standing in the way of the Heath band. It wasn’t fair to carry on like that; so, regretfully, I had to make a break.
Along with this decision of mine, I’d been approached to go into Jack Parnell’s ATV band, on lead trombone. They were established at Wood Green in those days, and the job offered good money, very comfortable conditions, as well as being a pretty red–hot band. I’d said “No” to the first approach, but I’d started doing just a few sessions with them.
It’s a funny thing: I’ve had two ultimatums—first to join Ted Heath, then by the Parnell band to leave him. I was told: “You must come—if not, the job is going to someone else.” So I decided. I went and gave my notice to Ted—and it didn’t go down at all well. He wouldn’t accept it, as a matter of fact. He said: “Work with both bands.” I knew this was impossible; so eventually I did leave, on very good terms with Ted’s band. Later I went back and did some sessions with them. In any case, Jack’s band had loads of ex–Ted Heath fellows in it.
The other consideration in my making this move was a personal one, after discussions with my wife.
With Ted’s band then, we used to go away every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday—just at the time when your kids were off school, and that sort of thing. Then we used to do Summer seasons at places, and your freelance work would go down as a result. For me, it was the right time to give all that up.
In addition, economics had to enter into it. Ted paid me well, but, looking back, it’s funny to realise that the money we earned with Ted’s band in those days, even though it was top–line, and we did a great deal of work, is nothing by comparison with the money you earn in sessions.
Particularly now, but even at that time. Anyhow, that’s nobody’s fault; I’m not saying that as a knock at all.
I stayed with Jack’s band quite a few years, doing all sorts of other sessions as well. Then, when they started doing the American Tom Jones things and so forth, it became almost a regular job. You were earning tremendous money, but you’d got to be there. This, too, is only a personal outlook, but I felt that you were going to say goodbye to a lot of your other connections. Now, after being with regular bands, I don’t want to belong to anything regular in the future again.
What I like is working round—this morning with somebody, this afternoon with another lot, tomorrow with a different lot again. Completely freelance, with fresh challenges, fresh faces, fresh types of work. That suits me fine. So I haven’t done Jack’s work regularly for three or four years now. I go around as and when required. I’m first call for a lot of people, certainly, but I don’t want to get bogged down in any way.
The business has been extremely lucky to me. Of course, I’ve worked pretty hard at it. Which I think you must do—if not, it’s best to give it up. There’s a fearful amount of competition. It is gruelling, but I’ve got a little code on it, and I think you’ve got to work this out for yourself.
This works for me personally. Basically, you work very hard in hours, but every session you go on is not a workout. You can go somewhere this morning and have a workout and a heavy blow; this afternoon you’ll spend just as much time on it, but it’ll be backings for somebody, and when you’ve played that bit you can pick up the newspaper and read, or have a conversation. And it’s times like that when you switch off as much as you can, and save it for the occasions when you’re, as we say, “roasting”—when the nerves are going, you know.
Also, when there is a great amount of work about, I always try to keep some time in the week free—so that it’s not whole days all the time. And, to split it up, we now have four holidays a year—every three months, that is. Which works well for us; it relieves the tension.
After eight or ten days, I feel pretty much a new person, and I’m ready to come back and start again.
I don’t go in for a lot of very late nights, either. I play a lot of sport; golf, tennis, I swim when I can. I walk quite a lot in between sessions. I like a drink with anybody else—but I very quickly get drunk, and I can’t play and drink. So it’s out for me. I am a joke; if I have a drink, I love everybody in sight and everything is fun. That doesn’t go with work—so I have no drink problem whatsoever.
Sure, you get nervous. And it’s possible to get more nervous now than ever, because people expect more now. Don Lusher has got to show and deliver the goods. All I can say is: you try to control it as much as possible. And if you do do something wrong, it’s not the end of the world. Because as you get older, you think, you’re just lucky to be around. If you’re doing any sort of job worth its salt, you’re going to have some sort of stress, but with a lot of common sense, you can ease up on that, or get something going for you to take your mind off it.
As I say, though, we have a lot of laughs, a lot of good conversations on sessions. Most of the fellows I like immensely; we’ve known each other for a long time. Then there’s an awful lot of young guys now, who are very interesting to be with and to work with, and to hear their aspect on playing—leave alone life. And their aspect on life, like our own teenage sons, is very different to ours. But this is of great interest—it’d be fearful if we were all the same.
So I have no gripes about the life at all. I’d like more time off, definitely, but you can’t have it all ways; it’s a compromise. I’m very glad I’m still playing, and I wouldn’t like to be in a job where I could stagnate. I don’t like untold pressure, but I like to be pretty much on my toes.
I like the feeling of being on my toes to be natural. Now, this is an old thing which comes from Ted Heath. He used to say a lot of funny old things, and one of them, that I remember him saying as we were driving along in the car, was: “Always play, mate, like it’s a broadcast. Never ease up. When you’re on a one–night stand or anything, don’t just take it easy. Always play to the red light.” And this is true. If you coast along and just think about getting geared up for that important date you’ve got in a week’s time, you’re not on the right track. No—just play good all the time, so that you don’t really know another way of playing.
Copyright © 1973 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved