Crissy Lee
Crissy Lee

Ivy Benson's drummer and confidante, jazz orchestra leader and drummer to the stars.

 

Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.

Curly Holliday

Crissy Lee

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What’s your beginnings as a drummer then Crissy? What age were you? What made you start?

 

Four. For some reason my Dad, who was working in a factory in Colchester, brought home a pair of drumsticks, don’t know why, and he played on the side of the chair, the Parade of the Toy Soldiers, or the Tin Soldiers or something.  And I did it with a few ruffs and flams in, it was like a gift. It was a bit of a shock to me as well but that was it, from then on I played side drum in the Salvation Army band.  So all my technique was basically on a snare which in my opinion is a good thing to start with.

 

Were you taught the snare?

 

No, nothing at all, it just came from nowhere. My Dad was from a background of musicians anyway and my two cousins went to Kneller Hall, they were brass players, and my mum’s side of the family were piano players and violinists.  But no drummers.  They weren’t professional, apart from those that were in the Army.  So yeah that was it, I just started playing in pubs in the area.

 

What kind of music?

 

Doing all sort of Swing stuff, yeah, certainly into the Sheikh Of Araby and stuff like that, which you know, I've recently done a couple of years ago with a Jazz musicians at 120 miles an hour!  But yeah, overall, middle of the road and pop.  I wasn't really into that though, I wanted to go towards the Jazz and the swing.

 

When you first started gigging, particularly from a Jazz perspective, do you remember any of the venues, particularly in the Essex area that you played at regularly?

 

I didn't do any Jazz in Essex, it was always out the country, there was not a lot of work.  I don't think Colchester has ever been big on Jazz really, I knew that Ipswich was and I know we're in Suffolk now, and Southend, so most of my jazz gigs have been in Southend.

 

Yes, Colchester is bigger for the New Orleans Jazz isn't it really.

 

Yes it is which, you know, ok is great but that wasn't my thing either.  So I remember saying to my Dad when I was going to join a band once they want me to play four in the bar on bass drum and I'm not doing that.  Then he said to me “Well you might have to”, I said “No I don’t want to!”.  So I was quite strong at a very early age in what I did and didn't want to do.

 

What age were you when you were starting gigging around the pubs and clubs?

 

I was probably about 13.  My Dad would come with  me of course because at 13…I mean today the kids at 13 are grown up, girls aren't they, but I was certainly not, so I never went anywhere without my Dad. Pubsubs, functions and weddings which, once again, I didn't enjoy.  I knew where I was going and my uncle was an out and out Jazz fan and he said you've just got to listen to swing, Stan Kenton, all of them you know.

 

Was that more the big band swing?

 

Yeah.

 

Basie?

 

Basie, yeah, I mean I've got an amazing pad in my home; I've got all the great big bands. But I did like the smaller combos but I always seemed to get booked for a big band.  It’s only in probably the last 10-15 years that I've opened up and found what a different technique it is to play, you're more exposed aren't you and I like that because I like to…I'm not very good at copying, of course with the big band swing you’ve pretty much got to do what's written otherwise they’ll go ‘oh they didn't play it like that…’.  I say ‘he’ because as far as I know I was the only girl doing big band and Jazz and swing.

 

When did you get your first opportunity to actually play in a big band?

 

The Ivy Benson Orchestra.

 

Oh really?

 

Yeah, at 17.

 

17?  I mean what an institution.  One-woman institution Ivy Benson!

 

I know.  But prior to that I was with a band called the Lena Kid Seven. I'd taken over from a lady called Gracy Cole, she married Bill Geldard who was one of the trombone from the Ted Heath Band.  Gracy Cole was a fabulous trumpet player, sadly she's no longer with us, but that was a good band.  That was about an 8-piece, that was before Ivy.

 

Where was that based?

 

Once again that was based in London and travelling all over Europe.  We did a lot of GI bases, and a lot of private clubs in Germany, France, Switzerland – great.

 

At that age, so one of your parents must have had to come along as a chaperone?

 

No, they weren't by then.  It was a bit difficult for me because I was very young for my age and didn’t know a lot about the world really.

 

You certainly learned there!

 

Oh yeah.  Sometimes not in the right way really but um…you know you get there in the end don’t you.  I had to go to Bow Street because I had to get a licence to take me out of the country when I was on the road.

 

Wow that's incredible.  And how long were you with her for?  Before Ivy Benson?

 

Before Ivy Benson?  A couple of years, 18 months to a couple of years…

 

So you were 15 when you joined?

 

Sixteen.  Then I joined Ivy…I was probably…May 18th, what year when I joined Ivy, ’60, ’61…1961…yeah.

 

That’s incredible. How long were you with Ivy Benson for?

 

Well I was with her initially for 7 years.  And then it was the time when The Beatles, The Stones and everybody else were mega and there were no longer big bands doing anything and she decided to go with that pop clan, all these things and have a big band version of Love Me Do or something, you know, all the hits.  I didn't like that, it wasn't what I wanted to do, if I was going to be in a rock band or a pop band I wanted to do it correctly, the feel wasn’t right with the big band, it wasn't happening and I was always fussy about feel.  Because I wasn't a great leader when I joined Ivy’s band, these were really clued in.  So I left and actually that was when I formed The Beat Chicks.

 

You actually formed them?

 

I formed that band yes. I thought if we're going to do this, if this is the way the music industry’s going, I want to do it properly and have the correct line up of people that feel right for pop or whatever, so that’s what I did.

 

How long did The Beat Chicks last for?

 

Oh quite a lot of time because we did a lot of mega-tours across Europe.  We were the support band for The Beatles on their first tour in Spain and France.

 

Yes, it’s beyond belief isn't it?

 

Oh, we were flying in a private jet with them.  I believe that, at the time I was in love with Paul, but as the years went on I thought that John was rather nice!  Yes it was a big thing to do.  You don't realise it.  People say “My God you've worked with the Beatles”!  I think I was just shy about it though really to be honest.

 

I bet your parents were proud of you.

 

Absolutely, yeah.

 

Touring with the biggest band in the world.  And always will be the biggest band.

 

I think so, I agree with you there Mark.  They changed the whole music industry didn't they. And some of their stuff is still amazing, and ironically a really dear friend of mine who’s a fabulous trumpet player she was taught by the guy that did the trumpet part in Penny Lane. She is now the MD for the Bootleg Beatles.  We went to see them again about 6 weeks ago – fabulous, and she is amazing.

 

They’re amazingly good, The Bootleg Beatles.

 

Aren't they good!  I've still got a love for The Beatles.  I love some of their stuff.  You know, they're a bit under-rated I think by a lot of rock musicians, but they were a bit diverse weren't they.

 

I heard they were gentlemen towards you all?

 

Yeah, well, the ones that were most chatty were George and Ringo, although I don't like Ringo very much. He didn't recognise me on the Frank Skinner show.  Did you hear about that?

 

No.

 

Oh he was on the Frank Skinner show, because you know I was with the Skinnerettes for a while.

 

No, I didn’t, no.

 

For my sins!  But it's a gig.  And he said “Oh you've met Crissy before” and he said “No, I don't remember…” and so Frank had it all arranged, a photo of me and Ringo would be on full screen.  But getting back to the tour, they were a bit friendly.  John and Paul were busy on the plane still writing.  All the time.

 

A golden seam of stuff flowing out all the time didn't they? It was a funny thing though, also about the Beatles, the one thing that all the Jazz musicians tell me, whether it’s New Orleans or Modern Jazz is when Beat music came out it more of less killed Jazz stone dead for a while.  Musicians were going from 5 or 6 nights a week to scrabbling around looking for work.

 

Yeah and brass players in particular, you know, I've known a time on the Mecca circuit, the Top Rank circuit and stuff like that, where a 4-brass line up would be replaced by another keyboard player.

 

Well you rode that wave ok because it was kind of; you didn't lose the work in the Jazz world because you actually ended up in the Beat market with the biggest band in the world!

 

Yeah, that's right.

 

Were you still managing to fit in Ivy Benson at the same time as doing the Beat Chicks?

 

No, I left.  And then it suddenly came to a time when she was doing like The Russell Harty Shows and suddenly it was like ‘Big Ivy’…you know it happens sometimes in this business doesn't it, you suddenly…you're wanted for special things.  And she sort of  “Crissy will you please come and do these”, you know, she had drummers but they weren’t up to spec basically.  And of course whereas I could dep out, I always had to dep out with a guy, she couldn't.  So I did all the big shows. I went back just for about a year covering the big tours and TV for her.

 

That was after the Beat Chicks?

 

Yeah we disbanded after a while. You know what it’s like, people leave, one of the girls got pregnant, you know.

 

Did you release many records?

 

We had something released on Decca called Skinny Minny, something we’d previously recorded, but that at least got into Billboard. I think it could have been something like 88 or something!  But when we were touring Spain, because we were out there for 6-9 months, we had an amazing promoter. I mean. we went from being nothing to being something quite big and we had the Tom Jones song It’s Not Unusual sang in Spanish by the singer of the Beat Chicks, and that went to the top of the charts in all the Latin American countries. And something else that a girl called Moira Page, cousin of Jimmy Page, wrote.  And so he is on the website there, it mentions…he didn't play with us but he actually wrote that along with her.  So that was like…it was EPs in those days.

 

So after the Beat Chicks finished…

 

I went back to Ivy for a while.  And then I decided to sort of take a sabbatical for a while but that didn't last long because a band leader called Mike Holly, he had a fabulous band albeit on another circuit but he was a Jazz guitar player. Mike Howlins is his real name but he came out as the Mike Holly band.  He asked me to join the band.  Albeit once again it had to be covers but when he did his swing and Jazz which was my comfy chair that, it was a bit of a problem when I first joined because he told the band that I was joining and a lot of the musicians said we can't have a woman doing the drum chair and he said well why not, I know her and she can do this.  And about three or four of them said well we're leaving!  And he said “Ok, if you want to leave you leave. So I went and sat in one night and then we went over the pub and a few of then said to Mike, “Oh actually we'd like to stay actually, she's good isn't she?”  And he went “Sod off!” he did, because he was married to a girl called Jo Cunningham who was a fantastic Jazz alto player; Ronnie Scott rated her very much.  Sadly she's not here either.

 

It’s a funny thing isn't it – while we're on the subject – I don't know what it is and still to this day there’s…we know there's hundreds upon hundreds of female classical musicians but Jazz and Rock, you know, there just isn't.  I don't know, it obviously doesn't appeal to a lot of women to want to play that.

There's a friend of mine who’s in Jools Holland’s band,  Lisa Graham.

 

Oh she's a friend of mine! Yeah, I know her Dad. We've been in touch recently, She was 16 when she joined my band.  Fabulous little player.

 

She’s really got the Coltrane in her.

 

Yeah she has, yeah Jackie Hicks..... they were all in my band. She's not on that CD but you'll recognise a few names on that CD.  Some good girl players around now, sax players, trumpet players.

 

Not enough though, still not enough.

 

Not enough because I wouldn't take a gig on unless I had my ‘A’ team.  Because we'd always be compared with men.  Somebody said once “I've come along to see this band but it’s all women”, he said. “Stand outside for the first five minutes and listen to them and you tell me whether that’s…’ you know.

 

In a way you've got to be better than the men.

 

Yeah you have, and I had that sort of drummed in to me. I don't know what it is, there were some great drummers because they're welcome in the business as female drummers now, that are good…a good pop drummer like rock drummers, I think it could be a stamina thing with the heavy thing, having said that I've done some real rock hairy gigs you know.  I used to be quite sort of muscley, couldn't do that now, but…

 

There's more in America isn't there like Terri Lynne Carrington and people like that, who’s as good as anyone, better than anyone.

 

Yeah, yeah.  But with Jazz no-one seemed to go with the Jazz and I wonder, because as I say, when I've toured my band I'm always going to get comparisons and people say “Oh, are certain female musicians your favourite musicians” and I say “No, most of my favourite musicians are guys”, you know, it’s always difficult for me because I'm not a feminist at all, I like what I like, who I like, whatever player, you know? But Jazz, it's almost like they never wanted to pursue anything more difficult than a straight ahead 8-beat or 16 or whatever. But also there's not just that Mark, they get to the point that years ago there’d be an ultimatum with their loved one, “Well, it's me or the band”. I've had it with a guy I was going out with for years and years and years and in the end “Well I'm fed up with this” and the band did another world tour and off I went. So my drums have always been my first love.

 

Yes, it is… I mean my wife knows that, she says “I know I'm second to your music”, I mean she's not, obviously but…

 

Yeah, it's a different thing isn't it, I mean she's there with the little ones, you see I wouldn’t…if I'd had children, I've got plenty around me now, if I'd have had children I know I'd never have left them and then I would have regretted that because my drums were just my…you have to make…so I've only ever had four legged ones!

 

One thing I meant to ask, when you were with Ivy Benson the first time, were there any other Essex musicians in there do you know?  Where would Ivy have been based – in London?

 

She was based in London.  Do you know there wasn’t, no.  Once we had a bass player from Southend called Linda.

 

Do you remember what her Maiden name was, or maybe her married name?

 

No, sorry, she was the only…because my brother went out with her for a little while.  She was on bass guitar though, she didn't play double bass and Ivy did like to have someone that played both really. I work with a guy called Martin Dobson a lot, do you know him?  He’s a tenor player, he's on the Suffolk side. He was with Annie Lennox for a while, and we work together a lot.   And a guy called Bernie Hodgkins. He’s from Hadleigh in Suffolk and a young chap called Sam Edwards.Yes, so we're a band. I think it's given it a new name now.  Because we’ve always gone…sometimes it's been the Crissy Lee Quartet, sometimes it’s been the Martin Dob…you know it's just the way it is.  Who cares, you know.  

 

I know you've had the most ridiculous career, I mean looking at your CV, the people you've played with, outside of Essex and internationally give us some names of people you've played with, it's quite spectacular what I've seen on your website.

 

It’s like supporting…there’s so many isn't there.  Um…well obviously Tom Jones, supporting them, and because Ivy would want to show off her girls, I mean on the Russell Harty show when there was girls, the new girls, the old girls back in to the band from the ‘40s and the ‘50s and she introduced me as the best musician ever her band had had, which was a bit of an honour because there was some great players in that band, but she said “Crissy is a musician she's not just a drummer”.  She didn't like that because we used to be the odd one out didn't we? Now I was going somewhere with this just now…where were we with this? Why was I telling you this story?

 

You were telling me that you were the best musician Ivy’s ever had in the band. A good drummer is invaluable in a group though isn’t it.

 

Yeah well absolutely, because…I mean I don’t ever blow my own trumpet but I do kick a band along.  Yeah I was talking about Tom Jones.  She always used to feature a drum solo at the end which most bands did in those days, but on this particular occasion she didn't, she put it on the set before he was coming on because she wanted him to stand by the side and watch me, which, you know he applauded very much, but yeah, I mean this is all linked up where we were talking about girls, female musicians. They were pretty much…all the brass players were from the north.

 

Were they?  They've got that heritage haven’t they, the brass bands.

 

Because there used to be this…”How many northerners in the band at the moment?”  Pretty much all over the country but, as I say, not a lot from Essex.  They were all sort of London up. I mean we worked with, oh God…my memory will come back in a minute!  There’s so many I can't remember them all. Cleo Laine was very instrumental in helping us because we were at the Stables several times.  

 

When did you form your big band?

 

’91.

 

What happened in between time, up until then? Were you just around the world touring?

 

Just around the world working with various people, I mean, I did a couple of gigs with Kenny Ball actually, talking about Kenny.  Well I was working with a guy called Lewis Boardman, another jazz player, who had booked me and Kenny was fronting the band – and there's another incident: I turn up in Oxford and Kenny went “Oh God, it's getting close to stage time. Where's the drummer?”, he went “There!”, and he went  “Oh!”.  He said “Don't worry Ken she's fine!”

 

It should have made you more determined!

 

It did, it did, after a while, but there were times when I was, you know, unsure of myself.  Walking into a gig into the local area, you know, Colchester, Chelmsford, whatever, and I'd put my sticks through my sleeve.  When I was walking to the Salvation Army band, or my Dad would walk in with the drum kit, or my brother, expecting one of them to be the drummer, so…

 

When did you finish…because you said going back to after the Beat Chicks, you went back with Ivy for a while. Why did you part company again?

 

The musicianship in the band was not good any more.  Bless her heart she tried to keep it…

 

What kind of year was that?

 

She tried to keep that together.  I would say ’71, ’72.  And I needed to get out, you know, I wanted to grow as a musician and I wanted to be stretched and the only way that was going to happen was working with guys that were far better than me that would stretch me, like the trumpet players would go “This is the phrase Crissy, whack into it, wham into it, build up into it, there’s a good wallop or phrase coming up here”.  You know there was nobody to teach me that before.  It was good to work with guys that were kicking it along and helping me along.  That was part of the Mike Holly band for a while. But then I decided I wanted my own band, I wanted my own band which became the Christy Lee band, but it’s changed over the years because all my friends said Crissy is a lot softer and it's more like you.

 

Christy Lee?  Were you known as Christy Lee back then?

 

Yeah, yeah.

 

So what’s your real name – Christine?

 

Yes it is. And the Mecca Club they came up to wherever I was doing a gig with my band, Wales I think, probably a Butlins or something, and they offered me a place on the Mecca circuit but I had to sign something, I had to sign that I wouldn't marry for five years because that would distract me from being a band leader, which was like – once again – “What?”  But I said “Well I haven't yet and I have no intention to because this is what I want to do”. And so I took a 13 piece band, first to Portsmouth where I took on a young guy called…who I'd known since he was 4, Lance Ellington.

 

I know Lance ever so well.

 

Well I've known him since he was 4.

 

His father-in-law was my percussion teacher, Robin Jones.

 

So, his Mum, Anita West, said “Please will you take him in the band as a trombone player?”, so he came in to the band and then it was like – apart from pinching my cars all the time because he was like my little boy really…

 

What a singer!

 

Yeah, but he wasn't then.  But he's fantastic. Anyway, so then he wanted to sing and I had a girl called Bet Hanna at the time, from Glasgow, and to cut a very long story short I got all the band from the Marine's band stationed down in Portsmouth that I used to do an every Sunday big band Jazz session with. I put all the booze on the coach, we all went up to New Faces in London and this was Coffee and Cream, they were called Coffee and Cream, and they won it didn’t they?  They won the whole lot and I was their manager, so I pushed them along for a very long time.They did all the major shows didn’t they, they went around the world and then they split up, sadly Bet passed away from kidney failure, and then Lance is doing what he's doing now.

 

Yeah that’s right at such a high level.

 

Well I went to see him at Ronnie Scott’s with a singer who works with me a lot called Nina Ferrow and I didn't tell him I was going and I sent a note backstage and his little face, he came out of that dressing room and then he went back on stage and the 2nd number – and the place was packed – and he said “I just want to say, please, a big thanks and congratulations to my…if it wasn't for her I would not be where I am today” and he made me stand up in Ronnie Scott’s!  It was lovely, yeah, and I did work hard with him because you know he was a young lad, for God's sake. I really had to train him how to be a professional because his Dad, Ray Ellington, hadn't done that, he hadn’t had a lot to do with him.

 

Lance won't even talk about Ray will he?

 

No, no, he'll talk about me, I'm the one that pushed him, yeah.

 

So that was the Cristy Lee Big Band.

 

Yeah, we went from Portsmouth because we made so much money they sent us to Bristol. We were the band that were making the money in the Mecca Ballrooms.  So of course they kept shifting us. Within three years we were in London.  …that never happened, but what they were amazed at was “How come you take the same musicians with you?”, normally the bands used to pick up musicians en route wouldn't they?  Or based in Bristol or lived down in the West Country or whatever, but no, all my lot came with me, so that was great, the big band.  We used to do Blood, Sweat and Tears, and stuff, and Chicago – a real good band, I love all that sort of stuff.

 

Did you find time to do anything else outside of your own big band, you know, from a jazz perspective?

 

Yeah, whenever I could.  If someone asked me to go out and do a Jazz thing, it was probably for nothing because there’s not many rich Jazz musicians is there?

 

No, quite, quite.

 

I probably wouldn't have this lovely home if I had only stuck to Jazz!  No I still love it.

 

I guess, would I be right in saying… I mean obviously the thing with the Mecca ballrooms, there was…when disco came long that killed a lot of resident bands didn't it because every disco had a resident band at one point didn't they then towards the end of the ‘70s that all stopped didn’t it.

 

Yeah it’s like years and years and years ago when I was young every pub had a piano player, it was good wasn't it.  Yeah the world is different now, it’s totally different.

 

So where did you go from the Cristy Lee Big Band?

 

I started travelling abroad then, taking the band abroad. I managed to get a lot of Jazz work out there, we opened in Jo’berg, we opened the top of the Carlton and that was very Jazz-influenced.  Do you remember the band called Chase – four trumpet players, Bill Chase?

 

I do actually.

 

Four amazing trumpet players.  Well he was performing in this Red Door Jazz Club in Jo’berg and I went down there and sat in with him – that was fantastic.  It used to be because I would want to go to a Jazz club and sit in.  In Barcelona I played with Pony Poindexter, and Booker Ervin, people like that.

 

All good R&B Jazz players.

 

Yeah.

 

So it was all blues-shuffles and Bossas!

 

All blues-shuffles and Bossas and things like that yeah, but it comes natural to us doesn’t it really? With the band that I work with now it’s a lot more open. It’s not what you put in, it's that lovely behind-the-beat sort of stuff. I love all that, I mean I love New Country music because to me that is of a similar ilk, that laid back, those ghosted things, I love all the ghosted things.  I mean I actually probably, if I think about it, a better technician now because I've got so much stuff in there, in my studio, that you’ve got to learn it. If you're not gigging so much any more you might as well learn it.  And I had two master classes with Dave Weckl, and he's a lovely guy, because I said to him “Dave all my life I've never been able to play orthodox, although I do left-handed because I play left-handed brushes, that’s because I wasn't taught”.  And he looked at my little fingers and he went “Well no wonder you can’t”, but it was still fantabulous stuff he did. Dave Weckl’s favourite drummer, for technique, is my favourite drummer, which is Buddy Rich. I'd got a lot of write-ups that sort of said “Ooh there’s a bit of Buddy in there somewhere” and I think that's because we both came from snare drum; he was out of Vaudeville wasn't he, and I was out of Salvation Army bands.

 

He was a tap dancer as well wasn't he, Buddy Rich?

 

Yeah.

 

So you took the Cristy Lee Big Band abroad.

 

Yeah we travelled all of Europe, we did South Africa, we did Cairo, all those countries, Middle East…

 

Did you? What all the hotels?

 

Yeah the hotels.  It was alright. It wasn't my thing really but I had other people to care about as well, as a band leader, you know they needed to work.  As I say, it wasn't my thing, and we did step over the mark sometimes by being a little self-indulgent, but I don’t think it went down that badly really.

 

I mean the big band stuff is very accessible; it is exciting, you know…I mean you know Maynard Ferguson used to overstep the mark all the time with his own big bands didn't he, so…

 

Oh yeah I used to know his drummer very well. Randy somebody…lived in Streatham, and a guy called Ferdy Stewart.  And the three of us used to go and have a good time drink. Yeah, a good drummer, Randy Jones. You're making me draw this stuff out of me!  That’s why you're such a good interviewer because you’re making that happen! I went out to Sydney, Australia, with a guy called Johnny Hawkins, ATV music?  He was the MD for Cilla Black – she was out there at the time I went out there, at the Opera House, yeah.  I went out there to promote a record.

 

Yeah Johnny Hawkins stuff was more library music wasn't it?

 

Yeah but I did a big session with him.  Do you remember ‘Prisoner Cell Block H’?  I did a massive session for him, yeah, it was I think two days, the mornings with kit and the afternoons with synth drums and things because they had a lot of those synth drums.  That was a nice little earner – probably going back that far, £200 but that was a lot of money then. And then I've started to do a lot of stuff on my own now you see because the running of a band is such a nightmare and you worry about people: Are they going to be late? Are they going to turn up? And I sort of thought “I don't know if I want this any more”, so I began to freelance. I went out to America, albeit for a holiday but people out there nabbed me for a few days and I did a concert with these school bands out in Florida, these kids of 12 and 13 – Jazz!

 

It’s their culture; it's their university and college big band.

 

Yeah and it was great – and DW, because I have endorsement with DW drums, they had a kit waiting out there for me, and Zildjian cymbals had all the cymbals waiting out there for me, it was a wonderful day.

And then they brought in a couple of Jazzers, really good. I am so sorry I am dreadful with names, but this black guy on keyboard and on bass guitar – fantastic – we'd never met before but they asked us to do a 45 minute spot.  And it just happens doesn't it?  As long as you listen and you know…and I don't know about you Mark but because I didn't read first…

 

It makes you a better listener.

 

Yes. And now of course I'm alright because I teach, I read but, um, I don't know, I still like these hands to take control in a way because you recognise stuff after a while don’t you, you know. If I've got to sight-read something I find it a little bit static and tight and…

 

Quite.

 

It doesn't work for me too well and I get a stiff neck!

 

So just diverting for a second: Before we started the interview you said that you met the saxophonist, Kenny Baxter, down in Southend, and his wife Toni. How did you get to know them?  

 

By doing gigs – probably through Digby. And the piano player, Pete Jacobson. I did a lot of stuff with him.

 

Did you, when was that?

 

Early ‘80s.  Alan Morgan, do you remember he has a big company for amplifiers, bass player, string bass, double bass; with him…oh my lovely trumpet player who died of cancer, Vic Wood.  Fabulous player. We did a lot of work together, so it was Southend where I've done all my Jazz.  Nothing in Colchester.

 

Was that Top Alex you were playing?

 

Yeah that's right.  And once again through Vic I did a private function with the Bachelors.  They thought this is fantastic having a girl in the band, and we became close friends, visiting houses and things, and as I say, they came to my 50th.  And I went to their house a few times, but it’s one of those things.

 

So were you playing regularly?  That must have been with Turntable I guess, Kenny’s Jazz-Funk band?

 

No, not on a regular basis, I was probably depping for his drummer.

 

For Alan Clarke?

 

Yeah, that's it.  And then I met a lot of people through a guy called Ray Ward.

 

Who died recently. Terry Thompson.

 

Yes, Terry Thompson. I mean, a lot of people said he wasn't an out and out Jazzer because of the way he used the keyboard but he was a pusher for Jazz. I will give him his due, he made Jazz work in Essex.  Whatever else, bless him, he really pushed.  And he got some great musicians working with him and I met all these people in abundance through Ray Ward.

 

My saxophonist, Gary Plumley, his very first gig was with Ray.

 

I know Gary, yeah I know Gary!  It’s a small world isn't it?  I mean I'm trying to think up names, I'm trying to think of the guy, the blues band, the black guy, American.  Because he's got to be in his 80’s now – Blueberry Hill and all that.

 

Fats Domino.

 

That's it – we worked with him – fantastic.  But there's millions, you know, I should remember them, that's why if I do get around to writing this book I need someone to drag everything out of me, you know, really.  Because I say “Oh yeah, we met up with the Beatles” and someone says “How did you feel when you met up with the Beatles?”, you know, you need to sort of elaborate on it more.

 

You going through your own photo archives will do that though, you know, because you'll go “Oh my God…” and everything.

 

Well I was on Woman’s Hour about three years ago and that was all fixed up by The High Barn, a contact there, because I've done the High Barn quite a lot in Essex.  Do you know it?

 

Right, yes.

 

I went up there and Jackie Collins was there with her publisher and she could hear my interview and she was about to do her interview and she said to them “You’ve got to get this girl, she's got to do a book. What a life she's had and how different”. They are interested but then everybody…it’s a bit like this business, “Well I think we should try and get all the stuff she knows and the nasty bits she knows about people in the business and whatever”, but he said “No, I find her a little bit more refined. It’s professional what she's done” and so they were at loggerheads as to which way this book should go. So in the end I thought “I’ll just leave it for now”. Because I've been in the business too long to be, to bring up stuff, “Oh you knew Tom Jones?”, yeah, I know what Tom's like but do we have to bring all that up?

 

That’s right, no you don't.

 

So that's been put on hold. I put it on hold.

 

So you went freelancing all over the world.

 

I came back in about ’83, but I was still to-ing and fro-ing London so I had a little bedsit up there as well, so I had my cottage in Messing and the bedsit up in London.

 

Is that where you were born, in Messing?

 

No I was born in Colchester and my Mum and Dad were still here and he was poorly, and I mean in the last 15 years I've looked after my Mum. Sadly she died a couple of years ago, and that's what you do.  I put a lot of things on hold. That was my choice. But I've got the studio, I've got some wonderful people in the business that are still there for me and I'm there still for them, but I'm just doing bits and pieces, still lots of television, lots of recordings, radio. A lot of the recordings – as you know in this business – didn't always make it.  Lots of TV things that were put on the shelf  that haven't come off the shelf! And then Ronnie Verrell and I, through Ray Ward, because he'd do gigs with him and then I'd do gigs with him, then we started doing gigs together and it was like old times when we did that thing on the TV, and then he was “Ah I'm doing this Frank Skinner show and it's all these zimmer frames on stage” but the money was fantastic. We used to pick up…when I eventually did it, they used to pick me up from home, take me up the studios, and of course he went into hospital didn't he, he had a fall and that killed him off sadly.  Then the producers and directors at Avalon decided to do a different format, and they were looking for drummers.  Now I must have had 40 calls in one day with fixers and it always came back to me because everybody they went to said the only one that can do this gig is Crissy, because they were looking for a girl.  So I don't know who got the money for fixing in the end but I don't care! But then they wanted me to send pictures of myself other than the ones on my website. The producer said “Oh Crissy can you sort of have a night on the tiles and make yourself look a bit older and grey your hair up and whatever…and smudge your make up and put a twin set on?”, so Bernie Hodgkins, the bass player, came round to my home and said “Oh come on, we’ll do this’ and I looked at them and I thought “I'm not sending those. I've been a woman in this business who’s got to stay looking young, or as good as I can for as long as I can. I'm not doing it!”, so I said to Robin – a female producer – “Look I'd love to do this gig for Frank but this is who I am” and she said “No, Frank’s seen the pictures and he wants you anyway”, so that was 5 years run of doing the Frank Skinner show. But I was still doing gigs – and I was also working with a lady called Rose Marie, you must know her.  It was a craic, as she would say!  Because yeah her singing may not be desired by a lot of people but she's an absolute show person and I taught her some drums and we did a drum routine in the show and she gave me a lot of work for years doing all the major theatres all around the country.  We went to Ireland, we did TV shows out in Ireland, we stayed at the Europa hotel which is the most bombed hotel in Europe isn't it?  We had big stars on that. Yeah it's just been bits and pieces. What I always like with my Jazz is great musos and great people. If you're going to go out and do something commercial it's got to be with a name and you've got to get the money.  So that’s where my Jazz love has stayed - go up the road and earn ten bob and that’s fine.

 

Although you did form another big band didn’t you?

 

Yeah, the Crissy Lee Jazz Orchestra. Fantastic.

 

And when did you form that?

 

’91.

 

And it’s still going?

 

The pad’s there and I'm hoping, I'm wanting a venue in Essex because of my birthday coming up to my 70 years, which is like 54 years in the business, and all the girls want to do a big night. I'd like to get the big band together one more time.

 

Ivy, at some point, when she retired, did she retire through ill health or was it because of her age?

 

She just retired because of her age I think. You know she was a hard task master, believe me, you didn’t do anything wrong.  But I suppose she had to be, but I think a lot of the girls in Ivy’s band went in there for the glamour of it. I mean, she'd go out with a 24-piece orchestra, doing the American bases, she'd come back with a lot of them engaged to a GI and possibly with another little baby on the way, so that's what she was up against all the time. And that's what I was going to say to you earlier, with women, biologically I think the minute they have a child that will take priority and it would have done with me, that's why I didn't go there. I love kids, I teach kids, I've got so many babies in the family now, I just love them.  But you can give them back!  I think,you know, those drum kits in there, they are my babies.

 

So when you formed the Crissy Lee Big Band it wasn't like an Ivy Benson reunion or anything like that?

 

No, no, a lot of people sort of said that. It’s a really good question. No way.  It wasn't anything like Ivy's band. The girls didn't want to play Glenn Miller or anything like that.

 

Was it all female your band?

 

All female, yeah.  Well that's how we got a lottery grant, because we were struggling because it was all female and there’d been knock-backs with female musicians in the BBC Radio big band. They wouldn't take them on. They could be the better musician than the guy that got it but they wouldn’t take them on, and that was not me fighting against guys, but like “Hey listen, there’s some great players out there” and that's where Cleo Laine got involved. She was quite instrumental in getting the lottery grant, which we had to put up money ourselves but it enabled us…the thing is I had a lot of students, like Lisa, Jackie Hicks, but they were kids, they didn’t have the money to go and buy cars so we needed vehicles – buses – to drive them around the country, and clothes and stuff like that! But yeah, they were all young people in the band, but we did all the pubs, you know, the right venues for nothing, a pint of beer or something, but we built it up very quickly. In fact, I think in one magazine it gave us the honour of being one of the best top 10 bands in Europe, which was wonderful for us!  And they certainly were, but there were lots of people who jumped on our bandwagon and they were going to do 'this and that' for us.  I went out to the Rhythm Festival with a guy that said he'd been out with Count Basie and he thought he could do this and that for us. Mark you know the business, and I was still a sucker at that age thinking that we were going to do it, but it was for the band too and I liked giving them the stage. I'm always happy not to be the little star on the drums. I pushed all of them to get out there and to make a name for themselves.

 

Even though you live here were you basing the Crissy Lee Jazz Orchestra in London?

 

Yeah because it's not far to get to London from here. We worked a lot, we did the Cork Jazz Festival which was fantastic, I mean that’s one of the biggest in the world isn't it? We did the Glasgow Jazz Festival, we did so many Jazz festivals.  A big one in France, Holland.

 

So the Jazz orchestra hasn’t stopped as such it's just gradually slowed down.

 

It's not stopped, it's slowed down because there's no work for big bands. I mean, to put a big band out now you're charging about £4k and you've got to have a decent PA system, you’ve got to get the guys, you know, it’s nice to have that.  There was a time when I did have a drum tech. I've been lucky in having drum techs, but not any more! The hardware bag, I can't lift that any more, because I like lots of cymbals and it's just too heavy, so the guys say “Yeah we'll be there when you get there Crissy. We’ll get it out the car”, but I don’t like that really, I like to think I'm still tough enough to do it myself!

 

Why did Ivy retire to Clacton of all places?

 

A couple of gay guys she knew that would look after her, that lived in Chiswick and they loved it down in Clacton.  And she wanted to get out to the seaside and everybody loved her in Clacton and she was playing on the seafront, on her organ, coach loads used to come down from Leeds – which is where she was from – or anywhere up there, Yorkshire.  Coach loads. Stay in the hotel and have a weekend with Ivy Benson!  You know there’s an Ivy Benson ward in the hospital there?

 

No, I didn’t.

 

Yeah, Sheila Tracy, you remember Sheila Tracy from the big band?  Sunday night was it or Monday night she used to introduce the radio big band didn't she.  Her and I and Gracy Cole and a couple of others opened it, with Ivy.

 

Blimey, so Ivy…she didn't really retire then when she went down to Clacton.

 

No, she was singing away, playing away and just loved people.  You know, with her poodle sitting beside her.

 

Where was she playing there though?  You say she was on the sea front.

 

The Royal Hotel and another one that closed.  There was another one she went along to when that, I think it closed down for refurbishment so she went somewhere else and then went back to the Royal, because she had a lovely little bungalow called Melody and that photo you saw was her and I sitting at her grand piano.

 

How old was she when she moved to Clacton?

 

70?

 

So she still had a few good years left in her playing.

 

She did. She still did lots of radio interviews. I'd meet her, she'd get on the train at Clacton and I'd say “Wave to me at Colchester” just to be there for her, and I'd get on at Colchester and she'd say to me “Don't let them hear your band will you”, bless her – that was good because Ivy had never been like that to own up. But then you know when I was young she used to be at the Lyon’s Corner House in London and my Dad used to meet his brother who was a chauffeur for the Royal family and he sort of knew of the time Ivy would be arriving with her band and he took us up in the car one day and the coach had all these beautiful gowns, all along half of the coach because that’s the way the girls used to look, very, very ultra-feminine and beautiful and that was Ivy’s band.  So ok they weren't great musicians but they looked good. Now, I had the other problem in my band that they didn't know really how to dress up or they didn’t have the money to, so I used to have to get someone in to dress them.  We did the Michael Barrymore show with my big band, we did the finale with him.  And the girls would go “Oh I quite like dressing up and putting make up on” and things, you know. They were students but great players, far better players than Ivy ever had.  But I was trying to push the two together!

 

The music education is probably better now than it ever was.

 

Oh far better, and the guys, their boyfriends, you know either living with them or they’re married, I can hear them when I book them, the guys, “Can you do a gig on 6th July?”, “Bob what  are you doing 6th July?”, “Nothing”, “Right you're babysitting, I'm gigging!”.  It wasn’t like that then at all, it was very “No, the woman stays at home”.  Times have changed.

 

So the Jazz orchestra, although it still exists, has slowed down, so what else are you up to?

 

Now? Very much with kids now, trying to push the kids along, I have a percussion group called Thunder, which is often done just on snare or floor tom, teaching them all to fling the sticks and twizzle the sticks and back-handed stuff, which a guy called – from the Scots Guards – ah, Bobby Orr taught me.  Do you know Bobby Orr?

 

I know who he is.

 

All this sort of stuff with the sticks and back-handed sticking and whatever, and people love it, and under-arm things and flicking the sticks up and…it's just getting the kids to play together and listen to each other really.  And then I still do a day at Felstead School.

 

You've been doing that for 30 years didn't you say?

 

Yeah, coming up to 30 years.  As I say, I never thought I would teach. They actually taught me to teach them!  Because I didn’t know they'd say “Well what’s this thing underneath the snare drum or what’s this or what's that?”  They've taught me, and I know I'm a good teacher now because of the success I've had but the kids actually taught me to teach!

 

Did you used to get frustrated as an orchestra leader? Because having to deal with all the personalities of a big orchestra must be quite hard.  I mean I've got 8 in my band…

 

And remember it was all women.

 

All women as well yes, so you're going to have different characters…

 

I had to have male roadies there, but then you'd never know what would happen with the male roadies with 20 women jumping on them!  Yeah it can be very different with women because…I prefer to work with a mixed band of predominantly male with 2 or 3 women there because the balance is right.  It's a different agenda, so if there was a sound check at 7 we'd tell them 6 because it took them an hour to talk about their latest…honestly, really!  But with the guys it’s like “Ok, ready, off we go” and I like it like that really.

 

I think if I was in that same situation as you I think I'd have to put a…it's hard with human nature being the way it is, but you know you'd almost have to say, especially with the orchestra and crew you'd have to say “You can be friendly but no fraternising. Any relationships you're going to have to leave the band”.

 

Yeah, yeah, very difficult. You see Ivy had that problem.

 

Did she?  Because that's going to cause friction and…

 

She had that problem within the girls as well.

 

Within the girls?

 

Because that could be problems, so it was, well a real wake up call for me when I joined this business because I'd been a little Salvation Army girl, totally sheltered, you know, no swearing, no drinking. Well I did: I remember my dad took me to a gig once and they gave me a glass of port at this wedding, I was probably about 13-14 and I thought “Oh I'll try this” and I did a solo on When The Saints Go Marching In or something and I went “Oh dad wasn’t my solo good?” and he said “No, it was dreadful and that will teach you never to drink again”.  He was quite tough – an army man, so…

 

When you’re saying there could be problems within, do you mean from a lesbian perspective?

 

Both, yeah, or the fact that they both liked the same bloke, yeah. Or the blokes were playing around with two or three of the girls.

 

Probably for some blokes it was like all their Christmases had come at once!

 

Absolutely yeah, so Ivy did have a bit of a hard time.

 

I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, but did Ivy form the all-female band originally as a novelty rather than as a statement?

 

I think it came about because of the war. The First World War, there’d been another female band before that. I think they were American.

 

Yes, there had been.

 

And Ivy was a very strong character, and I think she decided and her Dad, called Digger, he was the manager of the band, I think it was a bit of both.

 

Yes because it’s very sellable isn't it, and in those days it was all about having a ‘hook’ wasn't it?

 

Yeah a hook, and still, if you haven't got a hook to hang it on they still don't want to know do they?  Because all the guys were away she did all the radio didn't she and she did all the BBC broadcasting.