Crissy Lee
Curly Holliday

The bandleader of the Ken Turner Big Band.

 

Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.

Curtis Fuller

Curly Holliday

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So I'm interviewing Curly on behalf of the Ken Turner Big Band and I've now found that Curly's had this immense career in Essex as well. What’s your real name Curly?

 

My real name is Norman Holliday.

 

How did you get the nickname ‘Curly’?

 

Well I've had it since I was 14, when I first started playing.

 

They called you Curly then did they?

 

Because if you play, once you've got a name, I mean I think my Union membership was in the name of Curly! So once that’s established you can’t really become anyone else. It’s changing now because people ask for your email address, because my email address is normanholliday@ blah blah, so people who’ve known me for 100 years are just finding out that my name is Norman!

 

And you were born and bred in East Ham?

 

Yes.

 

So you were talking about being a trumpet player at 14, what inspired you to take up the instrument?

 

Good question, I don’t really know, I can't really remember. I went to school with a guy called Tony Arnopp who went on to become a professional with the BBC Radio Orchestra. He had a good career for himself, we were kids doing aircraft modelling together and then we moved on, let’s get an instrument, this kind of thing. Within a very short space of time we were actually working, it's amazing because when I was 15 the war was still on so there were no young men because they were all in the Forces, so if you had a band at all they would be either under 18 or over 40, if you can imagine, so you got the opportunity to work long before you would in normal circumstances you would have stood a chance. But if you could play a tune and you know…

 

You almost learnt on the job.

 

Well I did, absolutely. Very much self-taught at that stage.

 

What kind of stuff were you playing at that age?

 

Well I was always a Jazz fan, right from the word go, and so by the time I was 16 or 17 the first Dizzy Gillespie records started coming through and I was absolutely a fan, Dizzy’s my absolutely idol so that tells you my, that was my golden age really, Diz and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

 

The birth of Be-Bop.

 

That’s my time.

 

So where were you playing around East Ham in those days?

 

Oh all the, mostly all the town halls, in the Winter the bars, the East Ham bars particularly they used to put a board over for dancing. They were hugely popular, if you had a gig at East Ham bars on a Saturday night when you got there there would be a queue to get in. So plenty of work at that time.

 

And was that more kind of dance bands?

 

Yeah, I think you'll find with most musicians they did a fair amount of dance band work.

 

But it was all Jazz, the dance band?

 

You’d get the chance to play a little bit of Jazz, you know.

 

Yes that’s right, because there was an element of Jazz to the dance bands wasn’t there.

 

You couldn’t really earn any money playing Jazz, not really. But you could earn money playing dance music, that's basically the answer.

 

So you were playing with some of the dance bands, were there any dance bands in particular you…

 

Well the first dance band I played with in East Ham was called the New Embassy Band and was run by a guy called Cecil Harley whose son Malcolm became quite a well known bass player in this area, played at The Heybridge for many years at the restaurant there, in a trio with a guy called John Withers.

 

Oh yes, the drummer and vibes player?

 

Yes, drums and vibes. So that’s where I started. I knew John Withers at that time then so we would have been teenagers together. So that was that, because at 18 we all went off to the Army, so then there's a two year gap basically.

 

You didn’t get a chance to play in the Army?

 

No, I was tempted. Some of the guys, this Tony Arnopp I told you about, he went into the RAF, went in as a musician and that's probably how we became pro when he came out he was kind of a pro in the Air Force in effect. So I didn't do that, I went in the Army just became a soldier but of course as soon as I came back off we go again.

 

What year was it when you came out of the Army?

 

Oh crumbs. I'd have been 20 so that would be 1951.

 

That was National Service?

 

National Service, yes.

 

And when you came out of the Army were you still living in East Ham at that point?

 

Yeah. And I went straight back into playing immediately. I can’t think who I was playing with then but plenty of work about at that time.

 

Were there any specific Jazz clubs at that point that you can remember, particularly around the Essex area?

 

In the Essex area, I can't think of any.

 

And that includes Ilford, Walthamstow and…

 

I can't think of a lot, um, but my first Jazz club after I came out of the forces was called the Club 15 and it was in Stratford. It was a pub in Stratford, I can't think of the name of it, but Stratford is E15, that’s why it's called that. I did that for a couple of years, in that band anyone that would still be around probably not, the piano player was Al Mead, and a fantastic alto player called Ralph Strellis who lives…although I think he's just recently died, I've lost track with him, but I think he lived somewhere in the Southend area. Super player and what we did there was a quintet and we played once a week and we had one guest star a week so it really was the guest star that pulled the people in of course, so at that time I played with all the well known English Jazz players, Kenny Baker, Jimmy…saxophone player, his son became quite a well known…Alan…his son was Alan, he was Jimmy…

 

Skidmore?

 

Skidmore! Yes. The woman…Kathy Stobart, um, Johnny Rogers was the alto player, anyway. God, piano player, who was the piano player? I can't think, but well known. Anyway, that was great experience really. We achieved a little first there because I did the Feldman Club which is before Ronnie Scott’s, in Oxford Street, it was a famous club, I used to go there as a customer regularly.

 

It became the 100 Club didn’t it?

 

Yes it did, eventually, but I always wanted to play there and I did do it once with this Ralph Strellis that I'm taking about. That was a great experience.

 

Amazing.

 

But then from there my next claim to fame is that I joined a band called Denny Boyce who lived in Ilford, while I was with him the band turned professional, fairly soon after I joined it, and he got the job at the Orchid Ballroom in Purley, that’s in Croydon, long way away, and that was 6 nights a week, so the band turned pro and I can remember him ringing me at work and saying “Curly we’ve got this engagement at the Orchid Ballroom, it's 6 nights a week, so we're going to turn pro now, and I've spoken to all the guys, some of them are going to leave now and revert to being semi-pro and some of the guys are going full-pro and some of the guys are going to try and do both”. Well I was about 22, Vera and I were recently married, hoping to buy a house one day, all those things, so I said “Right I’ll do it and I'll keep me day job”! And I did that for 2 years. Incredible really.

 

It must have nearly killed you!

 

Living in Ilford, driving to Purley, and it wasn't motorways then it was busy roads, but anyway we did it and we got through it and I did that for two years. That was a recording/broadcasting band, Sunday concerts we were doing, tours, we did the…great experience…Cab Calloway came to England around about then, ’52, ’53, you probably could check that one, but he came over here and he sang Sporting Life in Porgy and Bess in the West End, and while he was doing that he was doing Sunday concerts up and down the country, and Denny got the job of accompanying him, so we became the Cab Calloway Band for a while, every Sunday!

 

Incredible!

 

That was, well, the whole country, Manchester, Liverpool....... De Montefort Hall, Leicester.

 

That's amazing isn't it?

 

Yeah it was, a great experience. I can barely remember it.

 

Was he a nice guy do you remember?

 

Yeah, fantastic, but the thing that struck me because his act – as you remember – was the zoot suit and the 'hi-de-hi' and all that, very cool guy and all that, but when you work with him he was so professional - if there was a rehearsal at 10 am he was there ready to go. He was very interesting.

 

Was anyone in the orchestra from Essex at all who you played with then?

 

Yes, this Malcolm Harley I mentioned, the bass player, who else? Probably no other Essex players there. Denny himself came from Essex.

 

Oh did he? Where did he come from?

 

I think he lived in Ilford. I can't think of any other Essex players, once we turned pro I don’t think there was any other Essex players. Malcolm and me were the only two I think. Oh – and a trumpet player called Ronnie Hanscombe who died fairly young, but I think he came from Essex. Good player he was. But I can't think of any others, no.

 

There must be some photos that exist somewhere of you backing Cab Calloway mustn’t there? 

 

Probably, but I can't remember it. You know when you're 20 and doing stuff you're not interested in…you know.

 

And it’s not like these days where people take photos all the time, in those days you know there wasn't like cameras all the time it was quite rare.

 

No, well you had to take the camera to the chemist to get it developed and all that. It was very different.

 

So where did you go from there then Curly?

 

From there I left Denny when…we bought a house in Cranham and then we had our son, that’s really when Purley became, it was too far and I couldn’t do it any longer, I was doing it from Ilford but when it came from Cranham…I did do it from Cranham for about 6 months you know, then it really was killing me then. So that came to an end then and probably I just gigged then for a few years, then probably the next big one was the Kursaal with Howard Baker.

 

And when did you start with Howard?

 

Oh no idea. No idea. I've got a picture upstairs with Howard.

 

That was in the 50's anyway, I know that.

 

I would have thought a bit later than that but I could be wrong, late ‘50s. And then I did a bit with Dennis Hayward after Howard went.

 

Yes, was that still at the Kursaal?

 

Yes. He formed a Glenn Miller-type band and I did a few gigs with him.

 

Oh did he?

 

We were doing pure Glenn Miller at one stage, a whole evening, nothing but Glenn Miller. By then I was probably getting older and settling down and just doing gigs really. And then that takes us up until 1967-1968 I would think, and we formed the Ken Turner Band.

 

So the Ken Turner Big Band then Curly, how did the name come about because there wasn’t actually a Ken Turner was there?

 

No, I'll explain it. A guy called Arthur Tanner who was a well known keyboard in Essex, played at The Bull at Hornchurch every Sunday lunchtime, just played there like a cocktail pianist with a trio. When he had been there a year he got the idea of ringing a few guys and saying, “Look it's my year’s anniversary at the Bull, would some of you like to come down and have a blow, a jam session in effect?” And so at the end of his first year at The Bull a few of us went down there and had a blow with him, for a laugh and a drink and a jam basically. Now we move on another year, he rings everyone and says “Look it's my annual anniversary at The Bull, fancy coming down for a blow blah blah”, but this time we found out there was about 9 or 10 of us or even more, so when we realised what was going to happen on this day, there was going to be a lot, far too many to have a jam session, someone said – a guy called Bert Fuller – said “I've got some music, some arrangements, so perhaps I’ll bring them down and we could play them and that will be more organised than just…”, so he brought this music down and it was the library of a band called the Ken Turner Band which was a function band, like a dance band if you will. So we did this blow on this 2nd anniversary and we thought “Oh this is good. We haven’t done this for years, playing in a big band. Let’s do it some more”, so someone said they could get a hall, and so we started rehearsing. But then the guy who brought the music along, his name was Bert Fuller, he said “Well I've got these desks, we can use the desks to put our…”, well the desks had on them 'Ken Turner’, so we were doing our little blow each week, rehearsing, with these desks so when finally people started coming to hear us they were looking at Ken Turner on the music desk and that's how it was, so it because the Ken Turner Big Band. There was no Ken Turner, he never existed.

 

So it was nothing to do with Ken Bristow and …........

 

Oh yeah, that's how the original dance band got its name of Ken Turner.

 

Oh right, which was in the ‘50s, ok.

 

Yeah.

 

So that’s a long torturous story just to get to a name! So the Ken Turner function band existed before you were all…so did you ever meet these people?

 

I played with it! Played with it as a function band.

 

So this person brought along the charts from Ken Turner and you had a blow over them and then eventually you started playing with the…?

 

It started then, playing the charts, Jazz charts and Count Basie charts and stuff, and very quickly it was…

 

So the Ken Turner Big Band in itself started in the ‘50s according to this brochure. It’s 1969 and it says formed fifteen years before.

 

Put it this way the Ken Turner Big Band started around about 1968.

 

Oh I see and before then, 15 years previously, it was just a function band, it turned into a Big Band in 1968.

 

Not the same guys really.

 

No, no, quite. Oh ok, that’s really interesting, yes. So at any point…I suppose the size of the band was a 16-piece. Was it semi-pro at any point?

 

It was entirely semi-pro.

 

And where did you rehearse – was there a regular rehearsal room for it?

 

Then? I can't remember.

 

The Bull Hotel in Hornchurch.

 

No, that was the Sunday blow. Oh yeah that’s the important part of the story that I haven't said, sorry: the 3rd year of this thing of about Arthur thingy, by about the third year we were a big band and then we started playing at The Bull very Sunday lunchtime, and it used to get absolutely packed. We did that for a few years, every Sunday lunchtime at The Bull at Hornchurch, it's not called The Bull now, it's called The Firkin and whatever…it’s still there next door to Sainsburys.

Yes, that was really where the band became well known and where we played every week and it got tight and good and…

 

That’s incredible.

 

Sorry I forgot that but it’s the most important part of the story really - the band started at The Bull at Hornchurch basically.

 

And did you get to play much out of the area at all or did you remain in Essex?

 

We’ve done the odd thing, not a lot. I looked it up for you because in 1994, 5 and 6, that’s three years running we did the Count Basie Society concert at the Purcell Rooms at the Festival Hall, so that was quite an important gig for us, and on that we played entirely Count Basie, did an evening of Count Basie charts, nothing else. As I say that was ’94, ’95 and ’96.

 

Blimey. But more of less you were just based there every week. Sorry you had these residencies didn’t you, you had The Bull…

 

Well after the Bull we moved to, what happened was the guy at The Bull lost his licence, the publican, I think he took a shotgun to someone in the car park. Anyway he lost his licence and we lost that, so then we moved to a place in Romford called The Reservation Club; that was in North Street Romford and it was in a basement. We did that for, oh a lot of years.

 

And were you doing any playing outside of that Curly or…?

 

Oh yes, I was still a gigging musician then, yeah, we all were.

 

Were you playing with anyone else regularly?

 

I must have been but I find it hard to remember who it was, it was all bits and pieces.

 

You didn't have a residency with anyone or anything?

 

No.

 

And that band’s still going?

 

The band is still going to this day, and we rehearse once a month at the RAFA Club at Romford. We rehearse there once a month and we get the odd gig, we do The Belvedere, we do Hornchurch Jazz club probably once every three months.

 

Where’s that?

 

The Conservative Club, yeah we do that, we've done it three times this year.

 

And what time of the month do you do the one in Romford at the RAFA Club?

 

Oh we do that about the 3rd Thursday every month. That’s just a blow, I mean it is a rehearsal, we stop and start.

 

It's not open to the public then?

 

It is, but no-one comes because it’s, well I say no-one, I mean a few people wander in at the bar, but I mean we don’t perform.

 

So has there been anyone that’s actually learned their trade in the Ken Turner Big Band that’s gone on to be pro that you remember?

 

Yeah a very famous one really, we used to have a keyboard player called Buddy Kay who was quite well known in the area, a gigging keyboard player. And he had a son called Martin, Buddy’s real name was Koch, and his son Martin Koch was a trombone player and he joined the band when he was about 15 years old and he was sensational, you know, he really was, a real find. And he played with the band a few years and I think he was probably going to the Guildhall or Trinity College or one of those at that time, and he eventually became an MD for Cameron Mackintosh. And I think to this day he is Cameron Mackintosh’s Musical Director or supervisor of whatever. Up until a few years ago I know if they were going to do Phantom of the Opera in Peking if you like Martin would fly out and take the pit orchestra through the first few weeks you know? And then fly off to somewhere else. So he became big, big, big. I haven’t seen him since he was a kid, but he started in the band.

 

There must have been some immense talent in the band.

 

We’ve got two kids now who will go on to be great players, yes.