the Minstrel's Tale down along the Costa Blanca
The events portrayed in this series are not necessarily in chronological order
I have won several prizes as the world's
March 2004. Today I received my first royalties from the British Musicians' Union. They sent me a cheque for £16 less 20% tax. I don't know what it is for. I am no longer even a member. They threw me out in the 1960s for moving to Germany and making more money. Before that I had played on hundreds of broadcasts, films, television shows and recordings and the MU has only recently decided to pay us the royalties that had been collected for us at the time. This was the first payment, apparently. Meanwhile, on television, I'm watching daily a great many of those films and television shows I played on, for which I should have at least been paid repeat money years ago, and still waiting...and waiting...
In Germany they have a marvellous musicians' union, run by lawyers, and they don't take stick from anybody. The same people also run the royalty company very efficiently, well they would, wouldn't they, and every working musician receives another twelve-and-a-half percent of his year's salary at Christmas. The royalties are for interpretation of the music they play. As the old song goes, Ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. Think I'll frame that cheque.
Our small group played at a big festival in the town of Alcoy, known as the City of Bridges. Alcoy still is a very modern and up to date textile area, the centre of the textile trade for Spain. This is a great town several kilometres inland from the Costa Blanca coast, situated on a large ravine. We drove for hours through the mountains to get to the place. Halfway there we stopped for some refreshment at a small wayside cafe. The place was deserted but there was a lot of noise going on somewhere else in the building so I took my beer along to investigate. I opened one of the doors and stepped into a huge room, like an aircraft hangar. It was brightly lit but there was a haze of cigarette smoke that gave it a kind of surreal atmosphere. The walls were painted with outdoor views, and there was a road that disappeared into the haze, so it was just like being outdoors..
Standing around on both sides of the road were about two hundred young men. As I was about to cross over the road a man by the door grabbed my arm and told me to wait. At that moment a dozen or so Formula One racing cars roared around a bend I hadn't noticed and streaked past at a terrific speed, weaving and dodging and trying pass one another. In a moment they were gone again.
The cars were each around a couple of feet in length and they looked to me to be correct in every detail. A bunch of guys were standing up on a raised platform on the other side of the road. As my eyes grew accustomed to the place I could see that the road was actually curved and formed an enormous race track. The men on the platform were controlling the cars by radio. As I watched they thundered round once more. Now one of the cars was way out in front. It was a red Ferrari, what else?
When we arrived in Alcoy we drove over the bridge, then down over the bottom of the ravine and eventually had to fight our way up a narrow street that had brass bands and brightly costumed girls thronging the road. Everyone was going in our direction and they banged happily on the sides of the car as we crept along through them. A bandstand had been erected for us at the bottom of a road leading up to a large square, where most of the main action seemed to be. As the road went steeply uphill the legs of the bandstand at the front were shorter than those at the back. Our bass player thus sat behind us right on the edge of a terrifying twenty-foot drop. He was Tubby Dunn, who left shortly afterwards to play at Ronnie Scott's Club in Birmingham. I believe it was Tubby who once told me that his Granny had lived next door to Al Capone in New York, when Al was a lad, but don't quote me on this.
While the stand was being set up I went into a nearby bar and found it to be full of bandsmen, including a couple of bands I'd seen around in the Costa Blanca area. I got into conversation with some of the guys and they showed me their instruments. Every one of the trumpet players had a brand new Vincent Bach trumpet, all paid for by his local council. There must have been a hundred Bach trumpets in there. Most of the guys in there were playing hot licks so the noise was pretty fearsome.
We played for an hour or so. The reaction from the people was amazing. They had probably never heard a band like ours before, stuck as they were away in the mountains. They packed the area around the bandstand solidly the whole time we played and clapped everything we gave them. Whenever we finished a number a brass band further up in the square could be heard thumping away. It must have made the most interesting stereo effect for the people walking up the road away from us.
I remember a Bob Sharples experiment in the early days of stereo recording, where he had two bands marching around in single file inside the Conway Hall past two fixed microphones to get the approaching and fading sounds of marching bands. I was leading one of the bands and Bobby Pratt the other. Every time we were halfway around the studio we used to kick over chairs and instrument cases and things to give the guys coming from the other direction a hard time getting past them. I don't know what happened to that recording. Maybe the cheque for £16 less 20% tax represented the royalties for that Sharples recording. Haha! We'd received a measly £8 for itthat was the union rate in those days, so I've actually come out on top. I think.
In the interval I found a young English woman waiting for me when I came off the stand. I don't know why she was waiting for me in particular, but there she was and there I was so we had a long chat about the band, and the music, Alcoy and things in general. I asked her where she came from.
"Oh, it's a place near Southend," she said. "You'll have never heard of it."
"Well I went to school in Southend for a while when I was nine," I said. "Then we went and lived in a little village nearby called Hockley. Went to school there in Hawkwell. Hockley and Hawkwell, that was the name of our railway station."
Her jaw dropped and for a moment she stood staring at me as if she had just seen a ghost. Then she said, "Don't go away!" and rushed off. A moment later she was back, dragging her husband behind her.
"Say that again!" she demanded, breathless with excitement. So I said it again and had the satisfaction of now seeing his jaw drop. I even remembered the name of my schoolteacher in nearby Hawkwell. Miss Leighfield. I was ten years old and madly in love with her. The woman looked at her husband triumphantly. He took out his pocket book and handed me a card and damn me if they didn't live in Hawkwell.
Well I've had all kinds of coincidences like that in my life; met friends in the most unexpected parts of the world. The trombonist Jock Bain told me about a coincidence of his own once. He was on a tour of Japan with Mantovani's orchestra and had taken an afternoon walk around Tokyo. After a while he realised that he was totally lost. None of the signposts or street names made any sense to him. He couldn't find anyone who understood what he was trying to ask them. Finally he stood, dejected, on a street corner and wondered what he was going to do next.
There was a tap on his shoulder. He turned, and there was George Melachrino standing behind him. George conducted one of the finest orchestras in Britain at the time, and had, among his many other achievements, conducted the famous wartime British Band of the AEFthe British counterpart to the Glenn Miller Band. He shouldn't have been in Japan at all, but here he suddenly was.
"What are you doing here?" asked George. "No, what are you doing here?" said Jock. "Well, I'm lost," said George. "So am I," said Jock. So they did the only thing that two friends who were hopelessly lost could dothey went into a pub and let the rest of the world go by.
Jock told me all that while we were sitting in the orchestra pit doing a Sunday Night at the London Palladium television show. I had a much more terrifying story told me by the trombonist Jack Smith, Wally Smith's older brother, who was doing a dep for Laddy Busby one night in the West Side Story orchestra.
Jack had been in the Merchant Navy during the Second World War and had been en route to Murmansk in the ill-fated PQ18 convoy when his cargo ship had been torpedoed by a German submarine. He had been catapulted into the icy Arctic water while his ship sank nearby. He said that what people say about all of your life passing before your eyes when you are in danger of drowning is true. He knew that five minutes was the most anyone could survive in those Arctic temperatures. Luckily for him, and for the rest of us, he was rescued in the nick of time. The story gave me the horrors then and still does now when I think of it.
Eric Delaney, living now most of the time in Benidorm, quite often asks me to do big band arrangements for him for various solo appearances he does now and then. One of them was for a concert he played up in Edinburgh. He gave me the band parts of his small group and I had to construct the big band scores out of them. I was shocked at how bad the arrangements had been. I had heard that small band many times in the 1950s, with a front line of Tony Fisher playing the trumpet parts, an alto sax player and a Hammond Organ adding block chords to whatever they were playing to fill out the harmonies. It says a lot for those players that it sounded any good at all, and it was sensational. But the parts were mostly wrong, illegible, badly copied, you name it. Sometimes there would be two versions of the same arrangement and those parts would also be wrong. I wrote him about five new big band scores and he came back after the concert and said they had been great. And guess whatthe band accompanying him had been.....wait for it..... Tommy Sampson!
Last year Eric played at a big band dance in the Benidorm Palace. This was a band made up of the Tailgate band, with its new leader, with several Spanish players to make up the number. Eric was playing drums. I went along to the rehearsal and took my trumpet because I knew that half the band wouldn't be turning up. I had previously asked the bandleader what they were going to do about waltzes. I knew the big band book because I'd written quite a lot of it and played it, too, and there were no waltzes.
He replied that he understood that the majority of the people coming would be Norwegian, and, as they only liked to dance to the quicker old time waltzes, probably because of the cold up there, he wouldn't be needing any of the usual stuff. Eric then took me aside and asked me to write some slow waltzes for the big band, so I did him four extremely romantic scores, and threw in a couple of Latin American things as well. I reckoned that they could also use the small group on waltzes if they got stuck. No one would notice. I'd forgotten that I'd written all their waltzes for the girl singer, and that night there'd be no singer.
I saw the bandleader not long after the concert. He said there had been hardly anyone in there at all, and that the band had run out of music at midnight. Of course they had. The big band had only played jazz music on concerts in the past. All they had rehearsed the day I'd been there were three or four Basie numbers. The organiser hadn't taken into account that the band had no dance music. When I asked how my waltzes had been received it was the first he had heard of them. After all the work I'd done on them Eric had forgotten to take them along with him.
Copyright © 2004, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved