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Portrait of an extrovert


Portrait of an extrovert

Interview of 1970

GRAY, Johnny
Born: Coventry, Warwickshire, 15 May 1920 tenor sax/clarinet

Brother Brian also a tenor saxist. Played piano from age of seven, sax from fourteen. Qualified as an automobile engineer. Played in trumpeter Arthur Howe's Band (1941), in Billy Monk's Band (1942). Served in RAFVR. Joined Harry Parry briefly in early 1943, then worked with Johnny Claes before joining Lou Preager from May 1943 until January 1945. Left Preager to work in George Shearing's Quartet (January 1945), then worked with Harry Hayes before joining Ted Heath from September 1945 until October 1949 (during this period also worked with Ambrose at Ciro's, London). With Robert Farnon and Lou Preager (1949), Frank Weir (1949-50), then spent a year with Sydney Lipton until September 1951. Again worked with Ambrose and freelanced before leading own band at Churchill's, London, from early 1952. Continued to lead own band through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, playing club residencies, working aboard the Queen Mary liner, and in the USA. Many overseas tours entertaining troops, also occasionally worked as a solo act before retiring to Sussex.
Extract from Who's Who of British Jazz by John Chilton. Used by permission

On May 15, 1970, that extrovert supreme, Johnny Gray, is, as he would put “half a hundredweight”. In other words 50 years old.  The Peter Pan of the Business, Johnny attributes his apparent agelessness to being a non–smoker and a keep fit fan who walks everywhere he can. “Drug addicts want their ruddy heads chopping off”, he roars.

He started on piano at the ripe old age of seven, and got his first sax when fourteen. One serious side to his character that few people know about: he is a fully qualified mechanical engineer.

In 1941, when he was with Billy Monk’s Band in his native Coventry, he won the tenor prize in a contest organised by a well-known musical paper.

On turning pro he worked with George Shearing and Ambrose before joining the legendary Ted Heath band in 1946.

In 1947 the band swept the board in a musical poll, and all members won top awards, John getting the tenor accolade.

The band was at Blackpool at the time; so, to celebrate, the boys bet John a pound each that he wouldn’t jump fully clothed from the top diving board at St. Anne’s swimming-pool (one of the highest boards in the country). To everyone’s amazement, John, an expert swimmer, agreed and not only dived but swam a full length fully-clothed before collecting his money.

During a spell in the RAFVR he learned unarmed combat. It was put to good use in 1950 when the band was playing the Star Hotel in Maidstone. Two drunken sailors started virtually molesting his and Reg Owen’s girl friends, who were in the audience. Ever remindful of the band’s image JG respectfully asked Ted if he could step off the bandstand for a minute and knock hell out of the girls’ two tormentors. On this occasion Ted agreed, especially as his wife, Moira, was in danger of becoming involved in the fracas.

John duly stepped down, gave the Navy the surprise of their lives, and stepped back on the stand, unmarked, leaving two bruised and dazed matelots staring into space. The sailors were so incensed they went out and ripped all the engine leads off the band coach, which stranded all the boys, except Johnny and Reg, who were staying in Maidstone anyway.

On leaving the Heath band, John started his “Band Of The Day” an excellent eight-piece that kept a very high musical standard. All had a ball with John’s zany impromptu comedy. Musicians working with him were cut down to size if their musical or social behaviour got out of hand. One trombonist made the mistake of being drunk on the stand, and John literally threw him out of the hall! If his musicians were late they were fined a £1, and at the end of the month it was shared out amongst the boys who’d been punctual, Johnny not taking anything for himself.

At one time he was MD for TV’s Spot The Tune. When he took his little band into a Catford ballroom it became a talking point for a long time.

His proud boast is, that in nearly 40 years of playing he’s never been late, never knocked a fellow musician and never broken his word. He considers the music biz today to be the world of the amateur.

John is a specialist on the sax who has only played on three mouthpieces in his career, the first being bought from Coleman Hawkins in 1934. When in Ted Heath’s band he smoked 60-80 cigarettes daily. One day Ted gave him a lecture, saying his tone was suffering.

A lecture from Ted was really a word of warning. It was a plum job which every tenor player in the country was after, so Johnny, being strong-willed, stopped smoking on the spot.

Very busy these days, (written in 1970) John’s powerful tenor is heard on backings for the Beatles, Melody Fair, Dave Dee, Barry Ryan, the Scaffold and, in more serious mood, with Les Reed, Reg Tilsley, Ronnie Scott, Maynard Ferguson, etc. He has an exclusive recording contract and is shortly cutting his fourth solo album, with arrangements by Pete Smith.

An extremely strong blower, he recently had a late-night record session with a pop group accompanied by nine brass and John’s tenor. John says he blew them off the stand. He also says that the brass, having been on sessions all day, went white when they saw him come in. Knowing Johnny Gray, we can believe it !