The fascinating career of Rudall Carte’s chief salesman.

Related in 1967

Harry Varley

I  was born on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, and took up the violin at the age of eight. My father encouraged me a lot, being a musical enthusiast himself. I joined the school orchestra and when I was fifteen bought a metal clarinet. My only musical training had been that which I had on the violin, and the metal instrument seemed okay at the time.

Drummer Don Wilson and I were semi–pros together after leaving school in 1934 and we formed the Don Wilson Orchestra, with myself on lead alto. Our first pro job, in Rochester, New York, when I was nineteen, led to a succession of one–nighters and three–month resident jobs. Then Willard Alexander (now famous as an impresario) took the band over and fronted it. I was second in command and in control of the music. When Willard got involved with the Music Corporation of America, he left us.

After that life became really interesting for me. Every time I was in New York I used to pop in and see Willard, and he took me round all the big band spots. At that time our line–up was four brass, four saxes and rhythm, but there were a lot of ‘tenor bands’ about, or, as we used to call them, ‘Society bands’. They were very fashionable with New York audiences. Three tenor saxes read from the printed parts, two of them transposing from the alto parts.

The tenor lead was strong and played in the middle register (with a harmony above), eliminating the dangers of going out of range on the alto part.

The lead tenor had to do quite a bit of juggling. In addition, there was one muted trumpet, who never removed his mute, and rhythm section. I believe that, in 1937, Cyril Stapleton was contemplating something similar in England.

Eddie Carroll had this kind of band, and, in the States, Freddy Martin and Shep Fields elaborated on the idea, using special arrangements.

Through Willard I got a job with Jan Savitt and his Ton Hatters, just before he became famous with his shuffle–style numbers. And I was in Buddy Rogers’ band when he started his famous romance with Mary Pickford (whom he later married). There used to be trans–continental phone calls, all sorts of secretive messages, then, out of the blue Mary would appear at one of the band’s engagements.

A stand–out recollection I have of this period—leaving New York in a blizzard, travelling overnight by Pullman sleeper, and waking up in Miami in blazing sunshine. Whereupon I went with—believe it or not—Larry Funk And His Band Of A Thousand Melodies! This later developed into the Vaughn Monroe Band, and Vaughn and I became firm friends.

One of my most thrilling experiences occurred just after Benny Goodman organised his famous band. I was working in Philadelphia, which is about the only town in the U.S.A. where musicians don’t work on a Sunday.

One Sunday Benny was appearing at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, a short drive away — so some of us motored down to see him.

That night Ziggy Elman joined the band on lead trumpet. He was also in the house band on the Pier and played, to my surprise, trumpet, trombone, tenor, piano, and, of all things, Hawaiian guitar! Playing with both bands, he never stopped all night long. Afterwards, Goodman trumpeter Chris Griffin said to me: “Well—he just blew the lot of us off the stand!” I remember also going with Willard to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where the resident band at the time was led by drummer Chick Webb. The relief band was run by Fess Williams, a sort of coloured Ted Lewis. There was a rule in the ballroom that he had to play slow and sad music, so Chick’s boys could come on in a blaze of glory. It seemed a shame, as he had quite a good band.

Benny Goodman and his singer Helen Ward were in the audience on that occasion, I noted. The Goodman band was, in some ways, rather like Chick’s. Eventually he had quite a few numbers done by Edgar Sampson, Chick’s arranger.

When Benny opened at the Pennsylvania Hotel. Willard took me to dinner there. Tenor player Vido Musso played the clarinet parts when BG was off the stand. This night the Maestro was sitting with us when the band went into “Sometimes I’m Happy”. This was a famous arrangement which had a two–bar ad lib clarinet break in the coda. On the recording Goodman had played a ridiculously–elementary little package. Vido copied this break note for note—apparently this was a little joke amongst the band. Benny, however, was not amused!

I was free–lancing in New York in the Spring of 1937 when, out of the blue, came a cable from Canadian bandleader Billy Bissett, asking me to join him at the Mayfair Hotel in London. Our paths had crossed in Canada, and he’d offered me the job several times before. He’d offered to pay half my fare, itPaul Freedman, Harry Varley and Freddy Gardner with Billy Bissett's band at the Mayfair sounded like a nice working holiday and a chance to see England—so I took the job. I joined on lead alto, replacing fellow Canadian Paul Freedman, who went on to baritone. (Later he was to become the other half of the Charlie Cairoli act.) The personnel was completely Canadian at first, but eventually various British players came in. Freddy Gardner did a spell with us on tenor, but was always nearly half asleep, as he was doing so many sessions at the time. Billy would have done well over here, if it hadn’t been for the war, as he was keen to develop a style of his own. For a season, we went into the Cafe De Paris, which closed in the August for redecorating.

Billy had the contract for another year, so he decided to go home for a holiday with his wife, who was the band’s singer, Alice Mann.

While they were away, war broke out. He could have come back. But, as his wife was American, and the U.S. authorities did not allow their nationals to travel to a belligerent country, he decided to stay in the States, rather than leave her behind. I understand he is now in the accountancy business.

We started back at the Cafe minus Billy, in case he came back, with myself fronting, but the management wanted a name leader, so Ken “Snake Hips” Johnson replaced me about November ‘39. As events proved, this was rather a lucky turn of fate for me. In the Blitz of 1940 came the tragic bombing of the restaurant, when the leader and some of the boys were killed.

I had joined Jack Harris at the London Casino (his last job before he returned to America). This was a dance and cabaret show, similar to the present Talk Of The Town, and the band that accompanied the artistes was led by Jack Leon.

While I was with Lew Stone at the Dorchester, I had to decide between joining the British Forces, or going back to Canada to join up. As I was now married to a Bournemouth girl, with a family on the way, I plumped for the RAF over here.

Being earmarked for the Skyrockets, the band that was about to be formed for the Balloon Barrage Entertainment Unit, I put my name down for that branch of the Services. After waiting nine months, I was sent a slip of paper informing me that I would not be required for the Balloon Service, and would be called up in due course. So I immediately joined an RAF small band led by pianist Syd Kreeger. On demob, I went with Lew Stone at the Embassy Club. I did the first Butlin’s Holiday Camp Season with Eric Winstone, then worked in the Carroll Gibbons Orchestra at the Savoy. Later I did theatre jobs and worked with the Robert Farnon Orchestra in the Empress Ice Show.

For fourteeen years prior to my present occupation, I was with the Maurice Smart Band at the 400 Club. We had one trumpet, three saxes and rhythm, and it was a very comfortable job. Too comfortable—I couldn’t tear myself away.

The arrangements were by Dave Lindup, who played tenor with us. Without doubt, the most musically satisfying job of its type in London. I believe that the reason for the club’s folding up was nothing to do with the band. It was a good thing when it started; a lot of the right people went there with plenty of money in their pockets. At first, you couldn’t book a table if you tried. What I didn’t visualise is the fact that people, no matter what they are dished up with, and however much they like it, will eventually tire of it. Nothing was changed during my stay; even the existing decor was retained when the club was redecorated. But the customers were looking for something fresh. I found myself back doing gigs.

A year ago I started as a salesman for Rudall Carte’s, and I haven’t looked back since. I do the odd gig and quite a bit of theatre depping, and see a bit more of home. It is very interesting in the shop, as many world–famous performers drop in, especially on the straight side. The principal flautist with the New York Philharmonic comes in when he’s over here. Recently Henry Mancini dropped in; he is very interested in flutes and writes for them a lot. Woody Herman tenorist Bob Pierson came in, bought a British clarinet and flute, and ordered an actual bass flute (as opposed to an alto flute). So I’m able to combine business with pleasure.