Part Twenty Eight
British Cornet player Ken Colyer was once a Merchant Seaman and was fortunate enough on one trip to visit New Orleans. When he subsequently formed his own band, the Ken Colyer Jazzmen in and around 1953/1954 he just had to pay due homage to the home of Trad Jazz by recording an LP (Long Playing) record called ‘New Orleans to London’ The cover was designed by his clarinettist, Monty Sunshine. Other members of the band included Chris Barber on Trombone and a young banjo player named Anthony Donegan. The opening track on this record was appropriately called ‘Going Home’ on which Ken Colyer showed his love for the origins of jazz when he sang the lyrics ‘if home is where the heart is then my home’s in New Orleans’ This record is considered by many as the best ever, British Jazz record. Although I can’t remember what price it was to buy when it came out, probably around the £2 mark, I bought a copy and played and treasured it for many years. Eventually I transferred it onto an audio cassette tape which I still have. With the passing of time and the phasing out of record players I decided to sell my original record of this masterpiece. I advertised it on Ebay and got £25 for it. As Arthur Daley would say ‘that was a nice little earner my son’
On the sporting front 1954 is best remembered as the year when Britain’s Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. At an Oxford race meeting and helped by colleagues Chris Chataway and Chris Basher, he finished the race in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. The FA cup that year was won by West Bromwich Albion beating Preston North End 3-2. Czech tennis player Jaroslav Drobny won the Wimbledon men’s title and American Little Mo Connelly the Ladies for the second year running. Australian golfer Peter Thomson easily won the Open and Champion jockey Gordon Richards became Sir Gordon when he was knighted by the Queen, the first jockey to receive such an honour. Talking of jockeys, an 18-year old lad by the name of Lester Piggott became the youngest jockey ever to win the Derby when he steered Never Say Die first past the post. Lester Piggott eventually went on to win another eight Derby races and became one of the best ever jockey’s of all time.
In April 1955 Winston Churchill, the man who inspired not only the people of Britain but millions of others around the world throughout the dark and frightening days of the Second World War, Winston Churchill decided at Eighty years of age he had done enough and resigned as Britain’s Prime Minister. His deputy Anthony Eden took over the reigns.
In 1955 a jockey of a different kind made news when Disc jockey Jack Jackson started giving a lot of air time to a record called ‘The Rock Island Line’ sung by the aforementioned Anthony Donegan, who by now had changed his first name to Lonnie in honour of African American musician Lonnie Johnson, a prolific and influential figure in the world of Jazz, Blues and folk music. At the time of Lonnie Donegan’s hit record he was a member of the Chris Barber Jazz Band, which it became when Ken Colyer left to follow a different course. To replace Ken as the trumpet/cornet player Pat Halcox was bought in and formed a partnership with the Chris Barber Band which lasted for 54 years, only ending with Pat’s death in February 2013 aged 82. I was very lucky that through my Brother Bernard’s involvement with Jazz I met Pat Halcox on a few occasions. Not only was he a wonderful trumpet player with great feeling and imagination he was also one of the nicest people you could ever meet.
Lonnie Donegan’s recording of ‘The Rock Island Line’ introduced a new sound to Britain, this sound was called Skiffle and it swept the country. Skiffle is blend of folk and country music, with influences from traditional jazz and blues.
To play Skiffle was relatively easy. Obviously you had to have some ability to sing, hopefully in tune to a certain degree although it must be said that in many cases, that basic requirement was not always present! As for the instrumentation that was provided by a guitar or two, a double bass and a washboard. Thousands of young lads dashed out to purchase a guitar and started to learn three basic chords, C, F and B7 (known as the three chord trick). Once this was mastered you could use these chords to accompany many simple folk and country songs. The next instrument required was a Double Bass. The cost of buying one of these monsters was out of the question so a cheap alternative was to buy or ‘acquire’ a wooden tea chest, a broom handle and a length of string. You fixed the broom handle to one corner of the chest, tied a length of string to the top of the handle and fixed the remainder of the string to the opposite corner. Once you were satisfied the string was taut enough all that remained was for you to pluck the string and hey presto you had a double bass.
So now you had a guitar or two and a double bass leaving just a washboard to complete the musical ensemble. Pleading looks to mothers or in many cases, grandmothers throughout the country was the most used approach. Once your washboard was obtained you fixed thimbles to your fingers and by running them up and down the grooved metal edges of the washboard you had a great rhythm section going and spotty faced callow youths were forming their own Skiffle groups all over the country. I recall singers Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whisky having a big hit with a song called Freight Train. It’s also worth mentioning that many subsequent famous pop singers and groups such as The Beatles and Joe Brown all paid tribute to Lonnie Donegan, the one man who ignited their initial interest through Skiffle.
All over the country shops were selling guitars, wooden chests, washboards and thimbles as fast as they could get them in. Songs such as the Rock Island Line, Wabash Cannonball, Worried Man Blues, Tom Dooley, Bring a little water Sylvie,
Midnight Special, The Battle of New Orleans, Nobody’s Child, John Henry, Jesse James and Putting on the Style were attacked with great gusto and enthusiasm if little musicianship!
I consider myself very lucky that I can enjoy a wide variety of music ranging from Trad Jazz, Classical music and through my father’s and eldest brother’s musical background I grew up hearing and appreciating the wonderful melodies written by popular composers such as Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart (later Oscar Hammerstein II ), Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and many others.
I also have been lucky to hear and enjoy singers from all sides of the musical divide. Whether it’s Pavarotti or Maria Callas from the world of opera, Hank Williams Senior and John Denver from the Country and Western scene, or Ella Fitzgerald, (especially when joining with Louis Armstrong) Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Britain’s own Matt Monro from the world of popular music, their voices and artistry brought pleasure to millions around the world. Thank goodness they left us many recordings enabling us to still enjoy hearing their voices.
--End of Part Twenty Eight —