Chapter 12: On the rebound

Mid-Life Crisis band posterWhile our kids were increasing in number and growing up, I played infrequently. Once at a pub gig in Sussex with Mike Ainscough, there was a brawl. We switched off and sat by our instruments to protect them from falling bodies etc. The police were called but by the time they entered the door with an 'Everything all right?', it was. It was a bit like playing Heriot Watt that time - potentially threatening but exhilarating at the same time.

One Saturday evening, my wife and I were having a 'domestic' when the radio began playing Also sprach Zarathustra. We stopped disagreeing, looked at each other in amazement at the atrocious playing and dissolved into laughter. The orchestra was the Portsmouth Symphonia. We decided to buy their record but our order failed ever to materialise at the record shop. In 1996, John Otway interviewed John Farley, leader of the Portsmouth Symphonia, for a Radio Four programme. Subsequently I contacted John F and had the pleasure of meeting him and his Symphonia colleague John Mortimore at his Galerie Vermilion in Tooting. What a treat. Incidentally, the last time I had record shop problems, I was trying to order the Ace re-release of Snooks Eaglin's Brown skin woman. Each time I went back, the assistant said that the CD was out of stock; finally she said that it was deleted. I telephoned the record company who supplied it by mail order within a week. It was good in 2001 to see some Portsmouth Symphonia tracks included on the Castle Music compilation The Transatlantic years

I saw the reformed Kursaal Flyers and introduced Kevin to their music at the Half Moon, Putney. They were still enjoyable, although without quite the same zest and a bit too loud. Kevin disagreed. It was a thrill and I did the fan bit of asking them to sign the album. The muse returned briefly to me after seeing them, and I wrote a couple of songs.

I broke my arm falling over going into another pub. Six months later, when Tom Cleary, asked me to accompany his whistle playing, the arm just would not move to the Irish rhythms. I became a librarian and went to work at Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire. I sang there with the Perdido Street Jazz Band and realised it was time I was playing again. On return to Horley, I visited some folk clubs. Out of the blue, The Amazing Mr Smith asked me to play his theatre club in Beckenham. It felt good to give the comedy act an outing again, although I had no new material. Also on the bill were a duo, the Rubber Bishops. Dressed in red cassocks, I was much amused by one who had shoulder length hair which he shook in a "Hey, nonny, nonny" sort of way while playing a Gibson SG. I wondered from time to time over the years what became of them but it was only when I saw Bill Bailey "live" that I realised it was he.

We had a holiday in Barra in the Outer Hebrides and went to a ceilidh where the compere prevailed upon people to perform. There were two pipers and the volume of the bagpipes indoors was astonishing. As well as barn dances, there was Hebridean and Highland dancing. Michael sang and played piano accordion. Another, younger, Michael played guitar and sang songs by Burns. Anna McRae and Chrissie May sang beautiful Gaelic songs. I sang a couple of songs with a borrowed guitar. It was good to have participated, because these nice, reserved folk came and spoke. At the interval, the young dancers served us all with tea and cakes where we sat. It was very charming and enjoyable. Another day, we all went with Anna and sang to the seals on the offshore rocks. Soon they came swimming over to investigate, their intelligent faces bobbing in the water, almost within hand's reach. It was priceless.

During a librarians' conference in Edinburgh, I went to an enjoyable free concert by Thomas Mapfumo and his band from Zimbabwe, on a warm Saturday afternoon in Princes Gardens. Thomas later appeared on the excellent BBC2 series "Rhythms of the World". Since then, I've also been a regular visitor to Crawley's two annual festivals of International and Folk Music

Kevin, John Standley, John Couchman (from 60s soul band Noel Watkins and The Fireballs) and I formed The Mid-Life Crisis Blues Band and we built a substantial following at The Coach House, Dormansland. I was busy re-discovering the 1950s Chess R&B recordings, but MLC became less bluesy than I wanted and played too infrequently, so I left after six months. The band went from strength to strength, with two CDs, the Royal Albert Hall and a mini US tour. I was glad for them, but didn't regret leaving.

Playing at school PTA functions has proved fruitful over the years, including the embryo MLC (Kevin and John), with Barrie Barlow on drums. Another time, I met Louis O'Neill, who worked for Crawley Community Arts, putting on shows in outlying council estates and accompanying "turns" on keyboard. I played with him a couple of times and at some "festivals" in these estates, including support to Crispian St Peters, who had 1960's hits with You were on my mind and The Pied Piper. Crispian said he had a repertoire of more than six hundred songs. He was a useful guitarist too. Ireland were playing in the World Cup that night. There was a large Irish contingent and they were a bit lively, but good-natured. I finished with Danny boy and they all took to the dance floor with pints in hand and sang their hearts out. It was quite moving and not easy for Crispian to follow, but he did and did well.

At a school concert, I recognised Jim 'Golden Boots' Chambers, the sax player from Bob Kerr's Whoopee Band, in the audience. We chatted and he agreed to play at the school if I were asked. Sure enough, five years later, I was. Jim worked at the Natural History Museum and drove up from deepest Sussex each day a huge, leaky American bike. He put his sax on the back and we met up after work at a rehearsal room under the DoE in Monk Street. In two hours we had enough numbers plus a bit of 'business' between each. Two days later we performed. It was a success but, like so many PTA functions, woefully under-attended.

Fair Trade 3, Balcombe, 1999 - photoI sang with the band Fair Trade at a PTA do. I'd met Eddie Hurdman, their Irish fiddler, years previously. Later, he and I did an impromptu gig at a rained-off school barbecue and enjoyed it enough to agree to do it again. I was now playing regularly at The Brambles in Horley, with different guests including my sons. Eddie brought Mike Platt on bass. Mick played with The Saxons on Six Five Special and with The Shindigs on Ready, Steady, Go and the Five o'clock Club. Eddie and Mick have been most frequent Brambles visitors and we’ve gone on to play together elsewhere as The Fair Trade 3.

At the age of 68, Chuck Berry was due to appear at Crawley in 1995. I thought I'd give it a miss, preferring happy memories to his minimalist gigs with unrehearsed backing musicians. One of my sons had other ideas, so we went. After a good, Rockabilly support act, a pianist, bassist and drummer appeared at 9 pm. They remained motionless for 10 minutes. Someone shouted "turn it up a bit", another whistled. At 9.10 on came Chuck with a paper cup in hand saying he hadn't realised what time it was. After this disappointing start, he played a fine hour of old favourites and blues standards plus an overlong and ghastly My ding-a-ling. His musicians were solid. He brought on middle-aged jivers and duck-walked once. Sitting down didn't feel right, but this wasn't an audience for standing. I was glad to have seen him on a good-ish night.

One of my best nights out was at Riverdance. Most bands build excitement and save their best stuff until the end. But every dance number in Riverdance seemed to reach this peak and had the crowd on its feet. The band were great too. I hadn't expected to enjoy it and discovered again the importance of keeping an open mind. Life-affirming as well, in the Ellington centennial year, were The Echoes of Ellington Orchestra in the Festival Hall bar, complete with jivers. It’s also been good to work with and see John Otway still giving more than his all.

For a few years I co-ordinated sometimes more than twenty youngsters, including various of our daughters and sons, playing music at church. There were flautists, clarinettists, a trumpeter, violinists, a cello, recorders of most sizes, guitars, bass guitar and drums and, cutting through this sound, a glockenspiel.

The Phatt B's, Broadstairs, 2003 - photo Nigel Owens with whistle and I with Dad's old Chinese tom-tom have gone regularly to The George, Southwark. We've joined up to 30 players of assorted free reeds, bagpipes and fiddles etc at sessions of early French and other European dance music. Latterly, there have been family holidays at Broadstairs, which coincided with the Folk Festival. As well as dipping into sessions there, I met up with George Wilson for the first time since playing Portsmouth in the 70's. I've played enjoyable annual Broadstairs gigs since, with his band The Phatt B'stards.

And that's how it is. There are good gigs and bad gigs (I haven’t said much about the latter - buy me a pint and I'll tell you). I feel sorry for performers who are launched at the top without having known the setback of a bad night. Without the bad ones, the good ones don't taste as sweet. Even when things are ok, you're only as good as your last gig and people's memories are generally short. It's no good thinking we turns are any more important than that, even if we're preserved in some recorded medium.

Pye eventually became PRT and in 1989 released "They all laughed" (PYL 7006). Producer Terry Brown included Rudolph beside tracks by Benny Hill, Tommy Cooper, Max Miller, Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd, Roy Hudd, Spike Milligan. The NME reviewed it at length under the headline 'Guffawful'. PRT became Castle Communications and in 1991 released A Golden Hour of Comedy on their Knight label (KGHCD 157), which also included Rudolph. Pye had given me studio time and I enjoyed a very promising period playing with some great musicians who worked their socks off on the sessions. I regret not delivering the goods as Pye saw them and, for many years, felt frustrated that my material hadn't been exploited properly and that most of it remained unissued.

I went to some Skiffle sessions at the 100 Club and saw Chas McDevitt, The Vipers, The Worried Men, Davey Graham, The Quarry Men and Diz Disley. I also saw the last gig there by Beryl Bryden who had played washboard on The Rock Island Line so long previously. Sadly she died shortly afterwards, but there was a good wake at the Club, with many musicians participating. In particular, I was pleased to see Johnny Parker who had recorded Bad Penny Blues and was later one of Cyril Davies' All Stars. At these sessions, I met Peter Chester whose group The 5 Chesternuts had included Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch. Peter wrote seven songs on Cliff's "Me and my shadows" album. He also wrote my favourite Cliff track, Please don't tease. He spoke well of Rollercoaster Records so I contacted them about releasing my Pye material. It turned out that the boss, John Beecher, was a friend of Tony Atkins, my erstwhile producer. He had run Smokey Joe's Café which was responsible for Sounds' Rock 'n' Roll chart . He still had Rudolph on his jukebox.

However, nothing transpired with Rollercoaster so I decided finally to write and record again. I made some demos for my niece's husband, Davide Quacquarella. He played them through headphones and recorded the drum parts onto CD in Italy. Dad also agreed to play some drums for the first time in twenty years. I recorded on top of these drum tracks, one instrument at a time, with Mick and Eddie, with Kevin, John and Bob Wilkinson from MLC and with my sons. After 49 hours, the result was A superfluous man (Flams FCD 002). I also produced a compilation "live" album Vinyl tour (Flams FRC 1070) from better nights than the one Pye recorded. Most recently, when Bod Bowles died, I made a tribute CD One for Bod (FLAMS FCD 004), based round some unreleased jazz tracks from the session I'd done with Dad, which The New City Jazzmen, Louis O'Neill and others kindly agreed to play on.

With music as my main leisure activity, I’ve been privileged to play at the drop of a hat with some great musicians before and since Pye. I feel particularly optimistic when I play with kids. I hope it doesn’t finish.

Copyright © John Scott Cree 2001

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