Name Dropper, Chapter 3
The In-Between Years
By Peter Wills……..
The In-Between Years
From Sheerness, I moved to Leicester as I have already mentioned, followed by a brief spell back home in Wolverhampton and then back south to the bright lights of London. I had landed myself a job at Decca Records writing the notes on the back of record sleeves. In those days they had EP’s and LP’s and generally it was my job to listen to the new recordings prior to being pressed (in vinyl) and with the help of PR material, construct something interesting to say on the sleeve, which hopefully, would increase its sales potential.
My boss at Decca was Peter Clayton who later went on to become one of the best known presenters of jazz music on BBC Radio one and two. I was already quite a fan of jazz and it was at this time, that Peter encouraged me with an idea I had, which was to compile a list of all the jazz clubs in Britain and publish it on a quarterly basis, giving details of days, times and artistes performing. I also proffered the idea to the New Musical Express which along with the Melody Maker were the two best selling weekly publications dealing with the music industry.
The NME agreed to help finance the project but unfortunately it fell flat. Without the use of computers in those days, it was impossible to keep information up to date when, in the main you were relying on individual amateur jazz promoters to supply you with the relevant information by post. The listing was out of date before it was even compiled!
However my association with the NME (I used to say I was one of their reporters), did gain me entry to two of the inner sanctums of Jazz in London. Ronnie Scott’s club in Frith Street, Soho and London’s Jazz Club at 100 Oxford Street. 100 Oxford Street was more commonly known as Humph’s Club as legendary jazz trumpeter Humphrey Littleton was resident there whenever he was not working elsewhere. Humph did not own the club although everybody thought he did. It was actually owned by his manager.
Although I went to see Louis Armstrong perform at 100 Oxford Street I never got to meet him or indeed Humphrey Littleton. At Ronnie Scott’s club I did meet the American jazz vibraphonist player, Lionel Hampton. Initially though, it was not on a very good footing. During his performance I decided to take a photograph (for the NME). As soon as the camera flash went off he immediately stopped playing and told me in no uncertain terms that if I did it again whilst he was playing he would have me thrown out! He then carried on as if nothing had happened whilst I quietly slid away into a darkened corner where neither he or anybody else could see me.
Of course, when I came to interview him after the show I made no reference to the photograph and thankfully, he did not appear to recognise me as the perpetrator!
Later in life, back in the Midlands, I was to run my own jazz club but as the venue was small, never had the funds to promote anyone famous. Such is life.
I suppose the most exciting highlight of my spell at Decca, was arriving at work one morning to be told by Peter Clayton that I was to go to Paris straightaway to interview Maria Callas, the opera singer.
“But I know nothing about Opera”, I said. “That doesn’t matter”, he said. “You’ve only got to talk to her about her new LP and her forthcoming concerts in London and you can write it up when you get back”.
“Get your coat back on and get a taxi to the heliport at the Festival Hall and they’ll take you to Heathrow. Here’s your tickets; Adam’s going with you and he’s got the rest of the details.” Adam was Adam Wolfit, son of Sir Donald Wolfit, the famous Shakespearian actor and also our in-house photographer who did most of the star-shoots for the LP and EP covers at that time.
A few hours later we were in Paris. Whilst Miss Callas was charming, the interview was very matter of fact and in less than an hour later, we were making our way back to the airport for our return flight. Again, if we had computers then, the trip wouldn’t have been necessary but I probably would never have met the prima donna.
A little later, I moved on from Decca and did a couple of temporary jobs as exhibition press officer and then landed the job of press officer for the first ever exhibition on board a train, to launch Westward Television. The coming of independent television to the west country of England was excitedly anticipated in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset and thousands flocked to some 23 stations to see the exhibition which gave a taster of what was to come.
At each station we visited, the exhibition was hosted by Jack Train, a Plymouth born radio and film actor who had gained fame from his appearances in the war-time radio show ITMA, where he created the character of Colonel Chinstrap – a pickled former Indian Army Officer who perpetually believes he is being offered a drink, replying “I don’t mind if I do”!
Included in the exhibition were stands promoting products which were to feature in future advertising on the new television channel. Among them was Emva Cream Sherry, which was Jack’s first port (forgive the pun) of call every morning before the exhibition opened.
Many stars and personalities visited the ‘live broadcast studio’ during the train’s 7 week tour. Interviews and entertainment were broadcast via closed circuit television to sets mounted on the train and throughout the stations we visited. I only really remember one ‘star’ in particular, George Cansdale, the popular zoologist, author and radio/television personality, who presented animal documentaries on television and regularly appeared in children’s programmes such as Blue Peter. I appeared in many stunt pictures with George, with a wide variety of animals but hated the occasion when he draped a 12ft python round my neck, even though he assured me it wouldn’t bite!
At journey’s end, I returned to Wolverhampton.
Look out for the next part of my story – “Beatles, Water-Rats, Elephants and Flying Machines” coming very soon.
With thanks to all the celebrities and personalities for their pure existence, without whom this book would not have been possible.
And with special thanks to all of those who took the time and trouble to act as ordinary people, happy to meet with ‘their public’ and discuss the facts of everyday life.
Also with sincere apologies to anyone I have left out. It’s either because I have forgotten you or the memory of you wasn’t worth recalling