Facebook – hmmm. While there is much sneering contempt for the medium, I think that on balance it’s a force for good. I’ve met people who, in the normal run of life, I would never meet. Consequently, this branch of social media has revealed so much music that I would have otherwise never discovered. Friends discover a band or a song and recommend it. I like that. I like the context as well. This band is better than that band. This song reminds me of that guy/girl. That piece of music got me through a tough time. This song makes me sob. That song makes me dance and so on. I’m not above taking part in this fun by any means.
I love music. Music has always been a massive part of my life. This is due in no small part to my late father. He encouraged my interest from an early age and was always bringing me LPs or tapes to listen to. It could be classical music; he was a big fan of Ralph Vaughn Williams. It could be pop. He even tolerated a few bands. He loved ABC for instance. They wore suits and that went a long way with Dad. He could also be scathing. He dissolved into hysterical laughter crying “Look at that wanker” when he saw Morrissey, on Top of the Pops with a bunch of flowers hanging out of his back pocket, singing “What Difference Does it Make”. I don’t think I ever forgave him for that.
I will never forget watching Live Aid with him. He was aware of Freddie and Queen but when he saw Freddie own the concert he turned to me and said, “He’s a showman, isn’t he?” That from Dad was praise indeed. Dad was a highly accomplished Jazz trumpet player. From his beginnings playing a cornet in the Salvation Army band in Newcastle in the 1940s, he progressed from playing at the local dance hall for beer money and turning pro in 1947. His career lasted for nearly fifteen years until he quit in the early sixties. Rock and Roll was king and Dad was canny enough to realise that he needed a new way to pay the bills.
When I said he knew a showman when he saw one, I meant it. He played with some of the greatest performers of the swing era. When Sinatra toured the UK, Dad was working for the BBC Show Band. Sinatra was the ultimate professional. When rehearsing, he would run through the same song over and over again until it was perfect. He nailed every note and had perfect phrasing. He knew how to look after the band as well. There was a well stocked bar in the band room and he made the guys feel like they were at the top of their game. Yep, Frank was a musician’s musician and Dad adored him for that. Doris Day bought the band monogrammed shirts from Jermyn Street. They all fell in love with her. Nat King Cole was silky smooth. Mum said he was a complete gentleman. She met him after a gig at the London Palladium. He very politely asked her for a light.
Dad’s fondest memories were of his time playing with the Dankworth Band. To Dad this equated to being promoted to the Premier League, winning the FA cup and getting a medal from the Queen. Whenever he talked about those times I could tell that he was immensely proud to have been in the Dankworth Band and rightly so. Johnnie Dankworth was an incredibly talented composer and arranger. His wife Cleo Laine had a 4 octave voice and could sing scat. She also looked after my older brother on occasion. She’s a very sweet lady. I have a few recordings of Dad playing and they’re all with the Dankworth Band. He was very, very good.
Something I never knew about until after he died was his stammer. From his childhood until his mid 40s he had a really bad stammer. Think Michael Palin in “A Fish called Wanda” and you get the picture. My brother would be sent with him to the shops to actually ask for the goods he required. Mum reckoned that it was caused by Dad hearing his aunties talking about him as they ‘laid out’ his mum before her funeral. Dad was only five when she died and it hit him hard. To hear his aunty say “Eee, she was never the same after young Willie was born” really got to him. His mum dies and it was his fault. How does a five-year-old deal with that? I think that while he had no voice to speak, he compensated through his music. That trumpet was his voice and it sang out loud and clear.
I think my favourite story from his band years is this one. I can assure you that it’s true.
His band toured the United States in the late 1950s. They played dance halls but the majority of their gigs were military bases. Dad told me that he played his best after about a quarter of a bottle of scotch and he’d top up throughout the gig. You can see where this is going. On one occasion after playing a very good gig on an Air Force base, the band was invited to the officers club. After the initial pleasantries, much drink was taken. That’s when things started to go badly wrong. Dad took great exception to the Septics calling each other Duke and Earl. Remember, he was an angry Geordie with a taste for Bourbon. “You fucking Yanks were two years late for the war and you’ve got no history.” Several large Americans were about to give Dad a kicking when the base commander stepped in. “Hey guys, he kinda has a point and he is our guest.” He pulled Dad to one side and said, “Hey, you need to go easy with the guys.” He then asked “Would you like see my birds?” Dad said OK. He was grateful for the intervention and wanted to be indulge his saviour, thinking he’d be seeing some canaries or some such. They were not the kind of birds he meant. These were birds of an altogether more sinister kind. They got into a lift and descended to a fully functional, fully equipped, United States Air Force nuclear missile silo. My Dad, An angry Geordie who’d consumed far too much alcohol was taken on a guided VIP tour of a USAF missile silo by the equally inebriated base commander; and all at the height of the Cold War. It made my Dad chuckle to recall that the only thing preventing Armageddon was the colonel saying “Hey Fella, don’t push no buttons eh?”
Steve Metcalf was born in the Home Counties of Geordie parents, raised in Leicestershire but has now settled in rural Lancashire. He escaped from corporate life in his late forties and now drives a truck for a living. When not working he likes to cook, study military history and walk with his unruly Labrador Mollie in the Lakeland Fells.