As the Christmas season draws to a close let’s think about good presents. Those who follow this blog regularly will know that I currently have my 91 year old bed-ridden mother living with me. She’s not been up to actively engaging in the Christmas process, it’s been a bit of a worry for her, and the dilemma was to know what was an appropriate Yuletide gift for her.
There was a nightdress, there was a cuddly toy (as advised by various dementia charities), there was a Selection Box, but the present that went down best was Arthur Tracey booming through the room, singing Marta.
Arthur Tracy (1899-1997) was a name that was mentioned regularly in our house in the Fifties, along with Eileen Fowler and the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, and the Girls Life Brigade (GLB). Yes, we knew of Henry Hall and Nosmo King but it was Arthur Tracey who always brought a smile of memory to mum’s face. If the song Marta ever came on the wireless she would say each line before he sang it, so that my sister and I could sing along with him, ‘rambling rose of the wild wood.’
So on Christmas Day, as the first notes unfolded from the iPod, a sweet smile of contentment came over mum’s face and she mouthed the words as Arthur Tracy sang them. When it was over she sighed with pleasure and said, ‘Yes, I walked all the way from Leytonstone to the Stratford Empire to queue for an hour so that I could get a front row seat to see him.’ That would have been about 1937.
I never really followed Arthur Tracy’s career, he’d made a few films in the 30s, and after that lived quietly in the States and out of show business. I didn’t know he had made a sort of come-back after the film Pennies from Heaven (1981) was released (his recording of the song was used in the film), so I was quite thrilled to see him appear in the 1988, greatly underestimated movie Crossing Delancey directed by Joan Miklin Silver. It’s a small part – Pickle Stand Customer #1, but the pickle stand is very important to the film. It’s a lovely story and for a long time it’s not been available on DVD – I had to make do with my fading, fragile video. But writing this piece, I just checked and the DVD is now available. Win for my mum, win for me!
The Showmen were a New Orleans group formed in 1961 with General Norman Johnson as lead singer. Their best known track is It Will Stand, which was released in 1961, and re-released in 1964. In 1968General Johnson left the band to become the lead singer of Chairmen of the Board.
So two good musical things have happened this week. First of all Bill Greensmith from St Louis sent me a 45 of It Will Stand. I love it.
And then on 1 January 2015 Bill was on his local radio station Radio KDHX on the Blursday programme, playing some of his favourite tracks, a lot of piano. I didn’t know about Albert Ammons – a great piano player. I once knew someone who had a dream that one day he would be pushed onto a stage with an enormous guitar and with his back to the audience he would start to play like Elmore James. My own personal reverie revolves around waking up one morning, strolling over to the piano (which in my case I have not got) and turning out some wild boogie woogie rhythms. Just like Albert Ammons. Listen to his tunes and the other musical gems here – but hurry, you only have a few more days to catch the show.
I recently read this memoir by Tommy Steele. It’s a good book, a real page-turner, and for me full of memories. When I was 7 and 8 years old Tommy Steele was ‘my’ pop star. My best friend Sandra had Adam Faith and her sister Marie always chose Cliff Richard. They were needed when we played those games that required each of us to choose a rock’n’roller. I can’t remember now what the games were. But Tommy Steele always worked for me. I went to see Tommy the Toreador – it wasn’t gritty enough for me. By the time Half a Sixpence came out I had moved on, I had passed through my Beatles’ phase, was immersed in Tamla Motown and was tentatively buying Buffy Sainte-Marie and Fairport Convention LPs (at last! we had a record player).
Time went by. It was 1979. I was studying for my Bar exams, and to earn some money I went back to my old job as a teacher. For a couple of terms I was a ‘temporary terminal’ English teacher at Bacon’s School, Bermondsey. And guess what! Bacon’s was the very school that Tommy Steele attended. A coincidence?
Two years ago Val Wilmer, knowing something of my history, asked if I’d like to go to the London Palladium to see Scrooge starring Tommy Steele. We went and it was very very good. It was the first time I had seen him perform live – after all those years. He was on stage practically for the whole show and sang, danced and acted splendidly. A joy.
And then, 55 years after those childhood games played in the street on our council estate, I publish my collection of short stories – A Sense of Occasion – the Chelmsford Stories. It contains a story called Tea for Tommy – where Tommy Steele goes to Linda’s house for tea. A month ago I sent the book to Tommy Steele’s agent. Last week, I received a card, from Tommy Steele himself! saying that he had enjoyed the story very much. ‘A lovely lovely read,’ he wrote. I cannot describe the pleasure it gave me. It was worth the wait.
When I was young I had no time for Cliff Richard. This was partly due to the fact that he appeared on ITV in Oh Boy! and we only had BBC ( we had 6.5 Special and Tommy Steele), and also because of that greasy hair and the mock sneer. One of my cousins, also called Sandra, who we rarely saw, came to our house once. Out in the street, even before they came indoors she said that she had been to a concert of Cliff’s and run her hand through his hair. She said she would never wash her hand again which I thought was the most exciting thing possible. Timidly – she was older and sophisticated – I asked what she thought of Tommy Steele. She said, ‘He’s bloody awful – excuse my French.’ I mean, she really was sophisticated. And somehow that view of Tommy Steele I felt was almost Cliff’s view.
It was a confusing time. Later I would come to laugh at Cliff’s films, although secretly I enjoyed Summer Holiday. But the songs were so bland, though (friend) Sandra and I were adept at the Shadows dance moves.
But it is only now, listening to Move It, that I realise that it was a really good rock’n’roll record.
Sometimes music is playing and you don’t realise how good it is until you’ve aged about 20 years. The thing about the Everly Brothers was that they just didn’t look very hip. There was a hint of grease in their hair and they were so neat, in their suits. They didn’t rock like Elvis. I wouldn’t have described theirs as my kind of music.
And yet, and yet, I know the words – and the harmonies – of all their songs. Because of course, they say everything you’re trying to say, all the yearning and misery and uncertainty, which when you’re 9, 10, 11, 12, is all about love. Crying in the Rain, Ebony Eyes – ‘they may have run into some turbulent weather, and had to alter their course’,
All I Have to Do is Dream
Walk Right Back
Let it Be Me
I know them all.
In the beginning was Tommy Steele, Six5 Special, the Duke Wore Jeans and the BBC.