British drummer Sheelagh Pearson was born in London and grew up in Tonbridge in Kent. At the age of 18 she began playing as an accordionist in a local dance band but later switched to drums and in 1948 turned professional, working with bands in Edinburgh and Devon and then for two years (1950–2) in Gibraltar. Attracted to modern jazz sounds, back in Britain she played with Ivy Benson’s orchestra and then joined the new orchestra of ex-Benson trumpeter Gracie Cole.
In 1956 she joined a new all-female quartet being formed by Scottish saxophonist Eleanor ‘Lena’ Kidd. From 1957 to 1960 she was with the Dinah Dee Band, touring in England and on the Continent, but retired from active playing in 1963. After some years working outside music in the Netherlands she returned to the UK and played percussion in Sidmouth Town Band.
Biography by Roger Cotterrell
Sheelagh Pearson reminisces on her career. Press quotes supplement her story.
You can also read our article 'Rediscovering Sheelagh Pearson'.
|Interview date||1st January 0001|
|Interview source||Jazz Professional|
|Image source credit|
|Image source URL|
I was born in Westminster, London in 1928 and grew up in Tonbridge, Kent. I quickly showed an interest in music, learned how to play the accordion, and when I was 18, started playing in a local dance band. I was more interested in playing the drums, though, started playing them and two years later I turned professional. My new career as a drummer began at the Mecca Ballroom in Edinburgh, where I stayed for a year, then took a summer season in Devon, where I also had my first experience of playing in the pit at a pantomime.
Then on to Gibraltar for a nightclub job that lasted from 1950 until 1952. When I returned I found two offers awaiting me, one from Ivy Benson and the other from the trumpeter Gracie Cole, who had up until then been working with Ivy's band. Gracie had now formed her own orchestra. I played a few times with both bands and decided to join Gracie Cole.
So there I was in this great band after only very few years in the business. Many of the arrangements we played had been written by Johnny Dankworth, and the band was hot! In 1954 we played the Jazz Jamboree at the Gaumont State Kilburn. We were the first all girls band to do this and we caused a sensation. It was around this time that I was voted best girl drummer in theUK, in the Melody Maker Poll.
In 1956 the tenor saxophonist Eleanor ‘Lena’ Kidd, a former member of both Ivy Benson’s and Gracie Cole’s Bands, formed the Lena Kidd Quartet, so I played with her as well.
In 1957 I joined the Dinah Dee All Girl's Band; a year later we were featured on television in "6.5. Special". I stayed with Dinah until 1960, then, in 1963, I retired after twelve years of touring to set up my own business.
I worked for twenty-five years in The Netherlands as an office manager for a Dutch charity, then, in 1993 I moved back down to Sidmouth in Devon. There I joined the Sidmouth Town Band as percussionist, finally retiring from music altogether in 2004.
Here are some press quotes:
Daily Mirror, 25 Jan 1954. Full page. Headline, “The girls get Hep -”. Inset photo of Sheelagh. Gracie “Queen” Cole and her all-girls band at the Leicester Square Jazz Club. Played Bop classics such as “Lemon Drop” and “The Champ”.
Tonbridge Free Press, 16 July 1954. Headline, “Whether its on TV or radio, Arnie, Sheelagh, make the music”. “…. Sheelagh is making quite a name for herself as a drummer with the Gracie Cole Orchestra. Next Thursday [22 July], at 6.45 p.m., sound radio listeners [Home Service 6.45 – 7.00] will be able to hear her in action. …”
Dancing Times by Dancelot. Dublin Four Provinces Ballroom. “ …. In complete agreement with the verbal laurels won by the girl conductor [Gracie Cole] and her all girl band. There was an elusive sweetness (can’t find a better word to describe the combination of tone and beat that she introduced in everyday tunes) about the Cole presentation that tickled heart as well as toes. ….”
Melody Maker, 16 October 1954. Sizeable photo advert on front page. “Sheelagh Pearson of the glamorous Gracie Cole Band chooses Premier”. (drums)
Melody Maker, 16 October 1954. Headline, “This really was a J-A-Z-Z Jamboree”.
Photograph of band. Caption: “Gracie Cole’s performance at the Jamboree is worthy of special mention , says Tony Brown. … ”
The New Musical Express, 16 October 1954. Headline, “The Great Jazz Jamboree of 1954”. Musicianship at its best. “ …. Gracie “Queen” Cole and her All-Girls Orchestra, making their Jamboree appearance. …. did full justice to some modern-type arrangements that made an extremely good impression. A most impressive debut.” [Others performing included Johnny Dankworth, Cleo Lane, Tommy Trinder, Ronnie Scott and Ted Heath.]
The Courier, 6 June 1958. Headline, “Sheelagh has been voted one of the best”. “Tomorrow week (June 14) heralds the first appearance on television in this country of Tonbridge’s own drummer girl – Sheelagh Pearson – when she can be seen with Diana Dee’s Band on 6.5 Special. It will not be the first time that Sheelagh has been in front of the cameras. Once before, on the Continent, the band got very good German press notices following a two-hour show. A modernist at heart, Sheelagh Pearson was voted the best woman drummer in England five years ago. …”
On another page, “…. They have toured all over this country, and given performances in Germany, France and the Channel Islands. ….”
The Star, 13 June 1958. Headline, “The girl who lost her voice”. Dinah Dee, leader of all-girls band …. Band appears on BBC TV’s Six Five Special tomorrow …”
Paper unknown. Headline, “Dinah Dee’s damsels set entertainment up-beat”. “ …. Favouring the Miller big band sound … “
Landstuhl News. Headline, “Girl band big smash at NCO Club”. “ …. All of the girls speak very proper English but their music is strictly American …. ”.
Daily Mail, 7 May 1993. Double page spread. Following Ivy Benson’s death, tribute to Ivy and her band.