|Interview date||1st January 1994|
|Interview source||Jazz Professional|
|Image source credit|
|Image source URL|
Good first trumpet players were rare in Great Britain in the 1940’s to 1960’s. Those were the heady days of the great big bands and Kenny Baker, Stan Roderick, Derrick Abbott, Tommy McQuater, Basil Jones, Freddy Clayton, and Bobby Pratt were the young gods of the period. Stan Reynolds was a sensational player, one of the best, but for some reason he never played regular lead trumpet in a name band after his early, glorious, days with the Tommy Sampson orchestra. Jimmy Watson, from Cowdenbeath, was the original first trumpet with Jack Parnell’s small band. Jimmy was the most amazing trumpet player I have ever heard in my life, but he disappeared from the scene quite quickly, having one nervous breakdown after another.
The young Scotsman Bobby Pratt was the only one who could play really well up in the extremely high range of the trumpet. It was to be another ten or twelve years before Derek Watkins and Greg Bowen, the Terrible Twins, hit the scene, and added another octave to the range of the instrument.
The best British big bands of the time were Ted Heath, Geraldo, Tommy Sampson, John Dankworth, Vic Lewis, and Jack Parnell. There were other good bands around: those of Eric Delaney, Oscar Rabin, The Squadronnaires, and the unique George and Les Evans band, containing ten saxophones and five trumpets, but the first ones referred to were the really top performers. The personnel of these bands changed constantly over the years. There was so much work around that the musicians could more or less choose which bands they wished to play with. Over a period of ten years quite a few of us managed to play with every one of the bands I just mentioned.
The big bands were all clones of the great Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras. Very few of them played any of Miller’s music, but they all had the same 5 sax, 4 trombone, 4 trumpet, and four rhythm line-up. Most of them had two or three singers, and perhaps a vocal group formed from the ranks of the players. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of musicians around, but really great first trumpet players were at a premium.
The great British trumpet star then was a man named Eddie Calvert. Eddie worked in the Geraldo orchestra, and could play all of the Harry James specialties likeTrumpet Concerto and The Flight of the Bumble Bee. Probably Kenny Baker could also have managed these features, which were technically terrifying, but he never tried, as far as I know, and no one else could have touched them. Together with Stan Roderick Kenny had led that wonderful brass section of the first Ted Heath band.
Each of the men I mentioned earlier had his own individual sound and style. When listening to broadcasts it was easily possible to identify the lead trumpet player by this. It was clear that the playing of each was determined by his character. Tom McQuater was a kind, warm and friendly man, you felt all right with Tommy sitting beside you. We called Tommy Dad. Kenny Baker was the happy schoolboy, always joking, a brilliant player. Kenny has never grown old. Freddy Clayton was the philosopher, like Tommy always ready to help the needy. On holiday in Italy once Fred sat in with a local jazz band during an afternoon concert on the promenade. They insisted that he play with them every day for the rest of his holiday, naming him Senor Fred. I liked the story so much that I took to calling him Senor Fred from that moment on.
Basil Jones was a heavy man, with a huge moustache which, apart from its considerable upkeep, kept him constantly occupied in either wiping off beer foam, or trying not to set on fire with his cigarette lighter. Derrick Abbott was a quiet man, mainly occupied in his spare time as a pilot, with a twin–engined commercial licence. Bobby Pratt was a Scot, with an incredible high register, and a laser sound that could kill a man at ten paces. Ted Heath reckoned that he had been struck deaf by getting too close to Bob while he was playing. ‘I wandered over in front of him, and suddenly felt my ears go bang,’ he said. All of these lead men were wonderful trumpet players, all highly individualistic, but what about Stan Roderick? Well—Stan didn’t play jazz, neither did he have an exceptionally high register, but he never missed a note, or misread a phrase, ever. He had the most glorious sound, played a driving lead, beautiful sweet solos, he made people laugh, and never let anyone down. People liked to have him on their sessions, because with him up there on the rostrum, nothing could ever go wrong. Stan was solid. For most of the time he played on a Conn trumpet with a big silver bell, which he referred to as The Spam Tin.
I saw rather a lot of Stan because we lived near one another. I had a house in Norbury at the time. Kenny Clare bought one only two doors away. Bob Lamb and Johnny Edwards were a little way up Green Lane, Bert Courtley and Kathy Stobart around the corner in Norbury, and Stan lived up a little further in Thornton Heath. We had very many famous parties, had a lot of fun, chewed the fat, listened to a lot of music. I made a name for myself there with a secret recipe for cheesecake, given to me by one of the violinists in the West Side Story orchestra. This was loved by one and all, greedily snapped up, and was good for several hours of severe gall–bladder shock.
A trumpet player we saw in the studios from time to time was a man named Ronnie Hunt. Stan Roderick sent Ronnie to deputise for him on a session one day, which turned out to be the recording of the signature tune for Coronation Street.
No one knew, of course, that the show was going to be such a hit. If Stan had played the theme he would have done so beautifully. Ronnie made another kind of job of it which you can still hear today, forty years later, and, of course, it fits the show perfectly. Coronation Street wouldn’t be the same without Ron’s trembling trumpet solo. I believe that an attempt was made in later years to re-record that solo, using Stan Roderick, but it sounded too good, and they reverted to the old one.
Quite a few of the London musicians had nicknames, mostly given to them by Stan, who had a caustic wit. The celebrated conductor Robert Sharples was called, behind his back, the Pre-war Lesbian, due to his horn-rimmed glasses and slicked-down black hair. There was a small fat Jewish violinist called The Pawnbroker, and another, with mad staring eyes, who became Guilty but Insane. The arranger Dave Lindup was the Japanese Tram-Driver, due to his meagre stature, and the thick bottle lenses of his glasses. Alto saxophonist Roy Willox was The Policeman, and Sir Malcom Sargent Flash Harry. There were many more.
Now and then we had a couple of horn players on a session, usually a man named Jim Buck and his son. As his son was also named Jim Buck, we called himJimbukto. Jimmy Blades, the man who had recorded the ominous V-sign on the timpani for the BBC wartime station identification signal sometimes came along. He’d also become famous as being probably the only musician ever to sue the BBC and win damages after falling from an insecure rostrum and breaking his leg. His brother Tommy played timps with us on various occasions. Tommy had been blessed with a curious face, rather like a Spitting Image of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, which usually prompted Stan to say that Tommy was on loan to us from Madame Tussaud’s.
One of the perks of being a musician in London was that it was easy to get in to see any of the West End shows—you only had to ask someone who played in the pit orchestra. When the film actress Betty Hutton came to the Empire, Tottenham Court Road, Stan Roderick was playing there, and he phoned and told me that Pete Candoli was fronting the orchestra. I wanted to see that, because Pete was probably the most prestige-loaded trumpet player ever to emerge on the big band scene. He had been featured soloist with the Woody Herman band, and performed some really sensational feats of trumpet playing on Woody’s records. This was too good a chance to miss.
I turned up at the theatre, prepared to sit by Stan and watch the show from the orchestra pit. But on this night, of all nights, Betty locked herself in her dressing room, raving drunk, and refused to emerge. Even from the pit we could hear Pete’s voice as he tried to get her out of there. In the end he had to give up, and the show was cancelled. As Ronnie Scott would have put it—Betty had been suddenly taken drunk. Drinking ruined her career, and she finally took refuge in a Rhode Island rectory, cooking for Catholic priests.
Stan had rather a fierce face, and could easily have served as a model for the cartoon character Fred Flintstone, but he had a heart of gold, and never ever put a foot wrong in all the years I worked with him. Stan was always ready with a joke, even under the direst of circumstances. Only once did I hear him make a tiny fluff during a recording session, when he passed out momentarily from lack of oxygen during a high sustained brass passage.
‘What happened there, Stan?’ said the conductor.
‘I don’t know,’ said Stan. ‘I was seeing the Red Mist at the time.’
Somebody once made up a band of session players, with a trumpet section of Tom McQuater, Ronnie Hughes, Stan Roderick and myself, and we played a dance at the Hornsey town hall. The bandleader had gotten a book together of all jazz specials—there was no pandering to the public on this occasion. At one point we played the Dave Brubeck number Take Five. The dancers shuffled around happily in 5/4, doing the waltz, in which their steps only came together every three bars.
Late in the evening we put up the Tommy Dorsey special Well Get It, which Ziggy Elman and Chuck Peterson played in the film Dubarry was a Lady. It was a trumpet duet, all in the upper range of the instrument, and I doubt whether either Stan or I had ever seen it before, but we played it pretty well, which seemed to surprise no one. Twenty-five years later I met the bandleader down in Ronnie Scott’s club when I played there with the Peter Herbolzheimer band, and the first thing he said was, ‘I can't still remember you and Stan playing Well Get It that night in Hornsey.’ Can't recall his name at the moment, but maybe it was Tommy Watt.
Laurie Johnson had the idea of making a jazz style recording with all of us playing brass band instruments. For the trumpets that meant hiring cornets, as only Stan Roderick had his own. Although the cornet is supposed to be easier to play than the trumpet most of us found them devilish difficult to play, and none of us enjoyed the session too much. Kenny Baker played soprano cornet, impeccably of course, but the trombone players cursed continually as they struggled with the unfamiliar tenor and baritone horns. Only Jackie Armstrong seemed to feel at home on the euphonium. Stan played a marvellous solo on a tune called The Midnight Sun will Never Set,but I don’t know whether the record was ever issued. Later on we played some of the numbers in a concert in Hammersmith, but we used regular instruments, and I played the soprano cornet parts on the trumpet. The experiment was worth a try, but it was never repeated.
As the years rolled by some of the other guys used to turn up in the studios extra early just to grab the third and fourth trumpet parts. Only Stan seemed to be immune from this. Alone of all the great and famous big band lead players, he still had the motivation necessary to play first trumpet, right up until he retired. If he had a part that was too high for him to play he wasn’t too proud to ask for some help on it.
During the 1960’s I worked in a Berlin radio band. On a short trip home my mother told me that Bert Courtley had died. She showed me a cutting she’d kept from the Evening Standard. I phoned Tommy McQuater at once, to find that the funeral was the next morning.
Here comes the weird bit. Normally, I’d travel as light as possible when I flew to London for a few days, only wearing what I stood up in, with a few changes of underwear. This time, for no reason that I’m aware of, I’d packed a dark suit, white shirt, dark blue tie, black socks and black shoes. I didn’t have my trumpet with me, so there was no question of my wearing these clothes on a gig, or anything. I don’t think that I even knew I’d packed the stuff until I looked in the case to see what I could wear to the funeral.
The funeral was to take place at Mitcham Cemetery. When I arrived there it looked as if all the trumpet players in London had turned up. Humph was there, Tommy Mac, Stan Roderick, Kenny Baker, Bert Ezzard, Duncan Campbell, Eddie Blair, my old pal from Coventry Pete Warner, Ronnie Ross, and dozens more. Stan and I shared a hymn book. I couldn’t sing or even speak for tears. I could see that Stan was having trouble as well.
I didn't see him again until fifteen years later I visited London and went to a Christmas party at Ronnie Hughes's place. Stan was there. Dear old Stan, with May, his wife. May died shortly afterwards, and Stan was absolutely devastated. I phoned him later on. Gone was the old sparkle in his voice.
He’d always joked that when he retired from trumpet playing he would bury his trumpet in the garden, leaving only the mouthpiece showing, and train his dog to pee on it every day. Stan had named his dog Laddy, which bugged the trombonist Laddy Busby quite a lot when he found out.
‘Why Laddy?’ he cried, and Stan replied that he’d done that so he could kick it and say, ‘Take that, Laddy, you little devil’ when he felt like it. Now he couldn’t even laugh about that. Both Laddies were, alas, long gone. Laddy Busby had died up in the Isle of Man some years earlier.
Most of the Goon Show orchestra members had received quite a few cheques from the BBC for repeat transmissions over the years. Freddy, Stan, and I had done a lot of those sessions, in Wally Stott’s orchestra. The contractor Jack Simmons had been the fixer for the band. I'd been told that Jack had died recently. When I asked Stan where my repeat money was he said, ‘You’ve heard the saying, You can’t take it with you? Well, Jack did.’
Now retired Stan had returned to his hobby of fishing. He had a dedication to the pastime fast approaching that of a connoisseur. Once, during a midday break in the Decca studios in West Hampstead we had a meal in the pub next door and then Stan asked me to have a stroll with him along the high street. He wanted to show me something.
About a hundred yards up the road was a large fish shop, with the wares all laid out on an outside slab. We stopped there and Stan immediately engaged the fishmonger in earnest conversation. Soon they were admiring the (dead) fish, pointing out the various points of interest. At one point I noticed that the fishmonger was stroking a large cod affectionately as they spoke. After a while Stan also began absent–mindedly stroking one of the fish. I looked at him with incredulity, but he was away, eyes half closed, lost in the spell of the moment. I don't believe I noticed too many signs of deep emotion in all the years I knew him, but that was certainly one of them.
Later on, when Phil Seamen was trying to straighten himself out, Stan took him along on one of his fishing trips. I was surprised at this, because it meant them setting out at 4.30 in the morning. When I asked Phil what they did on one of those outings he replied, ‘We sit.’
Stan Roderick was the exact London counterpart of the American trumpet giants Conrad Gozzo and Bernie Glow in Los Angeles and New York. Like them he spent every day travelling between recording studios, leaving behind him a trail of perfectly performed first trumpet parts. He loved the music business, and he loved playing the trumpet. It was a tough business, not always a pleasant one, but he made it his own, and carved a niche in all our hearts. His favourite, most quoted expression was, typically, ‘We are all members of what is sometimes laughingly known as a profession.’
Copyright © 1994 Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved.