John Keating: Interview 2
John Keating: Interview 3

Johnny Keating (1927–2015)

Keating was a Scottish musician, songwriter and arranger. After studying piano and trombone, he taught himself to arrange and compose. From 1952, he worked with British big band leader Ted Heath as a trombonist but within two years Heath asked him to become his primary arranger.

In the early 1960s, he and songwriter Johnny Worth wrote and produced many British top 10 hits. He also wrote, produced and arranged for singers Adam Faith, Petula Clark, Anthony Newley and Sammy Davis Jr. 

His theme for the TV programme Z Cars became was a hit in 1962 and was adopted by Everton Football Club as their theme song. Keating also composed a number of film scores.  

Keating arranged and conducted a series of albums that used early synthesiser technology such as the Moog. The recordings were often used as demonstration discs in the 1970s due to their high quality.

As founder and principal of the Johnny Keating School of Music in Edinburgh, he was directly responsible for the musical education of many students who later became successful professionals.

Biography by Mike Rose


A bandleader and his arranger (Part 2)

A two part article where John Keating discusses the importance of an arranger to the band and his past experiences related to this.


The Kenny Clarke - Francy Boland Big Band: Article 1

John Keating: Interview 3

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 2001
Interview source Jazz Professional
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Image source URL
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Forename Johnny
Surname Keating
Quantity 3

Interview Transcription

Around August 1957 I returned to my hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland to basically rest from the exhaustion of having to deliver on a weekly basis three, four, and sometimes more, vocal and instrumental arrangements for the hungry Heath Band.

This was the price that fame and success places on a highly popular band, and as Ted had chosen me as his fulltime arranger, he relied on me to deliver. The tension brought to bear occurred practically every day, even before I had finished breakfast, that is if I were lucky enough to have had any sleep the night before. I started to get a bit paranoid, especially when it dawned on me that here was the most famous British Band of its time and whose records were selling all over the world and I was responsible for practically every new addition to the library.

My notes, ideas, and arranging reputation were constantly on the line. This spawned the relentless nagging horror of ‘what do I do with this one?’ I slowly succumbed to this merciless pressure and finally threw in the towel. Some of the excuses I offered for leaving were pretty feeble, but that was the state I was in. One of the weaker whimpers I threw at Ted was that the guys must be getting so tired and fed up of my phrases, ideas and approach to whatever was next on the drawing board. It didn’t make me feel any better when he replied that this had never been said in all of the gruelling three of so years I had been delivering, albeit late practically every time.

Anyway I could not be consoled and left to rest awhile in Edinburgh. The rest eventually lasted three years.

Apropos the delivery problem, which I have to state is not confined to me alone—there is hardly an arranger anywhere in the world worth his salt who is immune to the disease. It is just that some of us are worse than others. This particular aspect of my ‘fame’ spread to the point where credibility was seriously usurped in the service of a funny story. At first this used to embarrass the hell outta me but I eventually wised-up to the stage where I would end up exaggerating some myself—if you can’t beat them join them.

But I do take great comfort from the number of times I have been told—sympathetically and lovingly that when I do get there the work is normally a pleasure to run down. That’s all the praise an arranger needs especially when it comes from the great musicians I have had the thrill to work with throughout the world, and especially my two spells with the Ted Heath Band. Besides, who cares? I prefer to think that there is more than a grain of truth in the old adage: “Beware the arranger who shows up on time.”

After a three-year spell in Edinburgh as Principal of the Johnny Keating School of Music the time seemed right to return to London and get back to the real business of arranging, recording and hopefully a little more space and time for composing. I naturally went to see Ted Heath to check out the possibilities of a return to the fold. I was in for a shock. Ted told me that things had changed. It was now much more difficult if not impossible to find enough work to keep a regular big band fully employed in a manner to which they were accustomed. Much of the work had dried up due to the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But every cloud has a silver lining and often when you need a bit of luck fate comes along to oblige.

I was strolling down Edgware Road when I had the good fortune to meet ex-Ted Heath trumpeter Ronnie Hughes who told me that Lita Roza, Ted Heath’s ex-vocalist and now a big star in her own right, was about to make an album for which the Musical Director had not yet been chosen. Bingo! We recorded the live album together at The Prospect of Whitby, a famous pub down by the River Thames. The 8-piece jazz ensemble for which I was Musical Director, Arranger and Trombonist, included several of London’s top guys: Ronnie Hughes, Trumpet; Ronnie Chamberlain, Duncan Lamont and Ronnie Ross, Saxes; Dave Lee, Piano; Kenny Napper, Bass and Andy White, Drums. After forty years the album still sounds good.

Around this time stereophonic sound had not yet set the world on fire. The problem really lay with the record buyers, for whom the ‘wall to wall’ sound was aimed to give the aural illusion of spreading the sound all the way across the room from left speaker to right speaker. This was obviously a little too sophisticated or obscure for the general public to appreciate. In short it was not catching on. Then along came a gentleman called Enoch Light. He figured out that the way to capture the public’s imagination was to get rid of the entire ‘wall to wall’ stuff and to replace it with a ‘ping-pong’ effect. This the public could hear. In fact it was so obvious they couldn’t miss it. It tickled their fancy, convinced them that the two-speaker setup was a wonderful creation and Enoch Light became a multi millionaire overnight. Of course every major record company in the USA rushed to bat at the ping-pong table. This was when the Ted Heath Band became involved.

Ted’s recording contract was with Decca Records, London. Their outlet in America was their own company called London Records, situated in New York City. Basically London Records was not a recording company—they did not record the material, they were purely distributors and so depended on Decca London to come up with the goods.

The first batch of Decca records sent to New York resulted in a very worried bunch of London Records executives and salesmen jumping on the first available plane to London. At this early stage in stereophonic recording the arranger was an important cog in the wheel. Apparently some arrangers found the medium childish, horribly commercial and hideously unmusical and so either refused to participate altogether or retired early. There were also those who were keen to become involved but whose efforts were allegedly short of flair or imagination or both.

At that time, having recently returned to London, I was living in a basement flat near Marble Arch with my wife and three young kids (aged 5, 3, and 1). At 11 am one morning we were, as habit would have it, all still dressed in our pyjamas. The doorbell rang and the five-year old opened the door and said: “Daddy, there’s a man here to see you.” I’ll never forget that moment. If Jesus had stood there at the door it could not have been any more startling. It was Ted Heath.

Ted Heath! Obviously he was on a mission. He got straight down to the point: “There’s a man from America who is here to make records. Now, if you behave yourself (meaning if you act like a normal person) he could be very good for you and the band. He has not been happy with most of the arrangers he has tried out and I told him that if I could first check out your availability I’m sure you would be just the right man for the job.” Producer Tony D’Amato duly arrived at midday and I threw myself into the project.

The album was called “Big Band Percussion” and it shot straight into the American Billboard Stereo Charts and remained there for 24 weeks. Ted was so happy and excited that he gave me a financial bonus for every single week it remained in the charts. Tony D’Amato also thanked me by giving me an artist’s contract in my own right. We have remained very special friends ever since.

The second Phase 4 album was more musically satisfying. We had all earned our stereo spurs—and could afford to alter the ingredients by reducing some of the gimmick and adding a dash more music. This album was named “Big Band Bash.” It was also a big seller and featured some sensational ensemble playing and several great solos, including two standouts, one by Kenny Baker (Out of Nowhere) the other by Tubby Hayes (Cherokee).

Then tragedy struck! The producer decided that the third album needed something a bit different, another ingredient, some sort of new gimmick to sustain the successful momentum. He knew that dance bands were not exactly on the up and up in the early 1960s and probably what was needed here was some great new gimmick.

Ted Heath With Strings! Yes. We should add some strings. Yes, a String Section! It had worked before way back with Artie Shaw and more recently with Nelson Riddle, so why not Ted Heath?

When Ted was told of this great new idea he was horrified. Ted summoned the producer to his office. I was invited by both men to be present. (I think each man was convinced that I would be his ally and would influence the argument by two votes to one.) It soon became obvious that there was simply no hope of a compromise of any description.

Ted just absolutely hated the idea. I can’t say I blame him. From Ted’s standpoint it was just a record. Even if it were successful he could never tour around the country with an added string section of an extra twenty musicians or so. Besides I think he didn’t even like strings or even less the people who played them. They were a different breed. To him the whole thing was absurd. He just got mad. He got up from his chair, stood fully erect and brought the meeting to an immediate end.

Now for the first time I was really in it. Tony D’Amato stood up and started to make his way to the door. For once in my life I had to make a split-second decision. Where did my future lie? I felt hard done by and very sorry for myself. Whichever path I chose I was destined to become nothing more than the pawn of either one. I chose the younger man and sheepishly slunk out behind him.

With the great success already achieved by D’Amato he was the one who carried the most clout and he just dropped Ted Heath and His Music from the label. No com- promise was ever possible so the Ted Heath Band’s Phase 4 Stereo career was over. Ted was politically forced to think again. He eventually capitulated and the record was made. The album was called “Satin, Saxes & Bouncing Brass” Ted Heath & His Music.

For every musician who ever played in a baud there are doubtless hundreds of stories to tell. The three personal tales I’ve chosen to tell here are for their comic content and are in no way meant to be ‘put-downs’ or hurtful in any way.

For all those readers old enough to be around at the time or for those young and diligent enough to collect Big Band music from the past, Concerto to End All Concertos was an original composition written by Stan Kenton and recorded by his baud in the middle forties. In its time it was fairly unique in that the composition required two sides of a 78rpm shellac disk. (Made of the kind of material that when you grew tired of the music it could be easily melted down and turned into a vase.) It was for its time pretty adventurous not to mention spectacular and for many of us it was a popular favourite.

Ted Heath had brought his band to Edinburgh around that time (1948) and after the gig members of the band were invited to a small dance hall cum club run by the owner—a local musician bandleader, and a big fan of the new Ted Heath and His Music. I had just been demobbed from the army and I had done a handful of arrangements for the bandleader’s 7-piece outfit. He was a big fan of mine, convinced I was going places and purely for kicks he wanted to give me a leg up. The next thing I know is that somehow he had convinced Ted to have Concerto in the Heath library and recommended that I should transcribe it from the Kenton record. I naturally jumped for joy at the idea.

Now this assignment is no easy task even today with all the magical technological aids at out disposal. But, in ‘48 all I had was a non-electric, wind-up portable gramophone. The soundbox and needle (the ancient fore-runner of the stylus) was a manual operation so together with my faithful servant we set about the task: too keen, too young, and far too excited to visualise failure—the mind boggles at the spirit of the young and naive.

After very many hours of listening and transcribing and correcting and listening again and more and more transcribing, the job was complete. If I remember correctly my friend later copied the individual parts and both the score and parts were excitedly posted to London.

Not knowing the price of anything (clueless in fact) I contacted the local branch of the Musicians’ Union and after calculating the length of the score and the Union minimum rate for transcribing, which under the Union Rules is considerably more than that for an original arrangement, the fee was finally calculated at £21 (twenty-one pounds) in 1948. Ted had never been asked such a price before, and remember he only ever used the top West End boys. Now here he had a transcription, not even an original arrangement, amounting to a bigger bill than he had ever known, and this from a complete unknown from Edinburgh. Rhubarb!

Later that year I auditioned as a trombonist/arranger for the Tommy Sampson Band (originally from Edinburgh) and now I was on my way to London. I wouldn’t say we were underpaid it was more a case of we never got any wages. I remembered the £21 Heath bill and called Alex Mitchell of the London Branch of the Musicians’ Union only to be told that if I stuck stubbornly to the rules (their obligatory rules, I might add) I would end up in the hills.

Much later in 1952 as a member of Ted’s trombone section, and having genuinely forgotten all about the Concerto affair, I was idly fumbling through the trombone book and lo and behold, there was the 2nd trombone part of theConcerto to End all Concertos. To this day, well at least until the day Ted died, neither of us had ever acknowledged that we had known each other in a previous life, that he had commissioned the Concerto, that I had scored theConcerto, that he had never paid for the Concerto, in fact that the whole episode had never happened.

Being employed in the capacity of “staff arranger” for the Ted Heath Band, although it was never officially ‘written in stone’, the post seemed to imply the law of never doing arrangements for other bands, especially for other big bands, more especially other name big bands, and most especially a big swing band fronted by the new kid on the block— Ted’s famous ex-drummer Jack Parnell.

Always susceptible to musical flattery as I am, a call from Jack for a showy arrangement of The Saints, one that would enable the musicians to get up and march round the hall, sounded like fun so without hesitation I accepted. Tales of the arrangement’s great crowd-pleasing capabilities filtered back to me and with them the ‘feel good’ factor that comes with bull’s eye success.

Several months later Ted was rehearsing in the old Chiswick Empire for a forthcoming broadcast. He had commissioned three new arrangements for the gig. One was for a new version of When the Saints Go Marching In.

True to form I got so far behind with the work that I was up all night completing the job. I was a bit late getting to Chiswick having been stopped by the police as a ‘suspicious character’. Being all of 28 years’ old, white-faced and starey-eyed, unshaven, and flying down the dual carriageway driving a huge Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire—a Rolls Royce body but with an Austin Princess engine—and with no means of identification save for the three arrangements and parts with the name Ted Heath written on them. I was interrogated and eventually released before heading once again, later than ever, towards Chiswick.

Apart from the usual embarrassing entrance and dodgy silence everything got under way without any hitches until it was time to rehearse The Saints.

We completed the first run-through. I thought it was shaping up nicely when Ted said rather sarcastically: “Have you heard Jack Parnell’s version of the Saints?” For the first time in my life I realised the true meaning of the expression ‘pregnant silence.’ I was tired, taken aback and rendered speechless. Ted repeated the question but this time the silence was broken by a couple of stifled embarrassed titters. Ted was now looking confused and slightly annoyed. More titters and embarrassed coughs filled the area. Ted then angrily demanded to know what was going on. After further silence Les Gilbert the lead alto and the longest-serving member of the band took the plunge, actually stood up and half looking at Ted and half turned towards me said: “He did it.”

Well that certainly did it! Ted erupted and I attempted to defend the indefensible before leaving the theatre. When I got home I phoned Ted’s office to tell his secretary that I did not do arrangements on spec. I had been up all night working for him and that I was now going to indulge myself with a few well-earned hours kip. And, would he please not call me.

The bell rang incessantly all afternoon but I was determined not to answer, possibly more through sheer embarrassment. The next day I pleaded poverty. He lent me a fair amount of money and the affair was forgotten and thankfully never mentioned again.

To complete the ‘tales out of school’ stories the following is the one that describes what is possibly the most daring stroke I have ever tried to pull. It involves the album “Jolson Favourites”. It is always the case without exception that the first two or three arrange- ments I worked on for any album were undoubtedly the best of the bunch. I would expend most energy, creative juices and extra time on the beginning of a new project. This would inevitably leave me horribly short of the necessary arranging time for the remaining tracks. It was a gradual process of getting closer and closer to the deadline with each succeeding score being allocated less and less time.

While I was working on the first two scores, Sonny Boy and April Showers, Ted suffered his first stroke. I duly presented to his secretary the scores and bill for the first two arrangements. To my astonishment I was told that the sick man had studied the two scores and had concluded that April Showers was okay but Sonny Boy was unacceptable. The-reason given was—that I hadn’t spent enough time on it and that was that. I must do it again.

Now to simply read a score and make a judgment on its merits is a skill not given to many. Trust me on this when I say that the ability to do this is given to possibly no more than 1% of all professional musicians. In essence, without this ability, to read a score, and to really ‘hear’ a score, with all the intricacies of polyphonic melodic lines, the subtleties of harmonic progressions and harmonic rhythms, the merging of orchestral tone colours, the all-important formal distribution of ‘tension’ and ‘relaxation’, then to put all these technicalities together in your head to evaluate the merits of the finished product is akin to picking at random any six numbers on the national lottery and imagining that you’ll hit the jackpot-cry time!

Leaping forward in time to three or so months later with Ted back on his feet and having recorded most of the Jolson album we have just a couple of tracks left to do. Unfortunately there was also a broadcast on the same day as the last Jolson session. At 2.30pm on the day before the sessions I counted the number of scores I needed to fulfill the next day’s assignments. It amounted to no less than eight scores, five vocals and three instrumentals, one of which was the mandatory new version of Sonny Boy. My copyist and I prepared ourselves for a long day and even longer night (We had just less than twenty four hours). When we had but eight hours before the Decca recording session I still had three vocals to do and one instrumental.

A critical decision had to be made. I made it. “Dennis, get out the rejected Sonny Boy and start copying it.” His reply was instantaneous: “You’ll never get away with it! ” I revised my statement: “Dennis, Let me worry about that. Please copy it. I have a hunch.” By 2pm we had completed the mission. All the scores and all the parts were ready and we triumphantly headed for Decca Studios.

The ‘new’ Sonny Boy was an instant success. Eureka! Ted was so pleased with Sonny Boy that he apparently broke one of his golden rules which was never to play any tune twice in the one night. It of course became the opening track on the Jolson Album, in keeping with Ted’s policy of starting an album with his favourite arrangement.

Game, set and match! Perhaps? I’ll never know if Ted was fooled or chose to keep the joke to himself and stay silent like he probably did with the Concerto. He had that kind of sense of humour where his ego allowed him to enjoy a private joke with himself. If so, his satisfaction came from the idea that I thought I had conned him when in fact it was he who had conned me. We’ll never know. Ted was a good man. I admired and respected him.

Copyright © 2001 John Keating. All Rights Reserved.