I was born in Paisley seventy-one years ago. I started drumming lessons at Lester
Penman's drumming school in the Gorbals area of Glasgow at the age of fourteen. Six
months later I was reading & playing music like Benny Goodman's 'Sing Sing Sing' which
I still love to this day. It was just before my fifteenth birthday in 1954 that I got my first real
gig with a band and played in front of an audience for the first time. It was very scary and I
was nervous as hell. The venue was the Elderslie Village Hall and it was the local Saturday
night dance. The band was made up of piano (doubling on accordian), guitar, bass & drums. The other musicians were much older than me but nobody seemed to mind. There were times when it got a bit rough and I've had to duck in the middle of playing as empty beer bottles were flying, some smashing against the wall behind me. This reminds me of playing at a mixed marriage reception where the two families had a right go at each other while the bride & groom, both in tears, jumped up on to the stage, grabbed the microphones and proceeded to plead with their respective families to stop fighting.
At age sixteen I formed my own jazz quartet, playing the usual standards and some George Shearing music which I loved. This was a bit short lived as it was sometimes difficult finding people prepared to give the band job to a sixteen year old. It wasn't long afterwards, aged seventeen, that I got the chance to play in my first big band. That was the Jimmy McCracken Orchestra which was the house band at Paisley Town Hall. I can remember my Dad being so proud and sneaking backstage to watch me play from the aisles. It was there, during a regular Sunday night concert, that I took a flyer off my podium. Because I liked to stretch my drum kit, the raised platform was too short, so they had added a piece on to it to accommodate the legs of my stool. It was during one of my favourite pieces ('Malaguenia'), that the inevitable happened. Unbeknown to me, the additional piece of the podium had slipped backwards and...lo and behold...right in the middle of the number my stool gave way and I started to tumble backwards. My first reaction was to grab hold of the cymbals to stop myself from falling but, as you can imagine, they also came tumbling after me, together with my large tom tom & snare. What a noise it made ! The crashing sound almost drowned out the band. Everyone was in shock, especially Jimmy McCracken and the other musicians who, one by one, slowly brought the music to a halt. There seemed to be a few seconds silence as Jimmy, who played piano, ran over to see if I was ok. It was amazing...I was on my back with pieces of drum kit lying around me and everywhere I looked I saw big eyes of amazement. When I stood up, I think everybody in the hall stood up with me, and all at the same time they let out a scream of approval and cheered me like I'd never been cheered before, or ever since. Ha! Ha! What an embarrassment. I'm sure some of the fans thought it was all part of the act. Helen Thompson was the female vocalist with the orchestra during this time, the lady now familiar to everyone as Lena Martell.
I started touring around Scotland and the northern parts of England in the late '50s with
Bob Ronald's band. Later, the Johnny Douglas Combo gave me my first chance to work as a
professional musician in March 1961 when the band moved to Nairn where we lived on the
caravan site near the beach. This was to be our base for many months. They were great times
and I loved every minute of it. My wife at the time, Anna Rossi (nee McKellar), was the female
vocalist during the first six months but had to return to Paisley due to family commitments. I,
however, stayed on for a further four months before returning home. As musicians know,
being on the road was extremely hard going. One night stands every night except a Thursday
when we had our official night off. We had the same routine every week which was as follows: Monday we travelled to Fraserburgh where we played till about 1am, then straight after that drove througfh the night, past our base at Nairn, to Thurso where we would arrive just in time to have breakfast before catching the boat to the Orkneys where we were scheduled to play that night in Kirkwall. Usually we would get out our instruments and entertain the passengers on the boat deck. On arrival we had to carry all our gear to a bus a hundred yards away and stow it in the luggage compartment. It was unbelievable that on the odd occasion the bus would stop in a village halfway to Kirkwall which, by the way, wasn't all that far away, where we had to change to another bus that took us the rest of the way. They would even drive right past the hall we were going to play in. Even after some appealing requests, the driver refused to to stop and let us out with all our heavy gear but instead would carry on to the terminus which was about a hundred yards from the hall. After a hectic night that would sometimes go on till way past midnight, we would do the whole thing in reverse to get the boat back to Thurso. Here we played every Wednesday night till midnight and, tired as we all were, we would drive back to Nairn straight after the gig. Johnny Douglas's brother Ronnie (bass), used to drive straight on to Glasgow where he would spend his day and night off, then drive back to Nairn on the Friday where we'd gig that night at the local hotel (think it was called 'The Royal'). After my wife returned to Paisley, I travelled back with him on these occasions. friday was always a good night 'cause there wasn't any distance to travel and by that time we were fast becoming locals and had made lots of friends from the townsfolk. Saturday it was off to Inverness where we played again till midnight. As usual, we drove straight back to Nairn after the gig, but at least we always managed to have a nice long lie in bed as we only had had to play again on the sunday evening. This was in one of Nairn's local halls and was in fact organised by ourselves. it was to become better known as a jazz club, as here we played the music which we all basically loved...the good old swing standards off the time. Especially Johnny himself, real name Cruickshank, who played jazz very well. I remember one Sunday evening Johnny almost got electrocuted. If it wasn't for a member of the band whose quick thinking saved him by switching off the power, he would have died there and then. Johnny also played guitar with the Ricky Barnes Band when they tried their luck in London about 1960. Yes, I remember the above routine very well and we did this every week, rain, hail or snow, always managing to get to the gig. Even when there were blizzards and the farmers would be out cutting up trees that had been blown across the road. One night in particular when we were supposed to play in Fraserburgh, it was after midnight when we arrived. The organiser had kept the night going with records and when we walked into the hall there was a huge cheer from the crowd and the party started. Although we still had to drive to Thurso to catch the boat at 9am, we still managed to play a couple of hours for them. Ha! Ha! No breakfast that morning.
During my time with the Johnny Douglas Combo we backed or played along with many of the UK's pop stars on their tours of Scotland. These included Vince Eager, Duffy Power, Johnny Duncan & The Bluegrass boys (we were the 'Bluegrass Boys' on these occasions), Bert Weedon, Wee Willie Harris and many more. There was a very special event that I will never forget and that was when we were playing at a hall in Alloa. We were the main billing that night and during our break, while the guest band filled in, we went across the road to one of the local pubs to have a few quick drinks. It seemed like we were hardly there when our agent came running in to tell us that we had to return to the hall quickly and get back on stage. This was because the crowd were booing and heckling the stand-in band and screaming for them to get off the stage. Apparently they were playing stuff that no one knew or could relate to, they could hardly be heard through their 25 watt amp, bobbing their heads around and to crown it all...they were from England. Guessed who they were ? Yeah (yeah, yeah)...The Beatles. I learned many years later that they were in Scotland initially to back Johnny Gentle but in between the agent found some other gigs for them. Ha! Ha! - they definately got the last laugh ! I think it could have only been about eighteen months later they became a big hit.
As I was missing my family too much, I returned to Paisley after a period of ten months
where I joined the Tommy Maxwell Orchestra at the Flamingo Ballroom in Cardonald,
Glasgow. Tommy was better known with his quartet on the STV show 'The One O'Clock
Gang'. Although he was a drummer himself, he preferred to front the band and we used to
do a drum duet on a Woody Herman piece called 'The Golden Wedding'. About a year later
I joined the Ray McVay Orchestra at the Locarno Ballroom on Sauchiehall Street. Soon after
joining, and after we did a three month holiday relief for some other bands on the Mecca
circuit, we settled in Edinburgh where we played at the Fountainbridge Palais. We were eventually transferred to play at the Orchid Ballroom in Purley, south of London where I stayed for another year before joining an Irish showband, Chris Lamb's Universal Allstars. On Christmas Eve 1964 I sailed to Cape Town, South Africa where I lived and played for seventeen years. Here I played and recorded with some of South Africa's pop groups and worked as the studio drummer for Troubadour Records. In 1981 I moved to Switzerland where I started to play what my heart always felt for and that was music from the swing era and popular jazz standards. This consisted of travelling around the country and playing in other countries like Germany and Hungary. After twenty years there I retired back here in Cape Town. This was nine years ago and at long last I put down my sticks, lifting them only to knock around my kit which stands in my family room. It's the best kind of good old therapy. I have played since retiring; the first time was when one of the Swiss jazz bands I played with flew me to Birmingham (England) to help them out on two gigs, as their drummer (who had replaced me), was scared of flying. Thanks to him I was able to visit my dear old mother in Paisley again before she passed away. The last time was with the same band in 2004 when they came out here to do a short tour in Cape Town. This included two gigs at the capital's famous V & A Waterfront.
Yes, my friends - those were the days, and I would love to do it all over again. I have so many happy memories and have made so many friends. Music is never just for the ears....it's for the heart as well.