More Than You Know: Aug 05


One of my first paid gigs was when I lived ‘up North’ and was offered a job at the age of 17 by the local Working Men’s Club. “You’d better come and try the piano first” I was warned. On the Saturday morning of the gig I wandered down to the Club – which was only about 300 yards away.  I sat down to play something and found to my horror that most of the keys were sticking. The Club Chairman (Tot) was standing nearby and suggested I look inside the piano. He told me they had a lousy ventriloquist the previous night who had been booed and consequently ‘paid off’ by the Club. ‘He poured a pint of Newcastle Brown in the piano as revenge’ said Tot. I opened the piano, reached inside and pulled out what seemed to be a cuddly toy – it was a ventriloquist’s dummy (a gottle of geer came to mind). ‘That’s funny man’ said Tot, ‘I only saw the Newcastle Brown go in’. The piano action was a sticky mess. I suggested they hire a piano, ‘It’s too late now’ said Tot. Desperate for the gig, I suggested I get my piano from home. ‘If yer like man, but there’s nobody aboot to help’ was his answer. By coincidence it was the day of the Amateur Cup Final. It seemed like Crook Town or Bishop Auckland (within 10 miles of each other) were in the Final every year. That Saturday they were playing each other in the Final at Wembley which meant that excited fans were exiting County Durham by the coach load and heading south. Those who were left behind crammed into the sitting rooms of the ‘posh ones’ who had a TV set. That afternoon I shunted the piano down the hill to the Club with not a man or dog in sight. I heard that Crook Town and Bishop Auckland played in front of 100,000 fans – I played to an empty Club and was paid thirty bob. However, all was not lost – the Committee had a meeting and decided to buy my piano as it was ‘a nice looker’ and I secured a residency there until National Service intervened a few months later.

Clarinetist Thomas L’etienne was making one of his guest spot appearances with a semi-pro band on the Continent. After assembling on stage, Thomas suggested “Sweet Lorraine” to kick off the first set. The banjo player thumbed through his chord book, “haven’t got it”. Thomas then asked if he knew “As long as I live”. Same procedure – “haven’t got that one either”.  “OK” said Thomas, his temper getting a little frayed, “let’s start with a 12 bar blues in F”. The banjo player looked at his chord book, gazed up to the heavens, and muttered “Sorry – I’ve only got it in Bb”.

The invention of what we now call the ‘record player’ is an intriguing story. The first-ever device able to record AND play back sound was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. An attachment could be fitted to the contraption which enabled the users to make their own recordings on a wax cylinder. Opportunists made a living by touring the country giving ‘phonograph concerts’ and demonstrating the device at fairs. Originally, only two minutes of music could be played on the cylinder, but Edison discovered that by shrinking the grooves, four minutes could be achieved. Improvements to the sound were made over the next few years and after the first world war, Edison Records started a marketing campaign by hiring popular singers and Vaudeville performers. Theatre lights would be darkened and the audience would be challenged as to what they were hearing – was it the artiste or was it an Edison phonograph? The lights would go up amid gasps of astonishment when all that could be seen on stage was the phonograph! In the 1920s, cylinders began to be replaced by the 78rpm record and Edison’s first efforts were half-an-inch thick – playable only on their own specially produced phonographs (I doubt if they did much mail order business!). Although audio fidelity was comparable with other major companies, Edison had few distributors compared with the likes of Victor, Columbia and Brunswick. Record sales slumped and they lost their leading share of the market. Edison Records closed down in 1929 and the record plant and many of their employees were deployed in manufacturing radios. Over a period of more than 50 years, Thomas A. Edison had produced hundreds of jazz recordings for the Edison Record label – strange for a man who said that jazz records sounded better ‘played backwards’

At a recent corporate gig in Portsmouth I was told by the organizer “Don’t try to play anything clever, you are wallpaper music tonight”. (I felt like telling him to stick it!).

Neville Dickie