Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O Let us be married! Too long we have tarried:
But what we shall we do for a ring?”
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat Edward Lear
This week I attended the Communications Industry Carol Service at its church, St Bride’s in Fleet St, the Christopher Wren wedding cake church. Its choir is something extraordinary and the occasion is always one of great joy, for those of any faith or none. The Christmas message was delivered by Jonathan Phang, the Food & Travel Writer and Broadcaster who made the point that singing is the best of all methods of communication, and that is right particularly at Christmas as the timeless carols ring out in their annual competition with the commercial jingles of Slade, Elton John and Wizzard.
As a boy I had a good treble voice, and sang in several choirs. There was the choir of St. Catherine’s Church for which I auditioned at about nine and stayed for five years as my voice refused to break. Indeed it never did in the spectacular way that happened to some boys I knew. Rather it just slipped gradually downwards until it became a pleasant baritone. I also sang in the school choir at Manchester Grammar School and in the more select Memorial Hall Choir. This would have the honour of singing in the cathedral choir benches on Founder’s Day. I also sang in Chester cathedral as one of a select few sent for further training.
My first paid employment was as a choirboy. We were paid quarterly depending on attendance, and would receive about 15 shillings. However, weddings paid much better and we would each receive half a crown for a wedding. We paid special attention to the reading of the banns in church hoping that these fine couples would be persuaded by the vicar to have a full choir for their ceremony. Funerals reputedly paid 3/6 but I never knew of this experience. This was probably just as well as boys of this age are not known for their solemnity.
I sang my share of solos and the best of these was the first verse of the carol “Once in Royal David’s City”. This had been popularised in The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that was broadcast every Christmas Eve from King’s College, Cambridge. Not to be outdone we had our own version of this and the church would be packed for this service a week or so before Christmas. The solo is the first act of the service and traditionally is sung as a processional from the back of the church. I was intensely nervous and found it hard going in the early part of the verse. Then on the glorious notes of the last two lines my confidence returned and I soared up to the top notes with great satisfaction.
At Blake School in Minnesota I joined its Glee Club, a well-run group of boys' voices. By now I was baritone and again I was given the solo for a rendition of “ I’ll go no more a rovin’ “ We toured in the Midwest performing concerts in Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas City. We performed here at a girls’ school and there was a mixer afterwards. That night Martin Luther King was assassinated less than 400 miles away in Tennessee. The black communities in many major cities in the South rioted and our bus was shot at. We spent the journey lying on the floor and were warned not to go on the balconies of our motel rooms.
At Oxford I became a great friend with David Hughes, an Englishman whose parents had moved to Kirkcaldy in Fife. Dave had picked up many of the Scottish folk songs, I knew many of the English and we decided to see how many songs we knew. We stayed up all night going through our repertoire of folk and pop. Our rules were that we had to think of a new song within one minute or give up. We were still going at breakfast and had reached a total of 600. Hysteria set in when, almost stuck, I came up with a rendition of “Champion, the Wonder Horse”.
My finest hour as a singer came in Chile. I used to visit a pub called New Orleans. It was expensive but served good food and drink. Most Saturday nights a local amateur jazz band entertained with some very creditable traditional jazz. One night I was surprised to see a member of the audience get up to sing a couple of numbers. The following week I talked with some of the band and they asked me to join them.
I sang "When the Saints Go Marching In" in my best imitation of Satchmo. Soon after I was introduced to the girl who would become my wife. Her sister, who introduced us, told her to bring her camera and so I have a photographic record, though sadly no musical record, of this gig.
Though musical I never learnt to play an instrument, one of my genuinely few regrets. As a small boy my father suggested I should learn to play the piano. I did not feel that I wanted to do so and declined. Some years later, a little more mature I told him I was now ready to learn the piano. He snapped, “You had your chance.” My younger brother made no such mistake and learnt to play very well. He had a particular talent for playing Scott Joplin’s rag which had been made famous as the music from The Sting.
I nevertheless loved music and became a keen pop music fan. As a teenager I went to a few local dances with ordinary groups who could strum their three chords and cover Chuck Berry and other Rock’n’Roll standards. Then in the USA as with so many other things I started to spread my wings and saw a few proper concerts including Peter, Paul & Mary, Glen Campbell and Sergio Mendes’ Brasil ’66. At Oxford I continued this and went to reasonably low cost clubs where the blues groups like Free were building their university fan base. With a group of friends I went to rock festivals at Hollywood (a field in Staffordshire) and Bath (another field in Somerset). These were the forerunners of much bigger festivals at Glastonbury and the Isle of Wight but gave me the chance to see Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, and many other big names of the day. Another concert I attended was the inaugural concert of Blind Faith, a super group put together by Eric Clapton of Cream and Stevie Winwood of Traffic. This was held in Hyde Park and I hitchhiked to London to see it. Well, we heard it but did not see it as the concert was so over-attended that the park was full and we could get nowhere near the stage.
My sister had more luck when attending a May ball in Oxford. Featured at her ball was the great John Mayall with his Bluesbreakers which had launched so many careers of British Blues stars including Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac, Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones and Andy Frazer of Free. And, of course, the legendary Eric Clapton. Eric was playing at a rival ball that night with Cream but wandered round to hear his mentor play. On seeing him Mayall cried out “Eric! Have you got your Gui-tar?” Eric said no he’d left it but Mayall was not to be denied. “Give the man a gui-tar” and the audience was treated to an impromptu set from the two greatest blues musicians this country has produced.
During the ‘70s I would see the occasional concert with the Hollies, Elton John, Slade and other contemporary groups. The best of these was a concert by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Frankie Valli has an amazing vocal range covering four octaves but he also has fabulous charisma. When he completed his last number the audience of course yelled for more. He handled them with great skill saying:
“You want more?”
“More!” came back the cry.
“You want more?”
“We weren’t going anyway” and they proceeded to sing four more songs with great panache.
But I gave up this kind of activity when at Sony we had sponsors’ tickets to see Michael Jackson at Wembley. It was my daughter’s first concert and she suffered from the terrible noise, as we all did. Jackson kept everyone waiting for over an hour while they played Beatles songs to which of course he owned the rights. His concert was awful with a dreadful sound system that echoed inside the stadium and several times drove me out in to the corridors for relief from actual physical pain.
No doubt this is partly age-related but I actually believe video did kill the radio star. When video arrived in the late 1970s pop music was promoted by video on MTV and the like rather than on the radio. Thus the emphasis was on selling an image rather than a sound and often the sound was of staggeringly low quality.
I loved jazz and all its derivatives except perhaps the more atonal jazz of the late 1950s. There were some most enjoyable evenings in The Bull at Barnes featuring Humphrey Lyttelton, Kathy Stobart and other stalwarts of British jazz. George Melly was a great entertainer whom I saw a number of times with John Chilton’s Feetwarmers. In the US I saw the great George Shearing and back in the UK saw Buddy Rich support Frank Sinatra. We saw Sinatra twice, the second time with Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jnr, all terrific entertainers. Sinatra is out on his own and though we saw him towards the end of his career he was still the supreme interpreter of a song to the extent that usually once Sinatra sung a song it was finished for everyone else. There were exceptions and it was also a great thrill to see Tony Bennett when he was still at the top of his powers. He at one point used the full acoustics of the Albert Hall by asking for the amplification to be switched off and singing beautifully a capella filling the hall without difficulty. We were invited to meet him afterwards and found him both modest and charming.
Stage musicals are some of the best entertainment around. When a good writer meets a fine composer the results can be fabulous. I have seen most of the famous musicals and my particular favourite has been a chance to see an aging but still mesmerising Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. The actress playing his mother was only a few years older than him. We saw early performances of Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon with most of their original casts intact. In contrast we adored a revival of Forty Second Street with a 16 year old Catherine Zeta Jones as Peggy Sawyer.
I had always loved classical music just as much. There were a few records in the house where I grew up and we went to some concerts. At a very young age I was taken to hear David Oistrakh play at Belle Vue and then in my teens I witnessed Jacqueline Du Pré’s legendary performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto conducted by her husband Daniel Barenboim with the Hallé Orchestra in the Manchester Free Trade Hall. In the US my American host “mother,” Mary Hannah, was associated with the excellent Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and I particularly remember an impressive virtuoso display by Christian Ferras.
Opera would come, I knew. I already was familiar with some of the music and started to build up a small collection of some of the highlights from Verdi, Puccini and Wagner. Then, at Sony, we were invited to the Royal Opera House for the first time. The opera, Cherubini’s Médée, was not the most distinguished in the canon, but the occasion, the sense of theatre, the appeal to so many of the senses, all overwhelmed me and I decided to take this up in earnest. I persuaded Sony to become Full Members of the ROH thus guaranteeing access to good tickets and over the next 10 years this became my principal form of customer entertainment. We saw nearly 100 performances of around 90 operas and ballets. We saw just about all the popular operas with most of the leading performers of the day including all three tenors and several of their leading prima donnas.
We have a particular love for Puccini and saw Tosca no less than 7 times including both Domingo and Pavarotti as Cavaradossi. By now Pavarotti was so huge that in the first act he was too heavy to climb the artist’s ladder and paint the eyes of Tosca. In the 3rd Act when he is executed he fell down in installments before expiring. But he could still sing like an angel. Pavarotti was the better singer; indeed, probably the best of his generation but Domingo was the better actor. We saw him also play opposite Mirella Freni in Fedora, with Kiri Te Kanawa in Otello, and brilliantly as Cyrano de Bergerac.
However, our most memorable night with Domingo was not in the Opera House but in the Royal Palace at Seville. At a Sony European Management Conference we were shown into a Courtyard where a piano waited on a stage. Eventually a representative of Sony Music explained that Placido Domingo, who was Artistic Director of the Seville Expo at the time, would sing for us. He came onto the stage with his accompanist and started to sing. Immediately all the birds also burst into song. Domingo said that he would be singing duets tonight and proceeded to sing his favourite zarzuelas. Afterwards my wife made sure of being photographed with him and he made great compliments about the beautiful women of Chile.
Copyright David C Pearson 2015 All rights reserved