Gwent musician John Collier has been a name on the Welsh dance band and jazz circuit. He’s performed with John Dankworth, played at Butlin’s and let his own band as saxophonist and flautist. It’s been a lively career. We asked him to recall some amusing moments
"My late father was conductor of a pit orchestra at the old Empire Theatre in Newport. It was a music hall and each week presented different bills, or acts. One of them, in about 1938, was Ted and Barbara Andrews, who had their young daughter travelling with them.
Being only about nine months older than me, she was brought to our house to have someone of her own age to play with. I don’t remember anything about our meeting, and I’m pretty certain she would say the same. Her name was Julie. I wonder what happened to her.
When I was older I was working frequently in nightclubs, or cabaret clubs. I played in a band accompanying the singer Dorothy Squires at a number of places. She was once the wife of actor Roger Moore. It was her thing to buy half a dozen large bunches of flowers, which her aide would hand out to the audience, asking for them to be brought to the stage at the end of her act. On one occasion a well-oiled woman came up on stage and was sick all over Dorothy’s shoes. The singer was not amused.
I also worked with comedian Norman Wisdom. At that time his basic act was as a character who wanted to sing with the band and he was constantly being prevented from doing so by his stooge, Tony Fayne. One night, Fayne was suddenly dragged from the stage by a bloke who must have arrived early to see his idol. While punching Fayne, the bloke shouts for all to hear, ‘I paid to see Norman Wisdom and if he wants to sing, let him ******* sing!’ He was removed and Fayne continued, covered in blood.
It was at this venue that The Dancing Waters appeared. This was a feature whereby water was pumped through pipes, lit up and made to ‘dance’ to recorded ballet music. Singer Sandie Shaw was also appearing and for some reason was paid off after two nights. When the waters were turned on the following night, someone had put washing-up liquid in the system. It took two weeks to clean it out.
Another Norman Wisdom story comes to me now. At one of his band calls, the drummer, who was part of the act, gave Norman a new cymbal for use when Norman attempts to play the drums (the old one had broken and Roy the drummer had been asked to buy a new one). The first part of the exchange was about the price of this new cymbal - £20. Norman said the old one only cost a fiver and he’d expected to pay the same amount as the old one, which he bought in 1950. When we came to do the show, the cymbal broke the first time it was used. Norman kept on to Roy about it all week. He hated spending money.
At another time after a week’s work with Norman the club said they weren’t certain they could pay us but would we go on and do the show and they’d sort out the pay thing later. We said, ‘No pay, no play.’ They said ‘OK, Norman will do the show without you.’ When they told Norman, he said ‘ No band, no Norman.’ And they had to pay us before we went on. Thank you, Norman.
I was the baritone sax player with the Welsh Jazz Orchestra and we did a concert with the great John Dankworth. We had a rule that when there was a guest as good as this he would do a spot in the first half then play all the solos in the second. John got a bit tired with all this and asked me to take a solo after him. Me playing straight after a master. Well, I ask you!
I did a fair amount of work as a lead alto sax for a Bristol big band, which played mainly for dancing. Once we played at the Clevedon Jazz Festival, arriving to find we were to support the main act - Acker Bilk and his band. About 2,000 had turned up for a concert, not a dance. Our leader got away with it by playing simple arrangements and lots of solos to pad out the numbers. This worked until the audience, trad fans, wanted their tunes, not the standards we were playing. So the leader pulled out an arrangement he had done of a well-known trad number. He’d written out the long and difficult clarinet solo to be played by all the sax players who he assumed could all play it on the clarinet - we performed it at sight to the large crowd. Embarrassing!
I did a fair amount of work at holiday camps - Butlin’s. We were doing a band call for a Sunday night show, accompanying a balancing act. The drummer kept missing all his important cues - rolls and crashes, etc. The act got shirty and asked the drummer if he could read (music). ‘Yes’, he said. But when he handed his part over the act had to apologise because the drum part had been written in Hong Kong and all the cues were in Chinese!
I’ve had my share of embarrassing moments. I’d gone to the Bull’s Head in Barnes, London (a famous jazz venue). I went to the loo and as I came out I realised I was being pulled to the stage. My trouser zip had somehow caught on the back of singer Annie Ross’s shawl. I freed myself and apologised.
Once, at the New Theatre in Cardiff, I played in a show which started with the National Anthem. The band usually busked it, but on this occasion some of us discovered parts (sheet music) on our stands. The conductor entered in a smart white jacket and turned to the audience to conduct with the spotlight on him. The drum roll began - but what a racket followed. Only half of us had been given music to play from; the other half had to busk it in a different key. It was a short version that night!
Again at the ‘New’, Stan Stennett was in pantomime. He was billed as ‘Bill and Bonzo’ Stan would place this large toy dog on the side of the stage and ask the children in the audience to keep an eye on it for him - if anyone touched the dog the kids were to shout for Billy. A fairy or demon would enter from the side of the stage in a puff of smoke. One night Bonzo caught fire and the conductor told his pianist to stand on a chair in the pit and bash Bonzo on the head to extinguish the flames. Of course, all the kids were shouting like mad for Billy, who never arrived.
Finally, a story about a band from Mid Glamorgan. They had a gig in the Gwent Valleys. While driving home afterwards, the bass player noticed that they’d left their echo unit outside the premises. He said it was OK: when he got home he’d phone the local police to pick it up and the band would collect it when they were there the following week. He duly phoned but the voice on the other end of the line said: “You’re not going to like this. The unit was in a Tesco bag with wires hanging out. A patrol car spotted it. They thought it was suspicious so they got the Bomb Squad to look at it and they blew it up.”
True stories are always the best."