Our showbiz reporter Barbara Law was in the UK recently and met up with some of the musicians from the Big Band days – so time for a look back! It was in the early 50’s that the then Head of Light Entertainment BBC North felt that the establishment of a resident orchestra in Manchester was justified. So a very distinguished London Musical Director Ray Martin was invited to form an orchestra using mainly musicians from London.
- They consisted of a string section, four brass, five saxophones and piano, bass, guitar and drums, and were named the BBC Northern Variety Orchestra. After a while it was decided that the cost of using London musicians was too high, so Ray Martin was asked if he would use Northern musicians, but he refused and returned to London. However a new orchestra was soon formed consisting of Manchester musicians, which became very popular with the radio listeners.
It was in the late 50s at the age of 17 that I first came in contact with the musicians, after singing with them on a talent show on radio called ‘What Makes a Star?’ Acclaimed by the panel of judges, I was then asked by the new Head of Light Entertainment Ronnie Taylor to be resident female vocalist on a number of weekly radio programmes. The only experience I had in show business up to that point was singing with local dance bands in my native Warrington, Cheshire.
It was a daunting task for any young singer, especially one who didn’t read a note of music, and more nerve-racking because the broadcasts were all live, but I have never forgotten the help and patience the Musical Director Alyn Ainsworth and the musicians gave me during those early days. A short time after I joined the orchestra, Alyn, who was essentially a ‘Big Band’ man, achieved his ambition of a change in the orchestra’s instrumentation. The string section was disbanded, and in their place was added four trombones and percussion, and the NVO became NDO, and so the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra was born.
The versatility of the individual musicians was breathtaking with the players, between them, being able to play over 100 different instruments, and with outstanding soloists such as Brian Fitzgerald (piano), Fred Kelly and Syd Lawrence (trumpets), Frank Dixon (trombone), Johnny Roadhouse and Roger Fleetwood (alto saxophones) and the superb Gary Cox (tenor saxophone), the NDO quickly established itself as one of the very great big bands, who along with two outstanding music arrangers, Alan Roper and Pat Nash, constituted a team which was arguably unsurpassed internationally. I was still making regular broadcasts with the new orchestra, most of them being introduced by announcer Roger Moffat, a golden voiced eccentric who loved a ‘tipple’ and would often dash into the studio seconds before transmission, and post haste from the nearest public house.
Roger was also present at my wedding, the celebrations carrying on till the early hours of the morning, so Roger was in a bit of a state when I and my husband George departed. The last they saw of the radio announcer was when his body was stretched out on top of a piano and covered in flowers. He was supposed to read the eight o’clock news from BBC Manchester, but we were not surprised when it was announced that he was indisposed, however he did read out the one o’clock news, but still sounded a little punch drunk.
After being featured on some 300 various radio series with the orchestras, and during the early days of the series of Make way for Music, I started to get itchy feet, with ambitions to work in theatre and television, which I succeeded in doing, and therefore wasn’t available to also do regular broadcasting, so my place as resident singer was taken over by Sheila Buxton, who became a good friend, and who I have previously classed as one of Britain’s best singers.
Over the next few years, at every opportunity, I guested on many radio shows with various regional BBC bands, and when the BBC in 1975 changed the NDO instrumentation, and renamed the new ensemble the NRO, the BBC Northern Radio Orchestra, I carried on making guest appearances.
But strangely enough, when I received what was to be the ‘Jewel in my Crown’ in my radio career, it wasn’t with any of the Manchester BBC bands but was the distinction of being chosen from all the female singers in the UK, by the BBC in London to represent Great Britain in the ‘Nord Ring Song Festivals’ an association of the radio organisation of countries which form a ring around the North Sea. It resulted in my broadcasting with various orchestras in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Holland and Belgium.
Even though I have been resident in Tenerife for many years now, I still get a buzz and a kick out of the fact that someone may recognise me from the old days. Most of the people who approach me say “I remember you as a big band singer”! I tell them proudly; “Yes but not just any band – I sang with the NDO!”