Billy Edwards: The Bunny Berigan of Bebington
Billy died on 29th June 2014
Reproduced By kind permission of Billy Edwards, Andrew Liddle and Just Jazz Magazine
No lesser authority than Digby Fairweather called Billy Edwards ‘the best trumpeter north of Watford’ and few would want to take issue with this. I visited Billy, now in his seventy-sixth year, at his home on the Wirral and found him to be, musically speaking, much more than a trumpeter.
Billy first ‘learned to blow’ as a bugler with the Scouts. By the age of 15 he was playing, around Liverpool and Birkenhead, in Brass bands - some vestigial traces of which can, perhaps, still be heard in the precision of his playing. I ask about his first Jazz influences. A quiet man by nature, Billy never lets modesty desert him and I immediately suspect he is not telling me the half. Information has to be coaxed out of him.
He speaks of his youthful fondness for both Harry James and Louis Armstrong and of listening to them hour after hour. Suddenly, everything becomes clear: his beautiful plangency, that mellow tone and driving style, is what you might get if you crossed those two great musicians then added large helpings of Bunny Berigan, with whom he later ‘became fascinated’, and Bix Beiderbecke, described by Billy as ‘the most melodious with that bell tone’. He also cites Kenny Baker and Freddie Randall as being among his influences.
Like so many jazz musicians of his generation, his National Service years had a profound effect on his playing. It was while lead trumpet in the RAF Dance Band, in 1948, that he, perhaps, first realised that he had ‘a natural feel for Jazz and the adlib jazz chords. I’ve never had to worry about the technicalities because they always came naturally.’ This is not, of course, to suggest he did not have to study and practise hard. ‘I had lessons from Harry Jones who used to play with Joe Loss. He told me I was blowing all wrong. He taught me the American method - to use the diaphragm and the arched tongue and it becomes effortless if you play like that.’
‘At the time,’ he remembers, ’I was playing every day, stuff like Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton but I also managed a fair amount of small band jazz and even some modern jazz.’
After demobilisation, for several years he was part of the ballroom scene on the Wirral, playing notably for the Deboners, a dance band still remembered fondly by people of a certain age from Birkenhead. The band’s leader was Ernie Gouldson, Billie’s brother-in-law. He also worked extensively for the bands of Billy Moss and Jackie Dunn. ‘I was playing five nights a week as well as working as a joiner,’ he recalls.
In 1957, he took up Jazz in earnest with the Chris Hamilton band, at the Majorca Coffee Bar, in Liverpool, where he stayed for six years, frequently also appearing at the famous Mardi Gras Jazz Club, as well as occasionally at the Cavern. He might well have happily remained as a bright star of the Liverpool Trad scene. A talent contest in Birkenhead, however, changed the course of his life. ‘I got into the All Winners’ Show at the Ritz,’ he says with some obvious pride, ‘ and playing in front of two thousand cheering people convinced me I could make a career in entertainment.’
So, very bravely and in his thirties, he left his steady job, put together a cabaret act as a multi-instrumentalist - playing harmonica, piano and trumpet - and vocalist, and launched himself as a professional musician, Bob Rogers. The change of name was enforced by Equity, there already being a comedian, Billy Edwards.
To some extent, then, Billy was lost to Jazz for the best part of the Sixties and Seventies, while he played clubs and concert venues all over Britain and on the continent, appearing on the same bill with some big names, including Matt Monroe and Bob Monkhouse. Twice he appeared on ‘Opportunity Knocks’, once as a solo artist - and also with The Saturated Seven, a jazzband run by his agent, Ernie Mack, with whom Billy played at the Broadway Club and the Montrose Club, both in Liverpool. He also found time to appear on Coronation Street, playing the piano.
I ask him what his cabaret act consisted of. ‘It was generally about 40 or 50 minutes. I used to start with the trumpet and do whatever was popular. I played a lot of Eddy Calvert material and Herb Alpert, lots of Spanish dances and even a few classical pieces. Then I’d move on to piano and play and sing mainstream stuff, and some popular classical pieces and jazz standards. I’d follow this with harmonica, then I’d finish with a couple of big numbers on the trumpet.’ He laughs. ‘Whatever I did, it seemed to work. I was never out of work.’
Why did it come to an end? ‘The business started to change. The clubs were becoming all about singers with backing tapes,’ he says matter of factly and with no hint of recrimination. ‘Anyway, I’d been on the road for 18 years and it was time to slow down a bit.’
‘So I went straight back to Jazz,’ Billy says affirmatively, ‘and I’ve been doing it ever since – more of a full time job than anything else.’ It is clear that Billy was returning to his roots on the Wirral and to his first love. The fact that he takes jobs all over the country and is in almost constant work might suggest, in a way, he is still making up for lost time. He laughs at the suggestion. ‘I just like playing,’ is all he will say on the matter. ‘It’s never a job; it’s always a pleasure.’
Certain it is that the mellow lyricism of his horn has given great pleasure to countless followers of such as the Clive Evans Band, the Parade Jazz Band, the River City Jazz Band, the Ken Binns’ Band, the Red River Jazz Band, the Deeside Dixies, the Tony Davis Band and the Chicago Teds, to name only a few of the outfits he has played for. He likes the mixture of Dixieland, Duke Ellington, Trad and Mainstream that playing for so many bands allows.
Three years ago, his career did come suddenly to a halt when he had a stroke. He reckons it has done his playing no harm at all, rather the reverse in fact. ‘Playing Jazz, I think I’m better than I was. Maybe the brain has turned over into some better cells. But I can get higher notes than before.’
Now he is happy to joke about it, but it is clear it was a very traumatic experience for him, coming quite soon after the death of his wife, Barbara. Being the man he is, he is keen to place on record his indebtedness to the peope who helped him to overcome his illness. Daughter, Rachel, was ‘absolutely marvellous nursing me back to health and taking care of all my business. I couldn’t have done it without her, or the love and kindness I got from my other three, Barbara, Steven and Gareth.’ Charlie Walkom, bassist with the Parade Jazzband, with whom Billy still plays every Tuesday at the Boathouse, Parkgate, helped in countless ways, as did best friends and neighbours, Tony and Marge.
With sheer effort and determination, not to mention hours of help from speech therapists, Billy happily got himself back to fitness and resumed in record time his jazz commitments.
Before I leave, Billy gives me an impromptu concert on his electric piano. I’ve never heard him play before and am amazed at his bravura talent. It does not seem fair, never mind possible, that a man so gifted on the trumpet should have such amazing facility on another instrument. I watch his hands skip easily across those finger-cracking G flat and D flat chord in the middle reaches of ‘Body and Soul’, and shake my head in amazement.
Often when Billy is playing an almost note for note facsimile of Bunny Berigan’s immortal ‘I can’t get started’, he will stop abruptly after the big opening and say ‘And that’s only the beginning!’ Let’s hope there’s a lot more to come.