Looking after the Legends
Reproduced by kind permission of Dave Donohoe and Just Jazz magazine
Thanks to Tom Stagg and Richard Millward for helping me with my memory lapses, and to Teddy Fullick for proof reading. - Dave Donohoe
Over the years, every time I have related an amusing incident
involving a visiting American musician, someone inevitably says,
"You should write these things down." I usually reply that I
will, but then do nothing.
During this time, Barry Martyn had moved to California. He
started a music agency named Westerburg Associates. Tom Stagg,
then still living in London, was to control the British part of
The first time he arrived at our home, my wife and youngest
daughter Clare were the only ones at home. Clare was about seven
or eight at the time, and she gazed open mouthed at the first
black person she had ever seen. Alton sat down in an armchair
with a cup of tea, but was aware that Clare was slowly sneaking
up on him from the side. When she was within touching distance
her arm slowly reached out and she rested her hand slowly on his
head. She then began to run her fingers through his short,
crinkly hair. When he became aware of what she was doing he
simply sat back with a contented smile on his face, and let her
continue with her new-found interest.
The next day I drove him to Rotherham in S.W. Yorkshire to play with the Dave Brennan Band. The hotel we were booked in was also the concert venue, which was a bonus. I booked us in, gave Alton his room key and told him that I would meet him in the bar in thirty minutes. The bar was empty, but I could hear voices coming from an adjoining room so I looked in out of curiosity and was surprised to see a children's fashion show in progress, complete with catwalk that came from a curtain. Up to then my only experience of Rotherham was of playing at miners' galas with a marching band, or in working men's clubs where beer had to have a big frothy head on it. I'm a proud Northerner but I do like a flat southern beer that reaches the top of the glass. The people spoke in an old fashion biblical dialect with plenty of thees and thous. I had never encountered the posh side of town.
The lady commentator was telling the audience that the event was being sponsored by someone with a name like Lady Caroline Withering-Scornforth. She then went on to say; "Next we have Guinevere in a Bo Peep dress with blue bonnet with a blue polka dot bow." Guinevere then appeared through the curtain, strutted down the catwalk, curtsied and retreated through the curtain. The commentator then announced Thurston in a navy blue sailor suit and white cravat. All the women clapped (there were no men present apart from me) the curtain was pulled aside, and out stepped Alton Purnell.
For those who never saw Alton, he wasn't very tall, about 5ft 5in or 5ft 6in and he was more black than brown with smiley, twinkly eyes. His face had a battered Mike Tyson look, probably from his early days as a pugilist. The applause came to a sudden halt followed by open-mouthed amazement. What happened next is hard to believe unless you were there. In a second, Alton realised what he had walked into, smiled at the audience, curtsied and strutted down the catwalk in short effeminate steps with one hand on his hip. At the end of the catwalk he bowed with one arm behind his back and retreated back through the curtain. By then, the women and kids were laughing out loud and applauded as if they'd witnessed a performance by a top entertainer. They had!
On another visit by Alton we had moved house to a cottage with very low ceilings. We had an old upright piano, the top of which was only about 2 feet from the ceiling. Immediately above the ceiling was the bed we slept in. I was awakened one morning by the piano beneath being played. It was Alton playing Hey Look Me Over. My mind went back to the days when he was one of my heroes in the jazz history books and on records. I shed a tear as I thought, "How many people can say that they have been awakened to this?"
Over the years Alton made several trips, and was always a very welcome houseguest. On one tour he was accompanied by Barry Martyn on drums (Alton being a member of Barry's 'Legends of Jazz' band. This boosted the band no end. On one of many visits we were temporarily without trumpet, but I managed to book the superb Cuff Billett to travel up to Manchester, which again gave the band a great lift.
Eventually the management changed, and Ken Pitchford took over from Tom Stagg. Ken was sometimes helped out by a lovely man from the Derby area called Ivan Merritt, who sadly died before Ken did.
Of all the US visitors, the only real controversial and white one was Wingy Manone, the famous one-armed trumpet player. His arm was severed by a street car on Canal Street in New Orleans when he was an infant, so he had a dummy hand with a black glove on it. I was worried about him before I met him. I had been warned not to even think of inviting him to stay as a house guest, but to put him in a guest house, otherwise he would upset my children and insult my wife. I was also advised to keep him working without a day off, even if the fee was less than the usual. The late piano player Jon Marks brought him up from London. Jon was to stay with us and I booked Wingy into Birch Hall, a country house hotel. The proprietor was Ray Hibbertson who was a jazz fan and occasionally put on jazz events.
In the flesh, Wingy certainly suited the description of his
temperament. He looked like a cross between Mr. Punch and Daniel
Quilp in Dickens' 'The Old Curiosity Shop' as illustrated by
Phizz. The first concert was at our Saturday night residency at
the Nags Head in Manchester, playing to a full house. Before we
started, Jon, Wingy and I were at the bar and Wingy told us that
the only good band left in New Orleans was the Dukes of
Dixieland because coloured musicians didn't have any feeling for
this kind of music. Jon and I glanced at each other, but neither
of us said a word. I certainly didn't want an argument before we
had played even one note. The clarinettist in the band was the
late Gabe Essien who was of mixed race, having a black African
father and white mother. He took the first solo of the evening.
At the end, nobody clapped, but that was normal behaviour at
that particular venue. Wingy frowned into the audience, grabbed
the mike, and pointing at Gabe said, "Give him a hand, he's a
nice boy!" I realised that he just liked to be controversial for
the sake of it. In other words, his bark was worse than his
For those who don't live in the Manchester area I'll try to
describe Spanish. His real name was John Basnett and he was a
well-known eccentric on the jazz club circuit. He wasn't a
musician, but he was like an encyclopaedia on dates and
personnel of old Traditional jazz records and films. He tried to
live his whole life in the past and anything beyond 1950 was
described as 'crud’.
For the rest of his tour I remember taking him to a club in
Nottingham, very close to Trent Bridge cricket club, and also to
Eric Clark's club at Ormsby, St. Margaret. When we arrived, Ian
Rose our drummer became ill with food poisoning from some fish
and chips that we'd stopped for on the way. Luckily Jon Marks
was still with us. He was also a good drummer so was able to
take over, although it did deprive us of his Purnell-style piano
playing. All in all, Wingy Manone's visit was a worthwhile
experience and quite educating for everyone, including the
special quest himself.
Thomas Jefferson was a great trumpet player, but he was
The next day I set off with him to Boston. Lincs, to a club run
by Ivan Jessop, a fellow trombonist who had a butcher's shop in
the nearby village of Kirton. We set off in my little beetle and
as it was autumn, I put the heater on. Within a few minutes, as
the car warmed up, it was filled with this awful smell and I
realised that it was Thomas' shirt. I asked him how long he had
been wearing it and he said about six weeks! On reflection, I
think I should have told him that it was in need of a wash, but
Another of his tales was that he was convinced he was the first cousin of Louis Armstrong, even though he was a foot taller. Apparently, Louis saw him in another American city and announced to the audience, "That's my cousin." I thought at the time that it was because he recognised a fellow New Orleanian, but I suppose it could be true.
When I drove him back to Manchester airport for his flight back
home, he was still in the same shirt, and I spent the next few
days feeling sorry for the passengers around him on that flight.
In those days only a skeleton staff operated on Sundays. My journey back started about 9am on a slow train that stopped at every station on the way to Manchester. The journey took about nine hours. If that wasn't bad enough, it was a non-corridor train so had no buffet car and no toilet and I hadn't brought any food or drink with me.
Somewhere along the way I jumped off to rush to a toilet at a
station. I can't remember if I had permission from a guard or
just took a chance. I know that it didn't do my nervous system
any good. I alighted from the train at Manchester about nine
hours later and headed for my car for the final half hour's
drive home; I was tired, grubby, hungry and thirsty and in need
of another toilet visit. My consoling thought was that my £2 fee
was still safe in my wallet, ready for a visit to the bank on
Monday. My next thought was: Who'd quit show business? or as the
great Frank Brooker says when things aren't going as he planned,
"Yep, there's no business like it."
Reed player Sam first came to the attention of people in Europe when he toured with a band called the Louisiana Joymakers. The front line was himself and Sammy Rimington, also on reeds.
Born in Louisiana, Sam moved to New Orleans in 1926, where he played clarinet and tenor sax. He was very pleasantly eccentric, and was a pleasure to have around. He had his own strange way of talking in that at the end of each sentence he added a string of strange noises, like - Yow wow bow wow, bow yow wow. At college he met and became good friends with alto player, the great Earl Bostic.
Sam arrived to us accompanied by Ken Pitchford who had taken over from Tom Stagg. Ken told us a story about driving Sam up into the mountains when he was in California. Sam saw snow for the first time and was so excited that he said he had to take some back to show his friend Purnell, who he said had also never seen snow. He scooped handfuls into the boot of his car and drove straight to Purnell's house. When Alton opened the door, Sam exclaimed; "Purnell, come and see this quickly. Yow wow yow bow wow." Of course, when the boot was opened, all that remained was a puddle of water. He stared in dismay at the scene, then pointed at the boot and mumbled, "Yow wow bow wow yow wow!"
Round about this time we had a good friend staying with us for a few days. During a social evening I put on an LP of Earl Bostic, which I had recently purchased. Included on it was his hit parade single 'Flamingo'. My friend scowled at this sound, and asked me if I would put on some real New Orleans music. I pointed out that Earl Bostik was a native of New Orleans, so it was New Orleans music. My friend grumbled 'You know what I mean,' and had me put on some older style revivalist band, which he obviously enjoyed much more.
By sheer coincidence, only about a month later, Sam Lee was with us to do a little tour, as was our aforementioned friend, who had asked if he could stay with us again in order To hear Sam Lee play.
Because I thought that it might be of interest to Sam, I once again put on the Earl Bostic L.P. Sam's eyes instantly lit up. 'You Bow Wow' he exclaimed excitedly 'That's my friend Earl. We went to College together.' On hearing this, our other guest grabbed the record cover and handed it to me, saying, 'Say Dave, where can I get a copy of this record?
There's now't as queer as folk.
Wallace came from a different musical background
than most of the other visitors; he had been the musical
director of the famous Ray Charles Orchestra. At that time my
knowledge of Ray Charles went no further than listening to his
two Country & Western hits on the radio: Hank Williams'
Wallace came from a different musical background than most of the other visitors; he had been the musical director of the famous Ray Charles Orchestra. At that time my knowledge of Ray Charles went no further than listening to his two Country & Western hits on the radio: Hank Williams'
After leaving Ray Charles, Wallace returned to New Orleans in order to play what he called "Dixieland with Dignity".
Tom Stagg, who organised the visit, had told me that Wallace also didn't want to be anyone's house guest, so I booked him in at a guest house only a couple of miles away. Tom arrived by car with his wife and daughter and a friend, Alan Ward. We drove out to Manchester Airport to collect Wallace from the plane, dropped him off at his B&B, then Tom and co. stayed with us.
Wallace was booked at Rotherham with the Brennan Band. At Manchester with my band, and a Sunday night concert at Leeds, organised by John Wall, which I played on, although I think it was mainly the Brennan personnel.
At that time, trumpet player Dave Pogson led a band called The Magnolia, which had a residency at a pub in Oldham called the Grey Horse. Jack, the landlord, was a magistrate in the town, and an alcoholic, as were most of the regulars. The pub was a real grotty old boozer with a carpet that had long since turned into compost. Another carpet had been put over the top of it and was quickly heading the same way. I took a friend in there once who was a probation officer. As soon as he entered the pub, he looked around and exclaimed; "Bloody hell! Half my case load is in here tonight."
Lots of after-time drinking went on when the band finished. It was not unusual to see several policemen outside watching us walk to our cars. I think that Jack had an arrangement with them that as long as there was no trouble, he was allowed to continue plying his trade.
That part of Oldham was a rough strip, a bit like the Bowery. Opposite the Grey Horse was a pub that had a resident piano player who was excellent, and was as cross-eyed as Ben Turpin, the silent film actor. His name was Skennin' Benny Henny. In the band's intervals I would cross the road to look at and listen to him.
Wallace had accepted an invitation to Sunday dinner, so I invited him to the Grey Horse lunchtime session before we ate. He declined an invitation to sit-in with the band, so I asked him to judge an Easter bonnet competition.
Here is a photo of him with these ladies, all wearing flowery hats and some with missing teeth.
It being Easter, we had a request for a hymn, which I led in. On the way home Wallace said that he would like to record some hymns and spirituals, and invited me to be on the recording. Naturally I was thrilled and flattered, bearing in mind his status and history. We didn't discuss any more details, so I suppose that I just waited for the airline ticket and contract to come in the post without any further effort from me.
The Grey Horse eventually became 'Mabel's Chippy' and is now another kind of restaurant. I went several times for a sit-inside meal when it was a fish and chip shop, and could see the ghosts of all the famous musicians who dropped in there. I thought that there should be a plaque on the wall, but the names would not mean anything to most people.
On a visit to New Orleans about 20 years later I saw this stooped old man with a zimmer frame, slowly making his way out of a jazz joint on Bourbon Street and entering another. I asked the lady on the door of the club he'd left, if he was Wallace Davenport. When she confirmed that he was, I hurried down the street to intercept him. I re-introduced myself and expected him to say; "Dave, at last you're here. I was almost giving up on you." Instead though, he looked puzzled and eventually said; "Sorry, I vaguely remember the name of a bandleader in the north of England, but I think his name was Dave Brennan." It still hurts.
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