In October 1969 I’d given up the day-job building Concordes at Filton to strum guitar with the Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra – a comedy quartet selling primitive jazz and jug-band music on the folk club circuit. The name of Kevin Daly kept cropping up. He had produced Argo LPs for other folk artistes, similarly equipped with stringed instruments and too much hair. Several were suggesting we should approach him. These were, in particular, the eccentric Devonian Trevor Crozier who used to let us doss in his flat in Archway, the Yetties from Dorset, and psaltery player extraordinaire, Bob Stewart, a Scottish exile who from 1966 had been a resident performer in Bristol’s Troubadour club.
So it was that late in 1969 or early in 1970, Barry Back, Dave Creech, John Turner and I were seated on the western side of Kevin’s desk at 115 Fulham Road, getting acquainted with his big booming voice and those eyebrows. Discussions went well and from his big chair on the eastern side he offered us a recording contract. I wanted to accept, but was eventually outvoted. It later turned out that John Turner our bass player already had ambitions to help set up Bristol’s independent Village Thing record label.
That’s how it was that the Pigsty Hill Light Orchestra came to record the first and eighth LPs to appear under the aegis of Village Thing Records. Kevin and I exchanged regretful letters. He was kind enough to say that he’d wanted to record the Piggies because of the songs I was writing and perhaps I should contact him again if I was ever doing anything of interest.
By 1975 a lot had changed. I had by then teamed up to work the folk clubs with Pete Finch, another aspiring song-writer, and was also playing clarinet and sax with a couple of Bristolian jazz bands. The aforesaid Bob Stewart had the job of writing and performing music for the Avon Touring Theatre Company. He invited Pete and me to make up a trio with him, giving their shows a stronger backing. The relatively unknown Tony Robinson was one of the actors. The equally unknown Mel Smith directed one of our shows – a musical called “The Godmother”.
While all this was going on, I met and married my future ex-wife, Teri. She too had been singing folk songs and could belt out a mean Danny Boy. I suggested it would be fun to team her up with two other girl singers I knew from the folk clubs – Angie Masterson and Eiri Thrasher – and recreate some of the Boswell Sisters’ repertoire. (Angie had already been in ‘Pussy’, a folk-based girl trio, whose repertoire included a couple of Boswell Sisters’ tunes.) We recruited local jazzers and set up a fortnightly Sunday lunchtime session in Fanny’s Bar, Weston-Super-Mare. At the first of these the girls sang two songs. At the second, another two were in the repertoire and the first two were more polished. After a couple of months eight songs were up and running, the news was spreading and Radio Bristol’s Roger Bennett fixed for the fledgling Sweet Substitute to make a live half-hour broadcast on the 15th January 1976. For this the backing was just two guitars and bass, and I was careful to have a recording made.
Remembering Kevin’s suggestion from four years back, I sent him two cassette tapes – one being the material I’d been performing with Pete Finch, and the other the Sweet Substitute broadcast. Of course, it was the latter that he picked up on. In May 1976 The Yetties were about to record a live album in Yetminster, Dorset. At Kevin’s invitation the girls and backing band drove down from Bristol one sunny day to record a demo tape while Argo had their equipment set up in the village hall. The upshot was that the vocal trio passed this audition, but the under-rehearsed backing band didn’t.
A contract was offered – to our surprise, not with Argo, but with the parent company Decca. I was included as ‘musical director’ along with the three girls. Dates were set for the recording sessions at Decca’s no 4 Studio, and I provided chord charts and cassettes of our rehearsals for the preparation of more complete backings. These were passed on to Keith Nichols and Alan Cohen. Kevin gave us a copy of the LP on which they’d recently backed Bing Crosby, so we knew we were in capable hands. I was also aware of their earlier work, having enjoyed the TV broadcast of the New Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
A crisis ensued when Eiri’s husband Frank – a geologist – was moved by his employers to a better job up north. We had to find a replacement in a hurry as the recording date was already fixed. Our spirits sank as several possible candidates proved unsuitable. There was a brief but illusory moment of relief when it appeared that Eiri might not be leaving after all. Eventually somebody suggested Chris Staples (née Christine Price). She had recorded with the Avon Cities Jazz Band in 1962 under the name of Chris Marlowe, and also used the stage name Sammi Browne. She turned out to have the ideal voice, personality and head for harmonies. I mention all this as, throughout the crisis, Kevin remained calm and supportive, seeming to have no doubt that we’d be able to surmount the problem.
On the day of the first recording session at 106 Tollington Park, Finsbury, we were astonished to find no fewer than twenty-six session musicians (big band plus strings) setting up to play the six arrangements contributed by Alan Cohen, many of whom were quite famous. The control room was thick with cigarette smoke, of course. Angie Masterson in particular could keep up with Kevin, cloud for cloud. He generously made sure that there was also a crate of lager at the back of the control room to keep everybody happy.
During the playback, as we listened to the string section sawing away, Kevin was rocking to and fro in his seat with a beatific grin, rubbing his his hands together. “This is costing money!” he crowed.
The next sessions were less lavish but still exciting. Keith Nichols’s arrangements were played by a sixteen-piece band, followed by some numbers with a swing quintet and one track (Heebie Jeebies) with just Keith’s solo piano. For the record sleeve, Kevin made up names for the various line-ups – in reverse order: ‘the Quintet of the Hot Club of Tollington Park’, ‘Keith Nichols and his Paramount Broadcasters’ and ‘Alan Cohen & his Midnite Follies Orchestra’. As far as I know the latter was the first instance where that famous band worked under its now familiar name. Incidentally, when they subsequently needed smart music desks for stage work, Kevin’s silk-screening skills came in handy. Some rock music tracks were also recorded and included on a test pressing, later to be rejected as out of keeping with the mainly vintage material. My only reservation about the finished LP concerned the incongruous theatre organ chorus which Kevin dubbed into the opening track. We found out after the event that Ronald Curtis the organist (whom we never met) was Kevin’s cousin.
After the sessions, the pads of band parts were loaded into my arms and I became de-facto Sweet Substitute’s band librarian as well as the roadie. Kevin’s continuing faith in the project was reflected by the title he chose for our album – Something Special, and then further vindicated by its immediate selection on release as a Radio 2 ‘Album of the Week’. This ensured plenty of airplay. For a tour with the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, Syd himself augmented some of our studio arrangements. The extra trumpet, trombone and sax parts were prepared in his distinctive writing – all in red ink with the crotchets back to front.
The Decca management were insisting we should have proper management. I had assumed I might continue in this role, but those in charge were probably right in having grander ideas. Kevin patiently travelled around with us in my band transit meeting possible candidates. These included Dave Forester and Jack Higgins, but in the end an agreement was struck with David Curtis, already manager of the Pasadena Roof Orchestra. An immediate benefit was a trip to Hamburg in July ’77 to record three tracks for the PRO’s LP The Show Must Go On.
We were impressed by Kevin’s patience and perfectionism at the recording desk. In addition, aware that an LP could be ruined at the stage where the signal from the master tapes was transferred to disc, Kevin routinely made a point of taking his tapes to the cutting/pressing plant in person, armed with a bottle of scotch as a reward for extra attentive service from the technician in charge.
Following the earlier success of Feels Good, Feels Right – Decca’s Bing Crosby LP which Kevin had produced in the summer of 1976, a second was planned. It was to feature songs by Noel Coward and the idea of having Crosby accompanied on a track or two by Sweet Substitute had been given the green light. We were given a date and Kevin went ahead and booked the musicians. However, it then emerged that Geoff Milne had omitted to book the studio. The session was rescheduled. On the 14th October 1977 I was working out a vocal arrangement of A Room with a View when the news came through that Crosby had died on that golf course in Spain. I tore up the paper and found something else to do. Nearly!
In the wake of the release of Something Special, Sweet Substitute were offered regular Radio 2 sessions with the Midnite Follies Orchestra and BBC Radio orchestras. The latter included a live broadcast from the Royal Festival Hall, the Radio 2 Festival of Light Entertainment on Saturday the 25th March 1978. Geoff Love conducted, Terry Wogan compered and the other guests were Rolf Harris and Rosemary Clooney (“Can I come in and get nervous with you girls?”) Kevin and I sat in the audience with my wife’s maiden aunts feeling that things were going well.
The trio was in demand for TV work in the UK, Belgium and Sweden. A tour with the Pasadena Roof Orchestra took us to the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, an Amsterdam hotel and UK venues. Decca’s marketing department fixed for Sweet Substitute to tour as second-on-the-bill to organist Klaus Wunderlich who had sold millions of records for them. They trusted me to fix and lead a seven-piece backing band for these gigs. The halls (including the Albert Hall on the 17th April ‘78) were packed, but it became apparent that the populace were turning out to hear the mighty electronically generated tones of Klaus W’s box of tricks. The three voices and our instruments with normal levels of amplification were not generating the excitement we’d become accustomed to in the normal run of concerts and clubs.
For the jobs with BBC Radio orchestras, more of our arrangements needed to be augmented. We were desperately short of cash, so paying for this to be done was out of the question. I decided that with my knowledge of guitar chords and those hours I had spent fighting with the oboe in two school orchestras, I ought to be able to meet this challenge. I bought a couple of books on the subject, a stack of paper and a music pen. Using those pages meticulously written by Keith Nichols, Alan Cohen and Syd Lawrence as a guide, I set about writing more extra parts. The first time I put them in front of real live musicians in a London studio (probably Maida Vale) I was scared stiff. However, it all sounded fine, nobody fell about laughing, and no criticism was offered. I was relieved and elated. Growing into the job invented for me by Kevin I resolved to start writing full arrangements from scratch in future.
There was a growing realisation that Sweet Substitute’s collaboration with the Pasadena Roof Orchestra, while enjoyable and initially profitable was ultimately proving to be more beneficial to them than to us. We amicably agreed with Dave Curtis that Kevin Daly himself should take over the management of Sweet Substitute. This arrangement seemed trouble-free for a while. Our main difficulty at the time was with cash flow, and this was apparently due to more deeply seated difficulties with the Decca management. Our contract required us to record an LP each year for five years. This we duly did. However, there was no clause requiring the company actually to press and release the albums. A few singles were released, initially produced by Kevin, but we waited in vain for the release of our second Decca album. The lack of a current LP caused the radio and TV work to dry up. Much good material presumably remains in Decca’s vaults.
Towards the latter end of our time with Decca, we were required to work with other producers, notably Tony Sadler and Ray Singer. Although Kevin ultimately left the company, once again we agreed to stay in touch. Ironically it was Tony Sadler that gave me my next song-writing opportunity. Suggestions for inappropriate songs to record had been filtering down from the management, notably Marcel Stellman – (Remember the Smurfs?). The need to feed the family prompted me to respond by writing a Christmas song. Tony Sadler added a suitably schmaltzy arrangement and the 45rpm single was pressed. I profited from lots of airplay thanks to Messrs Terry Wogan, Jimmy Young and Pete Murray. Copies of the single eventually dribbled into the shops in February. A couple of years on, the Nolan Sisterscovered my song on the Val Doonican Christmas TV show, so in other circumstances it might have had a chance.
With Kevin heading for Australia, our time with Decca expired. With new management we recorded an LP which was issued on Black Lion in the UK and Aves in Germany. (I’d written three of the songs and a few more of the arrangements). I sent a copy to Kevin and he was gracious enough to say it was “bloody marvellous”. He backed up this opinion by including one of those songs Dear Mr Berkeley on an LP he produced for ABC in Australia – the Ritz Company’s Go Into Your Dance.
While with ABC he was producing a Goons-inspired radio show called Slightly Out To Lunch. Top Sydney musicians were brought together as the ‘Bondi Broadcasters‘, and Kevin’s alter-ego Eli Bickerstaffe starred on ukulele. I’d been writing topical comedy songs in collaboration with Fred Wedlock who’d just had a hit with The Oldest Swinger in Town. After Fred had aired them on Radio 1 in the UK, some of them were recycled by Kevin for Australian consumption. Kevin sent me cassettes of some of the shows, and other tasty offerings such as Kevin Bloody Wilson. We swapped a few band arrangements too, but that, regrettably, was the end of our fruitful collaboration. I miss him and remain grateful for his encouragement, which took my life in some surprising directions. Thanks Kevin!