Andy Shaw recalls working with a showbiz legend…
More than several, but fewer than many years ago, I harboured an aspiration to be ‘The World’s Greatest Drummer’. Inspired by growing up in household filled with musicians, the clincher was an exposure to the incredible drumming of Buddy Rich, encountered when I was circa twelve. With a superhuman zeal, I threw myself into lessons and intense practice, interrupted only by the occasional crack of small arms fire as our neighbours committed suicide.
This dedicated regime, fuelled by an immense passion, continued for almost eleven months until it was superseded by a new calling : an evident wish to be ‘The World’s Greatest Drunkard’ (I’d also been enthusiastically taking lessons for this around Northampton and with a healthy income from playing drums I was able to accelerate the process) . As one should know: “never drink on an empty head”. Sadly, serious drumming fell by the wayside, although reckless playing continued for some time.
In those early years, the later 1970s, I was fortunate to meet the now legendary ‘Uncle Eric’ (a contributor to these pages), who invited me to play with his ‘Red Hot Rhythm Orchestra’ – a band renowned for its punctuality, decorum and attention to detail. This was, for me, a rare time of great pleasure and also opened my tiny mind to many things i.e. politics, the laxative power of curry, not all farts are harmless, that it was ‘different in the 70s’ etc etc.
There’s not room here to explore the wonders of the ‘RHRO’; the point here is that, in 1978, three ‘RHRO’ members – Martin Winning (sax), Terry Smith (guitar) and myself, plus Northampton trumpet player, the late ‘Wogga’ Warren (our Spiritual Leader) and two other chaps from elsewhere (Barnsley and San Francisco), found ourselves employed as the ‘Pit Orchestra’ at Premier Holiday Destination, Butlins, Pwllheli, North Wales, for eighteen rain soaked weeks at the height of the Welsh Nationalist protests.
Lulu’s drummer told me that he’d had this seasonal experience earlier in his career and only survived thanks to prescribed medication.
9,500, mainly Scousers, descended on the down-at-heel camp each week. Most of the live-in staff were also from Scouserbury. We were all crammed into an outlying accommodation block with two baths for 200 staff with tiled bathroom floors that sank two inches when stepped on, forcing up a glutinous black/green liquid in challenge to our bath time Dettol. Most of the electronic ‘amusements’ didn’t work, and there was a threadbare patch of earth and donkey excrement: ‘The Gaiety Green’.
The rule was two staff members per chalet. I was regularly awoken by a small, Liverpudlian, toothless, unbelievably chirpy cleaning lady, around 8.00am. Her approach was to rip back the bedclothes, regardless of the depth and extent of my sleep, exhaustion (or nudiness), and drag a heavy bunch of keys, the length of a boa constrictor, across my body, leaving me trembling and traumatised, never gratified – leastways, in the beginning.
We played with a lot of the names working the cabaret circuit at the time and the greatest honour, the crowning glory, the greatest joy, came when, on three occasions, we took to the stage of the 1200 seater Spanish Cabaret Bar on the camp with the unique comic genius that is Ken Dodd; I refuse to say ‘was’ – his legacy will live on through comedians of every stripe and, of course, the public for many years to come.
A Son of Liverpool, the news Doddy was coming to Pwllheli caused a huge wave of excitement, especiallyamongst the scousers. I’ve never witnessed such love and respect. Bear in mind that this was a time when prototype ‘alternative’ comics were emerging and the political/media focus was rapidly becoming the country’s ‘Yoof’, which made this outpouring of excitement and anticipation even more remarkable.
Came the day, and Doddy arrived at Stalag Pwllheli with his long time, and now sadly deceased, M.D., Stan – a lovely, unflappable bloke who immediately put us at our ease. We went through the parts for the two songs Ken would sing at the obligatory band call; one was, inevitably, ‘Happiness’, to be sung near the start of his act. We retired to the bar satisfied all was well.
Martin Winning, the aforementioned sax player in that long ago band, who went on to do amazing things immediately after that season, working with, among many others, Van Morrison, Al Green, Ray Charles, Georgie Fame, Nick Lowe, Tina Turner, Suggs etc. was usually impeccable. That night, however, when Doddy took the stage to a packed room and shortly launched into ‘Happiness’, the sound was shockingly hideous..hideous like experimental jazz!
That tinker, Martin, was trying to play the flute part on his tenor sax! Doddy stopped the band, made a joke about Mart playing with his flies, and carried on as if nothing had happened and, most unusually and importantly, without resorting to cruel, cheap laughs at Mart’s expense. This was the wonder of Doddy.
The huge audience that night, and every other time we worked with him, comprised people of every age, persuasion, gender and every taste etc. Doddy’s uniqueness was in never needing to resort to politics, slights at others, and sexual content. Behind him onstage, we watched incredulously as he took control of every member of that audience, working them up to pitches of hysterical laughter, whereby we fully expected a need for the camp doctor (not a ‘camp doctor’ but the… y’know..), once the heart attacks started occurring, only to gently bring them down and start the process all over again. One man, a master of what the universal fundament of comedy really is, and an audience grateful to have their ‘chuckle muscles’ stimulated, without any guilt that the laughter came at another’s expense, disparate people laughing as one at one man who possessed genuine respect and love of his roots and gave more for his city and us than could be reasonably expected, including value for money – all you hear about his marathon appearances is true. Imagine asking comics of any period to keep the audience in fits an hour and a half longer than planned.
Because, of our divergent lives, I hadn’t had the opportunity to really sit and spend time with Martin since those days, until a few weeks ago when we played a Django set at The Pomfret Arms, Northampton, with the wonderful guitarist John Wheatcroft. Inevitably, conversation touched on those days and Doddy and the flute part incident. A couple of days later Ken Dodd’s death was announced. I admit that what I felt was only a little sadness. Doddy was a man who lived, and worked at, his life in exactly the way he envisaged. Possessed with the gift of genuine humanity and great energy and talent, he, at the risk of sounding mawkish, gave us the best and most powerful medicine known to man for over six decades.
I can almost sense the void that remains.
More ‘sadness’ was felt on my part at Jim Bowen’s death: Jim was the first cabaret I ever worked with at the defunct ‘Chimes’ in Kingsthorpe and he was also a very funny man with unexpected facets and depths.
It’s unrealistic to expect that impactual experiences, when described, will resonate with others and, in any case, we inhabit a largely cynical, blasé, selfish world that is in the business of undermining beauty and honesty in anything, it seems. With Doddy, I feel on safe and secure ground, clear that, in all the years, I’ve never heard anyone rubbish him, especially a scouser. That’s something, if nothing else, to marvel at and aspire to.