Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page
Sings Songs For Christmas
Pickwick SHM 3015
Standing around four feet nine and looking like a myopic podgy schoolboy attempting desperately to avoid being picked for the football team, Don Estelle was an unlikely looking actor and an even more unlikely looking singer. While he looked ungainly, furtive and bemused, something remarkable happened when he sang, for Don Estelle possessed a truly amazing tenor voice much bigger and smoother than his tiny body seemed capable of producing. His natural speaking voice was a peculiar squeaky Mancunian dialect, but his singing voice produced a deep harmonious and tone perfect range that seemed somehow to emanate from another plane.
Born in 1933 in the Crumpsall area of Manchester, Estelle found his voice when he was evacuated from the city during the Second World War to Darwen, near Blackburn. He became a more than able boy soprano under the tutelage of church musician Sydney Nicholson and when he returned to Manchester he continued his nascent choral career at his local church, eventually graduating to become a fixture on the Northern club circuit.
His big break came through a piece of crafty and opportunistic blagging while working in Manchester as a small bit-part actor alongside Arthur Lowe. After badgering Lowe for advice on breaking into situation comedy, Arthur suggested (somewhat mischievously suggests Jimmy Perry) that Estelle write to David Croft, who was then writing and producing the enduring TV classic Dad’s Army. Estelle was lucky as Croft was looking for a small actor to play a delivery man in the series and Estelle went on to make several appearances in the show. Appearing in a Croft and Perry sitcom meant that an actor instantly became part of their informal repertory company and a part in any new sitcom was fairly guaranteed. A rare piece of job security in an unsure industry. The next show that Croft and Perry conjured up was It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Estelle’s persistence was rewarded by a role that made him a major star.
Initially the role did not look promising. Playing Gunner Lofty Sugden, the role could have been relegated to minor slapstick and background work, but the comedy was set in an army concert party and the chance to demonstrate his remarkable singing voice soon presented itself. Estelle moved instantly from bit part actor to star when a cast album was recorded. A single taken from the album, Whispering Grass recorded with Windsor Davies, was released, becoming an unlikely but absolutely massive number one hit for the pair in June 1975. The British obsession with novelty singles made some unlikely heroes and there were few more unlikely than Don Estelle and Windsor Davies. The duo went on to record the album Sing Lofty which in its various releases sold well over 300,000 copies, a truly spectacular achievement that saw the album become one of EMI’s most successful records of the 1970s.
After It Ain’t Half Hot Mum finished in 1981 Estelle continued acting and singing, recording over a dozen solo albums during the next twenty years and appearing in many TV comedies. Though he never again troubled the charts or enjoyed the dizzy success of Whispering Grass he continued working solidly and determinedly until his death in 2003.
Don Estelle Sings Songs For Christmas was released in 1979 on the Pickwick label, an American imprint that specialised in bargain bin classics and which pursued a lucrative Christmas themed sideline, producing ubiquitous seasonal albums for the likes of Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley and Max Bygraves. All of whom make worthy label mates for the diminutive Don Estelle! The record itself is a standard romp through the classics. All the seasonal boxes are ticked, many times over. Sleigh bells jingle, children trill away in the background and Robert Hartley conducts the soaring Yuletide orchestration. It is an unremarkable album, but the man behind it was truly remarkable. Don Estelle had a voice that inspired awe and respect and for a brief period was a true shining Christmas star. Sing Lofty…
Chevron Records CHVL 113
What do boxers do when they stop boxing? Sadly for most of them the answer seems to be to wait for about ten years, fritter away all the money they earned during their brief and possibly illustrious career, then return to the ring to be brutally battered about the head by hungry young men many years their junior for the promise of a few more paydays before they finally collapse in the corner of the ring, washed-up for one last time, puffing wheezing and gasping as any glories or brain-cells they once had disappear forever.
Very few boxers manage the smooth transition to ex-boxer and if someone as magnificent and powerful a fighter as Mike Tyson can fritter away an estimated $300 million and end his days in a series of failed comebacks and appearances in WWE wrestling bouts what hope is there for mere mortals?
In the UK boxing legends come along so rarely, it seems that when they do the British public take them to their collective hearts, displaying large amounts of genuine affection and warmth for men whose job is ultimately to strip down to the waist and batter another human being until they fall over in an unconscious heap of spit and broken cartilage. Chief among these great pugilistic British heroes is Sir Henry Cooper OBE, a grand sounding title for a former boxer but an indicative measure of the affection he is held in.
Born in 1934 in South London, Henry and his twin brother George were both young amateur boxers, turning professional shortly after the war. Henry showed the most promise and after a series of wins against well-regarded heavyweight title contenders he was given a shot against the young Cassius Clay. Before he became world champion and before he became the legend that was Muhammad Ali, Clay was still a mighty challenge but Cooper managed to knock Clay to the ground with his trademark left hook.
A dazed Clay only managed to continue the fight after being saved by the bell and some underhand skulduggery from his trainer Angelo Dundee. Clay fought back and ultimately a cut above Henry Cooper’s eyes stopped the fight. Clay went on to take the title from Sonny Liston the following year. Cooper had another shot at Ali in 1966, this time for the world title, but another loss meant that was it for Cooper and his dreams of conquering the world. Henry contented himself instead with holding the British and Commonwealth European titles, in itself no mean achievement. A controversial final fight against Joe Bugner in 1971 saw Henry defeated and he made the decision to retire. It can’t have been an easy decision, but Cooper stuck to his word and never boxed in anger again.
So what do you do after a short but glorious career that sees you win the heart of the nation and twice receive the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award? Well for Henry Cooper, salvation came in the unlikely form of a cheap but powerful-smelling aftershave: Brut from the house of Fabergé. Appearing in an endless series of adverts alongside the likes of fellow sporting legends Kevin Keegan and Barry Sheene, Henry would exhort aspirational young men in outrageous orange-hued flared trousers across the UK to ‘splash it all over’ and immerse themselves from head to toe in the powerful and none too subtle aromas of Brut. A generation obeyed him for fear of receiving a savage left hook and by the early 1980s Britain was covered in a great stinky and impenetrable purple cloud, thick with the heady, musky, intoxicating and almost unbreathable aroma of Brut. Even to this day, Christmas stockings in the UK will continue to bulge for dads of a certain age thanks to Henry and his relentless marketing of a cologne that could comfortably mask the stench of a few dozen angry goats.
Indeed on this 1979 recording from Woolworth’s cheapo budget label Chevron, Henry Cooper’s photograph appears ‘by courtesy of Fabergé Inc’ and yes, there on the cover he can be seen clutching a vial of the precious pungent scent, its powerful nostril-destroying odour evident even from a thirty year old photo. The record itself thankfully contains no further references to the ubiquitous male grooming product, but it does contain an awful lot of faux cockney singalong nonsense. Thanks must go to Max Bygraves for pioneering this peculiar form of musical nonsense, but for the uninitiated how best to describe the unique charms of the genre.
Well, basically it is an attempt to recreate the experience of being in a London pub around closing time when someone who can’t in all honesty actually play the piano, and who can remember no more than the first two bars of any song, attempts to entertain a pub full of very drunk people by seizing control of the pub’s out-of-tune piano. Luckily the customers being entertained can normally remember no more than the first few lines of any song and can’t actually sing anyway, so no great lasting harm is ever done. In that sense I suppose the record succeeds. Henry obliges with the first few lines of two dozen (loosely defined) cockney singalong classics, repeating them if necessary should the running time fall short. He can barely sing, that much is evident, but as noted before he doesn’t really need to. It is enough that he sounds authentically cockney and working class, the guy thumping the piano like an enraged ham-fisted Liberace and the close harmony singers swamping Henry’s tuneless ramblings will cover up any mistakes or lulls in proceedings where the record listener may wonder what on earth else they could or should be doing with their time.
To recreate the chirpy party singalong format, the record doesn’t pause or cease until the end of each side. The music comes in a continuous aural assault that is designed to keep a party swinging, hammering home the need for constant fun and amusement on pain of death or assault by pickled eggs. It is therefore quite a laborious task to attempt to isolate a single track from the 24 on offer, but attempt it I have. Here with judicious pruning and subtle use of the fade effect, here is Our ‘Enerey at his most obviously cockney, singing the creaky and ancient Marie Lloyd music hall standard Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way aka My Old Man (Said Follow the Van). Sock it to us Henry!
My Kind of Music
Warwick Records WW 5011
There’s no way of avoiding it really, so you know what, I won’t even try. Bernard Manning was a big fat objectionable racist. So phew, there, that’s that done and out of the way. Bernard Manning was also, as Jonathan Margolis points out in his 1996 biography, ‘offensive, distasteful, insulting, obscene, coarse and vulgar’. And that in a nutshell was the key to his success.
Bernard was an old fashioned portly northern club comic, already anachronistic and in his early 40s when the 1971 ITV series The Comedians catapulted him to national success and widespread public acclaim. He seized the opportunities that the show presented and by 1974 was already swanking around Manchester in a Rolls-Royce complete with personalised number plates (BJM 1 naturally).
And yet that was really the end of Bernard’s comedy career on television. He went on to host The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, an on-screen recreation of a northern club complete with scampi and beer and variety acts, a series which allowed Bernard to indulge his passion for singing easy listening classics in the company of Matt Munro.
Too rude and obnoxious ever to carve out a mainstream TV career, Bernard capitalised on his reputation and his bad-boy image, allowing his lack of exposure to become his selling point. To experience the full onslaught of Bernard Manning would have meant travelling to see him or purchasing his merchandise. Bernard became a very rich man from his exploits on the live scene, packing out theatres and clubs all over the UK (and unbelievably Las Vegas) while all the time running his own ‘World Famous’ Embassy Club in Manchester with his son. He also made a good living from the usual video and album spin offs. Bernard apparently sold 800,000 records in his career and as he himself said, “nobody’s getting their money back.”
TV didn’t really know what to do with Bernard Manning. His popularity with his core audience never really abated and his steadfast refusal to temper his act or tackle less risqué material meant that Bernard Manning remained almost unbroadcastable until the end of his life. He flitted in and out of the TV schedules in small uncomfortable shows that attempted to accommodate his bigotry and spite. For about the last ten years of his life he seemed to appear in endless documentaries which allowed him to sit an armchair in his voluminous underpants. Nice work if you can get it I suppose, but Bernard Manning’s glorious heyday remained the 1970s, a less enlightened time politically perhaps but a great time to be a foul-mouthed northern club comic.
He wasn’t always an anarchic opinionated offensive comedian though. When Bernard Manning finished his National Service in 1950 at the age of 21, he was determined to become a singer. While his ambitions played out he supplemented his income by joining his father in the family greengrocery business. A keen Sinatra fan, Bernard’s first paid gig was at the annual St Clare’s Catholic School dance, for which he was paid a whole £2. Within a year he was appearing at the Oldham Empire billed as ‘Britain’s Newest Singing Thrill’ and receiving a much more wholesome £14 a gig. Inevitably London soon came calling and Bernard relocated to the capital to sing with the Oscar Rabin Band, one of the top musical acts of the time.
Bernard’s first big chance at national stardom was finished before it began though. Due to broadcast on the Light Programme in 1952, the show was cancelled due to the death of George VI. London didn’t agree with the delicate tripe-eating constitution of the resolutely northern singer and travelling back to Manchester each week to court his young fiancée Vera soon took its toll. By the end of 1952 a homesick Bernard returned to Manchester for good, his big break was over and his rare chance to become a nationally acclaimed singer was now gone. He returned to the northern clubs scene, compering in seedy wrestling clubs when he could have been headlining at the Palladium. However, the energetic cut and thrust of compering in such an environment instead was the making of the myth that is Bernard Manning. It allowed him to develop his gritty patter and his hard-edged confrontational comic skills and ultimately become a full-time comedian. The rest as they say is history. History and infamy. And vulgarity.
His 1975 Warwick Records debut My Kind of Music sees Bernard return to the sort of easy-crooning ballads and standards that influenced his early forays into singing. His vocals are strong and boom out pleasingly behind the strings and carefully arranged harmonies of the Mike Sammes singers. Some songs work and some don’t. When no great demands are made of Bernard then he is a perfectly adequate club singer that certainly wouldn’t curdle your lukewarm pint of Lees bitter or cause the chicken in a basket to shrivel. The problem is that when Bernard has to switch down a notch, the subtlety just simply isn’t there. Trying to imagine Bernard Manning being intimate, caring, lovelorn and sincere is hard. And he can’t really pull it off, the voice is grainy and menacing rather than loving. In fact let’s imagine no more. Here to play us out is Lord Bernard Manning with the 1913 McCarthy and Monaco number You Made Me Love You. Given that the famously blacked-up Al Jolson first popularised the song, it’s perhaps fitting that Bernard tackled it…