Listening to Ian Whitcomb's show (see previous post) reminds me that, important as my local library may have been in encouraging my listening to music beyond rock and pop (even if it was mainly down to their snooty refusal to stock that kind of thing), I haven't yet discussed the broadcasters who stepped in to ensure that my ears, unlike those of the young Bing Crosby, remained pinned back thereafter.
It never occured to me, or I felt too intimidated, to approach the librarians for advice about the music I was borrowing. More likely the latter: I was around thirteen, fourteen; the assistants, in their early twenties at least, seemed superior and unapproachable. I always felt a vague sense of guilt and shame anyway about the act of borrowing records, as I never did about books: it seemed to be a case of getting something for nothing, a loophole which might be closed any day now so I'd better keep my head down and not attract attention to the goodies which I was regularly sneaking out the door.
Timidity/irrationality apart, it's quite possible the younger librarians had little interest in most of the stock, which seemed to have been chosen by a more senior individual, reflecting his tastes (it had to be a he) growing up in the fifties during the British trad jazz boom to which the Beatles and their ilk later put paid. (John Lennon's pet hates in one of those pop mag questionnaires: "Trad Jazz and thick heads.")
Anyway, borrowing continued unabated but uninformed until my gradual discovery of a handful of radio presenters whose tastes ran to such genres as were condoned by the library. It was then that I began to see how those randomly selected pleasures fitted into a bigger picture, encouraging me to start reading about music as well as listening more widely.
Not that the kind of radio shows I'm talking about simply delivered straight jazz. I had developed a liking for nostalgiac music in general, also fed by whoever filled those shelves. As well as jazz and folk you could borrow music hall LPs, even blues; it was only pop - nasty, raucous pop, and rock'n'roll too brash to hide behind the blues label - which they didn't like.
(Diversion: I actually happened to be listening to Radio One when the Moles, believed to be an alias for the Beatles, were being interviewed. Was it Stuart Henry's show? And were they actually in the studio? If memory serves, we were told they had paper bags over their heads. "so why are you called the Moles?" Henry, or whoever, asked. "Because we're underground," a band member replied. If only I'd had a drum and cymbal to hand ... )
The person I remember most fondly from Radio Clyde and those long-ago seventies nights listening to the radio in bed is Ken Sykora (above and, in younger days, top).
I'm aware now of his distinguished career in music and broadcasting - you can find, here, a myspace page set up by his family with photographs and some examples of his guitar playing; he loved Django Reinhardt and wrote the sleevenotes for a superb Hot Club compilation (below) which I later discovered. The young Paul McCartney listened to his BBC radio programme Guitar Club in the fifties, which also featured Ike Isaacs, who later played with Jake Thackray.
At the time, however, he was - for me - an unknown quantity, although I quickly became aware he possessed an intimacy of manner perfectly suited to late night listening, fostering the illusion that the broadcast was intended solely for you.
The title of his programme, Serendipity with Sykora, allowed him to play whatever he wanted, assuming some chance connection with the previous piece could be found, and the result was a beguiling mixture of novelty songs and jazz, knitted together with odd anecdotes and what came across as an absolute ease in the studio. I really wish I'd taped some of those shows at the time; alas, I have no record of any of them. It felt like a friend was informally guiding you through some records he happened to like, saying whatever came into his head about them or any loosely related matter, wholly at ease.
He was very fond of Peggy Lee but it's the oddities I remember: it was Serendipity which introduced me to Spike Jones and His City Slickers, in particular Cocktails for Two - not too difficult a leap for one brought up on the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band on the telly. Here's a film short where it's acted out:
Some records such as Hoagy Carmichael's version of Barnacle Bill the Sailor straddled the novelty/jazz divide, with Bix Beiderbecke and others blowing wildly between the verses - and Sykora had an eye for the pleasing detail, informing us that the use of a rude word - "I can't swim a bloody stroke" - had caused this to be banned at the time.
I see, by a quick scamper round the net, that the group was formed by Cliff Adams of Sing Something Simple fame. This was a programme symbolic of the old BBC Radio 2 and its predecessor the Light Programme. Sing Something Simple administered a kind of musical valium - parlour songs and pop songs were all remodelled to sound more or less the same. Yet I have to admit I listened to it, on and off, over the years, so I don't know where I'm getting that snooty attitude from. The show remained in the Sunday afternoon schedule for decades until Adams' death, whereupon the whole of Radio 2 seemed to change. I think Cheerful Charlie Chester died around the same time, and his half make-believe 1940s world of people forever being kind to each other and offering unwanted typewriters for free via the programme did not endure for long after that. (These days if it's not new, no one wants to know - even in Britain.)
Yeah, I was just thirteen, you might say I was a
Musical proverbial knee-high
When I heard a couple new-sounding tunes on the tubes
And they blasted me sky-high
And the record man said every one is a yellow Sun
Record from Nashville
And up north there ain't nobody buys them
And I said, but I will ...
I can remember the keen pleasure of the programme, the seemingly endless new (to me) discoveries it contained, but I've no idea how long it ran. I've got a feeling, in fact, that he was shifted to an earlier slot for a programme specifically about the big bands, but have no idea whether this was a matter of choice. I enjoyed that programme, too, although it meant the element of unpredictability which made the Serendipity show so enjoyable was lessened. Oh, and I forgot to mention that, like Ian Whitcomb, he was partial to Hawaiian music too - not to mention the odd bit of double entendre as enjoyed in more recent years by Earl Okin. It strikes me now how artfully assembled his programmes were: those novelties were a way of hooking the casual listener into a programme which, like Ian Whitcomb's, had no artificial musical divisions.
He went on to work in other capacities for Clyde as the obituary on the myspace page says. But what was most important about his programme and those presented by the others who I'll discuss in a later entry was a sense that the music and personality were one and the same - that you didn't wait for one to be over so you could enjoy the other - and that you were happy, above all, simply to spend time in his avuncular company. His sign-off - "From me, Ken, adios" - always seemed personal to you.
To balance out the novelty songs above, an early side from his favourite Peggy Lee, singing with a Benny Goodman small group. I don't specifically recall hearing this on his programme but the sensation I got recently when hearing it on the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs (the choice of Joan Bakewell) felt like a memory of those many serendipitous finds to which he introduced me. Talking of a roughly contemporary recording, a reviewer once compared Lee's voice to "a moon crossing a cloudless sky, silent, steady but oh so hypnotically entrancing." This Rodgers and Hart song has been covered by many artists, including Dion and the Belmonts, but has anyone ever sung it quite like this?
But look, I didn't come here to talk about Jimmy Saville either. Nor one of the Radio One DJs later consigned to the dustbin of history who famously didn't have a record player at home. Rather than rush through this, I'll take a break and come back with more about some other key figures in my education: Hubert Gregg, Benny Green, Russell Davies and Dilly Barlow (left to right, below).
Of this influential quartet, sadly, Hubert Gregg and Benny Green are now dead, and Dilly Barlow is now a much in-demand voiceover artist.
Russell Davies, still broadcasting, inherited Benny Green's radio slot on Sunday afternoon before being shunted to the evening (now Ms. Elaine Paige holds sway in the afternoon presenting a less imaginative but presumably more popular devoted solely to well-known musicals). I wrote to him once, thanking him and, by extension, those others in an unbroken line from Ken Sykora who had helped open this wider world of music for me.
Russell's programme (find information and listen to broadcasts for up to one week on the BBC page here) focuses on the great (mostly) American songbook with an emphasis on singers, rarely playing instrumental versions, so it was pleasing and touching, not long afterwards, to hear him play a Sykora recording by way of his own tribute to a great broadcaster.
You can hear Honeysuckle Rose - nodding to, but not slavishly copying, his beloved Django - at the Ken Sykora myspace page here. Adios, Ken.
Part On: Ian Whitcomb
Part Three: Hubert Gregg
Part Four: Benny Green & Robert Cushman
Part Five: Russell Davies
Part Six: Those Unheard or There is a Balm in Islington