Sunday, 24 August 2014

Living Legends - the Clark Brothers (event at the V&A, 22nd August)

Went to the V&A on Friday evening to see Steve Clark of dancing duo the Clark Brothers talk about his career in a presentation entitled Living Legends - the Clark Brothers.

I had only become aware of him a few weeks earlier when I was invited by Freddie Davies (autobiography available here, if you're new to this blog) to partake in the "bait" which is customary after a Water Rats meeting. Various Rats, including Chas McDevitt, entertained us after the meal but once that was formally over a slim and elderly man went over to the piano stool lately vacated by Rick Wakeman and proceeded to play a few tunes which had a big impact on me, partly because his playing reminded me of Fats Waller's approach. I talked to him afterwards and was astonished to learn that he'd actually worked with Waller and just about every other jazz great. This was the publicity material for the V&A evening:

Join us for a stellar night with Steve Clark, whose tap dancing career with brother Jimmy spanned eight decades.
They shared the stage with Josephine Baker, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and The Beatles. Steve Clark will give an insight into performing during an era when gangsters controlled the clubs and segregation was commonplace, and fill in some missing chapters within British variety entertainment history.
I thought that meant the evening would be a couple of hours of reminiscence from the man himself, perhaps interspersed with a few film clips, but Mr Clark is in his nineties, and although late on in the proceedings he did play a few songs at a keyboard and took a few questions, it was more about his endorsing emcee Leon Robinson's company Positive Steps, which aims to unlock the potential in younger performers through the inspiration of artists like the Clark Brothers. We saw a short film about the preparation of a musical called Don't Knock - Tap! which had been put on at the Hackney Empire the previous week. (There is a shortened version of the video here.)

We then saw a few choice examples of younger talent in action live, the most impressive of whom was a tap dancer who was working with a keyboard player and had his area - a wooden board - miked up. The tune sounded like Bill Withers' Use Me, or a very close relative, and it was fascinating to watch (and hear) a genuine dialogue as musician and dancer responded delightedly to each other's cues. This, for me, was when the evening really caught alight.

When Steve Clark came on in the second half his appearance was brief but given his age I suppose it was unfair to expect more than that. He did an encore at the very end of the evening but took a while to come in, explaining to us he'd been asleep, or at least resting. But for the few minutes he was onstage then, and earlier, there's no doubt he beguiled the audience. I wish now that I'd asked him if he learnt anything about stagecraft from Fats Waller, such was his ability to capture the whole crowd with a look or a smile.

By the way, the encore piece was Tea for Two - which had been done by Waller - and sounded to my ears as having certain Wallerish, if that's the word, flourishes. There was a great moment during this when a break in the playing seemed to demand a quick burst of dancing; he stood up, did a quick pensioner's shuffle, giving a very good impression of a man who believed he was performing the most intricate of steps, then sat down again and continued playing. This got the requisite laugh and was repeated several times at the appropriate moments in the song. But he'd already been given his applause properly, as it were, when people responded to a film clip of the Clark Brothers in action as though it were happening live - which, in a sense, it was, in a crowded lecture theatre however many decades on.

You can find out more about Leon Robinson's work on the History Spot website here - the page includes a downloadable podcast of a talk he gave in which he describes how he fell into becoming an archivist and the difficulties he experienced in tracking down material about the history of black artists in Britain.

More about Don't Knock - Tap! on the Hackney Empire's website here.

A 2002 Telegraph article here fills in more details about the Clark Brothers' story.

I have ordered a copy of Steve Clark's book Living With Legends, which you can buy via the Water Rats shop here - will report on it when I have read it.

You can hear Fats Waller's version of Tea for Two here.


I have now read Living With Legends. The photographs make it a nice enough souvenir but as a read  it's frustrating if you are expecting more than a summary of the Clark Brothers' career: associations with the greats are not recounted in detail.


A small detail to add. Idly talking to a dance teacher at my place of work a month or so ago, I mentioned the above event, and how impressed I had been with the tap dancer with the miked up board and the keyboard accompanist. It turned out ... ah, you're ahead of me. But it is nice when such moments happen. At Thames TV in the 80s I was attending rehearsals for a sitcom pilot and mentioned to the stage manager my memory of Benny Hill in a fright wig during some Top of the Pops spoof. It turned out that that was the first show she had ever worked on.

Strangest of all, however, has to be a memory of seeing Freddie Davies settle down to a short interview with Hughie Green in July 1968 after a couple of minutes of psittacine mayhem. As a ten year old, seeing Freddie Davies removing his homburg, sitting down and talking as his real self in this public situation seemed extraordinarily intimate; that small boy was astonished to discover himself, 43 sitting in Freddie's Perthshire home, drinking tea and hearing even more intimate revelations from the great clown in preparation for the writing of his autobiography Funny Bones. Which is now available from amazon or direct from the publishers, Leeds-based Scratching Shed.

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