RIP Johnny Keating (1927 – 2015) – with a tribute from Pete Cook

The Edinburgh-born composer/arranger/trombonist and – yes – genius Johnny Keating died on Thursday 28th May at the age of 87, after a long period suffering from dementia. There is a short obituary in the Edinburgh Evening News, and a longer piece in the Scotsman.

His arrangements for the Ted Heath Band were masterful, and continue to be widely played by big bands. He reached wider public renown as the composer of the theme tune for Z Cars and for his arrangement of Aram Khachaturian which was the theme music for The Onedin Line

UPDATE: Saxophonist/ bandleader Pete Cook has written this tribute Pete writes:

It was with great sadness that I learnt this week of the death of Johnny Keating. Our lives crossed, albeit relatively briefly, a while ago but hindsight reveals that it was, for me, an experience to be treasured.

Around the early 2000s I was running a 1950s-West-Coast-style septet that grew out of a writing project I had embarked upon. We played a once-a-month Sunday lunchtime gig at the Bull’s Head in Barnes which, over time, began to attract local musicians. I remember one Sunday being told that Johnny Keating had been coaxed out to hear us, and that it was no mean feat as he was fairly reclusive at the time. On being introduced to John, I found him to be encouraging and complimentary, but what struck me most was his obvious passion for music.

We became quite friendly and I spent many a long afternoon at John’s Notting Hill flat chatting about his life, career, and mostly about music in general. To say I learnt a lot in the process would be something of an understatement. His interest in and enthusiasm for music bordered on the boyish, (and that’s contagious!). John offered me some great common-sense advice about arranging like, for instance, “never reharmonise for the sake of it – those songwriters were masters – use nice colours on the existing chords first”. I also got to see the exhaustive treatise on the art of songwriting. I don’t know if this was ever published, but I know the musical world has missed out if it wasn’t.

I once asked John if I could study with him. He didn’t initially seem particularly enthused by the idea, saying “You know what you’re doing, Son”. Eventually though, he caved in and said, “Ok, bring some scores next time you’re round – we’ll have a look at a few things”. That I never did is one of my largest regrets in life. I did, however, do some copying for John’s 75th birthday concert, for which he provided me not only with scores, but also recordings. It was in doing this work that his true genius and flawless craftsmanship was revealed to me. So I suppose I did study with John after a fashion. (Tommy Dorsey once told a disgruntled trombonist, “ Every time you do a gig with me, you get a free trombone lesson”).

I rather got the impression that John’s genius was somehow fuelled by brinkmanship. He once revealed to me (between giggles) just how many charts remained unwritten a mere 24 hours before a Heath band recording session. I suspect this to be absolutely true because – quite unconnected – somebody once told me they’d been part of a team of copyists John had used, who sat up all night working on the parts. I also suspect that he had all the charts already written in his head, but just hadn’t got round to putting pen to paper. I was told another tale by someone who claimed to have driven John to a session with John writing the score in the passenger seat, and passing each completed page to his wife who was copying parts (in pen and ink!) on the rear parcel shelf. Apocryphal maybe, but what impresses is that he never turned out anything substandard. That I still play Johnny Keating charts regularly when I dep around a couple of West London rehearsal bands is testament to the quality and staying power of his work.

I found Johnny Keating to be a genial, generous and modest man. After hearing what is probably the slickest key-change I’ve ever heard in one of his Caterina Valente arrangements, I accused John of being a genius. He chuckled heartily, and then said, “I know!”

Thanks for everything John.

Pete Cook, June 2015.

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. I'm sorry to hear about Johnny Keating's late decline and now his passing. I've admired his work for years, seeking out his soundtracks such as Robbery, his work with singers including Caterina Valente and his arrangements for Ted Heath — not to mention his own big band recordings on Decca, featuring the likes of Tubby Hayes.

  2. There will be a comment from me,in next Month's Union Jack Newspaper,about our friendship from 1932.I visited John (I never called him Johnny),in Chiswick Hospital, a few years ago,but he didn't recognize me,there is no doubt in my mind that he was a Genius.Jim McDonald.

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