Tim Whitehead remembers the percussionist Chris Fletcher who passed away at the age of 68 on Thursday 9 July.
The thing about Chris Fletcher was he had a line for every situation-“how are you Chris?” “Straining up under the bear thanks”… “ Chris, the manager says he doesn’t know anything about a gig here” … “What’s new?” “Thanks for that spontaneous expression of indifference….we’re going to take a break now because the drugs are wearing off, but get yourselves a drink. The more you drink, the better we sound” …… “ Thanks for listening to us play tonight. Tim Whitehead on tenor sax…small in stature but hung like a baboon…” ….”If you’re drinking and driving , don’t forget the car” .
Picture a “function” gig in the middle of the Leicestershire countryside, the country seat of Lord Ponsonby Snodgrass and his fifth wife. Lady Snodgrass has requested “Fever” from the band, addressing the bandleader, Chris. We play Fever.
“You give me fever
Fever in the morning
Fever all through the night”
(Chris leaps to his feet from behind the congas, and in the voice of a regimental sergeant major)
The band disintegrates in that slowly inevitable quiet submission to unsuccessfully suppressed mirth , and Lady Ponsonby briefly abandons her conversation with back to the band, detecting some unplanned disturbance in the room, by which point Chris has resumed his seated position behind the congas with an expression of dedicated commitment to the music, only slightly flawed by a sideways glance to the band.
Chris’s journey through life was varied, eventful and at some key points , painful . Rather than somnambulantly stumbling through GCSE’s and A levels, he did the only honourable thing, and joined the merchant navy and saw some of the world in the way that merchant seamen frequently do.
I first met him when Jim Mullen asked me to take Dick Morrissey’s place in the very popular and busy Morrissey-Mullen Band while Dick toured the world with Jon Anderson. His dangerous good looks and abandonment left a vapour trail of adoring women at most gigs, and over time he co-created two families and five children.He was to my observations a volatile mix of loving family man and world adventurer.He never became the boy next door, but he did become a member of The Sun Inn Bowling Club in Barnes later in life.Whenever he called my house and one of my children answered , he presented a very authentic “Donald Duck” voice which was how he principally became known to them.
When my youngest son Fionn was a babe in arms, we were visiting his family home with his partner Kate, and , on being told we were worried about Fionn’s two weeks of constipation, Chris picked him up , held him at eye level, and rehearsed for him with ham dramatic skills the act of passing a motion, and…..guess what?….Fionn did.
Chris had a direct line to me when I was in his company no matter what the circumstances. He could give me one look and I would corpse, and I wasn’t the only one.Once we were playing a private party on a boat on the Thames all day. It was good weather and the entire retinue assembled as far away from the band , who were stuck in the saloon, as possible. As the boat returned to Putney Pier in the late evening, Lady somebody’s daughter , the host, approached Chris and and asked “Would you mind awfully if my friend, who has a marflous marflous voice, could sing some Gershwin (ie “Summertime”) with you?”
A man of formidable stature strode through the saloon, suddenly miraculously rammed shoulder to shoulder with adoring and anticipatory party goers, and introduced himself to us , and in an impeccable Oxford English accent, launched into “ Ha summer, ta-hime, anndd thee hu-living his heezy “ and of course the Fletcher sideways glance was all it took to demolish the band,head down with tears quietly rolling down his cheeks.
Chris graced the work of Jazz players like Ian Carr’s “Conversations with The Blues”, rock and pop bands like Chris Rea, The Beautiful South, fusion bands like Paz and many many more. He was a totally intuitive player who told the engineer to take the click track out of his cans which we were all playing to at Lansdowne Studios, on a large ensemble recording of some music I wrote, he never read a note of a score and rarely put a foot wrong. He used humour to moderate his passion for music and his frequently acutely accurate readings of the hilarious vagaries of human behaviour.To many he was an enigma , I think principally because that’s how he liked to be seen.
I will always thank him for throwing me the many lifelines of perceptive hilarity which cast light on some of my darkest moments.
And I’ll always thank him for inviting me to play solo sax at the funeral of a racing motorcyclist (again in Barnes) in which he orchestrated I think the first example of an entire congregation singing as a finale to the service “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life”.
I’m convinced that wherever he has gone, he will be finding a way to have a good time. I won’t ask you to rest in peace Chris, you’ll be too busy leaving everyone in pieces.
Christopher Jeffrey Fletcher. Born Berlin 1 July 1952. Died Tooting 9 July 2020.