Book reviews

Andrew Willox and Eileen Mann – ‘I Think We Have a Find: A Biography of Roy Willox’

Andrew Willox and Eileen Mann – I Think We Have a Find: A Biography of Roy Willox (Self-published, 2020. Review by Simon Spillett) Biographies of musicians – of any style – have a marked tendency to play up the lurid and the sensational. After all, controversy sells. Just ask any tabloid editor. What then are we to make of a musical life story that is littered not with attention-grabbing high-jinks, endless tales of substance abuse and forensically detailed accounts of wild debauchery but with sober words like ‘professionalism’, ‘modesty’ and ‘discipline’. Indeed, this even begs the question whether you can actually create a book centred upon such things? Or moreover, whether such a book might get lost in the shuffle of hyped-up celeb biographies and the like, however deserving its subject. In intent I Think We Have a Find is a lovingly assembled ‘tribute’ to the late Roy Willox, a multi-reed playing musician who was a mainstay of the British big band and recording session world for an incredible 70-plus years up until his death in late 2019. Collated by Willox’s son Andrew and close family friend Eileen Mann, it’s actually less ‘biography’ than an informal collection of anecdotes, press clippings, candid photographs and assorted memorabilia; a sort of scrapbook not only of Willox’s life but of a whole era of music-making that is fast disappearing into the rear-view mirror of history. Some of the source material is taken from existing work, some from direct interviews with those who knew and worked with the saxophonist, and if the production values and text won’t win prizes for either logic or grammatical flow it matters not. This is not a book to be nit-picked at, literary critic-style. In some senses, Willox emerges from its pages an sort of Everyman of the musical world through which he walked all his adult life – he played on literally thousands of recordings with everyone from Benny Goodman to Benny Hill. However, what lifts him above many other such players was, ironically, the very same thing that might have made him appear a tad anonymous to the uninformed. The session scene, as anyone with only a small insight into its politicised machinations can tell you, could be a merciless mistress. Its cast includes gate guards, bullies, hard-as-nail ‘characters’ and more than a share of big heads. Willox was none of these. In fact, the recollection of another sessioner, the guitarist Mitch Dalton – “he never displayed any ego, was conscientious and super-reliable” – seems the perfect summary for a player legendary for never making a mistake, musical or otherwise. Willox also never made an enemy. Young players and old hands were treated as equals (a rare stance among a generation that were often needlessly wary of new blood) – provided they were made of the right stuff, naturally. He wasn’t above making the occasional criticism though, these knowing observations informed by decades of operating at the very highest level. It even earned him a nickname, bestowed on him by the wild-haired trumpeter Stan Roderick, another one-time session king: The Policeman, which got corrupted into the Village Policeman and eventually the Village Bobby. Although a tailor made-fit for Willox’ dour, unemotional mien, the moniker actually referred to his knack of tactfully handling things when they got out of hand. Sloppy playing would be dealt with quietly and without ceremony and he would discreetly offer titbits of fatherly-styled advise to newbies who were living it a little too large. “Far too much, far too soon,” was his gentle prick of the conscience delivered to one young player. Nor would he stand for any disrespect of those he knew had given greatly to the music. In the late 1960s, it was fashionable for a new breed of young players to ridicule his former boss, the industry titan Ted Heath, not simply because Heath was artistically old-hat but because he was visibly gripped by mental decline. Willox would have none of it. “I never heard him say a bad word about other musicians,” observes fellow saxophonist Pete Ripper, a reminder of Willox’s gentlemanly, old-school codes of conduct. In his dotage, Roy Willox was much loved and treasured, garnering another witty handle, ‘Cannonball Elderly’, and seeing out his musical days playing in several parochial big bands that had far less starry prospects than those in which he’d made his name. This mattered not. All that counted was doing a good job, whatever the setting. And it is the sheer variety of these settings that is perhaps the most impressive aspect of this book. Chronologically, Willox bestrides an enormous swathe of jazz and popular-music culture in the UK. He began his career in his teens after lessons with a man who was in many ways his musical forefather, the great altoist Harry Hayes, whose assessment of Willox the boy-wonder saxophonist provides the book with its title. From then on there were significant stays in several of the major working dance bands of the post-war era – Ted Heath, Geraldo, Jack Parnell, the BBC Revue Orchestra – and, as he’d recall with delight, that of one pre-war giant, Henry Hall. Added to this his ‘session’ work was a far-ranging as it comes – playing on recordings by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Kate Bush, and – retro UK culture vultures, please note – on the soundtracks to TV shows including Thunderbirds, That Was The Week That Was, Dr Who and Last of The Summer Wine. Willox’s faultless executive skills in these ‘time-is-money’ pressured studio conditions were legendary. Not for nothing did Hollywood score legend John Williams ask for him by name when assembling the orchestra to record the Harry Potter movie soundtracks, a rare honour in the sometimes unseen and anonymous world of film music. The words of one of those who contracted Roy to play on his albums – Larry Page – are an apposite summary of his abilities in this discipline. “He will be reading a newspaper while you’re counting in, and the minute you count in he’ll blow. He’s one of the very few people who can do it.” Page wasn’t offering glad-handing praise. Indeed, this is a book full of such testimony – from fellow sessioneers like Tony Fisher, Pete Ripper, Pete Long and Dave Bishop, to name only a few. But what does it reveal of exactly how Willox reached this level of excellence? The answer is very little, although this is through no fault of the co-authors. Willox it seems was a man of few words where his own playing was concerned. In one telling passage, Pete Long recalls a conversation in which the older man told him music was “something he could always do”, a statement that is evidently as factually accurate as it is succinct. And although he was by no means immune from the plague of self-doubt that spares no musician of any worth (“I was never my greatest admirer – I couldn’t listen to myself”) he’d always prided himself on his ability. One of the book’s most delightful moments comes when the school-aged Willox is being upbraided by an especially censorious teacher, offering caution on the fiscal vagaries of life with the local dance band. “I’ll be earning more in my first week than you do now,” came the young saxophonist’s reply.

Roy Willox and Tubby Hayes, unknown London studio, circa. 1966. Picture from Simon Spillett’s collection

As someone who’s long appreciated Roy Willox’s skills as a jazz alto saxophonist it’s perhaps a shade disappointing to find so little in the book about this side of his world-class talents. However, it is noted that Tubby Hayes once offered a lovely compliment to Willox, saying he “should have been a jazz player”. What Hayes meant, I suspect, is that a player able to ‘turn on’ such improvisational creativity, as indeed Hayes himself could, shouldn’t have allowed the studio to be his sole musical outlet. Late in life, Willox did venture out into the jazz scene per se, as a member of the ‘Best of British Jazz’ outfit featuring fellow session luminaries trumpeter Kenny Baker and trombonist Don Lusher. “They think I can play a bit,” was the altoist’s own characteristically modest assessment as to why he’d been chosen for the role. A sample discography at the close of the book give more than ample evidence of the catholic breadth of Willox’s recorded legacy, although much of his finest work went unaccredited (pick up virtually anything recorded at West Hampstead’s Decca Studios in the 1960s – with artists ranging from Caterina Valente to Johnny Keating -– and you can bet your life that those soaring alto solos belong to RW). Asked to pick his own favourite among this colossal oeuvre Willox picked a piece with the Larry Page Orchestra. The track that several others single out within the book, though, is Eloquence, a Keating-penned feature from his days with Ted Heath. In many ways, this performance is a summary of Willox both as a musician and a man: immaculate, contained, full of attention to detail, modestly presented by utterly convincing. Eloquent indeed. And it’s these qualities that colour the pages of this book, an unashamedly nostalgic parcel of Polaroids, professionalism and past times. The rear jacket précis pulls no punches in its aim to “explain to a younger generation just how busy, demanding, inspiring and sometimes brutal” was the life of musicians of Willox’s school. In fact, one of the victories this book scores is especially timely. The authors freely admit that it was a product of the recent ‘lockdown’ prompted by the COVID-19 crisis and arriving via this stimulus, and at a time when the societal and cultural role of musicians has never been more hotly debated, it is a reminder of how so much of what we take for granted – soundtrack music for film and TV, albums by big stars with orchestral accompaniment, even things like Strictly Come Dancing – are both unthinkable and moreover untenable without instrumentalists of the same executive skill level as Roy Willox. He’d certainly have had a thing or two to say about ‘viability’. An exemplar of his craft, modest and very human, Willox himself emerges from these pages as a man of genuine substance. Once, when asked what he might have been had he not been a musician, he replied that he’d have enjoyed being a groundskeeper. Indeed, one can almost imagine him as such, keeping borders trim and autumnal leaves neatly swept, in much the same way he made orderly work of the constant demands of the manuscript set before him. But as this book makes clear, Roy Willox was born to play music and play it at the very highest level. I Think We Have A Find: A Biography of Roy Willox by Andrew Willox and Eileen Mann is available directly from its authors. Email [awillox] at [skymesh] dot [com] dot [au] LINK: Sebastian’s tribute to Roy Willox from November 2019

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  1. If you are a student of jazz and big band music this book will be a very welcome addition to your library. It is not only an admirable account of the life of a brilliant musician, but also a nostalgic memoir of the times during which he worked – and the areas of music that were his focus. One of those areas is unlikely ever to come again – Roy Willox was a top performer in the competitive and highly demanding environment of the ‘session’ musician in the halcyon days of the British film, radio, TV and recording industries during the 50’s 60’s and 70’s.
    These years saw a huge output of comedy, variety and sitcom productions from all the major UK TV channels. And also, there were lots of music shows on television, all of them featuring highly popular singers like Dusty Springflield, Val Doonican , Cilla Black and Englebert Humperdinck , legendary solo musicians such as pianist Erroll Garner – and British beat groups which the whole world wanted to hear, including ‘The Beatles’ ‘The Searchers’ and ‘The Kinks’.
    This dynamic world of TV shows created a massive demand for experienced musicians- in particular jazz and big band swing specialists – who were needed to back top vocal talent in music and variety spectaculars, in addition to providing exciting intros and musical links for shows like ’The Generation Game’, and ‘Sunday Night At The London Palladium’. The latter used Jack Parnell’s TV Orchestra to back top line acts from Britain and America, which featured on the show in droves. Jack played drums in the Ted Heath Band between 1945 and 1951, and his TV Orchestra included many other ex-Ted Heath musicians – including Roy Willox.
    Aside from TV work, musicians of Roy’s calibre were also much in demand from the BBC for its house orchestras which were extensively used in radio comedy shows like ‘Take It From Here’ ‘Beyond Our Ken’ and ‘Ray’s A Laugh’. Loads more work flowed from the record companies. Since the development of LP’s in the early 50’s, the recording industry boomed and albums proliferated.
    The ’session men’ could work all day, starting at an early hour with a recording date for a jingle – another booming industry following the introduction of commercial TV in 1955. The rest of the day could include backing Shirley Bassey for an album one minute and moving on to BBC TV centre the next, for a music special with Tony Bennett. It was a tough call, but of course very well paid. It was also an exhilarating musical environment and this comes out very strongly in Roy Willox’s biography, meticulously researched and written with loving care by his son Andrew and a long time family friend Eileen Mann. The title stems from a comment from one of Roy’s early tutors, another British saxophone great, Harry Hayes.
    ‘I Think We Have A Find’ proved prophetic – Roy went on to play with the Ted Heath Band in 1950 – the job every ambitious British instrumentalist coveted at the time. His elegant and inspirational solos were featured on early Ted Heath 78’s and later long playing albums recorded at the famous Swing Sessions at the London Palladium. Moving on to Geraldo and the BBC Revue Orchestra, he ultimately concentrated on studio work. Top jazz players like Tubby Hayes recognised Roy’s undoubted jazz skills and regretted he had not focused on that genre full time.
    The mega talent of musical high fliers like Roy Willox was their ability to play great jazz in tandem with the capacity to sight read complex arrangements. They were not only impeccable section players, but also highly original soloists. Ted Heath recordings feature Roy Willox on unforgettable tracks playing soprano as well as alto sax . He also mastered the flute – instrumental versatility was another invaluable capability which the top session players were required to provide. Roy was much sought after by British musical directors and also by visiting blue chip American MD’s, including Henry Mancini and John Williams.
    If you can recall the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, Roy’s biography will take you back in time and remind you what wonderful musical years they were, and what a stimulating outlet they provided for outstanding musicians. Things have changed today and it is unlikely that the music business will generate successors with an inventory of skills as impressive as Roy Willox. TV variety shows have gone, lush musical productions have gone, the prolific output of TV comedy shows have gone – including memorable classics like ‘Last of the Summer Wine’, which Roy worked on for many years.
    As the public taste moved away from the big bands in the 60’s, British TV entered a golden age in the 70’s and 80’s under the masterful watch of Bill Cotton. The top session men of the 60’s were in demand for iconic TV productions such as ‘The Morecambe And Wise Show’. ‘The Two Ronnies’ and ‘Parkinson’.
    And while popular demand for the beat groups was ceaseless, big band swing became a permanent musical genre and still generated a substantial audience. Jack Parnell’s TV orchestra had their own show, playing all the great hits from the big band era. Roy Willox and other former Ted Heath men could be seen in every section. Roy also joined up with the newer names on the big band scene – including Len Phillips , Chris Smith, Dick Esmond, Kenny Martyn, Chris Dean – and former Ted Heath staff arranger, Johnny Keating.
    During the 70’s 80’s and 90’s some of the big bands of the swing era re-formed under new leadership, and Roy was much sought after by all of them – including the Ted Heath Band led by Don Lusher and later Chris Dean, the new Bert Kaempfert Orchestra led by trumpeter Tony Fisher and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra, which re created the sound of Glenn Miller. Roy was in the new Ted Heath band in their Farewell Concert at the Royal Festival in 2000. The audience was thrilled when he resurrected his powerful solo on Johnny Keating’s ‘Eloquence’, a classic inclusion in Ted Heath’s 89th London Palladium Sunday Concert on 12th April 1953.
    2004 saw Roy playing first clarinet in the soundtrack of’Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’. His presence had been specifically requested by John Williams. A career which stretched from the big band world of the 50’s to the world of Harry Potter in the next century was a reflection of his talent, reliability and most importantly, his ability to move with the times. One of his favourite compositions was ‘Lovely Day’, composed by Bill Withers in 1977, a long way from Roy’s debut in the music business in the early 50’s.
    Many musicians resented the changes in popular music over the past fifty years – lamenting in particular the advance of younger musicians, many of whom had a musical pedigree in the beat groups which proliferated in the 60’s and after. Roy respected new talent and fine tuned his performance in keeping with changing trends in music, and the work of the composers with a rock background – including Lennon & McCartney, Billy Joel and Elton John.
    Roy’s illustrious career continued well into the 21st century. He played on cruises with the highly successful group ‘The Best of British Jazz’ which took him to St Petersberg, the Mediterranean, the Carribbean, Los Angeles, Majorca and through the Panama Canal. In ‘The Best of British Jazz’ he played alongside other ex Ted Heath sidemen – trumpeter Kenny Baker, trombonist Don Lusher and drummers Jack Parnell and Ronnie Verrell.
    A wonderful work of reference, Andrew and Eileen’s book details the large numbers of the big bands, orchestras, vocalists and instrumentalists that Roy worked with from the 50’s to the 90’s and beyond. The formidable list of the artists he worked with includes Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Ted Heath, Michel Legrand, Robert Farnon, George Shearing, Frank Sinatra, Dudley Moore, Harry Nilsson, Oscar Peterson, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, Georgie Fame, Harry South, Humphrey Lyttelton, Don Lusher, Sacha Distel, Laurie Holloway, Annie Ross, Larry Adler, Billy Eckstine, Harry James, Count Basie, and the London Philharmonic.
    The book is also worth its weight in gold for its profuse number of superb colour illustrations, a comprehensive discography, and many historical photographs and stories taken from Roy’s early career in the 50’s. Roy was a perfectionst – an enviable status to which another legendary alto saxist, the great Charlie Parker, also aspired. But regrettably Charlie got into drugs, as did many of Roy’s contemporaries in Britain, including highly talented jazzmen like multi instrumentalist Tubby Hayes, drummer Phil Seamen and guitarist Dave Goldberg.
    Roy achieved perfection without resorting to stimulants. His personality clearly resembled the ordinary polite and friendly guy you would like to have living next door to you. He never had a bad word about fellow musicians and all of them said he was wonderful to work with. Like many giant talents he was delightfully modest. He described his outstanding musical career as ‘something I could do’. I think most of us would put it much more strongly than that!
    ‘I Think We Have A Find’ is a remarkable book about a remarkable man. It is also a historical document of great significance – very rewarding reading, not to mention re reading.

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