STRICT TEMPO – THE REAL DEAL
Written by Ray Turner for the British Columbia Music Magazine in July 2006.
One of the events promoted by Kelowna’s “Parks Alive” last summer was “Swinging in the Park.” Viewed from the grassy slopes of Waterfront Park, the concert featured a bouncy swing band from Calgary called “The Real Deal.” The program was promoted as being music from the thirties and forties but it was hardly the thirties and forties that I remember, more like the sixties and seventies. What made it acceptable, judging from the tapping toes and presence of a number of jive and swing dancers, was that it had the solid beat necessary for dancing. Rock-steady drumming and electric bass notes were right on the money. Interestingly, the crowd was somewhat unresponsive until the band played a particular Frank Sinatra hit. Only then did they take to the dance floor. As I listened–and pardon my nostalgia–the evening sparked memories of music that was all around me as a kid in wartime England.
Nineteen forty something. Swing had arrived. We learned that from the the one-and- only radio service, the British Broadcasting Corporation. Normally snobbish and stuffy, playing classical music, the BBC was suddenly making dance music popular. My parents, aunts and uncles, listened to the radio for entertainment. Plus, they went to dances at the Hammersmith Palais or other ballrooms where live bands played the popular tunes of the day. That is, if the dance hall had not been bombed or, as the war ended, converted into a cinema.
The music had to be strict tempo. Anything less would not do because every dance had its identifiable rhythm: foxtrot, quickstep, waltz, rumba, tango . . . and the rest. Dance orchestras of all shapes and sizes were churning out music. Bands and musicians were judged by their ability to keep right-on-the-beat time. The bass line was played by a double bass, baritone sax or tuba. The baton in the hands of the leader was always in view ensuring that vocalists and soloists did not stray far from the melody. Improvisation and showboating were frowned upon because the requirement in dance music is that the beat be more important than tuneliness; dancers will tolerate a bum note here and there, but heads and bodies jerk en masse if the tempo is interrupted even slightly. Today, those who organize events for ballroom dancers prefer recorded music to live, saying the live bands do not keep good time. Too bad.
There was always music in our house. My mother played the piano by ear and could play all the popular songs. She had learned by listening to her father, also an ear player. Pop was a signalman on the railway using his feet and arms to change heavy signals. Maybe that helped his percussive style of piano-playing. He would attack the piano in the front room and play rousing renditions of “Over The Waves” and other patriotic English songs with lots of loud pedal movement and foot stomping. There were a few clean- looking sheets of music inside the piano stool but these were mostly remnants of failed music lessons. My uncle had played the saxophone, but I was not allowed to visit him other than from an open doorway because he was dying from tuberculosis. My mother insisted he got TB from playing the sax. I must have paid attention because it was sixty years before I decided to play the instrument.
Too young for dancing, nor wanting to, I would plead with my parents to accompany them to the dance hall so that I could watch the musicians. They put me in a chair near the bandstand with a Tizer and a packet of Smiths Crisps while they danced and socialised. At the ice rink, after the morning session, my mates and I would hide under the bleachers so we could stay for free in the afternoon. There would be an eight-piece live band for the ice dancing. Again, I preferred to hang around the band rather than skate. At home, most of my listening was done secretly at the top of the stairs, ready to dash into bed in case my parents caught me. I heard all the British bands: Victor Sylvester and his Ballroom Orchestra, Henry Hall’s Orchestra, Harry Roy, and Edmundo Ros and his Rumba Band. His album The Wedding Samba sold three million copies in 1949. Ros was a favourite of the Queen Mother and her daughters. And my Mum. Dad would imitate his favorite English singer, Al Bowlly, by crooning Melancholy Baby or Please. Bowlly was killed in an air raid in 1941.
Daytime music on BBC radio was almost entirely classical and was considered posh. Sometimes, I managed to tune in stations from continental Europe that aired jazz and songs in languages I could not understand. As the war proceeded, the American Forces Network (AFN) came across the Atlantic filling the air waves with American orchestras and singers like Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, The Mills Brothers, Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. Mostly, I preferred to play the gramophone, the same scratchy recordings over and over. There was no cartridge but a “needle” was required. It had to be frequently sharpened or replaced. Sometimes, we used what today would be an ecologically correct substitute, a thorn. The ten-inch 78 r.p.m. records were identified by their labels: a little white dog with a cocked ear - “His Master’s Voice”; Victor’s “Bluebird”; musical notes of Columbia, logos of Decca, Odeon or Brunswick.
My favourite tunes were Navy Blues recorded by “The Ten Hot Air Men,” a band of U.S. servicemen, or Cab Calloway’s Rockin’ In Rhythm, Glenn Miller’s One O’clock Jump and In The Mood. I adored the zany Spike Jones and His City Slickers and his parodies of popular songs. He was the Weird Al Yankovich of the times. We had one extraordinary novelty record, a betting game based on the Grand National horse race. We bet on six different horses and then listened to the racetrack commentary. It was the same commentary for each race but at the finish the needle could slide into any one of six different endings, so there was a different winner every time. A horse called Spion Kop must have come first often because that is the only name I remember.
All this was very low-tech and a long way from MP3s, On-Line Poker and iPods but these memorable scenes of family life: playing and listening to music on the radio, even gambling around the gramophone were a critical part of my childhood. It was the Real Deal.