BLIMEY, SPIKE, WISH WE WERE BACK IN BLIGHTY!
I’m sharing some tracks on the Music page this week by the Harry South big band from 1969 so it’s time I said a few words about Harry himself.
Born in 1925 in Fulham, Harry was a South Londoner through and through. Although he did visit India (which influenced the writing of such tunes as Rainy season), he worked mostly close to home. When I knew him, he was living in Streatham.
A good pianist and an excellent composer and arranger, he started appearing in the 1950s in groups led by all the top local be-boppers, including Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and Joe Harriott. A decade later, he was a permanent member of the great Dick Morrissey quartet, along with bassist Phil Bates and Phil Seamen on drums. The quartet hit it off spectacularly with US singer Jimmy Witherspoon and accompanied him on tour. There is a brilliant live album from the Bull’s Head Barnes which captures the exciting rapport between them.
At the same time, Harry was fronting his own big band and busy writing and arranging.
Users of Sibelius programmes and other computer software these days would be gobsmacked by the labour-intensive process of composing scores for 16-piece or even larger bands by hand in pencil and then copying out the individual parts again by hand.
“Tell me about it!” Harry, Stan Tracey or Tubby Hayes would say if they were alive to tell the tale.
There was actually a living to be made simply by copying by hand if you were accurate and legible enough, as was for example the famous copyist George Hamer (brother of the trumpeters Ian and Stu).
Harry’s big band assembled mainly for broadcasts and recordings, since big band pub and theatre gigs were difficult to organize, let alone finance.
A great success was his collaboration with Georgie Fame, which produced the album Sound Venture and a number of broadcasts. I remember one BBC Jazz Club introduced by Humph which combined the big band with Georgie’s own group The Blue Flames. I was in the big band and recall Humph announcing in his best Etonian accent a combined rendition of James Brown’s Papa’s gotta brand new bag as “Father’s re-married”. (As usual, I’ve got a tape somewhere which I’ll hunt for.)
Harry, who sadly died too young in 1990, is an obscure figure these days and it is good to see that a 4-CD Box Set has now been assembled and released on the RandB label featuring a cross-section of Harry’s jazz work, with a useful booklet by Mark Baxter (of Tubby Hayes – a man in a hurry fame) and tenor saxophonist Simon Spillett (the doyen of CD sleeve-note writers).
But however much of his music is unearthed, Harry would, I imagine, inevitably be recognised more widely (if the public only knew his name!) for being the composer of the theme music of The Sweeney. Great for Harry that this became such a hit. It was in fact only one of a number of TV and film theme tunes that he wrote.
I met Harry through Tubby Hayes. Although I didn’t work regularly with him, we became good friends. He was a delightful and generous man. He had a beautiful Swedish wife called Harriet.
One evening, they invited us to supper. I was then married to Wivi-Ann who is Norwegian (daughter of jazz journalist Randi Hultin). As the meal progressed, Harriet and Wivi-Ann carried on a fairly non-stop rapid-fire conversation in Swedish/Norwegian. Harry felt increasingly left out and eventually let out an exasperated cry of Blimey, Spike, don’t you wish we were back in Blighty?
When Harry had a night off, he and Harriet would sometimes go out in the West End and would end up dropping in after midnight at Ronnie Scott’s. Smartly attired, they would be seen sitting regally on the sofa in the foyer of the club, sipping brandies.
Despite the amount of work he got done, Harry could be a bit scatterbrained. Tony Coe once had a gig in Ashford (Kent) for which he booked Harry, Ken Baldock and me. Luckily Harry had decided to make a day out of it and take Harriet with him. So they left Streatham earlier enough to make the gig with seconds to spare even though they had driven all the way to Ashford in Middlesex.
He was also regularly inclined to underestimate the time it would take him to drive in the morning rush hour from Streatham to whichever West End studio he was due at as musical director by 9.30am. (Yes, the car was still the preferred mode of transport in central London in the early 70s!) He was kind enough to use me on a few of these commercial sessions and I can still see him breathlessly apologizing to the waiting musicians and engineers.
Please now go to the Music page to hear the 1969 Harry South jazz big band in full flight. There are great solos by Joe Harriott, Tubby Hayes, Alan Skidmore, Ray Warleigh and Kenny Wheeler.
Rest in peace, Harry. You were a great guy and a great musician.