Great to see phenomenal writer and performer Beck (pictured above with my all time musical hero Prince) getting his Grammy last week. Cheers for all the free promo, Kanye.
When I came up with the title of this blog I specifically included “amateur” in the title. I didn’t want my dilettante dabblings to be in any way confused with the endeavour of people who have taken the risky and honorable choice of earning their living in the Arts, the Music Industry or Show Business (three subtly different fields each with subtly different attitudes and approaches to music making). However, I have skirted round the edges of these professions throughout my life and have had the privilege of working and performing with many different individuals who do indeed call it their life’s work.
One of my most interesting and sustained periods of professional music work was back in 2001 when I found myself working as a trombone player on board the cruise ship MS Westerdam for a 6 month stint. This is the first in an occasional series of essays on my musical experiences on board ship and covers my first week aboard.
So it was January 2001 and I found myself staring up at the massive Holland America cruise liner, MS Westerdam in the Florida port of Fort Lauderdale. After my job had collapsed a few months earlier I had, on a suggestion and a whim, auditioned for a cruise line musician’s job. I now stood on the other side of the world, 2 trombones and 2 suitcases in tow, looking at my home for the next 6 months – and my first performance on board in a matter of hours.
I had never even seen a cruise ship, let alone been on one, so there was an extremely steep learning curve to be had. Although I only did 6 months, the stories I could tell could easily fill a book – however many would be highly inappropriate and probably libelous! Thus, I intend to concentrate on my performing experiences.
There were many musicians aboard the Westerdam. Most came aboard as bands that played background music in the many bars and lounges on board the ship, a jazz trio in the cocktail bar, a string group in the lounge, a steel band on deck etc. I was on board as part of the show band, based in the 1000 seater theatre. The show band musicians all audition as individuals and were a rolling group of players who were picked particularly for their sight-reading ability since their job was to accompany the ever-changing roster of live performers. The live acts would differ from cruise to cruise and would perform one of the live shows – generally a 50 minute show performed twice with a short break between performances – every night aboard the ship. Half the passengers would be dining formally whilst the 1st show was on and would then swap round for the 2nd sitting. On board the Westerdam we had a show band of 7 musicians consisting of piano/MD, bass, drums, keyboards, trumpet, reed and trombone. Guest performers would come aboard with music charts arranged for this lineup.
The majority of the cruises during my first 3 months on board ship were 8 night cruises in the Eastern Caribbean. The 8 days included visits to Nassau in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, St Thomas, St Maarten, Half Moon Quay – an uninhabited island in the Bahamas – and 2 days at sea. An 8 night cruise meant 8 different shows. My first week’s cruise included 3 shows featuring our on-board cast of singers and dancers, a variety show featuring performers from the week’s cruise, a magic show which the band weren’t required for, and 3 more shows featuring the guest artists below.
What I didn’t know until I arrived that first day was that the ship was currently in the middle of a series of Rock and Roll nostalgia cruises featuring artists from the 50’s and 60’s. Also on board each week were a number of TV stars from the same era, who would do talks and chat to the passengers throughout the week. In fact, the very first fellow mariner I met was in my taxi from the hotel to the ship. It was very pleasant gentleman who it turns out had played the little boy in the Lassie TV series. It’s fair to say I didn’t recognize him – only because he had grown a moustache since his tv days.
Musically, the Rock and Roll cruises meant that show band got to perform with a large number of rock and pop acts who had hits in the US in the 50s and 60s. As I had come from the UK and was not born until the 1970s, I have to admit that I hadn’t necessarily heard of all these acts but I certainly recognized many of the songs and it was a joy to meet these performers and hear their stories (again, many unrepeatable!)
The 3 acts in my first week really did set the bar high for the rest of the tour. First up….
The Crystals were one of the original girl groups of the 60s, produced by Phil Spector, and famous for hits such as “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me”. They had a number of different lineups and, to be fair, by the time I got play for them there was only one original member – the lovely Dee Dee Kenniebrew. It’s very possible that the performance above featured the arrangements that we used on the ship with one important difference – I had to make up the trombone parts for that first show. Somehow, the trombone parts hadn’t been brought on board. So much for being employed for my sight reading ability! Luckily my skills extended to transposition so I was able to make up a trombone part based on reading the Bb trumpet part of trumpeter and new room mate Marshall who sat next to me on the band stand.
Whilst I could cope with making up rock and roll trombone parts on the spot for the Crystals, I was completely out of my depth when required to play with the rest of the band as background music for Captain’s cocktails. This was a jazz set using numbers from “The Real Book” – a massive volume of standards used by jazz musicians consisting of nothing more than handwritten melodies and chord symbols. As well as being totally unable to improvise credibly around a jazz tune, I was also completely unprepared for the way a musical number – complete with an intro, head (main tune), improvised section and finish – could seemingly be conjured up instantly from these scant materials with no prior preparation or discussion. I had minimal knowledge of most of the tunes picked and certainly no real idea of the conventions and playing styles even for the notes that I was presented with. All in all, it was a very long scary half hour standing on a stage. So much for being employed for my sight reading ability! After that first week I tended to duck out of Captains Cocktails and over the course of my time on the ship my fellow band members took upon themselves to educate me in all things jazz. They would frog march me to various jazz bars in the ports where ship musicians were encouraged to perform and make me practice my improvisions on the unsuspecting drinkers. I would get informal lessons on the history of the art form, the different styles, suggested recordings etc. I went from a novice to a genuine aficionado of probably America’s greatest original art form, and whilst my improv skills are still fairly ropey, I can now fake it for short bursts at least!
Frankie Ford was a larger than life rock n roll singer and pianist in the mould of Jerry Lee Lewis. He had a huge voice, Elvis hair and sunglasses and piano keyboard scarf. His party trick during performance was to fill the room with his vocals just as easily without the microphone as with it. His big hit was a song called “Sea Cruise”, so the ship was a natural place for him to end up.
“I don’t like rehearsals”. This was pretty much the first thing Frankie said to us during our morning rehearsal slot – our one chance to every day to prepare for the night’s show. And true to his word, he worked with us for about 30 minutes in preparation for the 50 minute show. This certainly gave the show an edge, which nearly backfired when some of Frankie’s vocals didn’t quite match what was in our parts causing a collective mild panic in the band, thankfully invisible and inaudible to the audience. So much for sight reading! The clip below made me smile, as Frankie used exactly the same introductory spiel when I played for him – memories!
The biggest show of the week came courtesy of 50s and 60s teen idol Bobby Rydell. By ‘Big’ I mean that the band was significantly augmented for this show. As well as usual the 7 of us, we also had 4 extra horn players (2 trumpets, 2 saxes) on board with us all week who had been drafted in just to play for this show. These guys were all Florida session players who regularly played for the Disney shows and Kool & the Gang amongst others and we had great time getting to know them throughout the week.
Like Frankie, Bobby didn’t like rehearsals either. However this time Bobby’s MD and drummer, David (our drummer, Alain, got the night off) drilled us extremely thoroughly earlier in the day. I’m pretty sure it’s David directing the band from behind the drums in the clip below.
All the clips I have chosen for this post are taken from the round about the time I performed with the artists concerned, so it really is how I remember them, even down to the musical arrangements used. There are plenty of clips from the 50s and 60s available too if you are interested.
Anyway, the upshot of the rehearsal was that the first time I actually saw or heard Bobby Rydell was when he walked on to the stage for the first performance. It really was a fabulous show, particularly with our magnificent 7 piece horn section – and all the stops and starts that David had meticulously rehearsed all made perfect sense when seen alongside Bobby’s stage banter.
One challenge did rear its head to me for the first time that evening. It was first time I had experienced some choppy seas during a performance. Normally the band all sat at the back of the stage in a purpose built bandstand. For this performance with the extra players, we all stood out front. As the ship swayed back and forth I did find myself having to concentrate rather hard on trying to stay balanced. With nothing to hold onto I gripped my trombone somewhat tighter than usual – literally hanging on for dear life!
I never got the chance to chat to Bobby Rydell sadly, so I never got the chance to ask him the big question that had been on my mind the whole week. Was the school, “Rydell High” in the film musical “Grease” named after him? The music style fitted. He was friends with Frankie Avalon who plays a memorable cameo in the movie. It all seems too much of a coincidence…
Well, I’ve just checked Wikipedia, and it says the school is named after Bobby… so it must be true!
2 coming up in the next week. The first is the Cheshire Sinfonia at St Michael’s Church, Bramhall, 7 30pm Saturday 21 February. I always enjoy playing the interesting and slightly unusual programmes which this band like to play and this one is no exception. The 2 pieces I am in are definitely worth a listen, 2 less performed works by Elgar (Froissart- my part has a quote from Keats at the top of the page “When chivalry lifted up her lance on high” -pretty much sums up the piece) and Dvorak (his 6th Symphony). The real interest in the concert for me comes in the piece I am not playing in, a piece from one of my all time favourite composers Benjamin Britten – his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Please do note the comma, a serenade for tenor horn and strings would be an altogether different piece…
Secondly, my funk band Lostock (check my Uptown Funk/ Urmston Funk post) are playing at the world famous Night And Day Café on Tuesday 24 February, 9pm. Be there!