High regard 

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Gavin Sutherland on Jack Parnell’s early days

The sight of Ronnie Hazelhurst conducting his own orchestra on “Val Doonican” in 1979 gave me the first thought of becoming a conductor myself, but it is now difficult to imagine television companies carrying their own orchestras and conductors. However, back before my time, music for the then-fledgling companies like ATV was held in very high regard.

From day one, Lew decided to keep ATV’s music in ‘the family’ by employing Jack Parnell to lead his television orchestra. Jack’s grandfather, Val’s father, was the great ventriloquist Fred Russell, although he was born Parnell and simply changed his name to avoid links with the then-infamous Charles Stuart Parnell. Fred’s father was also a ventriloquist, Russ Carr.

Fred encouraged young Jack to go into performing arts in some way, and he did so as a drummer, working his way through the ranks of big bands. He became firmly established in the public eye during his time with Ted Heath, both as a drummer and a singer. Jack recently reminisced about gaining what seemed to some a rather arrogant personality when asked for autographs, when all he was concerned about was having to pack away his drums and get onto the band bus without being swamped.

The first time Jack gained a foothold in the major big band league was with Buddy Featherstonehaugh. He teamed up with trombonist Vic Lewis to form the Vic Lewis-Jack Parnell Band when HMV gave Lewis a recording date, but Parnell felt he was entitled to similar exposure. Questioning this, he also landed a session, but both forgot all about it until nearer the time and the day before the session the pair decided to pool their resources. Jack, however, left the band after a failed attempt to take sole control and in 1944 he went to Ted Heath’s band, staying until 1951.

When Parnell began to go it alone, he already knew that the writing was on the wall for big bands. It was therefore an astonishing coincidence that the Grades caught Jack and gave him and his band regular employment for the next 28 years. A lot of colleagues and friends he worked with stayed remarkably loyal to him over much of that time, including the late trumpet player Kenny Baker, and the very much alive and kicking trombonist Don Lusher, drummer Ronnie Verrell and bassist Lennie Bush. Whilst they could be seen in other orchestras – even fronting ones of their own – they played a very important part in ATV’s output. Jack must have supported more artists than anyone, save for the odd times where Lew doubled up tapings, and then usually Reg Owen, Derek Scott or Kenny Powell would be oddly credited as conducting the Jack Parnell Orchestra!

Jack and I spoke about his work at ATV, and just how so much music was prepared for so many shows. The orchestrations department at Elstree was large and famous, boasting such arrangers and orchestrators on its books as Eric Rogers, David Lindup, Arthur Greenslade, Max Harris, Kenny Powell, Derek Scott, Reg Owen, and Johnnie Spence. Sadly, a lot of the music produced for these shows no longer exists. Jack was musical director at Elstree and his opposite number in Birmingham was Johnny Patrick.

Gavin Sutherland

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