Jack Parnell - master of many trades

By Louis Barfe

To many, the name Jack Parnell is synonymous with television music. In the quarter of a century that he spent with ATV, he supplied the music for everything from Sunday Night at the London Palladium and This is Tom Jones to The Muppet Show, as well as writing the company's famous ‘ATV in Colour' ident jingle. To the jazz cognoscenti, however, Parnell - who celebrated his 80th birthday last year - is remembered for being Ted Heath's first drummer, for leading his own swinging big band through the 1950s and, in later years, for his return to the drum stool to drive Kenny Baker's Best of British Jazz.

That Parnell should have entered show business or become a musician was no surprise. Both his father and his grandfather were ventriloquists, working the halls as Fred Russell and Russ Carr respectively, the elder of the two having changed his name to avoid association with Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell (no relation), who caused a scandal in Victorian Britain when he was named in a divorce case. Jack and his uncle Val - the impresario who ran the Moss Empires circuit and, later, ATV - reclaimed the name for light entertainment.

Meanwhile, his mother's side of the family was steeped in music. “My grandmother and grandmother on my mother's side were both soloists in St Paul's Cathedral choir, and I think my grandfather from that side of the family was organist and choirmaster in Wells Cathedral,” Parnell explains. “My grandmother was a piano teacher as well.” Unsurprisingly, then, Parnell's first instrument, at the age of 5, was piano, but percussive urges were never far beneath the surface: “I've always loved drums. I had a toy called ‘Lotsabricks', which were all for making buildings. There was one long one, but there weren't two long ones, and I was very frustrated. Eventually, I was given a toy drum set.

“My father being on the halls, I was taken around a great deal and at that time, in the 1930s, the big bands - people like Jack Hylton - were always top of the bill. I used to stand at the side of the stage and watch all that going on. Then, in 1933, when I was 10, I was taken to see Duke Ellington's band at the Palladium, with Sonny Greer on drums. I went to see it twice. I was overwhelmed. From then on, I bought every Ellington record as it came out. I've been an Ellington fan ever since.”

First gigs

Jack Parnell on drums, circa 1975

Parnell's first job was in the office of agent Leslie MacDonnell, but soon he was on his way to being a professional musician, helped by one of the dance band drummers he had witnessed, wide-eyed in the wings. “I had half a dozen drum lessons from Max Abrams, who was a very fine teacher [as well as being] the drummer in Carroll Gibbons' band. If he thought you had any talent, he got you a job, which was marvellous. He got me a job, right at the very beginning of the war, at Scarborough, in a concert party. The tenor sax player, a Lancashire fellow called Bernie Boule, knew his jazz and he turned me onto all sorts of things, like Bunny Berigan. I owe a lot to him. That packed up because they were expecting that we were going to be invaded.”

Parnell returned to London before being despatched to the Rex ballroom in Cambridge to work with alto player Sammy Ash's band. As soon as he could, however, he volunteered for the Royal Air Force. “If you volunteered and you passed the audition, you could become a musician. I was auditioned by Buddy Featherstonhaugh, who was forming his band. He liked the way I played, so I went with him. That was a very good little band.”

As well as taking over the BBC's Radio Rhythm Club from Harry Parry's sextet, the Featherstonhaugh band recorded extensively, and led to Parnell's first session under his own name. “Vic Lewis joined us on guitar. He wanted his own group to record, and I wanted my own group. Oscar Preuss, the recording manager for EMI [the man who gave George Martin his first job] said, ‘Well, I can't afford to give you both your own band, but I'll give you one together', so that's how we joined forces and formed the Vic Lewis-Jack Parnell Jazzmen. [We played] Chicago-style jazz, and made a lot of records - very successful. After the war, when we were out, we continued with that and did very well with it - music halls and gigs.”

Ted Heath

By February 1944, though, Parnell was already working with the band that would make his name - Ted Heath and his Music. “He [Ted] was lead trombone with Geraldo. He asked me and Kenny Baker to join. It was a session band, all over the place. The funny thing was that he [Ted] wanted a sweet band, really, because he was a very good sweet trombone player. Kenny and I wouldn't let him have that.” A fine example of the band Parnell and Baker would let Heath have was Bakerloo Non-Stop, recorded for Decca in 1946. After a tenor saxophone solo from Johnny Gray, the piece becomes an exciting feature for both Baker and Parnell.

The obvious empathy between the pair was being built up long before the call came from Heath. “Kenny and I had already met and played a lot of jazz in London, in the Feldman Club, which subsequently became the 100 Club, with Victor and his brothers. So Kenny and I knew each other very well.” Another regular meeting point for jazz musicians had been the Sunday afternoon sessions run by guitarist Sid Gross at the Adelphi Theatre. When the Heath band was looking for its first residency, the Sunday session idea popped into Parnell's head, and luckily, he knew someone with a spare theatre. “I talked my uncle Val into doing it at the Palladium with the Ted Heath band, and that's how the famous Palladium concerts started. Then I got Ted Heath his agent, Leslie MacDonnell, and he got the Hammersmith Palais every Monday. That started us going a bit.”

Despite having two regular gigs, the Heath band was proving a heavy financial burden for its leader, but then, in 1946, came a stroke of luck. “Tutti Camarata came over to do the music for a film called London Town, with Sid Field. We called it the Mint, because we were all put on a retainer and did hardly any work. That helped finance the early band and got over the first hump as it were. Then the band started to take off with the public. It was a very good band. We had Kenny, Ronnie Scott, then Tom Whittle. Oh yeah, some good players. It really was a great band.”

Parnell stayed until 1951, by which time the public knew precisely what a great band it was, as well as coming to regard its drummer as something of a singer as well, on numbers like Route 66. “The only reason why I sang was that we had nobody else to do it, except Paul [Carpenter], and he was a ballad singer. There was nobody to sing the up-tempo things, so I stepped in,” Parnell relates, modestly.

Fancy free

Usually, a sideman's decision to strike out on his own is borne out of frustration and ambition, but not so in Parnell's case. “I never wanted to leave. I was quite happy playing the drums, but I'd got married and I'd got a baby. [Agent] Leslie Grade was a great pal, Lord Grade's brother, Michael's father. Leslie was always onto me ‘You must take the next step, you must have your own band, you've got a kid now'.” The Parnell band's first booking was for a show at the Prince of Wales called ‘Fancy Free', with Tommy Trinder and Pat Kirkwood. “Somehow I learned how to wave my arms sufficiently well to get through,” Parnell admits. Incidentally, that baby, Richard, is now a drummer himself, as are his brothers, Will and Marc, although Parnell's two daughters decided not to enter the music business.

When the show closed, Parnell decided, after some changes, to keep the band going. “At the Prince of Wales we had three trombones and one trumpet - Jimmy Watson. So we changed that to three trumpets and two trombones.” One of those trumpets was Jimmy Deuchar, who did the band's arrangement of The Champ and was the featured soloist on the other side of that particular 78 - Laurie Johnson's magnificently glowering chart of Summertime. Inexplicably, neither side featured on a recent compilation CD of the band's work. “EMI have just brought out a record of that band, and there are quite a few good things, but a lot of it is rubbish. We did much better than that - some of them that have not been remembered. I remember we did one with Don Honeywill on baritone - When Yuba Plays the Rumba - a terrific record.”

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At the agents' insistence, Parnell found himself having to lead from the front, so Phil Seamen came in to do the majority of the drumming, but the leader still kept his hand in. “I thought ‘We've got to do something different', so I thought up this double drum routine which really got the band away. We did it for the first time at the Jazz Jamboree at the Gaumont State in Kilburn, for the Musicians' Benevolent Fund. It was our first viewing and I'd dreamed this up. Phil and I did it and you could see from the front that everything was identical, the playing. We dreamed it up, made it work and it was a sensation, and it got my band away. We used to put it into everything. The same routine went into everything, it didn't matter what it was as long as it was that tempo.”

After Seamen, virtually every British drummer of note passed through the ranks of the band, including Kenny Clare, Allan Ganley and Bobby Orr, and all did duets with Parnell. The other sections, at various times, featured players like the aforementioned Deuchar, Jo Hunter, Ronnie Hughes, Laddie Busby, Bobby Lamb, Bob Burns, Joe Temperley, Ronnie Scott, Pete King and Tubby Hayes. The last of these was still a teenager when he passed through the ranks, and “he stopped the show night after night when we were playing”. Such was his popularity that he asked Parnell for a pound a week extra. “I told him to bugger off, and I think to myself now: Tubby Hayes! He only wanted a pound, and he didn't get it.”

With such talent, it was no surprise that the band built a major reputation in the UK, but it was also well-regarded in the States, something that was brought home to Parnell when he was visited on tour in Glasgow by legendary recording engineer Wally Heider. “He had a friend in Yorkshire who used to record our broadcasts, and send them to him. Wally was knocked out with our band. We were at Green's Playhouse in Glasgow and they'd flown to England, phoned the Union, found out where our band was, and flew up, bringing with them arrangements by people we'd never heard of, called Bill Holman, Marty Paich… The guys sat up all night copying them, so that we could play them. It was then that I realized the seriousness of the art in America. We recorded a lot of the stuff. They were presented to us by the writers, absolutely for nothing, just because they thought the band was that good.”

Endings and beginnings

By the mid-1950s, however, big bands were in decline, no matter how good they were. “We were doing okay, but I could see the start of the groups. If you know promoters like I know promoters, if they can get four guys making as much noise as 16, they're going to use them. I could see it coming… I thought, ‘we've got to do something else'.”

That ‘something else' came along with the start of Independent Television. Both Val Parnell and the Grade brothers were involved with Associated TeleVision (ATV), the company that had won the London weekend and Midland weekday contracts. “Leslie was in charge of the business side of ATV, my uncle was the managing director and Lew Grade was his assistant. Leslie said ‘You've got to come off the road and bring the band into TV', so that's what we did.”

Parnell began his ATV years working at the old Wood Green Empire - converted to a television studio. “The first show we did was a Max Bygraves special and we went on from that really. The first shows I did were with the band that was off the road, but a lot of the guys drifted off, really, because they didn't like that kind of work. So, I brought in the top session men, and I wound up with nearly all the Ted Heath band [laughs], including Kenny. We also had Tom McQuater from the Squads and Basil Jones. We used to get the band swinging. I remember when we were doing the Palladium and Buddy Rich's band was on, topping the bill. He heard the opening dance routine and he said ‘What are you doing to me? I'm supposed to be the star here, up against that band?' Really, we blew them off the stage. [Rich's] was a young band: it hadn't got the experience we had. A wonderful band, that was - our TV band.”

It had to be a wonderful band, as the workload in those early days was very heavy. “At one time, in the early part of that, we were doing five live television shows a week, and the pressure was unbelievable. I did seven years of the Palladium - all live - you couldn't make a mistake. We had a huge team - we had four rehearsal pianists doing a show each, and a whole bunch of arrangers. Unbelievable. I don't know how I got through all that.”

Unsurprisingly, with such experience and some lessons from the harpsichordist/conductor George Malcolm, his conducting progressed some way beyond just waving his arms around. By the early 1960s, ATV's operations had moved to a modern studio complex at Borehamwood, and the working patterns changed - not always for the better. “It became much easier when we could record. When it got to video recording, it definitely became easier, but not quite as exciting, because the adrenalin was not quite so high.”

Of all the ITV companies, ATV was the one most concerned with making programmes for the export market. Howard Thomas, the chairman of rival ITV company ABC, once joked that Grade should concern himself more with Birmingham, England than Birmingham, Alabama. As a result of this transatlantic focus, Parnell's band came to work with most of the visiting American stars. “The only person I didn't work with was Frank Sinatra. The only one, but I worked with everybody else. Nat Cole, Sammy Davis, Lena Horne, Ella - all of them. I could go on and on and on. I thought Dolores Gray was one of the greatest singers ever. She was the lead in ‘Kismet' and she did a marvellous I'm Still Here, the Sondheim thing.”

Then there were the series made with home-grown artists, like Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. There was also a smash hit where the stars weren't even human, although the guests were. “I got Buddy Rich on the Muppets - he wanted to be on the show. I remember going to Jim Henson saying, ‘Hey, you ought to get the greatest drummer in the world - Buddy Rich'. He said ‘Who? Never heard of him'. I said ‘He's the greatest thing you ever heard', he said ‘All right then' and we got him, just like that. I think Jim was kidding me when he said ‘Who?'.”

In the 1970s, ATV finally gave the band its own series. “We used to be on every Christmas Day for some strange reason. Yeah, there was a guy called Alan Tarrant - a producer/director - and we used to dream up different ideas, not very commercial I'm afraid. I remember doing one show just featuring the arrangers and getting them on. People like Bob Farnon, Peter Knight and Laurie Johnson - we got them all on one show. Then thinking of all the different kinds of keyboards. We had George Malcolm on it playing Flight of the Bumble Bee on the harpsichord. He was terribly, terribly thin, with a very cadaverous face, and he was told, at the end of it, to turn to the camera. There were a couple of stage hands looking at the monitor and one of them said, ‘You rang, sir?' I'll never forget it - we just broke up. But what a wonderful player. He taught me everything I know.”

The series also gave Parnell a chance to revive some of the best-known charts from his fifties band, including the drum duets. This time, his partner was Ronnie Verrell - who had been his successor in the Heath band. “He was the best. A great mate of mine.” Compared to Verrell, Parnell was a little rusty, having spent 16 years concentrating on conducting. “I couldn't believe it. I'd lost everything. I was a good player at one time, but it had all gone. The independence had gone. It took me a long time to get it started again, and I never have got it back - not to where I had been. Never.”

Southwold calls

The end for ATV came in 1982, when it was restructured and renamed Central Television. Lord Grade, who had steered the company through the years after Val Parnell's retirement in the early 1960s, had been ousted by his board. Parnell took the opportunity to retire, moving from Surrey to the picturesque Suffolk seaside village of Southwold, to which he had been introduced by Derek Scott, one of his musical associates at ATV.

“It's an extraordinary story. Derek had a holiday home here, and he said ‘It's beautiful. I'm going up tomorrow, why don't you come up and take a look?' This was in May 1982. I didn't know this side of the country at all. We drove up, it was a beautiful day, we drove through the countryside - windmills and all that. We landed up at Walberswick first, got out of the car on the beach there. He pointed and said ‘That's Southwold'. I said ‘Oh, that's lovely. What a lovely subject for a painting.' We came back to his house, we visited the pubs and what not, I thought ‘This is marvellous, I love this place'. I sold up, said I'd be here within a year and I was.

“Why I mention this is, the weekend after that first trip, I attended the birthday party of the oldest surviving member of my mother's side of the family, a lady called Sybil Tresilian, who was 95. She was married to my uncle Stuart Tresilian, who was a painter. Anyway, I walked into my cousin's house - their daughter - in Hemel Hempstead and she said ‘Oh what are you going to do with yourself now?' I said I'm going to go and live in a little place called Southwold. Oh she says ‘I've got a painting of Southwold, done by your uncle'. She points to the wall, and there is a painting of the view from Walberswick, done 50 years previously. I had no idea he'd been anywhere near the place. Extraordinary, isn't it?”

Up until it was disbanded at the end of 2000, Parnell ventured out from Southwold to play (also sing and tell the jokes for which he has become known) with the revived Ted Heath orchestra under Don Lusher (who had left Heath to join Parnell at ATV, and who also celebrated his 80th birthday last year). At about the same time, he withdrew from the Best of British Jazz. “I didn't want to continue with Best of British Jazz without Kenny, because it was his band. Much as I love the other guys, it lost interest to me when Kenny had gone. He and I were very good friends, very great pals. I used to stay with him and he used to stay here. I just didn't want to carry on with it when he wasn't doing it, and [there was] also the driving.”

Parnell continues to conduct for recording sessions when suitably moved, most recently on a CD with flautist Jane Pickles and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. His contribution to music was honoured in November 2004 when he received the Coda Club's prestigious Burt Rhodes award. Nowadays, however, he seems to devote most of his time to another pursuit. “I love golf. Our little course down the road is lovely - very convenient. And there are some good courses around. I play every day when I can”. Nonetheless, he still works most Tuesdays with his own quartet at the Green Man in Rackheath, on the outskirts of Norwich. “We've had some good visiting players up there. We've had Pete King up; we've had Gilad Atzmon - marvellous. It's good fun.” It must be, to keep him off the links.

An earlier version of this article previously appeared in Crescendo magazine.

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Article ©2006 Louis Barfe

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