Some Memories of Humph!
Updated: Jan 16, 2020
The first time I heard the Humphrey Lyttelton Band live was at the 100 Club in 1980. It sounded very impressive and well arranged and full of little surprises like Mick Pyne getting up from the piano to play cornet with Bruce Turner on “Groovin’ High”. It was a knock-out.
A few years later, I started to deputise in the band for both John Barnes and Bruce Turner. I’d got to know them from playing at the Sunday lunchtime sessions at Merlin’s Cave near Kings Cross . Bruce could be a bit disconcerting “ Who you going to be Dad?” he would ask (twice of course as was his way)- Having pushed me into choosing someone, he’d then announce who he was going to be: “Cod-its” for instance which was his version of Konitz . After one fiery session he announced “I was best, I was best” which he was. John Barnes was just as eccentric in his own way. He really enjoyed it when punters thought I was his son- he didn’t help by confirming it to all and sundry.
In 1988, on a plane going to a festival with Bob Wilber’s big band, Humph wandered down the aisle and said “Bruce is going, want the job?” , I said “Yes” and that was it- he wandered back to his seat. He always claimed it was the shortest conversation he ever had.
Bruce said in the jazz press that he never had a chance to talk to Humph and could only communicate with him by letter. Soon after he left-John Barnes was away so I went onto baritone and Bruce came back for a couple of gigs. On his arrival, Humph solemnly presented him with a letter which, when opened read “Hello Bruce”.
As soon as I joined I was made an Honorary Crackpot. Years before, Bruce Turner in his fury and frustration at trying to get Stan Greig and Pete Strange out of the pub so they could drive home had shouted “ You…you… Crackpots” which they became known as. It was a great pleasure to join them. We travelled together, stayed over whenever we could, drank copious amounts and usually ended up at an Indian or Chinese restaurant at the end of the night. Next day, after a fry-up Pete would put sweeteners in his tea to avoid fattening sugar- always to Stan’s glee.
Stan, always generous and first at the bar, would bring down his empty glass with a loud crack and announce “Thirsty Work this’ to encourage the next in the chair.
His regular greeting to a miserable looking publican of “Hello Cheeky!” didn’t always help.
Early in my tenure with the band I came down with salmonella poisoning. I didn’t like to not make the gigs so carried on (I hadn’t been diagnosed yet). One of the side effects was atrocious wind- some of which I had to let go during a duet of bass and muted trumpet with Humph playing as quietly as possible. I thought it wouldn’t be much but it felt like passing a space-hopper. A foul cloud enveloped the band leader and he struggled to finish. He came over, wiping his eyes and whispered “Don’t worry, your job is safe, I just need to know how often this is going to happen.”
There were a few quirky aspects to being in the band, the main one being the “March-round” . This was always in one of the 3 clarinet features, usually “Caribana Queen” on which Humph liked to play clarinet and lead a march around the the audience. Inwardly I’ve always been a bit shy about this kind of caper and had to brace myself for the first time I did it at the Cleethorpes jazz festival. Our route took us around the large marquee and straight past Bobby Wellins, Peter King and Dick Morrisey all of whom seemed to enjoy my obvious discomfort.
One time John Barnes pulled out a sturdy wooden stool from the organ as we went round a huge church to scupper me as I came up behind. Unfortunately Humph suddenly turned round and came something of a cropper with a nasty crack to his knee. “Some bloody idiot pulled a stool out in front of me ” he later complained. “Er, that was me” said John and for once Humph had nothing to say.
There was also Humph’s extrovert and eccentric dress sense. He would ofter wear bright red tartan trousers. Bruce Adams once asked him if he was home on leave and I remember the band being introduced by Ronnie Scott as “Humphrey Lyttelton and the trousers from hell.” He came up with the idea of blue trousers and shirts with white long tie, white jacket and white shoes for the rest of us.
I remember him taking delivery of new white jackets for all of us at a festival in Switzerland. Stan Greig, a notoriously messy and involved enjoyer of food, wore his to the restaurant where he ordered spaghetti bolognese and a large glass of red wine. “I don’t think my nerves will take this” muttered Humph.
I’ve always associated white shoes with Traditional Jazz and didn’t like the style of most of the ones available so was very pleased when I found a pair of expensive but stylish officers deck shoes. I showed them to Stan Greig who approved but thought they weren’t white enough. At his suggestion we purchased some shoe paint which we applied upon our arrival at the next gig in Abu-Dhabi. Next day I discovered that the shop had made a mistake and I had a size 10 and a size 7-I hadn’t noticed before. One was like a ski and the other was cripplingly tight. Un-returnable because of Stan’s improvements, I had to bin them, but it was not the last time I was to see them. As we left the hotel for the airport I noticed they were being worn by the very friendly gardener we had chatted with most days.
Humph nick-named me “Piglet” from the Winnie the Pooh stories as he said I was always looking up and nodding. When I left after four and a half years, I was presented with a statue of a pig playing a sax which I still have on the mantle-piece. I’m glad the name hasn’t stuck
I last played with Humph’s band at the Concorde Club on what turned out to his last gig. He told me he was going to have an operation and that there might be a possibility he wouldn’t make it. “What happens if you do make it” I asked him “Oh, then I’ll live forever” he said.