I interrupt the description of my recent trip to the southern hemisphere to express my sadness at the death of Kenny Ball, who – with his Jazzmen – were stars of the 1960s and 70s and who died yesterday aged 82.
He was born in 1930 and worked for 60 years as a professional musician. He had several Top 10 hits in the 1960s but Midnight in Moscow reached No2 and became his signature tune. He toured the UK with Louis Armstrong. Even in 1981 he was active – playing at Charles’ and Diana’s wedding reception.
I worked with him in 1977. He – and the Jazzmen – were booked to play daily on open top bus RTL1050 promoting Littlewoods (the pools, not the store). I personally drove him on many occasions. Those summer days were always hot and sunny (amazing how your memory does that!). Across the UK the sound of Kenny and his music grew louder as the bus approached; people in the street stopped and smiled. “Hello Kenny” they would shout, and I learned that live popular music like this, head and shoulders high on the top of a moving 48-sheet billboard, was a star attraction for any advertiser.
RTL1050 was owned in those days by Ted Brakell, sadly now also gone, having been in the Richmond fleet of Continental Pioneer. It was used for trips to Europe and then on bus route 235 – a short route between Richmond and Richmond Hill. Not restored by London Transport after the 1958 bus strike this local operator ran this route for decades afterwards. It finally ran in 1980, operated by the former EC1, the first 'Executive Express' owned by British European Airways.
Ted parked his buses in Pioneer’s yard and RTL1050 became his promotional open-topper. That summer of 1977 had us on an expedition and we turned up at countless towns adorned with Littlewoods’ material. Ted hired me to drive on many occasions.
Most afternoons followed a similar pattern. Kenny paused from his spectacular trumpet playing and banged on the side of the bus by my head. “Leon!!”, he would shout, “there’s a pub over there, with a car park and no height restriction!” We would park up, and Kenny plus entourage would retire, until long past closing time. As the driver I was unable to participate of course.
Later, Kenny and his Jazzmen would stagger out of the pub and now their playing would be even more adventurous as we made it into town. He was hugely approachable and the same in person as on stage. I clearly recall being in Finchley and receiving a playful punch in the stomach as he exited the bus to play solo for the assembled crowd - leaving me doubled-up (more surprise than pain) behind him.
A kind and generous man with amazing musical talent. He could play back to back in complete unison with his clarinetist using only telepathy and the music. Playing a wind instrument on a moving vehicle has its risks: as his driver he often reminded me of the value of his front teeth to their music and my insurance. He died, I am pleased to say, with his dentistry and my reputation intact.