HS2: the forgotten sounds of Harry South

<h1 itemprop="headline">HS2: the forgotten sounds of Harry South</h1>

July 1969. It’s high summer – moon high to be precise – and across the globe millions sit goggleboxed as one Neil Alden Armstrong makes his legendary descent onto the lunar surface, declaring, with a forgivable slip of syntax given the enormity of the occasion, that his was ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

Back down on earth, at almost exactly the same time as this marvel of human endeavour drew the world’s collective breath, a musician of roughly the same age as Armstrong was poised to make his own bid for the history books, albeit one which looked altogether more modest when set beside the heady thrills of the Apollo programme.

Actually, what Henry Percy South, 39 year old London-based pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader, and a figure who’d been a quiet ‘musicians musician’ presence in British jazz circles for close to a decade and a half by this point, was about undertake was less like Science Fact than Science Fiction; forget rockets, moon shots, space capsules and splashdowns – this was a man about to clone half his band!

It sounds for all the world like one of those experiments undertaken by some mad professor in a contemporary Hammer movie, or the kind of plot-line that had latterly taken once believable TV shows like ‘The Avengers’ deep into the realms of fantasy. And, like these products of the great age of British sci-fi/horror, South’s plan had a distinctly English flavour to it; having, as he put it, ‘come to the end of my tether with the usual line-up of instruments’ he decided that there was only one way forward – to create an effect he dubbed his ‘stereo brass’, by which he duplicated the traditional big band trumpet and trombone sections, giving them scope to act out a sort of brass-based audio tennis. In theory it sounded ostentatious. In practice it promised something monstrously overblown, and to some ears the idea of not one but two screaming teams batting against each other seemed just too much of a good thing, like discovering Ingrid Pitt had a twin sister. The mind boggled. Where might all this lead, the press wondered? Indeed, had this been a cheap horror flick, you could have even imagined the strap-line - ‘Never before had the world wrestled THE TEN HEADED BRASS MONSTER!’ Dat, dat, daaa!

Harry South’s biography is pretty much covered from A to Z on two outstanding anthologies of his recorded work issued recently by R&B Records (‘The Songbook’ and ‘Further South’), the essays from which are out there in the blogosphere for those curious to know more. But for the purposes of this piece a brief outline may be useful. Born in London in 1929, South had initially wanted to be a drummer but had contracted Tuberculosis in the late 1940s, necessitating a lengthy period of hospitalisation during which he began a correspondence course in arranging. Combining this with the piano (naturally) by the early 1950s he was working by day for a music publishing house and by night on gigs with the likes of the teenaged tenor titan Tubby Hayes. From here on in South’s career template is almost archetypal of his generation of local bebop-apprenticed talents; through the 1950s into the early 1960s he shuttled between bands led by Hayes, Joe Harriott, Ronnie Ross, Ronnie Scott and others before taking a working sabbatical in India with young tenor wunderkind Dick Morrissey in 1961-62. Returning to the UK, he became both pianist and musical director for Morrissey’s new quartet, a group which he also enrolled en masse into an occasional big band he had been assembling for BBC broadcasts on and off since the dawn of the decade, a unit which attracted the attention of young-man-about-Mod Georgie Fame, whose desire to cross over into jazz from his home turf of Rhythm and Blues South helped facilitate with the landmark 1966 album ‘Sound Venture’.

The net result of this unlikely union? A double-whammy in which Fame found his career elevated above the merely chart-popular and South suddenly saw himself in high demand as a commercial composer for television and film. And it’s here – on both the big and small screens – that the non-jazz listener may have first heard South’s music, although in one or two instances you may not have given it your full attention. Everybody knows that he composer the nagging ear-worm that is the theme to the Thames Television's cult police drama ‘The Sweeney’, but fans of more – ahem! - ‘erotic’ cinema may have unknowingly gawped their way through his contributions to the truly abysmal 1972 soft-core sex-romp that was ‘Four Dimensions of Greta’ (that’s Tubby Hayes you can hear keeping the British end up on flute, by the way).

A pop-jazz thing

Like all those musicians who are bright enough to capitalise on commercial success, South was a man remarkably free of stylistic blinkers. Film writing was a special pleasure, he observed, because ‘you are not bound by purist thoughts’.

Interviewed in ‘Crescendo’ magazine in 1969 he remarked how he found it ‘intriguing to drop into a pop-jazz thing’ when scoring for TV and film, citing American arranging icon Quincy Jones as ‘the leader of this trend’. Like Jones, South was intent on removing all genre-based barriers.’ ‘It’s good to see that jazz is now taking the younger generation seriously’, he observed, having lived through the deepest days of enmity between London’s beboppers and the Beatles. ‘After all’, he’d observe wearily, ‘we can’t stay in our own camps forever.’

Such eclecticism was by no means exclusive to South at this point. In fact, ever since the success of ‘Sound Venture’ UK modernists – that is modern jazzmen who’d made their names in the hermetic environs of British Bebop between 1948 and, say, 1960 – had been gradually warming to the possibilities of contemporary pop. Previously, it had furnished them with little more than a pounding headache and a desire to unplug the nearest teenage rock sensation, but now, in the true ‘1960s as musical melting pot’ spirit of the age, you sensed something close to a volte face. You could certainly hear it in such albums as Harold McNair’s ‘Flute and Nut’, John Dankworth’s ‘Off Duty!’, Terry Smith’s ‘Fall Out’, Ray Warleigh’s ‘First Album’ and Alan Haven’s ‘Haven For Sale’, all recorded within a year or so of each other around 1968/1969, and all borrowing either repertoire, production values or musical tricks from the worlds of rock and pop.

In the face of this new enlightenment, even big industry titans, figures so monolithic that they were regarded as immovable stylistic gods, began to change tack. In 1970, Tubby Hayes, the man who had best embodied the notion of UK-made, US-styled Hard Bop, dropped ‘The Orchestra’, a middle-of-the-road set covering Bacharach, the Beatles, Fifth Dimension and Herb Alpert, famously stating the album was proof ‘that it was possible to play something we hope is saleable without losing our artistry'. That same year bandleader Ted Heath’s ghost studio outfit (Heath had died at the end of 1969, leaving behind some choice insults about the music of the ‘beat’ generation) released ‘The Big Ones’ on which sixteen neatly brylcreemed middle-aged men did unspeakable things to the songs of, among others, The Doors, The Rolling Stones and the Moody Blues.

These albums have much in common – high-end production values, a certain cross-over of composer representation (Lennon and McCartney principally), even a certain pithiness of title – and, despite what were only middling sales at best (young people wanted the original artists’ versions; older jazz fans weren’t really into hearing ‘Hey Jude’ for big band) and an almost total invisibility in the review pages of the jazz press, they’ve since gained a sort of posthumous momentum, prized as kitsch souvenirs of late-Sixties/early Seventies London, even garnering themselves reissues on compact disc. Listened to now they’re about as offensive as bits pineapple and cheese jammed onto a cocktail stick. In fact, what had once been seen as highly controversial ‘selling out’ of sorts now seems about as cosy as a Readers’ Digest boxed set. Not that it’s all innocence and naivety. Only the truly virginal could fail to spot the innuendo of album titles like ‘Haven For Sale’ or the almost ‘Carry On’-level-base ‘The Big Ones’.

Harry South’s entry into this brief but engaging litany of Easy Listening can lay claim to all the same virtues and vices, save for that of being reissued. Taped at London’s Philips Studios in Stanhope Gate on various dates between the autumn of 1968 and the following spring, ‘Say No More’ has it all; Bacharach, Beatles, Bossa-Nova, even a Monty Python-esque album title. Actually, this latter connection is pure coincidence and has nothing whatsoever to do with the infamous ‘nudge, nudge’ sketch, which first aired about a month after South’s album went of sale; ‘Say No More’ is the literal translation of Sergio Mendes’ ‘Mas Que Nada’, which featured as the lead-off track on the album’s B-side.

And it was Mendes music that both prompted the making of the recording and, as we shall see, saved it from being something so horrendously misguided that it could have done all concerned a huge injury.

Ideal for stereo

The back-story to ‘Say No More’, an album which you could call ‘the best British Easy Listening LP you’ve never heard of’, is a fairly convoluted one. It begins in 1966 when South’s sometime big band (boasting Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Dick Morrissey et al.) recorded for the Mercury label. The resulting LP – rather dryly titled ‘Presenting The Harry South Big Band’ - was musicianly enough (how could it not be, given its cast?) but somehow failed to ignite. ‘Enjoyable but hardly memorable’ was ‘Jazz Monthly’s assessment of the record, its feint praise matching another journalist’s opinion that South was ‘an exceedingly dull arranger’.

For once, this wasn’t merely parochial journalistic sniffiness; heard nowadays ‘Presenting...’ still sounds like an oddly unremarkable album, almost as if the foreshortened tracks, necessity to keep things ‘tidy’ in the studio and inclusion of several ‘deps’ had robbed the band of the sense of identity and purpose it so embodied live. To this end, it’s surely not just discographical neglect that has ensured that its a record which remains unreissued to this day? Even the pop-noteworthy fact that its sessions were produced by songwriter Mike Hawker – he of Dusty Springfield’s ‘I Only Want To Be With You’ fame – isn’t enough to seemingly elevate its cachet.

Better still were two South-led tracks included on the 1968-recorded ‘Retrospect Through 21 Years of BBC Jazz Club’, ‘Newtyme Waltz’ and ‘Storm Warning’, dark and powerful performances, the latter of which, as one review put it, ‘would make a good theme for a TV thriller series’ (these can be heard on ‘The Songbook’ on R&B Records). By this point South had signed to Philips but if the move appeared to herald a greater opportunity to harness his jazz writing, it was to prove a false lead. As South himself revealed in an interview in ‘Melody Maker’, his new producer Johnny Franz, another man with a keen nose for pop, had other ideas.

‘[He] suggested a semi-commercial LP and mentioned [German bandleader] Bert Kaempfert to me. After listening to Kaempfert albums I thought that was out.’

Quite right to. In fact, the very suggestion that South might have had to embark down the same route towards twee exotica that had led to Kaempfert’s chart-busting ‘A Swingin’ Safari’ is enough to bring any self-respecting big band fan out in a sweat of malarial proportions. Always practical, and as we’ve seen, eager to unite quality music of all styles, the Englishman suggested a compromise, in the process striking upon an idea for a novel sound.

‘I like Sergio Mendes and listening to some of his things I got the idea of having two five or six piece brass sections plus four reeds, rhythm, and various percussion. I thought it would be ideal for stereo’.

Thankfully Franz agreed, and so, over three sessions held in November 1968, January and March 1969, the ‘Stereo Brass’ created what was to become their sole LP, ‘Say No More’, issued in September 1969 on both vinyl and the then new tape cassette format, the latter incarnation being the one on which I discovered the album one afternoon while browsing a market in Watford some time around 2009.

On face value, it’s pure orchestral pop of its day. You couldn’t have an album more typical of the whole movement of bringing contemporary chart material to the ‘Mums and Dads’ market. Everything from playlist to cover (the obligatory pretty model, looking moody and tucked away beneath an expansive straw hat) reeks of ‘1969’ and furthermore you’d be hard put to find a better on-record representation of the crème of the UK’s session world of the day; they’re all there – trombonist Don Lusher, reedmen Roy Willox and Duncan Lamont, guitarist Judd Proctor, pianist Max Harris etc – all left-righting away over a spirited Latin-American rhythm section headed by either Kenny Clare or Ronnie Stephenson on drums. The trumpets are an especially rich who’s who, boasting at various times Derek Watkins, Greg Bowen, Tony Fisher, Kenny Wheeler, Eddie Blair, Ian Hamer, Albert Hall and Bobby Haughey. Understandably jazz is kept to a bare minimum - the odd Getz-chameleon outing for Lamont on tenor and, perhaps the oddest thing on the whole album, Kenny Wheeler’s ‘sound of surprise’ solo which cleaves apart what is otherwise a rather bland chart of ‘Scarborough Fair’ - and South uses far more woodwind than of yore. For discographical anorak types though, there’s also the notable inclusion of guitarist Dave Goldberg on what must surely be one of his last final credited sessions (he died from a heroin overdose in August 1969), although, regrettably, he too is kept somewhat under wraps.

‘Say No More’ isn’t a jazz album as such, but it’s still a cracking record nevertheless, one which reminds us how even the most ‘throwaway’ session from this period was performed with a sense of craftsmanship nothing short of immaculate. While perfectly meeting the requirements of the project (bouncing to-and-fro stereo effects, recognisable treatments of well-known themes) South’s charts only have the occasional flash of brilliance. Some, however, are quite beautiful (‘The Fool on The Hill’ and ‘Live For Love’ most notably) but one has to remember, when reappraising a record like this under the microscope of nostalgic, Brit-jazz, scholarliness, that it was never intended to be listened to in such a manner. This is late-night chill out music, or party music, or music to do the crossword to, or eat dinner to, or whatever you choose. That said, the fact you can do any of these activities (or indeed maybe others) to such a soundtrack is a tribute to how effectively South observed the remit of the job; to make Listening this Easy isn’t anywhere near as simple as it sounds.

Reconstituted

Obscure as it is ‘Say No More’ was by no means the end of the ‘Stereo Brass’ idea. In interviews published in ‘Melody Maker’ (July 1969) and ‘Crescendo’ (August 1969), South explained the other purpose for the band; to provide an alternative to the conventional big band and, in doing so, showcase four of London’s best jazz saxophonists as soloists within an new and challenging format.

‘There is definitely a lack of popularity for the saxophone section with the present generation,’ he told ‘Crescendo’, perhaps haunted by the quavering ghost of the once ubiquitous quick-quick-slow palais reed sections. ‘The writing [for the ‘Stereo Brass’] is being done….so that the saxes function more as soloists than as a section.’

And who had South settled upon as his featured soloists? In ‘Melody Maker’ he initially mooted Tubby Hayes, Joe Harriott and Peter King, but when ‘Crescendo’ revealed the band would make its debut on BBC ‘Jazz Club’ on August 2nd (taped July 23rd) South confirmed he’d finally recruited Hayes, Harriott, young Australian Ray Warleigh and the then Montreaux Jazz Festival award-winner Alan Skidmore to play out front of his two brass five-piece sections and a rhythm team of guitarist Louis Stewart, bassist Ron Mathewson and drummer Spike Wells, then three-quarters of the Tubby Hayes Quartet.

South was also keen to farm out some of the writing for the broadcast, asking ‘the ‘best guys’, Tubby, Jimmy Deuchar and Kenny Wheeler to apply their abilities to this personnel’.

If all this appears to be leading to another one of those frustrating cul-de-sacs of jazz history which slams the reader abruptly up against a statement like ‘unfortunately, no copy of this session has ever been found’ then prepare yourself for a pleasant surprise; not only does a copy exist but half of its contents have latterly been issued on commercially available discs.

The show’s opener, South’s original ‘Themeology’ has been included on R&B Records ‘The Songbook’, while Joe Harriott’s impassioned version of George Gershwin’s ‘My Man’s Gone Now’, originally scored by South for guitarist Terry Smith’s ‘Fall Out’ LP in autumn 1968 (like all good orchestrators, South wasn’t above recycling his own work), has been issued as part of the limited run vinyl-only album ‘Chronology: Live 1968-69’ on the Jazz in Britain label.

Both are astonishing performances, with Harriott’s pleading, emotion-packed playing on the ballad in particular providing some of the best of his ‘later’ music.

The two performances that haven’t been released commercially are thankfully available to hear on drummer Spike Wells’ music page on his very own blog and I’d urge you to head there at the first opportunity. The first is a Kenny Wheeler ballad, here titled ‘Another Mood’ which, much like South’s ‘My Man’s Gone Now’ chart, the composer would retool for Maynard Ferguson a couple of month’s later for the album ‘MF Horn’ wherein it was renamed ‘Ballad To Max’. Like almost all of Wheeler’s late-1960s work, it still sounds incredibly contemporary. The show’s closer is another borrowing, this time from Stan Tracey, who was at the time of the recording then putting the finishing touches to his own big band project ‘The Seven Ages of Man’ (originally issued on Columbia but recently included on the reissue project ‘Wisdom In The Wings’ on the ReSteamed label). From that suite, he kindly loaned South his ‘All The World’s A Stage’ which on the Columbia album became a vehicle for the incendiary tenor of Alan Skidmore. On South’s, both Skidmore and Tubby Hayes solo, giving the listener a rare opportunity to witness the line of succession of ‘Melody Maker’ tenor poll winners in the years immediately ahead.

For its contemporary audience (‘you need to listen with two heads’ joked compère Humphrey Lyttelton) South’s band was an exciting sign of what looked to come, Brian Gladwell’s regular ‘Radio and TV Notebook’ column in ‘Crescendo’ delivering an enthusiastic response to the band, finding it ‘reconstituted and noticeably updated’ with a ‘strong sax line-up’. Wheeler’s piece and Harriott’s ballad solo were declared its highlights.

But what of the ‘stereo’ idea? While this had been the main thrust behind the charts on ‘Say No More’, and was instantly appreciated in Philips’ crystal clear studio sound, had the BBC programme delivered the same effect? The answer is to a degree, although this is a verdict qualified somewhat by the indifferent audio quality of the surviving tapes (the Harriott release mentioned above does, however, feature the best sound we’ll probably ever get from the surviving tape, unless a pristine BBC copy exists somewhere).

Still, there is evidence enough of South’s desire to ‘have one [brass section] playing open and the other muted, shadowing the sound’ (especially on the opener ‘Themeology’), while those present in the assembled ranks must have welcomed another by-product of the double-up theory, which, as South observed in ‘Crescendo’, helped greatly in ‘saving the lips of the guys’.

‘It’s an enormous advantage over one brass section blowing its lungs out,’ he added knowingly. When the band do come together though, the power of the combined lead trumpet skills of Derek Watkins and Greg Bowen is quite staggering, even in the rather grey audio heard on Wells’ copy of the broadcast.

Do more things

With two signal successes under its belt – a commercially accessible LP and a well-received radio appearance – South had clear plans for the band in the months ahead. ‘I’m hoping to to do all this [again] on a jazz album,’ he told ‘Melody Maker’, ‘and Terry Henebery has promised me a BBC-TV thing when he starts a new series which will be featuring British jazzmen [‘The Jazz Scene at Ronnie Scott’s’, which began in September 1969; sadly, South’s band wasn’t included]'.

He was also adamant that this novel effect would be useful in his more pop-centric work too. ‘I’d like to do more things with Georgie Fame using the new line-up’.

Nevertheless, what had begun as a somewhat contrived idea, one born out of frustration with the ‘accepted’ instrumentation of the traditional big band line-up soon turned into something of an albatross for the arranger. ‘It seemed a good idea from a stereo point of view’, South had been reported as saying in Peter Clayton’s sleeve notes to ‘Say No More’ but outside of that what was the concept offering other than its sheer newness? BBC ‘Jazz Club’ appearances by South’s band from the following year (again, excerpts of which are featured on the R&B release ‘Further South’) revealed a gradual but perhaps inevitable retreat back towards convention. True, there were the odd splashes on wah-wah-muted trumpets being played against open horns, and, for a time, the sax section remained fixed at two altos and two tenors without the familiar bottom voice of baritone underpinning the voicing, but other than those nods the vestiges of the stereo experiment were hardly substantial. Perhaps having made what he’d thought a considerable breakthrough for big band scoring, there seemed to be nothing left to do with the innovation other than say you’d been there and done it, marking it down as yet another briefly distracting 1960s novelty, one to be filed alongside topless dresses and Simon Dee.

And with that observation we’re more or less back where started. That’s not to say that either ‘Say No More’ or the BBC ‘Jazz Club’ recordings aren’t worthy of another moment in the sun. Although both are firmly of their time, each has a sense of high-level musicianship that remains impressive, with the radio spot in particular having the added bonus of hearing Tubby Hayes and Joe Harriott together, a pairing that, although it might sound logical to lovers of vintage British jazz, was by no means a frequent or easy one. ‘Say No More’ is, naturally, less dramatic, but with its sunny bossa grooves and bright, tight section work it had certainly retained an capacity to charm and, moreover, is actually far more tasteful than certain other Easy Listening period records that have latterly been resuscitated in digital formats. Perhaps one day we might see it reissued on CD, maybe coupled with the earlier ‘Presenting The Harry South Big Band’ material? In the meantime though, you’ll just have to search the second hand bins and internet auctions to locate a copy. If you’re lucky enough to do so, you’ll discover an album which, although it can hardly be called a world beater, is a pleasant enough departure from all the Westbrook’s, Colliers and Surman’s of its day. And, if there’s any justice at all, in playing it you might find yourself having just that little bit more respect for Harry South himself, a musician who was so much more than ‘the bloke who did ‘The Sweeney’’.

Photo: blow the winds southerly; Harry South enjoys a backstage smoke with drummer Bill Eyden circa. 1966.

 

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