Vernon is 18 and leaving school. When planning to start training as a music teacher, he meets Joe Cocker, who offers him to play with his new blues band.
One year after Vernon’s death, I resume the publication of a selection of his “memoirs”. I cannot promise the frequency, but intend to keep some regularity in the publication.
1964: My last day at school
We boys who were leaving school for good went to the canteen to sing the school song, performed only once a year and only by school leavers. The song, universally abhorred, is “Non Quo sed Quomodo” (It ain’t what you do, it’s the way you do it. That’s what gets results.) Latin is so concise. The melody is so undistinguished and the words so bad it could be classified as “anti-music”.
Just a word or two from Mr O’Kelly
That done with, I wander round the grounds giving the school its last look-over. Out from the staff room come Mr Breen O’Kelly with his immaculate dress and military bearing, head of the CCF, fought with Montgomery in the North African Campaign.
“Oh, Nash, so you’re leaving today. Just a word or two”
I look sheepish. “Yes, sir”.
“Actually, Nash, I’ve always rather liked you. But I couldn’t allow you to disrupt life in Upper Sixth Arts and spoil the chances of those serious boys with academic ambitions. In the final year you’d ceased to be a danger so I let you do what you liked.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, to have caused so much trouble”
“And what are you going to do now? You should become a beatnik. That’s your true vocation.”
I point at my beautifully Chinese-laundry starched collar: “I like to keep smart, sir.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a way round that. And don’t go marrying the first girl who comes along. Play the field a bit.”
“I’ll bear that in mind, sir. You were always my favourite teacher.
“You taught me critical thinking.”
“In what way?”
“Remember the day in the Spanish room when you brought in a few copies of ‘El Ruedo’?” I said. Then continued ‘ “I looked at the magazines and said “Spanish magazines are really poor quality”. “You, spineless jellyfish, Nash! You’ve broken the first rule of Greek logic!” “How, sir?” “You went from the particular to the general. You saw one Spanish magazine and concluded that all Spanish magazines were the same.” Then, Sir, you went on to tell us in full detail about the “cornadas multiples” at which point I fainted and had to be taken to Matron for treatment.” ’
“Oh yes. You always were a spineless jellyfish. Don’t forget. Your vocation is to be a Beatnik. And don’t marry too young.”
At some point that year…
… the Beatles are playing on my girl-friend’s transistor radio.
“You’ll think I’m a real berk when I tell you this one”, says I.
“You could have seen the Beatles for 2/6 and you didn’t go?”
“It was the biggest mistake of my life. I was wrong. I was obstinate. Told people I’d heard them on the radio and didn’t rate them. Everybody from Gleadless went. Said it was fabulous. Best they’d ever heard. I felt ashamed, especially as I was trying to learn rhythm’n’blues piano.”
We tried never to mention the matter again.
Not much idea of what to do with my life…
“I hate to ask, Vernie, but what are you doing now you’ve left school?
“I’ve absolutely no idea”
… train to become a music teacher?
I go to my piano lesson. Working on a tricky Brahms intermezzo. After a week, I seem to be making a little progress with the Brahms. My music teacher shows me an advert. At Huddersfield College of Technology, they want students to train as music teachers. I decide to apply.
At the interview in Huddersfield, I played the piano for them: They seemed eager to take me on. Teacher training plus piano plus double bass. I was offered a place: grant and tuition sorted out, with accommodation Monday to Friday in Huddersfield. Dark stone buildings, blackened by the industry but quite a pretty, friendly place. Good beer, too.
Gloom settles on…
It all seems a good break, but my girlfriend and I know it all means we’re only going to see each other two days a week. Gloom settles on as September drags on. Everything just seems to get darker and more sinister…
In need of a bit of fun, I call on Grez, my blues guitarist buddy.
“Let’s have a few pints.”
“Sure, but better down-town.”
We jump on a big yellow taxi (slang for Sheffield buses). Get off at the Leadmill Road, home to the famous Esquire Club.
Then, at the Rodley Arms…
We go in the Rodley Arms, a beer house. No spirits, no wines, only beer and Babycham. We get our nutty, frothing pints. We sit and gaze philosophically at the wall.
“Hey, they’ve got a piano in here. Why don’t you try it, Vernon?”
I open the lid and play slow blues, then, fast boogie-woogie. I sing Elvis’s “Teddy Bear”, then back to slow mournful blues.
Vance Arnold was listening
Unbeknownst to us, Vance Arnold of “Vance Arnold and the Avengers” had already been in the room for nearly ten minutes. I suddenly notice him there. I keep playing, amazed to see this local rock star leaning against the piano.
“Do you always play like that?”
“I try to. I love blues, rhythm’n’blues and most other black American music. I’m sort of hooked.”
Vance Arnold was just his stage name. His real name was John (Joe) Cocker.
Joe asks Vernon to join his “brand-new gutsy blues band”
“We’re starting a brand-new gutsy blues band. Would you be interested in joining?”
“You don’t have to ask me twice”
“OK, rehearsals on Wednesday and Thursday at the Lescar Hotel, Sharrow Vale Road. Arrive 6:30 p.m. prompt.
We sealed the deal over a pint and a handshake. Joe downed his pint and left. I looked at Grez, my face contorted in amazement.
“That was the break of a lifetime.”
“I don’t quite understand how it happened.”
“That band’s going to be good. I know the guitar man. Plays like Buddy Guy or John Lee Hooker or Big Bill Broonzy or any other style you’d choose. The bass player has perfect pitch, meaning hum him a song and he’ll have all the chords and bass line ready in his head. The drummer plays like Ray Charles’s drummer on ‘What I′d say’. They’re all first-class musicians”.
“That was a stroke of luck”
“Correction. A one-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck.”
“And I didn’t have to try much.”
“Obviously you tried enough.”
Joe Cocker’s Big Blues Band kicks off
Wednesday rehearsal we polished off at least a dozen songs in short order including, “I’ve got my Mojo working”, Muddy Waters; “Georgia in my Mind”, Ray Charles; “I believe to my soul”, also Ray Charles.
Thursday rehearsal we’d already got a respectable repertoire of more than twenty-four songs. We went through the programme again fast. Joe was always a perfectionist. Once he was satisfied, we had the last pint and closed the rehearsal. I couldn’t wait to get on stage.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday gigs. I played grand piano with mike wired to Joe’s amplifier. Good audience Friday, Saturday at dance halls, but Sunday at the High Gate was even better.
The guitarist (David Hopper) went for a Buddy Guy-type stroll as he played an extended blues solo. We already had a following. People came up saying how they liked the new band. My first three days in show-biz —exhilarating.
Joe paid me up for the three shows. I’d never had so much cash in my hand before.
“How did I do?”
“Real good. They like the sound of the piano in the band and so do I. Just one problem. Next Saturday we’re at Club 60. They’ve no piano. So get a piano or organ by Saturday or you’re fired!”
Without my parents’ knowing I buy my first electric piano on the never-never
Three shows and then fired? How could this be? My parents would never allow hire-purchase. I was under 21. Stymied. Until the bass player (Dave Green) intervened.
“I’ve a mate who runs a fish’n’chip shop. I’m sure he’ll sign the agreement.”
“Thanks a million.”
Sure enough next Saturday morning the whole band is at Wilson Peck’s music store, plus the fish’n’chip man. I try a few organs: Farfisa (not keen), Hammond (great but too expensive), then a Hohner Pianet. An electric piano. I like the sound- Reminds me of Ray Charles on “Believe to my soul.”
“I’ll take this one.”
I pay £7 deposit, the chip-shop man signs the H.P. agreement and I waltz out of the shop with a good R&B instrument. All is solved. Panglossian.
“Things are getting better all the time,” as the Beatles so eloquently put it.
I cancel the plans I had made for my future: the course, the grant, the tuition and never think about Huddersfield again. I will never become a music teacher.
I play Club 60 with my new instrument. Everybody seems to like the throaty sound of the electric piano in the band.
http://www.donhale.co.uk/videos.html shows a recording of when Joe Cocker was still “Vance Arnold & the Avengers” but, for some reason, Vernon appears there too and, according to a friend of his, he’s playing keyboard, so the recording must have been made in 1964, not 1963. Else, the recording is a mixture of different performances between 1963 and 1964-65.
In the next episode, Vernon tells us…
“How I managed to hide the piano from my parents’ view when performing on telly”