On Radio

Parky’s great river of song

Michael Henderson on the old-fashioned music that the BBC doesn’t want us to hear any longer

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Michael Parkinson is a man of many accomplishments. Best-known as “the king of the chat show” (it is 50 years this summer since BBC viewers first caught him in that pioneering role), he has also been a producer in the glory days of Granada Television, a roving news reporter, a superlative sportswriter, and that increasingly rare bird, a radio presenter who values knowledge acquired through experience above stage door flummery.

Well played Jazz FM, for giving Parky the chance to present six hour-long shows featuring what Jacobs liked to call “our kind of music”

The passion that has anchored his life from adolescence to senior citizenship is the mighty river of the American popular song and its tributary, jazz. For years he was licensed by the BBC to share that love with listeners, and he was never lonely. Russell Davies and David Jacobs, superb broadcasters of contrasting styles, lit up Sunday evenings on Radio 2, with Malcolm Laycock’s “big band hour” linking their much-loved shows. When Jacobs died in 2013 Don Black took over, and swiftly made the final hour of the week his own.

All gone. The Radio 2 Sunday night, always a treat, has been banished like a disgraced courtier. The Jacobs-Black hour is now occupied by one of those wafflers who are taking over the world, and Clare Teal, who inherited Laycock’s big band slot, has also been released. That silver thread with thousands of loyal listeners, stitched with care over many decades, has been snapped, deliberately and brutally.

How can it be that BBC Radio, which finds room for every other kind of popular music, irrespective of quality, has written off the songbook from which everything flows? You can listen to rap and hip-hop until the Thames runs dry, though you may agree with George Harrison that “I only have to listen for a few seconds to realise why some people become axe murderers”. But those decision-makers in W1, white and middle-aged to a soul, cannot bear to be considered fusty.

So well played Jazz FM, for giving Parky the chance to present six hour-long shows featuring what Jacobs liked to call “our kind of music”. In Parky’s case the story began as a 10-year-old in Cudworth, the Yorkshire pit village where he grew up, listening to “feeble crooners” on the wireless. Then Louis Armstrong piped up on his trumpet, “a sound I’d never heard before”, and his life acquired a different dimension.

Armstrong appeared in the first of these new Jazz FM programmes, as instrumentalist, singer and torch-bearer. He was partnered on a recording of Summertime by Ella Fitzgerald which Parky called “in the real sense of that word, divine”. We then had lashings of Duke Ellington, with Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone, the Woody Herman “Herd”, and Sidney Bechet. Parky recalled catching Ellington at Sheffield City Hall in 1963, when, he found out later, Philip Larkin was present.

The second show brought more Ella, this time with Ellis Larkins at the piano. Jack Teagarden, trombonist supreme, made an appearance in the company of Bobby Hackett, the great cornet player. As a cub reporter in Doncaster, Parky revealed, he bumped into Teagarden, looking lost, and invited him into a café for a pot of tea. His news editor wasn’t interested! Well, in those days the giants of jazz walked the streets of Yorkshire towns every day.

Johnny Mercer, the lyricist, was the hero of the third show, though Mercer was so much more than a weaver of words. In his youth he was good enough to sing with the Paul Whiteman orchestra in New York. Later, having conquered the world of popular song, he established Capitol Records in Los Angeles, and acted as the label’s talent scout, signing up Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Nat “King” Cole.

This is the music the BBC doesn’t want us to hear any longer

In Parky’s ears, Mercer remains the finest all-round wordsmith in that fabled Songbook, and this was a golden hour, starting with Ella (of course) shaping Midnight Sun, with its celebrated introductory triple rhyme: red and ruby chalice/alabaster palace/aurora borealis.

One evening at his Berkshire home, Parky was about to go to bed when his neighbour Laurie Holloway phoned inviting him over to “meet a friend”. He went round, to find Mercer leading the way with Holloway’s wife, Marion Montgomery. We heard her version of Days of Wine and Roses, one of two standards Mercer wrote with Henry Mancini. Lena Horne sang the other, Moon River.

Parky didn’t coat Mercer in sugar. This great lyricist was a formidable drunk, who was obliged to deliver apologies with all those roses. But what songs he gave us. Parky played Mercer singing I’m Old Fashioned, Sinatra’s Come Rain or Come Shine, That Old Black Magic by Louis Prima, and Buddy Rich, the star drummer, interpreting Skylark, rather well.

This is the music the BBC doesn’t want us to hear any longer. It is, as Mercer wrote, old-fashioned, and we live in a world which seems to prefer the specious, not to say meretricious. The Songbook close to Parky’s heart was written by those for whom composition was an act of craftsmanship no less than that phantom “inspiration”. Each generation should be given the chance to hear it.

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