No way back to the pi­ano-play­ing days of Russ Con­way and Mrs Mills

Where have all the pi­anists gone, asks David Clay­ton. In the 1950s and 1960s they were ev­ery­where, en­ter­tain­ing an au­di­ence who had grown up with a pi­ano in the front room. There was al­ways a pi­ano down the pub and plenty of peo­ple able to bash out a tune

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Pi­anists weren’t the most ex­cit­ing peo­ple to tele­vise. The early TV di­rec­tors had lit­tle to go on – a cam­era on the fin­gers play­ing the keys and a pan up to a beam­ing smile and a nod to the cam­era. Lib­er­ace was on an­other planet and a brash, camp Amer­i­can. Not for us, at the time. No thank you. We pre­ferred our home-grown stars.

For ex­am­ple, we al­ways knew my Mum had a crush on Russ Con­way. For­tu­nately he’d pop up reg­u­larly on Billy Cot­ton’s Band Show of a Satur­day night. As it was the week­end I could stay up a bit later, so I watched her blush a lit­tle as the very hand­some Russ tin­kled away and winked down the cam­era lens at her.

Mil­lions of other women, like my mother, swooned. I was fas­ci­nated by the fact the close-ups of his hands re­vealed half a fin­ger which was no good for play­ing a pi­ano. He’d lopped part of it off in a bread slicer while serv­ing in the Navy.

He’d had a big hit with Side Sad­dle in 1959 and had helped fill that mu­si­cal black hole in Bri­tish pop mu­sic when the big band croon­ers had given way to a small surge in do­mes­tic rock and roll be­fore The Bea­tles came along.

Then there was Winifred Atwell, she’d pre-dated Russ and reached su­per­star sta­tus in the mid-1950s with her boo­gie and rag style play­ing. She’d pop up oc­ca­sion­ally on TV too. All smiles with her fin­gers a blur across the keys. It was said she was banned from wash­ing up be­cause her hands were in­sured. The words ‘stunt’ and ‘pub­lic­ity’ come to mind!

Step up Joe ‘Mr Pi­ano’ Hen­der­son, who for a time was ro­man­ti­cally linked to Pe­tula Clark. He’d be a re­li­able guest

artiste on many a 1960s’ TV show and would trot out his 1950s’ hit, ‘Trudie’. Yes he could play, of course he could play, but in re­al­ity how en­ter­tain­ing was it?

Then who could for­get Mrs Mills. She’d ap­pear on Billy Cot­ton’s TV show too and bash out a whole load of sin­ga­long stuff. It wasn’t very orig­i­nal but if you look up her discog­ra­phy there’s an im­pres­sive list of top sell­ing sin­gles and LPs all through the 1960s. She was on the same la­bel as The Bea­tles – Par­lophone – and recorded at Abbey Road, where the up­right pi­ano she played on is still there and known as ‘The Mrs Mills Pi­ano.’ The Bea­tles even used it on some of their iconic tracks.

Mrs Mills ex­uded hap­pi­ness with her end­less med­leys of good old-fash­ioned sin­ga­long tunes, and with her in­fec­tious smile she was, to coin an over-used phrase, ‘much loved’.

I can pic­ture my par­ents singing away to ‘Roll Out The Bar­rel’ and ‘My Old Man Said Fol­low the Van’ and other such dit­ties. Gladys Mills did per­fect that smile to cam­era and I do re­call be­ing trans­fixed

He could swing tenths back­wards and for­wards and add a fifth in as well!

by the flesh on her arms wob­bling away. Dare I say ‘bingo wings?’ She didn’t mind ref­er­ences to her size and joked about it her­self. She re­ferred to her pi­ano-play­ing fin­gers as ‘my lit­tle chipo­latas’!

Just when this was all start­ing to fade out along came Bobby Crush. He was a lively pi­ano-play­ing teenager when he won Hughie Green’s Op­por­tu­nity Knocks six weeks on the trot in the early 1970s. He’d been in­spired by the likes of Russ Con­way and did the young show­man pi­anist thing very well. He’s still per­form­ing.

Johnny Cleve­land has been en­ter­tain­ing au­di­ences around here for six decades at the pi­ano although he’s a fine singer and comic too. He met and worked with Mrs Mills and says: ‘She was ev­ery­one’s Mum and never stopped laugh­ing.’ He also said that she was tech­ni­cally a very good pi­anist, but Johnny saved his high­est praise for Russ Con­way.

“He could swing tenths back­wards and for­wards and add a fifth in as well!” This needs some in­ter­pre­ta­tion in that his left hand was play­ing what is gen­er­ally known as ‘stride’ pi­ano. So rather than span­ning an oc­tave with the thumb and lit­tle fin­ger he was stretch­ing across 10 notes but hit­ting the fifth in be­tween. Clever stuff.

So, will we see their like again? Johnny says things have changed some­what with songs like ‘New York New York,’ ‘The Great Pre­tender’ and ‘Delilah’ re­plac­ing ‘Daisy, Daisy’ and ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World.’

He doubts we’ll see a mod­ern, na­tion­ally known equiv­a­lent of Mrs Mills turn up on Bri­tain’s Got Tal­ent any day soon, if ever. What would they play? What could we sin­ga­long to? What would Si­mon Cow­ell say!

Russ Con­way, a very ac­com­plished pi­anist.

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