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
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.