Bobby Orr

On the oc­ca­sion of Bobby Orr’s 85th birth­day, Ge­off Ni­cholls talks to the great Scot­tish jazz and ses­sion drum­mer whose ca­reer now spans seven decades

Rhythm - - THE RHYTHM INTERVIEW - Words: Ge­off Ni­cholls pho­tos: press

“Too many fast tricks and the public doesn’t get it. So for me the an­chor is to know the tune you are play­ing. St ick to the form”

he Scot­tish tra­di­tion of pipe band drum­ming, with its at­ten­tion to rudi­ments and pre­ci­sion, has al­ways en­sured a steady flow of ex­cel­lent play­ers. Bobby Orr’s fa­ther John played with The Royal Scots and passed on the tra­di­tion to his son. How­ever, Bobby ac­tu­ally be­gan his pro­fes­sional ca­reer play­ing trum­pet in the band of the fa­bled drum­mer Basil Kirchin be­fore cir­cum­stances forced him to aban­don the trum­pet in favour of drums. Hav­ing made a name in Scot­land he came to Lon­don and was soon mak­ing waves on the fast evolv­ing 1950s jazz scene with Joe Har­riott, Tubby Hayes and John Dankworth. Then, as drum­mer at Ron­nie Scott’s first club, he backed Amer­i­can stars Zoot Simms, Al Cohn, Milt Jack­son and Dizzy Gille­spie.

From here Bobby played count­less ses­sions for TV, movies and shows. As the ’60s pro­gressed Bobby found him­self play­ing pop ses­sions, although he paid lit­tle at­ten­tion, see­ing them as a dis­trac­tion from the se­ri­ous busi­ness of play­ing jazz. Thus Bobby is on songs by Dono­van, Dusty Spring­field and so on, but he does not re­mem­ber which.

As a top-name ses­sion drum­mer, Bobby and his fel­low coun­try­man Andy White launched the Ajax Nu-Sound drum se­ries in 1966. And at the height of his ca­reer Bobby had the distinc­tion of be­ing the only UK drum­mer to tour and record with the King of Swing, Benny Good­man. He also ac­com­pa­nied other mu­si­cal gi­ants of Amer­i­can show­biz, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr and Billy Eck­s­tine.

Last Au­gust Bobby cel­e­brated his 85th birth­day and on a beau­ti­ful sum­mer day Chris Wright of the Drum-Wright shop in Read­ing in­vited a bunch of Bobby’s old mu­si­cal friends to lunch, in­clud­ing drum­mers Clem Cat­tini, Pete Cater and Bob Hen­rit amongst many oth­ers. Rhythm took the op­por­tu­nity to look back on Bobby’s long ca­reer.

Your fa­ther got you play­ing from an early age?

“My dad, John Orr, was a drum­mer through the First World War in the Royal Scots. He worked in the Clyde Works as a fur­nace man, [ mak­ing] those big long nails you get for rail­way sleep­ers. He was drum ma­jor in the lo­cal pipe band and had me play­ing rudi­ments when I was three. He had a band play­ing lo­cal dances. If he had a dou­ble date he would send me out with two ac­cor­dion play­ers, play­ing jigs and reels, for half a crown: 2s/6d. I was eight or nine, in short pants.

“Later, I’d get dressed up with the kilt and get a tram into Glas­gow to go with the [ pipe] band. But around 17, I was more into learn­ing jazz on the trum­pet – Louis Arm­strong and Harry James. So as soon as we fin­ished I would rush home and pick up the trum­pet to do a lit­tle gig.”

When you left school did you in­tend to be a full-time mu­si­cian?

“Not re­ally, I was keen on wood­work. I be­came a car­pen­ter, work­ing on lo­cal houses, ended up in charge of a hous­ing scheme in Blan­tyre, where [ Scots doc­tor, ex­plorer and mis­sion­ary] David Liv­ing­stone was from.”

All the time gig­ging on trum­pet?

“Yes. I got a chance to join the Bert To­bias band at the Lo­carno, Glas­gow [ in1948]. He was a fa­mous ex-tenor player from Os­car Rabin’s band. And I played trum­pet in a band called the Beavers – my great friend Andy White, who would play on The Bea­tles’ first sin­gle in 1962, was the drum­mer. I left to au­di­tion with Basil Kirchin around 1952. He was in the Foun­tain­bridge Palais de Danse, a Mecca ball­room, in Ed­in­burgh.

“Basil was a great drum­mer. We played ev­ery af­ter­noon and evening. The lead alto left, and I got a mate in, Ron­nie Baker. Then the tenor player left and I got an­other mate in, Dun­can La­mont, so there were three Scots in the band. Then we went to the Plaza in Belfast, but my em­bouchure went. I gave up and came home, I wanted to get a teacher to cor­rect it, but it didn’t hap­pen.”

That must have been a great dis­ap­point­ment, but it did give the world a great drum­mer!

“Andy White and I started a big band in Glas­gow and re­hearsed ev­ery Sun­day. Andy was work­ing in Ayr with Andy Curry’s band, mak­ing a name for him­self, so he left to join Vic Lewis. That was when I was with Basil Kirchin and lost my trum­pet chops. So I au­di­tioned on drums and I stayed with Andy for two or three years. Then Mal­colm Mitchell, the gui­tar player, started a band down in Lon­don.”

And that is when you came south?

“Two or three mates had joined Mal­colm and they got me in. Bill Ey­den had left and I got the call to join around 1954. Then I got of­fers to join both Jack Par­nell’s band and Johnny Dankworth’s. I al­ways liked Jack’s play­ing so I took that of­fer and was there for three years [ 1956-58]. We did TV, but I left be­cause I wanted to try all kinds of other bands, mainly jazz. I was play­ing the jazz clubs and I got an of­fer to join [ Ja­maican-born-sax­o­phon­ist] Joe Har­riott’s Quin­tet and did about six years with him.”

Who were your drum­ming in­spi­ra­tions around this time?

“Phil Sea­men, Jack Par­nell, Basil Kirchin and Tony Crom­bie, an­other great drum­mer. They were all on the scene be­fore me. Ron­nie Scott started his first club when I was with Joe. Ron­nie’s drum­mer, Jackie Dougan, left for Australia and Ron­nie called me. But then things hap­pened – [ pi­anist] Stan Tracey left, Colin Pur­brook took over and was great. But when Stan came back Ron­nie called me to say that Stan felt our two styles didn’t work to­gether. So I went back to Joe Har­riott. That’s the way it goes, ev­ery­one has a dif­fer­ent feel and [ some­times] you don’t fit. Stan Tracey copied [ Th­elo­nius] Monk and I would play along with him, elab­o­rate, and [ ap­par­ently] that was ‘wrong’. Be­ing in­ven­tive your­self, you do things and some­times you suit and some­times you don’t, and that is ex­pe­ri­ence.”

But you were busy any­way?

“This was the early 1960s. I toured with Tommy Steele and was mak­ing a name as a ses­sion drum­mer. You go where the money is. You get of­fered a gig and you can’t do it be­cause you’re do­ing a show or some­thing, you have to move on, some­thing else comes up. The mu­sic busi­ness was al­ways a bit of a rat race! “There was a pe­riod when I was do­ing TV more.

6-5Spe­cial had three bands and I was with the band

“You get of­fered a gig and you can’t do it be­cause you’re do­ing a show, you have to move on, some­thing else comes up. The mu­sic busi­ness was al­ways a bit of a rat race!”

with Ron­nie Scott, Harry Klein and Lenny Bush. Tito Burns was the agent, we did three weeks and then I had to go to Tito’s of­fice for my money, but we all got the sack be­cause we were too jazzy! He said, by the way, about the porter­age I have been pay­ing you – 10s/6d – it should have been 10s. Oh, so I owe you 1s/6d [ laughs-iron­i­cally]? Yes. And he took it!”

You men­tioned your UK he­roes, but what about Amer­i­cans?

“My first in­flu­ences were Benny Good­man and Harry James. And a big in­flu­ence on my hear­ing and pick­ing up things was Char­lie Parker.”

And drum­mers?

“Oh, so many. I loved Art Blakey’s power. I went to New York with the Johnny Gray Quar­tet [ 1958]. The fixer, Harold Dav­i­son, said stay over and you can join up with the Vic Lewis band who are com­ing over. So dur­ing that mid­dle week off I’m stay­ing in the Pres­i­dent Ho­tel when Roy Bradley phones, a trum­pet player friend who had been on the At­lantic-cross­ing][ boats. We went to hear Art Blakey And The Jazz Mes­sen­gers at Café Bo­hemia. This lady pho­tog­ra­pher came up and said do you want your pic­ture taken? Sit in front of the band. And min­utes later she came back with the pic­tures. They had a break and Max Roach was in the club! He went up and did a stint. I was over the moon. “The pho­tog­ra­pher had told Blakey that two [ top

UK] mu­si­cians were in, so she brought him over and he said, ‘Hey, man, get up and play. I said no! [ but

Blakey-in­sisted], so I started play­ing and the first cym­bal I hit was aw­ful. I went onto the other one and it was worse! So I went back to the first and af­ter the first num­ber I got up to leave and the bass player said, ‘Stay there!’ So I fin­ished that set and the pho­tog­ra­pher took an­other pic­ture of me play­ing with them.

“Af­ter­wards Blakey took me to the Five Spot Club and Pep­per Adams was play­ing with Philly Joe Jones. I was scared stiff! Blakey wanted me to to do an al­bum for Blue Note. But it was all hap­pen­ing too fast and I couldn’t take it in.”

That is so mod­est of you though, be­cause you must have been play­ing great.

“I thought I was okay. I had a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence. Even when I was play­ing trum­pet with Basil I used to play on the re­lief band’s drums and Basil and I did a dou­ble drum thing. So my hands were al­ways up to it. Later, back home, I gigged at the Bull’s Head in Barnes with Pep­per Adams when he came over.”

At the same time you were do­ing pop ses­sions, play­ing straight eighth-notes?

“I was never into talk­ing about rock’n’roll and straight eighths, I just played. I did rock ses­sions – I did one of Dusty Spring­field’s early records. But Clem [ did much of her stuff. Clem used to come for lessons. Andy White and I started the Lon­don Drum Clinic in St John’s Street, Is­ling­ton. It only lasted 18 months – we started to get busy on ses­sions. Andy is in New York now. He used to play for Mar­lene Di­et­rich when she came over and he mar­ried her make-up/dresser girl.

“I was never prom­i­nent as a pop drum­mer, it was too sim­ple to me, I was more into jazz, small groups,

Cat­tini] with Ron­nie and Tubby Hayes and Jimmy Deuchar. But I did big band as well. Car­men McRae came over and we toured with her in Ron­nie’s big band. I left that band and went into stu­dio work – the good money was of­ten made in TV.”

In the 1970s you achieved the hon­our of be­ing the only UK drum­mer to tour with Benny Good­man. To put that into per­spec­tive it would be like to­day be­ing the only UK drum­mer to have toured with, say, Michael Jack­son.

“We had a week’s re­hearsal at a big pub in Ac­ton. He would re­hearse the horns but he never both­ered much with the rhythm sec­tion. I used to fool about with a pen­cil in my teeth, play­ing ‘The Flight Of The Bum­ble­bee’. That got a laugh and even­tu­ally we went away on tour and in Stock­holm, in the in­ter­val, Benny sent for me. I thought, oh no! But Benny said, that thing with your teeth, put it into the sec­ond half be­fore ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. So I did Mozart’s ‘Turk­ish March’ and brought the house down.

“Then I had to go back onto the drums and start ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. Now I was not a tom tom lover and I had not played ‘Sing… ’ pre­vi­ously, so I did it my way. Bob Ef­ford, the tenor player, said when you are play­ing for me I’d rather you did the cym­bals not the toms. So when it came to ac­com­pa­ny­ing the soloists, in­clud­ing Benny, I stuck with do­ing what I liked. And it was fan­tas­tic. Af­ter the show Benny came up smil­ing and said Gene [ Krupa] never played it like

“Af­ter the show Benny [ Good­man] came up smil­ing and said Gene[ Krupa] never played it like that. Now I didn’t know how to take that. He was maybe ex­pect­ing the toms”

that. Now I didn’t know how to take that. He was maybe ex­pect­ing the toms. I was more into be­ing a pipe band drum­mer – the snare drum was al­ways the first op­tion to me.”

And you have this ra­zor sharp style.

“That’s right. That’s the sound I like. But hav­ing a mu­si­cal ear be­cause of play­ing trum­pet, I al­ways think of tones on the drums. I al­ways have a key and se­cretly ad­just the toms. Even now when I play at Mer­lin’s Cave in Chal­font St Giles, when it comes to solo­ing, the bass player, Pete Hughes, says, ‘Oh, he’s play­ing the melody again.’”

Would that be your ad­vice on solo­ing?

“Too many fast tricks and the public doesn’t get it. So for me the an­chor is to know the tune you are play­ing. Stick to the form. [ Forex­am­ple] my favourite fast tune to play is ‘Chero­kee’ – [ Bobby

grabs his pad and sticks] you can prac­tise play­ing

R-RLR-R R-RLR-R [ Bobby plays this fig­ure fast and

sings the tune]. Then you do your own solo based

on the tune.”

You ob­vi­ously still have great hands, but you don’t get to play much th­ese days?

“Well, I did Ray McVay’s Glenn Miller big band for many years, up till around 2004. I can’t drive far and not at night, so I’m more or less a recluse now [ laughs]. All I do now is play on a Sun­day lunchtime down at Mer­lin’s Cave. I was there re­cently with Roger Nobes and Jack Em­blow and I have an­other gig in a cou­ple of weeks with a bril­liant young trum­pet player, Quentin Collins. I’ve been play­ing trum­pet [ aswell] in re­cent years and valve trom­bone. But ev­ery day I get up and sit with the pad, loosen up, see if the hands are work­ing.” [ At which Bobby plays on his pad and sounds great.]

Look­ing back again, you also worked with Sammy Davis Jr and Bing Crosby!

“Well, Sammy Davis was at the Prince of Wales Theatre with his own drum­mer, Michael Sil­ver, but the Mu­si­cians Union had to fix a Bri­tish drum­mer. So I had to sit in the band and I’d take the trum­pet along and prac­tise, but I was still get­ting paid. The only time I played the drums was when they wheeled the kit out for Sammy to play. I would go on the kit and Michael Sil­ver would go to the front and play on a chair. We’d swap fours. Later on I ac­com­pa­nied Billy Eck­s­tine on the same tour as Sammy. In Ger­many some of the au­di­ence booed. They wanted Sammy!”

And Bing?

“I was the last drum­mer to record with him, his last gig, a broad­cast from Maida Vale with the BBC Ra­dio Orches­tra with the Gor­don Rose band [ 11th Oc­to­ber,

1977]. Two days later he went over to Spain to play golf and he died over there [ 14th Oc­to­ber].

“I re­mem­ber one other ses­sion we did and in the in­ter­val I went to the toi­let and Bing walks in and we were stand­ing there to­gether and I said, ‘Bing, I have to tell you, my sis­ter’s lit­tle girl told me this story, I hope you un­der­stand, it’s in Scots lingo: ‘What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween Bing Crosby and Walt Dis­ney? Bing sings and Walt dis’nee.’ He laughed his head off. He got it, he was great.”

Bobby and Andy White with their Ajax NuSound drum se­ries in 1966

Bobby has ac­com­pa­nied Benny Good­man, Ron­nie Scott, Billy Eck­s­tine, Sammy Davis Jr and Bing Crosby

Bobby Orr dou­ble drum­ming with friend and fel­low ’60s ses­sion drum­mer Andy White

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