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
“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.”
“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!”
“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