Fort Knox 

1 September 2001

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Gavin Sutherland on Jack Parnell at Elstree and now

The musicians often termed work at the Elstree studios as working in “Fort Knox”, since the musicians would be paid for an overnight stay if doing an evening taping. However, everyone drove back to London anyway, and it was never queried.

Jack and the band often appeared in shot, necessitating an appearance fee. It was always a thrill to see singers backed by such a huge orchestra, with Jack and his famous hunched back and shoulders carving a mean beat for his players.

It always made me chuckle if strings were used, as more often than not they only had long notes to play and the bored expressions they broadcast made me only want to write more in my own arrangements.

Mind you, Tommy Dorsey reproached Sy Oliver, his chief staff arranger, for writing such complex string parts. “May I remind you,” Dorsey tartly said, “that the strings are not a necessity, merely a tax avoidance!”

With the franchise dissolved when ATV gave way to Central, Jack’s orchestra did not last. Most of the musicians went on to other session work, or retired, although not often, as session musicians would generally play from hospital beds if the dough was right! Some, like Ronnie Verrell, enjoyed a new cult status as resident drummer on “The Frank Skinner Show”.

The Ted Heath Band (kept alive as tribute by Don Lusher and Moira Heath, Ted’s late widow) featured guest appearances by as many of the original musicians as possible. Sadly, its last concert was at the Festival Hall in December, though the band’s fame is now assured for future generations by CD collections.

Jack is still going strong, backing many artists and making CDs with Tony Bennett’s pianist Ralph Sharon and Lennie Bush on bass. He appears with the “Best of British”, featuring many of the original session musicians from the ATV/London scene in the fifties and sixties, and conducts the London Big Band, formed by composer Laurie Johnson five years ago.

It too is comprised of many of the ATV/BBC/EMI musicians of the 50s, 60s and 70s. The longevity of Jack and many others of his ilk proves that their love of their art keeps them fresh, happy, and available for work. One of Jack’s most heart-warming comments clarifies this:

“All I want to do now is play golf, play my drums and conduct. Just keep going, you know.”

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