Tony Fisher: session ace

Gordon Jack talks to one of the busiest players on the London studio scene since 1970. He has been sideman with Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, John Dankworth, Ted Heath and Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland and, since Humph's death, played trumpet in that band

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Tony Fisher at the Hawth in Crawley in 2011. Photo © Brian O'Connor

‘I was born in Manchester in 1936 which is a real hot-bed of brass bands … There were no half-measures up there because they all took music very seriously’

Tony Fisher has been one of the finest and most reliable lead trumpets on the UK recording scene for the past 50 years. We talked about his career the day after he appeared with Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra (led by Pete Long) at the Ealing Jazz Festival in July.

“I was born in Manchester in 1936 which is a real hot-bed of brass bands. My father played a double Bb bass and as soon as I was four or five he gave me a cornet and took me off to band rehearsals five nights a week straight after school. He was a fanatic about it. There were no half-measures up there because they all took music very seriously. That went on for years and when I think about it now you might say I had a deprived childhood! The other side of the coin, of course, is that by the time I was 13 I was a very proficient player.

“Around 1950 my mother saw an advertisement in the Manchester Evening News for youngsters to appear on the Carroll Levis Discovery Show. By then I had switched to the trumpet so I played Harry James’ Trumpet Blues And Cantabile at the audition which amazed everyone.

“Although it was only supposed to be a week at the Manchester Hippodrome, I stayed with Levis for the next five years. Another one of my James specialities at the time was You Made Me Love You, which always went down well. We worked 52 weeks a year, six nights a week touring theatres which were sold out everywhere”. [In the late 50s the Quarrymen appeared on the Carroll Levis Show. They later became better known when they changed their name to the Beatles.]

“While I was with the show he arranged for me to do an eight-week series of BBC broadcasts on a programme called Accent On Youth along with Shani Wallis, Julian Bream and Barry Took. I played charts by that fine arranger Wally Stott with the BBC Review Orchestra.

Harry James: ‘…a lovely man and he still had that huge, powerful sound with a wonderful technique. Everyone from classical to heavy-duty jazz players recognised how great he was because he had it all’. [James was, of course, one of Miles Davis’s favourites.]

“Getting back to Harry James (who was a big influence), I had the pleasure of recording with him in 1972 on Mr. Trumpet (Hindsight HCD 702). He was a lovely man and he still had that huge, powerful sound with a wonderful technique. Everyone from classical to heavy-duty jazz players recognised how great he was because he had it all”. [James was, of course, one of Miles Davis’s favourites.]

“In those days you had to do a couple of years National Service and I did mine in the RAF. I was stationed near High Wycombe which had a jazz club and I used to sit in there with people like Tubby Hayes, Phil Seamen, Jimmy Walker and Dill Jones.

“After I was demobbed in 1956 I auditioned for Ken Mackintosh and I was with the band until 1959 which is when I joined Eric Delaney’s popular small band which eventually included Alan Skidmore. It was a hell of a platform for me as he only used one trumpet so I was heavily featured. We worked about six nights a week and did several European tours which included American bases in Germany.

“Around 1965, Ted Heath asked me to join as Eddie Blair was leaving. He wasn’t well at that time so the band wasn’t working so much”. [Ted Heath died in 1969.] “He was a nice guy but he stayed in the background a lot leaving announcements to the Canadian actor Paul Carpenter who sang a little too. Of course, Ted still had Lita Roza, Dickie Valentine and Dennis Lotis with him. There were no passengers because he employed a lot of good musicians and it was all very business-like because you were really taken care of.

‘In the heyday of that scene there were about 120 musicians in London who did everything and of course, if you made a mistake you were never called again’

“I stayed with the band for the rest of the 60s which is when I really started to get into the studio scene. You had to be prepared to play anything including jingles and some of it was rubbish of course but there was also some great stuff along the way”. [Tony played on several of the early James Bond films together with soundtracks conducted by Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini and John Williams. His recordings included sessions with Antonio Carlos Jobim, the Beatles, Tom Jones, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis, Robert Farnon, Don Costa, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire.] “I never had time to practise because I was so incredibly busy doing as many as three sessions a day seven days a week. In the heyday of that scene there were about 120 musicians in London who did everything and of course, if you made a mistake you were never called again. All the musical directors wanted me, like Ronnie Hazelhurst at the BBC, Alyn Ainsworth at London Weekend Television and Alan Braden at Thames Television. I was here, there and everywhere, a sort of flavour-of-the month I suppose. I was in the house band for Michael Parkinson’s TV show for about 20 years and when time permitted, I gave occasional master classes at the Guildhall, Trinity College and the Royal College of Music.

Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland: ‘…Without a doubt it was the greatest musical experience I’ve ever had – everything was magical’

“In 1969 I got a call to join the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland big band, and what an education that was. I was with them on and off for about four years although they didn’t work regularly. The guys were based all over Europe so Gigi Campi would usually arrange a record session somewhere like Cologne and then book the band for a series of concerts to make it worthwhile. I sometimes stopped playing just to listen to what was going on around me because it was so good. Without a doubt it was the greatest musical experience I’ve ever had – everything was magical. You have to remember that I was sitting between Benny Bailey and Art Farmer and Dusko Goykovich was there too. The sax section was like the history of jazz – Derek Humble, Johnny Griffin, Tony Coe, Ronnie Scott and Sahib Shihab. Humble was a great lead alto and when he played a chart that was it – everyone locked onto him”. [Tony made three albums with the band – Live At Ronnie Scott’s (Rearward RW 138CD), All Blues (Verve 559746 CD) and More Smiles (MPS 06024 9814789).]

“I worked a lot with Tubby Hayes, Stan Tracey and John Dankworth and then in 1975 Don Lusher reformed the old Ted Heath band and I stayed with Don until 2000. I combined that with working and eventually leading the Bert Kaempfert orchestra which was the ultimate easy-listening band but it did have some good jazz guys like Herb Geller and Jiggs Whigham. In 1992 I did a week with Frank Sinatra at the Albert Hall opposite Buddy Rich’s band and I remember around that time working with Ella Fitzgerald at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane.

“Coming right up to date, I’ve been with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band since he died in 2008 and I play in Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra once a month at the club plus some concerts here and there. I also try to fit in the occasional round of golf”.