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| A telephone interview with Ron Aspery recorded
by Pete Bell on 27th January 2003
|Pete: Usual corny question,
when did you first start playing the sax?
Ron: Oh yeah, that was in 1957. I'd be about twelve years old. Because my parents took me to see the Middlesbrough Junior Municipal Orchestra, in a school in ... Parliament Road is it?
Ron: And you know, there were a lot of players in it, like an orchestra. And there was four saxophones. I couldn't believe it. I'm sat near them with my parents.
I really noticed the shape of them ..... these gold things, just the shape of them. I found it fascinating. And I just liked the look of them better than all the other instruments, and that was apart from the sound. It was really the look of them that appealed. I just mentioned to my mother and father how much I liked the look of them.
They used to do quite a bit of dancing, go ballroom dancing. So they always liked bands, and that was funny because sax was always their favourite instrument. Most band leaders, strangely, most, at that time .. the band leader's normally an alto player, isn't he. Eight out of ten times, it was probably a saxophone player band leader, wasn't it?
So they got me one - forty quid. They got it sent from Boosey & Hawkes, and they paid for it over two or three years - forty quid. Because it was a lot then, wasn't it, like five hundred now, something like that. So that's it.
Pete: Did you get lessons and stuff like that? Who taught you?
Ron: Well my father taught me the fingering. While I was waiting for the saxophone to arrive, and it took a long time for it to arrive, he got the tutor book, "Otto Langey" it's called ..... and he sawed up a brush handle, a sweeping brush, and he stuck drawing pins into it as the basics of the fingering - some on the front, some at the back, some at the side, and I learnt to practise on that.
C, D, E, F, G, you know, H [laughs] ... and he got me to know the basic fingering on this brush shank. But he even made a sling as well. It's silly isn't it? So by the time it arrived, I knew the basic fingering.
Pete: He played it himself?
Ron: No. But he read the manual if you like, the tutor book. Because he's an intelligent guy .an engineer. So he just read one page ahead of me . like at the same time you're learning how to read music as well aren't you, crotchets, semi-breves and all that. He just understood it, as if he was learning, but he just went one page ahead of me. Until of course, we got to the point where, as kids do, I overtook him. And then that was it. Then he took me to a few of those band leaders - Jimmy Carr, you know the one?
Pete: Local bands?
Ron: Yeah. And I made rapid progress. Obviously I joined the Middlesbrough Municipal Junior Orchestra.
Pete: You were living in Middlesbrough then?
Pete: Always have done, yeah?
Ron: Yeah. And obviously I joined them, and that helped reading and things and playing with other people. And one of these band leaders, Jimmy Carr, one of these alto player, he used to do gigs all over the place - the Town Hall, the Film Ball whatever you called it - and he had a few residence gigs, Saturday night dances and that. Of course loads at Christmas. His usual four saxophones, five saxes ..whatever.
Pete: Big outfit.
Ron: Yeah, a couple of trumpets and things like that. So this Jimmy Carr I was going to the lessons with, he needed a new alto - his second alto was leaving. So he intensified my lessons. I never stopped practising.
I'd start on a morning . obviously I had to go to school sometimes, although I didn't go much (laughs) .... but I'd start on a morning, first thing, and I'd still be practising at ten o'clock at night. And going to bed with it still round my neck, with me pyjamas on.
Pete: So how old were you then?
Ron: Well, twelve or thirteen. It took me about six months or a year to be quite good, maybe shorter than that. But of course as soon as I'd got in this band, they just call out numbers, don't they, for the tunes, and you're sight reading, aren't you, really. That was it.
Pete: What were you listening to, generally .. and sax players? Who was inspiring you when you were a kid?
Ron: Johnny Hodges, you know, Duke Ellington. And of course then I graduated towards Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. And Mingus, and Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk I used to really like. And that was very quick.
When I first heard jazz, my brother brought home a Duke Ellington record, and it had Johnny Hodges on it. And I thought it was frightening. I thought it was like gangster, murder, music. Really challenging. I thought it was miserable, creepy, frightening music, to use in horror films.
But you know how it can happen - you develop a fascination for it, don't you, and then you suddenly realise you need it. Do you recognise all that? You're sort of fascinated by it, you don't think you like it, but you suddenly find you can't do without it. That's what happened. Then I wanted to get some more - I was scouring the shops then, deliberately trying to get it.
Pete: Were you listening to rock and roll and stuff as well?
Ron: Not really, I never liked it. I only started to like things like that a few years ago. Completely the other way round.
Pete: Really unusual at that time, that jazz influence.
Ron: It's only the last few years I've started to appreciate Elvis, the Beatles, things like that. It's completely the other way round. Normally people graduate up to jazz, don't they?
Pete: Yeah, although .. you remember the time when Bobby Vee came through, and I thought, "Fuck that for a lark", and came across Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan and so on, West Coast and New York stuff.
Ron: I used to like, I don't now, but I used to like Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond and all that. But I can't stand Paul Desmond's playing now. Too tinkly-winkly.
Pete: It's very clean.
Ron: And of course then when I heard Cannonball, roaring in, like a bloody rugby player with a saxophone. I said, "Wow." I like players that give it one, really. Apart from Miles Davis, who's very economical with his notes, isn't he.
Pete: Particularly early on, 'Kind of Blue' time . the blue Italian suit and brooding on the bandstand.
Ron: I played with him twice.
Pete: Did you?
Ron: Yeah. Well, his saxophone player was ill, and Back Door was on the same bill, and he needed a saxophone player. So it was two gigs in one. One was at the Odeon, Hammersmith. And there was one at the Palais des Sports in Paris. He did speak to me once. I wanted to know what was involved in the next set. Hey, it was a funny feeling that, stood next to him, at the front where Charlie Parker used to stand. You think, "Christ, this is arriving." And I said something to him going up the spiral staircase backstage, and he just turned round and said, "Ugh." He just grunted. And that was it, that was the only ... because he's not a white man fan, is he?
Pete: No, by all accounts. So you were actually playing in big bands and that, other outfits on Teesside, how did that develop?
Ron: Well, it was just more dance bands. But I think I was sixteen or seventeen when I joined Eric Delaney's band. I was doing a jazz club at Whitley Bay, the Rex, a big hotel. And they were doing Sunday lunchtime jazz, you know the classic ... and I was playing there, I was booked there. I was only sixteen or seventeen or something. Eric Delaney's vibraphone player, Jim Lawless .. of course Eric Delaney . he's a big, big name then, the 1960's.
Pete: Television series and all sorts.
Ron: Oh yeah, Saturday Club and Easy Beat, radio programmes every weekend, and of course loads of concerts and telly and all that.
I always liked Eric Delaney's band, it was like an alternative to ... you know.
Anyway, his vibes player came in, must have been playing in Newcastle or Sunderland, I don't know. He must have seen it in the papers. But he came in to that Sunday lunchtime thing, to the music. It turned out that, the next thing I knew I got a phone call, it turned out that Eric's alto player was leaving - joining some other band. This Jim Lawless spotted me, heard me, and the next thing I know Eric Delaney's on the phone, saying - because Jim asked me for my number of course. And the next thing, that was it, I was off. Round Europe, telly, broadcasts .
And of course then Eric wanted flute and piccolo, and he wanted me to play baritone, and ... oh God. Because it was just me and Alan Skidmore - he was the other sax player. So you'd to quickly learn all the other things as well ... but alto and soprano, those are my first loves.
Pete: Soprano .... when did that come in?
Ron: That's a funny story. Colin Hodgkinson told me that there was a "Doll's Hospital" in Peteborough, and he'd bought his bass there, the one he still plays because he does a few second-hand things on the side, this guy who runs the "Doll's Hospital". And he bought his bass there, his Fender bass, a remarkable thing to find. So he phoned me up once from Peterborough, and said, "Hey, they've got this little saxophone, a soprano saxophone, a curly one." Because I like the curly ones best. It was thirty-five quid or something, thirty-three quid. And he said, "Shall I try and ..." and I said, "Oh yeah, get it."
Of course I paid in instalments. And he brought it up. The mouthpiece is not a famous one, it hasn't got any name on it. It's just as .. what came with the instrument. And I'd never heard of the instrument before either. It's just ... oh Christ, I can't think of it now. Carl Fisher. Have you ever heard of Carl Fisher?
Pete: No man.
Ron: Well, they're really famous for publishing music. But they had a bash at making instruments, and failed miserably. And this is one of them. And that's the sound I've got at the moment - it's one of them.
Pete: And you've always used that one, haven't you.
Ron: Yeah. But I use an alto reed, this mouthpiece with no name. But I've always used an alto reed, which some other saxophone players don't believe.
Pete: It takes some blowing.
Ron: Well, you know .. But that's why it sounds so big. It just seemed logical to me - bigger sound.
Pete: And then flute, Ron, was this all to do with Eric Delaney's requirements?
Ron: Yeah, because he wanted as much variety as possible in his arrangements and that
Pete: How was that, that translation from ... because it's different embouchure, everything, isn't it, flute. How was that translation?
Ron: Oh yeah, it wasn't easy, because it's got no reed. You're just blowing into this metal hole. (laughs). But the fingering .they're all the same really, aren't they? Even the clarinet, there's a few really hard things on the clarinet. I've never been very good with clarinet. Never practised it, really. There's a few really awkward bits. I think it's the hardest of them all. But I was never very good on flute either, really.
Pete: How long were you touring with Eric, then?
Ron: Oh, it was years, we did that.
Pete: Was it that time you met Colin? Tell us about meeting up with Colin.
Ron: Oh, no. That was at the Starlight Club. In Redcar. He was in the house band, in a trio. They were all up from Peterborough. They'd got this gig. I don't know how they got it. They were just a house band, back in the cabaret years. And Colin . well I arrived there with a local Middlesbrough rock band, called "River's Invitation". Well, I sort of started - because I was in "The Real McCoy", and all that .
Pete: Oh were you?
Ron: Do you remember it?
Pete: John McCoy's outfit?
Ron: "Crawdaddy's" and all that.
Pete: Yeah. Were you in them?
Pete: I'll have seen you play with them. Bloody hell man.
Ron: And "Tramline", and things like that. "Rivers' Invitation", "Real McCoy", playing up at the Kirk. You must have seen me.
Pete: I will have done. Bound to. You were still . the Outlook Club, and the Scene Club ...
Ron: Yeah. Our bass player was all right, but I used to be ruthless at that age. Seventeen, eighteen, and all that early twenties. I didn't give a fuck about ... to be honest, when I think about it . I didn't really. The priority was if the band or the music could be improved. And I don't think I ever looked over my shoulder at any decisions I made. I was pretty ruthless when I think about it. Because if I found someone better, then I'm sorry, but it was like, in ... immediately. Probably the next set. (laughs). I must have upset so many people on the way.
On the Tuesday night the Starlight Club used to have a rock band do a couple of sets. But the house trio's still there. And you had to have very long hair, didn't you. You couldn't be in a band if you didn't have long hair. It was unthinkable. And of course this trio of Colin's had very short hair. They looked completely like very smart suited young men. (laughs) Playing very ordinary . you know like "Satin Doll" and stuff like that. "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" ..
With the obligatory organ, with the Lesley and all that. And I was stood at the bar, with "River's Invitation", and not really listening to them, the trio .. but this bass player stood out, did a couple of solos. It was like a music night, more than a cabaret night. And I heard this guy playing the bass, and I thought, "Fucking hell." ' Cos I'd played with some bass players in my time, obviously . Eric Delaney had some good ones, but this was something else. And it really stood out.
They finished their set, and Thomas - Colin (I call him Thomas - that's his middle name) - he came over to the bar . he looked like Gerry Mulligan .. short cropped hair. And I said to him, because I really was impressed by his playing he was a hundred times better than our bass player, who was just a rock player really. And I said to Colin, "Excuse me, what's your name?" and he said, "Colin Hodgkinson." "I'm Ron Asprey. Would you be willing to wear a wig?" And he said, "Yes." I said, "Right, you're in."
We hadn't even sipped our first pint together. I said, "Will you wear a wig?" and he said, "Yeah." I thought, "Oh, this guy's ..!!!", Sense of humour as well (laughs) . you know. "Right, you're in." He joined immediately.
Then I got him into Eric Delaney's band. I did another stint. And then he grew his hair. And we ended up doing a summer season in Bournemouth, Winter Gardens, on the Norman Wisdom show. Sixteen weeks we were there, the whole summer season. You know, the same show every night. Same tunes every night, and Norman Wisdom, backing him. Quite good fun.
But of course during the day, me and Tom are just thinking, "Why don't we write some original tunes?" So we'd go in, and fart about really, with all the instruments on the stage. It's funny because we used to kick the Ken Dodd's Diddymen up the arse. (laughs) If they were on the stage or rehearsing - "Fuck off." And give them a hard time. The audience'd come in on the night, or the matinees, and the Diddies are all cute .. if they'd seen the behaviour before ... (laughs).
So we started writing these tunes, and the first one that we wrote was the tune called "Back Door". [sings] "Buck buck buck buck bucker - " you know, you were just farting about. And he started to play all these chords, Thomas. He plays like a guitar doesn't he, it's like he's almost overdubbed it. But he isn't - he does it straight off, doesn't he. Like he's got ten fingers on each hand, isn't it? So we'd got like, oh I don't know, half a dozen tunes together in the end, on the little tape recorder. And originally we asked Eric Delaney (laughs) if he wanted to join us.
Pete: Did you?
Ron: To be in our band. Which was really audacious. We actually asked him .or would he at least come in on a lunchtime or an afternoon sometime, and just accompany us a bit while we practised. He never did, not once did he turn up.
Pete: Didn't he? Oh shit.
Ron: But we did ask him, he was going to be our original drummer for Back Door. (laughs) That was it, our first half a dozen tunes were done during the Norman Wisdom summer season.
Pete: Didn't you then go up to London after that?
Ron: Well, we went back up north to Redcar. Then we had the band ..with different drummers, Ronnie Pearson, and so on. Did I tell you how Hicks got the job?
Pete: Yeah, tell us again.
Ron: He offered his services to do a dep for Ronnie Pearson. He said, "Have a night off. I'll dep for fifty pence." And of course, soon as me and Thomas heard Hicks, that was it. It was the most expensive, silliest, fifty pence Pearson ever earned. That was just being ruthless again - Hicksy was straight in. Absolutely ruthless. But I think you have to be, don't you, really, if you're going to be in that league.
Pete: It's always like, now's the time, isn't it?
Ron: Well yeah.
Pete: And Tony would be just busking it, I guess.
Pete: At the Starlight.
Ron: Of course. But he just had this subtleness that we liked, rather than bang, crash, wallop. We kept playing the Starlight, we were the resident band then. So Colin was back to square one again, except .in our band - we didn't have any name for it.
But then Brian Jones came in, and said, "Do you fancy . .. I run this pub up in the moors come and just play jazz all night." I said, "We've got our own brand of stuff ..jazzy, but not exactly jazz." He said, "They'll love it. Do you get nights off?" From the Starlight Club - a cabaret club, really, gambling . they all were, weren't they?
Pete: That's it, late night drinking spots.
Ron: Yeah. He said, "It would be great, because Tuesday's my weak night. If you could have that night off and put a dep band in here it would be great if you could do that." Well, we talked to the manager .. Gerry Hartley was one of his names.
Pete: (laughs) One of his names!
Ron: Because he was into this, that and the other. Little gambling club in Redcar ...
Pete: Late night drinking.
Ron: Yeah, and gambling, and a bit of gambling there wasn't supposed to be. I think there was all that sort of thing going on. And he said, "No." I mean he's paying us bloody pennies anyway, and he never liked it because we were always sneaking in our own things, that he'd never heard of.
We were rehearsing for Back Door really, but he wanted smoochy music to get people on the floor. But anyway, he said, "No" we couldn't have Tuesday nights off. So we did anyway. (laughs) We just went up to Blakey and booked a band in to dep at the Starlight. That didn't go down very well with Gerry.
Pete: Wasn't it winter time you first went up there?
Ron: Yeah. The first Tuesday we ever did, I don't know whether you've heard about this, there was one sheep looking through the window outside, and no audience. None. Just one sheep. And I always remember it, because you know that window where the band used to play, there was one sheep looking through the window, and that was it, that was the audience. Ask Thomas, he'll tell you. Then Brian put posters down everywhere.
Pete: Did he? Did he promote it?
Ron: Yeah. And there was a few people in the next Tuesday, about a dozen of them, something like that. And then the word got round and of course . after six weeks, fucking hell, there's people breaking in . climbing up the drainpipes and trying to get in the top windows and things.
Pete: I know.
Ron: It was that quick, from nothing .. from one sheep, to "kill to get in".
Pete: Yeah, there'd be a couple of hundred people in there.
Ron: Weird. And hot and sweaty and packed. So Brian says, "You fellers should make a record really."
Pete: Had you tried yourselves already?
Ron: No. We couldn't afford it, we were really broke. By the time we got our wages at the Starlight in Redcar, we owed most of it, we'd had it in subs at the bar. So Brian says, "Why don't you go down to London and .?" We said, "Fuckin' hell . come on. How are we going to get there, for a start?" None of us had a van or anything like that. That's why we had to live round the corner from the club. In fact, one of the places we lived in, it was derelict, and we had to shovel all this stuff out of the broken windows.
Pete: Was that in Redcar?
Ron: Yeah. It's the truth. And we're sleeping on blow-up things ...
Ron: Lilos, things like that. With a wife and kid as well.
Pete: Really? Ron: Yeah. And with a Calor gas camping stove. That was the furniture. So Brian says, "Why don't you just go down London?" For a start how would we get there. And he says, "Oh, I'll hire a van, and drive you. And I'll give you six hundred quid." This would have been 1973, I think, wouldn't it, so it was a lot of money.
Pete: No, it was earlier than that, it was '71.
Ron: Was it?
Pete: '71, '72?
Ron: Yeah, '72. And he said, "I'll pay for it, for you to make a record." Which he did. When we got down there . it was Regent Sound in Tin Pan Alley .. and a feller called Glyn Johns. Not the one who went on to become famous. It was a Saturday afternoon. It really needed to be a Saturday afternoon because he didn't want his boss, the owner, to know what he was doing, because it was going to be in the back of his pocket. He was supposed to be in there doing maintenance. So he said, "Don't answer the phone, whatever you do, because it could be my boss, and I'm supposed to be in here just doing maintenance." So we played our tunes, with a massive pub break, about an hour, two hours. We started at twelve, mid-day, and we'd finished at six.
Pete: Including the pub break?
Ron: Including the pub break, yeah. We'd finished at six, with all those tunes on it, the first album. And he said, "What about the mix? We'll mix it now." I said, "Mix? What do you mean? Did you record it, what we played?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "What we played is on that tape there?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Just give us it. What's fucking mixing things all about?"
I said, "How much do you want?" He said, "Eighty quid." That was good, because Brian had given us six hundred, you know. (laughs)
So the next thing was, we had this wonderful idea, me and Thomas. When we eventually .Because we got it pressed in ... we drove up with the master tape up to Washington, County Durham, at RCA. And we just waited there until they pressed some. I designed the label and all that. It was Blakey Records - you know, the yellow label. I don't suppose you've got one, have you?
Pete: I've got one right in front of us now.
Ron: You know how much they're worth in parts of the world?
Ron: Well, in Japan, and Scandinavia Norway, Sweden any Back Door vinyl is up to a hundred and eighty quid. But that one, that one with the yellow label, with the sepia .. the one we did, well, I wouldn't like to put a price on that. Some Back Door buffs would ... well, I think you could probably name your price.
But we had this wonderful idea of ... because it was very hard at that time, for some reason to ... well, we tried to get our records into WH Smiths and things like that, but they wouldn't take them. You had to be some sort of corporate ... there were all sorts of legal reasons, apparently, why you couldn't. I suppose it's franchise, and all that ...
Pete: Yeah, all that stuff, they had it sewn up.
Ron: Yeah. So I had this wonderful idea, of putting them in the musical instrument shops, who didn't have any restrictions like that. Just asking them to take them sale or return. So we did that - just taking them to musical instrument shops.
Pete: Round Teesside and so on?
Ron: Yeah, but especially London. We had some of that six hundred pounds left, so we went down, and we just went along Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. Drum City and all that. And Bill Lewington's the saxophone shop. Every music shop we came across, we just went with them under our arm. Because our theory actually was .who goes into musical instrument shops? Musicians. Or budding musicians, starting musicians or students. The very sort of audience we were after. Do you know what I mean? Whereas record shops .. people are going in for the Beatles, for the classical, aren't they, and they often know what they want. I know you get the browsers and all that. And also, at that time, there wasn't that many shops specialists, like Alan Fearnley in Middlesbrough . who'd have unusual stuff. Mostly they didn't. When you started to find proper jazz records in Smiths and that, it was quite a novelty wasn't it?
Pete: Yeah, you'd have to go to Dobell's.
Ron: Yeah, there was another one wasn't there, Ray's Jazz Shop. Dobell's, yeah. Well you'd have to it was very exciting wasn't it?
Pete: Yeah, we used to hitch from bloody Stockton, it was a long hike to get a few records, but you had to do it.
Ron: You couldn't get a curry, could you, either? (laughs) You might get one in Leeds, or Newcastle, do you remember? I remember when an Indian restaurant did open in Middlesbrough, oh, fucking hell, it was just ... you didn't have to go to London, or Leeds, did you any more? It still makes you tingle. One opened not far from us, round the corner, in Redcar. An Indian restaurant!
So, anyway, it was round those times, when things ...
But of course, they went really well, these records, and the next thing these music shops are ringing up asking if we've got any more. (laughs)
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