Sir Michael Parkinson is a man on a mission. The broadcasting icon is currently touring the country to spread the word about the music he loves – the music written on the pages of the Great American Songbook and its sequels; the songs composed by such greats as the Gershwins, Cole Porter Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and the Beatles and performed by the stars of jazz and popular music. After decades celebrating this music on TV and radio and in print, the 83-year-old is sharing his enthusiasm through a show, Our Kind of Music, which arrives in Scotland this weekend.
Our Kind of Music, which was preceded by a compilation CD launched last autumn, finds the tables being turned very gently on the chat show king as he is the interviewee rather than the interviewer; his son, Mike Parkinson, asks the questions which guide Parky through the music that has shaped his life and career.
Clips of favourite singers and musicians – from Duke Ellington to Elton John, via his number ones Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra – pepper this production, and the dazzlingly inventive pianist and singer Joe Stilgoe provides live examples of some of Parky’s favourite tunes, as well as introducing a specially commissioned new number.
When we speak – first thing on Monday morning – Parkinson is exhilarated by the success of the show’s London debut, last weekend at the Palladium. “We got a five minute standing ovation! You forget the significance this music has for a huge swathe of the population.”
It has certainly been one of the most significant aspects of Sir Michael Parkinson’s life. Born in a Yorkshire mining community in 1935 – the year, he points out, that Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway – he was sung standards instead of lullabies by his movie-mad mum who momentarily entertained the idea of naming him Gershwin after her favourite composer, and who must have been thrilled, decades later, when the original singer of many of these songs – a certain Fred Astaire – turned up to perform them on her son’s TV show with music annotated by George himself.
Parkinson’s mother might have introduced him to the original film versions of the great standards, but he found his favourite versions by himself – when he fell in love with jazz.
“The big discovery for me was the Armed Forces Network broadcasting from Germany,” he recalls. “When I was about 13, I was fiddling with the buttons on my radio when I heard this man singing and playing the trumpet. It was Louis Armstrong playing On the Sunny Side of the Street – and it was wonderful. I’d never heard anything like it.”
This was the era when bebop was starting to blossom and before long, thanks to the AFN, Parkinson was also falling under the spell of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. “There was great competition between the trad and modern jazz fans and I stood in both camps. A bunch of us who liked the modern stuff used to meet every week at the bandstand in Barnsley.
“We had a record player in the middle of the bandstand and we would play records. A friend who was in the Merchant Navy would bring back the latest records from New York. We’d sit and listen in a trance, all of us dressed in duffel coats and silly shoes. I may have been hanging out with the modernists but I had to accept that Louis Armstrong was the greatest genius that there ever was.”
Unfortunately, Armstrong died less than a month before Parky launched his BBC talk show a couple of decades later, but it was two musicians heavily associated with him (including the trombonist from that first jazz record that Parkinson heard) who provided the young Yorkshire Evening Post reporter with his first celebrity interview – a particularly surreal one even by the standards of a man who would go on to interview John Lennon while sporting a bag over his head.
“I was walking down Doncaster High Street, going for a coffee, when Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines walked past me. I was probably the only person in Yorkshire to recognise them – Teagarden, the trombonist, had been in films I had seen. I did a double take, then introduced myself. They looked at me as if I was a martian. They hadn’t heard of Doncaster, they hadn’t heard of Yorkshire. They didn’t know where they were but their bus had broken down – it was en route to Bradford. I reckon whoever else was on the bus stayed on it for fear of being eaten by cannibals!”
Parkinson took these two giants of jazz for a coffee, and interviewed them before rushing back to share his scoop with the rest of the office – only to find that nobody was impressed. It wasn’t the first time his enthusiasm for jazz had been met with indifference – and it wouldn’t be the last. However, it helped instill in him the feeling that he is a “crusader” for the music and a voice for the people who love it as much as he does.
Years later when he was offered his radio show, he agreed to do it as long as he didn’t have to play the BBC’s playlist; he wanted to play only music he, personally, liked – which led to his becoming known as a major taste-maker in the jazz and easy listening scene through the 1990s and 2000s when he helped launch the careers of Michael Buble, Jamie Cullum and Diana Krall. “I believe it’s part of the job to keep my eyes and ears open to new talent – and to help them get a break,” he says.
The Teagarden-Hines encounter on Doncaster High Street may have been “the greatest moment of my life” for jazz-mad Parky in the 1950s, but it was just the first of many close encounters with his heroes – some of which were born out of similarly surreal circumstances.
One of his very favourite contributors to the Great American Songbook was the songwriter Johnny Mercer, who wrote the lyrics for many of the 20th Century’s greatest hits – among them Moon River, Skylark and That Old Black Magic. (Indeed, the last public show Parkinson presented in Scotland was an all-star centenary tribute to Mercer organised by Scots crooner Todd Gordon.)
“Johnny Mercer was one of my great heroes – and we pay tribute to him in Our Kind of Music,” says Parky. “He was a great poet, but he was an awful drunk; one of the worst. He would insult everyone in the room – then the next day, he’d send them wine and roses, a bit like the lyrics of the song he wrote with Henry Mancini. Anyway, one night I had just got home at about 11pm and was getting into bed when I got a call from Laurie Holloway [Parky’s friend and the musical director on his TV show], who lived down the road.
“He asked me what I was doing, and I told him ‘I’m in my jammas – what did you think I’d be doing?’ … He invited me down to his house and told me Johnny Mercer was there, waiting to meet me. I got dressed in record time and arrived to find Mercer sitting on the piano stool with Laurie’s wife, the wonderful singer Marion Montgomery, and for two hours she sang all his hits.”
Breaking into the song I’m an Old Cow Hand (From the Rio Grande), Parkinson chortles: “That was one of the great moments in my life.” In his Our Kind of Music show, he proudly shares clips of himself with Mercer and Bing Crosby, for whom that number was originally written.
Parkinson is keen to point out that he has been “lucky to live through two great periods in popular music,” and he pinpoints the early 1960s, when the Beatles emerged, as the start of that second great period. Through his TV show, Scene at 6.30, which he presented at Granada, he got to know the Fab Four before they hit the bigtime.
“They were the house band,” he laughs. “When I first knew them, Paul McCartney asked for my autograph – for his mum! I wasn’t surprised that they made it big as they wrote lovely songs – you can trace the lineage back to the old songs I loved – but nobody expected the sort of world domination, the Beatlemania.”
Always one for whom work and pleasure are intertwined, Parkinson shows no sign of putting his feet up and just listening to his beloved music in the comfort of his sitting room. Indeed, this knight’s crusade continues – as his packed touring schedule demonstrates.
“The Great American Songbook is my great passion,” he explains. “It’s the greatest collection of pop tunes there has ever been and it will last forever – provided we look after it.”
* Sir Michael Parkinson: Our Kind of Music is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh (0131 228 1155; www.assemblyroomsedinburgh.co.uk) on Saturday 21 at 7.30pm, and at the City Halls, Glasgow (0141 353 8000; www.tickets.glasgowconcerthalls.com) on Sunday 22 at 7pm.
- First published in The Herald, Thursday April 19