Tag Archives: Clyde Valley Stompers

Fionna Duncan: Still Stompin’

Fionna Duncan by Sean Purser

Fionna Duncan, June 2018, by Sean Purser

When singer Fionna Duncan received the call telling her that she was to be the recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Scottish Jazz Awards, she took the night off cooking – heading instead for a celebratory dinner at the local Chinese restaurant with her partner, veteran bass player (and winner of the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award) Ronnie Rae. And she also began a trip down memory lane which pretty much lasted until Sunday evening’s ceremony.

“I realised when I put the phone down that it’s nearly 60 years since I won my first award,” laughs Duncan. “It was at the JazzBeat 1960 awards at the St Andrew’s Halls in Glasgow, when I was with the Clyde Valley Stompers. I don’t actually remember anything about the night at all!”

Piecing together when things happened and in what order has been something of a challenge for Duncan, but then she is looking back over a life that’s had more twists and turns, ups and downs than most. “My life seems to have been a series of mishaps,” she chuckles, “but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Which is entirely understandable when you consider that one of her proudest moments was meeting and being admired by the greatest jazz legend of them all, Louis Armstrong, when she was the singer with the band, Forrie Cairns’ Clansmen, that was supporting him on the bill in Bridlington in 1962. But it’s maybe less understandable when you consider such setbacks as having to spend a full year in hospital in her early thirties, or having to make her debut at Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow the same day as having every single tooth taken out at the dentist’s.

However, it’s perhaps not surprising that Duncan – who, at 78, is as ebullient as ever – has such a “no regrets” perspective on her own life: she is known for her optimistic outlook and ability to find and focus on the positive, a trait that has made her a sort of fairy godmother to younger musicians and enabled her to add teaching to her list of accomplishments relatively late on in her singing career.

That singing career swung into action before Duncan had even left Rutherglen Academy, where one of her teachers – Norman Buchan – got her involved in the folk music scene. Duncan, who had been taught to play guitar by her engineer father, began to take part in competitions, singing and accompanying herself on the ukulele. One of the most memorable was a talent contest organised by Hoover in Kilmarnock.

“My friend’s dad was the managing director of Hoover and they asked me to take part – though I didn’t really want to. I went along and reluctantly sang two songs – and won. The prize was a Hoover iron, an electric kettle, the chance to make a recording and an audition for TV.” Around this stage, the talented teen spent a lot of time trying to dodge small-time impresarios who wanted to put her on the bill of local theatres on the west coast. “I’d have had my name up in coloured chalk! That was the level of the Clyde circuit,” she recalls with a shudder.

A much more tempting offer came during Duncan’s ten-month visit to the States, with her parents, in 1957. “I became friends with this girl, Ann White, who had cerebral palsy, and whose dad was a millionaire. She was a talented songwriter and she told her father that she wanted me to record some of her songs so we went to New York and traipsed around the record companies there.”

At Riverside, the label whose roster of stars at that time included Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk, Duncan was offered the contract of a lifetime. But she turned it down since it required moving permanently to the States. Still, the trip did provide her with a first-hand experience of the biggest singer of the day, if not of all time – and triggered her ongoing fear of meeting her heroes.

“We were at a reception with people from the recording company, and I saw this man fawning over Frank Sinatra. He put his hand on Sinatra’s shoulder, and Sinatra snapped at him: ‘Get your hand off the material, creep!’ I saw this and thought: ‘Oh f**k, I’m not going to try to speak to him!”

Luckily, other big name stars proved much more approachable. Through a “Rasputin-like” boyfriend in the business, Duncan met Lena Horne in London in the 1960s and confirms that she was every bit as elegant and beguiling in real life as she appears on film.

“She looked amazing – so composed and elegant in a white tailored suit – and she sounded amazing. She did this song The Eagle and Me, just voice and bass, and it made a big impression on me.” So much so that Duncan slips into song, and proves that her memory for good lyrics – in this case those of a protest song – is better than her memory for dates and chronology.

Indeed, there’s some dispute between them over when exactly Duncan met Forrie Cairns, the Glasgow-born clarinettist with whom she worked in various trad bands over the years – but what they do agree on is that it was during the auditions for Stars in Your Eyes, the TV show which she went on to win, and that the first song he heard her perform was Jimmie Rodgers’s hit, Honeycomb – which, of course, Duncan pauses her story to sing.

“It suited my ukulele playing because, like many of these tunes, it only had three chords – and that was about my stretch,” she laughs. “When I got on the TV show Stars in Your Eyes, they put me with Geraldo’s orchestra. They said to me: ‘Do you want to leave the ukulele?’ And I said ‘no, I need it!’ I was singing Pennies From Heaven while this stagehand was dropping great clumps of coins onto the stage from above – like missiles.”

Cairns recalls: “When I heard her for the first time, I immediately asked her if she would be interested in joining my group. She said she would have to ask her mother! Fortunately, her mum said yes and we appeared the following Saturday night at Whitecraigs Tennis Club.”

From the Forrie Cairns All Stars, Duncan and Cairns were recruited into the hugely popular Clyde Valley Stompers, led by Ian Menzies, and it was with the Stompers in 1959 that the gravelly, bluesy, Americanised Duncan vocals were first recorded – on the LP Have Tartan Will Trad. The JazzBeat award for Top Singer followed soon afterwards.

It’s little wonder Duncan doesn’t remember details as she was on such a gruelling treadmill at the time – this was, after all, the age of the trad jazz revival, when jazz bands regularly topped the pop charts and filled dance halls.

“I never got time off,” she explains. “I sang in Dundee with the mumps because Ian Menzies said it was just swollen glands. It was awful. I thought my face would never go back to normal.” When Duncan, Forrie Cairns and his pianist brother John were all injured in a late night car crash in September 1959, it was front page news in Scotland. Two days later, Menzies assured Evening Times readers that the trio would be out of hospital and on the stage that night “at a Woodend tennis club hop”.

In 1971, following an accident abroad which left her with five slipped discs and resulted in a year in hospital, Duncan decided to jack in the singing game altogether. “All I could think about was the pain – the idea of sitting in vans all day put me off returning. I decided to train as a hairdresser and really liked it – it was the first time I had had any female friends; in the bands it was all men.”

However, it turned out that hairdressing was not Duncan’s calling and she gradually returned to full-time singing, a transition that ushered in a chapter of her life which included setting up home with her partner, bass player extraordinaire Ronnie Rae, and forming her own trio – Rae, plus two up-and-coming talents, Brian Kellock (piano) and John Rae (drums) – in the mid-1980s.

It also included a broadening of her repertoire and development of her style through working with younger musicians and through participation in workshops in the States; a format which she brought back to Scotland with her fondly remembered Fionna Duncan Vocal Jazz Workshops which ran during the Glasgow Jazz Festival for more than a decade.

These days, Duncan performs less frequently – though she notched up both Edinburgh Jazz Festival and Fringe appearances last summer – but is regularly called upon for her teaching skills at jazz singing workshops, the next of which takes place in August. Until then, expect her to be busy rearranging the mantelpiece in her Garelochhead home so that the household’s latest Lifetime Achievement Award is centre stage ….

* Fionna Duncan is one of the tutors on the Pathhead Vocal Jazz Workshop which runs August 18-19. For more information, visit www.sophiebancroft.co.uk/teaching/workshops

First published in The Herald, June 9

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My City of Stars Exhibition, Starring Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong, Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, 1956 (c) The Herald and Times Group

I’ve been totally pre-occupied these last two weeks curating an exhibition of photographs – some of them never before seen – of stars of cinema and music as they passed through my hometown of Glasgow from the 1920s onwards.

Of course, I had to include Louis Armstrong, whose 1956 visit to the city has become the stuff of local legend – though it was his 1962 visit that has a personal significance as that was when my 16-year-old father won a competition to meet him. (The signed photo hung in the family bathroom throughout my childhood – appropriately enough, given Louis’s love of laxatives.)

Anyway, here’s my write-up about what happened when Louis came to town in 1956.

By 1956, when Louis Armstrong made the first of his two post-war visits to Glasgow, he was no longer merely known to jazz fans the world over as the singlemost important figure in the evolution of the music. About to be seen in the all-star Hollywood musical High Society, he was also a household name – an entertainer and movie personality known universally as “Satchmo”.

Armstrong’s return to Glasgow, 22 years after his previous visit, was long overdue – so it’s little wonder there was a great deal of excitement about his back-to-back Kelvin Hall shows in the local press. The build-up started days before his arrival, with the Scottish Daily Express publishing “Satchmo’s Column”, a daily diary – clearly ghostwritten – chronicling his tour of Britain.

Nobody could have been more excited than the Clyde Valley Stompers, the trad band which was invited to appear on the bill alongside Armstrong and his All Stars. Four days before the show, the Evening Citizen published a telegram which the band had received:

“Old Pops is happy to hear that you are working on the bill with my All Stars when we play at the Kelvin Hall on May 15. We have got a wonderful show and my boys are playing greater than ever and I know from your reputation that your boys will help us to give the local cats a good evening’s music they will never forget. Regards, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong.”

Certainly, no-one who was at the show could ever forget it. Even before Armstrong had set foot on the revolving stage, there was the spectacle of the one-legged acrobatic dancer Peg Leg Bates to file away under “unforgettable”. The Bulletin reported that once the All Stars’ set was underway, “the music was alive and the bubbling energy of Louis infectious”.

Fans had had to wait an hour for their hero, who didn’t come onstage until the second half. It was reported in the Daily Record the next day that he had been giving an impromptu trumpet lesson to eight-year-old Fraser Watson, whom he had spotted clutching his new trumpet amidst the throng of screaming teenagers at the stage door.

When Armstrong did come on, he played for a solid 60 minutes. The only dampener on proceedings was the sight of rows of empty seats near the front – only the less pricey seats had sold out.

Between his two shows, Armstrong feasted on a fish supper brought to his dressing room by the Glasgow-born jazz singer turned Broadway star Ella Logan who was also on the bill. Mamie Crichton of the Evening News was horrified by the choice of food on a triumphant occasion which called for “chicken and champagne”. She described Armstrong eating his fish, with his shirt hanging out, “jacket off, horn-rim spectacles on, a handkerchief tied round his head and his wide, battered lips smeared thickly with his own special lip-salve.”

Don Whyte of the Scottish Daily Express quoted Armstrong’s opinion of his carry-out. “Man, ah couldn’t have done this a while ago with my old stomach trouble. But now ah’ll have blown this lot down after five minutes with my horn.” Armstrong was famous for sharing his favourite laxative, Swiss Kriss, with new friends, but he doesn’t seem to have done this in Glasgow. Instead, Mamie Crichton and the others present backstage were offered diet charts which Armstrong fished out of a huge grip bag and “insisted on autographing for each of us”.

Telling them that he’d lost 15lbs in a year, he said: “You can eat anything you like on this diet, but the secret is – never eat late at night. You take a spoonful of this [he reached into the grip for a jar of white powder] ten minutes after meals, and some of this [in again for a herb mixture] just before you go to bed.”

While fans swarmed outside his police-guarded dressing room, Armstrong also played host to a tailor. Satchmo, you see, had decided that he wanted to be fitted for a kilt – in the Armstrong tartan, of course. In his column in the Express, he explained that his name probably derived from one of Scottish “boss men on the plantations” in the Deep South during the days of slavery. “They knew how to make all the cats toe the line,” he added.

As he was measured by the envoy from Lawries the kiltmakers for the full Highland monty (kilt, shoes, jacket, stockings,  balmoral etc), Armstrong told The Bulletin that he planned to wear it on Ed Sullivan’s TV show back in New York – and that his singer, Velma Middleton (all 350lbs of her) would be getting a kilt too. While reporters took notes and local celebrities – including Jimmy Logan, Ella’s nephew – looked on, Armstrong was busy trying to get his vital statistics from his wife, Lucille. Their conversation was reported in the Express:

” ‘Lucille,’ he asked his dark-skinned fourth wife. ‘What size of shoes do I take?’
‘Nine and a half, my man,’ says Lucille.
‘Hey sugar-brown, what size of hat do I wear?’ asks Satchmo.
‘I dunno. You never wears a hat,’ replies Lucille.”

Perhaps Mr and Mrs Armstrong should have consulted Satchmo’s valet, Doc Pugh, who was in charge of the non-Highland part of his master’s wardrobe. Asked by the Express – for the article MacSatchmo Gets Measured for a Kilt – why Armstrong was wearing a blue suit while the rest of his band was in black, Doc Pugh explained that it was because he only had one black suit. “It’s black mohair – and he’s keeping it off because it’s too warm.”

In fact, it was so warm that, upon arrival in Glasgow, Doc Pugh bought 50 white handkerchiefs (at £5, 5s) to pile up on the piano so that Armstrong would always have one handy to mop his sweaty brow during his shows. Glaswegians who had seen him during his earlier visits, in 1932 and 1933, had been appalled by the amount of sweat to pour out of the trumpeter. One newspaper headline had read: “The World’s Hottest Trumpeter Perspires at the Empire”.

Judging by the reviews, Armstrong needed his hanky supply in 1956. The Citizen said: “He never stopped blowing magic out of dat ol’ horn, hopping about, whooping up the solo bits of his colleagues singing solo or duet with the vast Velma Middleton from a throat that must be a landslide of whole rocks down there to produce that sound. The Daily Record reported that Armstrong got “the Kelvin Hall ROAR”, and that “even a three-quarter’s empty first house didn’t put him off his stride.”

Two days after Armstrong’s triumphant return to Glasgow, the papers were still carrying stories about it. The Evening News revealed that just before the concert, Armstrong had lost his mute and an SOS had to be put out to the London makers of his trumpet. A mute was rushed to Euston Station, put on a fast train to Glasgow and met there by Jimmy McCormack, of the well-known city centre music shop McCormack’s. He jumped in a taxi with it and delivered it to Armstrong in time for the first house….

* The City of Stars exhibition – which also features Cab Calloway – runs at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall from February 25 until September.

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