The Gentleman Guitarist Bert Weedon
- Dave Burke meets the father figure of electric guitar.
My first impression of Bert Weedon is that he looks remarkably good for a man now into his seventh decade. He greets me with some warmth, welcomes me into his home and introduces me to his wife Maggie. Plying me with coffee and biscuits throughout our interview, he remembers to call me Dave while we are talking. Bert is a natural nice guy, he may be taking care of business in a professional kind of way but he doesn't have to do this anymore. He already has the swimming pool in the garden, the respect of the showbiz community, the public gratitude of mainstream guitar heroes such as Eric Clapton and Brian May, as well as a cupboard full of more awards that you can easily count. In the past, during interviews with other sixties musicians, the name of Bert Weedon has always produced the same approving reaction, even with firebrands like Outlaw Billy Kuy who described him to me as "a lovely man". Bert's reputation as a caring kind of person is not built on his general affability alone but also on his well known willingness to help young would-be guitarists with well chosen words of advice, as well as his policy of replying personally to letters from fans and guitarists alike. Bert is indeed a gentleman guitarist.

And that, it seems, is the problem. Whilst Bert is much loved by the general public his credibility as a rock'n'roll figure is seriously compromised by his very straightness. You see Bert never learned how to be rude to people, how to sneer convincingly at audiences, or how to dress up like a prima donna. If he had we would doubtless be up to our necks in Weedon CDs and doting retrospectives in the music press. The sad fact is that there is currently no CD on the market that does justice to his substantial number of R&R recordings. Evidently it is not enough that Bert made some of the best R&R records made by any British artist during that brief era. No, what seems to matter is that Bert is not hip! We feel strongly that such a release is a historical necessity, and one that his considerable contribution to British R&R fully justifies. Strangely enough the questions of image and musical snobbery (inverted and otherwise) were issues that we touched upon in our conversation, the substance of which follows hereunder.

Bert Weedon was born in Burgess Road, East Ham, on the edge of London's East End in 1920. The son of a train driver, he got his first taste of the entertainer's life through his father who appeared with his partner at railway social events and masonic halls as a singing, gagging double act in the style of Flanagan & Allan. His father was also a keen collector of 78s with an interest in country music by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Carson Robinson. Another popular pastime for Bert while he was growing up was to wait outside East Ham's Palace Theatre to watch the arriving acts and musicians, the young Weedon finding that he was enthralled just with their mysterious looking instrument cases and equipment. Bert's first real adventure into music though was with the piano. As with a lot of East End families in those days there was a piano kept in the "best" room and so he was dispatched to take lessons. Before too long he returned home with a note for his parents in which his music teacher advised them not to waste any more money - young Bert was never going to make the grade as a musician! When he was twelve he began to pick up his father's ukelele and play around with it, although his interest did not really catch fire until he saw a full size guitar on a stall in the famous Petticoat Lane market. He would travel to the market on Sundays just to look at this guitar, being told to "Hop it!" when his interest overflowed into lovingly touching the instrument! Eventually, by the time he was fourteen, he had managed to save the required fifteen shillings and brought the guitar home in a brown paper bag. As Bert remarked, "You didn't get a case with it for fifteen bob!" He remembered fondly, "It was wintertime, January or February I think, and I sat beside our coal fire and strummed this guitar and it sounded - awful! It was an awful guitar but it did get me started and I began looking for a teacher to give me lessons."

James Newell was the teacher who changed Bert Weedon's life. "He was a wonderful, wonderful man" recalled Bert, "and he had as much influence on me as my own father. I remember that when I first went to him he asked me what it was that I wanted to learn and I said jazz. He said to me "I'm not going to teach you that rubbish!" So I asked him what he would teach me, I was paying a shilling an hour after all! With that he got out this classical guitar and played me Chopin's Prelude Number Seven and it was the most beautiful sound that I had ever heard in my life. I said teach me that, please. He not only taught me how to to play classical guitar, how to read and write music, but also after our lesson he would give me an hour's free tuition on philosophy. From him I learned about religions, Yoga, Buddhism, how to look at life and order and control my own. This was in the mid-thirties remember, and for an East End kid these things were a revelation. I was greatly indebted to him and years later I did my best to pay him back. I know that he was very proud when I became successful and that was a great feeling for me."

At 14 Bert left school to work in an office. But it was music and, in particular, the guitar that was on his mind. By the time he was sixteen he felt that he was on a mission to single-handedly popularise the instrument. He explained, "People would say to me when they saw me going to and from from gigs, "What have you got there, son?" I would say, "It's a guitar" and they would ask, "What's that, then?" The trouble was that in those days the only time you actually saw a guitar was when it was in the hands of a cowboy during a western film and he would be singing "Home On The Range". I used to get so frustrated, and it was then that I began my mission to show the world what a wonderful instrument the guitar was." By now any spare time was spent practicing classical guitar, whilst in the evening he would play jazz with local dance bands, one of the first being a group that he formed with the local butcher's son named Butch Townsend & His Cold Shoulders! After this he formed Bert Weedon & The Blue Cumberland Rhythm Boys. They didn't have any transport so they painted the name on the side of an old pram and used that to wheel their gear to gigs! Later still came Bert Weedon & His Harlem Hot Shots. "I had no idea where Harlem actually was," confessed Bert, "but I had picked up the vague idea that it was something to do with jazz!" Eventually, as he improved, Bert worked his way up through bigger and better dance bands. One of the early ones was a Dixieland styled band named Harry Gold & His Pieces Of Eight. This band featured not only Bert but also Ron Goodwin, Geoff Love and Norrie Paramor! Now Bert was playing a guitar that his mother and father had bought for him for the princely sum of £25 - a small fortune in those days. It represented a great sacrifice on the part of his parents and an act of some faith in their son's abilities.

At the end of the second world war Bert turned fully professional. He had now graduated to the big bands of the day. Ted Heath, Mantovani, The Squadronnaires, Ambrose, Harry Leader, Lew Stone, all these bands were graced by the Weedon guitar. In 1945 Bert was honoured to succeed Django Reinhardt - one of his own idols - in a partnership with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli that lasted for several years. The plum job that came his way though was the one with Cyril Stapleton and the BBC Show Band. This meant that he was broadcasting regularly and becoming better known both to the public and, in particular, within recording circles. Things were certainly going marvelously well when, without warning, tragedy struck. It was during a broadcast with the Carroll Gibbons Big Band that Bert coughed and, to his complete horror, found that there was blood all over the place. An ambulance was swiftly summoned and he was rushed to hospital. Later the news was broken to him that he had contracted consumption (tuberculosis) which in those days was a common killer. But luck was with him. A new drug - streptomycin had recently been introduced and was having notable success against this dreaded disease. Even so Bert was in hospital for months and when, at last, he was strong enough to leave his doctor warned him that he must not play in smoky night clubs and dance halls. This put him in a terrible dilemma because of course most of his income was derived from playing in just such places - and he now had a wife and a young family to support. How on earth was he going to manage?

Bert was wise enough to know that the best thing to do with adversity is to try and turn it into opportunity. Instead of sitting down and feeling sorry for himself he wrote to all of the major studios asking if they had work for a guitarist. Here luck was once more with him. Composers and arrangers were starting to take notice of guitars and the new possibilities that they offered. Instead of just the normal chord rhythms that were the usual role of the dance band guitarist melody lines were also beginning to be written into arrangements. He had already built a reputation as a fine guitarist, and when it was learnt that he could sight read virtually anything on the spot he became the number one choice of the recording studios. Bert was soon a regular at all the big studios - EMI, Decca, IBC - now not just playing with but also recording with Ambrose, Mantovani, Ray Martin, Harry Leader, and all the rest. He backed the big British stars of the late forties and early fifties, Alma Cogan, Dickie Valentine, Eddie Calvert. When the Americans discovered that it was cheaper to record over here he backed them too, people like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole. The next step was to put out records under his own name so he could begin to establish his own identity in the eyes of the general public. His first single was a 78 put out by Parlophone in 1956 titled "Stranger Than Fiction," which was followed by another five releases on Parlophone mainly in the prevailing light, whistle-along, style of those days. By the late fifties the name of Bert Weedon was becoming well known, both through his own recordings and his regular broadcasting as a featured soloist with Cyril Stapleton. This latter job meant that he was seldom off the radio with shows like "Worker's Playtime" and all the other numerous Light Programme features that required music from the in-house BBC Show Band. Waiting in the wings though was a new musical revolution which would present Bert with his biggest challenge yet.

It was Cyril Stapleton who first drew Bert's attention to a new musical force that was brewing up on the other side of the Atlantic. Stapleton had got hold of a copy of a new disc that was really making waves in America. It was Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock". He wanted to play it on air and was anxious to know what Bert thought of it, and if he could produce a similar sound. Bert, through his familiarity with jazz, also had a knowledge of blues and of course he also knew something about country music because of his father's interest in the style. He quickly realized that what he was listening to was based on the standard twelve bar blues with an accentuated second and fourth beat and some country - or western swing - influences thrown in for good measure. He also thought that it was one of the most exciting records that he had ever heard. Whilst many experienced musicians of his age stood on the sidelines hurling abuse at this new upstart and, frankly, amateurish music, he embraced it with a positive attitude which led to him becoming the number one rock'n'roll session guitarist. Pretty soon he was supplying back-up for Laurie London, Marty Wilde, Johnny Kidd, Adam Faith, and all the other early rock'n'rollers. "I was the unnamed guitarist on so many of those records," said Bert. "I remember the first time I met Tommy Steele who was then just an unknown cockney kid. I walked into the studio and Tommy said, "Hello, Bert, now this is what I want you to do" and he started strumming my guitar in a haphazard way. I played the chords back to him properly and he said, "Yeah, that's what I meant." I said to him, "you're a bit saucy aren't you?" and he began to laugh. We got on very well and later on I showed him how to play a C7 chord correctly. Thirty years later we were both performing at a big Buckingham Palace affair, I hadn't seen him for some twenty years, and he said to me "I think I've got that C7 off alright now, Bert!" "We both had a good laugh over that!"

Eventually Bert realized that he could increase his own already considerable popularity still further if he were to put out records in a rock'n'roll style. He had come across an American single by The Virtues of a number written by Arthur Smith titled "Guitar Boogie Shuffle". He had been playing it at his shows and it went down so well that he was sure it would be a hit for him. However his new label boss at Top Rank, Dick Rowe, was reluctant to take a chance with this radical change of style. Bert was so certain of "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" though that he went to Johnny Franz at Philips and offered to record it for them under a pseudonym. Bert felt that to be fair to Rowe he should tell him of his intentions. When he heard of his plans Rowe immediately capitulated and agreed to let him do it under his own name on Top Rank. Such was Rowe's initial distaste for R&R that he got in a young, virtually unknown newcomer named Tony Hatch to produce the session, partnering him with experienced engineer Terry Johnson on the date. The result was the first major hit by a British solo guitarist, the disc reaching number six during the early summer of 1959. The success of "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" also marked the beginning of the end of Bert's career as a sessioneer, as he decided that his future lay in concentrating on becoming a full-time artist in his own right. "In some ways I did miss my session work though," remarked Bert, "because of the enormous variety that it offered me. I remember one day in particular when I recorded with Gigli - the classical tenor - in the morning. In the afternoon I did a session with Tommy Steele and in the evening I was recording with Johnny Dankworth and Kenny Baker! That is a marvelous experience for any musician. You had to be so adaptable and flexible. For example Winifred Atwell would want a honkytonk approach, Russ Conway something light, whilst Frankie Vaughan would want something quite beaty and Ronnie Hilton would want something else again. Sometimes you also had to have patience. Tommy Steele became a great entertainer, but at the start of his career we would have to do his numbers over and over again until he got it right. On the other hand people like Gigli and Paul Robeson seldom needed more than one take."

On "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" and the discs that followed through the early sixties Bert used the same nucleus of top session players. On rhythm guitar was usually Eric Ford, and if he couldn't make it Bob Rogers, Don Sandford, or Vic Flick would deputise. On sax was Rex Morris (known as "Sexy Rexie" by the other musicians!), on rare occasions it might be Red Price or Johnny Grey. On piano it was inevitably Tommy Sanderson, although Ted Taylor was called in as the specialist clavioline player on tracks such as "Night Cry" and "Black Jackets". The drummer was usually Ronnie Verrell or sometimes Bobby Kevin, although on "Red Guitar" Tony Meehan is the surprise stickman. On bass was Joe Mudele who had also formerly played with the BBC Show Band. On these R&R cuts Bert used either his Hofner or Guild Starfire with Diarmon pick-ups and Bigsby vibrato unit through either a Burns or Selmer amplifier, sometimes in conjunction with a Tru-Voice Echo Unit. At EMI the echo was often enhanced by being played through an empty garage that was built on to the side of the studio, A speaker was placed at one end of the empty room and the track would then be re-recorded whilst being played through the speaker. Wally Ridley produced most of the tracks after Tony Hatch departed and after that George Martin produced the later recordings, all being cut at either Abbey Road or IBC studios. Despite assertions to the contrary by many down the years, Bert firmly denied cutting any discs for the Embassy label under any other names.

As Bert talked about his R&R recordings it was pretty evident that he had enjoyed making them. What's that great opening chord to "Ginchy" I asked? "The open chord of E minor with lots of echo and plenty of Bigsby's vibrato arm," smiled Bert. "The Bigsby was relatively new then and so I thought that I would give it the works!" What did he think of The Ventures' version? "I thought they did a great job, it's a super version." Who is that intoning "Querida" in a Mexican sounding voice? "That was me, I can't remember what it means though. I wrote the tune with Jack Jorden, he's probably best remembered for writing the "Little Red Monkey" theme." Had he heard Arthur Greenslade's version of "Eclipse" when he recorded his own? "I didn't even know that Arthur had recorded it. I believe it was sent to me by the writers - Crompton & Jones." What was his favourite track cut during this period? "It would have to be "Guitar Boogie Shuffle", although I have always had a soft spot for "Blue Guitar" - it is such a lovely melody." Is that drummer Bobby Woodman who wrote "Night Cry"? "No, Woodman was actually a nom de plume used by Wally Ridley who wrote the number." Did you use a Fender six string bass on "Charlie Boy"? "No, that was my Guild Bert Weedon model tuned especially low for the recording." Wasn't "China Doll" the theme music to a TV programme? "Yes, it was "Tuesday Rendezvous" at first which later became "5 0'Clock Club". This was with myself, Wally Whyton, Muriel Young and, of course, Ollie Beak!" Didn't John Barry write the "Easy Beat" theme? "Yes, when the programme first started the music was provided by The John Barry Seven and so naturally John wrote the theme. When he decided to leave The Seven I was asked if I would like to take the band over and carry on with them. Of course I had my own loyalties already and so I said that I would prefer to use my own regular musicians Iike Rex Morris, Tommy Sanderson, Eric Ford, Joe Mudele and Ronnie Verrell and so that is what happened. They were very happy years for me because we would have our own solo spots and we would also get to back-up visiting Americans like Bobby Vee and Del Shannon." Where was the "Easy Beat" programme recorded? "At the BBC Playhouse Theatre in Northumberland Avenue, just off Trafalgar Square, and we recorded in front of a live audience." "Black Jackets" is one of my favourites, any comments on that? "A few years ago at one of my concerts I was approached by someone who asked me to play "Black Jackets". I said it's not one of mine, I don't know it. He insisted that I had not only recorded it but had also written it as well. When I got home I checked it out and there it was on a B-side. The thing was that we didn't always bother to plug the flipsides because we had plenty of A-sides to chose from so it just became forgotten. It's a good number and I was quite pleased when I played it, the only trouble is that the chap must have thought I was a complete idiot for not being able to remember my own composition!" What about "Apache", Bert? "Francis, Day & Hunter sent me the music early in 1960. I immediately liked the tune and so arranged and recorded it for release later on in the year. In February I was contacted by Jerry Lordan who asked me when I was going to release it, and I explained that I would put it out in September because this was when most people bought records. I told him not to worry, that it was done, and it would be out. A few months later I heard that The Shadows had covered it. Nothing wrong with that of course, they were fully entitled to. After all "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" was a cover too. Anyway I got onto Top Rank and said release my version straight away and I will start plugging it on the radio and TV. It was one of the worst mistakes I ever made. There I was promoting "Apache" and anybody going into the record shop and asking for it was offered the version by The Shadows! After a month my version still hadn't been released and The Shadows were half way up the charts. I phoned Dick Rowe at Top Rank and went bonkers, but he said that there was nothing they could do about it because the company and my contract along with it had just been sold to EMI, and of course The Shadows were already on EMI. Economically speaking it made more sense for EMI to let The Shadows have the hit because, as newcomers they were only on a fraction of the royalty percentage that I was earning. As you probably know The Shadows did write "Mr Guitar" for me later by way of apology and we are good friends now. And I have to admit that I do think that their version of "Apache" was better than mine."

Next I asked Bert if he had to put up with any criticism from his fellow musicians for playing R&R. He replied: "Musicians are mostly snobs! Classical musicians used to say to me "How can you play that crap?" I used to say I love it - it's exciting! My advice to any musician is don't be blinkered in your taste - a B flat is a B flat whether you play it in R&R, jazz, or classical. By having a wide taste you are able to enjoy so much more. It's like only eating roast beef when there are so many more flavours to enjoy pork, chicken, lamb, eggs and bacon! I say to any musician, widen your horizons, in the end it will only improve your knowledge and technique." Could he have been bigger if he had been younger when R&R came along? "Yes, I was well into my mid-thirties when R&R arrived, an old man in those days, Eric Clapton is in his fifties now but then you had to be a teenager. People like Larry Parnes and the other promoters all sold image not music. I was never an image, my guitar always did the talking for me. I wouldn't want to dress up in black leathers or gold lame anyway, it's just not me. The music should be enough. Today they pick up groups because they look good or they move well. Good luck to them, but that's not music - it's image."

By the end of 1961 Bert had clocked up a respectable seven top fifty entries. Although he continued to produce great R&R tracks on and off over the next few years - especially the great "Night Cry" in '63 - further chart success in the sixties eluded him. The subsequent explosion of groups after The Beatles finally put the seal on his time as a pop star. Luckily though, Bert continued to work and prosper by simply turning his attention to cabaret and concert appearances and a steady flow of radio and TV work. But, of course, that was not the end of the glory days. In 1971 he cut the critically applauded "Rockin' At The Roundhouse" LP for Fontana. Bert remembered: "When I arrived at The Roundhouse they had the usual huge stacks of amplifiers. I said to them that I wouldn't need them and just to mike up my usual 100 watt Burns amp. Casting modesty aside I think I can say that I was the hit of the show and went down a storm." An even bigger surprise was Bert's Warwick LP of 1976 titled "22 Golden Guitar Greats" which went all the way to number one in the chart and earned him both gold and platinum discs. This also supports his contention that many of his earlier albums such as "Bert Weedon Remembers Jim Reeves" and "The Gentle Guitar Of Bert Weedon" were selling well enough to have also made the charts, except that they were recorded for the budget label Contour which disqualified them from inclusion.

So what is Bert doing these days? "I've been very lucky," he conceded. "I pick and choose what I want to do now, a few of my one-man shows, the odd TV appearance. I don't want to retire because I enjoy my work too much - I get paid handsomely for doing something that I would do for nothing - but don't tell that to the promoters!" He looked into the distance for a moment and added wistfully, "At one time I was always the youngest member of the band, now they introduce me as a living legend and I sometimes wonder where all the years have gone. The guitar has been my life. Life is marvellous, music is marvellous, and my life is music!" he concluded with a smile. The fact is that Bert has become more than a musician, an entertainer, or even a show business personality. The phenomenal success of his "Play In A Day" guitar instruction books ensured that he would leave his mark on successive generations of guitarists for decades still to come. This and his own numerous awards and achievements have made certain that Bert Weedon is a name that will survive for as long as the guitar itself does.

(Initially printed in 'PipeLine Instrumental Review' 42, New Year 1999)

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