Wonderful to meet you – just sign here please

We meet many people on our journey through life – most are the type we meet every day: neighbours; local business people; fellow shoppers (not so many in the last 18 months); local sports personalities; or national personalities.

As a journalist it is possible I have met more people, no matter how fleetingly or for what reason, than the average person. If I had got the signature of every celebrity I have met so far I would have had a wall full of shelves laden down with volume after volume of autograph books.

Those volumes could have been worth a fortune. When I see tv antiques and collectibles shows, such as Bargain Hunt, Antiques Roadshow, Flog it, etc. I find it amazing how much people are prepared to pay for the signatures of people that others have collected.

In reality I have only ever asked one person for their autograph and there are only two others who I might have considered asking.

Obviously there are people you would never dream of asking for a signature. The Queen, for example, or a notorious criminal who has just been sentenced to life in prison (and I have crossed paths with the odd one or two of those in my lifetime).

On the entertainment celebrity front I’ve mentioned some of those I met in Rhyl, or who came into Dad’s shop and it was in Rhyl that I got the one and only autograph I ever asked for.

King of the pitch – the mighty Barry John

As a junior reporter, I attended the opening of the new Rhyl Rugby Union Club sports pavilion. The ceremony was carried out by the man they call King John, fly-half Barry John who played for Llanelli, Cardiff, the British Lions and, of course, his national side at the beginning of Wales’ new Golden Age in the late 60s and early 70s.

After the opening ceremony I talked with him for quite a while without displaying the fact that I was awestruck at meeting one of the two best rugby players the world had ever seen as a pair – Barry John and Gareth Edwards.

Just before he left, without thinking twice, I said: “Could I have your autograph?” and, again without thinking twice, he obliged, using my notebook to sign his name.

That was the first and last time I ever used my role as a journalist to get an autograph.

When I moved on to Basildon I started to do more and more reviews of events at the the local arts centre. Knowing the manager (a Rhyl lad himself) was useful when it came to meeting the artistes after the show.

I have mentioned the Mersey Poets, Basildon was also my first introduction to an up and coming folk rock group Magna Carta who have been part of my personal music collection for many years now.

Then we came to the longer-established artistes, such as Acker Bilk, the trad jazz maestro who even offered me a glass of scrumpy from his personal supply.

After the concert, when the bar was closed to the public, Malcolm had invited me up to meet Acker and the boys in the Paramount Jazz Band. The lads were supping pints of what looked like bitter, but I noticed Acker’s glass was somewhat cloudier than the others.

When Malcolm asked me what I would like to drink Acker broke in before I could answer. “I’m sure the lad’d like a drop of scrumpy.”

At that he took an empty half-pint glass and poured me a drink from a flagon which had the same cloudy appearance as his own drink.

This wasn’t my first taste of scrumpy. In my teens my father and I had a week’s boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads (there’s a few good stories out of that) and one lunchtime we moored by a pub which had lawn running down to the waterside.

To go with our ploughman’s lunch we decided to taste the local scrumpy. I had two half pint glasses. When we got back to the boat Dad said he’d have a half-hour nap before we set off again. I chose to listen to Radio One which had launched the previous year.

I remember the DJ saying it’s just coming up to 2pm and before the time-check we’ll listen to . . . . The next thing I knew the song was coming to an end, except it was not 2pm it was now 3pm. I must have fallen asleep half-way through the song and woken up when they were playing the same song an hour later.

Anyway, remembering the soporific effect, I treated Acker Bilk’s brew with caution. Just as well because one sip[ made me believe it was ag least twice as strong as the Norfolk brew.

It was only after they had gone that Malcolm told me Acker Bilk always carried his own flagon of scrumpy with him, the genuine product from Somerset, and that he never, never, let anyone else have a drop.

As I said, I met a number of up-and-coming artistes as well as many who had made the big time but still liked to take in small venues when on tour. It appeared that Basildon had become a bit of a hotspot for jazz, because I can also remember Kenny Ball and his group and a few lesser-known jazz combos playing there.

The marvelous Cleo Laine with husband Johnny Dankworth

The peak moment of my career as a reviewer, however, was when I went to the arts centre to see and hear Cleo Laine with Johnny Dankworth’s band.

I had always appreciated this brilliant singer and her musically gifted husband but this was the first time I had heard her live.

After a musical intro by Johnny and the band he welcomed Cleo to the stage and for the first set, right up to the interval (a good hour) she sang her heart out and when she finished the whole audience rose as one to applaud her.

The second set began the same way, an instrumental number followed by Cleo. As she began her second hour she looked as fresh as she had done at the start of the concert and had even changed her dress in the interval.

During this second set her microphone failed. Without missing a note she moved toward the wings, holding her microphone out, as her hand disappeared she continued singing as, out of sight, a stagehand took the dud mike, replaced it with a good one and allowed her to return to centre stage.

When she finished that number she looked off to the wings and very clearly and politely said: “Thanks for that, I don’t think the audience noticed a thing.” The audience just erupted again.

At the end of the concert she curtsied to the ecstatic audience and left the stage, only to return to sing an encore because the applause just went on and on. This happened six times before Johnny took her by the hand and, after saying: “If you don’t stop she’ll still be singing at 3am. Thank you all, but goodnight.” the couple left together and did not return.

As I was leaving Malcolm stopped me and asked if I would like to go backstage and meet Cleo. He didn’t have to ask twice.

When we entered her dressing room she was wearing an elegant robe and was standing behind an ironing board pressing out the creases in the outfit she had just been wearing. The outfit from the first set was hanging up looking as though it had just come back from the cleaner. She took my hand and then said: “If you’re not in a rush why don’t you go out front with Malcolm and Johnny and I will join you for a coffee before we leave.”

It was about 11.30pm by now and within 10 minutes the couple joined us and we sat drinking coffee and talking until 2am. The time had flown and Miss Laine still looked as fresh as a daisy.

It is because of such moments, the scrumpy and the midnight coffee, that I now realise I did not need autographs to remind me of these moments because I would always have the memories.

Those memories I made at the Basildon Arts Centre were really just the beginning of a store of special moments that will be with me for the rest of my life.

If I was to have asked for just two other autographs after that Barry John moment then it would have been Cleo Laines and – Harry Secombe (but he was in my future and halfway across the world).

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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