Probably the greatest test of an artist’s success is his durability. For over 50 years Kenny Ball, along with his Jazzmen, has flown the flag across the world for his particular brand of traditional jazz. Kenny calculates he’s been round the world 17 times!
He had his first chart success with ‘Samantha’ in 1960. From then on, hit after hit came pouring out until the final tally was fourteen top 30 records, eclipsing even Kenny’s idol the great Louis Armstrong’s total, an achievement never equalled by any other jazz artist.
‘Midnight in Moscow’ was a hit in both the UK and the USA. His popularity was further enhanced by spells on ‘The Morecambe and Wise Show’ and ‘Saturday Night at the Mill’ which were viewed by millions.
Born in 1930 in Dagenham, Essex, the youngest of 7 children, Kenny’s career can be traced back to 1944 when aged just 14, the war was on and he practised on an office roof whilst looking out for doodlebugs. It is a tribute to his stamina and musical integrity that Kenny Ball now aged 81 is still performing a packed schedule of concerts around the UK and as far away as Poland.
Chosen Charity: The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation
I learnt to drive in a jeep over 60 years ago whilst serving in the Army out in Germany.
What were your first cars?
My first car was a Morris Minor. After I got married, I had no money and got hold of a 1936 Austin 7 Van. I took the body off and bought an Ashley Body which was a kind of plastic sports car. I also bought a couple of old seats from a destroyed American glider. It didn’t have much of a floor and I remember driving to a gig with my pianist. It had been raining and when we arrived our bottoms were soaked. Amazingly, I saw it about 10 years ago, still on the road around Chelmsford.
What car do you currently drive and why that particular model?
A Ford Explorer 4×4. It’s a reliable workhorse and its been converted to run on gas which makes it economical to run.
Who keeps your car clean?
Some extremely hard working polish people who have set up business in an old disused garage near to where I live.
What would be your dream car?
My dream would be a Bentley Continental although I probably would not be able to afford the insurance! I did dream once of owning an Aston Martin DB6 but when you have a wife and small children, it’s not the most practical of cars!
Out of all the cars you’ve owned, has there been a favourite?
My favourite car was a burgundy red Mark 2 Jaguar which I bought brand new.
And the worst car?
Funnily enough, the worst car I ever had was also a Jaguar, a Mark 10. It was an enormous car and the biggest load of c**p ever! I definitely got the Friday afternoon one. I drove to Germany in it once to play a concert. It started to rain and I couldn’t get the window to go up. In fact the boot, doors and bonnet were all out of alignment. That was typical of some British cars at the time. Quality control was absolutely dreadful.
Do you ever give your cars a name and if so, what is the current one?
My first car the Morris Minor was called ‘Lulu’ (no relation to the singer!) and my current car I call ‘Goliath’, mainly because of the size of the engine.
What would we find in your glove box?
Loads of ‘do do’!
What do you like to listen to in the car?
Jazz mainly as I like to hear what other bands are playing. Louis Armstrong was a huge influence in my early days and I listen to him too.
Who would you most like to have as a passenger on a long journey?
My son Keith. Not only is he mad about cars he also appreciates music. He sings and plays drums and we talk about everything.
Would you describe yourself as a good passenger?
No. There’s a term called ‘brake-foot’ and I get it quite a lot.
How would you describe your driving ability?
Average, although my wife thinks I’m a good driver!
If you were Roads Minister for a day what would you change?
A lot of people travel between 75 and 80 mph on motorways seemingly without prosecution. So maybe there’s a case to raise the speed limit to 80 but enforce this more strictly. I also think there are far too many signs on roads. These should be limited to the essential such as directions, speed limits and safety warnings. If there were fewer advertisements and more signs highlighting accident black spots and fatalities, this might help reduce accidents and deaths even further.
How could you manage your life if your car were taken away from you?
I’d buy a skateboard!
Do you still enjoy driving?
Yes, I enjoy poodling around country lanes most.
What is your top driving tip?
Do you have a clean driving licence?
No. Last year my daughter rang to say that a pipe had burst at home and there was water pouring out everywhere. I drove over to help her and where there’s a stretch of dual carriageway where the speed limit reduces from 60 down to 40, I got caught speeding by a camera.
I also lost my licence back in the early 80’s. I took my Dad to a concert I was performing at and the following day I was going on a family holiday to Tunisia. After the concert, we got outside to find that my car had been broken into. The windscreen was smashed and everything had been stolen including the passports. Obviously I was upset and whilst we were waiting for the windscreen company to arrive, the manager of the theatre invited me and my dad back inside for a drink. Stupidly I drank a little too much and in a hurry to get my father home, I got stopped for speeding and breathalysed. Although I was only marginally over the limit, I still picked up a 12 month ban. From that day I learnt my lesson and never touch a drink if I’m driving.
What were the worst aspects of losing your licence?
Simple things like nipping down the road for a loaf of bread. We lived a couple of miles from the nearest shop and the saddle on my bike made my bum rather sore!
I left school aged 14 and worked for J, Walter Thompson. The war was still on and they put me on the roof looking out for doodlebugs. The idea was that if I saw a doodlebug coming in our direction, I would push a button, the alarm inside the building would sound and everyone would then dive under their desks.
On one occasion I was on the roof and practising my trumpet by just blowing into a mouthpiece. I spotted a doodlebug in the sky but thought it was going to miss us and carried on blowing the mouthpiece. I then noticed the doodlebug was in fact, dropping from the sky and heading towards me. I thought “Holy S**t! I pressed the alarm button and took cover and luckily it missed our building and exploded a couple of hundred yards away. Needless to say, I didn’t do anymore Doodlebug watching!
I’ll never forget the occasion I got invited onto the stage to play with Louis Armstrong. We were performing at the Hammersmith Odeon and it was Louis’s last performance in the UK. He was standing by the wings watching as we started playing. My roadie was standing next to him after a few minutes Louis said “this boy’s a genius” At the end of the number he came onto the stage in his dressing gown, he threw his arms around me and exclaimed to the audience “this man’s a genius”!
I think it may have been a ploy to get the audience behind Louis but it was lovely to hear him say it even if he didn’t really mean it!
Another memorable evening was just before Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding. I was performing at a nightclub and was sharing a table with people like Fred Pontin, Billy Butlin, Vera Lynn, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Seated right opposite me was Prince Charles. At the time I felt very honoured to be sitting right opposite him. During the evening we got on to “Sir and Kenny” terms and chatted about a whole variety of subjects and seemed to get on with one another well. He had once learned to play the trumpet a little and so we had quite a bit in common. He must have liked what I did because later on, he got in touch with my secretary and asked if the Band and I would like to play at Buckingham Palace for their pre-wedding ball. It was a real honour.
I also appeared on a couple of ‘Jim’ll Fix it’ programmes – one of which was quite unusual.
Every week, this chap would time the cooking of his gravy for family Sunday lunch by playing one of my records, ‘Acapulco 1922’. The record lasted 3 minutes and would produce perfect gravy everytime! His children wrote into the programme to ask if Mr Kenny Ball could come to their house and play the tune rather than the dad playing the record. So the band and I turned up in one of those big lorries with open sides covered by a tarpaulin. Once we got the ‘thumbs-up’ from one of the daughters, we started to play – just as the dad started stirring. He had absolutely no idea and you can imagine his reaction! Afterwards there were about 50 of us, including my band, family relatives and the film crew all crammed inside this tiny lounge
Another great memory was when we appeared on the Johnny Carson Show in New York. I remember walking down Broadway and hearing ‘Midnight in Moscow’ blaring out from all the record stores. It was ‘No.1’ at the time out there. In fact I still get royalties from that record. When you achieve a ‘No.1’ record and in my case write the song as well, all around the world there are shows where No.1 records are constantly played, hence the royalty payments – albeit dwindling slightly as the years go by and my fame slowly diminishes! In fact I still occasionally get people come up to me and ask if “I used to be Kenny Ball?”
Another story which is absolutely true was when I was in Debenhams in Romford. I was just walking around browsing with my wife and children. This chap comes up to me and exclaims…”Lonnie, yes it is you Lonnie! I’m so pleased to see you. I’ve got all your LP’s – I listen to you all the time – everyday I play your records – I know everything about you. Hey you’re really looking well. Lonnie, would you do me a great honour and sign me your autograph.
I thought to myself, what do I do? The chap is so happy to have met his idol and I’m not the person he thinks I am! So I asked him his name and wrote an autograph with Lonnie Donegan’s name! I couldn’t do anything else. Afterwards he was so grateful, he hugged me and said “Thank you Lonnie” and walked off a very happy man. I’ve always hoped that he never realised that he mistook me for the wrong person!
I notice that even at the ripe age of 81 you are still performing to a busy schedule of gigs as far away as Poland. What keeps you going?
Even after all these years performing I still enjoy it and from what I gather, it makes people happy. If, whatever you do, people give you applause, then for me that is one heck of a good job.
I get applause at every concert which I hope will continue until I fall over….and then they’ll probably say “Thank goodness he’s gone”!