There’s some correspondence with the BBC here about whether they should have Roy Plummer with you on a programme.
We didn’t have many decent guitar players in England then. Roy was very good and so was Ivor Marantz, who used to teach guitar, and Bert Weedon, but none of them could play country. It is hard to tell someone who can play good classical or jazz guitar that he should play licks. It wasn’t part of their vocabulary. When I was on stage, I was the only guitarist as I couldn’t find good guitar players. It’s very hard to go up to Roy Plummer or Bert Weedon and say, “I want you to do it like this.” They may say, quite rightly, “What do you know?”
You were on Desert Island Discs in April 1957 and…
April 1957? Are you sure?
I’ve just surprised that I was on that early. I’d only had a couple of hits by then. (Looks down his selections.) Well, the Two Bills from Bermondsey was for my dad. I put in ‘Rudy’s Rock’ by Bill Haley and his Comets because it is a fantastic saxophone record. ‘London Fantasia’ by the Columbia Light Symphony Orchestra sounds a bit pretentious but that was written for the end of the War. I love Stan Freberg’s ‘Banana Boat Song’ and Judy Garland’s ‘Gotta Have Me Go With You’, which is from A Star Is Born. I see I included one of my own records, ‘Cannibal Pot’; that’s a bit cheeky, isn’t it?
And your latest release!
Well, we weren’t getting many plays on the BBC then, were we?
But the BBC was thinking of having you as a host on Housewives’ Choice but in the end, they said, “We can get Pete Murray for half the money and he’ll be just as good.”
Really? I did do a disc jockey show for them, A Handful Of Songs, and later on I did Housewives’ Choice when I was in the West End with Half A Sixpence.
A Handful Of Discs, actually, and you got paid 100 guineas, and you got 40 guineas for Housewives’ Choice. You are described as “most refreshingly, un-BBC”. You got 150 guineas for 6.5 Special, but Larry Parnes wanted more as he said you could get £500 from ITV.
When you say I got it, my management got it, which is not quite the same thing.
I remember you in pantomime in Liverpool, singing ‘Butterfingers’ to a little bear.
That’s right: Goldilocks And The Three Bears at the Royal Court in 1957.
So you were already turning into an all-round entertainer.
That was the first show I ever did where I could act and dance and it was the turning point of my career. That’s why I have a great love for Liverpool, as also I used to sail from Liverpool and most of my shipmates were Scousers. My career has had some wonderful moments in Liverpool and my friends at the Liverpool Press Club taught me so much about handling the press. I’ve always been grateful to the city and its people.
I can remember floating down onto the stage on some balloons and my mother exclaimed, “But he’s so clean.”
I never was a sex symbol. I was always the boy next door. It wasn’t intentional: it was just me being me, just like Presley was Presley, that’s the way he came out. The easiest way to be is to be yourself.
And you were staying, not in a hotel, but in a caravan in Ormskirk!
I don’t know how you knew that, but it’s true! I was right in the middle of a field and I must have been out of my mind. I couldn’t stay anywhere because the fans would be outside the hotels and clambering up the drainpipes. You look at the Adelphi and imagine someone trying to climb up there, but that’s what happened. I couldn’t get digs as I would be discovered and I was in a quandary. I had to get my sleep as I had to do two shows a day, and it was a very hard routine. I thought I would live in a caravan, and I said, “You can drive me to the caravan”, and I knew that the fans wouldn’t follow in cars as they would be too young and hardly anyone had cars anyway. I left it for someone to find me the caravan and they said it was in a field in Ormskirk, which is off the East Lancs Road, so I went there every night. There was no electricity and no water, but I managed it. I had my bath and my showers at the theatre and I used the caravan for eating and sleeping. It was a wonderful idea but it was freezing cold. It was January. No one found me and it was really blissful.
The pantomime was still being performed in February, and I have here a cutting from Liverpool University’s Guild Gazette about the matinee performance on 19 February 1958. Ah, you know what I’m going to say.
I’m going to say you’re like a stalker with all these things you’ve found about me, but I’ll never forget that performance. I walked on the stage and I did an opening joke, something like “That was no woman, that was my wife.” I got to “That was no woman”, and these voices in the gods shouted out, “That was my wife.” I carried on and remember, I wasn’t a hardened thespian then. I got up to the line, “Don’t you realise I love you?”, and, of course, they responded to that. I came off after that first scene, and the stage manager and the front of house manager were panicking. They said it was Rag Week and the students had come along for a bit of fun. There were 200 of them in the upper circle and they had somehow got scripts for the show and knew where the gags were. We carried on and they were still doing all these jokes, and it was upsetting the children, and their mothers were shouting out to them. I went forward and said, “Look, I don’t know who you are, but you’re upsetting everybody. You’ve had your fun, so please shut up or otherwise we will bring the curtain down.” They kept on going so the curtain came down. Five minutes had gone by and the audience was really angry at this crowd, so the manager came backstage and said, ‘We have a deputation from the students. They want us to bring the curtain up again.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to see a deputation. Did a deputation come and ask me if they could disrupt the performance?’ The other actors agreed that we couldn’t go on with them still in the audience. They were being silly students, and the performance was cancelled. The audience got their money but you couldn’t get a seat for another performance as it was sold out. The local press was furious with the students. There was even a report that any student seen wearing a Liverpool University scarf in the street would get thumped! They all went into hiding. A lot of the students’ unions around the country criticised them. The newspapers treated it very fairly as they realised that you couldn’t do a show with disruption like that.
You wrote a letter to the Guild Gazette which they printed.
Did I? What did it say?
You said, “If this is the sort of thing that they learn at University, then thank God I did not go to university.”
Sounds like me. Quite right too. That pantomime was like my university though. I realised that a pantomime was like a musical – there are songs, laughter and tears – and I knew that was really what I wanted to do.
So you turned away from rock’n’roll.
Not really. I never went against rock’n’roll and I never disliked it. I just wanted to do other things, and I did. I worked with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in the same year and it doesn’t get better than that.
Do you have a favourite Presley record that we can play?
Well, as we’re talking about the 50s, I would suggest ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, because the excess use of echo on that particular record will give everyone an idea as to how primitive our music was. We had to rely a lot on atmosphere and that is a typical example. Some engineer has suddenly decided that the way to give these records quality and atmosphere is to add this new-fangled thing called ‘Echo’. It’s like giving Elvis a big kick up the behind, and it’s very amusing really.
You did it yourself with ‘Come On, Let’s Go’?
Oh, that echo was even worse than Presley’s. That’s when the engineer really did find out how to take things to extremes. It’s more ridiculous than anything Presley ever did. We were nowhere near as musically accomplished as the lads today. We knew nothing about chord sequences and how to find different ideas within the confines of a chord sequence. With us, it was straightforward chords and emphasising the second and fourth beat to the bar.
Did you feel you were taking a chance putting out ‘Little White Bull’ as a single?
Not me. I was never interested in what they chose for the singles. ‘Little White Bull’ was done for the soundtrack of Tommy The Toreador, and the fact that they put out as a single was up to my management and Decca Records.
I liked that the fact you didn’t want to copy the Americans, and a good example is ‘What A Mouth’.
I did that record for one person only – my father. He said to me, “You think you can perform and know what you’re doing but until you can sing like the Two Bills from Bermondsey, you’ve had it.” The Two Bills from Bermondsey sang ‘What A Mouth’ and I listened to it and thought, “I’m gonna do that!”, and I did.