Lonnie Donegan saw their audition for an ITV children’s programme and invited them on his show Putting On The Donegan and arranged a record contract with Pye. “Riverside Blues” and “South Rampart Street Parade” from their first album Invitation To The Ball (1960) remained in their repertoire. “I should have stayed longer,” said guitarist Diz Disley, “but I got fed up doing novelty numbers like ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ and ‘Hawaiian War Chant’. It was mickey-mousing the band and I didn’t like it.”
The band had its first hit with Cole Porter’s “Samantha” in 1961. “A piano player called Cecil came up to me after a show at the Mardi Gras in Liverpool,” said Ball, “and he said, ‘You should record “Samantha” from High Society.’ Its chord sequence is so lovely. It’s different to any other chord sequence in the key of C and the first chord is a B 7th, a semitone below the major, which is an intriguing start to any tune. In the film, Louis Armstrong starts to play it quickly and then grimaces and says, ‘No, man, that’s not made to play fast.’ David Jacobs used a slow version for his signature tune but we were steaming wrecks and nearly everything we did was very fast. We took ‘Samantha’ up in tempo and I sang it in a shrill, high-pitched voice and added a growl mute solo. The band swung like the clappers and it was a hit for us.”
It was followed by “I Still Love You All” but even after 40 years, Ball had problems remembering all the girls’ names in the lyric. Louis Armstrong’s “Someday (You’ll Be Sorry)” came next. “Louis Armstrong is my absolute hero,” said Ball, “I can play the notes close to his timing but I can never get the same tone. He was incredible.”
The Trad boom was spearheaded by Ball, Chris Barber and Acker Bilk, and “the 3Bs” appeared in Richard Lester’s film It’s Trad, Dad! In 1962, Ball went to No 2 in Britain and the US with “Midnight In Moscow”, written as “Leningradskie Vechera” seven years earlier. Its success led to them playing to ecstatic crowds in the Soviet Union.
The band had further hits with “The March Of The Siamese Children” from The King And I and “The Green Leaves Of Summer”, written by Dimitri Tiomkin, a Russian who had settled in America and become a film composer. The Weimar cabaret song “So Do I” became the band’s opening number with Ball singing the amended lyric, “You like to get pissed, well, so do I”.
Their third album, The Kenny Ball Show, was a recording from the Liverpool Empire on April Fool’s Day, 1962. “I’ve met Paul McCartney a few times and he told me that he was at that concert,” said Ball. “He went with his dad and he said that it was fantastic. We sounded great that night.”