An appreciation of Clinton Ford by Spencer Leigh
This three-part feature with discography appeared in In Tune magazine (November/December 2005 and January 2006). I’m publishing it on the web as Clinton has not have enough acclaim and deserves to have his story told. Whether I’ve done him justice of course is another matter.
PART 1 – FANLIGHT FANNY
“Nearly everything I’ve done seemed like a good idea at the time.”
(Clinton Ford, 2005)
Ask anybody about Clinton Ford and the odds are that, if they know him at all, they will say ‘Fanlight Fanny’. There’s nothing wrong with that as ‘Fanlight Fanny’ is a much-loved comic record, but no one song can sum up Clinton Ford’s vast repertoire. Clinton can sing romantic ballads like ‘Somewhere My Love’, 60s pop like ‘Run To The Door’ and country songs like ‘This Song Is Just For You’, not to mention scores of jazz, pop, music hall and children’s favourites. In the singles catalogues published by ‘The Gramophone’, Clinton Ford is listed as a ‘beat vocalist’ but he was much more than that. Clinton Ford: “I can’t be put in a pigeonhole and when people ask me what sort of songs I sing, I say, ‘The ones with words and music.’
In another sense, though, ‘Fanlight Fanny’ is typical of Clint’s songbook. His preference is for little-known but well-written songs from a bygone age. In concert, he resembles a one-man edition of ‘The Good Old Days’ as you hear songs that nobody else has sung for years. He is a one-man custodian of the Tin Pan Alley archives who is entrusted with bringing these songs to life. He comments, “A lot of these old vaudeville songs are crystallised history. They are about things that happened and they were contemporary songs in their day. Look at the tandem bikes in ‘Daisy Bell’, which is over a hundred years old. I sang that at the City Varieties in Leeds and the whole audience sang along with it.”
Novelty songs date more than most but Clint can take comic songs and restore their vitality and humour. His trick, if there is one, is to revel in the words: he always enunciates them clearly and these days he doesn’t perform songs unless he loves them himself. Whenever he is asked for his favourite song, Clint says, “The one I’m singing.” Like ‘The Old Bazaar In Cairo’, you can find anything and everything in Clinton’s catalogue, and, to my ears at least, this jack of all trades is the master of all.
To me and to Clint’s fans, his versatility was his strength, but it also was a marketing man’s nightmare. Clint reflects, “Should I have gone all comedy or all sentimental? I don’t know. I mixed them up and it didn’t work. People didn’t know what I was going to turn up with next, but that’s me. I couldn’t stick to one type of music. There were too many good songs that I wanted to sing.”
Clinton Ford had the talent, temperament and personality to be a major star and yet, despite several opportunities and a few minor hits, it didn’t happen. What went wrong? The lack of a clear direction is part of the answer but as this three-part feature will show, Clinton Ford has sabotaged his own career. If a wrong turn could be taken, Clint took it, but this is what makes him so absorbing and why his greatest weaknesses are also his strengths.
As I was researching this feature, two names sprang to mind: Lonnie Donegan and George Melly. Like Clinton, they loved music hall and made their living from the songs of the past. They revelled in finding obscurities such as ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight?’ (Donegan) and ‘Nuts’ (Melly). Lonnie Donegan had a stylistic range that was as wide as Clinton Ford’s but, on the whole, he would shoehorn the songs into his own, very personalised style, while George Melly’s primary interest lay in licentious songs – in fact, the bawdier the better, and the songs are in keeping with his image. Given the opportunity, I suspect that Lonnie would have enjoyed going that way too.
Undoubtedly the entertainers had much in common – notably, a shared love for Max Miller – and they all knew hundreds of songs. Clinton, a modest man, told me, “I don’t sing any better than anyone else. I just know more songs than anyone else.” This is probably true. I have seen Clinton respond to audience suggestions and perform a song impromptu, often with the introductory verse. At a guess, Clinton might know 1,000 songs.
Clinton Ford or rather Ian George Stopford Harrison began life in Salford on 4 November 1931: “I was born in Salford but only because my grandfather couldn’t get work on the Liverpool docks. He was a superintendent stevedore and he walked to Salford with his family, pushing my father in a pram. He had no money and he found work when he got there.”
It was a musical family: “My mother was a pianist in the silent film days, and a very good one too. My father was a singer and all my uncles were singers or musicians, and that’s why I know so many songs. ‘I Love Me’, for example, comes from a song album that was in our piano stool when I was a lad. My father taught me ‘Miss Hooligan’s Christmas Cake’ or I should say, he taught me the first verse. I got the second verse from Mick Groves of the Spinners, which was only fair as I taught him ‘Dirty Old Town’.”
That response is typical of Clint’s conversation as he packs information into his answers, which often lead into other subjects. Given the information, I am sure I could write an equally enthralling article about Clinton’s family. “My cousin Fred in Bebington was such a big man that they couldn’t get a hat to fit him,” says Clinton. Don’t you want to know more about cousin Fred?
The young Ian Harrison had the makings of a performer from the start: “I was always the first on stage at school. I blacked up once and this shows you how early I was intending to do all this. I was one of the three kings in a nativity play and I decided to be the black one.” One of Clint’s first heroes was Paul Robeson and he wanted a huge, deep voice like that. While Clint and I were listening to a Paul Robeson record one day, he said, “You could soak a Yorkshire pudding in that voice.”
In the early 1950s Clinton served with the armed forces in Vienna. It was there he learnt ‘Horst Du Mein Heimliches Rufen’, which means ‘Do You Hear My Secret Calling?’ and was recorded by Herbert Ernst Groh in 1940. Clint adds, “‘Cathy I Love You’ is a pretty little song that I thought of when I was on guard duty.”
He arranged shows in the forces and would sing folk songs with his guitar. At one show an officer’s wife sang some country songs by Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams and he was soon tuning in to the Blue Danube Network, the Austrian equivalent of AFN, to hear what he could. He also met American servicement with the same interest.
Returning to the UK, Clinton wanted to work as a professional musician: “I was going on tour in a variety show in 1957 with a group I had formed called the Backwoods Skiffle Group, although it wasn’t really skiffle. I thought that my real name didn’t sound right and someone came up with Clinton Ford, which fitted in with the Backwoods Skiffle Group much better.” Still, he could, quite legitimately, have been George Harrison.
Skiffle was soon confined to a backwater but rock’n’roll, also a product of the mid-fifties, was here to stay. “I liked Josh White and I loved blues, folk and country music. A lot of the original rock’n’roll was blues-oriented and so it wasn’t offensive to me. I loved Fats Domino doing ‘I’m Walkin’’ and ‘When My Dreamboat Comes Home’. I worked with Little Richard on television and he was a wild man, a marvellous performer. I usually don’t mind whom I’m following on stage, but I don’t think I could have followed him with any success.” The show in question was ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ for 13 October 1962. The line-up was Little Richard, Dion, John Leyton, Marion Ryan, Terry Lightfoot’s Jazzmen and Clinton Ford.
Clinton Ford worked as a Redcoat at Butlin’s for three years and he fronted a skiffle group in a TV commercial for the holiday camps. Sometimes he would dress in a cowboy outfit and sing western songs, his long, lanky frame working in his favour. After working in Butlin’s Pwllheli in 1957, he came to Liverpool and went to a new club, the Cavern. “I had family in Bebington but I had never really been to Liverpool until I went to the Cavern. I sang ‘Ace In The Hole’ with Ralph Watmough’s band and then someone asked if I could sing with the Merseysippi Jazz Band. Their pianist Frank Robinson said, ‘Not another one’, and I’ve been singing with them on and off ever since. I like the sound they make and they are good to sing with. Most of them do a little vocal or two and although they have had permanent singers, I am their longest serving singer even though it is only spasmodic.”
Frank Robinson admits he had reservations: “I was apprehensive about Clinton because most people who want to sing with the band don’t have much idea of keys or intonation. As soon as he sang, I realised that there was no problem with Clinton: he had good intonation and good diction and you can understand every word he sings.”
Ken ‘Nobby’ Baldwin, the Mersey’s guitarist and banjo player, also remembers that audition: “We were playing at the Cavern in 1958 and this guy came through the door. It was Clinton Ford but we didn’t know him and his face was hidden by a pair of sunglasses. I thought he was a poser – you don’t wear sunglasses in a cellar – but there was a reason for this as he had two black eyes. He had just finished a summer season at Butlin’s in Pwllheli. He sang in the bar every night and he had become friendly with one of the girls who worked there. He had taken her to his chalet but she happened to be the chef’s young lady who sussed out where she was. The chef duffed him up and he still had the shiners when we saw him. He didn’t create a good impression at first but as soon as he sang with the band, things were different. We realised he could sing. He knew a few jazz numbers and he had a good voice. His first love was country music which he does very well and then in the nightclubs, he’d be doing ‘Fanlight Fanny’. We love playing with him and we know a lot of his numbers.”
Around the same time, Derek Vaux, a subsequent member of the Merseys, played Butlin’s in Filey as part of that Noel Walker Jazz Band: “We got into the same sort of trouble as Clinton. Clinton told me about the soothing effect that singing had on young ladies, especially holidaymakers, and he just had to visit them at three in the morning to console them. At least, that was the story he told the camp manager before he was evicted.”
Clinton Ford remembers his first songs with the Merseys well as it was the night the trams finished in Liverpool. He sang at the Cavern with them and sometimes slept there overnight. He was a dosser at the Pier Head before he found lodgings: “I had a little bedsit in Canning Street for fifteen shillings a week. It was a marvellous little place. Ron Rubin, who’s worked with everyone, had a bedsit opposite to me, but his was smaller than mine and only ten shillings a week. Somehow he got a piano up there. I played my guitar in my room and did write some songs there. I recorded one of them, ‘Now That You’ve Gone’. I liked playing the Cavern with the Merseys but it’s hard to convey how squalid it was. When it was packed, the moisture would rise and settle on the ceiling. It would condense and drip down your neck. It was an awful place but we loved it.”
Ken Baldwin: “Clinton Ford played with us in the winter and we learnt a lot of his songs. We were semi-pro and playing two or three times a week. We weren’t making enough for him to live on, so we knew that he would never stay with us.”
In 1957 a Butlin’s Redcoat, Russ Hamilton had a million-seller with his Oriole single, ‘We Will Make Love’ and maybe Clinton would do the same for the label in 1958. Clinton wanted to record a catchy song that was going up the American charts for Marty Robbins, ‘The Story Of My Life’, but Oriole wasn’t interested and the song was a UK No.l for EMI’s Michael Holliday.
Instead, Clinton fronted the Hallelujah Skiffle Group, which was not a bunch of friends but a group of session musicians. Ernie Shear, soon to play lead guitar on Cliff Richard’s ‘Move It!’, was on guitar and Clint was joined by members of the Mike Sammes Singers. Three singles were released, one under Clinton’s name and two as the Hallelujah Skiffle Group featuring Clinton Ford. They didn’t sell, one reason being that skiffle was on its way out.
Clinton made his first radio appearance on ‘Follow The Stars’ on 27 April 1958. The producer, David Doré, filed the note, “This engagement is only for a ‘Discovery’ spot in the programme – he still has to pass the BBC audition.”
A week later another producer notes, “I have heard Ford’s commercial record – as far as one can usefully label this sort of thing, he is a rockabilly merchant. Would Jimmy Grant please advise whether he would be more appropriately judged in the skiffle or vocalist channel? I can’t help feeling that few singers of this style would pass the vocalist test.” How intriguing that the BBC had two channels – one with lower standards for skifflers.
Because Clinton had a contract with the Oriole label and the Merseysippi Jazz Band were with Esquire, they could not record together. Or could they? In May 1958 they recorded a single for Esquire and Clinton sang with them on ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. It was released under the name of Al St George. Clinton recalls, “It was not the best of names, and I wished they’d put Alexander St George on the label which was much better. One reviewer said that I would have more success chasing dragons. With a bit of luck, he’ll have thought it was George Melly rather than me.”
Considering his versatility, I would have thought that he would have been ideal for the cover versions on Oriole’s subsidiary, the Woolworth’s label Embassy, but Clint didn’t record for them. “I would have said the opposite to you,” says his Oriole labelmate Chas McDevitt, “His voice is so distinctive that it would be hard for him to use a pseudonym. He was a real live wire and the reason he knew so many songs was because he covered so many styles. Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor knew hundreds of songs and may have known more than Clint but they were confined to one genre.”
Clinton often worked with the Harry Leader Orchestra and in October 1958 Harry Leader, acting as his agent, wrote to the BBC and asked if he could be considered for ‘Mid-day Music Hall’. He wrote, “He is a first class performer who accompanies himself on guitar and needs no orchestra. He specialises in country and western songs. Clinton Ford has already recorded for Oriole and has been signed for another two years. In a fortnight’s time he will be recording some of his own titles. His age is 23.” Er no.
What Harry Leader didn’t know was Clinton had had a BBC audition for ‘Guitar Club’ and ‘Saturday Club’ the previous day. He had played ‘Lovesick Blues’, ‘Back Street Affair’, ‘Someday You’ll Call My Name’ and ‘Nellie Dean’, and John Kingdon reported, “A country and western singer of great value to us in this day and age. Result: Yes.” From then on, Clinton was to work regularly on the BBC and as we shall find next month, perhaps a little too regularly. His first TV appearance was with the Merseysippi Jazz Band on ‘The Ken Dodd Show’, which was from the Central Pier, Blackpool in 1960.
Also, Harry Leader’s letter puzzled the BBC: “Evidently Mr. Ford’s right hand doesn’t know what his left hand is doing as I have received by the same post, a letter authorising Forrester-George to act on his behalf.”
In January 1958 the Merseysippi Jazz Band played at the Royal Albert Hall – at four in the morning. John Lawrence: “It was one of those multi-band concerts where each band would try and upstage the others. You always started with the loudest and fastest tune you could manage. In complete contrast, the Graeme Bell Band started with a very slow Duke Ellington tune and brought the house down as nobody else had thought of doing that. We had been waiting to play since 10 pm because an all-night session was quite a novelty, and there was a huge crowd. We had Clint with us and there was a song at the top of the charts, ‘Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me’ by the Johnny Otis Show, which had a Bill Haley flavour about it. Clint thought it was a good tune and that we should try it. It was an easy tune and we played it well but a song that was at the top of the hit parade was anathema to the serious jazz fans, even if it was an oldie. The stage at the Albert Hall is pretty high so, as with the Proms, the stage is chin high to the people who are standing. One die-hard shouted out, ‘You’re not fit to lick Ken Colyer’s boots.’ We thought this was hilarious so his whole outburst misfired completely. Why people should get so worked up over what they think is authentic music, I don’t know.”
In 1960 Clinton did record officially with the Merseysippi Jazz Band on a vo-de-o-do EP for Oriole. The EP is very good indeed and I particularly like ‘Wana’ which is a close companion to ‘Baby Face’. Cornet player John Lawrence: “We recorded ‘I Wish I Was In Peoria’ with Clinton, which is an American vaudeville song. We also recorded ‘Get Out And Get Under’, which was written when motor cars were beginning to emerge and they were breaking down all the time.” “I still do Get Out And Get Under,” adds Clint,”That’s a beauty. We were doing ‘Peoria’ wrong for 26 years as the Merseys were changing key for the chorus and they shouldn’t change key at all.”
When people criticise country music, they often say it is because the songs are about dead dogs. What they are referring to is ‘Old Shep’ and maybe Clinton set the cause of country music back in the UK, rather than advancing it. Clinton Ford: “Nearly everything I’ve done seemed like a good idea at the time. Even ‘Old Shep’. Red Foley had written it and Hank Snow had recorded a definitive version. Elvis Presley made a lousy version and I’m sure the Jordanaires are out of tune. I had done it on stage and seen the reaction and I said to the Levys who owned Oriole that I wanted to do it but they didn’t like it. I talked them into letting me record it but they wouldn’t release it. They said it was too slow, too dreary and too long. Reg Warburton was a beautiful pianist, who backed David Whitfield, and he got Gordon Franks to do the arrangements for the orchestra and he put two altos on it. I said we needed a steel guitar and a little choir, but no, they did it with a rock’n’roll group and two saxes. Terrible version, terrible.” To me, Clint’s vocal isn’t too good either: he is taking the lyric too deliberately, almost like a choirboy.
But Clint was determined that ‘Old Shep’ should be released: “I said, ‘If you don’t release ‘Old Shep’, I’m going, I know it’s going to be a hit.’ I went in to terminate the contract and Reg Warburton said, ‘Before you go any further, ‘Old Shep’ is being released next week.’ I said, ‘Okay I’m staying’, and it was a hit until Elvis Presley’s version was issued on an EP and that killed it.”
The other side of the single was even more improbable, a rock’n’roll version of ‘Nellie Dean’: “Oh, that was just a joke. When I was at Butlin’s some drunk asked me for a rocking ‘Nellie Dean’ and I just went into it with a guitar. It went down all right so we put it on the B-side. In fact, that was the A-side at first because Oriole didn’t believe in ‘Old Shep’, but I did and I was right.” Ray Charles breathed life into ‘My Bonnie’ and Bobby Darin into ‘Clementine’, but Clinton falls flat on his face with ‘Nellie Dean Rock’.
Being a good-natured bloke, Clinton said he would give his royalties from ‘Old Shep’ to the Battersea Dogs Home. It made the charts and poor Clint missed out. And this was one song which didn’t have royal patronage – Clint heard that the Queen told a member of her household to turn off ‘Housewives Choice’ because the presenter was playing ‘Old Shep’ as she had lost one of her corgis.
With ‘Old Shep’, Clinton became the first British artist to have a hit with a country record. It was not a one-off as Clinton was determined to make more country records. He says, “Oriole didn’t really have a clue how to make records or how to sell them, but they were nice people. I liked them. I wanted to go into country music and I tried to explain to them what country music was and they didn’t understand. They remembered Big Bill Campbell before the war and it sounded terribly corny to me. It wasn’t real country music and they spoke about rocky mountains and everyone walking around with spurs and check shirts and dancing round bales of hay. It wasn’t much to do with real country music: they were laughing at country music. By now I had discovered Hank Williams and all the great country artists, and Oriole wouldn’t let me record the songs. I had to sing rock’n’roll and go with the trend.”
However, the follow-up to ‘Old Shep’ did come from Hank Williams’ repertoire, ‘Lovesick Blues’, although Clint wasn’t happy: “‘Lovesick Blues’ was a labour of love and I shouldn’t have done it. I should have left it to Hank Williams. Frank Ifield deserved a No.l with it as that was a good record.”
Clint’s foray into the seasonal market was with ‘Red Indian Christmas Carol’: “That is a very good, poetic song. It was written by a Christian missionary who wanted to get the Christmas story over to the Hurons, a tribe of Red Indians. They are still Indians to me: whoever heard of playing Cowboys and Native Americans? I was fascinated by the Indian imagery in the lyrics.”