He was a percussionist, teacher and author, known as Jimmy, born in Peterborough, England to a poor family where he was the eldest of five children and his father was a tailor.
He showed a talent for performing on the drums by the time he was eleven after he had been given some lessons by his uncle who performed his own percussion by using his cutlery to beat a tune out on his plate. He also gained a keen interest by listening to the local band musicians’ bass drum playing.
He was a member of the boy scouts, where he played the drums and he was also a chorister at the local cathedral with co-choir members being the future conductors Malcolm Sargent and Thomas Armstrong.
When he was fifteen years old he had left school and concentrated on engineering with a company that had their own orchestra. This wasn’t to last though as the depression hit, as did WWI, and the industry was affected. He decided to join up when he was sixteen but the army discovered he was too young and he was sent back home.
In 1921, after having worked in Peterborough with his uncle for while, and being allowed to leave his apprenticeship, he got a contract as a musician with Ginnett’s Circus in Henley-on-Thames.
Sadly the circus discontinued after a while but as he had already been interested in the percussion that accompanied the silent films at the cinema, he went and got a job in Wisbech doing just that. He became very adept as a cinema performer with a wide array of percussion instruments and this allowed him to work all over the north of Britain. In 1931 he went south to London where he continued his work as a percussionist. Soon he was in London playing in cinemas and with the band at the Piccadilly Hotel where the composer Benjamin Frankel was also a member. In 1932 he became a member of the London Film Society Orchestra and began working at some of the main film studios located there creating special effects such as thunder and gun shots.
It wasn’t long before he became extremely sought after by British and American orchestras and the movie industry to be a percussionist with them. The Rank Organisation asked him to provide the sound of the gong in 1935 which would be seen as being performed by the boxer Bombardier Billy Wells, commonly known as “The Gongman”, prior to all their films when they were aired. This became the well known trademark for the successful film company.
In 1936 his work was noticed by the composer Benjamin Britten when he was performing Night Mail which was a documentary. This led to them later being close friends and he was called upon by Britten to perform at many of his church operas on a national and international basis and later citing the composer as one of his major influences.
In the wartime years, in 1940, he became a member of the London Symphony Orchestra and was asked to play the Morse code signal for V for the BBC and Radio Belge. He obliged by tapping it with a drumstick on an African hand drum and it became the “V for Victory” signal for the Resistance broadcasts in Europe which were broadcast 150 times per day. He also toured Ensa in Britain and France with the orchestra but wasn’t allowed to be an active member of the military due to a previous injury and was soon given a position with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra as well as taking an active interest in chamber music.
Three years after the death of his first wife, Olive Hewitt, in 1945 he re-married the oboist Joan Goossens in 1948. He continued with his heavy and varied performing schedule but his new wife also suggested he should consider giving lectures. He took on the idea and this would become a huge part of his career during the 1950s and something that brought him a huge amount of recognition from people from all walks of life including mentally and physically handicapped children. He went a step further than lecturing and created special instruments that handicapped children could play. Also during the 1950s he was invited to become a member of the Coronation Orchestra in 1953 at Westminster Abbey.
Besides his lectures he took up teaching at the Royal Academy of Music as a Professor of Percussion from 1954 and encouraged and taught many successful music students that include Richard James Burgess, Ray Cooper, David Corkhill, Evelyn Glennie, Carl Palmer and Simon Rattle among others. He even gave advice to the composer Igor Stravinsky.
In 1971 he went into retirement where he left public performances but returned two years later in 1973 so he could perform at Benjamin Britten’s premiere of Death in Venice. In 1971 he was honoured for his contribution to music and his tireless work with handicapped children and awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire). He was also given honorary titles by the Royal Academy of Music and the University of Surrey and inducted into the Percussive Arts Society’s Hall of Fame.
His respected career has him remembered as being a hugely popular expert percussionist who didn’t think twice about using all kinds of items to get the sounds he required. This could range from a spring from a Rolls Royce to a gourd. He performed with countless orchestras and was a member of the Melos Chamber Ensemble, the English Chamber Orchestra and the English Opera Company. He also kept up associations with the Aldeburgh Festival, the Bach Choir, the musician David Munrow and leaders such as Philip Jones and Sir David Willcocks.
He authored several books that include his 1961 Orchestral Percussion Technique, the much acclaimed reference book Percussion Instruments and Their History in 1970 and later in 1977 published his autobiography entitled Drum Roll: A Professional Adventure from the Circus to the Concert Hall and a further autobiography These I Have Met in 1991.
Over the course of his career he performed on countless recordings and just a few of these include Britten Conducts Britten by Benjamin Britten, Shostakovich: Symphony 14 by Benjamin Britten & English Chamber Orchestra, Swing is in the Air by Ambrose, Works 1 & 2 by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Abide With Me: 50 Favourite Hymns by King’s College Choir of Cambridge, Music of the Crusades by David Munrow, Rock in Japan: Greatest Hits Live by Night Ranger and Sweden Rocks by Ted Nugent as well as Haydn: The Creation and several Christmas compilations.
He died at home in Cheam, Surrey, in 1999 when he was 97 years old and left behind a legacy of being one of the most talented and nationally loved musicians from Britain for more than six decades.
The Bach Choir Recordings
O Come All Ye Faithful (John Francis Wade/Frederick Oakley)
London 417 898-2
Conductor – Sir David Willcocks
Ensemble – Philip Jones Brass Ensemble
Organ – John Scott
Percussion – James Blades/David Corkhill