Obituary: Hammy Howell

TWENTY YEARS ago, Darts dusted off a host of doo-wop and Fifties rhythm 'n' blues classics, penned a few ditties of their own and scored a series of eight Top Twenty hits in the UK.

Hammy Howell joined Darts in late 1976 after the band, who had already done a cappella sessions on Charlie Gillett's seminal BBC Radio London Honky Tonk show, announced they were looking for a piano player. Rita Ray, one of the group's four lead vocalists, recalls, "You don't come across a left-hand talent like that very often. Hammy's thunderous rhythm made him a natural for us."

Howell was born in London in 1954 and developed a passion for the piano from an early age. By the mid-Seventies, he was backing Johnny Mars, a blues harmonica player who had relocated from the United States to Britain. Mars and his Oakland Boogie Band were regular visitors to Germany where they acquired a cult following among blues aficionados.

Darts had evolved from the break-up of Rocky Sharpe and the Razors, a rock 'n' roll revue-style act who had caused a sensation on London's pub-rock scene. Rocky Junior, the Razors' frontman, left the band and eventually scored a couple of hits with the Replays. Keen to "really delve into the roots of rhythm 'n' blues", the Razors' bass-singer Den Hegarty, its vocalists Griff Fender and Rita Ray, and saxophonist Horatio Hornblower, added Bob Fish, a veteran of the pub scene, and, alongside Hammy Howell, recruited the guitarist George Currie, the bassist Iain "Thump" Thompson and the drummer John Dummer, to become Darts.

In 1977, after considering an offer from Stiff Records, Darts signed to the Magnet label. Under the guidance of the producers Richard Hartley and Tommy Boyce, the group blended the Rays' "Daddy Cool" and Little Richard's infectious "The Girl Can't Help It" into a catchy medley which reached No 6 in the British charts in December that year.

On a roll, Darts returned to their doo-wop record collections, updating "Come Back My Love" (popularised by the Wrens and the Cardinals), "Boy from New York City" (the Ad-Libs 1965 hit) and "It's Raining" (by the formidable rhythm 'n' blues vocalist Irma Thomas) for three consecutive No 2s in 1978. Chaotic yet memorable Top of the Pops appearances and the popularity of their debut album Darts, the follow-up Everyone Plays Darts and the compilation Amazing Darts, marketed by K-Tel, helped the band become Britain's biggest-selling act of 1978.

"We were a one-off. Even the punks loved us," reflects Ray. "There was a really strange affinity between what we were doing and what they liked. Johnny Rotten used to come to our gigs. Later Madness and the Specials showed up too."

However, the band's punishing schedule was beginning to take its toll and, apart from the fine "Get It", their self-penned efforts like "Don't Let It Fade Away" didn't quite match the performance of previous singles.

Howell quit in order to study classical music for a while. "Up to a couple of years ago, he was still taking piano lessons. Hammy was really dedicated," Ray remembers. He returned to the fold for a short spell in 1980, after the group's last Top Twenty hit, a cover of the Four Seasons' "Let's Hang On". Darts struggled on with releases on Sunburst and their own Choice Cuts label before splitting up three years later.

Griff Fender, Rita Ray, Thump Thompson and Horatio Hornblower joined the cast of Yakety Yak, a rock 'n' roll musical which made a successful move to the West End in 1983. Several ex-Darts members became band managers.

The Eighties and Nineties were not kind to Howell who, says Rita Ray,

had severe mental problems. He never really got over his mother's illness and death. He put on far too much weight. When I was running the Mambo Inn and DJ-ing in Brixton, he sometimes played in the chill-out lounge. He moved into sheltered accommodation in Torquay, where he started teaching piano and played in the house band. But he wouldn't listen to anybody and he had a heart attack. All he cared about was playing the piano, fags and food. When Hammy was playing, he was happy. He was a wonderful boogie- woogie piano player.

William "Hammy" Howell, piano and keyboard player: born London 24 October 1954; died Torquay, Devon 13 January 1999.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence