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.

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