Obituary: Ronnie Chamberlain

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The Independent Culture
IN 1958 the producer Raymond Horricks came across a tune by a little-known Canadian band and thought it might be suitable for the next Ted Heath recording session. The song was "Swingin' Shepherd Blues" and, Horricks recalled, "Within 48 hours we had an arrangement done by Ken Moule (incorporating my perhaps corny idea of a `Baa Baa Black Sheep' quotation played by soprano sexist Ronnie Chamberlain), within a week the record was cut and pressed - and within another fortnight it was in the charts and well on its way towards selling half a million copies."

"Swingin' Shepherd Blues" may have been one of Ronnie Chamberlain's most prominent appearances in terms of record sales but it gave no indication of his skills as an improvising jazz soloist or his importance as a gifted multi- instrumentalist.

Born in London in 1924, he took up the violin at the age of eight, piano accordion at 14 then clarinet, alto and soprano saxophones a year later. In 1942 he was called up for the Army and played in service bands including the Blue Rockets, the RAOC orchestra directed by the trombonist Eric Tann.

Discharged on medical grounds in 1943, Chamberlain worked in a small group led by the drummer Carlo Krahmer playing at such West End clubs as the Nut House off Regent Street. He also appeared at jam sessions, often with visiting Americans stationed in London with the US Navy band led by Sam Donahue. It was through gatherings such as this that he met and played with Vic Lewis and Jack Parnell, both then serving with the RAF.

He became a member of the Vic Lewis/Jack Parnell Jazzmen, a small band that dispensed Dixieland music to a post-war audience of enthusiasts who bought the band's Parlophone recordings. Chamberlain played soprano sax and Pee Wee Russell-style clarinet but when Lewis decided to form a big band at the end of 1946 Chamberlain had few difficulties in adapting to the disciplines of a five-saxophone team.

Vic Lewis introduced British audiences to the music of Stan Kenton with his interpretations of works such as "Intermission Riff" and "Eager Beaver". Chamberlain was heavily featured on ballads including "Laura" and "Indian Summer" as well as "Hammersmith Riff" and "Pepperpot", two pieces written for Lewis by Kenton's arranger Pete Rugolo.

In 1953 the young Tubby Hayes joined the Vic Lewis orchestra, taking his place in the sax section alongside Chamberlain. By now the band was using arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, eight of which formed a successful album Lewis recorded for Decca.

Ronnie Chamberlain's reputation as an outstanding soloist and section man inevitably meant he was a target for headhunters. At the beginning of 1956 he received an offer from Ted Heath which was too attractive to ignore. At that time Heath was about to tour America in exchange for Stan Kenton appearing in Britain, the first such deal to be negotiated since the respective musicians' unions had banned reciprocal visits back in the Thirties.

The opportunity to play in America was the deciding factor and Chamberlain left Vic Lewis after 12 years. Two years earlier Lewis had presented him with a watch to mark a decade of unbroken service.

During the Heath tour of America the band played a concert at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York, an event captured on record by the Decca sound engineers. The result was to be the first of many Ted Heath albums to feature Chamberlain. Several were aimed at the wider audience with such titles as Jolson Classics, All Time Top Twelve and Hits I Missed, but there were other opportunities for Chamberlain to shine such as "Skylark" from the album Instruments of the Orchestra and the thrilling My Kind of Jazz.

Chamberlain was to remain with the Ted Heath band for more than 10 years. When Les Gilbert left to freelance, Chamberlain took over the role of sax section leader, a clear indication of his increased status. He also added the flute to his clarinet and saxophones making him an even more versatile and important member of Britain's finest big band.

After leaving Ted Heath, Chamberlain immersed himself in studio work where musicians are judged by their sight-reading skills and reliability. With these qualities in abundance plus a command of four instruments Chamberlain was in constant demand by producers of music for instrumental backings to singers, television and film soundtracks. When Frank Sinatra appeared in Britain, Chamberlain was in his supporting orchestra but he still maintained his interest in jazz and the big swing bands.

He worked for six months with the Syd Lawrence orchestra as well as the Million Airs and the Bobby Lamb/Ray Premru band. After Heath's death in 1969, the trombonist Don Lusher put together the Ted Heath Tribute Orchestra which frequently featured Chamberlain.

Heart problems eventually prevented him from working but he still attended the 80th birthday celebration of his friend Vic Lewis in April of this year, even though he did not play. Shortly before his death he and his wife left their London home and moved to Stoke-on-Trent. Unfortunately he was not to enjoy a long retirement.

Alun Morgan

Ronald H. Chamberlain, clarinettist and saxophonist: born London 12 May 1924; married (one son); died Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire 17 September 1999.