'Please don't tinkle on my piano'

Russ Conway is coming up for his 70th birthday. He's working on his autobiography.He still plays the piano. And the fans still love him. Philip Sweeney met Britain's answer to Liberace
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My first de facto sighting of Russ Conway - since any childhood glimpses of the Billy Cotton Band Show TV appearances seem to have been expunged by a sort of rock 'n' roll Stalinist memory rewrite - is of a solitary figure at the wheel of a cream "R" reg Silver Shadow parked outside Bristol County House while minibuses disgorge senior citizens for a tea dance. An hour later we meet, Russ smoking nervously in a pew in the council chamber before I go to join the audience for tea.

Bristol Age Care's belated VE tea dance is the real McCoy. No smirking post-modernists behind the potted palms here. Every one of the four to five hundred people sitting at the long tables could have been personally written into existence by Alan Bennett. The serving women wear Naafi turbans and aprons, and the Age Care organiser makes a very fetching Land Girl.

The entertainment begins at 2.30pm with the Romance of Harmony duo; then the Melvyn Wingfield dancers perform an interpretation of lost children from Schindler's List, which fortunately manages not to capture the tragedy of the storyline. As Russ's Steinway is pushed into the centre of the floor, I ask two neighbours, Mrs Marjorie Peters and Mrs Dorothy Hiles, to recap for me Russ's appeal. "Well, he was a good all-round performer, and if you heard him on the radio, you couldn't mistake him." What did the press used to say about him? Star-studded private life? Any scandal? "Oh no, nothing like that, we haven't seen much about him lately... he had a good write-up in the Evening Post yesterday, though."

A hush descends as the council chamber door opens, the Land Girl asks for a very warm welcome and Russ walks forward to the Steinway and sits down. In his navy suit, he looks much like a member of the audience, apart from the faintly louche touch imparted by the hue of his hair - Cherry Blossom dark tan - and the discreet keyboard symbols on his blue tie. One hand sports a large bandage, because this concert marks his return to musical life three months after he trapped a finger in the Rolls's door and underwent major surgery, including the insertion of a steel pin.

Russ peels off the bandage. "First remove the bandage from the offending digit... I hope it's all right. Now I'm going to start to play and I won't stop until I'm finished..." A bunch of rippling major chords and we're off, with Russ soon demonstrating an undiminished capacity for flashing a keyboard- sized upper row of choppers at his public roughly every 16 bars.

I'm no expert on Age Care audiences, but I've no reason to doubt Russ's subsequent claim that it was a wonderful comeback. You wouldn't expect Mrs Peters and Mrs Hiles to be pogo-ing behind the teapot or rushing the grand piano, but there's enough clapping, discreet agitation of little plastic Union Jacks and singing along to infer substantial enjoyment. At the end, the Peters and Hiles verdict is unanimous: "Remarkable, considering his hand," and "For his age, he's perfection." Backstage, in the council chamber, Russ lights up the first of a steady succession of cigarettes, and talks, with frequent interruptions from friends and fans.With the demise of Archie Leach (aka Cary Grant), Russ Conway is Bristol's most famous showbiz son, whippersnappers like Massive Attack and Portishead notwithstanding (no, Russ hasn't heard of them), a role he accepts with an engaging mixture of reticence and pride.

The Independent's interest in Russ Conway has been received with a distinct air of caution - "What angle are you taking?" Age Care keeps asking. The reason, it transpires, is a recent Daily Mail profile that Russ regards as negative and intrusive. Under the headline "How Fame Nearly Destroyed Me", Russ was depicted as a lonely old man undermined by having had to survive a bad relationship with his mother, two strokes, near-bankruptcy, a drink problem, stomach cancer, and - the final, if bathetic, straw - a Rolls-Royce mangled finger. Russ is particularly aggrieved at the treatment of his looks. "He referred to 'A fleshy podge' - he said his editor made him do it. 'The blue eyes don't flash any more,' he said... I don't suppose his will when he's 70 years of age."

Has he always suffered at the hands of the press? "No, the press were always very kind to me... well, I was once asked what made me smile on stage and I said, 'Oh, I think of someone who doesn't like me, and of my bank balance,' and the headline was 'When Russ Conway Smiles, He Thinks of Hate and Money'. And I do object to the phrase 'Russ Conway tinkling on the piano': I don't think I'd like to play a piano some other pianist has tinkled on, if you follow me."

Had anyone, before the Mail, put the question of sexual orientation to him? "No, and I don't see why they should. And anyway, my answer was not printed in full - I said I've tried everything there is to try, just in case I might be missing something."

If extra-musical speculation is secondary in one's "angle" on Russ Conway, it is not wholly absent. Why is Russ Conway interesting? Because of his place in showbusiness history as the Liberace of 1950s Britain, occupying the heights of the last great days of variety, before rock swept it all away. Because of his knowledge of the world of Tin Pan Alley, and his role in variety's continued existence. But also because of a whiff of the louche showbusiness underworld captured in Gordon Burn's novel Alma Cogan, a suspicion that, if he chose to, he could tell quite a spicy tale.

As it happens, he is telling his story, pounding out his autobiography Mother Was It Worth It (an old Forces catchphrase) at 60 to 80 words a minute in his Eastbourne flat; he still retains the typing skills he learnt as a clerk before his Royal and Merchant Navy days, which in turn preceded showbusiness. Waiting for the autobiography acts as a blanket excuse for certain areas he won't talk about, though sociological nuggets such as the early use of poppers emerges. What, amyl nitrate in the Fifties? "Yeah, I tried one once - it just made me play faster and louder."

Did he ever encounter the East End gangster set who shared, with high society, the West End piano clubs - places like the Londoner in Irving Street - where he started out? "No, but I was aware of an undercurrent... but I'd rather not say any more about that." Will it be in the book? "No." But it sounds fascinating. "Mm, sorry to do you out of that."

It was from the world of club piano-playing that Russ Conway's career took off. A self-taught player with an outstanding musical memory, nurtured on Gershwin, and then still known as Trevor Stanford, he was increasingly in demand as a rehearsal pianist for stars like Dennis Lotis, Gracie Fields and Lita Rosa when he was asked to write a short "gavotte-type thing" for a scene in a BBC TV Christmas show. The piece, transmuted into the irrepressibly jaunty single "Side Saddle", spent 30 weeks around the top of the charts in 1959; 16 more Top 20 hits followed.

Russ's ubiquitous grin disappeared from the TV screens in the late Sixties, and a depressed and medically troubled hiatus was ended by a return to regular charity work and the variety boards in the mid-Seventies. Now he does 20 shows a year. "Luckily there are still plenty of theatres - the Congress in Brighton, the Kings in Southsea, the Pavilion in Bournemouth" - and he organises tirelessly for his cancer fund. Now he's looking forward proudly to 70th birthday tribute shows in Bristol and London this autumn. There are a few pianos to be tinkled on out there yet, one feels.