Clinton Ford: Singer and entertainer whose versatility was both his strength and his weakness

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The Independent Online

Clinton Ford was among the UK's most versatile entertainers and although he made hit records, notably "Old Shep" and "Fanlight Fanny", he could have had several more. His versatility was both his strength and his weakness as he recorded jazz, country music, romantic ballads, comedy songs, children's favourites and music hall standards. He told me in 2005, "I can't be put in a pigeonhole and when people ask me what sort of songs I sing, I say, 'The ones with words and music.'" There was an additional problem: given two options, Clinton Ford invariably chose the wrong one, but he commented, "Nearly everything I've done seemed like a good idea at the time." (Pause) "Even 'Old Shep'."

Clinton Ford was born Ian George Stopford Harrison in Salford in 1931. His mother was a cinema pianist and the family enjoyed singing and performing. He was always first on stage at school and in the forces arranged troop shows in Vienna and sang folk songs with his guitar. Returning to the UK, "I toured in a variety show in 1957 with a group I had formed called the Backwoods Skiffle Group. I thought my real name didn't sound right and someone came up with Clinton Ford."

Ford worked as a Butlin's Redcoat and fronted a skiffle group in a TV commercial for their holiday camps. After the 1957 summer season in Pwllheli, he came to Liverpool and began performing with the Merseysippi Jazz Band at a new jazz club, the Cavern. He played his first songs wearing sunglasses as he had been beaten up by a Butlin's chef for stealing his girl.

Recording for the independent Oriole Records, Ford wanted to cover an American hit by Marty Robbins, "The Story Of My Life". The label had other ideas, and Michael Holliday, took "The Story Of My Life" to No 1 for EMI. Instead, Ford fronted the Hallelujah Skiffle Group. Their singles didn't sell, largely because skiffle was on its way out. He recorded "Alexander's Ragtime Band", as Al St. George with the Merseysippi Jazz Band, for the Esquire label. "I'd have had better luck chasing dragons," he remarked.

In January 1958 the Merseysippi Jazz Band played at the Royal Albert Hall – at four in the morning. Their cornet player, John Lawrence, remembered: "An all-night session was quite a novelty, and there was a huge crowd. We had Clint and there was a song at the top of the charts, 'Ma, He's Making Eyes At Me' by the Johnny Otis Show, which had a Bill Haley flavour. It was an easy tune and we played it well but a song that was at the top of the hit parade was anathema to the serious jazz fans, so we had a hard time."

A common criticism of country music is that the songs are about dead dogs. The critics are referring to "Old Shep" – and maybe Ford set the cause of country music back in the UK. "I told Oriole that I wanted to do it but they said it was too slow, too dreary and too long," he said. "We needed a steel guitar and a little choir, but no, we did it with a rock'n'roll group and two saxes. Terrible version, terrible." Being good-natured, Ford donated his royalties from "Old Shep" to the Battersea Dogs Home, so he made nothing from his biggest-selling record.

When Ford recorded an edition of the BBC's Saturday Club from the Albert Hall in January 1960, he picked up a tulip from the front of the stage and ate it. He told the audience that it was quite nice, rather like mustard and cress. This was another memorable gig: he was barracked while singing "Old Shep", and when he announced, "I'll finish this song if it kills me", some wag shouted, "It's already killing us."

In 1962, Ford sang about Fanlight Fanny, a striptease artist past her prime. George Formby had performed the song in Trouble Brewing (1939) and, with permission, Clinton Ford added new words. Ford was paired with trombonist George Chisholm, who shared his sense of humour.

Kenny Ball asked Ford to join his jazz band and he found himself continually on the road. The band worked for radio's Easy Beat and he was learning new songs all the time, but left after a year as Ball wanted to do more of the singing. When Derek Taylor interviewed him for Melody Maker in 1963, he kept repeating that he was tired. "Well, I was," Ford told me, "After I left Kenny Ball, I went on my own and did the driving, and it knocked me out. I did a matinee in Margate and an evening show in Peterborough. Then I drove overnight to Aberystwyth and returned for rehearsals for Stars And Garters. I was dozing in lay-bys and waking up freezing."

Almost every show was memorable: the Merseysippis, for example, recall Clinton setting up a hangman's noose on stage at Liverpool University and nearly killing himself, and another time leaving the van to relieve himself in the dark and falling down a cliff.

In April 1963, a BBC manager complained that Ford appeared to be on nearly every radio show and demanded an investigation. That week he had been on Easy Beat (Sunday), Clinton's Cakewalk (Wednesday) and 20s To The Twist (Thursday). A round-robin of BBC producers revealed that he was also working for Showtime, Worker's Playtime, The Beat Show, Sing It Again and Pops for Everyone. Patrick Newman, the Light Entertainment booking manager, admitted that "practically every producer in the Corporation is clamouring to book him." As a result, practically every producer in the Corporation stopped using him.

Ford joined EMI's Columbia label, thinking he would have success with a new song, "The Wedding", but a version by Julie Rogers made the charts. He made several albums, combining romantic ballads and music hall songs.

Every Christmas, Ford worked in pantomime. Playing Widow Twanky in Aladdin in Bolton, "The trick was to get me out of drag and into a suit as Clinton Ford. Abanazer said, 'I sentence you a fate worse than death – you will be Clinton Ford.' I put on my grey suit and bow tie under my costume, and the costume had press studs at the back. There was a black-out, I undid the studs and went to the microphone singing 'Oh! By Jingo'."

Ford was always full of fun: "I was at ATV with Kenny Lynch and Jimmy Tarbuck. Jimmy had a number plate, COM 1C, which was a bit ostentatious. Kenny and I thought we'd have a joke with him and we put a question mark on the end. He wasn't very happy about it but he blamed Des O'Connor."

In 1966 Clinton was reunited with his Oriole producer, John Schroeder, at Pye's new subsidiary, Piccadilly. Over the next five years he made all manner of singles and albums. He started with Ray Davies' "Dandy" and then a country song "Run To The Door". Both made the charts but as they were released simultaneously, they spoilt each other's sales. A third Piccadilly single, "This Song Is Just For You", became a stage favourite.

In 1968 Ford had his greatest moment – a delightfully funny album with George Chisholm and the Inmates, Clinton The Clown: "That was great fun to record. The Inmates were George's old friends, bits and pieces from the Squadronaires including Freddie Clayton and Tommy McQuater on trumpets, Alfie Reece on tuba, Ernie Shear on banjo and guitar and Jock Cummings on drums. We did it in an all-night session and I fell asleep against the wall at four o'clock in the morning waiting for the taxi to go home." The album includes the innuendo-laden "My Baby's Wild About My Old Trombone", which was written for Ford, "The Old Bazaar In Cairo", which he wrote with the comic Charlie Chester, and "The Night I Appeared As Macbeth" in which he played a pompous actor who doesn't know Shakespeare has died.

Ford was also Ali Bendhown on the parody single, "Ya Mustafa": "I fancied doing something in Arabic and I got an Egyptian friend to translate a verse for me. I don't think it sold very many copies but it was played on Two-Way Family Favourites, and Jean Metcalfe had no idea it was me. 'What a funny name,' she said."

In the early 1960s Ford met Margaret (Maggie) Worsford, in the show Thanks For The Memory at the Central Pier, Blackpool, where she was a Tiller Girl. They married in 1962 and following his success in summer seasons on the Isle of Man they bought a guest house in Douglas in 1980 and lived there with their children, Georgina, Susannah, Becky and Ian: "We started off with 35 bookings for the TTs races, but unfortunately people stopped coming to the island." Ford had bought the boarding house at the wrong time and the entertaining opportunities on the island had also dropped off.

Over the last 20 years, I came to know Ford well, seeing him play with the Merseysippi Jazz Band in Liverpool. He always dressed immaculately and rather resembled Colonel Sanders. He had a huge repertoire, and loved to sing obscure opening verses to '30s classics and have the audience guess them. He was full of humour: I remember him saying to a soldier, "Is that your friend over there?" "There's no one over there," replied the soldier. "My," said Ford, "Those camouflage suits are good."

Ford would sing his old favourites like "Fanlight Fanny", "Huggin' And A-Chalkin'", "Meet Me Tonight In Dreamland" and "My Cutey's Due At 2.22" and he would respond to as many requests as he could. With one exception. "Come on, Clint, do 'Old Shep'," shouted a member of the audience. "Let the poor dog rest," said Ford.

Spencer Leigh

Ian George Stopford Harrison (Clinton Ford), singer: born Salford 4 November 1931; married 1962 Margaret Worsford (three daughters, one son): died Douglas, Isle of Man 21 October 2009.