Whether it was in jazz, brass-band music or simply trombone technique, there never was another British trombonist who came within miles of Don Lusher. He amazed his listeners and, if he hadn't taken so much time out to help and teach, would have broken the hearts of anyone else who took up the instrument. He was matchless and ranked with his favourites Tommy Dorsey and Dick Nash amongst the best trombone players in the world.
He came to fame as the main soloist and lead trombone in the Ted Heath band and never forgot Heath's advice to him:
Always play like it's a broadcast. Never ease up. When you're on a one-night stand or anything, don't just take it easy. Always play to the red light.
Lusher distilled the advice into a rule of his own:
Just play good all the time, so that you don't really know another way of playing.
Ted Heath's band was the only British band to become popular in the United States. Lusher joined it in 1953 and stayed for nine years. The Heath tradition lived on and the ex-members of the band, including the fine singer Lita Roza, alto saxophonist Roy Willox and trumpeter Ronnie Hughes, kept in close touch and worked together from the time of Heath's death in 1969 until the present. Lusher took over the band and it eventually metamorphosed into the Don Lusher Big Band with which he worked constantly until earlier this year.
When Frank Sinatra worked in Europe he invariably had Lusher as his lead trombone player and Lusher's international fame was fortified by the Heath band's five tours of the US. On one of them, when the Heath band was backing Nat King Cole in Alabama, he looked on as two members of the Klu Klux Klan ran on stage from the audience and attacked the singer, injuring his face.
Lusher was a cornerstone of the Heath band and had many features both in ballads and faster numbers. One of the most exciting and best known was on his own composition "Lush Slide", a combination of breathtaking trombone dexterity in a blazing orchestration.
Starting to learn the trombone when he was six, Lusher followed the family tradition and joined the Peterborough Salvation Army Band, playing alongside his father and grandfather. He remained a figure in the brass-band field for the rest of his life, but as a boy was dazzled by the music of the dance band led by Geraldo. "I was completely overawed by the sound and by the sheer professionalism of everybody connected with it," he said.
During the Second World War Lusher served in the Royal Artillery, where he played in a divisional concert party called the Polar Stars. He took part in the D-Day landings. After the war, his skills gained him easy entry into many top bands. He joined Joe Daniels in 1947 and between then and joining Heath in 1953 he worked for Lou Preager, Maurice Winnick, the Squadronaires, Jack Parnell, Eric Delaney, Woolf Phillips and Eric Delaney. He also led his own bands and played in Jack Parnell's ATV orchestra. He won all the polls in The Melody Maker and The New Musical Express as the best trombonist. Working in the Lou Preager Band when he joined it was the singer Eileen Orchard, who later became his wife.
The Don Lusher Big Band began in 1974 and toured internationally with various musical directors including Robert Farnon, Nelson Riddle and Henry Mancini. Riddle returned to work with him in 1979 for an hour-long BBC TV programme, Don Lusher's World of Music, wherein Lusher also played with the Black Dyke Mills Band. Lusher worked often on BBC Radio 2 as a presenter.
In 1978 he gave the first performance of Gordon Langford's Rhapsody for Trombone at the Albert Hall and returned there in 1980 to do the same for Gareth Wood's Dance Sequence. The same year he played Gordon Carr's Concerto for Trombone at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and, in 1990, was the soloist in Scott Stroman's Concertina for Strings and Percussion at Lichfield Cathedral. He travelled to the US and to Australia to give master-classes on the trombone and was made Professor of Trombone at the Royal Marines School.
Lusher won innumerable awards; he was twice elected President of the British Trombone Society, and for more than 30 years his Don Lusher Trombone Prize was awarded in BBC Radio 2's National Big Band competition. He published The Don Lusher Book (1985), a combined autobiography and study book, and Don Lusher's Trombone Album (1986), a collection of music he had selected and written for trombone and piano.
The Ted Heath Tribute Orchestra continued under his leadership throughout the Eighties and Nineties, playing its final concert in December 2000.
In later years he featured regularly in a Dixieland group called "The Best of British Jazz" and in 2001 recorded British Jazz Musicians, an album where he played in small groups with Humphrey Lyttelton, John Chilton, John Dankworth, Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball. George Melly sang.
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