Eric Delaney: Drummer and bandleader known for the relentless energy of his live shows

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The Independent Online

A larger part of the estate left by the bandleader Eric Delaney must be his drum kit, which was large enough to cover the flight deck of a small aircraft carrier. It had a 10ft gong at its heart, and yet its owner moved it not only around the UK, but also countries around the world. It included drums, tympani, military side drum, tubular bells, Chinese gongs, symphonic cymbals, sleigh bells and tam-tams. To his regret he couldn't block the highways with the vibraphone and glockenspiel that he also played. He used a drum kit with double-bass drums set on a revolving pedestal and three tunable timpani.

Delaney was obsessed with percussion, from his emergence as a young hero in the "name" dance bands of the Fifties – Ted Heath, Geraldo, Ambrose and so on – until the athletic and eccentric performances of his old age. As others atrophied, he bounded around the stage hitting things with remorseless energy. His closing remark to audiences at the end of concerts was stark but true: "The drummer is knackered."

The trumpeter Tony Fisher described him as a master showman but said: "The danger was that firing guns on the stage and so on obscured the fact that he was one of the greatest British drummers ever." During "Hornpipe Boogie" Delaney would fire off a cannon and a duck would drop from the ceiling. One of the trumpeters had to pick it up and unzip it, whereupon eggs would fall on the stage. On more than one occasion an excess of gunpowder brought down rust and dust from the shaking framework of the theatre. Once, when Marion Williams was singing a slow ballad, the cannon went off halfway through, and she was covered in dust.

One of Delaney's secrets was adaptability. Most of the big bands broke up when rock'n'roll and The Beatles arrived, but Delaney adapted his line-ups for the new audiences. When the theatre house-lights dimmed, a variety of coloured bulbs would shine forth from inside each of his drums – something Ringo never managed. His face would change its ghostly colour as he put it near to each drum.

He toured the variety theatres in 1955. Gifted arrangers meant that Delaney was able to gild his music for the younger generations and he and his many vocalists, who included such greats as Elkie Brooks, Marion Williams and Eve Boswell, rode the waves of rock. His multitude of albums included one, Swingin' Thro' the Shows (1960), that was produced by George Martin. He could draw out from a tiny band the sound of a big one. Never was this more apparent than at the 1992 Cork Jazz Festival when, with a quintet featuring the eloquent saxophonist Jimmy Thomson, he played pieces like "Also Sprach Zarathustra", "St Louis Blues March" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Ow", all of which would normally need to be played by an orchestra or big band.

Most of his musicians became his friends and they loved him, although they despaired of the way he was often led astray by women. Always broke as a result of his romances, he was made bankrupt and afterwards his band had to be owned and run by his accountant. He eventually had to sell the band's remarkable library to keep going.

Delaney, already a good pianist, took up drums when he was 10, playing in the family trio with his mother on piano and his father playing banjo. He studied with the drum teacher Max Abrams and eventually joined the Ambrose Octet in 1941, where his colleagues included Anne Shelton and the blind George Shearing. "George used to take me home every night, because he could find his way in the blackout," Delaney said.

He joined the RAF in 1942 and made tours of India and Burma in the RAF Gang Show. Already in demand in 1946 when he was demobbed, he played with Stéphane Grappelli and Cyril Stapleton before joining Geraldo in December that year. He stayed with Geraldo, apart from a few months with the Squadronaires in 1950, until May 1954, doing a lot of freelance work which included regular broadcasts with Kenny Baker's Dozen.

"I left to form my own band and take it on the road in October. I'd made a record, 'Oranges and Lemons', which was top of the hit parade and it had so much publicity, I had to go on the road. I wanted the brilliance and the excitement of the Stan Kenton band, so I had five trumpets instead of the usual four."

Delaney became a lifelong friend of the American drummer Louie Bellson at this time and in 1960 the two recorded an album, Repercussion, which was a jazz bestseller. He kept the band going until 1965 when he worked for long periods in cabaret in Las Vegas and the Bahamas, before putting the band back together again in 1975. From then on he led groups both big and small until his death.

Seaside resorts became his forte, and summer seasons at Bournemouth, Morecambe, notably at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool (1981-89), and latterly in Jersey were a way of life for him. He shaved off his hair in 1991 and from then on kept to the Yul Brynner style.

Delaney moved to Spain in June 1998, commuting regularly to Britain for gigs until the summer of 2006 when he moved back for good.

He was made a Freeman of the City of London in April 1999 and that year returned from Spain to celebrate his 75th birthday at London's 100 Club, where he played with the Stan Greig Big Band.

He worked regularly at Ronnie Scott's Club over the years and from 1996 on he played frequently with the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra, most recently a couple of months ago. He died two or three days before he was due to make his annual trip to the Wigan Jazz Festival. It was only when he didn't appear there that enquiries were made and police broke into his apartment and found him dead.

The multitude of great musicians who worked in his bands included Kenny Ball, Alan Skidmore, who replaced his father when Jimmy Skidmore left in 1963, trumpeter Derek Healey, pianist Dave Lindup and bassist Johnny Hawksworth.

Never a musical snob, Delaney often sat in with amateur trad bands and sometimes worked with them for union rates. His music and high living were covered in great detail in a 300-page book, The Magnificent Eric Delaney (2006) by Eddie Sammons.

Eric Delaney, drummer and bandleader: born London 22 May 1924; married 1947 Jacqueline Whitridge (marriage dissolved, one son, one daughter), 1963 Pat Bergson (marriage dissolved 1980, one daughter), 1988 Amanda Hargreaves (marriage dissolved 1988, one daughter); died London, 14 July 2011.

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