Obituary: Syd Lawrence

FOR millions the great era of swing music died one day in December 1944 when the Army aeroplane flying Glenn Miller to Paris disappeared, and neither it nor the world's top dance band leader were ever seen again. Miller's music has never died, however, thanks to the continued reissuing of his many recordings through ever changing inventions - 78s, LPs, 45s, and CDs - each new system bringing back the original Miller sound with bigger and better reproduction, and through the live performances of a few dance band devotees. And none were more devoted than Syd Lawrence.

It is unlikely that Sydney Lawrence ever saw himself rising to band leader, let alone becoming the prime British exponent of his American idol's style. He was born quite humbly in Wilmslow, Cheshire, in 1923, and although his parents made him learn the violin, strings had no real appeal to him.

He soon joined the local brass band where he was taught to play the cornet, and this would remain his true instrument throughout his musical life Leaving school at 14 he went to work at the Shetton Steelworks, at night finding enough energy to blow the trumpet in a local semi-professional dance band.

By 1939 and the onset of the Second World War the 16-year-old Lawrence was musically proficient enough to join an Ensa troupe, which did not prevent him from being called into the Royal Air Force two years later. After basic training he was talented enough to join the RAF Middle East Command Dance Orchestra, playing in many a Naafi until he was demobbed in 1946.

His first civvy job was to blow his trumpet in a Merseyside dance band led by Al Powell; they promptly won that year's Dance Band Championship sponsored by the music trade magazine, Melody Maker. The next year Lawrence was found playing at Billy Butlin's Holiday Camp in Skegness, under the leadership of Nat Temple, who would in time rise to become a comedy star in Breakfast with Braden.

In 1948 he was trumpeting in Teddy Foster's Band, and in 1949 he joined Cyril Stapleton's Orchestra, not yet reformed as the BBC Show Band but busily touring dance halls on the road around the country. A year with Stapleton, and Lawrence was ready to start his own dance band.

With some of his old colleagues from the Al Powell days he formed a quintet to play at the Clemence Restaurant in Chester. It was small but it was a start, even if it did not last long. Stapleton hired him back in 1950, but a year later Lawrence moved over to join Geraldo and his Orchestra, then across to the Grosvenor House to play for Sidney Lipton's Band.

Lawrence married in 1951, and not wishing to live permanently in London moved back north in 1953. While waiting for his big chance, he took a day job servicing vacuum cleaners. However this did not last long, and soon he was trumpeting for the newly-formed BBC Northern Dance Orchestra, known affectionately throughout the land as the NDO.

The director was Alyn Ainsworth, and their "Big Band" sound was enormously popular with radio listeners of that era. The band backed many popular variety programmes as well as broadcasting their own regular series, Make Way for Music. Lawrence was with the band for 15 years, and listeners to those shows may not know that he was also one of the close-harmony voices in the band's vocal quartet, he also blew some ragged notes in the Gatecrashers Dixieland Band and also the Tradlads, both jazz groups within the NDO.

It was not until 1967 that Lawrence and a few like- minded musicians got together on a Tuesday night at the Southern Hotel in Chorlton-cum-Hardy. The ploy was to recreate his favourite dance band sound, the music of Glenn Miller. A year later they had moved to the Mersey Hotel, Didsbury, where he opened with an 18-piece orchestra, more than enough for the "Big Band" effect. Like all true dance band musicians, Lawrence and his boys were playing for fun not profit.

They began to play the occasional away date, and whilst at the Royal Victoria Hotel in Sheffield in 1969, Granada Television got wind of their wonder and sent along some Outside Broadcast cameras. The resulting show was a local hit and, inspired, Lawrence quit his BBC Manchester job and stepped out into the future. It was a big chance, but it came off.

BBC Television booked the band to back their new series Sez Les, starring the fast-rising Northern comedian Les Dawson. In November the band was booked into the Royal Festival Hall for a special occasion that must have seemed the absolute peak of Lawrence's career. They played a Glenn Miller Tribute Concert to mark the 25th anniversary of the band-leader's mysterious disappearance. And they also made their first record, a long-player for Fontana. It was, of course, a selection of Miller hits.

The Syd Lawrence Orchestra was finally made. Lawrence hit a vein of nostalgia, reviving yesterday's melodies where too much rock'n'roll was making older heads ache. They cut two long players a year, topped radio and television shows, played Miller music in the Channel Islands and across Europe, and delighted several Royal Variety Performance audiences.

His musical arrangements were meticulous, carefully recreating many a lost original, and in his 30-year career at the top he compiled a collection of no fewer than 700 arrangements from the bygone days of Miller and his contemporaries, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and the rest.

Lawrence officially retired in 1990, but his band played on. First under the pianist Bryan Pendleton, then under Ken Williams. Now and then when he felt fit enough, Lawrence would return to conduct a session and blow his own trumpet. Although not belonging to the original big band era he was the great reviver and restorer. Now it would seem, both the original bands and their shadows are no more.

Denis Gifford

Sydney Lawrence, cornet player and band leader: born Wilmslow, Cheshire 26 June 1923; married (one son, one daughter); died 5 May 1998.

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