Pete Sayers

Country musician who took the 'Grand Ole Opry' to Newmarket

Not for want of trying, no English performers have become stars in American country music, but Pete Sayers got closer than most. He was an engaging performer, able to sing serious songs and indulge in comedy banter, as well as being a multi-talented musician.

Peter Esmond Bernard Sayers, musician and singer: born Bath, Somerset 6 November 1942; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 11 February 2005.

Not for want of trying, no English performers have become stars in American country music, but Pete Sayers got closer than most. He was an engaging performer, able to sing serious songs and indulge in comedy banter, as well as being a multi-talented musician.

He made several albums, of which the best known are Watermelon Summer (1976) and Bogalusa Gumbo (1979), which was produced by the Nashville songwriter John D. Loudermilk.

Sayers was born in Bath in 1942. His father taught music and his mother was a fine pianist. The musical humorist Gerard Hoffnung, a friend of his father, gave the young Sayers a small violin.

When Sayers was seven, the family moved to Newmarket, where he became a chorister and an adept at playing hymns on a harmonica. He trained as a piano repairer but wanted to be a professional musician. Sayers formed the Bluegrass Cut-Ups, possibly the UK's first bluegrass band, and often played with the US singer Johnny Duncan and his Blue Grass Boys. In 1966 he hosted a country-music series on Tyne-Tees Television.

When he went to Nashville later that year for a holiday, he found employment as a warm-up artist on the Grand Ole Opry radio show. Sayers worked for the Opry for three years and often performed on the show itself. He also hosted a US breakfast TV programme and worked on tour with Kitty Wells and the bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs.

In 1972 Sayers returned to the UK and began Grand Ole Opry (England), which staged country shows in the Kingsway Cinema in Newmarket. It became very popular and was on the touring schedule for visiting Americans including Bill Monroe and Marvin Rainwater.

Sayers became a significant act in his own right, hosting television series, appearing at the International Country Music Festival at Wembley and touring with George Hamilton IV. His opening act hardly gave him time to show the range of instruments he could play (guitar, banjo, dobro, autoharp, ukulele) and the variety of material he could perform: he could yodel as well as anyone.

For 30 years, Sayers was a member of the bluegrass group the Radio Cowboys, based in the Cambridge area, and can be heard on their CD Riding the Airwaves (2004).

Spencer Leigh

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