Raymond Wallbank: Blackpool organist known as 'The Prince of North Pier'

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The Independent Online

Raymond Wallbank was one of the last of the legendary seaside entertainers of yesteryear.

For 30 years, from 1965 until 1995, as the celebrated organist of Blackpool's famous North Pier, this most accomplished performer, composer and arranger never ceased in his quest to make music both accessible and enjoyable.

Born and brought up on the Fylde Coast, Raymond Wallbank was educated at Ansdell County Primary School and King Edward VII School. Inheriting his considerable musical talent from his mother, a very talented local musician, it was she who initially taught him the piano. Later, he studied the organ with Robert Atherton, Organist of St Annes Parish Church, whose deputy he became.

Having qualified as an electrical engineer, following national service in the Royal Air Force, he then moved to Fleetwood, servicing radar units on fishing trawlers. In tandem with this, most evenings found him entertaining amid the myriad clubs and hotels that constitute the bright and breezy holiday atmosphere that is Blackpool. It was there in 1965 that he was persuaded to take a gamble and move to a much more lucrative, yet demanding residency, headlining at one of the resort's major tourist attractions.

Built in 1863 by Eugenius Birch, North Pier, the oldest of Blackpool's three piers, remains a classic example of Victorian enterprise and engineering. Offering a unique blend of elegance and sedate sophistication, for over 100 years, one of its main attractions had been its own hugely popular 36-piece salon orchestra. Controversially axed on economic grounds, in its place it specifically fell to Wallbank to uphold the pier's proud musical tradition. This he did with such aplomb that, before too long, his boss, Lord Delfont, had famously dubbed him "The Prince of North Pier".

Based for three decades amid the palm court elegance of the pier's capacious Sun Lounge, here Wallbank, a consummate communicator, found a particularly happy and expressive outlet for his considerable talents. Unfailingly seated somewhat imperiously at the console of his favourite Wurlitzer, a smaller, more sophisticated model than the monster housed in the nearby Tower, his twice-daily seasonal confections of the popular and light classical repertoire attracted a large and loyal following. Though famed for a lyrical and stylish elegance, as his broadcasts and recording illustrate, this sensitivity to nuance and colour also allowed him to take great delight in the occasional grand gesture.

While continuing to perform, in 1970 he opened his own highly distinctive music shop in neighbouring Ansdell. Catering for all aspects of the subject, over the years it played a pivotal role in the cultural life of the community, also serving as the venue for the Raymond Wallbank Organ Club. Here, as always, he proved a most engaging host.

Kenneth Shenton

Raymond Wallbank, organist, composer and arranger: born Lytham St Annes, Lancashire 8 August 1932; twice married (two daughters); died Lytham S. Annes 16 February 2010.