Roger LaVern: Keyboard player with the Tornados
Tuesday 02 July 2013
After we had made 'Telstar'," the pianist Roger LaVern told me in 2009, "I thought it was a strange piece of music and I wasn't even sure if I liked it. When it started climbing the charts, I started to like it and now I find it absolutely incredible to think that I was involved with something so iconic."
Roger LaVern was born Roger Keith Jackson in Kidderminster in 1937 and his father was the director of a chocolate company. He learnt to play the piano first at boarding school and then in the forces, and in the early 1960s he wanted to play professionally: "The only job I could find was between the films at Walthamstow Granada every Sunday but unfortunately the local yobbos thought it was funny to throw things at the piano player."
LaVern wanted to be a solo pianist like Russ Conway, but in May 1962 he was invited to Joe Meek's recording studio in north London. As Norman Hale was leaving the Tornados, Meek asked him to play keyboards. The other members were Alan Caddy and George Bellamy (guitars), Heinz Burt (bass) and Clem Cattini (drums), and they were backing the UK rock'n'roll star Billy Fury. He was encouraged to find a more exotic name than Jackson and thinking of a favourite singer, LaVern Baker, he became Roger LaVern.
Within a few weeks, LaVern was touring with Fury, and the Tornados had recorded Meek's tune "Telstar". "We had a summer season in Great Yarmouth," LaVern recalled, "and I went to the theatre one morning to collect the mail and was asked to ring our manager's office. I was told that 'Telstar' had entered the charts and we had a hit record."
"Telstar", named after the telecommunications satellite, topped the UK charts and repeated its success in America, but their manager, Larry Parnes, would not allow them to play The Ed Sullivan Show without Fury. The Tornados pursued a dual career in the UK, making records with Meek including LaVern's compositions, the frantic "Chasin' Moonbeams" and the whistle-packed "Costa Monger", and touring with Fury. In April 1963 they recorded a live album with Fury, We Want Billy!, which has retained its excitement over 50 years.
As Parnes was miserly, the Tornados received little money for their success, but, trading on his good looks, LaVern told me, "Heinz and I were always picking up ladies and we would always ask, 'Have you got a flat?' We couldn't afford hotels and if they could put us for a night, that would be great." LaVern admitted that this became an addiction, and he claimed to have slept with 6,000 women.
When LaVern complained to Decca Records about his lack of royalties he was thrown out by security men. He left the Tornados in September 1963 and made singles with the Microns, including the seasonal instrumental "Christmas Stocking", but they failed to sell. When he declared himself bankrupt, he thought the Official Receiver would fight his corner; Meek had a heated meeting with the Receiver and LaVern suspected this was a factor in his suicide in February 1967.
LaVern had a love of Mexico, becoming the resident pianist and artistic director at the luxurious Hotel Hacidana Cocoyoc. He played for the President of Mexico and had a small role in the film John Huston shot in Mexico, Under The Volcano (1984).
In 1978 LaVern played the piano non-stop for 48 days, 20 hours and 27 minutes and appeared on the television programme The Record Breakers, hosted by Roy Castle. His work for various charities was acknowledged publicly at an event in the House of Lords in 2011.
In later years, LaVern suffered from Dupuytren's contracture, which causes the fingers to bend towards the palm; the condition was not fully resolved with surgery, but he became an entertaining after-dinner speaker. He planned to publish his autobiography, but then realised that this would hurt some of his acquaintances.
Roger Keith Jackson (Roger LaVern), pianist: born Kidderminster 11 November 1937; married eight times; died London 15 June 2013.
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