DON LANG was that rare species, a popular entertainer and household name during his heyday in the late 1950s who still retained the respect of his fellow jazz musicians, critics alike. A natural performer, he could stir an audience to cheers with one of his 300-words-a-minute vocalese workouts and the next instant pick up his beloved trombone and play a sublime jazz ballad in the style of his favourite, Bill Harris.
Born Gordon Langhorn in Halifax in 1925, he had the physique even as a child to follow his father and grandfather into professional rugby football but preferred first the piano, then double bass, only progressing to trombone at 21 after hearing recordings of the American jazzman Jack Teagarden. An obvious natural, he was soon asked to play with the local dance bands while still working daytime as an electrician. But his first fully professional engagement, on the Isle of Man in 1947, fully set the course for the rest of his life.
Spells with Peter Rose and the Teddy Foster orchestra led to a call from Vic Lewis, then putting together a 'progressive' big band to tour Europe, for an inventive and creative trombone voice. As featured soloist, Langhorn left behind a series of fine solos on Lewis recordings such as 'Sunday Girl' and 'The Man I Love'.
It was during the next four years with Ken Macintosh that he began to sing regularly, initially as a gag with the in-house vocal quartet the Macpies but, as his confidence grew, also as a solo and he often broadcast as such. It was with Macintosh that he co-wrote and recorded the hit instrumental 'The Creep', covered no less than 17 times in the US alone, notably by Stan Kenton.
Encouraged by his success and tired of spending his life 'up and down the A5', Langhorn decided to form his own group and develop his vocalese style - setting off to the music lyrics to known jazz solos, usually at breakneck tempos. After producing his own demonstration acetate in this style he was immediately signed to HMV in 1955 and the resulting 'Cloudburst' was an instant success. Whilst King Pleasure and Annie Ross had recorded in this style, no one had managed to combine fast tempos with such clear diction, a fact not lost on the 'Cloudburst' lyricist and famed American vocaliser John Hendrix, who professed himself an admirer and wrote 'Jumping to Conclusions' specifically for the now-renamed Don Lang. This abbreviation of his real name was chosen on the premiss that 'the shorter the name, the bigger the billing'.
In 1956, he was chosen with his band the Frantic Five to be one of the cornerstones of the new BBC informal 'teenage' show The Six Five Special and for two years appeared as resident accompanist and in his own right, performing every week on live television such hits as 'Six Five Hand Jive', 'Red Planet Rock' and 'I Want You To Be My Baby'.
Whilst enjoying his popularity and a firm believer in giving the public what it wanted, on the demise of the Six Five Special in 1968 he retained his firm foothold in the jazz and big-band fields, but continued to make successful records like 'The Witchdoctor'. As a sight-reading musician the rocketing popularity of the Merseybeat did not affect him as badly as many of the other rock-and- rollers: indeed, when he was a session man on one of the Beatles' recordings, John Lennon actively sought him out to say hello.
Working in cabaret with his own band and as featured sideman with larger bands followed throughout the Seventies and early Eighties, but the last few years saw him in virtual retirement, apart from the occasional rock-and-roll revival show and some rehearsal band workouts just to keep his lip and trombone in good shape.
A strong but gentle man, who could keep you amused for hours over a long lunch, he retained the affection and respect of both the public and the many musicians who knew him. Typically his long fight with cancer was born bravely and with humour.
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