Johnny Pearson: Composer, pianist and arranger who worked on ‘Top of the Pops’ during three decades

Spencer Leigh
Wednesday 23 March 2011 01:00

Johnny Pearson was one of the foremost names in music for British television programmes. Among his numerous credits are the themes for 3-2-1, Owen MD, All Creatures Great And Small and News At Ten and he also served for 16 years as the arranger and conductor for Top Of The Pops.

Johnny Pearson was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire in 1925 and he studied the piano as a child and won a scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He wanted to continue his studies but the family had little money and he became an engineering apprentice. He did his national service in the Royal Artillery and he played drums in an army band.

During the late 1950s, Pearson worked as a pianist for several BBC radio programmes including The Goon Show. In 1957, he arranged a hornpipe for the cartoon series, Captain Pugwash. He was a session musician on several pop hits and he arranged Cilla Black's No 1, "Anyone Who Had A Heart" (1964), which went from a poignant start to a shrieking finish.

The Musicians' Union restricted the amount of miming on television, and as a result the new Top Of The Pops programme had to employ an orchestra; Pearson was the conductor and arranger from its inception in 1964 until 1980. The singers may have spent hours over their arrangements in the recording studio but Pearson would tell them that they had 20 minutes' rehearsal to get it right for TV. At its peak, the programme was watched by 12 million viewers, and Pearson's arrangements could still be heard on re-runs.

In 1964, John Schroeder, a recording manager for Pye Records, heard a jazz record by a pianist from San Francisco, Vince Guaraldi, called "Cast Your Fate To The Wind". He wanted to record a commercial arrangement for the UK market, but Schroeder knew that he was not a good enough pianist himself. "One night on Radio Luxembourg, I heard a 15-minute programme devoted to Johnny Pearson and Irealised that he was a phenomenalpianist," Schroeder told me. "He built on my skeletal arrangement for'Cast Your Fate To The Wind'. Hewanted Kenny Clare on drums and I asked Tony Reeves to play string bass as he was an 18-year-old who worked for Pye and had brought the record to me in the first place. Johnny and I wrote the B-side, 'To Wendy With Love', and we used Peter McGurk on bass for that. I took our record to the weekly meeting at Pye and the MD Louis Benjamin said, 'I don't pay my producers to make jazz records.'

"Fortunately, Tony Hatch backed me up and asked Louis to give it a chance. The BBC used it as background music for a trailer about their Christmas programmes and the next day there was an order for 10,000 records. Louis Benjamin said, 'Good morning' for the first time since I had joined the company and he offered me a new chair and a new wastepaper basket."

"Cast Your Fate To The Wind" was a Christmas hit and although it only climbed to No 5, it was on the charts for four months. It made the USTop 10 and was more successful than the American original. Pearsonhad only been paid an £8 session fee for the record, and after being promised better terms, Sounds Orchestral had further chart singles with "Moonglow" in the UK and "Canadian Sunset" in the US.

Sounds Orchestral's strength was in easy listening albums, always involving Pearson, Clare and McGurk with an orchestral accompaniment of violins, cellos and violas. The first album, Cast Your Fate To The Wind (1965), featured a nude model on its cover, which was controversial for its day, but it helped to demonstrate that easy listening records could appeal to a younger audience if marketed correctly. Their many themed albums included James Bond themes, Latin-American music and film hits.

Pearson often wrote library music – that is, music that was available for use in all manner of productions – and he struck lucky in 1971 when the producer, Bill Sellars, selected "Sleepy Shores" as the theme for the programme Owen MD starring Nigel Stock. Sellars felt it was too slow and with Pearson's permission, he played the album track at 45rpm and it became a Top 10 single in 1971. The music was also used in the 2006 film, Children Of Men.

In 1978, Sellars was making a TV series based on James Herriot's reminiscences of being a vet in the Yorkshire Dales, All Creatures Great And Small, starring Christopher Timothy. This time he selected "Piano Parchment", which Pearson had recorded in 1968, as the theme music and the series ran for 12 years.

Since 1967, Pearson's music has been heard every day, as he wrote the ominous theme for ITV's News At Ten. This was an extract from "The Awakening", which was taken from an album he had made with the Group 50 Orchestra called 20th Century Portrait. He also wrote the music which started the daily transmission of ATV's and Grampian TV's programmes, and his many other credits include the brash and bouncy music for the quiz 3-2-1, which ran from 1978-87). His theme for the BBC sporting series Superstars was taken up in the US and became the long-running theme for Monday Night Football.

Because of other commitments, Pearson did not work on many films, but he did write the score of The Jokers (1967), directed by Michael Winner and starring Michael Crawford and Oliver Reed. He was also the conductor on the sex romp Let's Get Laid (1977), although it's fair to say that nobody was paying much attention to the music.

John Valmore Pearson, pianist, composer and arranger: born Chesterfield, Derbyshire, 18 June 1925; married; died 20 March 2011.

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