Mike Sammes

Monday 11 June 2001 00:00
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Michael Sammes, singer: born Reigate, Kent 19 February 1928; died Reigate 19 May 2001.

Mike Sammes sang on more chart successes than any other performer. "There was a vocal backing on almost every hit record from the Fifties to the mid-Sixties," he told me in an interview for BBC Radio Merseyside in 1994. However, his group, the Mike Sammes Singers, have only one entry in The Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, for "Somewhere My Love" in 1966.

Sammes was born in 1928, his father being the owner of Wray Park Studios, a photographic business in Reigate. He attended the local grammar school and played cello in its orchestra, then worked for Chappell & Co, the music publishers, in London. He was conscripted into the RAF and, after national service, worked with his father and also played piano for a local dance band, the Meltones.

In 1954, one of the band's members, Bill Shepherd, joined the George Mitchell Singers and recommended that Sammes should join him. Sammes then joined Bill Shepherd in a splinter group, the Coronets, who recorded for Columbia. They covered the hits of the day and added vocal accompaniment to such acts as the Big Ben Banjo Band. Shepherd regarded vocal backings as a chore, but Sammes realised that this could be a career in its own right. He assembled the Mike Sammes Singers, with the core team of himself, Valerie Bain, Marion Gay, Ross Gilmour and Enid Hurd, who became his long-time companion. Later recruits included Mel Todd and Mike Redway.

"We recorded for Decca, HMV, Columbia, Parlophone, Philips, Fontana, Oriole, Embassy and Top Rank and there was nothing unusual in doing three sessions a day and a jingle at lunchtime," Sammes said.

Occasionally we did the same song in three different studios on the same day. In 1959 we did "The Little Drummer Boy" with the Beverley Sisters one morning at Decca, and in the afternoon we were singing it at Parlophone with Michael Flanders, which I also arranged, and I recorded our own version for Fontana in the evening.

In 1956 Guy Mitchell topped the US charts with "Singing the Blues" and Sammes assisted on a British cover version by Tommy Steele:

I was asked to do the whistling. Tommy was very keen to have a whistle through the teeth, which I couldn't do, but it was on the American record by Guy Mitchell. You need a gap in your front teeth to do that. I added a few "boom-boom-booms" and did some clapping on the off-beat. At the end of the first chorus, there's a three-headed Mike Sammes as I'm doing it all at the same time.

The Mike Sammes Singers provided the backing on Cliff Richard's first record, "Schoolboy Crush", and often worked with him.

Cliff Richard picked material which suited his voice impeccably and he was always very recognisable as Cliff Richard. I went some years without seeing him but then we did some vocals for the LP Now You See Me . . . Now You Don't in 1982. It seemed to be taking him forever as he was doing a lot of the backing vocals himself. I told him we could have done it all for him in an afternoon.

Among the many hit records featuring the Mike Sammes Singers are "No Other Love" (Ronnie Hilton), "A Handful of Songs" (Tommy Steele), "Why" and "Strawberry Fair" (Anthony Newley), "Walkin' Back to Happiness" (Helen Shapiro), "The Last Waltz" (Engelbert Humperdinck), "Green Green Grass of Home" and "Delilah" (Tom Jones) and "Tears" by Ken Dodd.

The Mike Sammes Singers also worked with Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jnr, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Andy Williams but, sadly, not Frank Sinatra:

Tony Hatch had arranged an album for Frank Sinatra of his own songs like "Downtown" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway". We were all in the studio waiting for the great man, but he got delayed on the Continent. Tony didn't want to waste the session so he asked his wife, Jackie Trent, to sing the songs instead. It was not quite the same thing.

Sammes was often recruited to provide vocal sounds and funny noises on comedy records, by Peter Sellers ("I'm So Ashamed"), Morecambe and Wise ("Boom-Oo-Yatta-Ta-Ta"), Scaffold ("Lily The Pink") and Charlie Drake ("Splish Splash", "My Boomerang Won't Come Back"). "I was the voice in the fridge for Tommy Steele's 'I Puts the Lightie On'," Sammes said. "We had to record the voices for the Diddymen and Pinky and Perky very slowly and then they speeded them up for release."

The Mike Sammes Singers were asked in 1962 by the arranger Robert Farnon to polish up the musical soundtrack of the film The Road To Hong Kong. "The romantic song that Bing Crosby sang to Joan Collins was 'Let's Not Be Sensible', but he never sang the last word," Sammes said.

He sang "And fall in . . ." and never got round to "love" because something happened to him in the film. Bing was back in the States and they wanted the album out fast. After we did our oohs and aahs, we all sang "love" and they picked out mine for the record.

The Mike Sammes Singers also recorded as the Knightsbridge Chorale, having a near miss with "The Eton Boating Song" in 1959. As Redd Wayne, Sammes recorded cover versions of hit songs for Woolworth's big-selling Embassy label. The Mike Sammes Singers eventually made the charts in their own right in 1966:

Wally Ridley at HMV played me "Somewhere My Love", which sounded like an old Victorian pub song, but someone else had recorded it like a bull at a gate. He wanted a more sympathetic approach. The melody was "Lara's Theme" in Dr Zhivago and it was a hit twice: once, in 1966, when the film was in the West End; and then, a few months later, when it was on general release.

The Mike Sammes Singers made several albums including Let's Get Away From It All (1962), Somewhere My Love (1967), Songs That Live Forever (1973), Cole (1974), Sammes Songs (1976), which was based on a Radio 2 series, Just For You (1987) and The Songs We Love (1988).

In 1969 John Lennon passed the second-rate tapes of the Beatles' Let It Be sessions to the American producer Phil Spector and asked him to turn them into a decent album. Spector added the Mike Sammes Singers to "The Long and Winding Road" and although it became the Beatles' biggest-selling single in America, Paul McCartney hated the backing vocals, likening the record to one by Mantovani. Sammes took it philosophically: "We found out later that it wasn't what McCartney wanted, but that's not my problem. He had a different idea for the arrangement and because of the friction in the Beatles, he wasn't consulted." The Mike Sammes Singers also provided the chants on Lennon's "I am the Walrus" and the harmonies on Ringo Starr's "Good Night".

Windsor Davies was more appreciative. In 1975 the Mike Sammes Singers were asked to work on the cast album for It Ain't Half Hot Mum and, Sammes recalled,

We found out that Don Estelle had the most beautiful voice. He had recorded "Whispering Grass" and Windsor Davies had come in at the beginning and at the end. I told Wally Ridley that it would sound better if he appeared throughout the record and so I added a few comments and "baba-ba-booms". The record went to No 1 and Windsor sent me a lovely letter telling me that when people were complimenting him on his "baba-ba-booms", he would smile bashfully and say, "Thank you very much".

Sammes wrote songs and commercials with over 30 lyricists, but he never wrote a hit record. The New Seekers' "Out to the Edge of Beyond" just failed in 1972 to become the UK's entry for the Eurovision Song Contest. "The week that they were featuring my song, there was a power strike and only about three people saw the broadcast."

As the years went by, the Mike Sammes Singers found there was less call for their work, as artists tended to perform their own backing vocals and also, for them, the fun had gone out of recording. "With all the multi-tracking, it was rare to meet anyone at a session anymore," Sammes said. "We might be called in to do the vocal backing and never meet the main artist. It's the same for the musicians. Everyone is working in limbo and I do feel that you lose an awful lot through that."

Spencer Leigh

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