Steve Race: Musician and broadcaster best known for his association with the programme 'My Music'

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:10

Steve Race was a versatile musician and broadcaster, most often associated with jazz and with the long-running panel game, My Music, which was a success on both radio and television.

The son of a lawyer, Steve Race was born in Lincoln in 1921 and it appealed to his sense of humour that he was born on April Fool's Day. He started learning piano when he was five and throughout his childhood he was playing in local concerts, either as a soloist or, in his teenage years, in dance bands. When Race was 16, he entered the Royal Academy of Music. He was a shy boy, out of place in London, but determined to do well. In 1939 he joined Harry Leader's dance band.

Race made his first broadcast with Willie Wilson's Band from the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly in March 1941. Shortly after that, he did wartime service with the RAF, but that was mostly providing entertainment, playing in the RAF Swing Stars and the Bomber Command Dance Orchestra. He wrote arrangements for the Skyrockets. On being demobbed, he worked full time as a musician, taking employment wherever he could find it. He worked at different times with the bands of Cyril Stapleton, Lew Stone and George Elrick.

Race worked for the BBC, often playing piano at auditions for hopeful entertainers. In 1953, he became a popular children's entertainer himself via the Saturday teatime programme Whirligig, which featured Mr Pastry and Mr Turnip. The puppet, Hank the Cowboy, would ask Race to play tunes on "the old Joanna". One week, he asked children to compose a tune for the recorder. He received 600 entries and chose three winners. Unfortunately, he hadn't recognised the plagiarism in one of the entries and was mortified when the Sunday Express ran the headline, "BBC Gives Mozart Second Prize".

On another broadcast, Race was playing The Warsaw Concerto with an orchestra when a leg fell off the piano. He had a pedal down at the time and it had to remain so until the end of the piece as it was holding the piano in place. One reviewer criticised Race's playing for "over-pedalling".

In1955, Race became the light music adviser to Associated-Rediffusion and continued in that post until 1960. He conducted the musicians for variety programmes which featured, among others, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers. In 1956, Race wrote in Melody Maker that he loathed the advent of rock'n'roll, calling it "the antithesis of music". Later, his views mellowed as he warmed to some of Lennon and McCartney's compositions and, indeed, was regarded as a safe pair of hands to introduce the Beatles' live recording of "All You Need Is Love" during the satellite broadcast of Our World in June 1967.

What Race specifically disliked about rock'n'roll was the way that the British were blindly following the Americans in accepting this disdainful noise. However, in 1961, he hurled the same complaint at his fellow jazz musicians. "There is no such thing as British jazz," he wrote, There is only American jazz played by British musicians."

Race's own composition, the Latin-tinged "Nicola", named after his daughter, won an Ivor Novello Award in 1962. The following year, he made the Top 30 with another composition, "The Pied Piper". Around this time, he was also writing commercials, including one for Birds Eye frozen peas.

With programmes such as Jazz In Perspective, Race was a linchpin in jazz broadcasting but he was outspoken, both on air and in print. When he criticised Roland Kirk, the American saxophonist challenged him to join his musicians at Ronnie Scott's Club, and Race acquitted himself well.

A workaholic, Race had a heart attack in 1965 which made him stop smoking and lose weight. He reduced his commitments, but had a further setback with the death of his wife in 1969. His second wife was the BBC producer, Léonie Mather.

From 1967 to 1994, Race presented the panel game My Music, acting as his own researcher and carefully selecting his own guests. He was a smooth, urbane presenter and his regular guests included Ian Wallace, best known for singing Flanders and Swann's comic songs, as well as Denis Norden and Frank Muir.

When Radio 4 began in 1967, Race presented Home In The Afternoon. The programme developed into the drive-time programme, PM, hosted by William Hardcastle, but with Race presenting many of the items.

Like many jazz musicians (Humphrey Lyttelton, George Melly, Benny Green, John Chilton), Race was a prodigious writer. He wrote for Jazz Journal, The Listener and many newspapers, set crosswords for The Daily Telegraph. He published his autobiography, Musician At Large, in 1979. Reviewing the book, Philip Larkin chided Race for spreading himself thinly, but remarked, "There seems to be nothing he cannot do, or least have a creditable stab at." He added, "It would have been nice if just one of his shows could have presented jazz as he liked it to be."

Race was awarded the OBE in 1992. He toured arts centres with An Evening With Steve Race. He would seek out antiquarian books on his travels, and in Who's Who he listed his hobby as "reading about the past." "I live almost entirely in the past," he remarked, "History fascinates me and if someone gave me a time machine, I'd want to go back and not forwards. I'd love to go to the 18th century and meet one of my heroes like Dr Johnson."

Spencer Leigh

Stephen Russell Race, musician and broadcaster: born Lincoln 1 April 1921; married firstly Marjorie Leng (died 1969, one daughter), secondly Léonie Mather: died 22 June 2009.

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