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A Shout From The Attic: Goodnight Mrs Speedy Wherever You Are

Ronnie Bray recalls an evening of high-speed music.

During my heady days as a semi-professional entertainer billed as a singer of strong ballads, country, and country blues, I was booked to appear at a working men's club in the steel making city of Sheffield, England. I arrived in good time, as was my wont, and set up my equipment on stage, doing a tune up of my guitar and a brief sound check. All seemed well. I sat down at a table near the stage to relax before the first of my three spots.

The club was empty apart from an ancient stick man who was clearing tables of dirty glasses and empty bottles left over from the dinner time session. He skirted my table a couple of times before asking what was on his mind.

“Are you t’turn?”

“Yes,” I smiled, appreciative of his dour recognition – artistes live on praise and applause. My escalation of joy was short lived as he countered,

“We paid David Whitfield off here!”

Having been a great fan of that particular balladeer and his fine operatic tenor voice, and being taken aback by his directness and wondering if he provided that information to all the “turns” – as we artistes are called in Northern Clubland – I managed only to say “Well, this will be a short night,” to his back as he scuttled away to empty his glass carrier somewhere behind the still closed bar.

I had only recently taken up the guitar and was not by any stretch of the imagination a guitarist. I was just someone who knew a set or two of basic chords and I usually changed them at the right places in the songs. I tried not to let his remark about David Whitfield bother me too much, in spite of having something of the artistes brittle ego, but nonchalantly started to peel the printed surface off one of the beer mats to write my first set of titles down and have handy when I was ‘on’ so I would know what I was doing.

Turns get lots of things said to them when they play in the working men’s club circuit and they learn to take all of them with a pinch of salt. One of the most common lies is, “We’ve got the best organist in clubland here!”

This was usually said with a straight face and, I learned to my cost that it was usually an indication of the appreciation of musical talent in general, and accompaniment organists in particular, that concert secretaries and club committee members shared in common with elephants and other pachyderms.

The club began to fill up, and, in the fullness of time, the organist and drummer arrived to take their places at the back and side of the stage. The organist was a jolly fat lady who played with some style and attack. That was welcome, as there is nothing worse than a timid accompanist. The drummer was more than adequate, which was a welcome change from run-of-the-mill club drummers who sound as if they’re knocking a wooden shed together with bent nails.

I showed my dots to the organist and she nodded as I explained my way of singing each number. She played the first and second set with significant artistry that helped me to sing my best. Unlike David Whitfield, I was not paid off, but was permitted to complete the full terms of my contracted performance of three ‘spots’ or ‘sets.’

As I was explaining my dots to the organist for the final set, she explained to me that she had come on the bus and had to finish by five minutes to eleven so that she could catch the last bus home. I understood and we went on stage to await the introduction and opening tabs. I usually did five songs in each twenty minute set and this final set was no different.

Songs one to three went as planned. It was during song number four that I noticed a substantial shift in organ tempo. Never one to complain I fell in right behind her, my fingers strumming my electric Gibson Les Paul SG200 copy in a whirr at hummingbird speed. I understood her concern at missing her bus.

However, she understood it even better than I did and the fifth song was done at breakneck speed during which, I am pleased to report, I never lost sight of her although the drummer was all over the place due partly to the great speed of her execution which almost woke the poor man up and compounded by the fact that his motor skills were severely inhibited by his vast intake of alcohol over the evening.

All was not lost! The song was concluded to rousing cheers from an audience who had, doubtless, seen many a turn lost and bewildered by this streak of lightening that he found impossible to follow.

I took off my guitar, bowed deeply, and turned to acknowledge the musos who had supported me and found the drummer all but slumped over his set of Pearl drums bathed in a muck sweat like the winner of the Grand National, and the organ bench empty.

I caught a brief glimpse of the organist as she dashed through the crowded club towards the door putting on hat, coat, scarf, and gloves as she flew out to brave the cold night air and catch her last bus home.

I often think of that night and the organist who had a tryst to keep, especially when I feel as If I can’t make a deadline or keep a promise, and it pushes me on to do what I know I should do whatever I have to do to do it, and whoever I have to hurry to make sure I do not fail.

“Thank you and goodnight ‘Mrs Speedy,’ wherever you are.”


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