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A Shout From The Attic: The Roar Of The Greasepaint - The Smell Of The Crowd

"I fell in love with the stage at an early age: completely stage-struck,'' writes Ronnie Bray.

I fell in love with the stage at an early age: completely stage-struck. It may have begun with random visits to Huddersfield’s Theatre Royal to see their occasional plays that appealed to children, or perhaps it was that invitation to see the Salvation Army’s Pantomime, Jack and The Beanstalk one Christmas, or maybe some Pierrot show at the end of some pier at the seaside, perhaps Alan Gales’ show on the sands at Redcar, or maybe they all conspired to seduce me with the magic of the drama. Wherever and whatever it was, some of the magic rubbed off and stole its silent way unfathomably into my soul.

From out of somewhere came the spirit of performance that moved me towards my own kind of performance. I was not very funny as a boy, although I did learn the valuable lesson that if you made people laugh they were less likely to hit you. Maybe that is why so many comedians are insecure, or why so many insecure people become comedians.

From some other direction came my love of concert piano performances, and so I started towards my dream with Miss Moss at whose address on Bow Street I had six lessons. These came to an abrupt end when the piano mysteriously and tacitly locked itself.

But, as the man said, a man’s grasp should exceed his reach, or what’s a heaven for? So, my internal engines generated another dream. I would become an opera singer. I don’t know where I got my idea of opera from: I was not exposed to Grand Opera, but I had heard one or two ‘proper’ singers at some of the weekly variety shows I attended at the Palace Theatre, and they sounded great. I didn’t have to buy anything, the piano could stay locked, no one could lock my voice, it was less physically demanding than swimming, which was the other channel I considered to carry me to fame, and my voice was cheap, and low maintenance.

Time passed, and I was the noise you could hear. I was singing. I sang all day everyday, anywhere, anytime, and enjoyed it. Hearing Frankie Laine encouraged me to sing louder to the point of ‘belting it out.’ I sang when walking, cycling, running, or standing still. When I worked at Sykes and Tunnicliffe’s mill, the mechanical thunder of the weaving shed was the perfect cover for my launch into singing louder than Frankie Laine. It developed my lungs, my range, and, during quiet moments of loom down time or power cut, a small coterie of idle double-plush-weaver-fans.

When I became a Latter-day Saint, I sang in church, enjoying singing hymns in four-part harmony, either melody as tenor-turned-soprano, or rumbling around in the cellar with the bass parts. The evening service done we gathered round the ancient American melodeon played by Kath Crowther and we sang the songs of Zion ‘til late. Wonderful people, wonderful voices, wonderful times, and wonderful memories.

I enjoyed singing and singers, but came to accept that the Scala, Milan would never thrill to my warbling, and settled down to having a hard time instead. I still sang at every opportunity. My voice was good, but I would lay no claim to its being outstanding. So passed many years, during which my trilling diminished not one whit.

One of my many changes of employment provided the opportunity to meet Richard Grant. Richard was an accomplished musician, drummer, trumpeter, guitarist, and had a more than passable voice. We both worked at ES Heaps on Old Leeds Road as delivery drivers. During a lunchtime visit to his home at Lockwood Scar, he played guitar and I sang. He told me that he had heard worse singers who were being paid for singing and that I should take up club singing and get paid. He arranged for me to sing in a charity concert at Primrose Hill Working Man’s Club, where my rendition of Granada was well received.

From that platform, I began my semi-professional career as a vocalist, as Clubland calls singers, and eventually as a guitar-vocalist, although my guitar playing was, and remains, laughable. In a few months, I had a respectable booking record, sometimes for entertainment agents, sometimes direct and no commission. I was not only on stage, but singing, receiving adulation, applause, fame, and - I was being paid for it.

I will not say that fame went to my head, but I noticed an attitude emerging in me that I found distasteful. When I went to perform at a workingmen’s or political club, pub, or theatre, I started to feel as if they should think of me as discrete and special, quite unlike themselves. At one club, I met a brilliant guitar vocalist, Bonar Coleano, who arrived for his gigs dressed in a Chico Marx hat, ground-trailing black greatcoat, odd shoes, and no socks. He explained that he dressed that way as a statement about working men’s clubs, because if a workman turned up dressed like this, they would not let him in!

And that got me to thinking about the relationship of the men and women who went to the club to forget their cares and be entertained, and the committee-men who made the rules, and the entertainers they engaged. The three-cornered equation was fraught with difficulties for common members. Clubs had precise rules of conduct that were interpreted and overseen by a powerful committee who ruled by dictat. Having a night out after a hard day’s work should not be like going into prison, but a free and easy time spent in good company with good and considerate entertainment.

I pondered my attitude and what contribution it made for or against their enjoyment. At my next show, I looked at the faces of the audience and saw them one by one instead of as a single conglomeration of humanity assembled solely for my benefit, and I spoke to them as equals, recognising our common humanity. I became a better performer and a better person from that time. I regarded the audience as fellow human beings, telling jokes at my own expense, never at theirs, and expressing my appreciation for their inarticulate kindness. Miracles came to pass. I got more work, better audiences, better responses, and had a much better time than ever I did when I was thoughtlessly parading my ‘star’ ego.

Of course I loved the applause and all the nice things they said about my singing, but the more liked I got, the less important those things became. It became my philosophy that just as they were working people, so was I, and that while their day’s work was done, mine was just beginning, and my work was to make sure that they, not me, had a good time. Once I had that priority fixed, I was happier, the people were happier, and the odd committeeman was rumoured to have smiled.


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