Spotlight on ……
Remembering Britain’s Jazz Boy Wonder
Simon Spillett recalls the story of jazz saxophonist Tubby Hayes, whose brief life was a rollercoaster ride of career success and personal agony. One of the key figures in British jazz during the 1950s and 60s, he started as a teenage prodigy and went on to play with greats such as Duke Ellington, causing a sensation in the USA before overcoming a turbulent personal life and battles with alcohol, drugs and illness to become a legend in his own lifetime. His tragic death following open heart surgery was the last dramatic chapter in a story as gripping as that of any rock icon.
Tubby Hayes is a figure well-known and well-loved by a generation of British jazz fans. Nearly forty years since his death, mention of his name still brings enthusiastic responses from those who remember his vibrant and energetic musical personality. At a time when Acker Bilk best embodied most people’s ideas of jazz in Britain Tubby’s slick and authentic style was as cutting edge as that of Miles Davis. And, like Davis, Tubby Hayes and his music seeped into the consciousness of even those who didn’t consider themselves jazz fans. Seen frequently on TV screens and heard week in week out on BBC radio, it was little surprise that his controversial private life attracted the attention of the mainstream media and that news of his untimely death found its way onto front pages of national newspapers.
Born Edward Brian Hayes in London on January 30th 1935, Tubby was the only child of musical parents and his following a musical career was certain from day one. The dance band craze was captivating the country and his father, Teddy, ran an orchestra typical of these rather fussy and strict units (think of the music in Denis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven) whilst Tubby’s mother Dorothy had once been part of a travelling troupe of variety artists.
Tubby’s childhood was very much that of quintessential inter-war suburbia, growing up in Raynes Park in South West London, an existence punctuated by Teddy’s summer seasons in Herne Bay and Brighton. Teddy’s success meant that the Hayes family had a degree of luxury few enjoyed during the 1930s and accordingly the young Tubby grew up spoilt rotten.
Tubby’s own first musical steps began with violin and piano lessons but at the outbreak of World War Two a chance encounter with a tenor saxophone in the window of a London music shop kick started his lifelong enthusiasm. At five years of age he was too small to play the instrument but his father agreed to buy one when his son turned twelve.
In the meantime Tubby attended the prestigious Rutlish Grammar School in Merton, later to produce other outstanding ex-students in animator Raymond Briggs and Prime Minister John Major. These schooldays gave Hayes his lifelong nickname but not much else.
Tubby’s first tenor saxophone duly arrived on Christmas Day 1946 and legend has it that he was proficient enough to be playing along with the radio the following day. Over the next three years he made precocious progress, astounding his fellow pupils and moved swiftly from school parties to scouring the local clubs for opportunities to blow jazz. Ever since hearing Benny Goodman on the radio, jazz had fascinated Tubby, but as a young man eager for change he listened not to the established swing giants like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington but to the revolutionary music of saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, nick-named Bebop. This wild, frenetic and fast style seemed at times to throw every established musical rule out of the window and for musicians of Tubby’s generation, it was the music of the day, as radical as punk rock would be thirty years later.
As Tubby’s career blossomed from amateur to semi-professional his school work suffered. Rutlish was cloistered and hopelessly anachronistic and Tubby kicked against its stuffiness at every turn. Rarely attending lessons, he was thrown out after failing to turn up to an exam. Late night gigs, wild parties with other young jazz fans and an already adult capacity for alcohol were gaining him a hell-raising reputation, even barely half way through his teens.
Tubby’s father instantly gave him the proviso of one year in which to make it as a musician, a challenge the young man was ready to meet. There were disappointments along the way, such as his first professional gig in 1950, which involved travelling across London on the back of a coal lorry, but with his prodigious talent for the latest styles Tubby was already attracting the attention of the best jazzmen in the country
When he made an impromptu appearance on a gig with one of the best of the British modern jazz musicians Ronnie Scott, the saxophonist and later club owner, Scott was astounded and genuinely shaken: “He had it all” he later said, “This little chubby kid just came up and scared me to death”.
Indeed, Tubby’s big break was within sight. A few weeks later, trumpeter Kenny Baker of the famed Ted Heath Orchestra (Britain’s best loved dance band later to score a hit with Hot Toddy) was recruiting for a new band of his own and asked Tubby to join. And so, in February 1951, at sixteen years of age, he became a member of one of the leading jazz groups in the country, finding his story splashed across the pages of Melody Maker.
The Little Giant
Tubby’s saxophone style took in the best of jazz of the day, from the supercharged flights of fancy of Charlie Parker to the elegant cool of Stan Getz and keeping pace with the changing developments in music came naturally to him, as did a formidable technical command of the saxophone itself. Bandleader John Dankworth recalled that even in his teens there were few other UK sax players to touch the young Hayes and over the next four years, Tubby made a tremendous impression on all those who heard him. A personable young man, with a broad beaming smile, he possessed charisma by the bucket load, and his musical skills, able to keep pace and outstrip those of colleagues ten years his senior, began to earn him a boy wonder tag. Writer Benny Green coined the nick-name The Little Giant for him, something Tubby detested as it made reference to his small stature, but which accurately summed up his enormous musical importance.
Unsurprisingly, life under the baton of leaders like Baker, Jack Parnell and Vic Lewis grew ever more frustrating for Tubby. Playing polite medleys of current pop hits, mambos and novelty numbers was far from satisfying and he made no secret of the fact. As a genuine wunderkind, Tubby was an asset to those that employed him and he knew it, but when the big money earned by stars like Parnell failed to filter down to him the arguments started.
Outside of his professional life, Tubby was also suffering. He married his first wife Margaret, a photographic model, at eighteen but domestic bliss eluded the couple. Their clashes were epic, resulting in the marriage quickly falling apart.
There were also the beginnings of problems with drug abuse and in 1954, Tubby was arrested for possession of cannabis, a foretaste of the years to come.
In early 1955, Tubby struck out on his own, forming an ambitious eight-piece band. The music press of the day made a much of the leaders tender years, but Hayes was already a veteran, with high hopes of success on the club and concert circuit around the UK. He also signed his first recording contract, with Decca Records, resulting in a string of energetic and spirited records by this first band. However, the dreams of long-lasting success were soon thwarted. Daring to bring in as much pure jazz content as they could, the band pushed the boundaries and quickly found themselves forced to offer a more dance-friendly repertoire. Songs like Cherry Pink, Ready, Willing and Able and Love and Marriage began replacing jazz compositions and at the end of a disastrous Scottish tour in 1956, penniless and disheartened, the band called it a day.
The arrival of Rock and Roll had also contributed to the demise. A music with simpler, more direct beat with catchy and forthright lyrics was bound to win over the public and as stars like Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis began to invade the British pop charts, it seemed that British jazz musicians were about to be pushed out of business.
Tubby’s reaction was not one of compromise and in April 1957 he teamed up with fellow saxophonist Ronnie Scott to form The Jazz Couriers, a five piece band which, as the name declared, played only jazz in the latest manner. Accordingly the Couriers brought a sophisticated excitement which made the music of even the most accomplished British jazz names like Johnny Dankworth seem pale and reserved.
At the time giants like Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Stan Getz dominated the jazz world and music critics still tended to see British musicians as inferior to these stateside originals. However, welcome endorsement of Tubby Hayes authentic talent came in 1958 when The Jazz Couriers toured with pianist Dave Brubeck, soon to have an unlikely chart hit with Take Five. Brubeck was highly complementary, declaring that the band sounded more like an American group than his own.
The Couriers also began a lengthy residency at a new London club, The Flamingo (later to make stars of everyone from Georgie Fame to The Who) and recorded a string of albums which rank equally with the best American jazz of the day.
Clearly at a career peak, Tubby now began composing his own music and if playing the tenor saxophone were not enough he also took up the vibraphone and the flute. The former had been added when Hayes decided to stand in for the absent vibraphonist on a club gig and astonished everyone with his impromptu affinity for a new musical skill. The flute had a similarly natural introduction: bought one day and played on a gig a few nights later. Hayes popularity was such that his name had come to monopolise the polls in papers like the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, winning the award for best tenor saxophonist for ten years in a succession.
As the 1960s dawned, Tubby was becoming a world-wide jazz figure, and having recorded for the legendary Blue Note label (one time home of stars like John Coltrane and Miles Davis) he also became something of a household name in the UK, appearing weekly on the new TV show Tempo 60. After the demise of The Jazz Couriers, he worked regularly at the new Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho, recorded arguably his first great solo album Tubby’s Groove, and was a regular fixture on all the major UK jazz festivals. Often regarded as England’s own stand-in for an American jazz star, it was only a question of time until Tubby made an appearance in the USA.
In September 1961, as part of an exchange deal on behalf of Ronnie Scott’s club Tubby opened a two-week engagement in New York City. The effect was electric: Melody Maker printed a front page story about the triumph, revealing that big jazz names such as Miles Davis had made a bee-line to check out the visiting Englishman. Whilst in New York, Tubby recorded an album for CBS, the label which had signed Davis, and it remains among his finest work.
British jazz men weren’t expected to make much of an impression in America during the early 1960s, but Tubby’s outstanding talents had won through, resulting in a unique moment of jingoistic pride for his UK fans. At a time when Traditional jazz was enjoying a sudden and surprising popular success in the British charts with artists like Acker Bilk, Chris Barber and Kenny Ball, Tubby represented all that was hip, cool and contemporary. But alongside his followers, he had his detractors, who honed in on his fast technique, deriding him as superficial. “I play as I want to play”, was Tubby’s simple answer.
No more mountains
Throughout the early 1960s, he made annual appearances in the United States, playing at clubs and festivals and recording a further album with the virtuoso blind saxophonist Roland Kirk, but back home in the UK Tubby’s career has taken yet another leap forward. His new band, the Tubby Hayes Quintet, was his finest yet and on a par with the best of those across the Atlantic and in accordance with his ascending stature, he was afforded the luxury of his own TV series, Tubby Plays Hayes running for several months, a situation which today would strike any TV commissioning editor as commercial suicide. And, when time allowed, he had now begun to run his own big band, packed with the cream of London’s jazz scene.
Tubby also had a busy career as a studio musician, recording TV jingles, soundtracks and backings for vocalists, ranging from Matt Monro to Charlie Drake. And when the big American names arrived in London to record Tubby was frequently among the musicians hand-picked to be involved. The legendary producer Quincy Jones, collaborator with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson, used Tubby on the soundtrack to the thriller movie The Deadly Affair in 1966. Another moment of kudos came when one of Tubby’s idols, the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, invited him to perform on the soundtrack of the Michael Caine film Alfie, a job requiring a jazzman’s sense of true spontaneity.
However, Tubby’s greatest moment in the spotlight occurred in February 1964, when he was called on by none other than Duke Ellington. One of Ellington’s musicians had fallen ill and at the last minute Hayes was asked to take over at the bands opening concert in London. He did so brilliantly, with no fuss and no nerves, and won cheers of respect and pride from both the band and the unsuspecting audience. The event made the national newspapers and even Hayes staunchest critics began to openly wonder if he had any mountains left to climb.
However, the never ending round of studio commitments began to take its toll on Tubby. He found it harder to sustain his own group and with work opportunities opening up not only in the USA but across continental Europe, he was clearly becoming over stretched. In late 1964 he disbanded his band much to the shock of his fans, but there were also darker demons at play.
The popularity of The Beatles and the legions of other pop bands which followed in their wake had disturbed the equilibrium of the London jazz scene. Venues like The Marquee and the Flamingo, mainstays for Tubby, were switching over to Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Ronnie Scott’s club now relied principally on imported American acts. Some of the new jazz too Tubby found hard to take. The avant garde sax player Ornette Coleman’s random sounding music was a development too far and even his hero the ex-Miles Davis saxophonist John Coltrane seemed to be going up blind alleys in his musical quest.
It was a confusing time for Tubby. Not above musical vanity, as his popularity slipped he felt under pressure. Wanting to remain at the cutting edge, he considered his next move, but to some his music had become formulaic and routine. Steadying himself was made harder by personal problems.
Tubby had begun an affair with the American vocalist Joy Marshall, wife of one of his band members, and in 1965 he left his second wife Rose and two young sons to live with his new love. This personal upset had led to binge drinking, but in an effort to keep up with his hectic studio and international schedule he had also begun to resort to heroin, quickly becoming an addict, something which horrified many of his long standing friends. The relationship with Marshall, another drug user, was sometimes volatile and it was only a question of time before Tubby’s world came crashing down around him.
The balancing act ended in September 1965 when he collapsed through sheer exhaustion. The following year, he developed thrombosis and again collapsed and was hospitalised. However, ever the picture of hyperactivity, Tubby ignored the doctor’s advice and went on working. For a man with a seemingly cast iron constitution, there seemed no other way, but already the signs of faltering health were ominous. Tubby was only in his early 30s but his body was close to breaking point through years of excess, anti-social working hours and tight musical deadlines.
Ironically, this period was among the most musically productive of his career. In 1966 he had created the big band album 100% Proof, based around his own saxophone concerto and he formed a new quartet with three adventurous young jazzmen. The new band recorded the album Mexican Green in early 1967 and it is arguably Hayes masterpiece, containing all the hallmarks of his unique musical style: punishing fast tempos, tender love songs, lyrical flute improvisations and in the title track his own take on the new wave of the jazz avant garde. The new musicians presented a new approach to jazz, one which Tubby found genuinely refreshing, and as an album Mexican Green is as culturally important to British music as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Tubby’s attitude to pop music also began to alter at this time. With a fashionably droopy moustache, long hair and sideburns, he now resembled a musician from a rock band rather than the short back and side’s jazzer of the previous decade. He also began a collaboration with Georgie Fame, playing on one of the singers best albums Sound Venture, but just as it looked like Tubby was back on track, his health again let him down. In autumn 1967 he collapsed with jaundice, and wracked by drug addiction and pained by the end of his relationship with Joy (who would die of an overdose soon after), he turned recluse for much of 1968, taking his phone off the hook, missing gigs and making fans wonder where this once ubiquitous musical figure had got to.
A very public trial
The road back started in the summer of that year when Tubby was arrested for possession of heroin. A very public trial followed, with a suspended sentence being served. The humiliation of being splashed across the nation’s tabloids was like a jolt for Tubby. He spoke openly about his addiction and warned others to get help if they were in a similar position. Now receiving professional help from a drug clinic, he began to rebuild his career with the formation of another new band, this time drawing in an electric guitar and sounds borrowed from popular music.
1969 was Tubby’s busiest year since the glory days of the early 1960s, and his workload was as varied as can be imagined: TV shows with Andre Previn, a concert with the London Symphony Orchestra, appearing on the soundtrack of the movie The Italian Job, recording an LP with Ringo Starr and making innumerable radio broadcasts, all work which jostled with countrywide engagements for his own band. There was also a new album, The Orchestra, aimed at the easy listening market and featuring songs by Burt Bacharach, Nancy Sinatra and The Beatles.
However, time was running out. The illnesses of the previous years had ravaged Tubby and the days of twenty minute solo improvisations were over. In early 1970, on a gig in Birmingham he found himself unable to breathe and was subsequently admitted to hospital with an infection to all his major organs. The doctors discovered a faulty heart valve and in summer 1971, Tubby underwent open heart surgery to fit a replacement. The London jazz scene stood by and prayed, offering their services in innumerable benefit concerts to aid Tubby during his long recovery. Even old heroes like Stan Getz were on hand to give their support.
Living back home with his mother, Tubby made a remarkable recovery and was back to playing by the end of the year, yet he was clearly weakened and found himself forced to find a way of playing that was far less gruelling than that with which he’d made his name. Typically he began his final comeback with a challenge, embarking on a Scandinavian tour during February 1972. Back in London, with a new girlfriend Liz Greenlund, Tubby picked up the pieces of his old career. There were some new departures, such as the avant-garde band Splinters with OBE winning pianist Stan Tracey, but in the main he concentrated on his old preoccupation with the quartet and big band. Time away from performing had also enabled him to decide exactly how he wanted his music to progress and much of his new output reflected the times, drawing influences from jazz-rock bands like Weather Report and from Brazilian music.
This more considered approach found favour among those for whom Tubby’s earlier music had been too intense and self-indulgent. But yet again, with cruel irony, just as he at last found personal and musical happiness, his health took at dramatic turn for the worse.
Booked for a gig in Brighton in May 1973, on arrival he was too breathless to play and returned home to London by train, suffering the indignity of being wheeled off the station platform on a sack barrow. With Liz at his side, he spent several nervous hours at their flat, struggling to breathe and vomiting blood and only on her insistence did he reluctantly concede to return to hospital. The diagnosis was as expected: the replacement heart valve had failed and further surgery was required. The risks of a second operation were far greater and Tubby knew that he may not have had strength enough to pull through. As friends and colleagues encouraged him, Tubby decided to brave the operation. He died following the surgery, which ironically had been successful, at Hammersmith Hospital on the afternoon of June 8th 1973. He was 38 years of age.
News of Hayes death rocked the jazz world and there were tributes in the national press and on radio, all singling out the remarkable facets of a gifted and charismatic individual who had died far too young, some comparing his achievements to those of John Coltrane. The gap Hayes left, they concurred, was enormous and in the weeks following his death there were further musical tributes in the form of benefit concerts featuring many of Tubby’s old colleagues and friends as well as international jazz stars like Dizzy Gillespie.
His funeral service, at Golders Green Crematorium, was attended by a veritable who’s who of British Jazz, but few knew that the man they came to say farewell to had died intestate and with barely a few hundred pounds in the bank. Tubby had earned a formidable world-wide reputation with his music but little else. Tubby’s memorial plaque can still be seen at Golders Green, in a secluded corner close to those of Marc Bolan and Ronnie Scott.
Fast forward to the early 21st century and Tubby’s music suddenly became hot property again. After years of being talked of in reverential tones but seldom actually heard, his albums - most now collectors items commanding hundreds of pounds each - began to be reissued on CD, together with newly discovered recordings. A tribute band was also formed to upkeep his musical legacy and his triumphant story was central to the landmark BBC-4 series Jazz Britannia, screened in 2005.
Tubby’s life was very much a tale of success over adversity: he firstly overcame reservations about British jazz, then went on to win over audiences in the music’s homeland and finally struggled valiantly with ill health. In a career lasting a little over twenty years he rose from a boy prodigy to a multi-talented youthful veteran, inspiring those around him and has left an impression on the UK music scene which, nearly four decades since his death, remains genuinely unique.