Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Friend Said 'Goodbye' 

This story is dedicated to my dear friend, Bill Kenny
(written by Bevan Gore-Langton)

Bill Kenny 
(signed photo for Edie, Bevan's mother)
The story begins about seventy years ago when I visited relatives that owned a beautiful summer place on the shores of Maple Bay, near Duncan, Vancouver Island. Every year I was invited to spend a few days in this paradise. We would pass the time experiencing everything a young fellow could wish for. There was swimming, boating, exploring, parties, picnics and story telling. What freedom we had as well. One of my favourite things to do was to wind up the old gramophone, my favourite music being a collection of 78 rpm records of the Ink Spots. I would play them over and over again. 

When I finished high school, my friend David Watson and I went to work for a TV company installing aerials. We worked for a year and were very busy as everyone was buying television sets at that time and wanted their aerials installed right away. We both made and saved enough money at that time for a travel adventure. Dave's father was in the lumber business and he gave each of us a free passage on a Greek freighter which carried lumber from Victoria (Canada) to England. The ship's crew were happy to have us aboard to speak English with them, we also helped to chip away rust from the old Liberty ship. The Liberty ship was special as it reminded me of my mother who once was a welder during the war and she helped to build ships. 

My dear mother (Edie) - in her welding gear

We became good friends with Captain Los and the crew. They were wonderful characters. 

Dave and Bevan on board the Liberty Ship en route to Europe

On board the Liberty ship with Captain Los

Dave, Captain Los and Bevan

Upon arriving in London we stayed with Dave's aunt for a few days until we found an apartment off Haverstock Hill, near Hampstead Heath. Dave and I joined the Humphrey Littleton club in London and we would go there on weekends where we heard many fine musicians. We also became regulars at the Belsize Tavern in Hampstead which was close to our apartment. They had a piano there, as most pubs did at that time, and people were encouraged to play it. I played piano very well at that time, this helped that Dave and I never had to buy a beer. The top of the old upright piano was always packed full with beer. 

Bevan playing piano in an English pub

During our visit in the UK, I bought a Francis Barnett motorcycle which Dave and I planned to tour with. I rode down from Coventry, picked Dave up and we headed straight for the pub. As usual, the beer was flowing and we left the pub at closing time. We hopped on the bike and I reverted to the right side of the road. The first corner we came to there was a car heading straight towards us. The driver hit his brakes hard and I just managed to stop, not more than a foot away from the grille of an American Studebaker. An American jumped out of the car and yelled at me, " What's the matter with you? You stupid Limey, don't you know which side of the road to drive on!"  I called out, "I am very sorry old chap." He shook his head, got in the car and drove off. One night Dave made a similar mistake when he stepped off the sidewalk curb onto the left side of the road, thinking the cars would be in the other lane, he walked right into the side of an Austin 7 and nearly turned it over. No lecture this time, as the driver carried on. 

Bevan and Dave on the Francis Barnett

Bless the Belsize Tavern, they threw a big party for Dave and me before we left England for Canada, after our year long tour of Europe. 

Dave - during our European tour

Music was changing in the 1950's and Bill Kenny (singer from the Ink Spots) had reached a slower period in his musical career. Radio was playing what was popular at the time and I had not heard Bill's music for years. 

After returning from England, I found a job at a bank where I worked for a few years. I had met my future wife Joy and at that time had been offered a job in the music business by Bernie Porter, a super fellow that ran a music studio. Many well-meaning people suggested I stay with the bank as there was so much more security there. I talked it over with Joy and she advised me to follow my heart. It was the best decision I ever made. Joy and I were married the same week that I started working for Bernie. 

Shortly afterwards, I was offered a job with a quartet (bass. drums, saxophone and piano), where we played Friday and Saturday nights in a club. During the week days I worked for Bernie. One evening at the club, a gentleman approached me and said he liked the way I played piano. He mentioned he was opening a new restaurant on the waterfront in Oak Bay and asked if I would be interested to work for him full time once the restaurant opened. Almost three months later I started working for Clare Anderson, seven nights a week. The hours were long as I played during dinner hours and for dancing later on. It was the first full time music job in Victoria after the war and I was grateful for it. I included a drummer on the weekends and to beef up the sound I added an organ, two electric pianos and an acoustic piano miked. It was a pretty big sound as I was using a 22H Leslie speaker and two large Jensen speakers. 

Musician, Bevan Gore-Langton 

Clare was a good musician and played horn and did a bit of singing. He had toured the USA with a group called the Continentals, a very versatile and great sounding group. The restaurant was a real success, although some locals complained about the price of steak and lobster, at an astronomical five dollars and ninety-five cents, but people got used to it. 

It was not long before Clare decided to bring in other entertainment. It was my job to accompany them - like the wonderful Eleanor Collins from Vancouver and Bill Hosie from Victoria. There were other entertainers that were very good but not well known. After a trip to Las Vegas, Clare started bringing in entertainers that were on that circuit. They would usually appear in Vancouver and then visit the island. There were Maurice Pearson, Gina Funes, Marika Boyer, Rudolph Boyce from Jamaica and a couple of talented black fellows whose names escape me. Maurice was a regular of the Lawrence Welk show. He had a beautiful voice and also was a great entertainer. He could sing any style and also had the ability to make people laugh with some of his comedy routines. 

Gina had a voice like an angel and could sing any style. I was doing OK until she did some heavy-duty opera. Her charts looked like a bunch of flies which had spread ink all over the manuscript. I was fine with chords but was a lousy reader. I got as far as the opening chord and that was it. She did not hesitate and sang it right through with no background. Her comment was, "You will get it by tonight." I didn't get it that night. I gave her the opening chord and she sang it alone. Her audience was enthralled. I spent the next day figuring out the chords and finally got it. What a girl !! Marika also had a beautiful voice and was a great success. Rudolph had a very rich voice and did all the latest songs from rock to traditional Jamaican, which we all enjoyed. The two black fellows were obviously fans of the great Ray Charles. One of them did a fantastic version of 'I Can't Stop Loving You' which brought tears to a few eyes. 

The Ink Spots
  (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
One night, Clare mentioned to me he had booked in Bill Kenny of The Ink Spots, I was stunned and also fearful of being able to give him a good background. I had heard that Bill's wife, Audrey, was a bit of a tyrant when it came to accompanists. She asked Clare who was going to do the backup music for Bill as there were problems at their last engagement. I was ready to pass out when Clare had said to her we have the best guy in the country. That was typical for Clare but it sure put me on the spot. Bill and Audrey were scheduled to arrive in a couple of weeks and it was a very insecure interlude for me. A rehearsal was arranged at the Oak Bay Marina and I was there when Bill and Audrey arrived; Clare introduced me to them. It was a pleasant introduction but I could tell they were preoccupied with something. Bill surprised me with the question, "How do you play?" I wondered what to say, hesitated and replied, "Let's go and find out." I turned on my equipment and Audrey sat at one end of the empty restaurant. She asked for the song 'White Christmas' because she knew it would be requested of Bill, being a few days short of the holiday. I do not remember Bill having any charts; if he did, he never brought them out. I asked him for a key. He gave me a note which fortunately put me in an easy key. It was magic, as if I had been working with him for years. He sounded glorious and I could see he was very happy with the results. A smile appeared on Audrey's face and I noticed she was happy. Bill did an opening song which I believe was 'When You're Smiling'. Audrey called out, "That will do it, see you tonight!"

The place was packed that night as well as the following two weeks. Bill did a couple of songs which I did not know but his voice told me where he was going, as if he was singing chords with the melody. I was very happy when the music contributor from the Times Colonist paper gave Bill a glowing review and mentioned he was proud of the fact that a local musician had given him such a great background. 

Bill Kenny with CBC staff and musician
(photo courtesy of CBC)

I worked with Bill a great deal after that, locally and in Vancouver. I had two opportunities to tour with him, once in Canada and the other in Japan. The Japanese were great fans of Bill, they loved his music. I always regretted not going but I had commitments in Victoria and was unable to travel. We developed a great friendship over the years and it is interesting that Bill's favourite thing to do was to sit on our living-room floor in front of the fireplace and poke away at the wood. I believe it was great relaxation for him. 

At that time, Bill was driving a Triumph sports car and experienced a dreadful accident. It happened when he had the gas tank filled and it overflowed filling parts of the car with gasoline. He parked the car in his underground parking space, when he returned to the car and started it, there was an explosion. He told me he found himself looking down at his body laying on the ground beside the car. He was very badly burned on his hands and face and was rushed to the hospital. After Bill's recovery, we did a few more shows together. 

Bill Kenny with CBC Staff  (photo courtesy of CBC)

The accident was a powerful spiritual experience for Bill which inspired him to the extent he felt he was saved for some reason. His shows then became inspirational and I could tell the audience noticed. At times the depth of his voice rattled my speakers. One day, months later, Audrey accompanied Bill to an engagement when a serious health problem occurred while he was driving. Bill's eyelids closed and he could not open them. As Audrey could not drive, she had to hold his eyelids open. She told me that Bill did the show. She had to walk him to the stage. He explained to a packed audience that he had some eye problems and apparently the show was a great success. Audrey kept in touch with me after that. To my dismay, I was told Bill's health problem was not curable. 

Many months later I had the most unusual and realistic powerful dream. I was boarding a train and walked through some cars. When I reached the last one there were two fellows sitting on a chesterfield. One of them was Bill Kenny and the other appeared to be Nat King Cole, one of my absolute musical heroes. When Bill spotted me he jumped up and ran over to me and said, "It is great to see you Bev! I would like to introduce you to a great friend of mine, Nat King Cole." He stood up, took my hand and showed me that wonderful smile of his. This was an unbelievable experience for me and it will always stay fresh in my mind. Bill said to me, "Why don't you come with us?"   "I would love to," I replied, "but I have no ticket." Bill called for the porter and asked him if I could stay on the train. He thought for a moment, and obviously trying to please Bill, he turned to me and said, "Go to the next car and check stateroom," (I think it was no 11 or 21) "if it is empty, you can stay there." I thanked him and told Bill I would check it out. When I did, I was very disappointed as a party was going on in the room. Then I woke up and even though it was a dream, I felt I had experienced it. I asked myself  was there a meaning or a message in this dream? Nat King Cole had died many years before - did Bill join him? 

The train indicated departure. I heard the following day that Bill had passed on. 

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