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Tribute to Johnnie Gray

One of the great characters of British jazz, Johnnie Gray has passed away aged 94. Born in Coventry in 1920, he took up the tenor saxophone at school before becoming an engineering apprentice at Rolls-Royce.

One of the great characters of British jazz, Johnnie Gray has passed away aged 94. Born in Coventry in 1920, he took up the tenor saxophone at school before becoming an engineering apprentice at Rolls-Royce. While there he kept his musical eye in playing with the Rialto Casino Band and the Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra.

When war broke out Johnnie became a bomber pilot for the RAF – mainly because he was too tall and broad to fit in a Hurricane – but left the forces after injuring his legs in a crash landing. Returning to engineering, he continued play at nights and joined Billy Monk’s New Rhythm Band, then he moved to London in 1943 for a seat in Lou Preager’s band and a subsequent stint with Ambrose. By the end of the war, he was part of Ted Heath’s big band, before moving onto Sydney Lipton’s outfit at the Grosvenor House Hotel. Johnnie’s big personality and massive moustache was soon to wow a wider audience, and by the 50s his own Band Of The Day became a regular on the TV and the radio. They toured all over Europe and America, and were a regular sight on the cross Atlantic liner The Queen Mary.

But when the big band era started to decline he broke up the band to open an instrument repair shop. He also became a booking agent and turned his talents to session work, recording with big name artists like Nat King Cole, Matt Monro, Dusty Springfield, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles.

A Freeman of both Coventry and London, he received the Gold Badge Award of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors for his services to music in 1995. After retiring to Sussex in the 80s he still kept active, campaigning on local and national health issues.

He also proudly boasted that in over 60 years in the business he was “never late, never knocked another musician and never broke my word”. Johnnie was a big presence in the jazz world and will be sadly missed, but fondly remembered.

Roy Delaney


Published: 17/07/2014
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