When I was a teenager, learning about big band music by listening to it with my friend Louie on his homebrew “hi-fi” (this was pre-stereo), I soon found myself becoming more and more familiar with the star bandleaders and their styles. I got pretty good at telling the difference between the music of Benny and Glenn, or that of the Count and the Duke, but one night Louie put on a new platter and asked what I thought of it.
“Sounds like Glenn Miller”, I answered, but I was already beginning to have second thoughts because Louie was grinning like a hyena. I couldn’t believe it when he told me it was an English band, led by a guy named Ted Heath. I was floored. How in the world could a bunch of stiffs from across the pond sound that good? After all, at that time British musicians weren’t exactly household names in America, and Paul, John, Ringo and George were probably still scuffling around the schoolyards of Liverpool.
But leave it to Louie, who was a talented musician himself, to discover that there was a swing band out there that was putting out pretty good music, even if it didn’t get a lot of attention from the average teenager, who at that time was probably more interested in the emergence of early rock and roll — but that’s another story.
There were other British bandleaders during the golden age of swing music, but Ted Heath was probably the best known and most successful. (Which isn’t always the same thing.) He and his band were very popular in Great Britain, and performed at a high level through the 1940’s, 1950’s, and even into the 1960’s. During that time, his band was one of the few still clinging to the old style big band dance music when most other jazzmen were moving to bebop and modern jazz.
He was a strict disciplinarian and didn’t allow his musicians much in the way of spontaneous improvisation, but some of the solos turned in by the talented members of his band sparkled — even if rehearsed in advance. His biggest hit was probably “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues”, and he had another good seller with “Hot Toddy”. A lot of his success in record sales was earned by issuing albums of music made up of songs that other swing bands had made popular. After his record sales began to climb in the US, he led a British invasion of sorts (predating the one to come later from rock stars) by periodically bringing his band over for tours, one of which even included a concert at Carnegie Hall.
His band was dissolved in 1964 as a result of his faltering health, but its demise was probably was helped along by the changing tastes of music fans. He died in 1969 but left behind a musical legacy that sets him a little apart from many others of the era.