4BR Meets the King: Peter Roberts
This is a bit of an apocryphal story, but one none the less thats
worth the airing.
Theres a bloke in the pub I drink in who in the mid 1960s
was regarded as perhaps the best up and coming outside half in the
Welsh valleys. Such was his skill and talent that he was chosen
as fly half to play in a final trial for the then Welsh under 21
team, and such was his reputation that a glorious international
future was predicted for him, if he, as was expected, got to be
Come the day of trial, he lined up against a skinny outside half
from West Wales, who was not more than 8 stone wringing wet. He
couldnt believe his luck.
An hour and half later, his world had come to end. The skinny little
kid who looked like a refugee had played him off the park, had scored
three tries, two drop goals, a penalty and two conversions, hadnt
been tackled and left the pitch with his shorts still clean.
You see, the bloke in the pub, who was a very fine player indeed
had come up against a young genius by the name of Barry John. The
rest as they say is history.
I tell you the story because in the same way, every soprano cornet
player since about the same time has had the very same problem.
For Barry John read Peter Roberts.
It doesnt matter how good you are, there will always be someone
who is just absolutely bloody special someone who has a talent
that transcends the mundane and earmarks them out to be simply the
very, very best. Barry John was known as The King in
the rugby world as he had no peers - Peter Roberts is brass band
Roberts started his brass band career in the famous town where he
still lives today Grimethorpe, and he started in the equally
famous Grimethorpe Junior Band under the tutelage of Fred Silver.
He remembers it well.
Fred Silver was a tuba player who took the band and my father
took me along to see if I was interested. I really enjoyed it, as
at the same time there were people like Stan Lippeatt and David
Moore there so we had plenty of fun. In 1963 I started to play the
soprano and somehow I took a shine to it a bit and by 1965 I was
drafted into the Grimethorpe senior band under the great George
Such was the talent of the Junior band that George Thompson made
the prediction that within 5 years Grimethorpe would win either
the Nationals or the Open and he was proved right.
The 1967 win also starts off an intriguing set of circumstances
that in addition to his abilities as a performer make Peter Roberts
perhaps the only man in banding currently to have won every section
of prizes on offer at the British Open.
As Ive been around so long, I believe Im the only
person still playing to have won the British Open Solo Championships,
been a member of the winning band at the Junior Cup, Junior Trophy,
Senior Cup, Senior Trophy, Grand Shield and British Open. Thats
a record Im really proud of.
addition of course hes actually won 6 British Opens, 2 Masters,
3 Europeans, 1 National, 2 Overall British Solo Championships, 5
British Soprano Soloist titles, 1 International Solo Championship
title as well as countless solo prizes at entertainment contests,
including both Granada Band of the Year and Spennymoor Brass in
The circumstances also extend to a strange cycle of things that
come in threes, as he explained.
Ive been lucky to play in the three major venues for
the Open (discounting the one year at Bridgewater) Belle
Vue, The Free Trade Hall and Symphony Hall and the third year Ive
played at each one Ive managed to play for the winning band.
I made my debut in 1965 at the Open and then in 1967 Grimethorpe
won on Comedy Overture. 1982 was the debut at the Free Trade Hall
and this was followed by our win in 1984 on Comedy Overture again.
By the time we were playing for the third time at Birmingham in
1997 it was in the stars that YBS were going to win, and we did!
In addition the 1997 win was 30 years after my first in 1967, whilst
2001 saw the threes triumph again as in his 33rd appearance
YBS took the title again. The wins in 1967 and 1969 were to be repeated
30 later in 1997 and 1999 and this year hes been married for
30 years as well. Who says fate doesnt play a part in life
All this success from a man who has been self taught.
Ive never had a formal teacher even from the time I
first went into Grimethorpes senior band after Ken Johnson
left to go to Brodsworth to conduct all those years ago.
So how does he explain his amazing ability then? Dont
really know come to think of it, he says with genuine modesty.
Ive been lucky over the years and have played with some
great players, so perhaps thats rubbed off on me, but theres
no secret to my success just plenty of hard work
One of these players was the late Brian Cooling who he believes
was one of the finest players he has ever sat behind. Brian
was a truly great player, and the only man I know who could play
all 14 studies from the Arban from memory, one after each other.
He used to play the solos of Herbert Clarke which George Thompson
used to arrange for him, and because of that George arranged the
Debutante for soprano for me, which Ive loved
playing ever since.
During his years with Grimethorpe, Peter Roberts' hallmark was his
ability to perform soprano solos that made the hairs on the back
of your neck stand on end, such as Memories, On
With the Motley and the Debutante. Today he still
wows the crowd, even as he said he was recently introduced as the
old man at the 2001 European Championships Gala Concert
a reference to the fact that hes 51.
The European win was great, especially for me as I took part
in the first European 25 years ago. It was also great as Im
enjoying my banding more than ever with YBS and David King. I believe
David is the finest conductor of his generation and he reminds me
so much of George Thompson in his musicality. The players literally
frighten me to death though with what they can do! Playing with
them really keeps me on my toes, as the standard of playing they
produce is awesome. I dont want to let them down.
Such is his commitment that he perhaps gave his finest performance
at the Open this year when the band won the British Open title on
Les Preludes a piece that he reveals is one of
I loved the piece and this year I was determined to listen
to other bands pay it as well. Unfortunately I was side tracked
a bit after we played as everyone I knew seemed to want to take
me for a drink, so I never got to hear another band!
Was he disappointed not to have won the solo prize though? Not
a bit. It was the band and David King who deserved to win the Open
the individual prizes mean little in that context and anyway,
I believe very formly in what old Fred Mortimer used to say, Winners
can smile, the rest have to make their own arrangements There
were more important personal things for me as well as my mind was
firmly fixed towards friends that I have in America. Ive made
many friends from the time Ive played with Brass Band Battle
Creek and what they were going through at the time of the Open put
things very much in perspective for me.
Peter Roberts the player has been a unique talent, so will there
be a move into taking up the baton?
No chance! Im waiting to retire (although it must be
said, I thought he said this with very little conviction). Im
getting on a bit now you know and Ive got two lovely grandchildren,
Jade aged 8 and Luke aged 6 who are fantastic at tiring me out!
I got the feeling though that there are more than a few good years
left in the so called old man yet and hes taken
on more than a few challenges in the past to keep him fresh active
and at the top of the soprano cornet playing tree.
I worked at Grimethorpe Colliery for 27 years when they brought
in compulsory hearing tests and they found I had a problem. I had
various tests at hospitals and was advised to give up playing as
the pressure was having a detrimental effect. I took redundancy
as part of the pit closure programme and I couldnt play seriously
for a few years. That was a challenging time but I went back to
college (aged 45) and managed to get a degree and returned to playing
with Dodworth band.
Perspective is something he mentions again as today he enjoys himself
thoroughly as a Community Driver taking disabled people to homes
and centres and around his local town. I really love the job
and it is so rewarding. It puts brass banding in its rightful place.
The rightful place though has seen many highlights and two for him
stick out more than most.
The win at the 1984 Open was special as we had been on strike
for near on a year and times were very hard indeed in Grimethorpe
and the win meant so much to the band and the town, whilst this
year with YBS was special because I just felt the band was playing
so well that before we went on stage I remarked to David King that
Id been waiting 35 to play this piece at a contest and I knew
we could do a brilliant show on it.
And the downs? Any sop player knows they are going to have
a bad day now and again, and Ive had more than my fair share.
Playing wise though Ive always been disappointed not to have
been able to play Diadem of Gold at a major contest I love
So are there challenges out there again?
Plenty. The new music we now play is great, especially the
new compositions David King has brought to the band and Ive
always loved the stuff we used to do at Grimethorpe when Elgar Howarth
was there. Some of it was bonkers stuff, but it really made you
a better player. As long as I keep enjoying it, Ill think
Ill keep going.
Great news then for all of us of have been wowed by the great man
over the years, so surely then you would have thought he would give
away the secret of his success just to give us mere mortals a chance?
As Ive said I think Ive been very lucky.
I was given the mouthpiece I use to day over 35 years ago (Bach
17C for all of you who will now go out and buy one) and I
was brought up playing on a Besson Class A soprano until 1983 when
I started to play on the Schilke which I stuck with ever since.
Thats not a secret recipe is it?
All I would say to young players is to make sure that you
should never compromise what you want to achieve out of life and
playing, and make sure you always try and play correctly. If you
can do those things then, playing the soprano is the best thing
in the world.
Wise words from the King himself. I wonder what Barry John would
have been like trying to play the sop part of Les Preludes?