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4BR Meets the King: Peter Roberts

This is a bit of an apocryphal story, but one none the less that’s worth the airing.

There’s a bloke in the pub I drink in who in the mid 1960’s 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 selected.

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 couldn’t 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, hadn’t 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 doesn’t 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 equivalent.

Peter 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 Thompson.”

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 I’ve been around so long, I believe I’m 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. That’s a record I’m really proud of.”

In addition of course he’s 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 Concert.

The circumstances also extend to a strange cycle of things that come in threes, as he explained.

“I’ve 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 I’ve played at each one I’ve 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 three’s 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 he’s been married for 30 years as well. Who says fate doesn’t play a part in life eh?

All this success from a man who has been self taught.

“I’ve never had a formal teacher even from the time I first went into Grimethorpe’s 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? “ Don’t really know come to think of it,” he says with genuine modesty. “I’ve been lucky over the years and have played with some great players, so perhaps that’s rubbed off on me, but there’s 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 I’ve 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 he’s 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 I’m 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 don’t 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 his favourites.

“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. I’ve made many friends from the time I’ve 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! I’m waiting to retire (although it must be said, I thought he said this with very little conviction). I’m getting on a bit now you know and I’ve 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 he’s 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 couldn’t 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 I’d 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 I’ve had more than my fair share. Playing wise though I’ve always been disappointed not to have been able to play Diadem of Gold at a major contest – I love the piece.”

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 I’ve 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, I’ll think I’ll 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 I’ve said – I think I’ve 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. That’s 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”?

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