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A History of the Virtuosi Brass Band of Great Britain - part 1

Fred Waters presents his first part of his definitive history of an unique brass band - the 28 of the best players in the land, who came together to perform on nine LP's and one concert in the heady days of the 1970's called the Virtuosi Brass Band of Great Britain.

The Reasons for the Band’s Formation

The early 1970s saw the introduction of greatly improved domestic audio systems which enabled music lovers to enjoy much more realistic sound reproduction in the home. For the brass band enthusiast this should have enabled the listener to appreciate more fully the quality of playing contained on stereo LP's and audio cassettes available at that time. Unfortunately these improved audio systems also exposed shortcomings in recording techniques, not least of which was the tendency in those days to record brass bands in such a way as to give the listener the impression of sitting near the rear of the concert hall. This was unfortunate as much of the playing was of the highest quality.

In 1972 John Berryman and Fred Waters, both of whom were members of the Camborne Town Band in the 1950s, were bemoaning the poor recording quality of brass band records compared with classical orchestra recordings. This made them decide that if they could not buy brass band LP's recorded to the standard achieved in quality classical recordings then they would produce their own. Unfortunately this presented a problem – they didn’t have a band available to them with sufficient technical expertise to realise this ambition.

They need not have worried as a discussion with Eric Ball resulted in their forming an all star band similar to the Harry Mortimer “Men o’ Brass” but with one vitally important difference. HM’s bands carried significantly more players than are allowed in a contest sized band thus making meaningful comparison with other established bands impossible. Thus the Virtuosi Brass Band of Great Britain® (originally called the Virtuosi Brass Band®) was formed, comprising just 28 players who, at the time, were at the peak of their banding careers. Whilst 27 players (25 + 2 percussionists) was the maximum size of contest band normally permitted at that time, it was felt necessary to make the small concession of carrying a fifth solo cornet player, bearing in mind that each recording had to be completed, without prior rehearsal, in a single day comprising just two three-hour sessions.

How the Musical Directors were Chosen

A total of five Musical Directors were employed in the making of nine LPs plus one public concert. The founding MD was Eric Ball who set the pattern by directing the Band’s first four LP's. This was ably followed by James Scott directing our fifth recording session and for numbers six and eight the baton was taken up by Harry Mortimer. For record number seven there was a departure from the practice of appointing established brass band conductors and Maurice Handford was invited to take the helm.

Although Maurice had been a member of the Central Band of the RAF in his younger days, he had made his musical career conducting various world class symphony orchestras and was acknowledged to be one of the world’s leading Elgarian conductors. This surprising choice of conductor was due to the music selected for the seventh LP, but Maurice was clearly bitten by the brass band “bug” as shortly after directing the Band’s seventh recording session he was appointed Professional Conductor of the Brighouse & Rastrick Band. The final LP was directed by Stanley Boddington who also joined with Eric Ball to conduct the Band at their only public performance in 1979.

How the Players were Selected

James Shepherd, who was principal cornet at Black Dyke Mills in 1973, accepted an invitation to be the principal cornet of the Band. With his guidance and advice from Eric Ball and the inimitable Les Beevers (at the time principal Bb bass at Brighouse & Rastrick Band), 27 players who were considered to be amongst the best and most experienced bandsmen at that time where invited to join Jim. It is gratifying to note that nobody who was approached declined the invitation.

The initial line-up was indeed an impressive one:-

Solo Cornets:-
Jim Shepherd (Principal Cornet) - Black Dyke Mills,
David Read (Assistant Principal) - GUS,
Stephen Thornton - Hammonds,
Graham Walker - Yorkshire Imperial Metals,
Tony Whitaker - Brighouse & Rastrick,
Soprano Cornet:- Brian Evans - British Vita,
Flugel:- Malcolm Holmes - Grimethorpe,
Repiano Cornet:- Kevin Bolton - Carlton Main,
2nd Cornets:- James Scott - MD of Brighouse & Rastrick,
John Berryman - MD of Bodmin,
3rd Cornets:- Peter Roberts - Grimethorpe Colliery,
Alan Faraway - Bodmin,.
Tenor Horns:- Gordon Hindle (Solo) - GUS,
Gordon Higginbottom (1st) - Carlton Main,
Brian Wood (2nd) - Hammonds,
Baritones:- John Slinger (1st) - Black Dyke Mills,
Colin Hardy (2nd) - Black Dyke Mills.
Euphoniums:- Trevor Groom (Solo) - GUS,
John Clough - Black Dyke Mills,
Trombones:- John Pollard (Solo) - James Shepherd Versatile Brass,
Terry Hext (2nd) - GUS,
Ian Copland (Bass) - Black Dyke Mills.
Eb Basses:- Colin Aspinall - Black Dyke Mills,
Peter Wells - Black Dyke Mills,
Bb Basses:- Derek Jackson - Black Dyke Mills,
Les Beevers - Brighouse & Rastrick.
Percussion:- Harvey Whiteley - Black Dyke Mills,
Philip Gee – Manchester CWS.

In subsequent recordings, when any of the initial players were not available, the following additional players took part:-

Cornets:- John Hudson, Ken McDonald, Peter Teal, Stan Whiteman,
Dave Morris, Alan Tyler.
Flugel:- Stan James, Peter Teal.
Tenor Horns:- Jeff Hirst, Brian Smith, David Williams.
Baritones:- Tom Dodd.
Euphoniums:- David Moore.
Trombones:- Stan Priestley.
Eb Basses:- Derek Horsfall.
Bb Basses:- Mick Bryant.

Fred Waters
(February 2004)

The copyright of this document subsists with the author and must not be reproduced complete or in part in any form without prior written permission

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