Spotlight on ……

Humphrey Lyttelton


To mention to Humphrey Lyttelton that he’s regarded as the father figure of British jazz is to invite a characteristically modest, yet humorous put-down. ‘Well there are various rather old-fashioned words to counter that, and “Pershaw!” is one of them,’ he smiles. “I’ve been referred to as an elder statesman of British jazz for the last 20 years. I don’t see myself like that - to begin with I’m not that old, so elder statesman is an uncomfortable thing to apply to anybody!”

Father figure or not, Humphrey Lyttelton is unquestionably one of Britain’s most important and beloved jazz musicians, with a voice that’s known to millions through his work as a broadcaster on BBC Radio. The host of the UK’s most successful and longest running jazz programme The Sound of Jazz, which he began in October 1967, he is also the compère of the almost as long running I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, a brilliantly funny panel game that relies in no small measure on his unique brand of humour. Yet today, his radio celebrity is such it makes it easy to overlook the central role he occupied in British jazz during the 1950s and 1960s.

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Back then, Lyttelton, who is a tall man anyway, towered over the UK jazz scene. An old Etonian, he had seen war service as an acting-Captain in the Brigade of Guards, but on demobilization decided not to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an Eton master, instead becoming a jazz trumpeter. “I came to jazz mainly as a reaction against army life”, he recalls. “In 1936, my mother bought me a trumpet, reluctantly. When I heard Nat Gonella with Lew Stone and all those big bands [in the Thirties] it was just that sound, which was the Louis Armstrong style trumpet, coming out of these dance band records. You hear your first Louis Armstrong record, and I wanted to play the trumpet.”

His first ever concert appearance was on Saturday 18 January 1947 at the Hot Club of London leading an ad hoc ensemble. As Jim Godbolt recalled in A History of Jazz in Britain 1919-1950, “Lyttelton’s contribution was a revelation. He played with convincing authority, his physical height, six feet four, giving him an Olympian bearing that matched the power of his playing.” After eight months with George Webb’s Dixielanders he left to form his own band, and while performing at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1948, was complimented by Armstrong himself on his playing.

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In November 1949 Lyttelton began his career with the British Parlophone label, from which these sides are collected, with a track called ‘The Irish Black Bottom.’ It was recorded the same month he performed with one of jazz’s great heroes, soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, who was then visiting the United Kingdom. After a clandestine recording session with him in London’s Denmark Street during the day, Lyttelton performed with him at a concert the same evening. “We did a big concert at the Winter Garden Theatre and the whole thing was that he was ‘discovered’ in the theatre sitting in a box and he was invited to come down to play. He came onstage to an enormous ovation, I’ve never heard anything like it, so loud”.

During the 1950s, a Trad boom swept the country, which Lyttelton had played no small part in triggering. New Orleans jazz could be heard in clubs, pubs, dancehalls and on concert stages across the country and the comings and goings of musicians in Lyttelton’s groups, considered by many to be the leading band of the day, were assiduously reported in the music press. His recordings were eagerly awaited by his fans, and tracks like ‘Dallas Blues,’ ‘Low Down Dirty Shame’ and ‘D.J.C. Blues’ from 1950 document the band with its famous two clarinet set up, with Wally Fawkes and Ian Christie plus Keith Christie on trombone sharing the front line with their leader.

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After experimenting with various permutations of instruments, including dropping one of the clarinets and the trombone and performing with just Wally Fawkes in the front line, as on ‘Suffolk Air’ and ‘March Hare,’ in 1953 Lyttelton turned his back on Revivalist New Orleans jazz in favour of a sleek, modern Mainstream style. Since this was the height of the Trad boom there was uproar. His fans divided between modernists and traditionalists and the music press grappled with the implications for British jazz. To make this transition he brought in alto saxophonist Bruce Turner, and on the track ‘Red For Piccadilly’ a new chapter in Lyttelton’s career opened.

“One of the greatest musicians in my band over the years was Bruce Turner, who was also a complete eccentric”, he recalls. “He would do the most extraordinary things. When he did the first concert with my band, a big concert at the Empire in Liverpool, the front line of the band then was Wally Fawkes [on clarinet], myself and Bruce. We started to play and we heard this squeaking noise, and we couldn’t identify it. In the interval we said, “There’s this awful squeaking noise going on,” and George Hopkinson went out and he checked his drum kit. No, it’s not that. Johnny Parker went out and tested the piano. No. So we couldn’t make it out. In the second half I happened to turn around and Bruce was standing there like a bird – because he was a very tall, bird-like person -- and he had his mouth open and was quite obviously making this noise himself, purely for his own edification and so he’d be standing there and somebody would be playing a solo and he go “squeak,” like that! Once, I went up to him, smiling, after he had done a good solo, said “Great Bruce,” and he said, “Nimrod!”’

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The addition of Turner within the band was an important turning point, moving towards a relaxed, swing style that Lyttelton has been associated with ever since. Numbers with Turner such as ‘Christopher Columbus’ or ‘Swing Out’ exemplify the change from traditional New Orleans jazz to the more forthright swing inspired by such distinguished musicians as Buck Clayton, who would tour with the band 1963-6. By the mid-1950s, if he was not already, Lyttelton became a household name when the single ‘Bad Penny Blues’ reached 19 in the Top Twenty.

“It’s a bit of a corny story because with 78s and 45 rpm records you had to have a ‘B’ side and we went into a smaller studio and did this version of ‘Bad Penny Blues’, recalls Lyttelton. “I then went on a three-week holiday and Jack Jackson, who was a former bandleader and trumpeter and had a big radio show, plugged it and lo and behold, it was a hit! I didn’t like it when I heard it for the first time, I thought it was awful because Joe Meek, who is a legendary sound mixer, had messed about with the controls, distorted the bottom end of the piano and over recorded the drums with a heavy offbeat. But it was a success, I’m not complaining - a recording that had been in some ways tarted up by Joe Meek!”


Lyttelton’s music continued to change and evolve. By June 1957 Tony Coe on alto had replaced Turner, and Jimmy Skidmore on tenor was introduced. As 'Jersey Lightening’ and ‘Rocking Chair’ demonstrate, a new phase in Lyttelton’s bandleading career reached yet another peak. As he does throughout this collection, Lyttelton’s playing is the focal point of his ensembles. Consistently inventive, the swing and sparkle of his trumpet inspire those around him, who respond with audible glee.

Represented here are three key periods of Lyttelton’s distinguished career. From early New Orleans revivalist jazz, with tunes like ‘Panama Rag’ and ‘Gatemouth Blues’ to the Johnny Hodges jump style featuring Bruce Turner’s alto on numbers like ‘Just One of Those Blues,’ to the smoothly interlocking mainstream of the Skidmore and Coe era on ‘Just Squeeze Me’ and ‘Ole Miss Rag,’ this is British jazz at its vintage best, capturing Humphrey Lyttelton at the peak of his profession. It’s a collection that’s long, long overdue. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for the next instalment!

Stuart Nicholson


The Best Of Humphrey Lyttelton

Best of Humph

CD 1

  1. Bad Penny Blues
  2. March Hare
  3. The Onions
  4. One Man Went To Blow
  5. PTQ Rag
  6. Buona Sera
  7. Glad Rag Doll
  8. Ace In The Hole
  9. Just One Of Those Blues
  10. Out Of The Galleon
  11. The Glory Of Love
  12. Why Was I Born
  13. That’s My Home
  14. Christopher Columbus
  15. Swing Out
  16. Coffee Grinder
  17. You Brought A New Kind Of Love
  18. Hoppin’ Mad
  19. Early Call
  20. Looking For Turner

CD 2


  1. Apex Blues
  2. I Want A Little Girl
  3. Jersey Lightning
  4. Waiting For Pickard
  5. Rockin’ Chair
  6. Someone Stole Gabriel’s Horn
  7. Just Squeeze Me
  8. Ole Miss Rag
  9. Wolverine Blues
  10. Down Home Rag
  11. The Lady In Red
  12. Get Out Of Here And Go Home
  13. She’s Crying For Me
  14. Panama Rag
  15. Pagin’ Mr.Fagin
  16. Trouble In Mind
  17. Skeleton In The Cupboard
  18. Tom Cat Blues
  19. Maple Leaf Rag
  20. Doin’ The Rounds

CD 3

  1. On Treasure Island
  2. Travellin’ Blues
  3. Chattanooga Stomp
  4. 1919 March
  5. Trogs Blues
  6. Creole Serenade
  7. Fish Seller
  8. Dallas Blues
  9. Red Beans And Rice
  10. Low Down Dirty Shame Blues
  11. Red For Piccadilly
  12. Irish Black Bottom
  13. It’s Mardi Gras
  14. D,J,C Blues
  15. The Old Grey Mare
  16. Martiniquien Song
  17. Suffolk Air 
  18. Gatemouth Blues
  19. It’s Over Now
  20. Closing Time



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