One evening 25 years ago or so my old man mentioned he was going off for a light ale ‘over the water.’ In all the years I drank with him, this was a very rare occurrence. Him and his pals were South East London boys, and very rarely ventured to the ‘dark side’ for anything, let alone a drink. But on this particular occasion, off they went and of course, I had to go with them.
The name of the pub and its exact location escapes me now (I’ve never really got my bearings over there) but upon arrival I discovered it was a ‘singers night’ at the boozer of choice and my old man had been put up to give over a tune or three by a mate.
As was the routine when out with the senior squad, I was first up the jump to get a round in and it was there that I noticed the photo of Queenie Watts proudly displayed by the peanuts and the crisps.
I knew then we were in for a great night. Any pub that worshipped Queenie was spot on for me. As promised, after the first couple of bottles of light ale to warm up his tonsils, my old man was up and winning over even the most avid anti South London biased ones watching him.
So, ‘Queen High’ from 1966 by the aforementioned Queenie Watts is my album of this month. As a first for this blog however, I have to confess I’m about to write about an album that I don’t actually possess. Copies of it are like ‘Hens Teeth’ as Rays Jazz Shop used to say. Actually in all my years of vinyl buying I have never seen a copy and when they do surface online, they are usually a few hundred quid. So, if you see one for a tenner somewhere, get it for me.
Thankfully for me, you can find most of the tracks on YouTube or as clips from a BFI documentary about Queenie, so that’ll do for now.
To me, Queenie was simply the ‘East End Ella.’ She had a voice that is full of the blues, with a jazz inflection thrown in, and she was way above the ‘pub singer’ that some have labelled her.
She was born Mary Spenton on the Isle of Dogs in July 1923. The name ‘Queenie’ picked up it is said, as a play on words around the old ‘Queen Mary.’
She sang in pubs from her early days, with mum on the piano and her sisters accompanying them on a regular basis.
During the early 1960s she became a familiar face in British films and I guess I first became aware of her fine singing voice in the Joan Littlewood directed film ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’ starring Barbara Windsor and James Booth from 1963. She also memorably popped up in the 1966 film ‘Alfie’ signing ‘Goodbye Dolly Gray’ during the bar room punch up scene.
And she memorably appeared as ‘Auntie Emm’ in one of my favourite ever films ‘Poor Cow’ from 1967.
Perhaps she is best remembered by most now though as the wife of Arthur Mullard in the TV show ‘Romany Jones.‘ They then morphed into the couple ‘Wally and Lil Briggs in the TV show ‘Yus My Dear’ before going on to make a guest appearance in the film ‘Holiday on the Buses’ and releasing a couple of novelty singles, cashing in on all that before Queenie died aged just 56 in 1980, after a battle with cancer.
Before all that and if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a great film on her called ‘Portrait of Queenie’ from 1964, which looks at her life as the real life pub landlady she was, serving up songs and a few pints at The Ironbridge Tavern on the East India Dock Road, which she ran with her husband Slim. If you haven’t got it, you’ll find it as part of the ‘Shadows of Progress’ DVD box set from the BFI.
Ok onto ‘Queen High’ or at least the tracks that you can hear on YouTube and on the ‘Portrait of’ DVD. On the album she is backed by both The Mike McKenzie Group and the Stan Tracey Quintet (yes that Stan Tracey) with Jimmy Deuchar on trumpet, Ken Wray on trombone, Malcolm Cecil, on double bass, and Jackie Dougan on drums.
The tracks selected show a fine selection policy, coming as they do from the songbooks of Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles and Bessie Smith.
Side one, track 1, serves up ‘The Best is Yet To Come.’
I have heard this song and its first line of ‘out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum’ sung by countless Tony Bennett wannabe’s over the years, but I’m going out on a limb here to say I actually prefer Queenie’s version above all others. It is simply charming. Sounding relaxed, she puts it across expertly amid a nicely tinkling piano and some shuffling snare drum brushwork. A cracking start.
Two standards are next up. ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ written by Arlen and Mercer is track two. Track three is ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ by Bernie, Pinkard and Casey. Sadly, I haven’t found Queenie’s renditions of either so far, but I know track four ‘The Isle of Dogs’ and it’s a belter. Very much Queenie’s love letter to the place of her birth, she sings of the sights and smells of the manor, placed in between a plaintive trumpet and discordant trombone.
Its like hearing Avant Garde jazz played in ‘Arments’ pie and mash shop.
‘Hey Man’ is next and the writing credits are the combined efforts of McKenzie, Mills, Paterson and Queenie herself. The song itself is a lively old number with the trumpets to the fore and it rattles along very nicely. You can hear the beginnings of Modern Jazz creeping nicely into her work from what would have been a more Trad sound just a few months or so earlier.
Track six is ‘(Up A) Lazy River’ by Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin, which is still on the missing list at present.
Side two opens with ‘Gloomy Sunday’ written by Rezso Seress and Laszlo Javor. I know and love this track because of a rendition by Billie Holiday and then later by the remarkable vocalist, Billy McKenzie of the fondly remembered ‘Associates.’ I can’t wait to hear Queenie sing the line ‘My heart and I, have decided to end it all.’ Alas, I’ll have to wait for now.
‘I’ll Remember April’ is next up and this finds Queenie in full control of the song. It chugs along nicely on a bed of easy going piano. Smooth quality from start to finish. ‘Oooh yeah’ as the lady herself says at the end.
Track three of side two is ‘Never is Too Late’, which is a total mystery so far… but after that we have ‘Didn’t Want The Kissing To Stop’ which slows the pace down and immediately puts me in mind of a relaxed Julie London vibe.
The double bass vibrates powerfully and those distinctive Stan Tracey, Thelonius Monk inflected piano stabs support the whole song nicely. Deuchar’s lip is obviously ‘in’ as he nails the line that brings things to a nice relaxed finishing line.
The album ends with ‘Baby Won’t You Please Come Home’, which is a plaintive old blues tune by Charles Warfield and Clarence Williams. Once again the pace has dropped as Queenie gives us ‘a nice slow dreamy one’ and reveals her inner Bessie Smith. The backing rolls along nicely on this lovely old refrain.
In the ‘Portraits’ film, this is the song that ‘last orders’ are called to and it is the perfect song for that particular job. Queenie is in fine voice as the song climbs to its climax even throwing in a bit of East End scatting to great effect.
So there you have it. A record I only have a few details of, but know enough of, to recommend it you, my devoted followers. I hope you check out what you can find on YouTube. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
All I’ve got to do now is get Columbia to re release the original album…Anyone got their email?
The Mumper of SE5