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Peter Appleyard: 50 years of good vibrations

Piano man, too - Peter Appleyard started his musical career on the piano at age 14 but always loved the sound of the drums.  photo by David Meyer

Peter Appleyard: 50 years of good vibrations

by David Meyer


As a boy, Peter Appleyard used to sit and watch ships like the RMS Mauritania, the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary sail away to parts unknown.

“I’d watch them and think ‘I’d love to be on one of those boats - never dreaming’ ...”

Even with ambition, he had little idea musical talent would not only take him to top venues all over the world, but also let him play with giants of the music industry - and then join them.

Appleyard was born Aug. 28, 1928 in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, England with only a few prospects and the Second World War coming. At 14, he began playing piano, possibly an influence of his dad.

“My father used to tinkle on the piano in a primitive way,” he said, sitting in his comfortable living room cluttered with a lifetime of mementoes, sheet music and instruments.

Appleyard can make a reporter forget the rules. Instead of terse answers to questions, he paints pictures of his long and fascinating life, turning an interview into a conversation. His anecdotes include names anyone who ever listened to music will recognize, and others who are now forgotten - but not by him.

While he tinkled the ivories (he still plays and has a huge, photograph-covered piano in his home), “I was always fascinated by the sound of the drum.”

He joined the Boys Brigade, and was given a bugle. “Every time I played it my hat fell off,” he chuckled. He switched to a snare drum and a career was born. He was asked to substitute in a band, for the princely sum of 35 cents a night, and forced to wear a stiff collar and tie.

When he graduated local school there was no money for high school, so he apprenticed in nautical instrument making - a good profession, he said. But, he was getting calls to play drums; “semi-pro,” as he calls it. His dad made a trailer for his bicycle and he hauled his drums up to ten miles to play. During the war he was part of the Royal Air Force and performed on the base. One of his jobs was to get naval charts to help ships circumvent mine fields, and that meant passing a music shop.

A half hour trip often turned into an hour, with a pause to listen to Glen Miller and Benny Goodman in the shop’s booth. One day a band leader saw him drumming there, and hired him. Felix Mendlessohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders was the most popular dance band in England and the first to appear on British television.

It was a bit of a fluke that saw that job possibility open up for Appleyard. He chuckled and remembered asking the band leader why he wanted a drummer when he already had one. The response was a bit  risqué. It seems the drummer’s wife had caught him with another woman. Instead of taking an axe to an errant husband, she used it on his drum kit. Since musical instruments were impossible to replace during war years, the drummer had to be replaced, too.

Appleyard’s career soared. He took a gig for 18 months in Bermuda, visited New York, where he saw plenty of musicians, but decided the Big Apple could wait for Peter Appleyard.

He came to Toronto to visit a girl, had to wait a year for a work permit to play in clubs, and launched a career that is still going strong to this day. But prior to that, Appleyard survived by operating an elevator at the Royal York Hotel, and sold sporting goods at Simpson’s and Eaton’s.

He had bought his first vibraphone by then, although his dad scolded him for spending ?1 (20 years ago he returned to England to meet the seller, who admitted to being a British spy, haunting airfields looking for Nazi sympathizers, using the vibraphone as a cover for nosing around bases).

He began playing places like the legendary Colonial Tavern in Toronto, meeting musicians along the way, including Red Norvo, who convinced him to buy a bigger vibrophone.

Appleyard said the difference between the xylophone and vibraphone is the material. A xylophone is made of wood, and his vibraphones are made of aluminum alloy.

“It’s a wonderful instrument,” he said, striking keys so quickly the eye can barely follow the mallets. He can use two or four at a time, and said he never throws any mallets out. He has several vibraphones at his Rockwood home. “I’m a bit of a collector,” he said.

He laments that vibraphones are seldom used in today’s popular music, but he understands the cost (up to $10,000) and the weight (running to 200 pounds) make them difficult to transport.

They are not the only instruments he plays. He can use every percussion instrument from drums, tympany and marimba. He plays chimes and bongos (and cited the triangle, his first instrument ever, from time in a church choir).

Toronto was attracting composers from all over in the early 1950s when he arrived because of the calibre of the musicians - composers like Maurice Jarre, who wrote the theme from Doctor Zhivago and Deodato.

Appleyard took Toronto by storm, moving finally into jazz, getting television and club dates galore, including his own TV show. He returned to New York, now not so overwhelmed.

His reputation was growing. He also began touring all over the world. The list of musicians he worked with over the years includes Tony Bennett, Dick Hyman, Rob McConnell, Hagood Hardy, Guido Basso, Diana Krall, Anne Murray and Oscar Peterson. He played with Benny Goodman’s band for six years and said Goodman did not want a permanent band, preferring freelance musicians. That suited Appleyard; he operates the same way and notes sometimes professional jealousy from a star could bury a good performer.

But, “I always surrounded myself with great musicians,” he said, explaining such players make the show better for everyone.

It was in New York that Peter Appleyard and the Giants of Jazz recorded The Lost Sessions 1974 one night, or rather, early one morning. The members included Appleyard on vibes, Hank Jones on piano, Zoot Sims on sax, Slam Stewart on bass, Bobby Hackett on cornet, Mel Lewis on drums and Urbie Green on trombone.

That newly released CD got its name because Appleyard  tried several times to find someone to turn the session into a recording, but something always got in the way. He arranged for one producer in Britain to hear it, but got held up at the border when some of Goodman’s band members had passport difficulties.

Finally, Geoff Kalawick and True North Linus in Toronto released it. It is currently getting heavy play on 91.1 JAZZ FM in Toronto and Appleyard noted, “It’s doing well in the States.”

Prized performance

After 50 years with the best musicians in the world and backing some of the best singers, including Bennett and Mel Torme, Appleyard smiled when asked if there was one gig over his career he is glad he did not miss. There was one.

He was in New York and trying to get tickets to a show at the Uris Theatre but its three week run was sold out. He was in a music shop, having given up, when he met the drummer of the band playing that show, who told him the boss was looking for a vibraphonist.

“He [the drummer] said ‘We were talking about you, and the boss said, If he’s good enough to play with Benny [Goodman], we’d better get him’,” Appleyard recalled.

So he ended up in the show; hired without a rehearsal. The opening act was Count Basie and one of the singers was Ella Fitzgerald. Basie performed for the entire show, set up just a few steps closer to the edge of the stage than Appleyard.

At the end of the gig, the boss shocked Appleyard by calling him over to apologize (“He never apologized to anybody,” Appleyard remembers).

The boss was sorry he had been unable to work in more Appleyard solos, and said so, handing Appleyard a silver jewelry box with the inscription, “Peter Thanks. FS.”

FS, of course, is Frank Sinatra.

Appleyard remembers “The Chairman of the Board” had just come out of retirement, and royal family members and the rich and famous came from all over the world. He said Sinatra was in great voice, too.

That was 1976. He and Sinatra teamed up again in the 1980s for a benefit show organized by Canadian comic Rich Little, which raised over $500,000 for the Ottawa Civic Hospital.

Appleyard remembers a lot of other things about those shows. He said after each one, when the curtain went down, he would just sit there on the stage and ponder the entire show. “I just couldn’t get away,” he said.

Unlike a lot of highly strung musicians today, and even belying his own reputation from time to time, Appleyard said Sinatra could not have been more gracious during those shows, even to having hundreds of flashes hitting him.

“He didn’t mind cameras going off,” Appleyard said.

There was also the personal side of Sinatra.

“His presense was so overwhelming,” he remembers. “He was the most thrilling person. He had to bluest eyes you’ve ever seen.”

But it was Sinatra’s voice that impressed Appleyard the most.

“His speaking voice - it was like he was singing to you. He loved music. He mentioned every composer an every lyricist. He saw that everyone had solos. He was must generous. Everyone came to see him, from Jackie O (Onassis) to the executives from CBS. People were coming from all over the world.”

The darker side of music

Nearly everyone knows that music and drugs were nearly synonymous in the 1960s, but booze and drugs have been a part of the musical culture for much longer than that, and Appleyard ran across his share of problems created by legal and illicit substances.

He remembers Charlie Parker’s addiction to heroin and the effecte it had on perhaps the greats saxophone player ever. He noted, sadly, that a number of players got the idea that it was the drugs that made Parker great, when it was Parker and his music that did that.

He remembers the publicity around Moe Kaufman when he was charged with possession of cocaine.

He also knew and played with Zoot Sims, who had a fondness for the bottle. Appleyard said Sims would drink a bottle of scotch a day. Finally, one musician castigated him and wondered how he could play so note perfect when he seemed to always be drunk.

Sims’ reply was: “I practise drunk.”

Appleyard remembers a drummer during a break offering him marijuana outside the stage door. He passed. “I always wanted to be in complete control,” he said of staying away from drugs.

He also noted that a lot of the musicians who fell into the traps of booze and drugs “died too young.”

Playing all over

 Appleyard’s mastery of his instrument has led to him to play with the elite. He has performed all over North America and Europe for decades. Playing with Goodman gave him access to the best halls in the world. He played Royal Albert Hall several times and the Queen Mother once recognized him in a reception line three years after meeting once briefly. He played Carnegie Hall in New York several times.

His favourite musicians list is a long one, including pianist Dick Hymen, who does the music for Woody Allen films, Hamilton born arranger and tenor saxophone player Rick Wilkins, pianist Jones, who is on the new CD, and, “Oscar Peterson, of course.” Lewis “is one of my favourite drummers of all time.” Appleyard also performed with Andre Previn and calls him “a complete musician.”

Appleyard was awarded the Order of Canada in 1992, and was honoured with a Doctor of Letters by the University of Guelph, and is a Fellow at York University.

Another prize is The Satchmo, named for the late, great Louis Armstrong. Only ten have been awarded; he is the only Canadian to win one.

He has made many recordings over the years, and the musicians include such people as guitarist John Pizzarelli, who recently recorded an album of jazz standards with Paul McCartney.

Even with dozens of records to his name, a disc jockey the other day on Canada’s premier jazz station, CJRT Jazz-FM at 91.1 stated in admiration after playing a song from the new album that Appleyard is “underrecorded.”

Now over 80, Peter Appleyard is not slowing down. From Rockwood, he has played Florida this year, and has work lined up at the Montreal, Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Toronto Jazz Festivals this summer. He recorded with a dozen women jazz vocalists called Sophisticated Ladies, and performs with them in Toronto this month.

When asked how he does a gruelling schedule at his age, he said he practices an hour a day to keep limber.

“The only time it’s work is driving or flying - and waiting in lines at airports. If you’re lucky, you get dinner,” he said with a grimace.

“It’s still fun. As long as what I’m doing is in a musical environment, I’m happy. When I went into music, I didn’t think of monetary gain. It’s pure satisfaction.”

Vol 45 Issue 11

March 16, 2012


Wellington North Guide 2018-2019

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