“I was pleased to learn that you have professional background in music, both as a performer and in the business side of things. In my mind this is surely a key reason that your writing about the music is so insightful — you know what you’re talking about!” Dr. Lewis Porter, jazz pianist, composer, author, Professor of Music at Rutgers University and founder and director of the Master’s Program in Jazz History and Research.
It was three syllables in competition with five, so Nick Stewart won out against Stuart Nicholson. Thus the Nick Stewart Band began life in Cardiff in 1974, initially working the South Wales area but after a couple of good reviews in the trade press in 1976 work started picking up further afield.
It coincided with a period when my brother Malcolm — our highly rated lead trumpet player — took time out from his BSc degree in psychology at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (as it was called then), for work experience. He arranged with the college to work for the Nick Stewart Band as a PR consultant.
Armed with an pile of press kits and demo tapes of the band on C45 cassettes, he did the round of agents and venues and the result was bigger and better bookings and an opportunity to expand the band, hire roadies and a sound mixer. And things started happening.
We began playing regularly for national and international corporations such as the various Ford Motor Company factories, British Leyland, Dow Chemicals, Vauxhall, Hoover, British Steel and so on, who, in the pre-Thatcher days when the Unions were king, had impressive staff recreation facilities where playing for audiences of up to 10,000 was not uncommon.
A television spot on HTV’s weekly Pollination show that was subsequently broadcast nationally on ITV, plus an arrangement of a Welsh folk tune that was adopted as signature tune for BBC Radio Wales’ popular Sportstime programme (check out Example 4 on the Playlist) all helped our profile, leading to a record contract with Logo Records in 1978 (whose big hit of the moment was Terry Wogan’s “Floral Dance”).
Logo wanted us to do a version of “Sha-Na-Na-Na” coupled with “Spanish Eyes.” They booked us into the Rockfield Recording Studios in Monmouth for three days and despite a certain amount of “creative tension,” we felt our versions of these songs captured something of the energy the band generated in live performance.
Sadly, my tape copy — Example 1 — has corrupted at the beginning of “Sha-Na-Na-Na” (has any one out there got a complete copy??) so we come in midway through Cathy Boland’s fine vocal making Northern Soul fashionable thirty years ahead of its time (and yes, before you ask, she was a Northern lass). It’s followed by what was to be the “B” side of the single, “Spanish Eyes,” where we took subversive delight in working some Hendrix power chords into this hoary old chestnut. Much to Logo’s dismay, another record company put out a version of “Sha-Na-Na-Na” just weeks before our scheduled release date, so to the disappointment of all, our recording was shelved.
Example 2 in the Music Player comprises a couple of originals: “B. S. Walks” and what we could save from tape deterioration of “Extra, Extra” — bear in mind all these examples were recorded some forty years ago (between 1976-9) and stored on C45 tapes in less than ideal conditions in my loft space! For the same reason, on Example 3 we’ve only got the last bit of “Soul Sounds” and the coda of Fran Smith’s feature (sadly deterioration is in evidence in this extract, but is included because Fran was such a key member of the band).
Finally, on Example 4 there’s two brief examples of our adaptation of a Welsh folk tune used as the signature tune for the popular BBC Radio Wales Saturday afternoon programme Sportstime (it was used for over 10 years by the Beeb, outlasting the band’s lifetime) plus our arrangement of the complete “Welsh Medley” from which it was taken.
The band’s personality was defined in the first few years by my brother’s powerful lead trumpet plus trumpeters Derek Lewis and Wynne Jones, the ever cheerful trombone master John Leach, talented drummer and vocalist Frank Hillier, a succession of gifted keyboard players in Mike Walker, Pete Kelly, Dicky Dunn and Dick Roberts, top notch bassists Roger Morris, Mike Joseph, Julian Powell and Pino Palladino, excellent tenor saxists Robert Marks and Eric Clarke and two really great vocalists in Fran Smith and Cathy Boland. Stuart Nicholson (Nick Stewart) added his two penny-worth on alto sax and led the band with all that implies – picking the right players, rehearsing them, commissioning arrangements and adding some of his own, doing the admin and much, much more. Inevitably there were changes of personnel during the band’s lifetime as musicians came and went, but all left indelible memories of some great moments on the bandstand.
Following the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9, bookings began to slow during 1979-80 as the recession took hold, so the Nick Stewart Band did their final performance on New Years Eve, 31 December 1980. It had been an exciting musical roller-coaster ride while it lasted. In recent times its been great to catch up with Frank Hillier and Robert Marks, two long serving band members, and discover they still look back on our times together with great affection (check out Frank’s Facebook page), sharing with me their memories of some really happy times.
“Nick Stewart has gathered together a bunch of musicians each with a professional pedigree as long as your arm (so booking agents tell me)…and has built an enthusiastic following for their style of music,” Cabaret and Variety Revue, May 1976.
“With the recent rapid acceptance of this band it cannot be long before the name Nick Stewart is synonymous with the higher echelons of the band business.” Cabaret and Variety Revue, August 1976.
“Currently bringing back live music in a big way is the Cardiff-based Nick Stewart Band, these excellent musicians and 18 year-old girl singer Fran Smith have gained particular acclaim among young audiences,” The Stage and Television Today, 26 August 1976
“Reaction to Nick Stewart’s Band was instant and impressive — it takes but a few minutes to assess the professionalism and skill of these experts…During the past year I have listened to most of the ‘name’ bands in this country and I doubt if many could match the approach and professionalism of this band” Cabaret and Variety Review, September–October 1976
“As We Were Saying…There is no doubt the Nick Stewart Band is fulfilling the promise of our 1975/6 reviews” Cabaret and Variety Review, November–December 1977