The Story and Music of Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen

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Introduction to Kenny Ball

Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen were most popular trad jazz band in the early 60s music scene.  Led by trumpet playing Kenny Ball (born Kenneth Daniel Ball on March 22, 1930) the band had several hits in the UK and one huge international hit “Midnight in Moscow” which peaked at #2 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart.  At its musical popularity peak the band consisted of Kenny (trumpet, vocals), John Bennett (trombone), Dave Jones (clarinet, vocals), Ron Weatherburn (piano), Paddy Lightfoot (banjo), Ron Bowden (drums) and Vic Pitt (bass, bass guitar).  There have been many changes in the Jazzmen lineup since then, but Kenny Ball still performs with and without his group of Jazzmen.  In 1966 Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen recorded a popular album with other Trad Jazz musicians Acker Bilk and Chris Barber titled “The Best of Ball, Acker and Bilk”.  In the seventies the band was featured on the BBC “Morecambe and Wise Show” which helped the groups continued popularity.  Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen had only two other minor Billboard Hot 100 hits “March of the Siamese Children” (#88) and “The Green Leaves of Summer” (#87), leaving them known in the U.S. as one hit wonders.  However in the UK the group had many hit singles including “Samantha” (#13), “I Still Love You All” (#24), “Someday” (#28), “So Do I” (#14), “The Pay Off” (#23), “Sukiyaki” (#10), “Casablanca” (21), “Rondo” (#24), “Acapulco 1922” (#27(, “Hello Dolly” (#30) and “When I’m Sixty Four” (#43).  They did not have a charting single after that time, but still remained a popular jazz band.  Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen will always be legends in the history of “Trad Jazz”.  Other Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen hit songs:  “Teddy Bear’s Picnic”, “Waltzing Matilda”, “(I’d Like to Be) A Friend to You”, “And Now You’re Gone”, “When I See an Elephant Fly”, “When You Wish Upon a Star”, “Nuages”, “Chimes Blues”, “Lumbered at the Lotus”, “The Night They Raided Minky’s”, “This Little Light Of Mine”, “1999”, “Ivy Osbourne”, “My Mother’s Eyes”, “If I Could Be With You”, “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby”, “Cornet Chop Suey”, “Wild Daffodil”, “Don’t Give Me Sympathy”, “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin'”, “I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)”, “High Hopes”, “55 Days at Peking”, “Swanee River”, “Goodnight Irene”, “Before I Was a Man”, “Brazil”, “Hazelmere”, “Hand Me Down My Walking Shoes”, “Red Square”, “Greenback”, “Washington Square”, “The Music Goes ‘Round and Around”, “Saturday Night”, “Seven Golden Daffodils”, “Hong Kong Blues”, “Fleet Street Lightening”, “Mame”, “Down by the Riverside”, “Morocco ’64”, “Hard Ain’t It Hard”, “Tryolean Stomp”, “I Shall Not Be Moved”, “Latin Quarter”, “(I Wonder) What Became of Life”, “900 Miles”, “Four or Five Times”, “On a Slow Boat to China”, “Poor People of Paris”, “The Entainer”, “Margie”, “Baby Doll”, “Hawaiian War Chant”, Bare Necessities”, Riverboat Shuffle”, “Lady of Spain”, “Sailing”, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, “Caterina” “Heartaches”, “Let Me Sing a Happy Song”, “Old Man Mose”, “The Big Noise From Winnetka”, “Them There Eyes” and “The Warmth That’s In Your Smile.”

The story of jazzman Kenny Ball

English jazz musician Kenny Ball was born Kenneth Daniel Ball on May 22, 1930 in Ilford, Essex, England. Kenny was the youngest of nine children and was born in Dagenham in the East End of London. His father, a decorated veteran of World War I, supported the family during the Great Depression with the money he earned working as a bookbinder. Ball remembers his mother as having a tough personality. The family enjoyed Sunday afternoon singsongs, with Larry Adler serving as an early hero as he contributed his own party piece on the harmonica. Ball became a bugler after joining the local sea cadets with enthusiasm, which paved the way for his future romance with the trumpet. At the age of 13, he paid £10 for his first real instrument after seeing an advertisement in the Melody Maker. During his teens, Ball first worked as a clerk in an advertising agency to make ends meet. At the same time, he also took trumpet lessons. When Ball was promoted as a salesman, he started performing in some bands as his sideline. In 1953, he became a professional trumpeter, performing with the bands of Sid Phillips, Terry Lighftoot, Charlie Galbraith and Eric Delaney. 

Ball spent his national service as a craftsman in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He was engaged to Betty at the age of 17; they were married six years later. After leaving the service, he alternated between a number of day jobs and concerts in Soho, frequently collaborating with trombonist Charlie Galbraith.

Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen

After Ball formed his first band in 1954, he was approached by the clarinettist Sid Phillips, whose cleancut Dixieland jazz was popular, to join his band at the “handsome salary” of £30 a week. Phillips kept his trumpeter busy, with radio broadcasts and road tours, plus one-off occasions such as the Christmas staff party at Windsor Castle. Ball also had short stints with the drummer Eric Delaney’s big band and Terry Lightfoot’s trad group. By 1958, he was ready to form Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen; one of the original members, the trombonist John Bennett, stayed with Ball for the rest of his career.

After playing for several bands, Ball eventually formed his own band in 1958 called Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen. In 1961, the band recorded Cole Porter’s original “Samantha.” The song became a hit in the U.K. which peaked at #13. Later, a bigger success came with the release of “Midnight in Moscow.” It went to #2 on both US Billboard Hot 100 and the U.K. charts. It sold over a million copies and earned a gold disc. In 1962, it was followed by “March of the Siamese Children” which was included in The King and I soundtrack. It peaked at #4 on the U.K. charts.

One of Ball’s notable releases was The Best of Ball, Barber and Bilk, which he recorded with rival contemporaries Acker Bilk and Chris Barber. It soared to the top of the UK albums chart in 1966.

While Ball was being noted as a one-hit wonder in the U.S., he was hugely popular in the U.K. He had been on the cover of July 1962 issue of New Musical Express along with Cliff Richard, Craig Douglas, Brenda Lee, Joe Brown and Frank Ifield. In the winter of 1963, Ball performed in the biggest trad jazz event held in Alexandra Palace. Later that year, he appeared in Gene Vincent’s movie, Live It Up! and became the first English jazzman who was granted an honorary citizen of New Orleans. In 1968, he and his band toured with Louis Armstrong for his last European shows. During the 1970’s, he became a part of the first six series of BBC’s Morecambe and Wise Show. In 1981, he performed at the wedding reception of Prince Charles and Lady Diana which he considered the peak of his career.

Ball’s enthusiastic playing and strong, big-toned trumpet technique contributed to the band’s rapid popularity. One aspect was their regular appearance on the BBC radio program Easy Beat; another was their participation in television programs like New Faces and Top of the Pops. Following the release of the successful singles Samantha and Midnight in Moscow in 1961, which spent 21 weeks in the top 10, album deals with Pye Records also came about.

Millions of copies of Midnight in Moscow were sold, making it to No. 1 in Australia, Canada, Sweden, and Japan. A number of US jazz bands, including those led by Eddie Condon and trumpeter Teddy Buckner, covered the song. Additionally, it contributed to the continuation of the so-called “trad boom,” which primarily benefited Ball and the other Bs. Another hit came with When I’m Sixty-Four (1967).

On the strength of Midnight’s popularity, The Jazzmen entered the competitive US market by performing in New Orleans as part of a British Week. They accompanied Louis Armstrong on his final European tour in 1968. They were also successful in Australia, where the nonstop tours, recordings, Royal Command Variety performances, and film roles continued long after the traditional boom had faded and disappeared. Ball developed a comfortable lifestyle along the way, with “an Essex home and a Rolls-Royce on the drive.”

They also had stints at the London Palladium as well as tours to places like Japan and the Soviet Union. TV engagements included a residency on Saturday Night at the Mill (1975-81). and five seasons of Morecambe and Wise (1968–1972). 

Later life and death

In 2001, Ball contributed for the compilation album British Jazz Legends. Released by Decca imprint, it featured Don Lusher, John Chilton and the Feetwarmers, Acker Bilk, Humphrey Lyttelton, George Melly and John Dankworth.
Ball continued to perform and tour before his death from pneumonia in February 2013, aged 82. His musician son Keith continues his father legacy by taking the helm of his father’s band, who now performs under the new name Kenny Ball Junior and His Jazzmen.

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