Jazz Professional               

The Magnificent Delaney
Eric Delaney - click to enlarge and hit F11 for Full Screen view

At first you don’t see him. All is dark. Even though the room is full, packed with people, absolute silence reigns. You’ve waited several hours for this. Now you wait some more. He’s coming. You can feel it.

There is a throbbing low note coming from somewhere. The suspense is almost unbearable. Suddenly…

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!  Brilliant light springs up from inside the five burnished copper timpani—dense smoke billows—it clears slightly—and there he is—dramatically lit from below—The Magnificent Delaney! And he is splendid, oh so splendid! Deeply tanned by the Benidorm sun, resplendent in a beautifully cut tuxedo, elegant and imposing, this is the man we have all been waiting for.

‘Oh, isn’t he handsome,’ breathes my wife.

‘Just you watch it,’ I say.

As he caresses the timps, darting nimbly between them, he smiles. The diamond in his back tooth gleams suddenly in a spotlight, sending out a brief cruciform flash, the superman sign of the superhero. The synthesizer swells to a famous tune and suddenly Delaney goes berserk. His smile tightens and he explodes into action. It is the barrage of El Alamein all over again. Giant sound waves hit you in the chest. In the excitement you forget to breathe. Then he turns and runs.

With a quick dash and a leap he is up on to the rostrum at the back, behind his kit. At once he is away into a rapid break, the twin bass drums of his trademark beating out their frantic tattoo. The rostrum revolves slowly, flashing coloured lights and showing him working away from all perspectives. When he has his back to you his feet are visible. The bass drum pedals are moving so fast as to be a blur.

In this first flurry of movement he is already doing impossible things on the drums. Were the room filled at this moment with hundreds of other drummers his first five minutes alone would be enough for an entire drum clinic.

He is back on the timps again for a moment. Then he rushes over to a military side drum, slips into the harness and marches out with a whistle between his teeth, marking time at the microphone. After a moment he changes to another, deeper side drum, parading before us with a rat-a-tat-a-tat-brrrr-rat-a-tat-a-tat and a blast of the whistle. With a quick movement he releases the drum from the strap and hurls it at the audience. We duck, but a man has magically appeared to catch it. He is over at the gongs now, hitting the huge tam–tams for all he is worth. One of them falls completely to pieces when he strikes it and he tosses the wreckage to the floor. Another has been hung too high to reach so he hurls a huge beater at it.

Now he’s at the tubular bells, giving us the carillon at Notre Dame. We look around instinctively for the hunchback. But this short, wiry man doesn’t fit the role. He is all over the stage in a blast of action that leaves us breathless. But he is not short of breath and he shows us no mercy.

This is the man whom we have loved and respected right from the start, when we first saw and heard him with the great Geraldo orchestra in the 1940s. Eric recently celebrated his 77th birthday. He is built like a rock and appears to be a well preserved 40. Even after three or four blistering numbers he is still elegant and composed: we are the ones who are exhausted.

He comes to the microphone and speaks.

‘Remember the big bands?’ he says in the familiar growl. ‘When we played at dances the people used to gather around the stage and sit on the floor to listen.’

I'm sitting with my wife at a table nearby. He introduces me to the crowd, and there is a roar of appreciation. These people know all the names, remember the good times we all used to have with the great big bands.

Those were the days, yes sir!

The large orchestral background he is using was created for him by his friend Robert Farnon. The music whispers and thunders all around us, big bands playing beloved Glenn Miller, Ron Goodwin and Gene Krupa scores, while Eric darts around in front hitting everything in sight. How does he do that? My Goodness, I can hardly raise myself gracefully out of a deep armchair these days and he’s cavorting all over the stage like a ten year old.

Eric is up at the mike again, hitting two sticks together. ‘Look, no drums,’ he mutters. Then it’s ding–ding–a–ding with tiny finger cymbals. By the time his show has finished we’ve seen and heard every item of a percussionist’s kit.

At last he stops and says, ‘I’ve had it,’ or words to that effect. I’m glad he has stopped. At times I have feared for him, so violent was his assault on everything. A lesser man would have collapsed long ago. But then, with another flash of the diamond, he does two encores, gets the people to come on the floor to jitterbug, and ends up with a dazzling exhibition of tuneable timpani control. He goes from triple piano to triple thunderbolt. There is an enormous explosion, another cloud of smoke and he disappears, like the Demon King in pantomime. What a showman! What a show! The Magnificent Delaney! The applause goes on and on, but he is nowhere to be seen.

When the place has cleared he reappears, dressed all in black. A huge, tough looking Swedish man has been in to see the show every night for a week. When Eric emerges from his dressing room the man falls to his knees, grabs Eric’s hand and kisses it. Rising, he embraces Eric in a bear hug. He is as drunk as a skunk, and he is weeping with emotion. Eric smiles and pats his back. He is well aware of the effect he can have on others.

I say to him, ‘Well, I knew you were good, but I didn’t know you were that good.’ I worked with him in his big band now and then in the old days. He had even played a concert with our band here a few weeks previously. When we started his part of the show he appeared on stage, resplendent in a bright yellow jump suit, as if he had just arrived by parachute. This came off later on, when it got too warm, but the effect on the audience was as startling as his astounding drum technique.

He was always a sensational drummer; the only jazz drummer in Britain that I know of using two bass drums; the only one capable of matching, and often out–performing, the classical percussionists. He was a good friend of the late Buddy Rich and played many times with both Buddy and Louie Bellson. He is unstinting in his praise of other drummers. If I mention the name of any another drummer he will look deep into my eyes and say, ‘Now he’s a very good drummer.’

He was a pal of Jock Cummings in the old days, so much so that he and Jock used to swap jobs from time to time, with Eric going over to the Squadronaires and Jock taking over the drum chair with Geraldo for a few months until they changed back again.

In 1995 Eric was invited to perform at the Royal College of Music, London with some of the finest drummers and percussionists from across Europe. They included Heinz von Moisy, Cad Palmer and Lloyd Ryan, timpanists David Searcey and Janos Keszei, the percussion section of the Philharmonia Orchestra, tuned percussion specialists Bill Molenhof and Jean Geofhoy, World Scots Pipe Band Drummer Jim Kilpatrick; Heather Corbett, Graham C. Johns, Nigel Shipway and Michael Skinner. He went over to the college and overwhelmed them all with his spellbinding technique.

Born in Acton on May 22nd 1924 into a musical family Eric soon began playing drums and at age 10 was in his first group, with his mother on piano and his father on banjo. From then on there was no holding him and at 16 he was named Britain’s Best Swing Drummer. Now known as the Drum Genius he took a tour with the Royal Kiltie Juniors, the band that also started off the late Bert Courtley on his career. Later on, Bert was to play in the trumpet section of Eric’s big band, together with Albert Hall and George Bradley.

Eric became, in turn, Drummer of the Year and Musician of the Year, later winning the Band of the Year award. He has played everywhere and with everyone. His hit record of Oranges and Lemons was chosen as the signature tune for a BBC show. His exploits and accomplishments would fill a book.

But hush…

…It’s another night, later in the year, same place and we’re waiting once more. The lights are dimming, that low bass note is pulsing, raising the tension.

There is a sudden explosion of timpani, a blaze of light, clouds of smoke. This time we are expecting it, but still rise from our seats in shock and anticipation.

And here he comes! Oh yes! Here he comes again, oh, my pounding heart! It’s The Magnificent Delaney!  Hold on to your seats!

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Copyright © 2000 Ron Simmonds