Steve Roxton – Story of an accordionist.
From a very early age, it was inevitable that Steve Roxton would make a career in music. Even during his first stage appearances in the local cubs and scouts “gang shows” hewas always the prominent singing voice in the chorus, and went on to become a member of the church choir of St. Mark’s,Preston. As a boy soprano he was able to study four part harmony and had the opportunity to use the church’s three manual organ on a regular basis. His parents never arranged for any formal music training, so to capitalize on his basic knowledge of music, he studied theory at the town’s reference library.
As a youth of 14, his life, other than that of a student at Preston Grammar School, centred around events run by the church, one of which was a Saturday night “social and dance”. There had been many such events with small bands providing the music, but one night a band was booked that changed his musical career for ever. The band providing the music was “Syd Lewis’s Broadcasting Accordion Band”. There were 21 accordions, and a concert drummer complete with timpani and tubular bells. The leader, Syd Lewis, was conductor and arranger and would highlight certain passages of the music with solos on the “clavioline” (an early unsophisticated forerunner of the synth). The band also featured four singers and the bands repertoire covered a wide variety of dance music, concert pieces, songs from the shows and accordion arrangements of brass band music.
From that very first encounter with accordions Steve knew it was the instrument for him, and in order to make sure he would have accordions around him, he pestered the band leader to take him on as an additional singer with the band. Although he ought to have been sixteen before joining he was so obviously keen that Syd agreed. Having soon learned songs from “Oklahoma” “Desert Song” and the “Student Prince” Steve toured with the band inLancashire,CheshireandCumbriadoing regular Sunday concerts. Once a year, however the band were booked to play at the open air theater in Princess St. Gardens, inEdinburgh. During travel on the coach to these concerts Steve was able to borrow an instrument and with some very rudimentary instruction from a band member on the musical layout of the “stradella” bass system he soon mastered enough of a technique, to be able to play a few tunes.
Fired by his initial success he purchased a tutor book and borrowed a spare accordion. He extended his repertoire in the direction of Irish music, and found a second hand accordion for sale. He was able to sit in with an established Irish dance band once a week, gaining playing experience. As a vocalist and player he became a key member of the group, providing music for both Irish dancing and English ballroom dancing. A little over a year later he was approached by an established club-land trio called the “Rondelees” who’s accordionist had died suddenly. With a full engagement book for the coming year they wanted a replacement, and fast. There were two forty minutes spots to learn to support a guitarist and singer’s established routine and the chosen keys to enable the singer to pitch numbers in his vocal range were not easy keys to play in.
The club-land scene inLancashirewas very much a weekend affair, with the bookings on Saturdays and Sunday’s. The trio continued to be a success and appeared in all the best clubs inLancashire,Yorkshire,CumbriaandCheshire. Just when things seemed to be running smoothly the singer was taken ill and the nature of his illness prevented him from continuing with the trio. In order not to loose bookings Steve and the guitarist Ron honoured the bookings as a duo, offering any possibly disgruntled concert chairman the option to reduce the fee if not satisfied. Having learned most of the former singers numbers, Steve was able to call on his singing experience to take over so that in essence there was little difference now that the trio had become a duo. The only differences were the new material which he introduced little by little to increase audience participation. The act, which had been dominated by big ballads and show songs was now livened up with rock n roll, sing along medleys and jigs and reels. The accordion was no longer just accompaniment, it was now a major contribution to the act.
Some two years later when Ron announced he was to be a father soon, he dropped the bombshell that he would not be continuing on the club scene after the child was born. Just like the time when the trio had been reduced to a duo, Steve opted to carry on with the existing advanced bookings and was delighted when he found he could go it alone. The choice of material, the presentation, the decisions and plans for the future were all his to decide. For some time he had been keen to become part of a summer show inBlackpool. However, the names appearing on the pier shows were the TV stars of the day and support acts were being arranged by London agents and big theatrical impresarios like Sir Bernard Delfont.
Just south of Blackpool, at Lytham St. Annes, Bunny & Anita May who worked for the Lawrence Wright Organization, were putting on two shows on St. Anne’s pier. The two summer shows were housed in separate purpose built theatres at the end of the pier. One was called “The Sultan’s Palace” and the other was the “Tyrolean”. The choice of show to be in, was a foregone conclusion, but it was necessary to audition along with other hopefuls, who also wanted to be a part of “The Tyrolean Summer Show” Working on the principal that a chosen audition piece ought to demonstrate ones ability in the genre of the work being offered, Steve spent a whole week concentrating on two suitable numbers, Old Comrades and the Beer Barrel Polka. His note perfect renditions ensured he beat all comers and was welcomed into the company, comprising a soubrette a tenor a baritone a soprano an organist and a siffleur and yodelling act. With only seven weeks to the start of the show, he was taken along with the rest of the cast to see a show being put on by a visiting Austrian group fromSalzburg. From this exposure the cast were to devise several production numbers to punctuate their own solo performances. With several Tyrolean records and some words and music of German drinking songs, each member had to be able to convince the holidaymaking public that the Tyroleans on stage were the genuine article.
To learn some German and Austrian songs Steve played the records at a slower speed, and patiently wrote down phonetically all the words and music. It was then a matter of pure hard work to deliver these songs in a language he could neither speak nor understand. With the help of someone who could speak German he noted the meaning of what he was singing and in the week prior to dress rehearsal he went for final coaching to get the accent perfected. The Tyrolean Show was a resounding success and played to full houses throughout the summer months, and the show was booked to run for a further two years with the same basic format but with new music. Not only did Steve provide music for his own spot, he was, along with the organist, to provide backing for the other entertainers on several numbers. In addition to doing the show, he and the organist also played music for dancing in the same theatre. The show and the afternoon tea dances were held in the Tyrolean which was a spacious glass roofed building, with long bier-keller tables and seating decorated with hanging baskets of geraniums in abundance all around the auditorium.
One of the people who came to the show was particularly impressed with Steve’s playing and put him in contact with Ronnie Coburn’s agency inDundee. Jimmy had handled Will Starr, and had an early evening show on Scottish television. Steve was booked to appear at the Caledonian Hotel inInvernessfor a weeks engagement, which led to subsequent bookings at both social clubs and hotels in Kilmarnock Dundee andPerth. He now concentrated on getting back to his home area for work, and was fortunate to find a new bier keller was to be opened inBlackpool. With his ability and repertoire he was an obvious choice and using several backing musicians he fronted a Bier Keller Band. Whilst the Tyrolean Show had been somewhat of a sedate affair, the bier keller was a reflection of the real thing inMunich, and the management wanted it to be ultra lively all the time. However the backing musicians did not put in the same amount of enthusiasm that Steve did and he decided to continue his career as a solo performer and not to front a band again.
The result was a determination to fill out the performance in such a way as to convince a listener that they were listening to a group. With determination, he started to explore in finer detail the Stradella bass and to use it to good advantage. He began to use the bass side like a bass guitarist or tuba player would, with counter melody becoming a clever accompaniment to his already well developed right hand technique. His expertise in general and his ability to present himself as a one man band, brought him to the attention of the late Andrew Rankine who at that time had a circuit of beer keller venues in the major university towns and cities. He already had a team of accordionist/vocalists, himself included, who were playing these venues for four weekly periods, then all moving round.
There were beirkellers in Newcastle, Nottingham, Leicester and Southport, which were the regular and having already had a good grounding working for Jaegers Bierkeller in Blackpool, Steve soon became a great favorite on the circuit. All the venues were more than lively, being filled to the brim with students who were also filled to the brim with stein after stein of what appeared to be fairly mild draught German lager. The end result was electrifying with audience response rarely equalled today. The bier kellers were at their height, being filled seven nights a week. This is where Steve learned his stage craft, where he learned the ability to whip an audience up into a frenzy, and just as easily bring them to rapt attention for a big ballad. Audience handling is still his forte. He mixes his program in such a way as to make each number a total departure from the previous one.
After several years on the bier keller circuit working for Andrew Rankine, he auditioned for Butlin’s and spent three very successful summer seasons at their camp in Pwllheli inNorth Wales, again in a beer-keller. It was at this time he released his first LP “Bier Keller British Style” The recording and the performances at this time were on Cordovox, which he was playing through a custom built bass reflex cab producing astounding bass note reproduction, giving an extra dimension to this genre of music. His audition for Opportunity Knocks came next, and following a long wait after he had been promised an appearance by Hughie Green, he learned that the show was to be axed. Thinking he had missed out he was pleased to learn that out of many acts who were still waiting for an appearance, he secured a spot on the very last show. Being the last show of course there was no clapometer and no viewers voting but the exposure did him a great deal of good. He was in great demand now on the North-East clubland circuit where he lived with his wife Margaret. Television and radio appearances on Tyne Tees and Radio Cleveland followed.
His LP was heard byJerseybased impresario Dick Ray, who contacted a Swedish agency inStockholmwho were looking for such an act for one of their venues in Gothenburg. Following a successful audition for the Swedish agents who flew toLondonto ascertain if he was as good as his record, he was booked to appear for a summer season at the Liseberg entertainment complex in one of their prestigious restaurants, the Tyrolen. Whilst the contract was lucrative, it was very demanding, with a performance time of five hours per night, with short breaks. However, despite the daunting task of fillingfive forty fiveminute spots, Steve jumped at the chance. His reasoning was sound inasmuch as it would be the ideal opportunity to develop material which he had previously learnt for one reason or another and had not had the chance to use a great deal in public performance.
He was spurred on by the fact that the Swedes liked to listen to semi classic music, and lots of accordion solos. In fact the accordion was the main instrument in “Gammaldans” music which is widely enjoyed by young and old alike. The gammaldans is traditional set dances with specific tunes for particular dances with certain rhythms like the “hambo” peculiar toSweden. The young dancers and the Swedish group who were appearing at the Liseberg close to Steve’s venue were regular visitors to his performances after the dances had finished, and he was invited to go along and listen to their music. It wasn’t long before he had the music for three set dances under his belt and a very popular Swedish song which went down extremely well with the holiday visitors. Coaching for the song was freely given by the young dancers in return for plenty of Elvis songs and one of Steve’s stock numbers, “The Music Man” which he had done in English for a good number of years. Now he had to translate the song into Swedish along with an explanation again in Swedish what the audience were expected to do on different verses of the song. The contract was a huge success and he was booked for a further two seasons at the same venue.
At the conclusion of his second summer season he was booked to appear inBermudaat the “Horse and Buggy”, a famous steak restaurant inHamilton. The initial contract was for six months. The restaurant was situated close to where the giant cruise ships of the Princess line docked and Steve had a constant flow of American and Canadian visitors, who were enthralled by his music, with it’s English , Irish and Scottish songs. Once a week he ran a German bier keller evening which brought in many local people on a regular basis. Seeing a great upturn in his business at the restaurant, the owner, Raymond White, extended the contract for a further three months, and would have extended it even further but for the fact that Steve was already committed to another summer season back in Sweden.
He was once again in the Tyrolen restaurant in Gothenburg’s answer toCopenhagen’sTivoligardens, “The Liseberg.” The many friends he had made there would come to see him at least once a week. Despite the fact that many could not speak English there was always an audience singing along, almost word perfect, all the old- time traditional British songs. With only just over two weeks to the end of the contract, his mother -in-law was taken ill, and despite never having traveled separately his wife Margaret left for England to be with her mother in Middlesbrough, whilst Steve completed the final two weeks. It was with great anticipation of an imminent reunion that he boarded the “Winston Churchill” bound for Newcastle and home.
The ferry was less than an hour out of Gothenburg when it struck a rock on which a new lighthouse was being constructed and ripped a huge hole in its side. The ferry rolled over on its side and would have sunk had it not have impaled itself on the rock. The sea was rough and it was night. It was some two hours before a rescue operation got into full swing, with passengers being winced off by helicopter and others climbing down the side of the ship on rope ladders to rescue craft below. Thankfully there were no fatalities on this ferry disaster so it was not front page news inEngland, but back inSwedenit was the top story on TV and the Swedish press made much out of a captain who decided to take a short cut to save ten minutes on a 24hr journey. It was some hours before Steve was taken back to Gothenburg and was able to tell his wife, Margaret what had happened. He was flown home the following day but his car and “Cordovox” was still in the hold of the stricken ferry. There it remained for several weeks until it was eventually shipped back to Immingham. Both the car and the accordion had been damaged by the prolonged ingress of sea water. The car turned into a pile of rust within a year, but damage to the accordion was put right.
Steve was once again back on stage in the North East clubs. The experience gave him an increased zest for life, having had a narrow escape. He was more than ever determined to meet any challenge head on. When theatrical agent Bill Forrest, for whom Steve had worked before, rang up and said “get yourself down toJersey, I’ve booked you on the ferry for tomorrow morning”, it just seemed the right thing to do. A summer season at a former Butlin’s camp nearScarboroughhad come to a sudden end when the new owner had gone bankrupt. Now there was the prospect of six nights per week inJerseywhich was far more attractive than weekend work in the social clubs. Steve’s first work in Jersey was for the Gala group doing one night each in their best hotels and playing continental music every Sunday at their swish restaurant “Winston’s” on the five mile road. He had been brought in part way through the season when an accordionist who had been booked previously walked out of the job.
Steve soon got a name for himself and before completing the season he had signed a 39 week contract for the following year. Following his second season with Gala he decided to take other offers which were coming in from other hotel groups and the main entertainment agency on the island. Now he and his wife Margaret were resident on the island, he started to do engagements for the local people. His skill as an accordionist was a magnet to individual accordionists inJersey. The popularity of the instrument is very strong as the people ofJerseyhave close family ties with the French, inBrittanyandNormandy, and an inherent love of French musette. Many locals would approach Steve explaining that they played accordion, and he began to realize just how much interest there was. In order to focus this interest he arranged a meeting of anyone who liked accordion music, and from the initial response of some twenty-odd people to his advert, he and his wife started the Jersey Accordion Club.
With plenty of organizational skills acquired from having previously run a successful theater group inStockton-on-Tees, he encouraged many players who had only previously played at home in front of family, to start playing in front of each other. He often stressed that the level of skill each player might have achieved thus far was not important. The focus, was on people of mixed ability being well aware that they would be among players some of whom would be better than them, but also, inevitably, there would be someone who was worse. When challenged about the poor soul who perhaps had the least ability, he remarked that they were streets ahead of all those who said they would like to learn the accordion some day then never did anything about it. His philosophy on listening to other players, is that ” we all need someone to look up to who is not too far beyond our present capabilities, and this can spur us on step by step to levels we never before hoped to achieve. “At the other end of the spectrum he does feel enormous sympathy for anyone who feels that they are the best accordionist in the world who have no-one to look up to. “We can all learn from each other” he said “and sometimes we become aware that we have incorporated into our style of playing, perhaps quite by accident, some aspect of the technique we admired in another player.”
The club grew in membership and had twice to move into larger premises for it’s monthly meetings. The renewed interest in the accordion in Jersey meant that those who could play, and were happy to do so each month, wanted to improve there playing and those who had always wanted to play the accordion gave Steve the idea that he must start teaching in the winter months when his hotel schedule was not taking up all his time. The result of taking on students and coaching relatively able players, led to the formation of “Steve Roxton and the Jersey Accordion Band.” The popularity of the band has become such that it is part of island life, and much of the summer weekends are taken up with band performances at numerous fetes around the island.
Whilst the band was autonomous, it formed, along with it followers, a large portion of the Jersey Accordion Club membership, but when Steve stepped down as president, the new committee wished to take control of the band, which was totally unacceptable to Steve, who had put in four years of hard work arranging music and rehearsing the band. In order to resolve the situation Steve formed a second accordion club inJersey“Les Amis de l’Accordeon deJersey” and this is now the social wing of the Jersey Accordion Band. The club enjoys a steady stream of special guests and meets on the first Tuesday of every month at “The Priory Inn” Devil’s Hole, St. Mary.Jersey.
Visitors to the island who love the accordion, get the chance to see Steve, at the accordion club as a concert player , or fronting the Jersey Accordion Band, or maybe as a top line cabaret in one of the six hotels he performs in each week during the summer. Whilst some people only use accordions for “accordion music” Steve is utilizing the instrument as the complete musical accompaniment for his one man show covering songs from music hall to the present day. His repertoire is enormous and he covers songs in more than ten languages. His performances for accordion clubs is entirely different from his shows for the general public. For accordion clubs he has a dazzling array of the cream of accordion solos covering superb French musette. Scottish reels, Frosini, marches all delivered with a truly individual style. He is as one person put it, The complete accordion entertainer.