The Blue Toon ‘Kings of Swing’

The Ambassadors...perhaps Peterheads most famous swing band
The Ambassadors...perhaps Peterheads most famous swing band

They were perhaps Peterhead’s most famous swing band, and to many who regularly attended the ‘dances’ in and around the town, they were synonymous with a fun-filled musical event. But how did The Ambassadors begin on their road to stardom?

In an edition of the Buchan Observer back in 1968, Tom Peter recalled the birth of the swing band...

“The band played as they had never before and the dancers, over 100 couples, gave up struggling round the floor and just stood and swayed and clapped to the rhythm as number after number swung out.

It was a ‘flannel’ dance in the Resuce Hall in Prince Street - the date, July 21, 1929 - and the Ambassadors had really ‘arrived’.

How many people ever wondered how a dance band comes into being?

Well, here’s one instance, but let’s start from the beginning.

Coming from a musical family, my father for one was organist for the religious services at HM Prison for 29 years and often said he thought he was the only one to play for five services on a Sunday, Presbyterian, Anglican, Roman Catholic and the Bible Class taken by Jim Forrest of RNMD Mission - I can’t remember the fifth service, but you’ll see the relevance of the statement later.

As I said, I couldn’t help but have music in my system and I have enjoyed the various aspects of it over the years.

Living in a Prison Officer’s quarters, no more alas, and attending the Burnhaven School in the 1920s, I used to take the bus to Stirling Village for piano lessons for a few terms and got a good grounding therein - I think it was from a Mrs Sim.

Incidentally, bus privatisation is nothing new since I had then the choice of one by Sutherland, Whyte, Sellers (Shire), Cordiner or Goodall, all vying each other.

Jumping the years to the academy, I used to rush home to listen to Jack Payne and his Dance Band who played on the radio (or wireless as it was called back then) from 4pm to 4.30pm two or three afternoons per week as far as I recollect and thus got the jazz bug.

But what really settled the train of rhythm was one night I wandered into the Empress Ballroom (before it was burned down) at the top of Marischal Street to listen to the music, and was greatly taken watching Alan Winter and the band swingng in great style - was it the ‘Scallywags’ or the ‘Rhythm Boys’?

Right! Some day I’ll have my own dance band; but this was not to be until after the war.

However, my parents and I attended the South Church in Chapel Street at the time and I was encouraged by the late Frank Jack to come and join the choir - he reckoned I had a bit of a voice and this gave me somewhat more of an interest in the said church affairs.

I knew Frank well because earlier I had a couple of seasons with the Choral Society when they ‘did’ Gilber and Sullivan operas in Clark’s Theatre in Hanover Street where he took principle parts.

Comical think about ‘Clarkies’ was that rehearsals had to close temporarily on a stormy night when an extra severe burst of rain or hail on the corrugated iron roof made singing unable to be heard.

In November 1936, Jim Mitchell, Andrew Stephen, Jim Buchan (the organist) and myself decided to form a Boy’s Club, open to any youngster in the town - there wasn’t actually that much for kids to do in the dark nights in those days, and this club, held in the hall beneath the church on Thursday nights, was a graet success while it lasted - until the summer of 1939.

I was delegated to be treasurer and it may have been this experience which made me the money holder and music supplier when the dance band got going.

Striking off at a tangent was the fact that in 1937, a friend of my folks, a Mr Robertson, came to stay with us and he had a guitar no less!

Coming from Aberdeen where he had played in a dance band there, that was more than enough to whet my interest in dance music and after a spot of tuition on his instrument I persuaded him to look for one for me on one of his trips back to the granite city. This he did, and rhythm guitar practice was the order of a spare night, accompanying Mr R on his £30 banjo.

Now, this is where the advent of the Boy’s Club comes in because on Thursday, December 23, 1937 there is the first mention of Alistair Carnegie (guitar), Alec Flett (saxophone) and Douglas Cameron (accordion).

There was a club party on the 27th and these three and myself got together over th eweekend and got up a scratch programme of dance music for same - a great success according to my diary.

Jimmy Johnston (trumpet) who I think was Douglas’ cousin, came into the group immediately after that because the entry for the 29th was a night of music out at Sandy Flett’s house near Burnhaven School when six of us played till 2am. Oddly enough there is no mention of who the sixth was.

Alistair, Alec, Jimmy and myself were apprentice engineers so we had something else in common, while Douglas was a student at Aberdeen Varsity.

However, we all teamed up again on Hogmany night, Friday 31st, and after playing to the crowd assembled in Broad Street we called on various houses including Dr. Robertson and Dr. Leith, finally ending up out at the Booth’s of Ednie where a hectic party was in full swing - we joined in with gusto and I note my return home at 6am.

At this time I jointly owned with Jim Buchan a big Morris Oxford16hp saloon and this was ideal for transporting the boys and their instrument on our various ploys.

On Friday afternoon, January 7, 1938, I see whe had a practice out at ali Carnegie’s at Inverugie, and as far as I recollect his sisters, Winne and Leslie, objected to the noise indoors and we hied us up to the upper floor of the Old Mill building nearby.

I well remember this incident as we got wearied after a while not having a real band yet, and spent the rest of the afternoon daylight before tea throwing small tatties at each other and passers-by from a pile at the end of the building.

During this time we missed not having drums to give a solid beat, though I see my two lads were mentioned as possibilities but they couldn’t afford the purchase apparently - a Bill Strachan and Ian Hill, although the latter played with a borrowed set.

The rest of us were determined to succeed, so much so that I (as treasurer) sent off for our first dance music to the Irwin Dash Music Co, and at the time bought a set of polo-neck pullovers at 5/- each in dark green with a black spitting cat on a white background in front.

By all accounts we were to call ourselves the ‘Wild Katz’. These were discarded once we got really playing as being too warm and we finished up with black dinner jackets etc.

In February, the other jazz enthusiasts in Peterhead formed a local Rhythm Club which we were invited to join and this kept us in touch with the existing players and helped us later on.

I deliberately mentioned the New Year Party at Ednie because that is when Graeme Boot got really interested in our playing, so much so that although only 16 he asked if he could join us and he was later received with open arms - his folks could set him up with a drum kit!

All this time we were individually practising our music-reading quite assiduously, myself on the piano and guitar, and we got together once or twice during the week at Sandy’s or Jimmy’s or my own house and out at Inverugie on Saturday afternoons. Shows how keen we were.

And, by the way, I see an item to the effect I managed to obtain my dad’s bowler hat for Jimmy to act as a mute: he painted it silver and it served him well. During this period, as far as I can recollect, Alistair or ‘Gamin’ as his sisters called him, was still playing guitar, but this he sold at the end of March when he managed to get hold of a lovely Conn Tenor saxophone and from then on he and Sandy really got together.

The story continues...