'Let Me Sing And I'm Happy'

 

Teenage influences

Roger was attached to his working-class roots. When he passed the scholarship to the most prestigious school in the area, Watford Grammar School for Boys, he felt ambivalent about it. He loathed and suffered the snobbery he found there; and he appreciated the opportunities the school provided under the progressive headship of its headmaster, a hero of the French Resistance.

At the age of thirteen, Roger joined the school French exchange, staying with a family just outside Paris. The next year, he and a friend spent a cycling holiday youth hostelling in Belgium. He financed the trip from Saturday job earnings.

The boy proved to be adept at languages (he won a school prize for his French) and artistic (he had permission to paint a mural at school). He tested my French vocabulary at home and introduced me to William Blake's engravings and the colour wheel.

I remember Roger's fascination with London's famous buskers, The Happy Wanderers, as they played shuffling along the kerbs of the West End: if they had stopped moving, they could have been nicked for vagrancy under local bye-laws.

In the 1950s busking was discouraged. An embarrassing moment of mine as an eight-year-old was being seen holding my big brother's coat (he was fifteen) as he sang for the queue outside The Prince of Wales theatre. How his singing 'Way Down Yonder in New Orleans' echoed around Coventry Street! He stopped the traffic. A bobby approached, Roger scooped up the pennies and threpenny bits, leaving the hat on the pavement and we scarpered in opposite directions.

Roger had his father's striking Greek profile. He once cracked that, given the elements of Irish and (probable) Jewish in our ancestry, he was an "Irish Stew" (say it aloud to hear the pun).

Roger was close to his elder sister, with whom he shared wit and a keen sense of the ridiculous. His elder brother had a ringing singing voice and could sell a song, Jolson style. We three boys sang in harmony.

Roger's most evident abilities were in drawing, design and painting, which he practised conscientiously. When his sister moved out, he took over the small bedroom and redecorated it.  On each wall he created detailed figurative paintings: a mandala depicting sportsmen, a line of American square dancers above the window, two children hand-in-hand walking away down a country lane and a swirl of a fashion parade of women wearing outfits for all occasions. We assumed he would work in fashion and design.

When Roger was out, I used to play his closely guarded collection of 78 rpm shellac records by singers Johnnie Ray and Alma Cogan, the Humphrey Lyttelton jazz band and the exuberant, tongue-twisting performer Danny Kaye.

 

Danny Kaye in the lobby number from the film , 'Up In Arms', which Roger and I learned note for note

 

By the age of sixteen, Roger was clear in his mind that he would be an entertainer. He disregarded his five O-levels and left school to work at the day job of window cleaner for no more than six months, and then turned professional. He joined the Variety Artistes' Federation.

 

 

Roger's French blue slacks had no turn-ups (most unusual in Britain in those days), his second-hand Saville Row waistcoat and his Woolworth's socks were in matching yellow, his pumps black patent leather

 

One of Roger's early routines was a skit on Johnnie Ray, the 'fifties bobby-sox crooner, whose gimmick was to move himself so much during his shouting rendition of the torch-song 'Cry' that he actually cried on stage, pulling at his clothes in distress. In Roger's version, at the climax of the song, he would be seen to literally tear his hair out, throwing tufts of hair high in the air and into the laps of the front row audience, some of whom screamed in alarm, which replicated the screaming from the girls in Johnnie Ray's audience. Whenever I saw Roger's routine it went down very well with the whole audience who gasped and then roared with laughter. It was delightful gag. The thought of it makes me laugh out loud now as I write this.

My task was to go a local barber's and ask if I could gather hair from their sweepings to collect in my large brown paper bag and add to Roger's prop store. Before going on stage Roger hid a handful in each of his jacket pockets to grasp and throw.

 

Danny Weskit

For a while Roger took the stage name, Danny Weskit. Danny Kaye, the multi-talented Hollywood whirlwind of a performer, from whom Roger took his stage first name, inspired his earliest stage routines. The 'Weskit' expressed his aspiration to be a "sophisticated cockney" and his penchant for eye-catching, brightly coloured waistcoats. His slacks and shoes he bought in Paris. In drab, grey nineteen-fifties Britain, he cut a flamboyant figure.

Harry Bloom, a local magician, ventriloquist and children's entertainer became Roger's manager, obtaining bookings for him in local social clubs and dance halls. Roger also sang with the jazz and folk guitarist, Terry Lynch. I was Roger's initial audience at home as he practised his vocal exercises, tap dance steps, guitar playing, comedy routines and impersonations.

 

 

Roger's first professional photograph - he is 17

 

Finding his voice

Roger reverted to his own name.

He spent his two years' national service in the Fleet Air Arm. He was initially stationed in Lossiemouth in Scotland where he formed a band with other musicians. Skiffle was popular and Roger arranged the hits of the day to suit his own singing style.  I remember noticing from the reel-to-reel tape recordings he brought home on leave that he was developing a powerful singing voice with a wide vocal range and bell-like clarity. He was finding his own voice.

He sang on a BBC forces radio show, 'Hello Mum!'  

Roger was passionate about power relationships and intolerant of authority. He was stationed on the aircraft carrier, HMS Bulwark, in the Middle East during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Sea Hawks saw action operating from the Bulwark. He ran a record-request radio programme broadcast over the ship. He took the opportunity to ridicule British interference in Egyptian affairs, declaring that the servicemen should go home and let the Egyptians run their own affairs.  An officer pulled the plug on the transmitter. Able-bodied Seaman Deacon R. E. was reprimanded, locked up for a day and deprived of his radio programme.

He and his comrades were awarded a medal "just for being there", he said.

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