Colin H on Big Pete Deuchar and John McLaughlin
In 2014, when my book on John McLaughlin was published, there was a lot of material that, for reasons of space, had been either edited out of or deliberately set aside from the main text for inclusion as bonus material in the ebook edition – mostly stand-alone chapters and appendices. One such was a short chapter on the enigmatic Big Pete Deuchar, a trad jazz bulldozer who has the perhaps unlikely distinction of being John McLaughlin’s first bandleader/employer.
During the period of working on the book I was stretched in several directions, trying to cover john’s various adventures in Britain, mainland Europe and eventually America between 1958-75, slipping with often minimal trace between the jazz, R&B, soul, pop sessions, free jazz and rock worlds of the time. The one area of research that was squeezed the most was the Big Pete era. When you live in Belfast, trips to London to access period print resources have to start with your highest priorities – it’s all time and money. I can recall a last, rather frantic day at the British Library during my last research trip scanning at speed through 1958-59 editions of Melody Maker on microfiche trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive Big Pete & His Professors of Ragtime, to little avail.
I had to make do with a couple of brief references from John’s 70s interviews, a couple of recollections from my own interviewees, a couple of web memoirs from other colleagues of the fellow, a book he wrote in 1973, and a wander down the road to see Dave Kane, my local bike shop proprietor (after his roughly 1954-67 career in music, Big Pete became a pro/sponsored cyclist and would become a prominent figure as a writer and organiser in the British cycling world). His achievements in cycling are astonishing; in music, less so – but always characterful.
Some time in 2017 I will be publishing a revised and expanded physical edition (i.e. an actual book) of the 100,000-odd words of Bathed In Lightning’s ebook bonus chapters, in a limited edition. There’s a feeling that this stuff doesn’t really exist until it, well, physically exists.
The very first quote in the original version of the Big Pete chapter, reproduced here – before I substantially revise and add to it with a wealth of new information and interviews – came from a 1958 book that I found in a hotel, a decorative stooge in a hotel bar-room bookcase. I liberated it. It was a glaring reminder that physical copies of written works live on.
I’ll not say too much else about Big Pete at this point, beyond what is in the short chapter below, save to say that John McLaughlin made his first two (at least) television appearances in the ranks of the Professors of Ragtime: ‘Lunchtime Break’ on Tyne Tees, late 1959, and ‘The Charlie Chester Show’ on BBC TV in June 1960. Who knew?
It’s possible that other former colleagues and associates of Big Pete may find this piece online: if so, please get in touch (via this site) – the more recollections for the revised version of the chapter the better!
The image accompanying this tale is fromk ‘Jazz News’, February 1963, when Big Pete was celebrating the founding of his latest enterprise, Big Pete Deuchar & His Country Blues, and the start of their 6 month residency at the Marquee, sharing their R&B night with the Mann-Hugg Band – later to become Manfred Mann. He could spot those trends…
‘We may decide in fine detail just how we would like jazz to develop, but our plans will not be taken into account by any jazz genius who happens to rear his head, impressing a new musical vision upon his hearers and pointing a new direction with new possibilities.’
David Boulton, Jazz In Britain, 1958
‘By the time I was 16, I was very deeply involved in the jazz movement and jazz music, and I got a job touring with a traditional jazz band, and that’s when my professional career started.’
John McLaughlin, 1978
Big Pete Deuchar is not a name writ large in the annals of music; indeed, it’s barely written at all. And yet he does appear to have been a fascinating fellow.
‘If, as some claim, God invented music, then Satan invented the banjo,’ was the view of one erstwhile bandmate. ‘No matter how prettily we played or how much we tried to swing, Pete Deuchar KLUNK KLUNK KLUNKED his way through it with hands like concrete bananas. To add to my misery he turned out to be a bully, worse, a bully of the most evil kind, an English public school bully, Big Pete Deuchar was Flashman personified (and he wasn’t called ‘Big’ for nothing). Son and heir to Deuchar’s Breweries, he was an enormous brute. Black bearded, ruthless and boorish to the nth degree, like all bullies he picked on the quiet members of the band. Indeed on one memorable evening he actually succeeded in reducing [one member] to tears and I mean on-stage! Amused by the phenomenon, Deuchar staggered about the stage cackling with mirth. From then on I referred to him as Bluto (the black-bearded bully featured in ‘Popeye The Sailor Man’ cartoons).’
That recollection refers to Deuchar’s tenure with the London Jazzmen in 1962. But he was making an impression on people long before that. The historian of Newcastle’s Vieux Carré Jazzmen (a trad jazz outfit founded by Deuchar in 1954) recalls him as ‘a charismatic, striking individual … enthusiastically devoted to the hand-clapping, foot-stomping, syncopated music of the American deep south, New Orleans jazz, to which he would listen on his Pye ‘Black Box’ record player and play along on his banjo at every opportunity.’
Deuchar apparently harboured a ‘bitter resentment’ towards local rivals the Panama Jazzmen, to the extent of sabotaging his own recording session. When Derek Lucas, owner/engineer at Northern Sounds recording studio played the Vieux Carré a superbly recorded track he’d recently made with the Panama band: ‘Deuchar couldn’t control his anger, went into a rage and shouted at Lucas, “I don’t want my band to sound anything like that lot!” Consequently Lucas’ recording of the Vieux Carré was flat and not as well balanced. [B]ut Deuchar was happy because it sounded different to the Panama’s. Was the record a success? Of the 100 copies ordered, the band got one copy each, Deuchar sold about 25 and the rest were given away as souvenirs.’
Unlikely as it may seem, John McLaughlin’s first experience of being in a professional band was to be under the leadership of this man. After, apparently, a pilgrimage to New Orleans and then a residency in Germany with the Vieux Carré Jazzmen (a band which is still gigging to this day), Deuchar formed a new ensemble: Big Pete Deuchar & His Professors of Ragtime.
As Disc’s Andrew Tyler later reported, John had been ‘sitting in with other musicians, playing in various jazz bands in the Northumberland area’ since he was 15. John had even had a business card made, to help his chances: ‘[N]ot that I was pushy,’ he reflected, in 1978, ‘but I used to go around to all these places and say, “Mind if I sit in?” Since I was 15 I’ve been doing that. And that’s how I ended up on the road. But I thought I’d go classy and have a little card made. So I did. It had ‘Telephone’, nothing, because I had no telephone. And it had ‘Johnny’. I was known as Johnny in those days; that’s what my mother calls me. So it had ‘Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist’, and the address underneath. That was it. My class-A card.’
One of John’s friends from his youth kept a copy of John’s business card and, along with the only photograph of him as child, aged 12 (‘I am probably one of the least photographed children in the world. There’s only one picture…’), it would later comprise the very effective cover of his 1978 LP Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist.
It is entirely possible that John might have sat in with the Vieux Carré band, and also just possible (chronologically) that he might have sat in with pianist Mike Carr’s EmCee Four, Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s most happening modern jazz outfit, formed in 1959 and centre of a late-night scene at the Marimba Coffee House every Saturday. (With the addition of Mike’s brother, trumpeter Ian Carr, the group would become the EmCee Five in 1960 and swiftly gain a national reputation.) While John has recalled that ‘there was little happening in Whitley Bay’, the area surrounding Monkseaton, a few miles up the road lay a city already being viewed by jazz buffs in London as ‘the Kansas City of the North’. Mike Jeffreys, controversial future manager of Newcastle R&B group the Animals and American guitarist Jimi Hendrix, had been running trad jazz sessions in the city for some years, and even future Animals frontman Eric Burdon had begun his musical career as a trad trombonist. In 1960, Jeffreys would open the iconic Downbeat club, which hosted EmCee Five sessions – on one occasion a jam with visiting members of the Count Basie Orchestra – as well as putting Newcastle on the national touring map for jazz artists and for the emerging R&B groups.
Just as Newcastle was beginning to become a musical city within which John McLaughlin could have thrived, and made a name for himself, he left. As John’s bio in a 1975 tour programme described the sequence of events:
‘He quit school, took a job at a music instrument shop and began sitting in with jazz groups when he was 16. During the late fifties, on weekends, John would hitch the 200 miles to Manchester to listen to visiting Spanish guitarists at a guitar club and to hear other music. These treks led to his joining his first professional band, Big Pete Deuchar and His Professors of Ragtime, and to gigs in Manchester and London.’
Speaking to Andrew Tyler in 1972 (which must already have seemed half a lifetime later), John laughed at the memory of the Professors of Ragtime gigs, with the band dressed in mortar boards and long gowns (a la caricature professors): ‘But I loved it,’ he said. ‘I was playing electric guitar and we had a banjo and clarinet player.’
‘It’s a rather unlikely partnership,’ observes Colin Green, British rock’n’roller Billy Fury’s guitarist of that time. ‘He was a bit overbearing. I can’t see how John would have fitted in with that ‘cos John was, well, strong-minded [himself], in that he knew what he wanted to do. But I don’t think he was ‘strong-minded’ in Big Pete’s way.’
Another contemporary, who knew both John and Deuchar, was similarly surprised to hear, half a century on, that John had ever worked with the fellow:
‘I can’t imagine two more opposite people,’ says Vic Flick, at that time guitarist with the John Barry Seven. ‘I came across Pete Deuchar on [a few] occasions but I didn’t like him at all – a very horrible sort of guy, actually. He was like a Sherman tank blasting his way through the music business. I can’t remember anybody saying, ‘Wow! I’m working with Pete Deuchar!’ He was a character, he got talked about, he forced his way into situations… [But] it was probably a good place to be an intern for a little while – to learn the business the hard way!’
John moved to Manchester, where, presumably, the band was to be based and where John would have been obliged to take other jobs to make ends meet. It was par for the course. As Vic Flick recalls, of the music world of that time: ‘Until you got established you couldn’t make a living at it. There wasn’t that much money flying about, really.’
How long John’s trad jazz adventure with Deuchar lasted is a little vague. John Chilton’s well-regarded Who’s Who Of British Jazz (Continuum, 2nd ed. 2004) devotes a whole paragraph to Big Pete Deuchar, dating his Professors of Ragtime to 1959-60. The end time, with Deuchar joining another band in ‘late 1960’, seems clear; the start date less so. The club listings in the October 25 1958 edition of Melody Maker contain a tantalising reference to ‘A Ragtime Festival: Professors galore!’ at a trad jazz club at The Tuxedo on London’s Harrow Road, which seems suggestive. 
John mentioned once that, aged 16, he had ‘quit school and gone to work in a guitar repair shop, until a friend coaxed him to gig on the road that led to London.’ It was to be a somewhat roundabout route. How long John worked in a guitar shop in Newcastle, we don’t know – perhaps a year, taking us into 1959 and the road trip with Deuchar. But it would not be the last time he would be selling instruments for a living.
History records little else of the Professors of Ragtime. They pop up on one website dedicated to memorable gigs in the Swindon area, with a February 9 1960 performance at the Locarno Ballroom. Doubtless a trawl of regional newspaper archives might reveal a trace of their progress around the trad jazz temples of Britain at that time, but the benefit of such knowledge would be slender. There are no known recordings of the band.
‘I left home when I was 15 or 16,’ John said, many years later, ‘and never went back. I wasn’t doing too good at 16 … I did a lot of jobs just to survive. You have to live in hope that when you’re up at six in the morning driving a truck and you get back at night just shattered, you can still make the extra effort to pick up the guitar and work. Did somebody tell you it was easy when you came down here to this planet? They didn’t tell me! And it’s still not. But who wants it easy? If it was, everybody would be doing it. That’s what makes it interesting, because you go for it and discover what you’re made of. We underestimate our own capacities so dreadfully. I know that spiritually we have infinite capacity. We can do so much more than we think.’
Big Pete, for all his faults, would surely have agreed very heartily and slapped John on the back. Three years later, he had a single released in Britain and America, a version of John D. Loudermilk’s ‘Google Eye’. A year later the Nashville Teens had a UK Top 10 hit with the song. Further Big Pete singles followed, but none were successful. As one half of the Moonshiners he recorded a country music album for the Page One label in 1967, and managed a paragraph in US trade magazine Billboard for completing a London to Newcastle cycle (274 miles) in 14 hours to publicise the record – reportedly selling 120 copies en route.
Having phoneticised his name to ‘Duker’, Big Pete left music for professional cycling. He went on to cycle around the world during 1971-72 in order to break various records and write a book, Sting In The Tail: By Racing Bicycle Around The World (Pelham, 1973). In it he recounts his adventures and lambasts pet hates like poor cuisine, sub-standard accommodation, pop groups, hippies and bureaucracy. Like the last flag-flyer for British Imperialism, the big man on the bicycle rampages through a world of ‘Pakis’, ‘Eyeties’ and ‘giggling idiots’ (most Indians), punching people who get in his way, searching most evenings for places to booze and like-minded fellows to booze with. Even a chicken unfortunate enough to collide with his bicycle in Yugoslavia is a ‘bastard’. He is, throughout, outrageous but indefatigable: heroic in undertaking his mad venture only a year after sustaining serious injuries in the saddle and loyal to his friends and supporters. One wonders what he might have thought had he known that, in the dead zone between Christmas and New Year 1971, while he was repeatedly arguing the toss about ‘drinking-up time’ with staff at public bars in Sydney, Australia, his one-time apprentice John McLaughlin was triumphing at Carnegie Hall, New York.
Nevertheless, with equipment and organisation that would seem, to anyone planning such a trip today, akin to Mallory’s attempt on Everest in a tweed suit, Pete Duker finished what he started. His record for crossing the USA alone was to stand for 10 years. ‘One of the things in life I detest is having to waste time in waiting around,’ he declared. John McLaughlin would have raised a glass to that, at least.
1. Further references in 1958-59 issues of Melody Maker proved elusive, although it was not possible to search exhaustively. A photo of John with the Professors can be seen in Walter Kolosky’s Power, Passion & Beauty (Abstract Logix, 2006).
2. In contrast to Big Pete’s rather boorish reputation among many in the ‘60s music world, it should be noted that enough of his jazz pals thought enough of him to stage a benefit gig at the 100 Club after his accident in 1970. Similarly, Irish international cyclist (and Belfast-Dublin record holder for many years) Dave Kane recalls Duker as ‘flamboyant and entertaining’ on the ‘70s cycling scene, often getting his guitar out during post-cycle get-togethers (and booze-ups) in pubs. Pete wrote three further books on cycling and founded an age-specific cycling league in the early ‘80s. It would seem that he found his true milieu in the cycling world. He died in 1986.
3. The Mahavishnu Orchestra played support to It’s A Beautiful Day at Carnegie Hall on December 29 1971, by all accounts devastating the headliners. After six months as a club and college act building a word of mouth reputation, it would be the breakthrough for John’s group as a major attraction in America.
Jazz In Britain (W H Allen, 1958), David Boulton
Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music (Dell, 1978), Julie Coryell & Laura Friedman
Jobsworth, Ken Harrison. This is an online memoir referring to the London Jazzmen, a trad jazz act in which the author was a member, alongside Deuchar, in 1962. http://www.harponline.de/harrison/pdf/Chapter_14.pdf Accessed 3/5/12. Big Jim Sullivan also worked with Big Pete in the early ‘60s and, by contrast, recalls his demeanour as fine. But then Big Jim was, after all, ‘Big’ Jim.
http://www.vieuxcarrejazzmen.com/ourhistory.html Accessed 3/5/12
John McLaughlin: Man For All Seasons, Andrew Tyler, Disc & Music Echo, 15/1/72
‘Evolution Of A Master’, Chuck Berg, Down Beat, 15/6/78
‘John McLaughlin’, Tony Jasper, Guitar, 3/75
Mahavishnu Orchestra Official Programme (1975 European tour)
John McLaughlin: Man For All Seasons, Andrew Tyler, Disc & Music Echo, 15/1/72
‘For A Song: John McLaughlin Pulls The Plug On His Guitar,’ Jim Jerome, People, 21/6/76
‘John McLaughlin Fulfils The Promise’, Matt Resnicott, Guitar Player, 4/96
Sting In The Tail: By Racing Bicycle Around The World (Pelham Books, 1973), Peter Duker