Colin H on Big Pete Deuchar & his Professors of Ragtime
A couple of years back I posted on the Afterword a short feature on Big Pete Deuchar, one of the great ‘footnote’ characters in British music of the 50s and 60s – and one of the great characters in the British cycling and cycling administration worlds of the 70s and 80s.
That piece, around 3,000 words, was all that I could muster in time for ‘Bathed In Lighting’ (Jawbone, 2014), the first of my (now) two books on John McLaughlin’s musical adventures pre-1975. It ended up being one of the extra chapters appended to the e-book edition, with Big Pete & his Professors of Ragtime – John McLaughlin’s first experience of being in a professional band – getting a couple of paragraphs in the print version.
In essence, in such a long and illustrious career, the key role of the Professors of Ragtime in John’s story was to give him stage experience and, crucially, allow him to move from being a 16-year-old school-leaver and precosious sitter-in with older jazzers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to being a gifted man with a go-getting attitude to playing music for a living, come what may, whatever the platform or genre available, in what was to be, as if by magic, the right place at the right time: London in the 1960s.
I had a niggling feeling that more work at the coalface of vintage magazines and the like would yield more about the Professors, and about Big Pete in general. The germ of ‘Echoes From Then’, a companion volume to ‘Bathed In Lightning’, was thus born – a volume collecting up additional material on McLaughlin’s pre-1975 career and expanding at leisure on some of the episodes, including this elusive first pro band.
Posting that original piece on the AW had a part to play in the research process around Big Pete, as one chap from an archive in Nottingham got in touch to let me know that they held three large files of cuttings on the man in the context of his extraordinary solo round-the-world cycle of 1971-2, sponsored by Raleigh – a source I would almost certainly never otherwise have accessed. A trip to Nottingham was in order, as were trips to the National Jazz Archive and British Library, specifically to access rare copies of ‘Jazz News & Review’ and ‘Melody Maker’, and enquiries at BBC Written Records Along the way, I was able to puchase a lot of 1959-60 MMs and 1962-63 ‘Jazz News’ issues via ebay and other sources – and benefited too from the help of fellow scribblers Mark Lewisohn, Peter Doggett, Ashley Wood and our Hannah, as assistant crate-diggers and sources of info. An appeal in ‘Cycling’ magazine brought a few of Pete’s associates in that world to me, and Mike Deighan – current engine-room of the Temperence Seven, but for a year or two in the late 60s, a duo partner of Pete’s in the Page One-label LP recording act The Moonshiners – was also tracked down. As well as the expanded chapter in ‘Echoes From Then’ it soon became clear that I would have enough material for a small book on Pete. And when I have time, that’s what I’ll be working on – even if it sells 20 copies. The process of self-published ‘Echoes…’ was very instructive. There’s now no reason why short-run books can’t be created at viable cost.
Brian Bennet, the banjo-wielding maestro behind the current incarnation of Newcastle’s superb Vieux Carre Jazzmen – a band Big Pete founded circa 1954 (and whose 21st Century ‘riverboat shuffles’ on the Tyne are heartily recommended!) – has been another huge help and it was through him that I got in contact with Big Pete’s half-sister Sally Stevens, in California. Sally was probably one of the few people still around (barring John McLaughlin, who has politely preferred not to be directly involved in my biographical activities) who could give me any real insight into the Professors of Ragtime.
Sally sounded like a force of nature on the phone. A very fiesty, no-nonsense woman who had had her own career in and around music in America. ‘He knows you’re doing this,’ she’d said to me after a while, of her late brother, ‘and I’m sure he’s happy about it’, going on to say that she’d had experiences of thinking of him and then strange things happening that chimed with those thoughts. Who knows… We recorded a really helpful interview not only about the Professors era (1959-60) but about Big Pete’s many other adventures thereafter.
I was very sorry to hear of Sally’s sudden death, from flu, in the past couple of weeks. So, for Sally and her friends, and for anyone else interested in the byways of British music before the Beatles, here’s the 10,000 word chapter on Big Pete Deuchar & his Professors of Ragtime from ‘Echoes From Then’. (In the comments.)