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Jazz hero Bill Kemp ‘couldn’t say no’ if he had the chance to make music

Jazz hero Bill Kemp in his element on the drums.
Jazz hero Bill Kemp in his element on the drums.

He was the man who swung to the beat on the sunny, sunny side of the street for more than 60 years.

And, whether recording in the studio with the likes of Barbara Dickson, Rab Noakes, Cilla Fisher and countless other artists, or appearing on stage with international stars at the Aberdeen Jazz Festival, Bill Kemp was one of those irrepressible individuals who enhanced the lives of everybody he met.

The Perth-born musician, who has died at the age of 80, was in his element as part of big bands, or small groups, and spent decades teaching youngsters about drums and percussion across Aberdeen City and Shire.

His family and friends have testified to his va va voom and zest for life, his remarkable stamina in performing at thousands of concerts all over Scotland, and attracting audiences in Moray, Garioch, the Highlands, the Granite City….wherever there was the opportunity to pick up the clubs and produce fascinating rhythms and songs in the key of life.

Bill pictured with the Norman Moy jazz band who enjoyed a special send off from British Rail in 1986 before leaving for Inverness to play a tribute gig to jazz giant Duke Ellington. Standing from left, John Brechin, Norman Moy, Peter Lowit, Bill Kemp and Alex Sutherland.

Indeed, his son William acted as a long-term roadie for his dad and said there was hardly a venue in the north-east of Scotland to which he hadn’t travelled and relished watching jazz aficionados imagine they were at the Cotton Club in Harlem savouring the standards of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

Growing up with the Average White Band

Bill, who went to school in Perth with Alan Gorrie, one of the founder members of the smash-hit Average White Band, was never happier than when he was spending time around musicians and creating joyful noise.

His son said: “It didn’t matter whether he was playing or teaching, practicing with others, or performing in small rooms or on large stages…my dad loved music all his life and he provided so much pleasure to generations of people.

“He actually began in a pipe band as a youngster, then was part of the Ronnie Spiers group, who were very popular in their time and, after he moved to Aberdeen in the 1960s, he joined the Alex Sutherland Band and started working with different musicians on their albums, whether it was folk, pop or jazz.

Hamish Stewart, Alan Gorrie, Ohnie McIntyre, Malcolm Duncan and Roger Ball performing in concert as the Average White Band in 1976.

“Dad enjoyed all kinds of music and poured his heart and soul into it.”

Sutherland’s ensemble were not only accomplished musicians, but worked with the biggest band in popular music in 1963 when they supported the “Love Me Do” boys, otherwise known as The Beatles, at the Two Red Shoes club in Elgin.

One of the groups involved on that night in 1963 gained a standing ovation….and it wasn’t the one fronted by Lennon and McCartney!

The Lamp always shone when Bill was around

It didn’t matter to Bill whether he was in international company or nurturing the talent of tomorrow: what was important was the collaborative camaraderie which pervaded the Scottish music scene and was in his DNA.

Rab Noakes, who was an integral part of such iconic groups as Lindisfarne and Stealers Wheel and recorded with Gerry Rafferty, spoke this week about his sadness at learning of Bill’s demise and the St Andrews-born singer-songwriter talked about how much he had relished working with his compatriot on his debut LP Do You See the Lights back in 1970.

In the same year, Bill appeared on the acclaimed album Thro’ the Recent Years which brought Archie Fisher and Barbara Dickson to a wider audience.

Although he hadn’t been well for some time, the younger generation have also benefited from his knowledge, passion and technical expertise.

Alyn Cosker, a highly-regarded drummer with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, has issued his own video tribute, in which he described Bill as a “beautiful man, who was fantastically supportive of everybody around him”.

Neil Gibbons, the organiser of Jazz at the Blue Lamp, told me how Bill’s influence hadn’t simply been restricted to music in his homeland.

On the contrary, this peripatetic soul had the philosophy ‘have passport, will travel’ when it came to hitting the right notes with other musicians.

Mr Gibbons said: “Bill was a larger-than-life character who lived and breathed his music and he was the swinging anchor for so many jazz bands and ensembles throughout the north east for many years.

“Jazz was everything to him, well except his love for Rangers FC. But Jazz Scotland worked with Bill on many occasions and he was always a joy.

“He just couldn’t say no if there was music to be played or students to be taught to swing like he did and it was always done with fun and humour.

“Bill’s laugh was totally unforgettable. He seemed like a big toughie who had fought his way to where he was, but, underneath, he had a huge soft heart and would do anything to help anybody that he met.”

Bill Kemp was a larger-than-life figure in Scottish jazz.

Mr Gibbons added: “I was involved in sending Bill to Germany and Norway as part of Aberdeen’s Twin City connection [initiative] and, over the last year, I have had regular messages from his fans there asking when he will be back.

“He made friends easily and he did so wherever he went. So he will be sorely missed by fans and musicians from all over Scotland and beyond who simply loved him and his ability to make music and friends.”

These qualities aren’t always evident with some of the bigger figures on the jazz circuit with a tendency towards prima-donnaism.

But there was never any trace or ego or look-at-me posturing from the blithe and boisterous Bill.

And as his son explained, that is one of the reasons why he is determined to create a lasting legacy for his father as lockdown restrictions are eased.

William Kemp said: “I’ve followed his story and looked into how he was friendly with the Average White Band guys such as Alan Gorrie and Malcolm [Molly] Duncan and he actually met up with a Molly a few years ago.

Members of the Eric Davis Trio ,Peter Lowit and Bill Kemp with Peter King (centre), playing at the Blue Lamp as part of Jazz Aberdeen winter season in 2006.

“Hopefully, when we emerge out of lockdown, and we are holding events at the Blue Lamp and other places again, we can properly pay tribute to my dad and also [the pub host] Sandy Brown, who did so much to make the “Lampie” an institution, not just in Aberdeen, but across the whole of the north-east.

“We are also aiming to create a legacy where there’s backing for up-and-coming musicians because my dad always was always committed to supporting youngsters who were interested in making music.”

When jazz swings back to life again later this year, we can safely predict that Bill Kemp will be there in spirit.

Marisha recalls the jazzy life with Bill

Marisha Addision has been recognised as one of the north-east’s most versatile musical talents for more than half a century.

And she had nothing but praise as she recalled her time working with Bill Kemp on an often merry-go-round of constant concert appearances.

Marisha Addison sang with the Bill Kemp Band.

She told me: “I first met Bill in the early 70s when I joined the Alex Sutherland Band as a vocalist when I was 18.

“He was the musical director of Grampian TV and we were involved in lots of television work.

“We were also resident at the Dee Motel and did all the functions on Friday and Saturday then, on Sunday, Alex had his own 20-piece jazz band.

“We went to Eight Acres in Elgin before the opening of the first Skean Dhu Hotel in Dyce at the beginning of the oil boom in Aberdeen.

“I left the band in the middle 70s, but always kept in touch with Bill over the years. Then I started my own jazz band around 2005 with Bill as my drummer and he played with me all over the city and in Aberdeenshire.

“Bill was always my first port of call if I needed a drummer, because he was always the best and I knew Bill and his kids my whole life.”

As with so many others, Bill has left an indelible impression on Marisha.