Where there’s muck there’s brass, they say. Shame it doesn’t work the other way round.
Ask Gordon Higginbottom. He’s a big noise in brass band circles across the world - one of Britain’s best brass musicians.
He’s played with all the greats, conducted at some of the biggest venues, had solo spots at the Royal Albert Hall, played on the soundtrack for blockbuster movie Evita and more. He’s also demonstrated instruments across the world for Yamaha, arranged music, had music crafted by top composers specifically for him, led tutorials, played for crowned heads, and remains one of the nation’s top adjudicators, as well as a music advisor to some of the best brass bands.
He lives at Thornton. Right now he’s helping organise the Youth Brass Band Entertainment Festival of Great Britain at the Opera House Blackpool on Sunday, February 9.
It’s the 30th anniversary of the crowd-pulling event which attracts 12 highly competitive youth bands from across the UK - including local talent. All money raised goes to Action Medical Research for Children.
Most of us like a brass band. There’s something quintessentially British about the sound on a sunny summer’s day from a bandstand or in a concert hall or on the march in the midst of rain and gala floats.
But the appeal is international. The world loves a brass band. There are gypsy marching bands such as the great Fanfare Ciocărlia, circus bands, religious processional bands, military bands and more. Brass bands even became sexy back in the sixties when Herb Alpert introduced the Tijuana Brass specials.
For Gordon, however, Mexico is where it ended for him as a professional player. It came at a point when his globetrotting knew no bounds and his wife often found herself at the back of a concert hall or back in the hotel room if not shopping or sightseeing.
Gordon flew solo to Mexico and arrived to find the music that had been sent in advance - for the band to work upon - had not arrived. With a major event looming he had to race the clock to get the band and music up to muster ... and to his amazement it was all right on the night. No one missed a beat.
But the stress had taken its toll. “That was it for me,” he admits. He seldom touches the instruments he has at home – which is a shame as Gordon was up there with the greats.
His picture album is a who’s who archive of the music world. He played with the late Roy Castle, hailed a musical genius because of his multi-instrumentalist talent. The pair appeared together in a TV series called Brass Beat filmed in Uppermill Civic Hall to a live audience. “We were performing a special version of Don’ It Make My Brown Eyes Blue by BBC arranger Goff Richards - on two mellophoniums. We also did a Laurel and Hardy routine playing their signature tune on nose flute! Roy was a very close of friend of mine. In fact he bequeathed me his beautiful Alphorn when he died.”
Gordon also has a soft spot for the mellaphonium. “It’s a lovely instrument, and it opened many doors for me.”
Gordon was also a soloist on the same BBC show which featured Moira Anderson at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. “Ex-Prime Minister Ted Heath was conducting... if one is being kind. I remember seeing it on TV afterwards and he continued conducting after the music stopped. The editors were not quite fast enough.”
Mention brass bands and most think of Brassed Off - the film. In fact Gordon should have played on that but had a prior date with Madonna - on the musical score for Evita.
His work with some of the world’s top orchestras is a far cry from the village fete Furry or Floral Dance of Helston May day revels. You can hear Gordon playing brass in compositions by Wagner, Prokofiev and some of the greatest classical composers. Along with others celebrated for compositions for brass bands.
So even the merest suggestion that brass band music may be boring wins a blast of outrage. “Imagine Star Trek without brass,” counters the musician who gave fans Oh Dear, What Can The Matterhorn ... on Alphorn.
“It’s 11ft long, with no valves ... all played with lip tension,” says Gordon, who even throws in a bit of Czardas at the end of the piece.
“I don’t think anyone imagined that could be played on Alphorn,” he admits.
Gordon is passionate about the Blackpool event because it showcases some of the finest young talent on the circuit and gives them a premier platform from which to perform. “Blackpool’s one of the meccas for brass bands - much as it is for dance and other things,” he adds.
He’s been a regular at the National Band Finals - one picture shows him conducting the Douglas Town Band as their music adviser for 20 years.
Gordon himself got the brass band bug young. He reckons he was about nine when his dad gave him a cornet. “Within a year I had progressed to Alphorn and regularly brought the house down. I also liked the tenor horn.” At 10 years old he was in the Kearsley Band with his late father.
By 15 he was principal horn with the CWS band Manchester and touring Switzerland.
“That’s when I realised how exciting life in a brass band could be. For a kid of 15 it was unbelievable. What’s more they provided everything, shirts, slacks, walking out blazer, walking out mac, socks, brand new instrument.”
He was principal at the Royal Albert Hall in the massed bands - “all the winners of every area take part in a massive concert and I had to do a solo.”
His dad advised him against going professional. “You’ll lose your teeth one day, lad, he advised me, so I joined a little brass group comprising a guy from the Joe Loss Orchestra, another from the Philharmonic and so on - and we toured all over the place, Mexico, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, more.”
Gordon worked for Yamaha, the Japanese giant, as product manager, and also “road” tested instruments. “I ran workshops for them on how to play, and also got their instruments out and about too.” Gordon was appointed a professor at the London College of Music, and a tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music, Salford. “I’m still an external examiner at the Royal Northern.”
Along the way he did lots of radio and TV broadcasts and studio work including 100 Best Hymns, Hallelujah (with Thora Hird), My Brother’s Keeper, Crown Court ... and was on standby for Brassed Off. “But I was contracted to do Evita at Wembley instead.”
Brassed Off has since been adapted for the stage and plays the Grand Theatre in April to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike.
“I won’t be seeing it, I’ve seen it so often,” admits Gordon.
He’s performed with the top British bands, Grimethorpe, Faireys, the All Star Band, Brighouse, Black Dyke but has played with orchestras too. One highlight was playing with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall, in Prokofiev’s Cantata For the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution.
“It was a massive piece, with 100-strong choir, 14 horns, four harps ... and more. It was brought out of Russia where it was banned and performed here. You find a lot of classical brass musicians have started with brass bands - and it makes them very nimble. I don’t think any musicians are as versatile as brass players. Many of the top conductors started out in brass.”
His final concert was in Spain, where he lived 13 years, to mark the 90th anniversary of the Royal British Legion in Spain. Gordon directed the finale and arranged the music for the event. You can see and hear it by following this link to YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsevFP9bE9Q,
“It featured the Just Brass band with massed choirs from Alicante, some 188 voices, along with Torrevieja Pipes & Drums, Ruth Lorenzo the Spanish singer who appeared on the UK’s X Factor, All Angels, a girls’ singing group from London, and Cathy Carson, a British born singer who lives in Spain. We even had a group on stage of Chelsea Pensioners who had made the trip specially plus RBL Standard Bearers from Spanish branches Spanish of the Legion and religious clergy from Alicante. The service was led by the Bishop of Europe.”
Gordon’s favourite instruments include the one with which he is pictured, a vintage small Wagner Eb Tuba. “I used to play this in the Wallace Collection on the Open University project The Cyfarthfa Band. The instrument was actually presented to me in Gstaad, Switzerland in recognition of my work there. I used to tutor the National Swiss Youth Band for years , and recorded with the Brass Band Berner Oberland.”
It’s two years since Gordon returned from Spain. “We wanted to see more of the family - and Blackpool is much closer to Bacup and Bury and even the Isle of Wight than Spain was. We fancied Blackpool because of its brass band reputation and the fact we came here so often.
“It feels like coming home. I never really made much of a living ... but we’ve lived the dream. I’d love to encourage young people to get into brass band music. All three of my daughter’s kids play in brass bands. One of my proudest moments was seeing my granddaughter playing the trumpet with the Halle at the Bridgewater Hall - and as I walked in a lady came up to me and said ‘I will never forget you started me playing’ ... and it turned out she was principal trombone with the Halle.”