The great escapade
There’s no stopping Tommy Sampson. If he is not writing for Craig McMurdo, he is conducting his own band at hotels and functions, or getting church congregations swinging in the aisles with a crew of Salvation Army musicians with a show called Swing, Sally, Swing. He’s so busy, you’d never guess he was 84.
But then why put 60 years of musical experience to waste? Today, Sampson delights in the big band sound as much as he did in the post-war years, when his band was the best in Britain, a testament to the skills he learned in the most unexpected place - a POW camp.
His early musical training was in the Salvation Army, but ever since he sat up late as a teenager listening to the radio, he loved big bands. He thought his chance had come when, at 17, his father arranged for local band leader Chalmers Wood to listen to him play the trumpet. "I went along, and Wood said: ‘Tommy, forget it, you’ll never be anything in music, work for your dad.’ So I did. After I formed my big band and started broadcasting I met him again, and he said: ‘Tommy, before you say one word, your father paid me to tell you that! He didn’t want you to go away.’"
But Sampson did eventually go away. He joined the Army the week the war began, taking his trumpet with him. At the end of 1940 he was posted to Egypt where he played in local radio broadcasts under the name Sammy Thompson, to avoid trouble with his superiors. "They must have known," he chuckles, impishly.
He was taken prisoner at the battle of Tobruk and sent to Italy. "We had a big band in no time, there were plenty of musicians. We bought instruments on the black market." First in Italy then in Germany, he led the band through the rest of the war, rehearsing every day and sitting up late into the night writing arrangements.
"When I put forward an idea for escape I was told: ‘You’re not allowed to escape you’ve got to keep the morale up’. Everyone else lost weight through worry, but I kept my weight all the way through the war. I didn’t have time to worry."
The impact of what he did in those years was brought back to him recently when he met a man who had been in the same Italian prison camp. "He said: ‘I came into prison camp a week after you, I thought I couldn’t live there, I was so depressed, and then I came round the corner and you were there with your trumpet, and a choir of 12 men singing. For three years, you kept us alive.’
"In Germany, the German officers would come and sit in the front row of all the shows. They loved the big band sound. When I was up all night writing music, they would bring me candles, and I would ask them for various props for whatever play was coming up. Actually, the escape committee were getting me to ask for things, but they never cottoned on to it.
"Someone had a map on tracing paper for an escape route. When there was a search, I pulled out the bottom slide of my trumpet and put it in there, and put the slide back. When the officers came round, I played them a little tune, without using that valve. That way, we managed to hide it and keep it.
"Quite honestly, I learned everything about music from those years. In those three years, I learned more about arranging than I could have done anywhere else - a whole band to rehearse and you didn’t have to pay them!"
When he was demobbed, he put his knowledge to good use, forming his own big band, consisting of hand-picked musicians with an average age of just 22. The manager at the Eldorado Ballroom in Leith agreed to give them a hearing, and they immediately had a regular slot. Visiting bands - Joe Loss, Eric Winston and the like - could hardly believe their ears.
"We took the music world by storm," he remembers. "The BBC invited us down for an audition. So we went down and did three broadcasts over the next 10 days, which had never been heard of before. It was young, dynamic and so enthusiastic. The arrangements by Edwin Holland were just out of this world."
The band reigned supreme for nearly three years, touring Germany in 1948. But times were hard and big bands were expensive. Agents took advantage of Tommy’s lack of commercial experience and took big cuts. While fans raved about the band, it was less popular with dancers, who found it too jazz-oriented. "After just under three years I had no money left, but I don’t regret it, I learned so much." After the band folded Tommy started work for a music publisher while writing and directing music for radio and television. Among his friends were the men who would become the Goons, Peter Sellers (then a drummer), Spike Milligan (a trumpeter) and Harry Seacombe. One day, called in at short notice to appear on a TV show, he found his singing group sharing a bill with a young Audrey Hepburn - "a charming girl, unknown at the time".
In 1961 he was introduced to Lise, a Norwegian nurse. They were married and have a daughter Helle who works in London. Relocating his career to Scotland he always had a band to run - often more than one, with residencies including the Albert and Barrowland Ballrooms in Glasgow and Fat Sam’s Restaurant in Edinburgh. He also conducted the BBC Radio big band on several occasions.
One of his proudest moments came last year when some of his original band members organised a reunion, attended by 40 people, most of whom had enjoyed long and productive musical careers. "They all said it was the best band they had played in and they owed their careers to it. It was a wonderful day." He says, thoughtfully: "I’ve just had a wonderful life."
The Tommy Sampson Big Band with Eric Delaney and Danny Moss, The Hub, 2 August.
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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