Leader of the band

TOMMY Sampson sits in the café of Edinburgh's Queen's Hall, his bespectacled, rubicund face beaming above the maroon-and-white flourish of a Watsonians rugby tie. The legendary bandleader may look the veteran he is, but retains a certain grown-up-schoolboy air which certainly doesn't suggest a man fast approaching his 90th birthday.

But 90 he will be, on Monday 28 April, when what promises to be an exuberant and emotional birthday bash at the Queen's Hall will see him still swinging, directing his current 16-piece band, plus vocalists, augmented for the occasion by some distinguished names from the British big-band jazz scene who served their time in previous incarnations of the Tommy Sampson Orchestra.

There were times, however, when it looked unlikely that the Newhaven-born Sampson would see his thirties, never mind his nineties – particularly when being dive-bombed by Stukas at Tobruk. "God's certainly looked after me," he says matter-of-factly. It's a reminder that the trumpeter, whose 1947-9 line-up is still rated as one of the great British big bands of the post-war years, began his musical career in the Salvation Army and, after a few decades away from the fold, is once again happy to wear the uniform.

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If, as they say, the Lord moves in mysterious ways, he certainly gave Tommy some uniquely dedicated practice time, honing his skills as a bandmaster in a Second World War POW camp – not the most glamorous gig, but indubitably one that concentrated the mind.

It all began in Leith, where his father, a committed Salvationist, was heavily involved in running a vast Sunday school. "It was my life," says Sampson, with some feeling. I'm an old Watsonian, I played rugby, but every Saturday night and all day Sunday I was in the Salvation Army. I used to play at the foot of Leith Walk with their band."

Sampson first picked up the cornet at the tender age of five and, by 14, was a seasoned player, but he credits his entire musical career to one man, Salvation Army bandmaster Alex Dewar. "He played the piano; he was self-trained but used to change the chords all the way through – and he'd get me to go over my tunes with him at the piano, and all the time I was hearing these wonderful chords. Everything that's in my head today, and all the music I've done, I put down to the Salvation Army and that man."

When the Second World War broke out, Samson volunteered and, in 1940, he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery and posted to the Middle East. While recuperating in Cairo after having his appendix removed, he was made entertainments officer, but also started playing trumpet on local radio with a Glasgow pianist, Hamish Menzies, much to the disapproval of some of his superiors. They pointed out bluntly that he was supposed to be organising entertainment, rather than serenading the airwaves. He continued the broadcasts, adopting the radio moniker of Sammy Thomson. "They must have known," he muses.

These early radio days were rudely curtailed when, in 1942, his anti-aircraft gun unit ended up defending beleaguered Tobruk. "The Stukas were diving on us every night… but they never hit us." They were captured and interned in Italy, at Bari then Chieti, and eventually conveyed in cattle trucks to a camp at Braunschweig, near Hanover. Many years later, a former fellow-POW would recall walking round a corner on arriving at Bari and seeing Sampson standing there, playing his cornet with 12 men singing and someone else playing an accordion. "He told me I saved their lives for three years," says Sampson.

They procured instruments through the black market with help from a Red Cross "comfort fund" and Sampson soon found himself arranging for a camp big band. Among the many hundreds of prisoners, some unlooked-for talents turned up, including an American, Herb Perry, who in peace time was a music arranger for Walt Disney. "Herb contacted me after the war and wanted me to go over there," recalls Sampson. "But think if I had," he grins, pointing to US band-leaders' propensity for marrying film stars – Harry James to Betty Grable and Artie Shaw to Lana Turner and Ava Gardner – "with my luck I'd have got Mae West and she would have killed me within months."

At Braunschweig, German officers found him writing parts by candlelight. "They asked if they could come to the concert – they weren't allowed to have dance music like that and they loved it. So I said yes, but I asked them a favour – we were (putting on] a camp play in a few weeks and could they get us some clothes for it? They never discovered that the clothes were going to the escape committee."

At school during the 1930s, Sampson had listened to popular bands of the day, such as Henry Hall and Bert Ambrose, on the radio. Now he was trying to recreate their sound behind the wire, while pumping newly arrived captives for the latest hit tunes back home. He worked out the arrangements in his head, rather than at a piano, but it wasn't always music that was on his mind. On one occasion, the Germans were searching for an escape map, which Sampson had concealed by rolling it round the slide of one of his trumpet valves. "Sure enough, they came round and said: 'We want to look at this,' and I picked it up and started playing." Six decades on, he starts singing, in an exaggerated warbly voice, the old Neapolitan standard, Santa Lucia. Back then, he played it for the Germans without using the potentially incriminating valve.

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When the Allies bombed Hanover, the prisoners took shelter in the basements and just one plane dropped bombs on the camp. "Some officers were killed, and there was an unexploded bomb right on the other side of the wall from us. If it had gone off I wouldn't be here." After liberation, he returned home to be made director of the Scottish Command Dance Orchestra until demobilised in the summer of 1946. The following three years saw him running the powerful 17-piece Tommy Sampson Orchestra, which became legendary, initially at Leith's Eldorado Ballroom, then touring the UK and Europe and broadcasting.

What was it that made that 1947-9 line-up, "the Twenty Mighty Men" as it was known, so highly regarded by musicians who played in it, many of whom later went on to join the great Ted Heath Band? Sampson credits the arrangements of Edwin Holland, a young joiner – and accordionist, of all things – whose arrangements for the band (although he didn't play with it) were "just superb". He also commends the American-influenced "big, fat brass tone", generated by players such as trumpeter Stan Reynolds and George Hunter and Joe Temperley on saxes. Then there was its leader: "Edwin couldn't rehearse a band, but I could," he says. "I'd been an officer – I could be tough if it came to it." It was Stan Reynolds who told him later about "the death look". He said: 'If ever anyone made a mistake, you'd look across and they wouldn't be able to play for a couple of minutes.'"

However alarming, it worked. One of Sampson's players, the respected trumpeter and jazz chronicler Ron Simmonds, once declared: "The two best road bands I played with in Britain were those of Tommy Sampson and Johnny Dankworth." Other members who would go on to become names in their own right included the Edinburgh-born John Keating (songwriter, arranger and composer of the Z Cars theme) and the Scottish painter Alan Davie, who played tenor sax.

Sampson could steer a top band through all the hits of the day, but had a job negotiating the commercial jungle. "I'd been in prison camps for years. I didn't know a thing about the business, my agents took 25 per cent off anything I did. They robbed me." The band folded in 1949, without any released recordings.

He worked for a while as a "song plugger" with the music publisher Chappell in London, during which time he met Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, then embarking on Goon Show fame but both also musicians and fans of the Sampson sound. He was also running vocal groups and broadcasting (once sharing a bill with a promising and petite young dancer called Audrey Hepburn), when he was approached by another Scottish musical director, George Mitchell, who got him involved with Dai Francis and company in The Black and White Minstrel Show, which at its peak was watched by more than 16 million people. Sampson was only "blacked up" for the pilot; the rest of the time arranging and singing pre-recorded background harmonies.

He also worked with Mike Samms, of Sing Something Simple fame, and sang on the early recordings of Frankie Vaughan, including the huge 1956 hit Green Door. However, his excursions into light entertainment, including appearances as an extra on the innuendo-laced Benny Hill Show, caused a schism between him and the Salvation Army, a rift which he patched up 15 years ago. He now lives in Dunfermline with his Norwegian-born wife, Anna Lise, whom he married in 1963; their daughter, Helle, is a physiotherapist in London. By an earlier marriage he also has a daughter and three grandchildren in Australia.

Last November he was rushed to hospital after collapsing, but recovered. He shrugs off enquiries about the secret of his enduring vigour – "I think it's just luck with some people, having a life" – although reckons that growing up in a home where nobody smoked or drank helped (he enjoyed a drink socially during his band years, but these days says he sticks to a medicinal hot toddy).

He hasn't played trumpet for a while but, on Monday night, as he conducts his band, its ranks swelled by such British jazz luminaries and Sampson alumni as trumpeters Bruce Adams and Paul Eshelby and trombonist Gordon Campbell, a lot of memories will be riding that big-band blast. "Lots of people I know are coming. It will be emotional but you get used to emotion.

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"When you're 90, everyone feels sorry for you," he adds, with mock dolorousness, "so you have to pretend you're poorly and stuff like that."



The highly regarded Lochgelly-born baritone sax ace was in the classic Sampson line-up in the 1940s, going on to play and record with such British and American luminaries as Humphrey Lyttleton, Woody Herman and Clark Terry. He also played on the soundtrack of films such as Cotton Club and When Harry Met Sally. A co-founder of the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra and a faculty member of the Juilliard School, his recent recordings are still collecting stars.


MacKenzie, who died last year, was an Edinburgh-born reedsman regarded for many years as one of Britain's top clarinetists, and one of a coterie of ex-Sampson players who went on to establish themselves with the Ted Heath band. He was much in demand as a session musician for the likes of Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle– and the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper, as well as for smaller outfits such as George Chisholm's Gentlemen of Jazz.


Trumpeter Eshelby, who will be rejoining the Sampson ranks on Mondayt, played with a later incarnation of the band and has served since with various ensembles, including the BBC Scottish and the BBC Radio Big Band, as well as accompanying artists as diverse as Ella Fitzgerald and Queen.


Growing up in Edinburgh's Old Town and playing with early Sampson, above, then Ted Heath line-ups, Keating became a noted composer, arranger and musical director. He composed the Z Cars theme tune and went on to work with Sammy Davis Jnr, Tony Bennett, Mel Torm, Bing Crosby and Cleo Laine.


A fiery Scots player who co-leads the acclaimed Bruce Adams-Alan Barnes Quintet, Adams won Best Trumpet class in the British Jazz Awards 2000-1. He was in the ranks of one of the last Ted Heath appearances and has played with notables as diverse Benny Carter, Buddy Tate, Kenny Baker's Dozen, Echoes of Ellington and the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra.