Steve Race: Broadcaster and jazz pianist
WITH his distinguished grey beard, dapper appearance and assured microphone manner Steve Race made an ideal host or question master on radio and television. He is forever associated with the Radio Four panel game My Music, which he chaired for more than 500 shows, but Race was a regular on various jazz programmes and co-presented, with William Hardcastle, Home in the Afternoon on Radio Four – precursor to the PM Programme. Race also composed a wide variety of music, especially some catchy jingles, and supervised the music for many sitcoms such as Hancock's Half Hour. For 11 years until March this year Race also compiled the Monday Telegraph's Quick Crossword. He delighted in setting especially teasing opening clues and creating a phrase or saying from the combined Across answers.
Steven Russell Race's father, a lawyer, died when he was five. Race was educated at Lincoln School, where he showed talent as a pianist, playing at local concerts. At 16 he went to the Royal Academy of Music but this was interrupted by service in the RAF during the Second World War. He continued, however, to perform with the RAF Swing Stars and Bomber Command Dance Orchestra.
After the war Race played the piano with various bands in London and his talent was spotted by Ted Heath and Judy Garland, for whom he did several arrangements. He cut his first records – all modern jazz – in the late 1940s.
It was in 1953 that he was first employed by the BBC. He appeared (along with the redoubtable Mr Pastry) in the children's magazine programme Whirligig. He combined this with introducing Jazz Record on Radio Three. When independent television started in 1955 Race accepted the post of light music adviser at Associated Rediffusion.
For five years he supplied music for the hugely popular Opportunity Knocks and was musical director for television series starring Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers. In his autobiography (Musician at Large, 1979) he wrote of the experience of working with them as "two sad people with a sort of blankness at the centre". He was also musical director of the Dickie Henderson Show for four years from 1960.
It was during this period that Race composed – winning an Ivor Novello Award – the pop song Nicola and wrote jingles for many commercials. The most famous of these – certainly the most lucrative – was the "Sweet as the moment when the pod went pop" jingle for Birds Eye's frozen peas.
In the 1960s Race developed a successful freelance career and became a regular on radio and television programmes such as A Good Read; Jazz in Perspective; Any Questions?; Music Now; Music Weekly; Kaleidoscope; Jazz Revisited and With Great Pleasure. His workload was considerable and in 1965 he suffered a heart attack. When he recovered he ceased smoking and became an ardent anti-smoking campaigner.
In 1966 he was asked to chair the BBC's new panel game My Music. It was based on the hugely successful My Word and Race not only introduced the programme and played the piano but also set the questions. It became very time-consuming and Race used to keep a notebook nearby so he could jot down ideas for questions. My Music lasted until 1994 and Race was also in charge when the programme successfully transferred to television.
Race and the Scottish baritone Ian Wallace appeared in every one of the 520 programmes and Race's genial manner added much to the popularity of the programme.
Denis Norden and Frank Muir were never too well versed in musical matters but their ability with words added to the jollity of the occasion.
Wallace always ended with an opera aria which Race accompanied. The homely nature of the show was given an extra zest with Race's wide musical knowledge and his urbane delivery.
Race was a regular contributor to a variety of music magazines. For New Musical Express in the 1960s he interviewed Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante and Judy Garland. In Melody Maker, he viewed the arrival of rock 'n' roll with some misgivings ("infantile and often suggestive chanting") and for five years from 1975 he wrote a column for The Listener. He wrote six books apart from his autobiography and was made a Freeman of the City of London in 1982 and awarded an OBE ten years later.
Steve Race's first wife, Marjory, a BBC producer, died in 1969 of cancer. In 1970 he married Leonie Mather. She and a daughter from his first marriage survive him.