In typical Liverpool fashion, our local fishmonger was known to one and all as Billy Fish. An affable bloke in his late twenties, he ran the shop alone, but whether he owned the place, or worked for someone else, I knew not, as there was no sign on the storefront. I was about fourteen when he took me on as a part-time helper.
Before school, I’d come in to help him dress the old-fashioned marble slabs with cracked ice and sprigs of parsley, and in the evenings I’d help him close up, swabbing and mopping up. Weekends, I’d spend longer hours for a little more money, although I seldom handled the merchandise.
Our chores were all done behind closed doors to the accompaniment of a portable Dansette record player, which he’d load with 45’s from his collection. His musical tastes were pretty sophisticated, particularly in the area of what he referred to as “the thrushes”, those classy chanteuses who were attaining post-war success on both sides of the Atlantic, and among them he held none in higher esteem than Sarah Vaughan, or “Sassy” as she was fondly nick-named.
It was the late ’50’s, and rock ‘n’ roll was already knockin’ on the door, but even as I was avid about the new music, my family’s musical background was such that I was already playing guitar in my Uncle Jack’s dance band , before my folks would let me anywhere near a beat group, and I was also working on piano and bass. Uncle Brian played violin and clarinet, and did some composition in the classical vein and my elder cousin John was a drummer. Therefore, I was no stranger to adult sophisticated music, and enjoyed a great deal of it. I loved Gershwin in particular.
Sarah Vaughan had recorded a song called “Broken Hearted Melody“, which had become popular on BBC in early 1959, so I knew her by name, but Billy was crazy about her recording of “Every Time We Say Goodbye“, a Cole Porter song (actually written in the “40’s) that had just come out in her version. He knew this record back to front, inside and out, and offered an amazingly detailed account of every nuance in the performance, which was remarkable in a fellow who played no instrument, and was basically a fan. I had no problem at all listening to the record on repeat as we did fishmongerly things and Billy pointed out musical highlights, including the exquisite melodic joke Porter makes on the line ” How strange the change from major to minor”, emphasized by Sassy’s gorgeous delivery.
My musical DNA had made me a lazy listener up to that point. I took it for granted that deciphering chord sequences and tempos, bass lines and the structural building blocks, were just there….my gift. So, I could do a basic analysis of a composition really quickly, but I often missed the deeper nuances…..but, hey …I was fourteen! The fact that Billy could articulate such deeply sophisticated musical concepts in non-musical terms blew me away. This guy listened hard, and took nothing for granted….he worked for his musical gratification. I picked up on that pretty quickly! By the time Ketty Lester’s epochal “Love Letters” arrived, with the Lincoln Mayorga piano part and production, I was so ready for it, thanks to Billy Fish!
As time went on, I followed what seems, in retrospect, to be a preordained path…50+ years in all aspects of the music world, but Billy Fish was an important part of my development. Ta! Billy….
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Fantastic writing, Michael! Xx