A PORTRAIT OF JOHNNY GREGORY
by BILL JOHNSON
John Gregory, known to all his
friends as Johnny, was born in High Street Camden Town in
London on October 12th 1924. He made his first broadcast in
1944. Although best known as a prolific record arranger having
been with Philips for over 20 years, he was the BBC Radio
Orchestras principal guest conductor. He is also a composer
and has written the music for some 27 films, scored over 500
compositions and made over 2000 records which span the broad
scope from light music, to Latin American, to Oriental. In
1976 he received an Ivor Novello Award for "Introduction and
Air to a Stained Glass Window" and is generally recognised
as one of the best orchestral and string ensemble composer/arrangers.
To understand how and why Johnny
achieved this remarkable musical diversity we need to delve
into his upbringing. Aside from the odd music teacher and
virtuoso performer/teacher like Alfredo Campoli, his formal
musical training was sparse to say the least. However, he
had an insatiable desire to learn. Foyles bookshop in Londons
Charing Cross Road was his temple and the many volumes he
acquired are still treasured.
His father, Francesco Gregori,
was born in Italy at the turn of the 20th century, became
a prisoner in a German POW camp during the First World War
and on his release, was given a medal for bravery. He was
from a farming family which owned 400 acres of land; but his
heart was set on a musical career, not in farming.
Europe was in turmoil, even
Francescos own father had been killed by the fascists.
He was totally disillusioned with his existence. There was
immense poverty all around him and the possibility of another
war was looming. The young Francesco looked for fresh pastures
to enjoy the rest of his life. It was a toss up between emigrating
to New York or London and he chose London. Johnnys father
was a talented musician with the rare gift of having perfect
pitch. He played the chromatic (button) accordion which was
favoured on the continent and Ireland but, due to its complexity
compared to the piano accordion, not popular with the virtuosi
in England. F. Walter invented the instrument in the 1850s.
It could play a 46-note chromatic scale and was, for its day,
Francesco Gregori arrived in
England in 1919, and met his future wife Maria Louisa Rossi
in 1922. They were engaged in Londons West End and got
married in the New Year of 1924 and Johnny was born later
that year. Francesco formed a band and got offered a job to
tour Europe. He had to play solo and was a great success.
Eventually, there were four other siblings in the family,
three sisters and a brother of which only one sister survives.
Johnny was sent to a Catholic convent school where he learnt
English. In the first four years of his life the family only
spoke Italian and French.
Eventually the family moved
from Camden Town to Acton Street in Kings Cross. At that time
the area was looking a bit tired but today, stuffed with solicitors
and financial advisors, worth a fortune. Londons Italian
community was growing in numbers and influence. There is a
close bond and great loyalty amongst the community. Many ran
clubs and restaurants all over the West End.
Slowly but surely Johnnys
father got engagements at dances. He also had a second string
to his bow and that was tuning and repairing instruments.
He eventually started a small business. Johnny used to watch
him and learned a lot. One day he picked up an accordion and
played an Italian march - he was about 7. The two parents
stood in awe. His mother said, "Send him to music lessons"
but his father was not in favour. He had a greater vision
for Johnny than "just being a musician".
In 1929 Francesco formed Gregori's
Novelty Trio, which became resident at the Quaglino brothers
famous Restaurant, and they remained there until 1940. Many
restaurant engagements followed including work in cinemas
where they had stage shows. He then became a Decca recording
artist and finally played top of the bill at The London Palladium
and the Holborn Empire. Johnny would accompany his dad to
The family moved to Clerkenwell
in 1929, and Mary sent him to Bowling Green Lane School which
had a reputation for music. He was taught to play Twinkle
Twinkle Little Star on the violin but Johnny did not
like this so Mum and Dad Gregory then found a lovely old man
called Mr Crisp who taught violin and by mere coincidence
also taught scriptwriter Frank Muir. He gave Johnny the basic
grounding on the instrument and this encouraged his interest.
Francesco got naturalised in 1930, changed his name to Frank
Gregory and formed a Tango Orchestra.
At the end of 1933 the family
moved to Kensal Rise, which was like being in the country
then and Johnnys whole life took a new turn. It was
the height of his fathers success. Frank got a car and
it was decided that Johnny should continue with his lessons.
It was too far for Mr Crisp to come, so he was sent to Carlo
de Rosa, who taught the violin. He was an excellent teacher
and gave Johnny some good books on technique, which he still
Then two heroes emerged, Joe
Venuti and Stephane Grappelli. It completely overwhelmed him
so he bought the music of Running Ragged and tried
to copy it. He was also helped by the fact that every month
Frank used to get a packet of music from publishers with the
latest popular orchestrations, and Johnny would go with him
to pick out the ones he liked. From these simple beginnings
he became an accomplished Jazz musician.
Johnny then mastered several
other instruments; finger style guitar which he taught himself,
but swiftly found that a plectrum was the key to making a
living. A friend of Frank Cavez, the accordionist, who had
a prize tenor sax started giving Johnny lessons. He often
left the instrument at Johnnys house. Unfortunately,
although the friend was educated in England, he was born in
Italy so the Government interned him. However, Johnny inherited
the tenor. He read the book and mastered the instrument. Four
years later he was good enough to play it on a broadcast.
He also learned clarinet, trumpet, trombone and piano.
By this time he was quite advanced
- more advanced, in fact, than his teacher. He started gigging
with his father and getting used to working with a band. He
thought it time he had some harmony and counterpoint lessons.
He went to the London College of Music in Great Marlborough
In the autumn of 1939 following
the declaration of war, the Government closed down virtually
all the places of entertainment. Nothing happened so, following
the phoney war, they gradually reopened and in Autumn 1941
Johnnys Dad started a band at the Normandy Hotel. He
wasn't very well at the time so Johnny would deputise for
him on occasions. He played for safety and didn't do anything
spectacular. Word got around and Paul Wood the violinist said:
"you play a good fiddle Johnny, can you do the same for me"?
So he depped for the violinist, who paid him a couple of pounds.
Joe, the guitar player, said: "you play the guitar Johnny,
can you do the same for me?" Finally the bass player said
"what about me?" John said, "I can't play the bass". "Yes
you can its just like a big fiddle." So Johnny obligingly
did what he could but by the end of the evening his fingers
were cut to ribbons due to the thickness of the bass strings.
At this time Johnny was studying
with Alfredo Campoli because Carlo de Rosa was not only interned
but also put on a ship to Canada that was torpedoed. Johnny
met Campoli in 1942. Frank, who was a friend of Campoli, brought
him to the theatre in the Haymarket where he was rehearsing,
and Johnny started lessons which changed his musical life
completely. He taught Johnny the meaning of music. However
a few years later Campoli and his family were considered enemy
aliens by the Government but, under the patronage of Ensa,
Campoli did a world tour among the troops and Johnnys
association with him ended.
In 1946 the Wellington Club
asked Johnnys Dad if he would go and play there because
they had heard that the band was finishing at the Normandy.
Frank declined but offered Johnny in his place. By then Johnny
had begun playing with various groups and met other instrumentalists
who would become the session men of the future. Malcolm Mitchell,
the guitar player, and a pianist everyone seemed to be talking
about, who played both great jazz and Debussy, Steve Race.
One Sunday Johnny went to a
jam session at a friends house and there was a kid playing
clarinet and he was very good. So Johnny said. "Can you read
music" and he said. "I am at the Royal Academy." It was Johnny
Dankworth. They both got together and with Ken Moule on piano
and a bassist, made a record. Johnny did an arrangement and
Dankworth did an arrangement and they all sang a trio on it.
They didn't get the job at the audition because they got called
up for National Service the week they were due to start the
Eddie Kasner took him on as
an arranger and on the morning he started he bumped into Ron
Goodwin; Geoff Love joined these two later. Johnny had no
formal training in arranging, just a natural aptitude. For
him arranging was not the fulfilment of his ambition, which
was to be an orchestral composer. Because money was in short
supply his father couldn't afford the fees to send him to
college during the war. To make up for this he used to go
to Foyles and browse around the books. He found two books,
one on orchestration, a great bible by Cecil Forscyth called
"Orchestration" which detailed all the instruments of the
orchestra and their capabilities. And the other by Dr. Gordon
Jacobs which told one how to voice instruments in the orchestra.
From those two Johnny was able to work the rest out for himself.
The first arrangement he undertook
when he got to Kasner, because nobody else wanted to do it,
was a number called If I ever love Again for the
BBC Revue Orchestra. Frank Cantell was conducting and it was
for full orchestra with violins, violas, bass, woodwind, French
horns, harps, and percussion. If Johnny had learned anything
it would be discovered now. He went down to the broadcast
and Frank Cantell said, "what a beauty" and from then on he
wanted Johnny to do much more. He walked out of the studio
as though he was dancing on air. Frank was the BBC Revue Orchestra's
conductor with quite a lot of influence. The next arrangement
was for Lew Stone and his band. This was completely different
from the Revue Orchestra. It was for eight brass, five saxes,
piano and rhythm section. Again he triumphed and Lew wanted
more and from there it just escalated. He subsequently did
arrangements for the great Geraldo, Ambrose, Maurice Winnick,
Stanley Black, Edmundo Ross, Cyril Stapleton and many others..
After doing a year arranging
with Kasner, he was head hunted and became chief arranger
for Southern Music which also lasted a year. In 1949 Johnny
met Joan, his wife to be. From this union four siblings were
produced: Paul in 1955, Ann in 1957, Jane in 1959 and David
in 1965. Johnny decided to go freelance. He was beginning
to get known by publishers and record companies. In any one
week he would be working on arrangements for HMV, Decca, MGM
and Pye, Somebody mentioned that Jack Baverstock, Artist and
Repertoire Manager of Oriole and Embassy records, was looking
for an MD. Jack was a smooth operator with thinning, neatly
cut, well Brylcreamed hair, suits that looked if they were
poured onto his body and a long cigarette holder. Jack called
Johnny to meet him at Oriole in 1954. A new label was being
launched, Embassy Records, an economy 78rpm product for sale
exclusively in Woolworths. Johnny, and another musical
director called Ken Jones were to provide the arrangements
and Baverstock would direct the sessions.
It was the beginning of the
"Chinese Copy" era. As soon as any popular record looked like
it was going into the charts, Johnny or Ken would adapt the
arrangements from the disc and a singing artist was chosen
who could mimic the original artist. They were cranking out
8 records or 16 numbers a week and all had to be finished
during the session, no remixing in those days. They were then
pressed and in Woolworth stores within five to six days. Many
turned out to be better than the originals, and with a nationwide
network of Woolworth stores to distribute them, they sold
in their tens of thousands.
Johnny was also working with
EMI and Decca at that time and was known around the studios.
Many would ask why he was going to Embassy. The answer, it
was great experience doing three or more sessions a week,
and he met all the great musicians. Jack Peach the drummer
was one of the chief fixers and Ken Jones originally played
piano on Johnnys sessions. Eventually, Ken wanted to
go solo and was replaced by Gordon Franks, a close friend,
and then Ronnie Price who did every session with Johnny for
the next 30 years. The Rita Williams Singers and latterly
Mike Sammes Singers always provided the backing group. Johnny
also created Nino Rico, a fictitious Latin American Orchestra
leader, the precursor of Chaquito. A 10" LP was released on
Oriole. Had the record received the marketing attention it
deserved then fate may have taken a different course.
Morris Levy, Managing Director
of Oriole and Embassy never expected the phenomenal success
of "Chinese copies". Morris was a careful businessman; he
could see this might be a "South Sea Bubble", but with the
occasional hit from Oriole like Freight Train
Nancy Whisky and Chas McDevitt, or We will make
love with Russ Hamilton, their factories at Aston and
Colnbrook often ran out of capacity. Eventually, he had to
invest in new plant, but he covered his bets with a contract
to do the overflow for Decca and EMI.
In 1956 Jack Baverstock moved
from Oriole/Embassy to Philips to become Artists and Repertoire
manager at the new Fontana label, and Reg Wharburton replaced
him. Johnny followed Jack to Philips on the promise of working
for a front line label and to gain recognition for his talents.
Morris Levy was devastated; he offered Johnny carte blanche.
Johnny reassured him that he was not under contract to Fontana
and could service both companies if the need arose. Johnny
actually continued with Oriole /Embassy for a further two
to three years. The decision to intensify his activities at
Fontana was fortuitous, because CBS, who had their records
pressed at Oriole, took the company over and asset stripped
At the beginning the days at
Philips and Fontana were like a breath of fresh air for Johnny.
No more treadmill arranging through the night to keep the
Embassy cauldron bubbling. Special instructions would come
from Eindhoven for their Far Eastern market. Theo Van Donglen,
A&R in Eindhoven, gave Johnny albums of class and distinction.
"Melodies of Japan" was a classic example. Few of these melodies
had ever been written down; they were usually committed to
memory and passed on from one generation to the next. Those
that had been were often incomplete. Johnny carefully read
the music but had to conjure up and resolve melodies from
his own experience, using ethnic instruments and percussion.
The album was distributed throughout Asia, the U.S.A. and
Then many series of easy listening
LPs were commissioned with the Cascading Strings, which he
formed, and the final blockbuster "Chaquito" which outshone
every Latin American Orchestra from Argentina to Mexico. From
1956 to 1960 Johnny was riding high but the illusive "Star"
recognition, he deserved, still had to be stamped on the record
buying public. It was at this point Johnny thought it was
time to move on.
He always admits he is a musician
first and businessman second. His Italian ancestry precluded
any type of confrontation when it came to the work that he
enjoyed. Arthur Rye, an extremely successful Solicitor and
amateur military band composer, met Johnny by chance, and
he agreed to arrange some of Ryes melodies which were
subsequently played by the Kneller Hall School of Music. (I
had a hand in this because I recorded them.) Eventually, the
recordings filtered through to Arthur Rye who became very
excited and offered Johnny free premises in South Moulton
Street. Rye employed a mysterious Mr Gaudini who would look
after things and prepare the office, piano and so on. For
a brilliant composer/arranger, who felt the world had forgotten
him, (shades of Mozart), this location, in the centre of Mayfair,
was too valuable to pass up. He eagerly discussed with Gaudini
the idea of having a studio to make independent records, a
gold label for classics and another pop label. The days of
Label Artiste and Repertoire Managers controlling catalogues
was slowly being eroded by the emergence of powerful pop groups,
with their own independent managements that could sell their
product to the highest bidder.
They called me (Bill Johnson),
and with Dag Fjelner, a Swedish audio engineer, we built a
studio in nine months. As petty cash was not readily to hand
I paid for everything in the Studio. Suffice it to say, I
spent £15,000 of my own cash and Johnny got a salary of £20
a week. Johnny had to live off his royalties between 1965
and 1970. He got into debt and generally was very depressed.
Johnny really needed a strong agent/manager. In 1963 a Godsend
arrived in the name of Beverly Jane Campion. Educated at the
Lycee, a trained stenographer and destined for the diplomatic
service, she joined Ryemuse and began organising the office
and generally protecting Johnny from time wasters.
Work elsewhere started to dry
up for Johnny and even Jack Baverstock did not call him. When
he did finally call, he became upset that Johnny was doing
his own thing.
Beverly eventually became Johnny's
partner in Arpeggio Music, negotiating the contracts, doing
the fixing, acting as copyist with Joan, Johnny's wife, and
generally running the Gregory road show. In 1970 Arpeggio
was the first company to enable musicians from both sides
of the Atlantic to play together,
Jack as A&R of Fontana was
able to push work to Johnny but did nothing about it. As soon
as Johnny looked as if he was going his own way he offered
him the Fritz Kreisler Tribute Album, a double string Album,
and four new Chaquito albums, recorded between 1959 and 1964
- probably the best he has ever made.
However, the Ryemuse episode
was not the golden opportunity that Johnny had imagined. It
emerged that Solicitor Rye had bought up leases and freeholds
throughout Mayfair just after World War 2. These cost peanuts
in the 40s but by the 70s profits were becoming
an embarrassment. Arthur Rye was now 80 and his death duties
would have rivalled the Beatles royalties. There was
obviously a need to find some form of tax loss enterprise
allegedly to launder money and Ryemuse probably provided the
golden opportunity. Where the cash actually went is not known
but when Johnny left Ryemuse he was broke again. It appeared
that crafty businessmen had taken advantage. Beverly moved
on with him and within five years sorted Johnny's finances
to the point where, although penniless, he was debt free.
Dick Levy replaced Jack Baverstock
at Philips. In 1974 Bev and Johnny signed a contract with
United Artists under the name of Arpeggio Music, and a new
one with Philips for three albums a year with Chaquito (for
which he made a total of 14 albums), and the Cascading Strings
The same year he signed a contract with the BBC to conduct
the prestigious Radio Orchestra. He maintains this was the
best time of his whole career. He went on as principal guest
conductor until 1991.
1976 saw Philips closed, and
work started to die out for most serious arrangers in the
middle eighties. Johnny conducted the LSO at Filmharmonic
85 with John Williams and John Scott, and two Royal Film Performances
in Leicester Square, and was presented to the Queen. He did
one film in 1989, one in 1991, one in 1994 and the last in
2002. At one time that would be about a months work.
His latest composition is a flute and string concerto, now
awaiting its debut.
Johnnys legacy has been
some of the finest string arrangements of modern times. In
addition he received the Ivor Novello Award for Introduction
and Air to a Stained Glass Window. The inspiration came
from a rest day that he and the Orchestra took from making
several albums for RCA in Paris. They all went to Chartres
Cathedral, and as they entered the Sun was shining through
a vast window set above the altar
Slowly a cloud emerged
and covered the Sun, changing all the colours in the nave.
This had an immediate impact on Johnny; he took the memory
home and six months later had the theme and melody worked
out. The Award winning work was recorded for United Artists
but, as Johnny humorously points out "its like receiving
an Oscar; you just don't get any decent work after that!"
Bill Johnson : 2004