THE DEATH OF A FAMOUS BROADCASTER WHO LOVED THE
MANCHESTER JAZZ SCENE AND ITS PERFORMERS - PETER WHEELER.
By Joe Silmon-Monerri
A very large number of people, made up mostly of musicians, vocalists and fans from the Manchester Jazz scene, will no doubt be as shocked as I was, to hear about the death of a great fan of Jazz and of Manchester's Jazz bands and its musicians, since at least the very early 1960s, when I first met him. He was the very well-known radio and TV broadcaster Peter Wheeler, who among all of his other duties, was presenting Jazz bands on Regional BBC programmes from BBC Broadcasting House, Piccadilly, Manchester, by 1962, when I first met him during a the broadcast of a band that I was in. He suffered a massive heart-attack on the 18th of May this year, and died shortly afterwards. I only found out when I tried to get in touch with him at his company, Peter Wheeler Associates, in the Knutsford area, to see if he would do a presentation about my forthcoming book. It had been possibly only days before he died, when I had been in touch with him for a second time this year, when I wasn't quite ready for the presentation discussions. His Secretary told me the news yesterday (27th July). He leaves behind his widow, Pat (although someone said her name was Di), his son Nick, daughter Joanne, Christopher and Alistair, as well as nine grandchildren. I have already presented my condolences to his family. If it was in the press/TV, etc., I must have missed it because my feet haven't touched the ground much recently.
The last time I saw Peter in person, was after a lapse of about twenty years. That was at Johnny Roadhouse's funeral, a little over a year ago, where his brother Geoffrey Wheeler, read out a beautiful eulogy to Johnny. We also bumped into banjoist Howard Shepherd and ex-mainstream Old-Fashioned Love Band drummer (from Randy Colville's version of the band), Frank Gibson, saxist Brian Crowther, Jeff Logue, and others. But Peter looked so fit and well, almost unchanged from when I had last bumped into him in 1988 or 1989, that it is very difficult to believe that he has left us. I was in Manchester up to 1989, when I left to be a Government Linguist at Cheltenham. Peter had always known me as a Jazz musician. That's how and why we first met at Studio One in Piccadilly in January 1962; he was the Presenter and Trevor Hill, his Boss, was the Producer of the Jazz programme that Tony Smith's Jazzmen were playing on. Peter and most of the members of the band, remained good friends ever since, but our paths (Peter's and mine) never crossed often enough for my liking, as he was always such great company whenever we met over drinks or a meal; but we were both so busy in our separate work commitments, meetings were limited to coincidence. I had recently been, probably very shortly before he died, trying to agree with him on a day to have a meal together, somewhere in the Knutsford area (although I live in Longsight, Manchester now), with a view to discussing the promotion of a book that is, as I write, being published in the USA. He would have been absolutely ideal for the presentation, especially since he had known me so long, and knew for decades all about the research I had been doing on the book. He was happy for me that it was about to hit the presses. I am deliberately not mentioning the title of my book or any other details; it would be highly inappropriate here.
I also wanted to be able to give him something back for the favours he did, with pleasure and for no monetary gain whatsoever, for not only myself, but many members of the local Jazz scene. In my case, this was in the shape of two presentations at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, both during the late 1960s, when the Jazz band that I was playing in - The Zenith Six - did a couple of two-band shows with, sharing the stage with 1) Chris Barber's Jazz Band and 2) a very prominent northwest-based folk group - The Four Folk. On both occasions, Peter came along, gave all concerned a magnificent build-up in his impeccable and thoroughly professional style, that really set the ball rolling! He infused us with tremendous belief in ourselves and a teenage-like enthusiasm, to perform at our very best. And, when the counting up of all the empty seats was weighed up at the end of the evening, knowing that we hadn't even broken even on the finances (our bands were running the concert privately, with limited capital and at great risk), he would not on either occasion, accept a penny from anyone for his crucial contribution. This was especially magnanimous of him, being such a star broadcaster of his day, who could have commanded very high fees. The entire Jazz community in Manchester worshipped the ground Peter walked on, for that and ever so many other things he did selflessly, to help promote Jazz.
I now wanted Peter and his company to benefit from the promotion I was attempting to organise for my book - a self-publishing/print-on-demand deal with a US publisher. They carry out promotion mainly in the USA and Canada, for which I had already paid large amounts extra. The British side was down to me; so Peter and his unique, highly polished broadcasting style, would have been the ideal candidate. Nothing would have given me greater pleasure. Even up to about April or May, he didn't want to charge me anything for the presentation. That was the way I have always remembered Peter; his last words to me about this matter, were "I'm not going to charge you for this, Joe". I have set money aside for promotion; so I carried on insisting; but we never got to that final stage, and in my concentration on the final preparation for publishing, I fell out of contact, and clearly missed seeing or hearing any news about his death. No longer being a member of the local Jazz scene, there are no 'grapevine' news trickling in, as they used to in Manchester's "golden era", probably because there are not many of us alive now. I am kicking myself for not having even made it to his funeral. He was such a special friend.
On a lighter note, I remember his wonderful sense of humour, his superb impersonation of regional dialects. At BBC, Broadcasting House, Piccadilly, Manchester, in the old "steam radio" days, before he read the news out aloud to the listeners, he would spend hours practising the texts and phrasing of the News in several, totally different and obtuse dialects. His "Geordie" was outstanding! (I know, because I was born in Newcastle!). And he would read the News out in several kinds of comedy phraseology, so he could remember everything better when he was doing it before the microphone. He would have everyone in stitches, as he could impersonate specific characters very well, and he was a marvellous raconteur. Peter remembered the names of hundreds of us musicians on the Manchester Jazz scene, and of other types of performers he met in other spheres of his broadcasting activities. His memory was remarkable. We all loved him to bits - in a masculine way - I hasten to add! He was a thorough gentleman and generous to a fault. A fan of "Crown Court", "What the Papers Say", "My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen" and other TV programmes in which he took part on Granada or the BBC, either as an actor or for voice-overs, my poor old Mum, Pepita, thought the world of Peter, and being a bit celebrity-mad, she almost swooned when I introduced her to Peter at the Free Trade Hall. She went away looking like a love-stricken teenager!
I shall always find time to pray for the eternal repose of his soul, while remembering his many quips and funny accents, which will make me giggle uncontrollably while praying. Belated though this may be, goodbye good Jazz-loving friend Peter. Look out for me at the local celestial Jazz club - if they allow sitters-in who play Mainstream, the evil flute and things!!!
Joe Silmon-Monerri, Manchester, UK. 28th July, 2010.
Saw on your associated site a lovely tribute to Peter Wheeler, and mention of the NDO. I had the pleasure of working with him on many occasions. Your readers might like to know of the NDO project, and the new NDO web site - see www.northerndanceorchestra.org.uk
Best wishes Ian R
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