All photos (c) Greg McCaffrey.  

 RONNIE STEPHENSONThe incredible Ronnie Stephenson. Born 26th January 1937 in Sunderland, England. I use the word incredible to describe Ronnie, and rightly so. A human dynamo. Just as any engine requires a prime power source to get it up and running, so the drummer in a band, especially a big band, kicks in that basic injection of energy. That clinch-pin in the groove. The time is common to all members of the band, it's all encompassing, the pulse of Creation itself, but in a big band, well........If the drummer ain't makin' it then quite simply - You haven't got a band.  I worked with Ronnie for a few short weeks in the Kurt Edelhagen Orchestra at the Deutsche Rund Funk Radio Station in Cologne, Germany, and had the good fortune of experiencing the magic of Ronnie Stephenson's incredible musicality first hand. That was in 1970. He had the lot. Everything a drummer could wish for. Amazing technical ability, an incredible sense of time, power and positiveness when he played, and the gift of being able to play tight but loose, to let it all hang out. We'd be listening to the playback of some heavy Woody Herman arrangement that the band had just recorded and Ronnie would jump up and down and start shakin' his ass. On the playback, great brass figures are being nailed in place. The tempo is way up and jumping. Saxes are wailing, the rhythm section is steaming, the brass is screaming, Ronnie starts filling on the turn-around, lifting the band to to an insane pitch then........Smack !  Back to the top and molto pianissimo while the groove softens down for a harmon- mute trumpet solo. Ah the feel, the sensitivy, the sense of togetherness, that magic time that is timeless, the wonder and the miracle of the Great unspoken language- Music. And at the centre of it all is Ronnie, and like I say, there he is shaking his ass to the playback .   Ronnie was a musician. That sounds like I'm stating the obvious, but when Ronnie propelled the Edelhagen band along, that band was in his hands. Kurt counted the band in, sure, but from the moment the guys played, it was down to Ronnie whether the band made it or not. That is one helluva responsibilty. Ronnie was Mr Positive. He was also very strong physically.



                    Ronnie Verrell and Ronnie Stephenson

You know, when a big band is recording in a studio you still have to let it blow "live" - like it does in concert, otherwise it doesn't get results. The engineer can't say to a section " Although that passage should be ff  play it pp and we'll lift the volume later. "  Oh no, none of that. I repeat, the band must have the freedom to   "give it one " when required, the freedom to perform.  The experience in a studio can be quite devastating, simply because the band is playing in a confined space.  A drummer requires guts, nerve, will, sensitivity, power, and great musical ability to pull it off, plus a sense of "command" without being dictatorial. What's that you say ? Not many are blessed with all of that ? You are quite correct - there aren't many, but the great Ronnie Stephenson was so blessed. Have a look at the company he kept musically. Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Zoot Sims, Roland Kirk, Mel Torme, Tubby Hayes, Victor Feldman, Quincy Jones, Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan,  Ted Heath, Jack Parnell, Ella Fitzgerald, Ronnie Scott, Joe Pass, and I must apologise, I just don't have room for the names of all the great Artists he has worked with.  Ronnie started playing drums when he was 14 years old, but originally wanted to be a dancer like his idol, Gene Kelly, in fact he took up tap-dancing when he was 11 years of age.


 He claims to have bought his first drum kit, had his first lesson, and played his first gig all in the same week ! His father was a tremendous source of encouragement to him and both of his brothers were pianists. His first professional gig was with Pat Rose at the Seaburn Hall. He also worked with his brother Billy's band and later gigged with the Ray Chester Sextet in the Sunderland area. He was conscripted into the Army and served in The Royal Signals Band , playing music of course, and was demobbed in 1957. He then moved to Aberdeen where he had played with the Les Thorpe band and followed this by joining Don Smith's band in Luton, England. He then played in a variety of jobs including "Winston's Club " in London, backing artists such as Ronnie Corbett and Danny La Rue. In 1958 he moved to Newcastle and put the "EmCee Five" together with brothers Mike and Ian Carr, bassist Malcolm Cecil, { who later went on to produce some of Stevie Wonder's brilliant Albums } and the incredible Scottish saxophonist Gary Cox. That band was described as the best jazz group ever put together outside London, and had the distinction of being one of the very few provincial bands to sign with a major label. One track recorded was " Stephenson's Rocket" and with hindsight it appears to have been a portent of things to come,  for Ronnie Stephenson's career did rocket indeed. In 1960 He joined the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra and it was around then that I first heard Ronnie play. I was with Eddie Calvert at the time, performing at a Charity Show, and JD's orchestra was on the same bill. Oh dear, oh dear. I just couldn't believe it. I'd never been that close to a big band before. I was standing in the wings, listening, and I was just blown away with what the young drummer was doing. Our own drummer, Bobby Adrian, whispered " That's Ronnie Stephenson" in my ear, and I never forgot that name.  Ronnie could reach peaks of playing that were awe inspiring. You just got carried away. I worked with him on many occasions over the years in recording, tv, radio  etc and he could handle literally any musical genre, from "Get Down and Boogie" to the most complex classical orchestration. It didn't matter, he was also an accomplished percussionist. It was all music to Ronnie. He was the consumate musician. He eventually took over the drum chair in the Jack Parnell Orchestra and could be heard regularly on ITV's most successful show - "Sunday Night At The London Palladium." 


In 1963 He joined the Stan Tracy Trio working as the House band at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club where he accompanied many great visiting Jazz artists including some of those previously mentioned.   In fact from 1963 onwards, Ronnie's career just simply took off. He was one of the most sought after session players in the business. A sign of his great versatility was his ability to run a second career in the session business parallel to his Jazz work. As I said, he was in great demand as a session drummer and recorded on countless big hits with artists such as Petula Clarke, Shirley Bassey, and Tom Jones .  He featured with Laurie Johnson's orchestra on the Decca label, worked the drum chair with the legendary Ted Heath Orchestra, and played on Ringo Starr's first solo Album !  He also recorded the the classic " Drum Spectacular" with Kenny Clare in 1966. He toured Germany with Tom Jones in 1969 and and then took up the resident drum chair with the Edelhagen Band after moving  to Cologne with his wife Jean, daughter Kim, and son Carl.  Like I said, not long after that I worked beside him in the radio station and spent a week with him and his Family at their home just outside Cologne. I was treated like one of the family and that time occupies a very special place in my memory. Ronnie had a lovely nature. He was very normal with no bullshit about him. Never talked or acted big time, in fact he was always the first to shoot down that kind of stuff. I like "normal" people. I find that The Real Superstars in Life, and in the business, are those who are the most unassuming and generally, the most modest of people, such a man was Ronnie Stephenson. He had enough talent for ten drummers and he enjoyed nothing better than a chat over a cup of tea and a smoke in the studio canteen, just talking talk with the guys, or joking with the tea ladies and telling me that he had to remember to pick up some minced beef for Jean to cook supper that night, then we'd be off to the movies to see Lionel Bart's "Oliver."  Ordinary things. That's why they were so special.  The gloss and glitter of show business wears thin very quickly. It's the ordinary things, the human things we say and do, that have any real meaning. Ronnie had no pretensions about Himself, about Life, or about Music. They were all essentially the same thing and isn't that just about how it should be. He worked on various film scores including " Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Diamonds Are Forever", and frequently played on the " Morecambe and Wise Show".  After three years with the aforementioned Kurt Edelhagen band, he teamed up with pianist Paul Kuhn in Berlin and toured all over Europe with a variety of bands and artists. He joined the orchestra at the "Theatre des Westens" in Berlin in 1981 and remained there until ill health forced him to retire in 1995.  He took time off in 1992 to return to the UK  for a season with Mike Carr and guitarist Jim Mullen at Ronnie Scotts.He also taught percussion at the University of Berlin from 1990-93. On his retirement in 1995 he moved to Alyth, Perthshire, Scotland, so that he and his wife Jean could be closer to their daughter, Kim. He had taken up golf in Germany and continued to play in Scotland, becoming a member of Strathmore Golf Club. Very few members knew of Ronnie's International reputation. He was, as I say, a most modest and unassuming Man, and great fun socially.  I'll give you some info on Ronnie's jazz discography. You can experience Ronnie's incredible drumming on Tubby Hayes' Albums- "Just Friends" {Columbia} and " Change Of Setting" { World Record Club} featuring Jazz Luminary Paul Gonsalves, and "100% Proof " recorded with the big band on the      "Fontana" label. Ronnie also features on Stan Tracy's big band suite "Alice In Jazzland" {Columbia} and contributed to Ken Moule's "Adams Rib Suite" on the "Ember" label. Music is essentially a listening experience, and, like Life itself, is impossible to put into words. Do yourself a BIG favour ! Sell your TV and get some of this music. Get some Ronnie Stephenson into your ears and into your Soul.  To recap on Ronnie's retirement to Alyth in Perthshire, he met up with a gentleman by the name of Greg McCaffrey who became a great friend of Ronnie and his wife Jean. I must thank Greg for the material and photographs he so kindly contributed to this article...........Joe Moretti

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