NOSTALGIA: Side Saddle star fell in love with Eastbourne

Do you remember Side Saddle, a catchy, jingly, number one hit played by a tall, handsome man with blue eyes and a dazzling smile that sent all his female fans, including me, weak at the knees?

Sunday, 2nd July 2017, 1:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:41 am
Pianist Russ Conway's dazzling smile sent his female fans weak at the knees

The pianist – Russ Conway. He could belt out tunes in his own unique style that had everyone toe tapping.

In 1959 Side Saddle was in the UK pop charts for an incredible 30 weeks, reaching the No 1 position for four of them along with another of his own compositions, Roulette, which in 1960 won him a prestigious Silver Disc for sales of more than 250,000 records.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Russ had 17 successive chart hits and, in his 40 year show-biz career sold more than 30 million records.

From being an accompanist for stars of that time, like Joan Regan and Dorothy Squires, he was noticed by composer Norman Newell who worked for EMI and a recording contract was secured and Russ’ career took off.

From this came a regular spot with television’s highly popular Billy Cotton Band Show, where his smiles to the camera were played to the maximum and women viewers were swooning in front of their TV screens.

He had his own programme, topped the bill at the London Palladium, starred at a number of Royal Command Performances and on December 7 1959 was the guest of This is Your Life.

And yet, Russ Conway’s life was in two halves; although a favourite entertainer of the Queen Mother, in receipt of 3,000 fan letters a week, 17 consecutive chart hits, earning “£1,000 a week, with a Rolls Royce, a Surrey mansion and servants and getting cheques from my agent for £27,000 and think nothing of it”, this ‘housewives favourite,’ who oozed sex appeal with his devastatingly good looks, had a personal life that was far away in the opposite direction.

Born in Bristol on September 2 1925, one of three brothers, his real name was Trevor Herbert Stanford. Encouraged by his mother, he played the piano as a youngster but never had any formal training.

Aged 10, he won a scholarship to the choir of Bristol Cathedral School, but was thrown out for “pinching things from the headmaster’s study and the boys distanced themselves from me because they could see what was coming”.

He then went on to work in a solicitor’s office. This was followed by a three-year stint in borstal at the age of 15, for the theft of money “I found in a packet”. Here he whiled away the time by playing around with the piano in a self-taught style.

After his release he joined the Merchant Navy Training School as a galley boy saying, “I don’t know what the attraction was but I always wanted to get over the horizon”.

In 1942 he enlisted in the Royal Navy as a signalman. This was during the war years and he was involved in minesweeping operations in the Aegean and Mediterranean and was awarded the DSM for ‘gallantry and devotion to duty’.

He described one of the scariest jobs was to cope with “mines that had popped up to the surface just a few feet away from the ship and we’d be leaning over the side with boat hooks to push them away”.

Russ found civilian life difficult to adjust to and took on a series of casual jobs.

Although his name had been linked to a number of attractive women, Russ’ relationships came to nothing until he fell in love with Hazel, the secretary of his fan club. They got engaged to be married but, in a cruel twist of fate, whilst he was performing in South Africa she died in hospital after an operation for a minor complaint.

He later recalled, “I loved her dearly. She was the one I was going to marry, but after her death any thoughts of marrying anyone went out the window. I could never go through that heartbreak again.”

He fell back on his old skills at piano playing. In spite of the fact he had lost the top of a finger whilst using a bread cutting machine, his playing was never affected and he gained the trademark of the ‘nine-fingered pianist’.

Spotted by choreographer Irving Davies belting out tunes in a club, Russ became a regular performer on the popular Billy Cotton Band Show which went out live each week. His appearances were upped to four times a week, but the strain began to tell. “I was losing the spark, the enjoyment of it”.

At the beginning his heart-stopping smile was natural but pushed by the producers, he was asked, almost ordered, to “smile to the camera, which involved grinning every 16th bar and it just looked false”.

His work schedule was relentless. Besides the TV appearances, he was playing to packed-out theatres all around the country. But this acutely sensitive man constantly carried a load of self-doubt, even when he had top billing at the London Palladium.

“I was so nervous about appearing that I wrote to the chief clerk in the purser’s office at P&O Shipping lines asking if I could have my old job back as a baggage steward. He told me not to be a bloody fool.”

At the height of his fame in 1963 Russ fell down the steps of his basement flat and splintered his hip bone, a fragment piercing his sciatic nerve. After an operation he should have had at least three months recuperation, but his agent would have none of it and sent him to Scarborough to continue his summer season.

The damaged sciatic nerve forced his body into meltdown. During a performance “All my senses went wrong and I had the screaming ab-dabs, a nervous breakdown, in front of the audience.”

He tried to carry on the following night but, “I got through the show very badly but the audience knew and appreciated what was wrong. I was driven back home the next morning and had another breakdown the following afternoon”.

Russ believed that a stroke in 1965, which partly paralysed the left side of his face, causing it to droop, could be directly linked to the intense strain he had been under those previous years. His left hand had also been affected and, as he could no longer play as well as before, his agent had no choice but to agree to three months off to rest.

Russ exchanged his London home for a 14-room property in Surrey with a tennis court and stables. But the music scene had changed. “The Beatles were in and instrumentalists were out. My recording contract with EMI expired and work started to drop off. I hit rock bottom.”

In a state of depression he drank more than he should but encouraged by an old friend, Teddy Donoghue, he changed his agent, sold the Surrey home and moved back to London, and “everybody was making money again”.

In 1983 Russ came to Eastbourne to do a show for the summer season at the Hippodrome Theatre, in Seaside Road. This, he said, was one of the happiest times of his life. As he drove to the theatre each day, along the route he noticed a Spanish-style house near parkland and thought, ‘That’s a nice house, I’d like one like that.’

A few months later he spotted that very same building advertised for sale in an estate agent’s window; within six weeks he had sold his London home for more than a quarter of a million pounds and bought the three-bedroom property at 9a Decoy Drive, Hampden Park, Eastbourne for £62,000.

And the residents of Eastbourne took him to their hearts. He said, “I am accepted here and people recognise me and say hello. The town is a great joy and it is very friendly. I love living here and I wouldn’t go back to London for all the money in the world.”

Russ was a regular visitor to Wendylyn’s Pantry in Seaside, where he was a fan of her Cornish pasties and takeaway salads.

With an enormously likeable, friendly manner he loved to chat as we served him; he said as he lived right opposite the parkland of Hampden Park he had seriously thought about ‘getting a little dog so we could go for walks around the lake’.

At that time, as well as being a member of the takeaway staff, I was a part-time freelance writer, and he revealed to me that he wanted to write his life story. He’d already got a title, Mother, Was it Worth it?

“Have you got a publisher?” I asked. “No” he replied. I lent him a copy of Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book and advised him to have a browse through the informative contents. He felt he wasn’t entitled to all his success and money and found it hard to believe that any of the big publishing houses would beat a path to his door to buy the rights to his life story.

“I’ve written some of it,” he said, “but once I became Russ Conway my mind goes blank and I can’t get any further.”

As he lived near me, I offered to help get his writing show on the road again. Ever the gentleman he asked about a fee. I said, “All I ask is that when I come to your house I’d absolutely love you to play Side Saddle just for me.”

He had managed to make enough of a recovery from his stroke to be able to return to performing, although in a limited way. From here Russ’ life began to run smoothly, but in 1989 he began to experience severe stomach pains. Tests revealed he had cancer; although operated on successfully, a few months later the inner stitching burst open and a mesh was inserted to push his stomach back.

In 1990 at the Bristol Hippodrome he launched the Russ Conway Cancer Fund for children suffering from cancer-related illnesses. He was a tireless worker for many local and national charities and had close links with Eastbourne’s Hippodrome Theatre.

This ailing Victorian building’s restoration was, in part, paid for by Russ ‘because I cared for it’.

To celebrate his 75th birthday and 45 years in show business Russ Conway treated his audience of 1,700 adoring fans to an evening of nostalgia at the Congress Theatre on September 1 2000.

The tickets had sold out weeks previously; there were hundreds queued outside the theatre hoping for any returns and there was talk of another event in the future. But this was a magical night as he shared the stage with a number of celebrity performers including Dennis Lotis, Bill Buckley, Joan Regan, Bernie Clifton, Rosemary Squires and The Original Tiller Girls.

Russ said that he didn’t know whether to play new material or “give them the old stuff”. So he opted for nostalgia, the old favourites, his greatest hits, but he also played a spine-tingling interpretation of the Warsaw Concerto.

At the end of this smash hit, sell-out concert the company and audience sang Happy Birthday as Russ blew out the candles on a cake made by one of his fans. Afterwards he went to the Victoria House Rest Home in Polegate, where he had opened their fete in August, and gave them a chunk of this cake.

Just a month after this wonderful evening Russ was found collapsed at his home. His cancer had returned. Sackloads of mail and dozens of bunches of flowers were delivered to the Eastbourne DGH where he was being treated in Michelham Ward.

On November 16 2000 the nation was shocked to hear that he had died peacefully in his sleep, his elder brother, Ralph Stamford, by his bedside.

On December 6, after a service at St Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol, where he’d played the organ as a youngster, Russ was cremated in the city.

In Eastbourne, hundreds turned up at St Elisabeth’s Church, Victoria Drive, for the Russ Conway memorial celebrations, which had been arranged by Russ’ friends, Mike and Liz Ramsden. Many friends and stars turned up to a mix of religious tributes and a celebration of one special man’s life.

To finish the vicar of St Elisabeth’s, Father David Prout, sat at the piano and played some popular old songs for a sing-along, finishing with one of Russ’ greatest hits - Side Saddle.