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The man who kept Ronnie Scott's alive: The life story of Pete King
Pete King, who died aged 80 on December 20, was the driving force behind Britain's leading jazz venue, Ronnie Scott's. While the club he set up was named after his business partner, Pete was responsible for the day to day running of the famed venue, while his friend Ronnie was the on-stage front man.
He was born in Bow, on August 23rd 1929., and took up the clarinet and sax as a teenager, being given lessons by Vera Lynn's father in law, Harry Lewis.
Pete began an apprenticeship as a coach builder for London buses, but soon decided his calling was that of a professional musician. After plkayign professionally for many years, he became the manager of the Jazz Couriers in 1957, with Scott as lead Sax player. The pair would often discuss opening their own club, modeled on the New Orleans honky tonks Scott had visited, and with a loan from Scott's stepfather, they found what they were looking for in a dingy basement in Gerrard Street. King had a reputation for taking no nonsense, and he had the back up to ensure running a jazz club in a notoriously shady neighbourhood went smoothly.
He would tell a story of how he was visited by Albert Dimes, an underworld figure,. who had known Ronnie as a boy and was friends with his family. He gave Ronnie and Pete a bottle of champagne, and told them that if they ever had any trouble, the cause of strife was to be told to return the following day and discuss any 'issues' they had with their fellow director, Mr Albert Dimes.
The origins of the club can be traced back to a night at St Pancras Town Hall in 1947.
On Saturday nights the Town Hall staged dances, with a resident band led by Jack Oliverie. It was semi-professional and a member of the saxophone section was Pete King. Occasionally the town hall management booked ‘name’ bands, one of which was led by accordionist Tito Burns with Ronnie Scott in the line-up. Ronnie and Pete had not previously met but this casual meeting led to a friendship when they met almost weekly in Archer Street, a small thoroughfare connecting Great Windmill Street and Rupert Street in then rundown Soho. This became an open-air social club and labour exchange for a wide variety of musicians in the numerous dance bands, professional and semi-professional, throughout the country.
As ‘The Street’ was a source of employment, it was named in the Melody Maker, the weekly bible of the profession, as the ‘street of hope’. It was from here the pair got employment with drummer Jack Parnell’s big band. It diod not last: when Parnell engaged a girl vocalist, Marian Keene, she insisted on her husband, a tenor saxophonist, joining. Pete was given the sack.
As a measure of his popularity, half the band gave their notice, an action of which Pete had no knowledge.
At the time many convinced jazzmen were, to earn a living, compelled to play straightforward dance music. Pete and Ronnie yearned for a place where they could play jazz and only jazz, and so on October 29th 1959 Ronnie Scott’s Club was born in a decrepit basement in Gerrard Street. They soon ran into difficulties with more of the their friends turning up ‘for a blow’ than paying members of the public and a possible solution would be the employment of famed US musicians, but this was prevented by the British Musicians’ Union leaning on the Ministry of Labour to ban all foreign musicians. This was the result of a long-standing tussle between the American and British unions, the British union insisting on reciprocal bookings of British musicians in America, but the truth of the matter was that whereas the British jazz fans eagerly welcomed American visitors, that feeling did not exist in the United States.
In 1965, a hazy agreement was reached in that American bands appeared here provided British bands appeared in the United States on a reciprocal basis, but this did not apply to individual musicians, the musicians that Ronnie and Pete urgently desired to keep the Club going.
On an economy flight, Pete went to America to meet up with the American Federation of Musicians, led by a famed figure with contacts in the American underworld, Caesar Petrillo. Pete’s aim was to get reciprocal agreements regarding individual musicians and he recalled that Petrillo and his fellow operators were fascinated by East Ender King’s Cockney accent and, quickly realising this, Pete over-exaggerated this aspect of his speech and it resulted in the booking of tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims playing four weeks at Ronnie Scott’s Club, with a marked increase in attendance. It was the beginning of a long series of booking the American greats and the Club becoming financially viable.
Pete, while still blowing his sax, took on the job as manager. He had total control and worked punishing hours. He would arrive at the Club at 2pm to deal with the day’s business and leave at 3am the following morning.
Music writer and jazz promoter Jm Godbolt worked withy Pete for 26 years, and recalls his attitude: “I’ve dug this hole for myself and I’ve got to lie in it’, he said when I pointed out how hard he worked,” recalls Jim.
“There’s no doubt that without his presence and sheer determination Ronnie Scott’s Club would never have survived the many problems they encountered. He was blunt, forceful and at times overwhelming, but it was his strength of character that proved to be so vital in an area where there was a high mortality rate.”
Pete would not take any nonsense from any one, and the musicians he booked appreciated this fact.
He was proud of the fact that there was very little trouble on the premises he was running but when the occasion arose he felt he had to ‘steam in’. Built like an ox, barrel-chested and fearless, the recipient of his ‘steaming in’ would soon realise how forbidding he could be. He was greatly regarded by musicians because they knew that if they appeared at Ronnie’s they would be promptly paid.
Pete sold the Club to theatre impresario Sally Greene in 2007 and his punishing routine over the years showed – in his latter days he suffered from dementia. He died on December 20th and it was sad that when the Club reached its fiftieth birthday, widely mentioned in the press, radio and television, that he was unable to participate or appreciate the tributes.