Nick Duckett talks about the Harry South The Songbook – “…a British Quincy Jones”


Pub conversations can get you in a world of grief if you're not careful. Sometimes, however, they can be the start of something truly special. A year or so ago, Nick Duckett (pictured, above left), founder of the History of RnB Records label, was having a chat in The French House pub, a regular Soho haunt. One of the barmaids turned out to be Harry South's daughter and she mentioned that there were some old recordings of his knocking around the house.

"It took nearly six months of my life," Duckett explains over a sun-kissed lunchtime half at the French. "Harry wasn't one for documentation, so it meant a lot of listening, sending things off to different people, 'have a listen to this, who do you reckon is on this one?' There are few tracks where I couldn't find any info at all."

The result of all this diligent detective work is the recently released Harry South – The Songbook, a fine tribute to one of this country's greatest composers, bandleaders and arrangers. Duckett, like many of us, first became aware of South through Georgie Fame's 1966 Sound Venture album, recorded with the Harry South Big Band, and then via the Tubby Hayes connection. Both the Fame LP, finally issued on CD in 2015, and the Hayes documentary, A Man In A Hurry, from the same year, have done much to wave the flag for British jazz.

"There's a niche market of a few thousand fanatics that maybe wasn't there 10 years ago," Duckett says. "It's quite accessible for non-jazz nuts and it's a really good way into the wider culture." Like a British Quincy Jones, South continued to make a name for himself throughout the following decades working as an arranger and composer for television (and the occasional, ahem, adult film). But it's his work with Hayes, Joe Harriot, Dick Morrissey and other post-war Brit jazz heroes that's The Songbook's big pull.

Duckett's History of RnB Records has been busy making a name for itself with its wonderful Soho Scene series (currently up to 1963). Like all the best labels from times past, there's a real love of detail at work, from the stand-out cover designs to the extensive sleeve notes. The concept, one disc British, one disc American, provides a neat comparison of how the music was evolving on both sides of the Atlantic.

Future plans include a companion compilation to the BBC4 2008 documentary series Jazz Britannia, a Jazz Europa album and, possibly, a Jazz Japan release. Anything else? Duckett smiles and takes another sip of his beer. "I'm thinking about something on Johnny Birch. There's a tape knocking about..."

– Matt Barker

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