John Russell ‘Jack’ Parnell was born into a showbiz family in London’s Paddington on August 6th, 1923. His mother was an accomplished classical pianist who accompanied his father, Russ Carr, who was a ventriloquist – as indeed was Jack’s grandfather Fed Russell. One of his uncles was Val Parnell who ran all the theatres for Moss Empires, another was Arch Parnell who was a theatrical agent who also looked after Sid Field, who was a very famous comedian during the forties.
Jack was raised in Wembley and, like a great many other showbiz kids, he was sent to boarding school so his parents could comply with the law on education and also get on with their show business. Of course he was able to be on the road with his parents during the holidays and it was from an advantaged position in the wings at the end of the twenties that he saw his first big bands and decided he wanted to do that. He had been having piano lessons from the age of four and could pick-up tunes easily but knew he wanted to be a drummer.
When Jack was ten years old his parents took him to see Duke Ellington at The London Palladium with Sonny Greer on drums and that was it – he knew what he wanted to be. He consequently bought every Ellington record as soon as it was available. His passion became drums and at 15 his mother made a wise investment in a Premier kit which she bought from the window cleaner for £15 – this was quite a lot of money for a second-hand kit.
Jack invested in a lot of records along with half-a-dozen lessons from Max Abrams before he headed off to Scarborough for a summer season at one of the Yorkshire seaside town’s theatres. He went straight from there to a residency at a ballroom in Cambridge.
This was not long before World War II broke out and a rather young Parnell immediately volunteered for the Air Force, where his musical skills got him a gig with the RAF band run by Buddy Featherstonhaugh (pronounced Fanshawe) with whom he toured and recorded during the war. He and Vic Lewis impressed one of the A&R men at EMI who helped them set up ’Vic Lewis – Jack Parnell Jazzmen’. As this, they recorded several Chicago-style jazz records during and after the war. Jack was invalided out of the Air Force in 1944 because of an ulcer and Ted Heath hired him to play with him in a band which mostly played ‘smooth’ music. All this changed once the musically adventurous Jack joined them.
Jack Parnell had what were at the time called ‘matinee idol’ looks like Clark Gable (and perhaps more pertinently) Gene Krupa and was consequently mobbed outside stage doors, something he actively hated. He would struggle to get away from the autograph hunters and eventually make good his escape by saying he had to put his drums away! He was without a doubt a brilliant drummer having won the Melody Maker best drummer poll seven times in succession in the forties and fifties. Unusually for a drummer he could actually sing and often did, although he much preferred up-tempo numbers like ‘Route 66’ – I’m guessing it wasn’t the Chuck Berry version but the far more ‘jazzy’ Nat ‘King’ Cole one.
He became a family man and left the Heath band in 1951 to do his own thing called: ‘Jack Parnell And His Band’. They covered Dizzy Gillespie’s tune “The Champ” in 1952 and created a tour de force with Jack playing with Phil Seamen – you can check this out on YouTube. He always had great drummers in his band to help out while he played the role of the leader and besides Seamen, Alan Ganley, Bobby Orr, and Kenny Clare all joined him in a double drum solo when they were in the band. He eventually did tours to far-flung corners of the world and his band was absolutely stuffed full of great players including (amongst a great many others) Ronnie Scott, Pete King and Tubby Hayes. The band had actually become famous in America, so much so that an American recording engineer tracked the band down to Glasgow and personally handed-over dozens of pieces of music which composers in the New World wanted them to record – free of charge. Such was the esteem the band was held in there.
The bottom was rapidly falling out of the Big Band scene and beat-groups were taking their place rock ‘n’ roll and skiffle. 1956 was a difficult time for jazz and Big Band musicians and it should have been the same for Jack, but as it transpired, it wasn’t. The next thing that happened to Jack Parnell to eventually made him a house-hold name (certainly in most British people’s houses) every Sunday evening for seven years.
Independent Television had just been launched as the only alternative to the BBC’s monopoly of TV broadcasting and Jack’s uncle Val had taken charge of a new company called ATV which was very much a leading light in the movement. Jack soon realised where the future for himself and his band lay – they became an orchestra! He was appointed ATV’s Musical Director and stayed in the job for a quarter of a century and his first gig was a Max Bygraves Special. Before long though he found himself conducting in the pit for a hugely successful, eagerly awaited weekly live outside-broadcast programme called ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’.
Of course after all the years of conducting he had become distinctly rusty on the drums by the time he’d retired and moved to Southwold. This was when Central took over from ATV around 1982. He played a lot of golf but was anxious to get back to his first love – playing the drums.
His first set had been the window cleaner’s Premier and for many years he’d been the ‘poster boy’ for Ajax drums during their heyday. But things had moved on over the last quarter of a century and the Boosey and Hawkes company which made Ajax had closed down in the sixties. Desperate to get back to playing he bought himself a Gretsch ‘Stop Sign’ drum kit and set about what he freely admitted was the difficult task of getting back to becoming the player he’d once been. Before long though, he was performing again. Sometimes he led his own band but mostly he toured with the ‘Best of British Jazz Ensemble’ with Kenny Baker. He did this up until he was 84.
John Russell ‘Jack’ Parnell had a very long and distinguished career as a drummer, a bandleader, a conductor, and a composer with various memorable TV theme tunes to his name like “Love Story”, “The Golden Shot” and “Family Fortunes”. The internet is full of interesting things about him – if you’re of a mind to look. If I were to list all the musicians who have played with Jack over his forty year career and it would look like a who’s who of the very cream of the UK’s players. As far as working with the rest of the world’s artists are concerned Sammy Davis Jr, Lena Horne, Barbra Streisand, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Billie Holliday immediately spring to mind although there were many more. Incidentally, Jack was always knocked out by Buddy Rich’s playing and it was he who organised the Muppet’s drum battle between Buddy and Animal aka Ronnie Verrell when he was both the programme’s MD and the orchestra’s conductor.
I met Jack a few times when I was playing with Adam Faith, whose road-manager Bert Harris, had once been the driver of Jack’s band bus. In the eighties Jack took part in a programme I wrote for BBC Radio 4 called ‘The Drum’ where we discussed the rights and wrongs of electronic drums and drum machines, which had become a burning issue at the time. Like the rest of his generation of drummers, Jack wasn’t keen on them at all.
Two of his sons, Ric and Marc, are drummers. Ric is infamous for spontaneously combusting as Mick Shrimpton in ‘This is Spinal Tap’.
Jack Parnell died from cancer brought on by heavy smoking on August 8th, 2010