TRIBUTES have been paid to an “extrovert” musician who played with The Beatles and Frank Sinatra.
Johnnie Gray found fame playing saxophone with Ted Heath’s Orchestra in the late 1940s before striking out on his own.
The charismatic performer, who died on Tuesday, aged 94, was later reputedly sacked from the band for wearing the wrong shirt at a performance, having arrived late from a cricket game.
It was just one of many anecdotes collected over a long career which also saw the Telscombe Cliffs resident record with Nat King Cole, Matt Monro, Dusty Springfield and Sarah Vaughan.
As a schoolboy in the Midlands, Mr Gray hated piano and cello lessons before finding his musical talent lay with the saxophone.
He was playing 14 shows a week with the Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra when he volunteered for the RAF during the Second World War and was invalided out in 1942 after injuring his legs in a plane crash.
He earned national plaudits playing for Billy Monk’s ten-piece New Rhythm Band before heading to London in 1943.
He played with Lou Preager’s Band at the Hammersmith Palais and moved to the revered orchestra of Bert Ambrose before Ted Heath came calling.
In January 1952 he had created his own five-piece outfit and then within a year his own ten-piece called Band of the Day, which rose to prominence on the back of their signature reworking of Oh! Johnny Oh! That led to television and radio performances as well as national and European tours.
In possibly the biggest compliment to his abilities, his band were chosen as the country’s representative in the 1955 American Federation of Musicians exchange tour, which saw him go Stateside while Count Basie and his Orchestra came to England in return.
The popularity of big bands dropped in the 1960s and Mr Gray opened an instrument repair shop. He became a booking agent before becoming a freelance session musician to the stars of the day.
He was eventually forced to quit playing because of crippling arthritis and retired to Telscombe Cliffs where he became a popular figure with his distinctive handlebar moustache. In later life, accolades came to crown his career as he was made a freeman of Coventry and London.
In 1995 he received the Gold Badge Award of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors for his services to British music.
His friend of 70 years Brian Willey said: “Terrible extrovert, by his own admission he may have been, but behind his huge handlebar moustache was a serious and talented musician who had worked with the greatest stars in the world of show business.
“To the very end he retained his humour, his generosity, his unique memories and his booming voice.
“He will be greatly missed by so many old friends.”
Mr Gray’s funeral will be held at Downs Crematorium off Bear Road in Brighton on Monday, July 7 at 2pm.