Keith’s still on the big bandwagon

Keith, back second right, as one of the Bandwagon
Keith, back second right, as one of the Bandwagon
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HE’S played in skiffle, rock and soul bands, shared a stage with Johnny Dankworth and Dudley Moore and dressing rooms with dozens of strippers.

Sheffield’s Keith Peters, member of the original Judas Priest and keyboard player in Johnny Johnson’s Bandwagon is still at it at the age of 81.

Keith, second right with Judas Priest

Keith, second right with Judas Priest

And next Wednesday evening he’ll be leading The Keith Peters Big Band as they open the Music In The Gardens Festival in Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens.

After a lifetime in music Keith, of Machon Bank, Nether Edge, still writes, arranges tunes and leads the band.

“It’s been said that I am the oldest swinger in town but I still love music, and that’s what keeps me going,” said Keith, originally from Shiregreen.

“I don’t play keyboards any more because of my arthritis but I still sell musical arrangements on the internet through my son John who sends them to America – where you’d think they could buy their own arrangements but they still buy mine.”

Big band: Musician Keith Peters, from Nether Edge, music arranger and band leader, aged 81.              Picture: Sarah Washbourn

Big band: Musician Keith Peters, from Nether Edge, music arranger and band leader, aged 81. Picture: Sarah Washbourn

Keith has been leading his current band for 25 years and they now play monthly concerts at Abbeydale Picture House.

“I’ve been playing in that band all over this city for all that time and never been in The Star before but it’s good that the Music In The Gardens Festival is getting some credit. It’s a great event and was packed last year.”

It’s good that Keith is getting some credit too and a chance to tell a few of the more repeatable tales from his time on the road.

Keith left Hatfield House Lane school to work in the research department at Firth Brown steel where he was allowed to attend classical piano lessons one day a week at Manchester College of Music. He played part-time throughout the 1950s and 60s with the Keytones Jazz and Skiffle band and with various other bands and finally turned pro in 1971/72 when he was 43.

Flashback: Keith Peters, left on the piano, in one of the big bands he has been involved with all his life

Flashback: Keith Peters, left on the piano, in one of the big bands he has been involved with all his life

“If I didn’t do it then I was never going to do it,” said Keith sitting alongside Jean, his wife of 43 years, in their home.

“Back in the early ’70s I was a big fan of the band Blood Sweat and Tears. We started our own band playing that kind of stuff and we called ourselves Judas Priest. We weren’t the heavy metal band that went on to great fame.

“The name Judas Priest came about when the band were listening to a Bob Dylan track called The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.

“We were playing as Judas Priest – although we were often wrongly billed as ‘Stripper Judith Priest’ and one night we were supporting Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon when their manager came to us and asked if we wanted to be the new Bandwagon.

Johnny Johnson with Afro wig

Johnny Johnson with Afro wig

“Of course we said yes, it meant we were earning £80 a week which, even after travelling and other expenses, was good money then.”

The name Judas Priest was quickly abandoned but later turned up as the Birmingham-based heavy metal outfit that went on to huge success. As far as Keith knows there was no link to the original band apart from a vaguely remembered member from the West Midlands

“We had a great time with Johnny Johnson doing hits like Breakin’ Down the Walls of Heartache, Sweet Inspiration and (Blame It) On The Pony Express on the Moss Empire circuit – although none of us got on with him.

“The only time we saw him was on stage and I was the only one he spoke to because I was the musical director.

“He was a dustbin man from Detroit and he was very odd. He used to have to know everyone’s birth sign in the band and if they weren’t right together he wouldn’t go on stage.

“He had this thing where he used to leap up, in like a star jump, on stage. I reckon he could have been in the Olympics.

“With the strobe lights it seemed like he was up there for two minutes – he was really athletic.

“One night though we were playing on a stage that was about five feet high. He did his jump at the edge of the stage and misjudged it. He dropped straight off stage and disappeared and a load of girls at the front leapt on him. A while later he emerged with his huge Afro wig half off, his clothes all over the place and girls all over him as he tried to pull himself back on stage.

“One of the guitarists in the band walked up and down the stage front treading on his fingers so he couldn’t get back up. It was hilarious. It was worth putting up with him for all that time just for that one night.”

Don’t expect any such shenanigans in the Botanical Gardens though.

“I love playing with the big band, I’ve kept it going over the years. There’s nothing quite like that Big Band thrill – nothing has that same sound.

“I can’t wait for Music In The Gardens to come round.”

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But that’s where Keith Peters met jazz legend Johnny Dankworth and pianist and comedian Dudley Moore.

“I met Johnny Dankworth on a few occasions and he was a real gentleman,” said Keith.

“When we were on stage some of his musicians, top people, would sit in and play with us rather than hang around backstage. They were brilliant.

“The thing about musicians is it doesn’t matter what your background is, as musicians you’re all the same – it’s the music that’s the important thing. I like that.

“Keith also met Ray Ellington’s female singer.

“I can’t remember her name but she was quite famous,” said Keith, tactfully.

“She came off stage one night and said to the band who were waiting to go on: “Do you mind if I get changed here?”

“We said ‘No, we don’t mind’, thinking she would change her skirt or something but she stripped right off. We just ignored her of course. We used to see some real sights.”

Throughout his career Keith has taught music and accompanied students taking exams.

“I still get the odd card from ex-students or people will stop me and say: ‘You taught me piano’ or ‘You played at my wedding’. I don’t always remember but it’s nice of them to say hello.

“I used to tell them that when they were walking towards someone in the street they were different to them. You are a musician, I would say, and that makes you special.”

Music in the gardens

THAT BIG Band sound is unmistakeable – and it will set the standard for this years Music In The Gardens.

The Keith Peters Big Band opens this year’s four-night charity concert series next Wednesday and will start the events with a Big Band big bang.

“The event was a big success last year and raised £46,000 for charity,” said Keith.

Next Thursday, June 30, the pop, rock and jazz night will be headlined by Sheffield’s Paul Carrack.

On Friday, July 1, it’s World Music night with Courtney Pine and Omar Puente and on Saturday it’s Classical and Brass with Sheffield Philharmonic Orchestra and the Dodworth Colliery Miners Welfare Brass Band.

For more information, advance booking and ticket prices on the gate go to www.musicinthegardens.co.uk