Bert Weedon 1920-2012: in his own words

Bert Weedon: 1920 - 2012.
Bert Weedon: 1920 - 2012. (Image credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

As we celebrate the life of guitarist Bert Weedon, who has died aged 91, we revisit an interview from Guitarist magazine, who met with Bert at his home in 2002.

In this revealing discussion, Weedon talks about the origins of his guitar playing, working with a variety of musical greats and, of course, his much-loved book Play In A Day.

You began playing the classical guitar at the age of 14?

" Yes. I was 14 when I left school. I used to go down Petticoat Lane Market and see this guitar on a stool - I'd touch it and the man would say 'Get lost!' I thought 'One day I'm gonna get that,' and I saved my money.

"Eventually I had saved up enough money and I went to the man and I said in a very haughty way: 'I'll have that guitar'. He was going to say 'Get lost' again, but he said 'Well d'you want it?' and I said 'Yeah'. I gave him 15 shillings, which is 75p, isn't it?

"Then I thought 'I've got to find a teacher'. After looking for about a year or so, I found a teacher and to my utter surprise he was in a place called Manor Park, which is adjacent to East Ham. His name was James Newell and he said 'You want to learn the guitar? Well, it's a shilling a lesson'.

"'Right,' he said, 'what sort of music d'you like, son?' So I said, 'I love jazz' and he said "Jazz? I'm not going to teach that rubbish."

"He said, 'Sit down, son' so I sat down and he got out a classical guitar, a gut strung Martin guitar, as I remember it very vividly. He played the Chopin Prelude No7.

"I'm the luckiest man in the world, 'cause I get paid for doing something that I love doing and I'd do it for nothing anyway."

"My mouth fell open and I said 'Please teach me that" because I'd never heard a classical guitar, never knew anything about Chopin. I was a kid from the East End of London. He said 'I'll teach you'. And that man, apart from my father, was the biggest influence of my life ever because I stayed with him for about 4 years. He taught me to read music, write music, the basic harmonies, major and minor chords, etc."

"After each lesson he would keep me there. I think he sort of realised that I had the aptitude to learn the guitar, which as I say was a very rare instrument in those days, and he used to keep me there and give me an hour's talk on philosophy and religion and things like that.

"Now, again, I'd never heard the word philosophy but it's something that intensely interested me, has done ever since. He taught me about Jesus, Buddhism, yoga, you name it; he spoke about all the different religions. It opened up an entirely new world for me. He helped me enormously and that was all for a shilling a lesson. It's got to be the best shilling's worth anyone ever had.

"I'm the luckiest man in the world, 'cause I get paid for doing something that I love doing and I'd do it for nothing anyway. But I don't tell any agents that [laughs].

During and after the World War II you played with many dance bands. You played with the Ted Heath Orchestra?

"I played with the Ted Heath Orchestra, the Squadronaires, Harry Gold and his Pieces of Eight, Lou Preger.

"Most of the big bands didn't carry a guitarist, but every time they did broadcasts or recordings, they'd call on yours truly. So I worked with all of them, which was nice.

I was doing a broadcast with Caroll Gibbons at the Savoy Hotel, one time. We were playing away - it was only radio, of course. I turned my head from the mic because I wanted to cough, and blood started pouring out of my mouth.

"Caroll was playing the piano and he couldn't stop because it was a live broadcast. The producer, he quickly sent down two fellows and they ushered me out. Meanwhile they're still playing. And so I get outside and they sent for an ambulance.

"I had TB and hadn't known that I had it. In those days, I'm talking about the '40s again, it was a killer because they hadn't invented all the drugs that they have now. They took me to Plaistow hospital and I stayed there for about three months. And I went to the specialist, and I could ill afford a West End specialist, who said, 'Can you go to Switzerland, Mr Weedon?' So I said 'No, I can't'. I couldn't afford to go to Switzerland, because I was married then and had a baby. He said, 'Well, could you afford to go to Southend?' So I said "That I could afford but why do you ask?' He said 'Because the air at Southend when the tide goes out, it's covered in mud, and the air is just as beneficial at Southend as any of the air in Switzerland'.

"Most of the big bands didn't carry a guitarist, but every time they did broadcasts or recordings, they'd call on yours truly."

"I found a little cheap boarding house and I went down there and I used to go and sit on the end of Southend pier every day and I got better from TB. Although, I did have a relapse a few years later.

"The other night I was at a function and [English classical guitarist] Julian Bream was there and he said 'It's lovely to see you, Bert'. He said 'I haven't seen you since I used to come and see you in Plaistow hospital'. I said 'Good God! I'd forgotten all that'. And that was a subsequent flare-up that got better because by then they'd invented penicillin.

"I originally met Julian Bream when I was asked by the BBC to play some Spanish music on the classical guitar for a play written by a man named Lorca, a famous Spanish writer. I went up to the studio early and there were two guitar parts. So I sat down at the 1st guitar part because I was quite well known by then. I was working my way through the fingering and it was a bit tricky.

"A young lad came in and he stood watching me. I thought he was a messenger boy, so I stopped and I said 'Do you want me, son?'

"He said 'I've come to play guitar'. I said 'Have you? Well, have you got your guitar?'

He said 'Yes'. I said 'Well, here's the music," giving him the 2nd guitar part. So he said 'Thank you. You're Bert Weedon, aren't you?' I said 'Yes,' and he said 'I've heard of you, and I've heard you on the radio lots of times'.

"He then said 'I've been asked to play 1st guitar by the producer'. I said 'Have you?' He said 'Yes, I'm sorry'. I said 'No, don't be sorry. Look, I'm going to tell you that it's very tricky, so if you've been booked to play it, you do it. If you can't manage it, I'll play it and we won't tell anybody. It'll just be you and I, and you'll have fulfilled your contract'.

"He said 'That's ever so nice of you'. I said 'Well it's a pleasure'. I said 'Here's the part, son'. And he sat down and he played it brilliantly. I said 'Good God! What's your name?' He said, 'Julian Bream'. And that's when I first met him.

"I also worked with Stephan Grappelli for several years at Hatchetts Restaurant when he and Django Reinhardt, who was my hero, parted. It was after the war, and I was called to Alexandra Palace, which was the very first television studios in England as it were, and I was asked to play backing guitar to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Django had been my idol ever since I was about 15.

"For the restaurant job, Stephane said 'I would like you to take the job'. So I said 'I'd love to take the job, but I've got to be perfectly honest. I'm not going to try and play like Django Reinhardt, because no one can. I'd only be a second-hand copy of Django Reinhardt'. Stephane said 'You are very sensible, Bert. You play like Bert Weedon and you will be a star. Do not be a copyist'.

"George Shearing was the pianist in that band, so it was wonderful. They were very exciting days for a young musician.

"Many years later, Martin Taylor took over playing for Stephane and he played beautifully. He's a great guitarist and is also one of my heroes."

You played with the BBC Show Band with Cyril Stapleton?

"Yes, I was there for about four years. That was a big break for me because I was asked to take the job by the Chief of the BBC live music. Frank Sinatra was coming over to England to do some broadcasts for the first time. We rehearsed the music because we wanted to show him that the British musicians were equally as good, if not better, than the American ones.

"So we're all apprehensive and suddenly we get a telephone call from the doorman. It's at the Paris Cinema which is a downstairs studio, he said 'He's here,' and there was a sort of pregnant silence.

"We all thought 'What he's going to be like?' We'd read that he was a bit of a hard task master.

"Suddenly the door opened and we all looked up, and in walked Sinatra. He'd borrowed a bowler hat, God alone knows where he got the bowler hat from but he'd got it, and a rolled umbrella. And he walked in with this bowler hat and a rolled umbrella, and he says 'Good morning, my dear fellows. Shall we make a little music together?' (in an English accent), and everybody burst out laughing and I thought 'Oh, this is marvelous'.

"It was very enjoyable working with people like Sinatra and Nat King Cole."

"He said to me 'Bert, you ought a come to America". He said, 'you would make a big hit there," you know because I was a soloist.

"I said 'I'd rather stay in England here because I'm a big fish in a small pond. In America you've got great, great guitar players. I'd be a smaller fish in a huge pond'. I said 'So I'm happy here and I've got a wife and baby" so I didn't go. But it was very enjoyable working with people like Sinatra and Nat King Cole."

You had made guitar singles on Parlophone, but your first big hit was Guitar Boogie Shuffle.

"Absolutely. I recorded that in 1959. It was the first ever hit guitar record on an English label and the first ever hit guitar record by an English man to get into the Hit Parade. I was preceded by an American guitarist called Duane Eddy. So then I started getting more hits like Apache, which again was written especially for me by a man named Jerry Lordan."

Didn't he actually compose it on a ukulele?

"I think he probably did. The publisher said 'We've got a piece of music, Bert, called Apache'. And they said "We'd like you to record it," because I was getting hits. So I made a recording of it.

"Now The Shadows, who were Cliff Richard's backing group, had heard that I'd recorded this. Jerry Lordan got to know them and he said 'Look, I've written this and Bert Weedon's going to do it'. I was playing it on all my broadcasts - I was doing a lot of broadcasts, and they hadn't done a broadcast as a solo group at that point. I'm playing it, and I was publicising their record which had been released before mine.

"All credit to them, because The Shadows are nice blokes; Hank Marvin's a very nice man. And they wrote me a number to compensate for this, Mr Guitar, which they dedicated to me and I recorded it, but it wasn't a big hit. That's the story behind Apache.

"These things happen, and Hank's a great guitar player. In fact, when they did This Is Your Life on the BBC, Hank came on and said some very nice things, as indeed did Brian May and Eric Clapton. They were all very nice."

When was Play in aDay published?

"1957. It sold a couple of million copies, and has sold a lot more since."

That book has inspired most of the major guitarists in Britain, probably the world…

"Certainly in Britain, it was never issued in America. It's been very helpful. I suppose virtually every guitar player said 'I learnt from your book, Bert'. You've got a list down here of some of the people who did it."

Well it says John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Brian May, Pete Townshend, Sting, Mike Oldfield, John Miles, Steve Hillage… And there's also the IMP video Bert Weedon - Play in a Day.

"Yes, I even persuaded my VAT man to learn guitar with that video."

What have you been doing recently?

"I was over at Frankfurt for five days; it's the biggest musical exhibition in the world. My publishers, Chappell's, who publish Play In A Day had a stand there. I had a very busy time because I signed autographs for Jim Marshall's stand. I play Marshall amplification. I also play Fender Guitars - a Fender Strat."

I saw you on the gig that we did together playing a Parker guitar.

"Yes, the Parker Fly. It's an incredible guitar. It was given to me about a year or so ago by Parker through Jim Marshall of Marshall Amplification. I picked up the Parker guitar and it's incredibly light.

"So I still play the Fender, but now I use the Parker guitar as well because it's so light and I can stand up and do the show without bending over, which for an old man is a marvellous asset. I'm very impressed with the Parker guitar and I'm impressed with the Fender guitar."

"I've also got the Guild guitars [the Bert Weedon Guild]. I've got an original Hofner. I've got two or three Yamahas. In all I think I've got thirteen or fourteen guitars. And, of course, Marshall amps.

"I'm very fortunate because all my guitars are presented to me. It's a long while since I paid 15 shillings for a guitar."