The manual ‘Play In A Day’ was the bible for generations of budding guitarists in the 1950s and 1960s. Its author was Bert Weedon, an unassuming dance-band musician whose unpatronising approach made him Britain’s earliest expert on the instrumental niceties of rock’n’roll.
Weedon, who has died aged 91, was among the first British musicians to incorporate into his style the innovations of American country and western, boogie and rock’n’roll guitarists.
Hank Marvin, Paul McCartney, George Harrison,¬†Brian May and Eric Clapton were among those whose introduction to the guitar was strumming through the exercises in¬†Weedon’s tutor books. McCartney’s testimony was typical: “George and I¬†went through the Bert Weedon books and learned D and A together.”
In the 1950s, Weedon played on hundreds of recording sessions for most of the leading singers and bands of the era, including Alma Cogan, Dickie Valentine and Frankie Vaughan. When such American stars as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Tony Bennett recorded in London, Weedon was called in to accompany them. He recalled that “you had to be so adaptable and flexible. For example, Winifred Atwell would want a honky-tonk approach, Russ Conway something light, while Frankie Vaughan would want something quite beaty and Ronnie Hilton something else again.”
As a featured soloist with the BBC Show Band, directed by Cyril Stapleton, Weedon could be heard almost daily on the Light Programme throughout the 1950s.He broadcast frequently on the variety show Workers’ Playtime, appeared with the Big Ben Banjo Band and the Palm Court violinist Max Jaffa and later led the resident band on Easy Beat. He took part in more than 5,000 broadcasts during his career. However, it¬†was rock’n’roll that brought Weedon to prominence.
It is difficult now to imagine the vehemence with which the musical establishment, from Sir Malcolm Sargent to Steve Race¬†excoriated the records of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley and their effect on British youth. Weedon was one of the few experienced studio session players who wholeheartedly embraced rock, which he first heard when Stapleton procured a copy of Haley’s Rock Around the Clock months before it was issued in Britain. Stapleton planned to broadcast the song and wanted to be sure that Weedon could reproduce the guitar sound.
He could, of course, and as the music industry sought to create British rock stars, Weedon was soon in great demand to play on their records. Beginning with Tommy Steele’s 1956 debut Rock With the Caveman, he contributed guitar solos to numerous tracks by Marty Wilde, Adam Faith,¬†Laurie London and¬†others.
Weedon also recorded prolifically for the Top Rank label under his own name. ‘Guitar Boogie Shuffle’ (1959, by¬†the¬†American guitarist Arthur Smith) and ‘Apache’ (1960, by Jerry Lordan) were minor hits, although the latter was a much greater success in the version by Weedon’s disciples the Shadows. His own compositions included ‘Sorry Robbie’ (1960), ‘China Doll’ and the much-recorded ‘Ginchy (both 1961).
‘Play In A Day’ was first published in¬†1957. Its cover promised to teach the purchaser to play skiffle, jazz, Latin American rhythms and “special effects”, as well as rock’n’roll, and eventually more than 2 million novices were enticed to buy a copy by its promise of instant proficiency. In 1987 Weedon issued a video version which promised that “a beginner can play in a group in¬†only 25 minutes”.
Weedon was born in East Ham, east London, the son of a train driver who had a collection of hillbilly records and was an amateur singer. Weedon bought his first guitar aged 12 from Petticoat Lane market. (In 2003 he received an¬†apology and damages from the BBC¬†after the publicity for a radio programme had inexplicably claimed that he learned to¬†play the guitar while in jail.)
As a teenager, he was the leader of¬†such groups as the Blue Cumberland Rhythm Boys and Bert Weedon and His Harlem Hotshots. In the 1930s and 1940s the guitar was not the ubiquitous instrument it would later become and, Weedon said: “The only time you saw a¬†guitar was in the hands of a cowboy in a western singing Home on the Range.”
He soon graduated to the semi-professional Dixieland jazz group Harry Gold’s Pieces of Eight and performed with the violinist St√©phane Grappelli and the pianist George Shearing¬†¬†in the early 1940s. Weedon and the classical guitarist Julian Bream provided the music for a postwar London production of Lorca’s ‘Blood Wedding’.
The first amplified guitars were beginning to appear and Weedon became an enthusiastic exponent, playing in the orchestras of Ted Heath, Mantovani and Ronnie Aldrich. His career was interrupted by a bout of¬†tuberculosis. After he was discharged from hospital, doctors advised him to avoid smoky dancehalls and nightclubs, so he switched the focus of his career to¬†records, radio and television.
Although he first appeared on TV in¬†1946, it was not until the arrival of¬†the independent network in 1955 that Weedon began to appear frequently on the small screen. He was seen in ‘Slater’s Bazaar’, the first TV advertising magazine, and from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s he was a regular in a¬†series of¬†children’s shows: ‘Small Time’, ‘Tuesday Rendezvous’ and ‘Five O’Clock Club’, with Muriel Young, Wally Whyton and the glove puppet Ollie Beak. When Weedon invited anyone needing help to play the guitar to drop him a line, sackfuls of mail arrived at Associated Rediffusion, who had to print and mail out thousands of instructional leaflets.
Among those who were inspired by the televised lessons was Mike Oldfield, who told me: “I saw him on television when I was seven and immediately persuaded my father to¬†buy me my first guitar. If it wasn’t for Bert I might never have taken it up in the first place.”
With the various “rock revivals” of the 1970s, Weedon was once again in demand, making the hit albums ‘Rockin’ At The Roundhouse’ (1970) and ’22 Golden Guitar Greats’ (1976), a No 1 that sold more than 1m copies.
For much of his career Weedon was involved with the entertainment industry charity the Grand Order of Water Rats, becoming King Rat in 1992. He was appointed OBE in 2001 for services to music and was honoured by the Variety Club of Great Britain, the British Music Hall Society and the British Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.
He is survived by his second wife, Maggie, two sons, Geoff and Lionel, eight grandchildren and a great-grandson.