Procol Harum

the Pale

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Bill Eyden

The Times obituary

Jazz drummer of choice for a generation of musicians including Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and Charlie Watts

Although the many years he spent with Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott made him a legendary figure among British jazz fans, the drummer Bill Eyden’s most famous recording took place on a single afternoon in 1967, for which he was paid the princely sum of 15 guineas. When Procol Harum recorded A Whiter Shade of Pale, the producer Denny Cordell was not happy with the band’s drummer Bobby Harrison, so he put a call out for Eyden, who had played brilliantly on Georgie Fame ’s No 1 hit Yeh, Yeh, which Cordell had produced in 1964.“That afternoon was the only time I ever saw them,” recalled Eyden, whose jazz-inflected drumming formed the perfect backdrop for Gary Brooker’s vocals. He collected his standard Musicians’ Union session fee and left, only to read shortly after that the disc had rocketed to No 1 in the charts and that Harrison’s share of the royalties was likely already to amount to £10,000. Eyden protested, and was rewarded with £100 for television-replay rights.

William James Eyden grew up in Hounslow, where he started drumming with the Army Cadet Corps. He later took lessons from Max Abrams, a well-known figure in the London dance-band world, and in 1952 Eyden joined the band led by Basil and Ivor Kirchin. Before long, Eyden had worked for numerous other bandleaders including Steve Race, Roy Fox and Harry Roy, as well as becoming a regular member of the modern jazz band at Studio 51 in Great Newport Street.

Eyden’s long association with Tubby Hayes began in 1955, and his recording début was on Hayes’s disc Fidelius, made for Tempo that same year. His forceful playing and excellent taste made Eyden the ideal counterpart for the mercurial Hayes, who was Britain’s leading jazz soloist at the time, in settings from big band to quartet. Eyden became a founder member of the Jazz Couriers, which Hayes co-led with Ronnie Scott, and stayed with the group for two years from 1957. Eyden also recorded with such other jazzmen as Dizzy Reece, 'Bogey' Gaynair, Harry Klein and Vic Ash. As the 1960s began, Eyden continued with Hayes, but increasingly took on rhythm-and-blues engagements with Alexis Korner, Long John Baldry, Wee Willie Harris and, most notably, Georgie Fame, with whom he played on several albums and tours in 1964–65.

In 1964 he joined Stan Tracey’s house trio at Ronnie Scott’s club, and ended up playing for a huge range of American stars, including a recording with the saxophonist Sonny Stitt. By this time Eyden had an enviable reputation as a first-rate drummer in numerous styles, and as well as continuing to play jazz with Hayes and Dick Morrissey, he began working in theatres, ending up in the pit for such longrunning West End shows as Bubbling Brown Sugar and Promises Promises. From the early 1970s, he combined this with teaching drums in West London.

He remained in demand for jazz playing, appearing often with Bill Le Sage and the Bebop Preservation Society, and with the saxophonist Bobby Wellins, but his highest-profile appearances were in the vast big band assembled by Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones' drummer, in the mid-1980s. Asked why he needed three drummers (the third was John Stevens), Watts simply said they were “wonderful players I admired, and this gave me a chance to play with them”. His admiration was shared by a generation of jazz musicians, for whom Eyden remained, as he had been for Denny Cordell, the obvious first choice drummer.

Bill Eyden, jazz drummer, was born on May 4, 1930. He died on October 15, 2004, aged 74.

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