‘Go on, then, lass, give it your best.’
My girlfriend Annette stood nervously on the stage of the Bramley Working Men’s Club and blew into the microphone to see if it was working. It was. It made a noise like a rasp being drawn across a steel tube. The Master of Ceremonies flinched. An ancient keyboard player with a bald head and dirty fingernails struck a few introductory chords and Annette began to sing.
‘Each night before you go to bed my ba-a-a-by, whisper a little prayer for me, my ba-a-by, this is dedicated to the one I love.’
‘Stop,’ roared the Master of Ceremonies. ‘You sound like a seagull falling down a well.’ ‘It’s him,’ said Annette, pointing to the keyboard player. ‘He’s playing in the wrong key.’ ‘Am I ‘eckers like,’ said the keyboard player, ‘it’s in G Major.’
‘I was singing in D minor,’ said Annette.
‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you,’ said the Master of Ceremonies.
After we left, Annette gave vent to her feelings.
‘That keyboard player was useless. How can I sing my best when he’s not even fit to bang a tambourine? He couldn’t even get a job with the Sally Army band.’ ‘Aren’t you fed up of trying?’ I asked her.
‘Fed up? Fed up? I’ve got star quality, Glen. I feel it in my bones. That M/C was dead set against me.’
‘Annette, you’ve got to face facts. You’ve been turned down by thirteen clubs and pubs so far. They can’t all be dead set against you.’
‘They are. I need to move up-market - get away from these grubby, scummy places. I need to go somewhere the audience appreciates me - a cruise ship perhaps.’ I rolled my eyes heavenwards.
‘First, I need a decent agent,’ said Annette. ‘That’s what I need.’
A few days later, Annette and I caught a bus into Leeds. In a back street above a bookmaker’s stood the business premises of one Sammy Vernon, who described himself as a famous impresario responsible for developing the talents of top comedian Flip Enni, juggler Winton Cummins (star of the London Palladium), and singer Esther Henning, who once reached number sixty-six in the UK charts with her plaintive ballad Thank the Lord He’s Gone.
I expected Sammy to be seated behind a huge mahogany desk chomping on a foot-long Cuban cigar. I was wrong. He was boiling a kettle on a small primus stove at the back of his rather grimy office. He was a short, weedy-looking character about seven stone wet through, with wispy hair and thick tortoiseshell glasses.
‘Come in, come in, why don’t you? Sit down over there.’
He pointed to two arthritic old chairs on the other side of what looked like a wallpaper pasting table on which piles of yellowing files resided.
‘Now, Miss Keeley. You say you’re a singer and you’re looking for an agent?’ ‘That’s right,' said Annette, 'you come highly recommended.’
Sammy patted his stomach and gave out a satisfied smirk.
‘Yes, I’ve had a measure of success in a forty-year career,’ he said, modestly. ‘I launched the fire-eater, Kaj Kalama, you know. He was famous till he burnt his larynx when some paraffin exploded in his throat one night at the Batley Variety Club. Ended up selling newspapers on a Dewsbury street corner. Very sad.’
‘I was hoping you’d act for me,’ said Annette.
‘What sort of stuff do you sing?’ asked Sammy.
‘Torch ballads, mainly.’
‘And where have you performed?’
‘Nowhere,’ I interjected.
‘They don’t appreciate real talent,’ said Annette.
‘Who don’t?’ asked Sammy.
‘Those beastly people who run pubs and clubs round here. I need to sing in front of the middle-classes, not those dolts in cloth caps.’
‘Had you anywhere in mind?’
‘She wants to sing on a cruise ship,’ I said.
Sammy knitted his brow.
‘Cruise ships aren’t easy,’ he said. ‘They only take established singers whose careers are on the wane. Do you sing any Scots songs - Donald, Where’s Your Troosers or A Scottish Soldier, perhaps?’
‘Pity. I might have got you onto a tourist boat that ploughs up and down Loch Fyne in the summer.’
Annette looked aghast.
‘Still, back to business,’ said Sammy. ‘Eyeing you up, you seem a personable enough young lady. Blonde, well-made, if you get my drift, dressed quite prettily, good legs. Audiences go for well-made girls with good legs. Can you manage sultry?’
‘You know, breathing a song, rather than belting it out. Leaning on a piano holding a fluted glass containing a screwball and crooning Pearl’s a Singer, lips puckered in a tantalising pout, low-cut mini-frock, that sort of thing.’
‘I can turn my hand to anything,’ she said.
‘Good. One of my clients needs a late-night singer at his club.’
‘Which club is that?’ I asked.
‘The one where the waitresses are topless?’ I asked.
‘That’s the one,’ said Sammy.
‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly sing there,’ said Annette, who, despite her peroxided hair, had something of a Calvinistic streak about her.
‘Well, we need to hear you sing,' said Sammy, 'off you go, then.’
‘I need an accompanist,’ said Annette.
‘Well, you’ll not find one in here,’ said Sammy, ‘just do what you can.’
Annette started to sing Born Free. I discreetly covered my ears, because I had heard her sing this before. Sammy had no such protection. His face contorted into an expression which resembled a man who’d just been told his wife had turned into a werewolf - sheer horror. ‘Stop! For heaven’s sake, stop,’ yelled Sammy.
Annette ceased singing and adopted a puzzled look.
‘Annette, that is some of the worst singing I have ever heard. It’s as if Lord Haw-Haw was moving up and down the scales whilst someone was poking him with an electric cattle-prod.’
There was silence for a moment before Annette said:
‘So you won’t represent me?’
‘My dear lady, such a reputation as I have, would be destroyed within five seconds of you walking on stage and starting to sing. I recommend you go to the council and see if they’ve a vacancy for a Town Crier.’
Annette left Sammy Vernon's with tears rolling down her cheeks. I felt truly sorry for her. 'I know what I need, Glen, just to improve my singing a touch - not much, just a touch.' 'Laryngitis?' I asked. She ignored my jibe.
'A singing teacher. That's what. There's bound to be one in the book.'
Madame Mariska Nicoletta was a third-generation Hungarian who'd had the misfortune to be born in Featherstone. We went to see her in her modest flat on the outskirts of Leeds.
She was a lady of about sixty, with white hair swept back and tied in a severe bun. She wore an old-fashioned black dress and a contrasting white cardigan she'd knitted herself. Annette sang for her. Amazingly, Madame Nicoletta sat patiently listening as Annette croaked out 'The Sunshine of Your Smile' in the manner of Louis Armstrong with a mouthful of razor-blades.
When she had finished, Madame Nicoletta leaned forward and put her hand on Annette's knee.
'My dear,' she said, 'I can do nothing for you. You have something which is incurable. Such a shame because you have such a sweet face.'
'She's dying?' I gasped.
'Don't be a fool, young man. Does she look like she's dying?'
'What, then?' I asked.
'Annette has congenital amusia,' said Madame Nicolette.
'Yes, she is forgetful, I'll grant you that.'
'You really are a most obtuse young man. I said amusia, not amnesia. Is this person the best you can do, Annette?'
Annette looked doubtful.
'Till someone better comes along,' she said.
'What's amusia, then?' I asked with some asperity. I didn't like my shortcomings being discussed by a stranger.
'Annette is tone deaf,' said Madame Nicoletta. 'She cannot recognise changes in pitch. It's a cognitive deficit. It happens to around four people in every hundred.' Annette sat bolt upright in her seat. Her face was chalk-white.
'You mean I'll never be able to sing on a cruise ship in front of a middle-class audience?' she asked.
'No, my dear, you can't. You can still enjoy music, though. People with amusia can feel the intensity of emotion in a song, even if they can't identify the correct pitch.' 'How much do we owe you, Madame Nicoletta?' I asked, anxious to be away before Annette started blubbing.
'Nothing,' she said. 'Annette, go on your way and be happy.'
Madame Nicoletta gave me a withering glance, full of meaning.
We left her flat and walked to the bus stop.
'Well, Annette, what now?'
'I won't be beaten. I'm going to learn to play a musical instrument, perhaps the violin or the cello.'
The thought of all that wailing and caterwauling of strings made my hair stand on end. 'You know what Madame Nicoletta said about me not being the best boyfriend for you?' 'Yes.'
'Do you think you might give her words some consideration?'