Friday, 7 December 2018

In Appreciation - Charles Smitton: 4th November 1925 - 18th January 1997.

There will be very few people, except the very most dedicated, who will recall the name of the late organist Charles Smitton. One of those accomplished and skilled musicians who seemingly preferred to let their their talent speak for themselves behind the scenes, content to pick up their pay cheques at the end of a given week quietly and anonymously, not seeking the limelight but merely getting on with their job as any unskilled manual worker toiling in a local factory.

Yet such a conclusion is rather too neat regarding Smitton. Highly respected and sought after as one of the UK's top organists, he worked with some of the biggest names in British show business on stage and TV for several decades at the country's most prestigious venues, and also as resident organist at celebrated cinemas for chains such as Gaumont and Odeon in his native Liverpool, London and Manchester. But at the peak of his career in the early 1970's, he was curtailed by a severe stroke which had a grossly negative effect on his career, along with some personal setbacks that saw his later years decline into a tragic twilight for a musician who had been recognised as one of the best of his chosen profession with the highest standards of professionalism. I first got to know Charles in the mid-80's as an aimless, frustrated working class youth affected as I was by mass deindustrialisation as many of the same generation around Manchester, more accurately Tameside where I and he were now living. There are very few biographical details of Smitton on the internet; this is the sum total of what I have come across to date:

Started playing the organ at about 10 years of age. 
His first appointment was when he was 15½ at the Curzon, Liverpool, where he succeeded his teacher Henry Croudson. 
He joined Gaumont British at Manchester, this was followed by the Gaumont, Worcester and the Gaumont, Wood Green. 
Possibly the youngest organist to Broadcast, he was on air regularly from the early 40s up to and including 1950. 


We first met in a cafe where my late mother was working at the time and who introduced us. Despite the large age gap (he was approaching 60, I was in my late teens), it was clear we showed similar interests and hit it off very quickly, him showing an endearing childlike appreciation for music as a whole (more especially the Black Dyke Mills Brass Band), innumerable anecdotes of the big names he had worked with, such as George Formby's apparent foul-mouthed retort when he asked what key he would like to be accompanied with his song, and Matt Monro forgetting the words to "You'll Never Walk Alone" on the Yorkshire TV show "Stars on Sunday" where he was chief musical arranger. I enrolled for organ lessons on the course he ran at the local college, disillusioned at the acting/performing arts course that I eventually left.

But it was sadly obvious that the severe effects of his stroke were now taking their toll mentally and physically, and on his mobility and communication. His struggles with walking, often appearing to be stumbling and shuffling to the point where he may fall over at any time were very sad to observe (why he never used a walking stick as support was baffling), as was his stutter which restricted his communication and obviously he found both difficult and embarrassing, a neurological effect of the stroke he had about a decade earlier, caused by a weight problem and an addiction to salty food (Chinese cuisine was a particular favourite of his).

As the years went on, Charles' movement became more restricted, and his speech got more slurred as his health further declined. He acknowledged a personal tragedy as his first wife had committed suicide, with his second marriage now badly failing, his new wife refusing to look after her very frail husband. If truth be told, I didn't enjoy music lessons with Smitton as he appeared unduly harsh and critical, and barely giving faint praise when I knew myself I had played the allotted practise tune quite well, even though I had absolutely no natural talent as a musician. His Achilles heels were an occasional habit of lapsing into pomposity, arrogance and a quick temper, although he was mostly a congenial, affable and intelligent individual who was very talented in his field.

But he was becoming plainly a rapidly fading force, still not at retirement age but looking at least two decades older than he actually was. Towards the end of the 80's, there were two distressing incidents that were proving his career was reaching its coda; in one of the last lessons I attended, he tried to say the word "analogy" to one of the other students, but stuttered very badly on the word's first syllable for nearly a minute which was showing he was now finding even basic communication a considerable task; me, my mother (who also attended such classes) and others attending were at a total loss what to say or think. The second was most tragic; he applied for a part-time organist job at a local social club, a far cry from his halcyon days, where me and other members of the family used to attend. My own parents refused to go on the evening he was given an initial trial as my mother had fallen out with him by now for various reasons. My late uncle was on the committee, and he later phoned his sister, namely my Mum, to tell her how it went. The story was heartbreaking. He struggled to walk up the flight of stairs to the performance area, played a few tunes, apparently poorly, and stared into space afterwards, obviously now reluctant to communicate with the small gathering of people due to the problems with his speech. The cycle continued for the rest of the night, until he had to be helped downstairs by my uncle, appearing both scruffy and dishevelled as the neglect by his wife was also taking its toll. A friend of the family at the time who was also involved with the club later explained why Charles simply couldn't be asked back again: "It would have been bad for him and bad for us". When I asked Charles later how the night went (knowing the truth), he sheepishly answered "Yes and No", when it was very clear it was a disaster. He didn't seem to accept that the game was virtually up; one could not laugh, but feel considerable pity. Not long afterwards, he suffered from the effects of a fall and collapse at home, and his career was now over. It was nothing short of tragic that having worked with such prestigious names in show business and top venues that his career was cut short by such circumstances. He ended up in a care home where I visited him every other week, but perhaps as a result of his frustration with his condition, he was becoming increasingly cantankerous and aggressive in his manner which was very untypical and out of character. Our friendship inevitably declined, and in the late summer of 1990, I turned up to be told by care workers that he had packed up and left a few nights before with no goodbyes to anyone or anybody, including myself. I never saw or spoke with him again, but he presumably spent his last years in care homes as before, passing away in January 1997, just before the New Labour era of government.

It is good to observe that some of Charles' recordings have turned up on You Tube when he was around his artistic peak, including a radio programme and a TV newsreel at the The Manchester Odeon, both from the mid-60's. The latter shows him being interviewed by the now notorious and disgraced presenter Stuart Hall, the former showcasing his excellence as a musician and indeed confident and charming presenter, with his speech and diction both absolutely immaculate.


                                                       

I wish I had known Charles at the peak of powers, both personally and professionally, instead of when he was clearly in a sad and steady decline, but let us remember him for what he was; a brilliant organist, one of the very best of his kind, and all round decent man.


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