The late Des O’Connor was mocked for being cheesy and tuneless but he should be hailed as a talented crooner. That’s according to Dundee drummer Ron Cooper who played in his backing band. Gayle Ritchie takes up the story…
Des O’Connor was the butt of many jokes, mocked mercilessly for his allegedly “terrible singing voice” and fake tan.
But a Dundee drummer who played alongside the legendary entertainer believes he was a talented crooner who took the gags on the chin – the sign of a consummate professional.
Ron Cooper was at the helm of his own self-titled 18-piece big band – The Ron Cooper Band – when he first encountered Des in the 1970s.
The band regularly performed alongside big names like Les Dawson, Bruce Forsyth… and Rod and Emu.
“Des had a fine voice,” says Ron, 75.
“People wouldn’t have made fun of him if his voice was really bad!
“His voice has sold a lot of records. The sheer volume of sales says it all – people like it and he delivers songs well.”
Ron’s band played for Des at a theatre club in Derby called The Talk Of the Midlands.
“Des was always 100% spot-on when it came to singing,” says Ron.
“He never forgot his words – he never ever made a mistake.
“He was a real gem of a man and he really enjoyed working with my band.
“He was a really nice, kind, genuine person who had time for people. He was a pleasure to work with.
“After shows, he would change out of his showbiz gear and spend time chatting with people, doing autographs and getting photos taken.
“He absolutely loved kids, and he was delighted to be pictured with my two daughters Debbie and Leslie.”
Grandfather-of-three Ron admits he’s never bought any of Des’s records but he remains one of his biggest fans.
“The guy was a real talent. He had the pxxx taken out of him so much and he always took it on the chin. That’s the sign of a true professional”.
Rod and Emu
One of Ron’s most hilarious showbiz memories is of working alongside Rod Hull and his mute, psychotic puppet Emu.
“Oh my goodness, Rod Hull was off the wall!” exclaims Ron.
“There was not a thing he would not do with that emu – it was sometimes unbelievable to watch!”
Ron recalls Rod brought a “really stuck-up posh woman” onto the stage during one performance.
“My band and I sat there in fear and trepidation – it was rather worrying!” he says.
“I thought, ‘here goes, we’re in trouble now’, and we were.
“Emu was up her skirt and everywhere else! He sent he reeling to the floor and it was quite frightening!”
Rod met a tragic end in 1999 when he fell from the roof of his home after trying to fix the TV aerial.
Comedy legend Les Dawson was another person to take the mickey out of Des but Ron says he was “fantastic” to work with on The Talk of the Midlands.
“He liked my band and we got on great. I recorded three tunes with my 18-piece band in the studio for him.”
Ron’s father was also part of the big band that provided the backing music for performances.
“My dad did the arrangements and Les wanted the recordings to let his TV company hear them,” he says.
“Les was a good pianist himself and a well read man.”
However, Ron says he considers Sir Bruce Forsyth to be “the greatest performer to ever walk this planet” and enjoyed playing alongside him at the Derby club.
His band also backed Dickie Henderson, Billy Eckstine, Jimmy Logan and many more top entertainers.
Ron was brought up in Hamilton in South Lanarkshire.
He moved to Dundee aged 10 when his musical dad, Bert Cooper, was headhunted by Andy Lothian, father of Beatles promoter Andi Lothian.
Bert was a professional trombonist, playing alongside the likes of Hughie Green and other famous bands of the era, and Andy wanted him to join the house band at Dundee’s Palais on South Tay Street, then known as “Dundee’s top pop spot”.
Ron quickly discovered that he too had a natural talent for music and took up the drums.
“I used to annoy my old man by tapping away on his trombone case so he bought me a pair of sticks to keep me entertained,” he recalls.
“I started getting drum lessons aged 14 so I could read music and I did a BBC broadcast from Coldside Library at some stage, although I can’t remember what it was about!
“My dad bought me a drum kit and I was hooked. I also played the full range of percussion instruments, from timpani to glockenspiel.”
Ron joined a series of bands but most famously, he played drums for Dundee act The Honours in the 1960s.
The band travelled all over the world and appeared on TV shows galore.
However, when Ron became ill, he stepped back from the band and became a percussion teacher, tutoring music students across Tayside.
After a few years, he got fed up teaching and when he was offered a position with the Mike Miller Band in Derby – who played jazz – he jumped at the chance.
However it was during his stint at The Talk of The Midlands that Ron encountered Des and other big names.
“It was a bit like a circus. I had to play all the bangs and crashes!” he says.
“My 18-piece big band was there seven nights a week solid for a good three years.
“It put me in the position where I was playing for all these famous people.”
Perhaps best known as a TV host, Des O’Connor was also a keen vocalist and released 36 albums over the course of his career.
He had three top 10 hits between November 1967 and May 1968.
Careless Hands reached number six, and 1-2-3 O’Leary charted fourth.
I Pretend spent 36 weeks in the top 50.
All three of his biggest-selling records were sad ballads, and this helped to establish a sympathetic, self-deprecating, likeable image that lasted throughout his career.
Morecambe and Wise
As far back as the 1950s, Eric Morecambe cultivated an on-stage joke about Des being an allegedly terrible singer and second-rate act.
Some of this was wordplay – the comedian used to say: “Des, short for desperate”.
Almost every episode of The Morecambe and Wise Show featured a joke about him and jibes included: “Des has just done a one-man show. Let’s hope two turn up next time”.
Another began with Wise declaring: “I’ve got some great news,” and Eric Morecambe replying: “What? Has Des O’Connor got a sore throat?”
Des was also part-Irish in an era when racist jokes about people from Ireland were a staple of English comedy.
Even as Des became a significant recording star, Morecambe accelerated the gags about “The Best of Des O’Connor” being a blank disc.
Des’s 1969 fourth single, Dick-a-Dum-Dum (King’s Road), may have helped fuel the fire.
Stalling at 14 in the hit parade, it was the beginning of the end for his pop career.
A figure of fun
While Des’s chief tormentors were Morecambe and Wise, others, including Russ Abbot and Les Dawson, regularly ripped him to shreds.
However Des later admitted he was in on the jokes and actually wrote many of them himself.
One particularly memorable gag was Abbot’s 1989 Castella Cigars TV advert.
In it, Abbot, starring as a fisherman playing one of Des’s records, lowers a speaker into a river.
The horrified fish fling themselves out of the water and into Abbot’s net in a bid to escape the crooner’s voice.
The TV star, who lit up screens with shows like Today With Des And Mel and Des O’Connor Tonight, died in hospital at the age of 88 on Saturday.
Des presented his own prime-time TV shows for more than 45 years and he also hosted Countdown with Carol Vorderman.
He first fronted his own show in 1963 while the success of his singing career saw him sell 16 million records and spend 117 weeks in the top 10 of the charts.
The four-times married star appeared on stages around the world, including hundreds of shows at the London Palladium.
He had his own US TV programme and his chat show Des O’Connor Tonight was a British television staple for a quarter of a century.
He was also known for appearing in game shows Take Your Pick and Pot Of Gold.
At 72, the chat show host became a father again with his fiancée Jodie Brooke Wilson.
The couple later married, when Des was 75 and Wilson was 38.
He had four daughters from his three previous marriages.
Des was made a CBE in 2008 for his services to entertainment and broadcasting.