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Leading Big Band Drummer on UK SceneCopyright © 2002The Scotsman
Ronnie Verrell played drums for two of the most famous big bands in British jazz, the Ted Heath Orchestra and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra. He was both a driving band drummer and an exciting soloist on his special features, the most famous of which was Hawaiian War Chant with the Heath band.
His contributions to British music went well beyond those more visible manifestations however. Verrell was a sought after session drummer in London throughout his career, and played on literally countless film and television soundtracks, as well as many record sessions in both pop and jazz settings. He was an expert reader of even the most complex percussion charts, and a highly adaptable drummer.
One of his television contracts was The Muppet Show, where he played in the band, and also provided the frenetic drum solos for the puppet drummer known as Animal. In the course of filming one of the programmes, Verrell achieved a long held ambition to meet his greatest drumming hero, Buddy Rich, a guest on the show. Rich, not an easy man to please, admitted the admiration was mutual.
Ronald Thomas Verrell was not brought up in a musical household, and showed little interest until he saw the Benny Goodman band perform in a film in 1938. His conversion was instant, and he taught himself to play drums. He made his professional debut as an evacuee in the seaside resort of Porthcawl during the World War 2.
He linked up with Scottish saxophonist Tommy Whittle back in London, the beginning of a lifelong association. They worked with Belgian trumpeter Johnny Claes before Verrell moved on to bands led by Carl Barriteau (1947-48) and Cyril Stapleton (1949-51).
He joined the Ted Heath Band in September, 1951, as a replacement for Jack Parnell. Heath's group was the leading British big band, and the first to make an impact in America in the late 1950s. Verrell remained with the band until Heath's retirement in 1964, but was not inclined to participate in the subsequent "ghost bands" which bore his name, feeling that the magic had gone with the leader.
The drummer began to concentrate on session work, backing popular singers like Winifred Atwell, Jack Jones, Tony Bennett, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, among others. He joined Jack Parnell's house band at ATV, and remained a member of that group for ten years, with a short break to work with Tom Jones in Los Angeles.
In 1980 he received a call from band leader Syd Lawrence, who found himself short of a drummer for an imminent concert. Verrell agreed to fill in, and savoured the return to playing in front of an audience so much that he ended up playing with the band for the best part of two decades.
He formed his own quintet in the mid-1990s, reverting to the small-group formula of his original inspiration, Benny Goodman, often with clarinettist David Shepherd. He appeared on occasion with the Pizza Express All-Stars and the touring band Best of British, despite a serious road accident which put him out of action for almost a year.