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UK Session Star with Jazz PedigreeCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Skeat, BillBill Skeat's reputation as a jazz player was eclipsed at times by his largely anonymous but highly lucrative success as a studio musician in the 1950s and 1960s, but the music remained his first love, and he succeeded in making a considerable mark on the UK jazz scene nonetheless.
He was born William Frederick James Skeat in East London, and began to play locally on clarinet in his teens. He spent two years as a "Bevan boy" in the pits during the war (his only non-musical job), and spent a further two years in the army, where he played clarinet in an army band.
He joined a popular dance band in London, the Blue Rockets, as a saxophonist in 1948, then worked briefly with bandleaders Carl Barriteau and Joe Daniels in London before joining the Glasgow-based big band led by Tommy Sampson, where he played alto saxophone for a summer season in 1949.
He returned to London and played in Billy Ternant's band for two years, and then with Felix King. A serious bout of tuberculosis blocked his career for two years, but he was able to resume playing on a full-time basis in 1955. He worked for several dance band leaders, including Arnold Bailey and Arthur Coppersmith, then joined the London Palladium Orchestra.
A stint at the Mermaid Theatre in London was followed by an ever increasing concentration on freelance studio work in the late-1950s and 1960s, a career which proved lucrative enough to allow him to indulge a fondness for Rolls Royces throughout those years. His remit was wide-ranging, taking in radio (his credits included The Goon Show and Round The Horne ), recordings, television and stage work, in which capacity he toured with a number of the biggest names in popular music, including Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Fred Astaire and Peggy Lee, as well as great jazz instrumentalists like Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson.
He became increasingly active in jazz contexts from the 1970s onward, partly in response to a decreasing market in his commercial committments, and partly as a return to his original inspiration, having been induced to take up clarinet by the playing of Benny Goodman. His younger brother, Len Skeat, is an eminent jazz bassist.
He became a regular in festival and jazz clubs, and worked with well-known leaders like Bob Wilber (he also stood in for the clarinettist at short notice at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1978) and Digby Fairweather, and travelled extensively, playing in Japan, Australia, and Russia, where he became something of a star name, and ultimately married a Russian girl.
He is survived by his first wife, Sylvia; his second wife, Sara; his son, Bob (who is a bass guitarist); and daughter, Debbie.