To understand how and why Johnny achieved this remarkable musical diversity we need to delve into his upbringing. Aside from the odd music teacher and virtuoso performer/teacher like Alfredo Campoli, his formal musical training was sparse to say the least. However, he had an insatiable desire to learn. Foyles bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road was his temple and the many volumes he acquired are still treasured.
His father, Francesco Gregori, was born in Italy at the turn of the 20th century, became a prisoner in a German POW camp during the First World War and on his release, was given a medal for bravery. He was from a farming family which owned 400 acres of land; but his heart was set on a musical career, not in farming.
Europe was in turmoil, even Francesco’s own father had been killed by the fascists. He was totally disillusioned with his existence. There was immense poverty all around him and the possibility of another war was looming. The young Francesco looked for fresh pastures to enjoy the rest of his life. It was a toss up between emigrating to New York or London and he chose London. Johnny’s father was a talented musician with the rare gift of having perfect pitch. He played the chromatic (button) accordion which was favoured on the continent and Ireland but, due to its complexity compared to the piano accordion, not popular with the virtuosi in England. F. Walter invented the instrument in the 1850’s. It could play a 46-note chromatic scale and was, for its day, extremely sophisticated.
Francesco Gregori arrived in England in 1919, and met his future wife Maria Louisa Rossi in 1922. They were engaged in London’s West End and got married in the New Year of 1924 and Johnny was born later that year. Francesco formed a band and got offered a job to tour Europe. He had to play solo and was a great success. Eventually, there were four other siblings in the family, three sisters and a brother of which only one sister survives. Johnny was sent to a Catholic convent school where he learnt English. In the first four years of his life the family only spoke Italian and French.
Eventually the family moved from Camden Town to Acton Street in Kings Cross. At that time the area was looking a bit tired but today, stuffed with solicitors and financial advisors, worth a fortune. London’s Italian community was growing in numbers and influence. There is a close bond and great loyalty amongst the community. Many ran clubs and restaurants all over the West End.
Slowly but surely Johnny’s father got engagements at dances. He also had a second string to his bow and that was tuning and repairing instruments. He eventually started a small business. Johnny used to watch him and learned a lot. One day he picked up an accordion and played an Italian march - he was about 7. The two parents stood in awe. His mother said, "Send him to music lessons" but his father was not in favour. He had a greater vision for Johnny than "just being a musician".
In 1929 Francesco formed Gregori's Novelty Trio, which became resident at the Quaglino brothers famous Restaurant, and they remained there until 1940. Many restaurant engagements followed including work in cinemas where they had stage shows. He then became a Decca recording artist and finally played top of the bill at The London Palladium and the Holborn Empire. Johnny would accompany his dad to the rehearsals.
The family moved to Clerkenwell in 1929, and Mary sent him to Bowling Green Lane School which had a reputation for music. He was taught to play ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ on the violin but Johnny did not like this so Mum and Dad Gregory then found a lovely old man called Mr Crisp who taught violin and by mere coincidence also taught scriptwriter Frank Muir. He gave Johnny the basic grounding on the instrument and this encouraged his interest. Francesco got naturalised in 1930, changed his name to Frank Gregory and formed a Tango Orchestra.
At the end of 1933 the family moved to Kensal Rise, which was like being in the country then and Johnny’s whole life took a new turn. It was the height of his father’s success. Frank got a car and it was decided that Johnny should continue with his lessons. It was too far for Mr Crisp to come, so he was sent to Carlo de Rosa, who taught the violin. He was an excellent teacher and gave Johnny some good books on technique, which he still has.
Then two heroes emerged, Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli. It completely overwhelmed him so he bought the music of ‘Running Ragged’ and tried to copy it. He was also helped by the fact that every month Frank used to get a packet of music from publishers with the latest popular orchestrations, and Johnny would go with him to pick out the ones he liked. From these simple beginnings he became an accomplished Jazz musician.
Johnny then mastered several other instruments; finger style guitar which he taught himself, but swiftly found that a plectrum was the key to making a living. A friend of Frank Cavez, the accordionist, who had a prize tenor sax started giving Johnny lessons. He often left the instrument at Johnny’s house. Unfortunately, although the friend was educated in England, he was born in Italy so the Government interned him. However, Johnny inherited the tenor. He read the book and mastered the instrument. Four years later he was good enough to play it on a broadcast. He also learned clarinet, trumpet, trombone and piano.
By this time he was quite advanced - more advanced, in fact, than his teacher. He started gigging with his father and getting used to working with a band. He thought it time he had some harmony and counterpoint lessons. He went to the London College of Music in Great Marlborough Street.
In the autumn of 1939 following the declaration of war, the Government closed down virtually all the places of entertainment. Nothing happened so, following the phoney war, they gradually reopened and in Autumn 1941 Johnny’s Dad started a band at the Normandy Hotel. He wasn't very well at the time so Johnny would deputise for him on occasions. He played for safety and didn't do anything spectacular. Word got around and Paul Wood the violinist said: "you play a good fiddle Johnny, can you do the same for me"? So he depped for the violinist, who paid him a couple of pounds. Joe, the guitar player, said: "you play the guitar Johnny, can you do the same for me?" Finally the bass player said "what about me?" John said, "I can't play the bass". "Yes you can it’s just like a big fiddle." So Johnny obligingly did what he could but by the end of the evening his fingers were cut to ribbons due to the thickness of the bass strings.
At this time Johnny was studying with Alfredo Campoli because Carlo de Rosa was not only interned but also put on a ship to Canada that was torpedoed. Johnny met Campoli in 1942. Frank, who was a friend of Campoli, brought him to the theatre in the Haymarket where he was rehearsing, and Johnny started lessons which changed his musical life completely. He taught Johnny the meaning of music. However a few years later Campoli and his family were considered enemy aliens by the Government but, under the patronage of Ensa, Campoli did a world tour among the troops and Johnny’s association with him ended.
In 1946 the Wellington Club asked Johnny’s Dad if he would go and play there because they had heard that the band was finishing at the Normandy. Frank declined but offered Johnny in his place. By then Johnny had begun playing with various groups and met other instrumentalists who would become the session men of the future. Malcolm Mitchell, the guitar player, and a pianist everyone seemed to be talking about, who played both great jazz and Debussy, Steve Race.
One Sunday Johnny went to a jam session at a friend’s house and there was a kid playing clarinet and he was very good. So Johnny said. "Can you read music" and he said. "I am at the Royal Academy." It was Johnny Dankworth. They both got together and with Ken Moule on piano and a bassist, made a record. Johnny did an arrangement and Dankworth did an arrangement and they all sang a trio on it. They didn't get the job at the audition because they got called up for National Service the week they were due to start the job.
Eddie Kasner took him on as an arranger and on the morning he started he bumped into Ron Goodwin; Geoff Love joined these two later. Johnny had no formal training in arranging, just a natural aptitude. For him arranging was not the fulfilment of his ambition, which was to be an orchestral composer. Because money was in short supply his father couldn't afford the fees to send him to college during the war. To make up for this he used to go to Foyles and browse around the books. He found two books, one on orchestration, a great bible by Cecil Forscyth called "Orchestration" which detailed all the instruments of the orchestra and their capabilities. And the other by Dr. Gordon Jacobs which told one how to voice instruments in the orchestra. From those two Johnny was able to work the rest out for himself.
The first arrangement he undertook when he got to Kasner, because nobody else wanted to do it, was a number called ‘If I ever love Again’ for the BBC Revue Orchestra. Frank Cantell was conducting and it was for full orchestra with violins, violas, bass, woodwind, French horns, harps, and percussion. If Johnny had learned anything it would be discovered now. He went down to the broadcast and Frank Cantell said, "what a beauty" and from then on he wanted Johnny to do much more. He walked out of the studio as though he was dancing on air. Frank was the BBC Revue Orchestra's conductor with quite a lot of influence. The next arrangement was for Lew Stone and his band. This was completely different from the Revue Orchestra. It was for eight brass, five saxes, piano and rhythm section. Again he triumphed and Lew wanted more and from there it just escalated. He subsequently did arrangements for the great Geraldo, Ambrose, Maurice Winnick, Stanley Black, Edmundo Ross, Cyril Stapleton and many others..
After doing a year arranging with Kasner, he was head hunted and became chief arranger for Southern Music which also lasted a year. In 1949 Johnny met Joan, his wife to be. From this union four siblings were produced: Paul in 1955, Ann in 1957, Jane in 1959 and David in 1965. Johnny decided to go freelance. He was beginning to get known by publishers and record companies. In any one week he would be working on arrangements for HMV, Decca, MGM and Pye, Somebody mentioned that Jack Baverstock, Artist and Repertoire Manager of Oriole and Embassy records, was looking for an MD. Jack was a smooth operator with thinning, neatly cut, well Brylcreamed hair, suits that looked if they were poured onto his body and a long cigarette holder. Jack called Johnny to meet him at Oriole in 1954. A new label was being launched, Embassy Records, an economy 78rpm product for sale exclusively in Woolworth’s. Johnny, and another musical director called Ken Jones were to provide the arrangements and Baverstock would direct the sessions.
It was the beginning of the "Chinese Copy" era. As soon as any popular record looked like it was going into the charts, Johnny or Ken would adapt the arrangements from the disc and a singing artist was chosen who could mimic the original artist. They were cranking out 8 records or 16 numbers a week and all had to be finished during the session, no remixing in those days. They were then pressed and in Woolworth stores within five to six days. Many turned out to be better than the originals, and with a nationwide network of Woolworth stores to distribute them, they sold in their tens of thousands.
Johnny was also working with EMI and Decca at that time and was known around the studios. Many would ask why he was going to Embassy. The answer, it was great experience doing three or more sessions a week, and he met all the great musicians. Jack Peach the drummer was one of the chief fixers and Ken Jones originally played piano on Johnny’s sessions. Eventually, Ken wanted to go solo and was replaced by Gordon Franks, a close friend, and then Ronnie Price who did every session with Johnny for the next 30 years. The Rita Williams Singers and latterly Mike Sammes Singers always provided the backing group. Johnny also created Nino Rico, a fictitious Latin American Orchestra leader, the precursor of Chaquito. A 10" LP was released on Oriole. Had the record received the marketing attention it deserved then fate may have taken a different course.
Morris Levy, Managing Director of Oriole and Embassy never expected the phenomenal success of "Chinese copies". Morris was a careful businessman; he could see this might be a "South Sea Bubble", but with the occasional hit from Oriole like ‘Freight Train’ – Nancy Whisky and Chas McDevitt, or ‘We will make love’ with Russ Hamilton, their factories at Aston and Colnbrook often ran out of capacity. Eventually, he had to invest in new plant, but he covered his bets with a contract to do the overflow for Decca and EMI.
In 1956 Jack Baverstock moved from Oriole/Embassy to Philips to become Artists and Repertoire manager at the new Fontana label, and Reg Wharburton replaced him. Johnny followed Jack to Philips on the promise of working for a front line label and to gain recognition for his talents. Morris Levy was devastated; he offered Johnny carte blanche. Johnny reassured him that he was not under contract to Fontana and could service both companies if the need arose. Johnny actually continued with Oriole /Embassy for a further two to three years. The decision to intensify his activities at Fontana was fortuitous, because CBS, who had their records pressed at Oriole, took the company over and asset stripped it.
At the beginning the days at Philips and Fontana were like a breath of fresh air for Johnny. No more treadmill arranging through the night to keep the Embassy cauldron bubbling. Special instructions would come from Eindhoven for their Far Eastern market. Theo Van Donglen, A&R in Eindhoven, gave Johnny albums of class and distinction. "Melodies of Japan" was a classic example. Few of these melodies had ever been written down; they were usually committed to memory and passed on from one generation to the next. Those that had been were often incomplete. Johnny carefully read the music but had to conjure up and resolve melodies from his own experience, using ethnic instruments and percussion. The album was distributed throughout Asia, the U.S.A. and Europe.
Then many series of easy listening LPs were commissioned with the Cascading Strings, which he formed, and the final blockbuster "Chaquito" which outshone every Latin American Orchestra from Argentina to Mexico. From 1956 to 1960 Johnny was riding high but the illusive "Star" recognition, he deserved, still had to be stamped on the record buying public. It was at this point Johnny thought it was time to move on.
He always admits he is a musician first and businessman second. His Italian ancestry precluded any type of confrontation when it came to the work that he enjoyed. Arthur Rye, an extremely successful Solicitor and amateur military band composer, met Johnny by chance, and he agreed to arrange some of Rye’s melodies which were subsequently played by the Kneller Hall School of Music. (I had a hand in this because I recorded them.) Eventually, the recordings filtered through to Arthur Rye who became very excited and offered Johnny free premises in South Moulton Street. Rye employed a mysterious Mr Gaudini who would look after things and prepare the office, piano and so on. For a brilliant composer/arranger, who felt the world had forgotten him, (shades of Mozart), this location, in the centre of Mayfair, was too valuable to pass up. He eagerly discussed with Gaudini the idea of having a studio to make independent records, a gold label for classics and another pop label. The days of Label Artiste and Repertoire Managers controlling catalogues was slowly being eroded by the emergence of powerful pop groups, with their own independent managements that could sell their product to the highest bidder.
They called me (Bill Johnson), and with Dag Fjelner, a Swedish audio engineer, we built a studio in nine months. As petty cash was not readily to hand I paid for everything in the Studio. Suffice it to say, I spent £15,000 of my own cash and Johnny got a salary of £20 a week. Johnny had to live off his royalties between 1965 and 1970. He got into debt and generally was very depressed. Johnny really needed a strong agent/manager. In 1963 a Godsend arrived in the name of Beverly Jane Campion. Educated at the Lycee, a trained stenographer and destined for the diplomatic service, she joined Ryemuse and began organising the office and generally protecting Johnny from time wasters.
Work elsewhere started to dry up for Johnny and even Jack Baverstock did not call him. When he did finally call, he became upset that Johnny was doing his own thing.
Beverly eventually became Johnny's partner in Arpeggio Music, negotiating the contracts, doing the fixing, acting as copyist with Joan, Johnny's wife, and generally running the Gregory road show. In 1970 Arpeggio was the first company to enable musicians from both sides of the Atlantic to play together,
Jack as A&R of Fontana was able to push work to Johnny but did nothing about it. As soon as Johnny looked as if he was going his own way he offered him the Fritz Kreisler Tribute Album, a double string Album, and four new Chaquito albums, recorded between 1959 and 1964 - probably the best he has ever made.
However, the Ryemuse episode was not the golden opportunity that Johnny had imagined. It emerged that Solicitor Rye had bought up leases and freeholds throughout Mayfair just after World War 2. These cost peanuts in the 40’s but by the 70’s profits were becoming an embarrassment. Arthur Rye was now 80 and his death duties would have rivalled the Beatles’ royalties. There was obviously a need to find some form of tax loss enterprise allegedly to launder money and Ryemuse probably provided the golden opportunity. Where the cash actually went is not known but when Johnny left Ryemuse he was broke again. It appeared that crafty businessmen had taken advantage. Beverly moved on with him and within five years sorted Johnny's finances to the point where, although penniless, he was debt free.
Dick Levy replaced Jack Baverstock at Philips. In 1974 Bev and Johnny signed a contract with United Artists under the name of Arpeggio Music, and a new one with Philips for three albums a year with Chaquito (for which he made a total of 14 albums), and the Cascading Strings The same year he signed a contract with the BBC to conduct the prestigious Radio Orchestra. He maintains this was the best time of his whole career. He went on as principal guest conductor until 1991.
1976 saw Philips closed, and work started to die out for most serious arrangers in the middle eighties. Johnny conducted the LSO at Filmharmonic 85 with John Williams and John Scott, and two Royal Film Performances in Leicester Square, and was presented to the Queen. He did one film in 1989, one in 1991, one in 1994 and the last in 2002. At one time that would be about a month’s work. His latest composition is a flute and string concerto, now awaiting its debut.
Johnny’s legacy has been some of the finest string arrangements of modern times. In addition he received the Ivor Novello Award for ‘Introduction and Air to a Stained Glass Window’. The inspiration came from a rest day that he and the Orchestra took from making several albums for RCA in Paris. They all went to Chartres Cathedral, and as they entered the Sun was shining through a vast window set above the altar… Slowly a cloud emerged and covered the Sun, changing all the colours in the nave. This had an immediate impact on Johnny; he took the memory home and six months later had the theme and melody worked out. The Award winning work was recorded for United Artists but, as Johnny humorously points out "it’s like receiving an Oscar; you just don't get any decent work after that!"
Bill Johnson : 2004