A Tribute to Chris Carrington
28th April 1946 – 27th December 2017
“Kenny Knight (pianist) said to me one day, beaming all over his face, ‘We’ve got this fantastic drummer next Saturday at the wedding.’ It was indeed a great gig, but what made it so special and enjoyable was working with a brilliant drummer: Chris’s backing was sympathetic, his solos were well worked out, his timing was exceptional and his kit sounded great.”
Thanks to Dave Gibb (double bass) for the above words on his first gig with Chris, back in the 1980s. Shall we start at the beginning?
Chris was born in April 1946 to Eileen and Bob Carrington. This was less than a year after the end of the Second World War. Musically, it was also the end of the swing era and jazz giants such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were kicking off the bebop revolution.
Chris’s first foray into music as a child was playing the violin. When one of his sisters accidentally sat on the instrument and broke it, his strings playing came to an end – luckily for the drumming world, as a cousin then introduced him to the drums and he never looked back. As a child, Chris listened along with his family to swing and big band music on the radio, and knew that was what he eventually wanted to play himself. His parents fully supported their young boy’s wish to play the drums and paid for him to have lessons with Frank King in London, who numbered among his other pupils a certain Phil Collins.
The earliest record of Chris playing in a band was at Newhaven Secondary School where, as a fourteen year old, he played in a trio with best mate George W Sims Jnr (!) on bass and their music teacher on piano.
Chris started playing professionally and during the early 60’s he played a key part in the South Coast Beat Scene playing in a succession of bands: The Phantoms, The Faraways, The Javelins, The Aztecs (pictured right), The Sabres or Zabres as they would later call themselves, Plain and Fancy, The Initials and The Untamed Four. He warrants several mentions in Mike Read’s book on the era: ‘The South Coast Beat Scene of the 1960s’. Long-time friend and bass player John Mitchell, who played in a band called the Theorems at the same time, says “To us, Chris and co were like Gods of the beat scene.”
From 1966 he started playing for dance bands with leaders Tony Strudwick, Eric Winstone, Syd Dean, Ronnie Keene and Steve Lewis, and it was while playing for the Syd Dean band at the Top Rank Suite in Brighton that he met his future wife Joanie.
This would have been in 1970 and she clearly had an eye for the blond, handsome, brilliant drummer, going up to him to request a solo on the Duke Ellington classic, Skin Deep, which she knew from her Ted Heath Band recording. He happily obliged, being delighted to meet someone not only gorgeous but who also knew her big band music! They married in 1976.
Chris’s drum hero was Buddy Rich, the greatest drummer of all time, who had played in the Tommy Dorsey band with Frank Sinatra in the 40’s and who, by the 1970’s, was leading his own big band. Chris travelled up to Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London many times to watch Buddy play – always sitting as near the drum kit as he possibly could – and had a large collection of Buddy Rich LPs, other recordings and drumming books.
Chris continued to play professionally, drumming for many years for a band called Hi Society, freelancing through the Sidney Lipton agency in London and amassing a huge variety of experience of drumming in different musical genres and situations – even doing a couple of summer seasons at Butlins and drumming in the orchestra pit at pantomimes! He also added drum teaching to his list of skills, and was a wonderfully patient and very thorough teacher – I can vouch for that! Thanks to his own varied career experience, Chris was able to teach any style of drumming, and always taught his pupils to read drum music, which is a fantastic skill to have but one which so many drummers lack. He worked at many schools in Sussex over the years and also taught privately at home. Chris set his pupils a shining example by practising virtually every day himself, and was always working at trying to improve his own technique, speed and playing. He also spent hours writing out various training exercises and ideas for solos and fills for his own use, which he would pass on to his pupils as appropriate. I am honoured to have been entrusted with the safekeeping of Chris’s large collection of handwritten music.
During the last thirty years or so Chris had two regular gigs which he loved more than anything and which were rock solid fixtures in his diary – the small jazz group, Assorted Nuts, playing two Sundays a month at the Six Bells pub in Chiddingly (for which he was the fixer), and the Ronnie Smith Big Band playing monthly at Shoreham Airport.
Chris was always a sensitive accompanist to small jazz groups and he had to be especially adaptable in Assorted Nuts, as the concept of the group was that additional musicians – and singers too – from all around were welcome to come along and join in, and one never knew how many might turn up, or what instrument they would bring! Chris coped with it all in his usual quiet unflustered way, and his jazz Sundays were always popular at the Six Bells. Eddie Smith (vibraphone player at the Six Bells) remembers that “It would have been hard to fall out with Chris”, and Pete Godfrey (keyboards in the Assorted Nuts) says “Chris, although a quiet person, was always a friendly chap, and nothing ever seemed to faze him. He was always enthusiastic playing with the band, and loved his drumming. He would swing the band along nicely.”
Many of those musicians and singers joined together to play at Findon Manor Hotel after Chris’s funeral – a lovely touch.
Chris was also a superb big band drummer, making full use of every part of his signature red drum kit – an American original from the 1970s. Rod Burrows, current leader of the Ronnie Smith band, pays tribute: “Chris had the drum chair with the Ronnie Smith big band for over ten years, taking over from Phil Solomon. A very quiet man, Chris was a huge part of the setup, never missed a chance to play and would find his own dep if unable to come himself. A great loss to the big band world.”
As well as playing for the Ronnie Smith Band, Chris also depped for other big band drummers in the area when required, and was well known for being able to sight read his way through virtually any piece of big band music! “With his distinctive Rogers kit you could immediately tell as you walked in to a venue when Chris Carrington was booked on a gig. A classic kit associated with the great big band and swing drummers of the 1940s and 1950s; ideal for Chris driving the rhythm section but without being overpowering, and sympathetic to the soloists in the band.” These words are from Richard Guest of the Fred Woods Band in Horsham, where Chris was always pleased to fill in when needed.
Buddy Rich died in 1987 but Chris was recently back at Ronnie’s with son Terry to see another drummer – this time it was Dave Weckl playing in a Buddy Rich Tribute Band, put together to mark the 30th anniversary of his death. It was not long after Joanie had passed away and Chris had been wonderful in caring for her during her long illness. After the show Terry asked him if he had enjoyed himself. “The best night out I’ve had in years!” he grinned.
Everyone who has played with Chris or has seen him play will know what a fantastic drummer he was and he was playing as well as ever, literally up until the eve of his being admitted to hospital. He was a wonderful teacher, whose pupils are his legacy; a great dad and grandad and an all round lovely guy.
RIP Chris – you are sorely missed.
(drum pupil for 13 years)
With grateful thanks to Chris’s son Terry, on whose piece written for, and so bravely read out at Chris’s funeral, this article is based.