I had a bad day yesterday, for various reasons too tedious to go into, but I was cheered up in the evening. First, I read a book I’d picked up at a charity stall earlier in the day; written for children, it’s one of the best books I’ve read for ages.* Then I watched a programme I’d recorded, Let’s have a party! The piano genius of Mrs Mills. How could Mrs Mills not cheer you up? Pre-Beatles, I was young enough to watch The Billy Cotton Band Show with my parents, which is how I remember Mrs Mills. I also liked Russ Conway, who I thought was lovely and greatly admired Winifred Atwell, another former star you never hear about nowadays. I was obviously too old for Bobby Crush when he came along; I had no idea who he was.
The theme of the programme is also a pet obsession of mine: that performers like Mrs Mills have been written out of musical history because they don’t fit with people’s idea of the sixties. She had albums in the charts for years! She recorded at Abbey Road, where she had a dedicated piano, specially tuned for her distinctive honky-tonk sound. It gives you a good idea of the musical overlap in those days to learn that The Beatles used the same piano on some of their tracks, notably Penny Lane. The piano is still preserved at the studios.
Most of the people interviewed were pianists themselves and they were all at pains to point out the technical difficulty of what Mrs Mills did and how well she did it. Typically, the BBC didn’t seem to have much footage left and we kept seeing the same old clips, mostly from The Morecambe and Wise Show. There are quite a few clips on YouTube and I picked this one because you can actually see her playing.
There was much talk of the decline of piano playing as pianos were banished from homes and pubs to make way for television sets. Nevertheless, Mrs Mills still has her fans. I found 113 singles/albums offered on eBay this morning. The album covers are so bad they’re good, collectable because they’re so kitsch. Click here to see young kingofthekeyboard playing the piano Mrs Mills style. How I’d love to be able to do that! I’d like to be the quiet, shy person at the party who can sit down at the piano and knock out any tune people ask for. We also saw young people reviving the pub singalong, with a vamping piano and customers roaring out Roll Out The Barrel like extras from In Which We Serve, then wondering how it is they know the words. Rick Wakeman pointed out that to someone of fifteen, this kind of music would be something quite new. Highly recommended and still available to view.
*Huck and her Time Machine by Gillian Avery