Back in the mid- 1960s, if you’d popped into The Dragoon pub for a pint (Market Street, demolished at the start of the 70s to make way for the Guildbourne Centre), you might have tapped a toe to the band there.
JED ARMSTRONG, ON DRUMS, was at the beginning of a career that would criss-cross the globe, although he little knew it then.
“I wanted to see the world,” he says wistfully. “I used to sit out by the bandstand in Worthing, looking at the moonlight hitting the waves at night, wondering whether I’d ever be able to see what was at the end of these vast oceans.”
Born in Surrey in 1942, Armstrong’s family moved to Worthing as his father’s London antique business slumped during World War II. While his dad rose to become the top carpet salesman in Bentalls (now Beales), Jed developed a fascination with skiffle. His grandmother bought him a snare drum and he built up his own kit from there, briefly playing with Worthing outfit The Faraways.
He lived in London in 1962 and became friendly with Chris Karan, drummer with the Dudley Moore Trio. He ecalls great times at Peter Cook’s club The Establishment, but soon moved back to Worthing. Not long afterwards he hooked up with the Worthing Swing Orchestra, where he met keyboard player Keith Emerson. (later of Emerson, Lake & Palmer). Also in that band was bassist Godfrey Sheppard, who, together with guitarist John Greenwood, would form a trio with Jed, becoming residents at Brighton’s Harrisons Bar in the mid-60s. Keith Emerson would sit in with them.
“He was very shy then, I used to egg him,” recalls Jed, “but he also had this extrovert side, a way of making people listen to him. He was a wonderful jazz pianist; he could sight read beautifully and had wonderful imagination and spirit.”
During this period Jed played with names such as Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes, Don Weller and Bobby Wellings. He was starting to earn a living from music, working, amongst other things, on the BBC police drama Softly, Softly. But it was two separate nights of drinking that earned Jed a footnote in pop history.
The first was with Rod Stewart in a Muswell Hill pub in 1969. Stewart, at that point, had a solid reputation but hadn’t made it. He’d recently signed to Mercury Records as a solo artist but was scrabbling around for songs. As the evening boozily progressed at Stewart’s bungalow, Jed related how his pal Martin Quittenton, of the band Steamhammer, was writing some tasty songs.
“I told Martin afterwards,” says Jed, “but he wouldn’t ring Rod, so I took him out drinking at the Central Hotel’s cellar bar by the station [now the Grand Victorian]. Martin absolutely adored these Gold Labels [strong barley wine], so I ordered four of them, which was expensive then. Eventually I said, ‘Are you going to ring Rod now or what?’ I got him up to the telephone box, pushed him in, and put my back to the door so he couldn’t get out. He came out a bit dazed and said, ‘He wants me to go up on Tuesday.’ He stayed at Rod’s bungalow for a week…”
The result was that Quittenton ended up playing on Stewart’s first four albums and co-writing Maggie May, You Wear It Well and others. Jed’s career, meanwhile, also took off. In 1971 he joined the Ray Markham Band for a Norwegian Caribbean Lines cruise. Jed enjoyed the experience but reckoned the organization lax and decided to cut out on his own. Leading the Jed Armstrong Quartet, he spent the next five years touring the world on cruise ships, from Australia to America, Japan to the Mediterranean. It was a dream come true.
“I absolutely loved it,” he says gleefully. “Musicians were called ‘leading hands’, at the bottom of the officer rankings. A 25,000 tonner would have a solo piano, a trio and a quartet who shared duties at different times, and there were cabarets to be backed too. I couldn’t believe I was seeing the world like this; it was just fantastic.”
While Jed revelled in the happy times, it was not all plain sailing.
“My worst trip was on the Blenheim with Fred Olsen Lines,” he remembers. “There was a storm on the Bay of Biscay, so dreadful, pitching into the waves all the time, all the shops were smashed up, the catering crew were trying to get into the lifeboats, people thought they’d had it. I staggered down to the dining hall and there were people with cut heads, bruised, bashed about, but the piano was strapped down, the pianist playing, and the English passengers were all singing On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep.”
After the cruise years, Jed formed a pop covers band called Wave who became one of the first such acts to play Dubai. They built a career in the Middle East and were playing La Boheme Club in Tehran when the Iranian Revolution hit in 1978. Jed had to get his band and their money out amid the mayhem.
“The doors of the place were always getting burnt down,” he recalls, “and eventually they were replaced with iron doors; you could hear guns at night. I spoke to this guy who had a marvellous dance troupe – Debbie McGee was in it – and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’ll die down, I’ve seen loads of these things.’ But it really didn’t die down, did it?”
Jed continued to work as a drummer as the 70s turned into the 80s, touring Germany with the Pete Moss Big Band, going to the States with comedy quartet The Mutton Chop Band – with whom he lived in a log cabin in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains – and working with Scottish singer Robin Mather in a keyboard’n’drums duo, but increasingly, now with a young family, he preferred working closer to home.
While he maintained a lifelong friendship with Keith Emerson, who died in 2016, Jed moved out of music at the start of the 90s, setting up a successful antique shop, Elijah’s in Arundel. However, he can still sometimes be found supporting his old pal Godfrey Sheppard at Worthing Jazz Society’s nights at the Hare and Hounds pub.