LAST MONTH the Time Machine followed singer Shirley Western from her childhood through to hereperforming in swinging 60s London with Ken Mackintosh and his Orchestra, hanging out with The Beatles, Shirley Bassey and the Queen Mother, and appearing regularly on BBC Radio. She then retired to Worthing in 1973.
Only, of course, she didn’t retire, or there’d be no Part 2! She bought a house in Goring and would go and see Roy Affleck’s Big Band, a musical fixture of the town, at the Pavilion on Thursday nights and the Assembly Hall on Saturdays. As Christmas 1977 approached, Affleck’s singer left to open a dance school. He persuaded Shirley out of retirement for the Christmas season – and she never left.
In 1980, Affleck retired himself and, since Shirley was something of a name, still appearing on BBC Radio 2, three of the musicians asked her if she’d front the band. The Shirley Western Showband was born. “I made it more of a show, with sparkly outfits,” she recalls, “It went down well.” They continued to perform twice a week, songs ranging from the Dixieland jazz of ‘Darktown Strutter’s Ball’ to ‘La Bamba’, from sugary old-time ballad ‘Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)’ to 70s hits such as ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’.
“One night,” she recalls, “This little man walked up to the stage and waved and I thought, ‘He doesn’t half look like [comedian] Norman Wisdom.’ Well, it was him and he came bouncing into my dressing room in the interval. He said he was looking to make a record and needed a musical director. I told him my trumpet player did that and introduced them. He said, ‘You two must come round.’ He lived in West Chiltington in a marvellous house with a Rolls Royce in the garage. We went there two or three times. He was a great guy, very homely. He once told me, ‘Any time you’re passing, if I’m not here, feel free to just go in the kitchen and make yourself a cup of tea.’”
Shirley’s life took an unexpected turn when she went one day to put an ad in the window of a local sweet shop. The owner was Roy Dew, an ex-Chelsea/Millwall footballer. Shirley continues the tale: “Back in the 60s footballers used to meet at the Empire Leicester Square where I had a residency with Ken Mackintosh. Roy used to say, ‘I fancy that singer, but I bet she doesn’t like football.’ Little did he know I love football! He stood outside the stage door in the rain but I came out with the trombone player so he left it. All these years later, I went into his shop in Goring and he said, ‘Are you Shirley Western?’”
That evening Shirley went to a Worthing FC charity match and the first person she saw on arrival was Roy Dew. “Gosh,” he said, “I haven’t seen you for 20 years and now I see you twice in one day!” On 17 April 1982 they were married at St Andrews United Reformed Church in Rustington. It was quite a day.
“The Pavilion had been closed for repairs,” remembers Shirley, “It was due to open on 17 April and the council asked me if I’d like to open it. Well, Ken Macintosh was giving me away in the afternoon so we had his orchestra down in the evening, as well as my band. After the wedding we had the reception at the [long gone] Smugglers pub in Sea Lane. Roy’s best man was Alan Simpson, who co-wrote ‘Steptoe & Son’, and other guests included [then well-known Radio 2 DJ] Brian Matthew. It was a lavish occasion; we arrived in a pony and trap with two outriders, and what a night at the Pavilion!”
It might have been one of the last hurrahs for Worthing’s big band scene. By the mid-80s, as Shirley puts it, “our music was a little bit out of fashion and people weren’t coming to dances like they used to.” She was not daunted and, offered a residency on Gran Canaria, in October 1987 she and Roy headed abroad to set up home.
Before long she was presenting an evening show on Radio Maspalomas, which was based near the top of a mountain. She then hurtled down winding roads at night to do a four-hour show, singing with karaoke machine backing tracks, in a venue called the Piano Bar. She and Roy stayed a decade in the Canary Islands, returning to Worthing in 1997. Shirley soon had a residency at The Burlington on Tuesday nights and Sunday lunchtimes.
A global holiday trip with Roy led to a stop in Cape Town. After an impromptu turn with the Riverboat Jazz Band at the huge Ferrymans bar-restaurant on the waterfront, she was offered another residency. Despite being almost 70, and with a ticket home for the following Wednesday, she accepted. Shirley ended up working there for seven summer seasons (missing one when Roy had a heart attack – from which he’s long recovered).
“I couldn’t believe my luck,” she enthuses, “I’ve retired more times than Frank Sinatra. October to March every year I did that until I couldn’t anymore when my hips started to go. See, I was very active onstage, doing high kicks during ‘New York, New York’. People would hear me and see my silhouette but when they met me they’d say, ‘How old are you?’ and I’d say, ‘Older than Shirley Bassey and younger than Joan Collins – work it out!’”
Back in the UK, Shirley and Roy lived for some years in the Guild Care-affiliated Dolphin Court housing scheme but are now based in Littlehampton. They are still lively and are regular volunteer drivers for the community. Shirley Western’s last gig was only five years ago, as entertainment on a cruise between Southampton and Cape Town; that’s 70 years after her professional debut dancing in a Glasgow cinema in 1943. Quite a career! Quite a character! The lady is a true trouper!