As musical director for Associated Television from 1956 to 1981, Jack Parnell was responsible for the music for the long-running variety show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium. His orchestra provided the backing for all the stars who topped the bill on the show, including Judy Garland, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Sammy Davis Jr, Lena Horne and Liberace. Until then, he was the drummer with the most exciting big band of the day, led by trombonist Ted Heath.
Parnell could hardly have avoided showbusiness as a way of earning his living. His grandfather was the mould-breaking music hall ventriloquist, Fred Russell, his father, Russ Carr, was also a vent, and one of his uncles, the impresario Val Parnell, was managing director of the Moss Empires circuit of theatres. As a small boy, Jack toured with his parents and often stood in the wings of a theatre where a band was the star turn. He started taking piano lessons at the age of four and began to show an interest in drums when he was six.
Throughout the Second World War, he played with bands attached to Bomber Command and, in 1945, was invited by Ted Heath to join his band. He helped to arrange Heath’s Sunday Swing Sessions at the Palladium. He stayed with Heath until 1951, playing, singing, leading a small band within the band and becoming something of a celebrity in his own right.
When Parnell left Heath, he formed the 16-piece Music Makers. One of its first jobs was to provide the music for the revue, Fancy Free, starring Tommy Trinder, the first presenter of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and Patricia Kirkwood, who found Trinder difficult to work with. The Music Makers toured Europe with Lena Horne in 1952 and backed Billie Holiday in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1954.
In 1967, Lord Grade axed Sunday Night at the London Palladium, a move he later admitted to have been one of the worst mistakes he ever made. Many of the early editions of the show had gone out live. In spite of tensions caused by live broadcasts, Parnell always insisted they made better television. Sometimes, disasters were only narrowly avoided. During rehearsals with the Spanish tenor, Placido Domingo, singing extracts from the opera Pagliacci, members of the orchestra turned the page only to find themselves playing a soft-shoe shuffle. The library had mistakenly sent them Harry Secombe’s music.
The same year that Sunday Night at the London Palladium left the screens, game show The Golden Shot was first seen on British television. Parnell wrote its theme tune, as well as that of Family Fortunes. He was also one of the panel of experts on the talent show New Faces. Together with the record producer Mickie Most, he was reckoned to have been one of the harshest judges of contestants.
In the seventies, Parnell began an association with The Muppet Show, conducting the orchestra and often appearing on screen. It was he who persuaded the jazz drummer, Buddy Rich, to appear on the show to engage in a percussive duel with the Muppets’ resident drummer, Animal. After the last Muppet Show in 1983, Parnell retired from ATV, longing to return to the drums he had not touched for 16 years. He found that he could hardly play them and had to learn his old technique from scratch. On reaching 80, he announced his retirement, but still played at weekly jazz club sessions near his home in Suffolk.
Jack Parnell, who was born on August 6, 1923, died on August 8, aged 87.
Richard Anthony Baker