Russ Conway, the chart – topping piano star and composer with the matinee idol looks, dazzling smile and modest charm, has died at the age of 75. He had a warm sense of humour and was as courteous and charming in private life as he appeared on stage or TV.
Despite a number of illnesses, the most challenging being stomach cancer, he always put up a brave and optimistic fight. It was after two operations in 1989 (“leaving chicken wire inside me” as he put it) that he founded his own charity. The Russ Conway Cancer Fund, through which he and show-business friends raised considerable sums. In 1992 he was awarded the Lord Mayor of Bristol’s Medal for his contribution to charity and popular music.
Trevor Herbert Stanford, as he was born in Bristol on September 2, 1925, was the son of a commercial traveler and a talented pianist mother (who he regarded as his inspiration). He received one piano lesson at the age of four but had no further formal music tuition.
Nevertheless, he was destined to produce 40 albums (45 million worldwide) and 200 singles, including two No.1 hits – Side Saddle and Roulette. He summed it up in his joking way. “Not too bad for a self taught Naval rating who went from playing in pubs, clubs and canteens to national fame, top of the Hit parade, TV series, and starring at the London Palladium.
His great years were from 1957 to 1965 when, in addition to his records, he had his own TV series, did hundreds of shows for the BBC and ITV and most noticeably was a frequent guest on the Billy Cotton Band Show.
Women wrote to him in their thousands, yet he stayed a lifelong bachelor. “ I got close to marrying three times. The last one died suddenly and it still saddens me.
His success was due to a distinctive sound at the keyboard which he attributed to losing the top of a right hand finger in a bread slicer, and almost smashing the little finger of his left hand, which explains why the logo of his own Churchill Records label is a two-and-a-half fingers Victory salute.
He trained and went into the Merchant Navy and swore that he peeled millions of potatoes. Then when he was 16 he pretended to be 18 and joined the Royal Navy. During the Second World War he served as a mines-sweeper and was awarded the DSM.
It was in 1948 that he was discharged with a stomach complaint. Many civilian jobs followed, with never a thought of music, until a friend asked him to stand in for a club pianist.
The noted choreographer Irving Davies was present and, liking what he heard, invited him to play at his rehearsals. Before long he was an accompanist to such artists as Gracie Fields, Dorothy Squires, Joan Regan, and Adelaide Hall – even working with the Olivier’s and John Mills at charity events.
Top of the bill status arrived once Norman Newell gave him a new name and a recording contract. To his surprise, but with the dedication and humanity of someone who had come up the hard way, Conway found himself a star.
But along with the fame came problems. The sixties proved traumatic. In his own words: “I had lost my identity and didn’t know whether I was Trevor Stanford or Russ Conway, an ex-matelot or an entertainment star.
This produced tension, and I didn’t know how to act as a successful artist. I learned there was a dividing line between making music and business matters.”
He had a back operation, a nervous breakdown in 1963, and strokes in 1965 and 1968. The final blow was the death of Billy Cotton, with whom he had such a close professional association.
For three years Conway stopped working and then asked a friend, Eddie Falcon, to help him get back on his feet. Before long his up and down career was climbing again and he was playing at the Palladium.
Since then there have been seaside season concerts, other stage shows, and mini-concertos that he composed for four albums. He had a life-story tribute series on ITV and made some recordings. Even the fan club kept going.
He philosophized: “The ex-sailor wanted to be famous and grabbed it with two hands when it came. I had the whole world in my hands until I spread my fingers and dropped it. Keep smiling is the answer. As a child I was always known as smiler. All you need for a winning smile is a good dentist! I wouldn’t have done anything differently except I wish I’d had another manager or publisher years ago. I might have been a multi-millionaire.”
Conway lived in East-bourne which he revered and said did not deserve to be termed God’s waiting room. Not because he was a middle of the road music man himself, he resented the way pop and rock now dominate TV, and how TV stations ignored a vast and mature majority who wanted traditional popular songs.
He also hated being called Britain’s Liberace or a honky – tonk player.
At 17 he got engaged to a wren but they were posted to different ships, next came a south London girl when he was in his early twenties, and finally a woman named Hazel who died after a minor operation while he was away in South Africa.
Some years later, he explained: “Many a time I wanted to give up. But it has all been worthwhile. I believe there has to be a reason for everything.”