Peter Appleyard – Canadian Jazz Vibraphonist

Spring 2008 CSANews Issue 66  |  Posted date : May 24, 2008.Back to list

I caught up with this world-famous exponent of the vibraphones at Florida's Busch Gardens. Peter Appleyard was a featured guest soloist with a very fine big band fronted by Terry Myers. I had met Peter before on a number of occasions - in Toronto, in Tampa and in Oshawa, Ontario's Jubilee Pavilion, when he led a 16-piece band in a salute to Benny Goodman.

Peter first saw the light of day in the English fishing port of Grimsby, 100 miles northeast of London, Ontario. "I didn't like it there," he told me, displaying his sense of humour, "so at the age of one day old, I moved with my parents to Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, where I grew up and attended school. Back then, it was usual that a youngster should become apprenticed in a trade, so my father arranged for me to work as a compass adjuster and nautical instrument maker." The instruments to which he referred were technical, not musical.

One day during his apprenticeship, Peter was sent to the Admiralty to pick up some charts. On the way to carry out his errand, he stopped at a record shop. While listening to one of the top hits of the day (on a 78rpm disc), a gentleman asked him if he played drums. Peter said "Why, yes, I do play drums." (He had also studied piano.) The man replied, "Good. I am with Felix Mendelssohn's Hawaiian Serenaders, the first band to appear on British television. We have just lost our drummer. (His wife had caught him in bed with another woman and had taken a fire axe to his drums in revenge). "We have a two-year engagement at the Palace Theatre," he continued, "we'll pay you 15 pounds a week." The young Peter was making just seven shillings, sixpence adjusting compasses, so the decision to become a full-time musician was made on the spot.

Following the two years at London's Palace Theatre, the Second World War was underway and Appleyard found himself entertaining troops. It was at an aerodrome near his Grimsby birthplace that he saw and heard the instrument that was to become his special interest: the vibraphone. He asked the owner if he could try it. The owner said that would be okay. Peter liked it so much that he wanted to buy it, but the owner said hat he was unable to sell it at that time.

Peter then spent the next two years in the Royal Air Force. While serving his tenure with the RAF, Peter first heard a 78rpm recording by Lionel Hampton and saw Red Norvo, another fine jazz vibraphone artist with the Goodman band. He was inspired and became a devoted fan of both musicians. He became good friends with Lionel; in fact, last year, he was honoured to front the Lionel Hampton orchestra in Switzerland. "My ears are still ringing," he joked. "It was a very loud band!"

At war's end, Appleyard moved to Bermuda, where he honed his skills on the vibes during another two-year stint with dance bands.  Peter then emigrated to Canada and for a while, worked at Loblaws and at a menswear store. One day, Billy O'Connor, who had a group playing at the old Colonial Tavern, came in to buy a shirt. After his purchase, the two got to talking about music, the outcome of which led to Peter Appleyard teaming with Cal Jackson to play regularly at Toronto's Park Plaza Hotel.

Peter has done much travelling in his day, much of it with the great Benny Goodman orchestra. He spent a month touring in Australia with the King of Swing, and has made appearances in Canada, the United States, Scandinavia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. In all, he was with Goodman for some eight years, becoming a close friend of the clarinetist. ""It was almost like a father and son relationship," he said. One of his prized possessions is a pair of gold nugget cufflinks which Benny gave him. "I keep them in a jewel box that Frank Sinatra gave me." You could see the pride in his face as he went on. "The box is engraved: 'Peter, thanks. F.S.'. "

Other memorabilia that adorn his mantel piece at home include a key to the city of Moncton, a 2002 medal from the Queen's Jubilee, and a medal commemorating Canada's Centennial in 1967. Peter is particularly proud of the "Satchmo" award from the Jazz Club of Sarasota. Other recipients include Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, Marian McPartland, Dame Cleo Laine and Sir John Dankworth.

In 1992, Peter was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Peter Appleyard has a lifetime of musical memories, having played for and with some of the greatest names of the genre. He talked of receiving a phone call from Goodman asking him to appear with his sextet at a 'little' concert in Ames, Iowa. "I hadn't heard of Ames, Iowa before. When I got to the 'little gig' as Benny referred to it, I found that the sextet was playing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Kostelanetz!"

"It's funny how things dovetail," Peter went on. "While trying to buy tickets for a performance starring Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and the Count Basie band in New York, I ran into Frank's drummer." The drummer suggested to Sinatra that since Appleyard had played with Benny Goodman, he would be a great addition for him. Sinatra replied that if Peter was good enough for Goodman, then he'd be good enough for him. Since that time, Peter has played with an enviable array of great jazz artists. The list includes such names as Cab Calloway, Zoot Sims, Milt Hinton, Slam Stewart, Joe Williams, Earl "Fatha" "Hines" and Joe Venuti. Many of these musicians appeared on a television series hosted by Appleyard in the 70s. Another accomplishment was being named music director for the Toronto engagement of the hit musical, ""A Chorus Line." His resume also includes work for the CBC on Front Page Challenge, and the Wayne and Shuster Show. Appleyard has also performed with Lionel Hampton at Washington's Kennedy Center and in Harlem's Apollo Theater. Peter was one of three whites (with Terry Gibbs and Buddy De Franco) among 150 black musicians.

Remember that little man who refused to sell his vibraphone to Appleyard? Peter ran into him again about 10 years ago in England. The man told him how pleased he was that Peter had done so well. He explained that when they first met, he had been a British spy, using the vibes as a cover in order to get onto air bases. After he finished playing, they would put him into a Cessna and spirit him off to meet with the French Resistance organization behind enemy lines. He had flown over a dozen such missions using vibes as a cover!

Peter's musical career did not go unnoticed by some pretty well-known Canadians. His stints in Toronto's King Cole Room at the Park Plaza Hotel were often attended by Barbara MacDougall, John Robarts, Adrian Clarkson, James Auld, Percy Faith and Star Trek's William Shatner. He recalls playing when American bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey were in the room. He appreciates that after each show at Busch Gardens, several fans lined up to tell him how they remembered enjoying his playing with Cal Jackson at the Park Plaza many years before.

Peter now lives on a 31-acre farm in Rockwood, Ontario with Elfrieda, his partner of more than 25 years. He enjoys riding and has participated in dressage and jumping. His real passion is fox hunting, but he hurries to explain that if they actually see a fox, it is rare indeed and that in 35 years of hunting, he has never seen a kill. The thrill of the ride itself is satisfying enough for him.

Watching and hearing Peter Appleyard at work with the Terry Myers big band at Busch Gardens in Florida, it's hard to believe that he will celebrate his 80th birthday in August of this year. He moves about with ease, obviously enjoying what he does. He loves the Myers band and has fun playing at the Snowbird gatherings in Florida. He stills travels a good deal. His 2008 calendar includes two separate gigs in Switzerland, some engagements with Dick Hyman and an all-star group, the re-birth of the Tribute to Benny Goodman orchestra for a show in Guelph on May 2, and a return to the Colorado Springs Festival for the 20th consecutive year. "Yes, you might say I'm still busy," Peter acknowledges.

Busy indeed, for an octogenarian!