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Bill Eyden

4 May 1930 15 October 2004


Bill Eyden, who died on October 15 aged 74, was one of Britain's finest drummers and a leading pioneer of modern jazz in this country.

Beneath his undemonstrative style, Eyden wielded a commanding, sometimes ferocious beat, deployed with masterly technique. Among his greatest
strengths was a remarkable ability to weld the conventional piano-bass-drums rhythm section into a single, responsive entity.

William James Eyden was born at Hounslow, Middlesex, on 4 May 1930 and began his musical life in the local Army Cadet Corps band.

After playing in local semi-professional dance bands, and taking lessons from Max Abrams, then London's leading drum teacher, he turned fully professional in 1952. He first joined the band led by the father-and-son team of Ivor and Basil Kirchin, famed as an effective, if somewhat disorderly, nursery of jazz talent.

Within two years his all-round musicianship had placed him in the ranks of London's top professionals, combining jazz playing with studio work at the highest level. A glance through the weekly jazz-club listings of the early-to-mid-1950s finds the name Bill Eyden in bold type alongside those of such heroes as Jimmy Skidmore, Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes.

The formation in April 1957 of the Jazz Couriers, co-led by Scott and Hayes, marked a distinct advance in British jazz. There was a confident, almost insolent, swagger about this five-piece group that only Americans had hitherto displayed. The glittering invention of the soloists and the pinpoint accuracy of the ensemble combined to devastating effect, and the fulcrum upon which the whole thing turned was Bill Eyden's drumming.

The Jazz Couriers folded in July 1959, Scott opening his Soho jazz club shortly afterwards, and Eyden went on to play with other leading bands,
including the Vic Ash-Harry Klein Quintet, which shared the bill on Miles Davis's first British tour in the autumn of 1960.

In the years that followed, jazz lost much of its popular following to rock music and rhythm and blues. Eyden took the change in his stride. He appeared with the R & B bands of Alexis Korner and Long John Baldry, and even made a three-month tour of South America with the eccentric rocker Wee Willie Harris.

Late 1964 found him in the more congenial surroundings of Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, who took their stylistic cue from the organ-led,
jazz-cum-R & B combos popular with African-American audiences. In 1965 Fame undertook a European tour as guest star with Count Basie and his
orchestra. Eyden sat in the driving seat of the world's most swinging big band during Fame's part of the show.

After leaving Fame, Eyden joined Stan Tracey's trio, resident at Ronnie Scott's club. Their nightly task was to accompany the parade of American
stars, each with his distinctive style, who appeared there for a week or two at a time. Such a job makes extraordinary demands of even the most
seasoned musician, and Eyden, Tracey and their colleagues rarely faltered.

Professional know-how stood jazz musicians in good stead during the 1960s. They were often called into recording studios to play the bits that members of a famous pop group could not manage. Eyden's most celebrated contribution to this ghostly activity was the drum part on Procol Harum's 1967 hit, A Whiter Shade Of Pale. [Let's not forget that (a) Procol were not then famous and (b) they had no drummer that day]

From the late 1960s Eyden worked purely as a freelance, combining jazz with playing for West End musicals such as Bubbling Brown Sugar, The
Mitford Girls and Promises, Promises. He also played regularly throughout the late 1970s and 1980s with a quintet of his contemporaries, including pianist Bill Le Sage and trumpeter Hank Shaw, dedicated to performing the repertoire of the bebop era and calling itself the Bebop Preservation Society.

In 1985-86 Eyden was one of three percussionists in the Charlie Watts Big Big Band, an enormous outfit, almost 30-strong, which toured Britain and America under the leadership, and largely at the expense, of the Rolling Stones' drummer. Eyden continued to play until illness overtook him earlier this year.

>From the early 1970s Eyden also taught, both privately and in London schools. One of the school pupils to whom he imparted the first rudiments of percussion was the distinguished drummer Winston Clifford, who has spoken warmly of the encouragement he received from Eyden as a teenager.

Bill Eyden was married twice. By his first marriage he had a son, who predeceased him, and a daughter.

More about Bill Eyden


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