Session Singing in London

Devised and presented by Olive Simpson
for The Arts Show 

broadcast 20/10/91 on BBC Radio 2

The Making of The Life of a ‘Jobbing’ Singer

Radio has always been my first love, and one alternative career I would have adored is hosting a radio show. So I was thrilled in 1991 when I approached Radio Two with an idea for their Sunday evening Arts Show and they didn’t tell me to go away. At the time I was very much involved with Radio Two via Friday Night is Music Night – both as soloist and with every known vocal group – and was also recording solo vocals with the late and much-missed Radio Orchestra under the baton of the fabulous Neil Richardson.

So although it wasn’t as if I had simply wandered in off the street, I was still amazed – claiming no previous experience – to be given a BBC Tape Recorder and microphone and told to get on with it. Those were the days! My argument was that the average member of the public has no idea how a singer might make a living on the session scene in London. The question ‘what do you sing?’ – if not answered by ‘I am an opera/pop singer’ – might require quite a lengthy response, most of which would surprise them no end.

By 1991 I had been flying solo in London’s bright musical firmament for five years, following thirteen years in the rather rarefied atmosphere of The Swingle Singers. Emerging aged forty and with no previous experience of professional singing I began by assuming I would now have to earn money by selling water filters. However, various friends were prepared to recommend my services as a singer, so the water filter idea never really got off the ground. And in making this programme I could now return the compliment by interviewing my illustrious colleagues on the subject of who gets the singing jobs and why.

The programme includes interviews with Terry Edwards – originally manager and sound engineer for Swingle II in the early days and subsequently the main vocal ‘fixer’ on the London scene and founder of Electric Phoenix and London Voices among other groups; Nigel Hess, whose talents as a composer and MD have benefited The Royal Shakespeare Company, countless scores for film (Ladies in Lavender) and television (Maigret) and my favourite collaboration of all time – the vocal group ‘Chameleon’; John Hoban the legendary Director of Music at the London Oratory who hired me not once but twice as a member of his professional choir, not at all holding against me the fact that I had left so soon to join Swingle II in 1973/74 and taking me back into the fold as soon as I became available again in 1986; Stephen Hill whose Singers did everything from Friday Night is Music Night to film sessions, commercials and vocal booth duties at ‘Cats’; and finally two of my favourite colleagues – Nicole Tibbels Soprano Extraordinaire and much sought-after French coach for singers, and Simon Grant who for many years was the splendid Bass on the bottom of Swingles while I was perched on the top, and who managed to replace the missing bass and drums for the group vocally long before ‘beatboxing’ became a thing. Demonstrations are included!

So here is The Life of a ‘Jobbing’ Singer as broadcast in 1991. Writing this now as Covid-19 has brought musical life to a standstill and darkened all our theatres and concert halls, it seems like an echo from a golden past.

Part 1

Part 2