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Obituary: Norfolk band leader who shared spotlight with Status Quo and Morecambe and Wise

PUBLISHED: 16:25 06 April 2019

A band that gave value for money   Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

A band that gave value for money Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

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Remember The Trevor Copeman Band and venues such as Norwich's Norwood Rooms, the Samson and Hercules in Tombland, and the Tower Ballroom in Great Yarmouth?

Looks like a night to remember. The Trevor Copeman Band at the Tower Ballroom in Great Yarmouth  Picture: FAMILY COLLECTIONLooks like a night to remember. The Trevor Copeman Band at the Tower Ballroom in Great Yarmouth Picture: FAMILY COLLECTION

Some people had fathers who devoted their evenings and weekends to bowls or digging the allotment. Not the Copeman sisters. Their dad usually got people’s feet a-tapping when he wasn’t doing the day-job.

For drummer Colin was the leader of a big-band that entertained East Anglians at venues such as the Norwood Rooms in Aylsham Road, Norwich; Samson and Hercules in Tombland; The Garibaldi in St Nicholas Road, Great Yarmouth, and Gorleston’s Floral Hall.

For middle daughter Sally-Ann and her two sisters, life must have seemed like an adventure playground. She remembers being 12 when the group was the regular band at the Tower Ballroom in Great Yarmouth.

This was in the 1960s. She wore a short grey skirt then, and a kind of cape she could wrap around her body (“I was very skinny at the time”) and do up at the front. “As dad was rehearsing, I had the whole ballroom to myself – to spin around, dancing.”

Then there was The Federation Club in Oak Street, Norwich, where Colin & co were the resident band.

On Sundays, as wife Pauline cooked the roast back home in Woodcock Road, Colin would take his girls to The Federation. Sally-Ann remembers its golden cage. During the busier evenings, there would be a go-go girl dancing in it.

On quieter Sunday lunchtimes, “we had free rein – running around the dance floor and getting the bottle skip, putting one of us in, and pushing it around. The poor guy who had to polish that dance floor… the wheels would have marked it”.

The sisters could also go upstairs and play in that golden cage, too.

A bit of a tease

Colin Copeman was born in Norwich in 1932. His father was a civil servant who worked at the army information office on the corner of Elm Hill. Colin was 13 when his older sister, Sheila, sadly died from illness.

The family lived in Harmer Road, off Mile Cross Lane. Sally-Ann thinks her dad probably went to primary school at Catton Grove, then Alderman Jex secondary school.

There’s a view Colin was “a bit dyslexic” – something not greatly recognised in those days – “but a magnificent mathematician”. Certainly he excelled at technical drawing and draughtsmanship, and developed those skills at the city’s technical college.

He became an apprentice in a drawing office and went on to work as a draughtsman for a number of employers (including, it’s thought, Mann Egerton). In 1957, in his mid-20s, he started his own business: Tryco Designs.

By that stage he’d already become a husband, father and band leader.

Sally-Ann thinks her parents must have met in their mid-teens, as their mothers both worked at the Horseshoes Hotel in Hoveton, near Wroxham. Pauline Sulter used to help as a 15-year-old, washing up. It does seem likely that she and Colin saw each other there.

What is certain is that Colin was a Sea Cadet as a lad – honing his drumming skills and becoming lead drummer. Pauline was with the Girls’ Naval Training Corps.

There came a day when, at a festival, impish Pauline whipped Colin’s Sea Cadet cap off his head.

In 2012, as the couple prepared to celebrate their diamond wedding, Pauline told us she’d taken the cap and jumped on a passing bus. Colin, quick to pursue, jumped on too. He reclaimed his headwear and, it seems, captured her heart forever.

Pauline said: “Many people who know the story say that I must have been a bit of a tease to steal his hat and make him run after me – and I suppose I was!”

It seems much of their courtship took place at Wroxham. They married at the village church in September, 1952. The groom was 20, his bride 19.

The couple had a long and happy life together, and both were extremely hard-working. At times, Colin even drove a taxi, if finances were stretched.

After initially living with Colin’s parents, they bought their first house in 1957 and moved round the corner to Woodcock Road. They stayed until 1973, when they went to Caistor St Edmund.

Their three daughters – Terry, Sally-Ann and Georgina – were born within a five-year period.

Life was busy. Colin was also called up for National Service and spent most of it at RAF Wattisham, near Stowmarket. He was a telephonist there – and took his sense of humour to Suffolk. He’d answer phone calls with “RAF What a shame”!

But what of music?

Late in life, Colin told daughter Georgina that his father had played the violin, and that’s where his own love of music began. Apparently, Colin would go down to the Samson and Hercules venue in Norwich at the age of about 14 and have Saturday-afternoon drumming lessons from the resident band leader.

The first band he played in was the Esquire Six, in his early 20s.

Then The Trevor Copeman Band was formed in December, 1954, says Sally-Ann. Its name combined her father’s surname with the first name of trombone-playing bandmate Trevor Jones. Because of the initials TC, Colin was often known as Top Cat, after the tricksy and smart cat in the TV cartoon series.

They were the resident band at The Federation Club. According to columnist Derek James, writing in the Norwich Evening News four years ago, The Federation began life as the Norwich Industries Club.

It was opened by the Lord Mayor that December, with singer Anne Shelton the star attraction, alongside the band.

Life was full-on, as Colin often packed two jobs into each day. There was his own business to take care of (Pauline started working there, too, and took care of administration) and then there were the band engagements.

The group played at the venues mentioned earlier and were also well-known as the resident band at the Tower Ballroom (later Tiffany’s) in Great Yarmouth.

A period at Samson and Hercules, when the band played four nights a week – “strict tempo” on Wednesdays and pop nights on Thursday, Friday and Saturday – shows how busy it could be.

“From the age of 12 I used to go there virtually every Saturday night. I just loved it,” says Sally-Ann. Pick of the Pops went out on BBC radio each Sunday; by the following weekend, the band had sheet-written copies of the chart-topping song, so they could play the latest big hit.

Summer was 100mph

Summer-season residencies at seaside centres such as Pakefield and Caister usually meant working every night of the week – after a day at the drawing-board in Norwich.

There were also plenty of bookings at United States Air Force bases in Norfolk and Suffolk.

On occasions, such as New Year’s Eve, the band would play the Tower Ballroom, jump in their van during their break, zip over to the Floral Hall in Gorleston (where Colin’s second drum kit waited) and do a set there.

Sally-Ann remembers her dad coming in from work, eating, and leaving again. “In the morning he was up and gone to work before we went to school, and in the evening he’d come home, gobble his tea down, get changed, and be off out with the band.”

His design work wasn’t something he played at, either. Colin was involved in many engineering projects in the UK and Europe. There was work with the North Sea gas operation at Bacton, for instance, and a theatre in Brussels. There were designs for hydraulic stage lifts.

Another notable project involved machinery to help with the production of Birds Eye peas.

Sally-Ann recalls him going into work on some weekends, after dropping off the girls at the Saturday morning cinema.

“I remember he used to fill up the car with petrol – I think it was three shillings and sixpence for a gallon of petrol, though that might be wrong! – and our treat on a Sunday was when the Mr Softee van used to come round. We could have an ice-cream if we’d been good. If we hadn’t been good, we didn’t get one.”

Both parents were grafters. She recalls one Christmas when Pauline held down three jobs to make ends meet: at Curl Brothers’ department store in Norwich, at Page Brothers’ printing business, and waitressing in the evenings. “I remember her saying the Beatles came to the Grosvenor House Hotel, though I don’t know if she was working then.”

Sally-Ann recalls fun times with her dad, despite his busy life – such as going fishing. She cast her line and got it stuck in a tree.

How did he cope with such a hectic existence? “I just think he enjoyed his music so much.”

Colin was a fan of musicians such as Benny Goodman (the King of Swing) and drummer Buddy Rich. “On Saturday afternoons he would have a bath at Woodcock Road and have a record player sitting outside the bathroom door. He would be playing Sinatra, or big-band, or whatever. You knew you didn’t disturb him!”

While life was enjoyable, there was the odd reminder about its fragility.

The band’s van was involved in a collision on the A11 one night, on the way back from a USAF base engagement. A lorry did a U-turn in the dark.

The driver of the van suffered broken ribs, Sally-Ann thinks, but that was about it. It could have been a lot worse. “Somebody was obviously watching over them.”

Star names

The Trevor Copeman Band appeared alongside some famous names, including backing celebrities playing summer seasons at seaside resorts.

Sally-Ann tells of an end-of-season party at the town hall in Great Yarmouth, where stars included Morecambe and Wise – one of her dad’s favourite acts. He got an autographed picture, dedicated to his daughters. The family also had a signed photograph of Georgie Fame.

Once, Colin was asked to play at Norwich Theatre Royal for Peters and Lee when the singing duo’s drummer was ill. Other household names with whom the band rubbed elbows included singers Engelbert Humperdinck (then known as Gerry Dorsey) and Ruby Murray.

There were comedic brothers Mike and Bernie Winters. Colin first came across them in the early 1950s, when they spent four or five years selling stockings and clothes on Norwich market. They lived in Unthank Road.

And there was Status Quo. In July, 1970, Quo and The Trevor Copeman Band appeared at the Tower Ballroom in Great Yarmouth. Quo had enjoyed a hit in 1968 with Pictures of Matchstick Men, but hadn’t yet become the force we know today.

The BBC’s David Clayton was in the crowd. He’d write later that Quo “were scruffy in crumpled T-shirts, scuffed trainers and faded denim, in contrast to Trevor Copeman’s nicely-turned-out lads”.

There was a national TV appearance, albeit fleeting. The Trevor Copeman Band featured on a documentary about one of the American air bases. “He was on for all of 20 or 30 seconds,” laughs Sally-Ann.

It was part of the Man Alive series, on BBC2. “That’s why we got a colour television, in 1969. Colour was only on BBC2 and he went and bought a colour set.” Most people had only black and white, “but dad was ‘gadget man’. The newest thing that came out, he would have”.

The music stops

Trevor Jones left at some point. Later, in the autumn of 1977, Colin called a halt to the near-23-year adventure with The Trevor Copeman Band.

Sally-Ann thinks it was triggered by some kind of difference of opinion with a venue operator. “I don’t think he wanted to (stop), but it was a matter of principle.”

In a way, the timing was good. Colin and Pauline were celebrating their silver wedding, and they had a first grandchild. After missing out on aspects of his daughters’ early years, because of work and music, Colin began a new chapter. “My children had the best of their grandparents, because they were still young enough to enjoy them,” reckons Sally-Ann.

There were the Canaries, too. The couple were long-time supporters of Norwich City, through thick and thin, and were season ticket holders. Colin joined Norwich Lions, making new friends and getting involved in charitable fund-raising activities.

He bought a video camera as a hobby, and turned that into yet another career by making wedding videos.

Did this accomplished musician miss being part of a band? “No, I don’t think so – because he took on the wedding videos, and he was still working with his business at Tryco,” says Sally-Ann. “I think he probably did miss playing, a bit, though.”

There would be a last curtain-call for the band, about 20 years after calling it a day. In 1997 a one-night-only reunion was held at the Ritzy (the Sansom and Hercules as was) as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.

A wonderful friend

In his later years Colin succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. Pauline made sure he was looked after at home until the condition worsened to the point where he had to go into care.

Sadly, Pauline died nearly a year ago – only a few months after she’d got him settled at Sutherlands Nursing Home, Wymondham.

Colin died peacefully last month, aged 86. As well as his daughters and their partners, he leaves grandchildren and great-grandchildren Jonathan, Simon, Elizabeth, Harriett, Laura, Emily, Carla and Lola.

His funeral is at the City of Norwich (Earlham) Crematorium on Thursday, April 11, at 1.15pm. Family flowers only. Donations to the Alzheimer’s Society can be sent via www.ivan fisher.co.uk or Ivan Fisher Independent Funeral Home, Park Drive, Hethersett, Norwich, NR9 3EN.

“He was loved by everybody,” says Sally-Ann. “People I’ve spoken to since his passing have all said what a wonderful best friend they had. His cousin who lives in Australia said ‘I never had a better friend than Colin’.”

The family also remember fondly Colin’s line in risqué jokes, the ease with which he’d lose his temper if the subject of politics arose at a dinner party, and his love of The Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise.

In 2012, Colin told the Evening News about the band’s golden years.

“Back then we played alongside everyone… We played big-band numbers and the top 10 songs from the hit parade to keep audiences dancing… It really was a wonderful time.”

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