Steve Race (1921 - 2009)

I first met Steve Race in 1981 just after I had joined BBC Light Entertainment, Radio, as a producer and was assigned to My Music, when its original producer, Tony Shryane, retired. We used to record 26 programmes a year, half of them in conjunction with BBC television. Each programme required a couple of dozen clips of recorded music in addition to Steve’s live piano contributions more than five thousand clips over the years I produced the show, all chosen by Steve from an astonishingly diverse range of musical interest and understanding. It was a further education course for me, and has coloured my listening ever since.

If he had ever fallen ill (which he never did) we would have needed three people to replace him one to set the questions, one to act as chairman, and one to play the piano. It’s doubtful if we could have found anyone to do any of the jobs as well as he did them. Each round of questions was always inventively tailored to give each of the panellists, with their distinctly mixed musical abilities, an opportunity to shine. (Among the many things I learned from him was the selflessness which acknowledges that if there’s a joke in the question, there’s rarely a joke in the answer.) His verbal and musical nimbleness in the chair would have seemed more remarkable if it hadn’t seemed so effortless. When the individual panellists sang a song at the end of each show, Frank Muir often needed a piano introduction that would guide him clearly to his starting note. This didn’t work infallibly, however, and I can remember more than once when Steve had to change key as Frank began to sing, only to have to change key back again as Frank found himself in the wrong part of his vocal range. Those of us in the box applauded.

Steve shared with several other jazz musicians perhaps too many for it to be a coincidence what seemed instinctive gift for words and speech, and for the connections between the two. After I had left My Music I produced several features with him for Radio 4. One of these was a 45-minute programme with many inserted passages of archive recordings, pre-recorded readings, etc. He wrote the script, and asked to hear the inserts as we recorded him, so he could adjust his tone and timing if need be. In the box, we were all riveted, and almost forgot we were making a recording. At the end it was one of the studio technicians (in those days there used to be more than one) who commented that Steve had neither fluffed nor paused, let alone needed a retake, that the programme was almost perfectly to time, and that it might as well have been live.

One of his favourite recollections from his time as co-presenter of Home This Afternoon was getting to interview the great American jazz bandleader Benny Goodman. At the end of his interview, Kenneth Allsop, his co-presenter, chipped in with a question about the problems Goodman encountered as a result of having been perhaps the first to employ both black and white musicians in the same band, specifically the pioneering guitarist Charlie Christian. Goodman said “Charlie Christian was black? Oh yes, now you mention it, I think he was.”

It was a supremely cruel stroke of luck that arthritis in his hands prevented him from playing the piano for the past fifteen years, and an even worse one that a severe hearing disorder made it physically painful practically impossible for him to listen to music. But he could still use a proper typewriter and his letters continued to be as witty and engaged as he had always been.

Pete Atkin

[An edited version of the above appeared in The Guardian, 26th June 2009.]

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