Neil Innes: He was on my 2020 birthday party guest-list…
‘Neil was always a gentleman. He knew how to talk to musicians,’ says ex-Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band colleague from Suffolk
The death this week of ex-bandmate Neil Innes was a bolt from the blue for Bob Kerr. The former trumpet player with The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band turns 80 next month and has been finalising his birthday bash. Neil and wife Yvonne were on the list of friends to be invited. But Neil, sadly, won't be there.
"It was a shock," admits Bob, who joined the band in the spring of 1966 and was back in 2006 for a reunion concert and tour. "He never appeared to be ill or anything. He was always first at a gig, making sure everything was OK."
For years both men lived in Suffolk, not far from each other. Bob went to quite a few parties at the Inneses' home - "I'd known Neil and Yvonne before I joined the band; it must be not far short of 60 years" - but hadn't spoken to Neil for a while. Life had seen the Inneses leave Debenham and decamp to France in 2016.
Bob has no doubts about his pal's musical and comedic legacies, or his "soft skills".
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"Neil was always a gentleman. He knew how to talk to musicians - which is difficult, sometimes. You need to be a bit diplomatic, and Neil was definitely very diplomatic."
Bob had been with Spencer's Washboard Kings in the 1960s: travelling a lot (including to Denmark, where jazz had a big following) and enjoying life. But things tailed off.
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With the Bonzos' trumpet player leaving, Bob got a call.
"I jumped at it. I'd been to see them quite a few times, and I'd 'sat in' - going along and playing with them in various pubs. After I joined, the band turned professional and we went off up north, playing clubs."
The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band was morphing slightly. "Neil had changed the band a bit, to take it away from the piano, drums and clarinet jazz feel and make it a bit more 'modern' - getting in the bass guitar and other things."
What was Neil like? "He was the one who sort of sat there in the middle and said 'Right, we're going to do this… we're going to play this… play that… and this is how we are going to do it.' He was always on top of all that. He knew exactly what he wanted to hear.
"He was very good as the front man, as well. In the end, he was playing piano and guitar, and singing."
Bob's initial spell with the band was quite brief. Was it a wrench to leave? "I got the sack," he laughs. "A misunderstanding at a gig…"
Apparently, troublemakers started throwing pint mugs at the band, who retreated. Bob says their then manager reckoned it was unprofessional and they should return to the stage. "I said 'I'm not going back with that lot out there'." Some of the band did, but Bob had several instruments and didn't want them to get broken.
Before long he became part of The New Vaudeville Band. Friend and songwriter Geoff Stephens "formed" it in 1966, using session musicians, to record his novelty ditty Winchester Cathedral. It became a surprise hit, topping the charts in America and breaking into the top 10 here.
Urged to tour, Geoff had to put together a permanent band. Bob was one of the people he called, and recruited.
In America, the band appeared on TV on The Ed Sullivan Show, and worked with singer Tony Bennett.
"It didn't last long. It got famous quickly… too quick… but we had a great time. When that folded, I started Bob Kerr's Whoopee Band."
Neil and Yvonne moved to Suffolk in 1979. Bob and family came at about the same time. It wasn't a case of imitation, though.
Bob had a friend with a holiday cottage at Occold, near Eye. "We used to go and stay, and quite liked it. It was the peacefulness, compared with London."
The Kerrs bought a 16th Century house outside Stradbroke, then moved to a former pub in the village: The Hempsheaf. After a while they built another house in the big garden, moved into that and sold the ex-pub.
Meanwhile, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band had over the years hibernated, revived at various times, and grown cold again.
Early in 2006, many surviving members (including Neil Innes and Bob) reunited for a show at the London Astoria. It marked the band's 40th anniversary.
"During that time, a manager came along and got some terrific dates organised for the Bonzos, and Neil asked me if I'd like to come back," explains Bob. (In a BBC documentary, Neil had described Bob as a "great player, and a fun guy".)
"It was like a rock and roll tour! We had two coaches and a pantechnicon with all the gear in."
It kicked off in Ipswich that November. "It was nice going back. It was almost as if you hadn't left," says Bob. "We made a few CDs and DVDs - all these guys who came back together again." And Neil's musical talent still shone.
Even after knowing each other for decades, though, there was still the chance to surprise.
"Neil asked me, when we were doing a gig, 'I've got this tune and I want you to play these parts', and gave me the music. I said 'I don't read music.' 'What do you mean you don't read music?' 'I don't. I've just got by, playing by ear.'
"He was quite surprised!"