Desert Island Discs – David Butler


David has sung in the choir for 40 years and is yet another ex-chairman of the choir, as well as an ex-treasurer.  He has enjoyed some of the SCCS exchange trips – let’s hope someone will offer to rescue him from our desert island.

I was born in Halifax which of course, until recent changes to the club rules, would have enabled me to play cricket for Yorkshire – had I, of course, had the ability. My father played the piano and had sung in church choirs as a boy and my mother had sung in her church choir in the Lancashire village she grew up in. So I suppose music was in the veins and my parents, wishing to ensure I had every opportunity, had me having piano lessons at age 6.

Within a year we moved so that my father could be nearer his job in Manchester – he worked on the railway which, with all the free rail travel we had, gave me a life long interest in all things steam driven, railways in particular. Our move took us to the south side of Stockport and into the parish of St Georges, a church described by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, as “The finest church built in England since the Reformation”. The church also had a fine choir which at that time consisted of 40 boys and 30 men. The boys rehearsed on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings (the men joining us on Thursday) plus an hour before the Sunday morning service. With two services every Sunday at which an anthem was sung and with choir festivals the amount and variation of music was enormous. My father decided that I should audition for the choir and when I passed he joined as well and so began my singing life. Piano lessons were also arranged with a well known local church organist who seemed to enjoy my singing more than my playing as I always seemed to end my lessons stood by his piano singing for him! At 14 our church organist was seeking pupils and I applied and was fortunate to be taken on – the large 4 manual organ whilst daunting, gave a huge amount of satisfaction when all the stops were pulled out (or in the case of that organ, clicked on).

Those lessons continued until I was 20 when I moved to London with my job. I soon found church choirs to sing in and an organ to use for practise. Within that choir was a young lady who would eventually become my wife. An appointment as organist at a local church soon came as did our first child, a new job and a move to Leicester where I joined the village church choir only to find out soon after that the church in an adjoining village was seeking an organist – no contest. As I didn’t drive it did however mean cycling in all weathers and whilst the musical tradition was good, a short walk to church seemed better and so when the local church organist died (nothing to do with me!) I transferred to our local church where I stayed until we moved to Reading by which time we had three boys.

Once here I joined our parish church choir but again, as word got out that I could play I was offered the job of organist at St John’s in Caversham, took it and had 10 very happy years there which included seeing the organ rebuilt. The benefice of Caversham included 5 churches and the choirs got together for major occasions so I enjoyed accompanying them as I did standing in at the other churches from time to time. It was soon after our move to Reading that I joined SCCS in time for the 1973 Christmas concert and have been involved ever since doing a 3 year stint as chairman (1984/87) which included some memorable events – our fantastic visit to Gothenburg to sing in a choir of 3,000 – our lovely sunny trip to Lisbon and the visit of a student male voice choir from Krakow. Subsequently I did 2 years as treasurer.

I have an extensive record collection and my tastes are very “catholic” as you will see from my selection. I have found it hard to pare it down and inevitably many favourites are missing but those selected have had some significance in my life.

My first choice is the first record I ever bought and reflects the music prevalent in my youth. It came as a shiny 78rpm which I still have. Thank goodness soon after this vinyl records started to appear. I had a habit of spreading records on the floor as I listened to them on our wind up gramophone and soon found that they easily broke if you knelt on them!

In the 50’s an American musical phenomenon hit the UK – skiffle. The leading exponent here was Lonnie Donegan and the next recording is the first 45rpm I bought. Skiffle was something of a home spun type of music in its form relying on bass, rhythm and guitar. People would form their own groups making basses out of tea chests with a fixed piece of wood on top and string leading from the top of the wood through a hole in the chest. Movement of the wood tightened the string which when plucked would sound like a double bass. Rhythm was produced by rubbing fingers covered in thimbles up and down a wash board (google it!) We had one of those and so I bought  thimbles and with a friend who made himself a “bass” we sought a guitarist – fortunately we never found one.

Glenn Miller was someone I enjoyed listening to in my teens. The “in thing” at the time was listening to Radio Luxemburg which was an interesting radio station that played popular music and was dotted with adverts – broadcasting in the UK was in the hands of the BBC – no commercial stations here!  It was on this station that a guy called Horace Batchelor of Keynsham, Bristol regularly offered, for a fee, his magic formula for winning the on the football pools. How people got sucked in I never knew – if he was that good why was he resorting to advertising and living in Keynsham and not on some luxury island. Anyway back to the music – the church youth club I belonged to ran an evening where we were invited to bring a record we liked, play it and say why we liked it. I took my recording of this piece saying how impressed I was with the drum solo.

If you liked Glenn Miller you inevitably moved into trad jazz – at least you did in the 1950’s as a trad jazz craze swept the country and people like Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball topped the hit parade. A local hotel jumped on the band wagon and set up a jazz club – with free membership and on a Sunday night which gave us somewhere to go after church. A bonus was that they served the miracle brew – Red Barrel. Beer in wooden barrels needs careful treatment which not all publicans then gave it indeed there were horror stories of what some did with their beer. Red barrel however came in sealed casks – they couldn’t muck about with it and you were guaranteed a “good” pint every time. So I have to include some trad jazz and there was no better exponent than Kenny Ball who sadly died recently.

And so to organs. Once I started my lessons I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. It took me a few years but boy, the satisfaction. This recording is by an extremely talented French organist who died at the tragically young age of 47. She had a precocious talent as this recording show.

If you lived through the 60’s you couldn’t fail to be impressed by a young French singing group which took classical pieces and  “dum diddy dummed” their way through it. I talk of The Swingle Singers and to continue my organ music theme I include this arrangement of a well known Bach fugue – amazing!

When my voice broke and O for the wings became a distant dream my organ teacher and choir master (who at the time, I subsequently found out,  was well known by Gwyn) suggested I sing alto to let my voice settle gradually. Every year, at some point, we sang items from Brahm’s Requiem and as an alto I loved How Lovely are Thy dwellings mainly due to the wonderful bit at the end where the alto’s swoop up to meet the soprano line before slowly descending – a magical moment.

On moving to London I lived in a Toc H hostel for young men. The hostel I was lucky enough to live in was well patronised by many well heeled people including one who had a box at the Albert Hall which, when he wasn’t using it, we could apply for tickets to use it – all free. It was during one of these visits I came across Beethoven’s Symphonies – the 5th as it happens and was well smitten. Whilst I love them all, my favourite has to be the 7th and I include the slow movement from that. Amazing what you can weave round one note! I also have a haunting recording of this movement sung by Sarah Brightman. As a foot note, during this time, I met and had dinner with Tubby Clayton the founder of Toc H

Finally I can’t leave without some choral music. With church music and all that sung with SCCS my cup runneth over. I have to say however that the piece which sticks in my mind was sung with the Malcolm Sargent Festival Choir in the Albert Hall. It is Belioz’s Requiem. If you think Verdi’s Dies Irae is bombastic try this. There were brass groups scattered around the gallery – quite amazing.

Book – Pepys Diary – lovely book to dip into

Luxury item – If one exists, a solar powered I Pod which would enable me to listen to my music and, maybe the radio albeit I doubt there would be any reception but you never know.


Many thanks for sharing your favourite discs with us David. To listen to Desert Island Discs from previous castaways, click on the links below:

David Cottam

Jane Arch

Liz Harrison

Eric Hartley

Alan Chubb

Michèle Whitehead

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