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The "go to guy" in British pop music for over thirty years when it came to back-up vocals. What Anita Kerr and her singers were in Nashville, what Randy van Horne and Johnny Mann were in Hollywood, Sammes were in the UK. Virtually every "doo-doo-doo" to heard on a pop recording made in the UK between 1955 and 1975 came out of the mouths of Sammes and his colleagues.
Sammes started learning music with the cello in grammar school, then worked briefly for the music publisher, Chappell & Company, before being conscripted into the Royal Air Force in the days of National Service. After leaving the service, Sammes worked a variety of jobs until a fellow musician, Bill Shepherd convinced him to form a group called the Coronets. The male vocal group recorded some covers of current hits and did some back-up work, but Shepherd lost interest and wanted to break up the group.
Sammes, on the other hand, had taken to the work, and saw a business opportunity in providing a reliable source for back-up vocals in all facets of the recording business. Between 1955 and 1957, he assembled what would become the core of his group for the next 20 years: Valerie Bain, Marion Gay, and Enid Hurd (who would become his long-time significant other) as the female voices, and Sammes, Ross Gilmour, Mel Todd, and Mike Redway as the male. Sammes' hunch proved correct, for soon the ensemble was working as many as four sessions a day, up to six days a week. They did back-ups for all the major and minor British singers, soundtrack and radio work, and thousands of radio jingles.
They did so many sessions that during the height of the cover song period, they occasionally found themselves recording the same song two or three times in the same day. "In 1959, we did 'The Little Drummer Boy' with the Beverley Sisters one morning at Decca, and in the afternoon we were singing it at Parlophone with Michael Flanders, which I also arranged, and I recorded our own version for Fontana in the evening.
Among the biggest hits they sang on were Tommy Steele's "Singing the Blues," Walkin' Back to Happiness" by Hele Shapiro, "Green, Green Grass of Home" by Tom Jones, and "The Last Waltz with Engelbert Humperdinck. They backed numerous American pop stars, as well, including Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Sammy Davis, Jr., Andy Williams, and Barbra Streisand. He dubbed in one of Bing Crosby's numbers in the last Hope and Crosby road movie, "The Road to Hong Kong." He also cut a number of records as "Redd Wayne" and he and the group could be heard as the "Knightbridge Chorale" in the US and UK. The group can also take credit for the one-hit wonder, "I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman," purportedly by Whistling Jack Smith (who was played in public by another session man, Gary Moeller).
Far less often did they record under their own name, but the title cut from one of their first albums, Somewhere My Love earned a spot in the British Top Ten charts in 1966. They would record a total of seven albums between 1962 and 1988.
Barry Gray used them on the title themes for a number of Gerry Anderson's British marionette adventure series, including "Stingray," "Thunderbirds," and "Captain Scarlett." They also helped out on the Beatles' last album, Let It Be, but not by the choice of any of the Beatles. Phil Spector, invited by John Lennon to turn their tapes into a viable album, had the group record backing vocals on several cuts. Somewhat to Paul McCartney's chagrine, one of those numbers, "The Long and Winding Road" became the Beatles' best-selling American single.
By the mid-1970s, though, the demand for backing vocals had faded considerably, due to the introduction of multi-tracking ans synthesizers. Sammes once remarked that producers were pursuing false economies with these techniques, since "we could have done it all in an afternoon."
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