Why Sheelagh was a jewel in the jazz world


xxxx - Credit: Archant

As Sheelagh Pearson opens the door of her pretty terraced house in Sidmouth town centre and welcomes me in, there’s no hint of the musical heights she scaled more than 60 years ago.

Sheelagh Pearson looking at the entries of her diary on her last before she retires. Ref shs 7864-23

Sheelagh Pearson looking at the entries of her diary on her last before she retires. Ref shs 7864-23-15TI. - Credit: Archant

And as we settle down in her living room, there’s nothing to suggest that, for 12 years, Sheelagh was one of the country’s top jazz musicians, rising in the post-war period – just before rock ‘n’ roll – where crowds loved the big bands, the beat was hot and romance blossomed on the dance floor.

It’s only when Sheelagh – who lives in Newtown and recently retired as a dedicated charity worker at Sidmouth Voluntary Services, aged 87 – shows me her photos that her distinguished musical career emerges.

There, standing proudly with the Gracie Cole Band – and later with the Lena Kidd Quartet and Dinah Dee All Girl’s Band – is Sheelagh. Voted best girl drummer in the UK by Melody Maker, the country’s leading music paper, she shared stages with jazz greats, including Count Basie, Johnny Dankworth and Ronnie Scott, and even once met Elvis Presley.

She smiles as we leaf through her band photographs and yellowing cuttings from the Daily Mirror, New Musical Express and Melody Maker. “I am proud,” she says, beaming. “The Gracie Cole Big Band was really something.”

World War Two laid the foundations for female jazz. Sexism was rife in the music business, with women regarded as occasional vocalists and decorative objects. But, as the war brought a dearth of male musicians, women’s jazz developed, spearheaded by the Ivy Benson Band who became BBC’s resident dance band in 1943.

Around this time, Sheelagh, who had been born in London’s Westminster and grew up in Tonbridge, Kent, started in music. Initially playing accordion, she switched to drums. “I took to it straight away,” she says. “It’s the variation you can do. You have to read music, but you can vary it a bit and it’s not just bang, bang, bang. If your timing goes wrong, the band is in trouble.”

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Looking for work, Sheelagh immediately encountered sexism. “There weren’t many adverts for female drummers, because there weren’t many female bands. They didn’t even think about women in a man’s band then.”

A chance break took Sheelagh to Edinburgh, where she turned professional, playing drums in an all-girl band in a Mecca ballroom. After a year, she took a summer season job in Devon, playing drums in a panto, before moving to Gibraltar for a nightclub job.

Returning to Britain in 1952, she had two offers. One was from the Ivy Benson Band. The other was from trumpeter Gracie Cole, who had left Benson to form her own all-girl orchestra. Saxophonist Johnny Dankworth wrote arrangements for Gracie, and that swung it for Sheelagh.

“I liked his arrangements, so I chose Gracie’s band. It was my first big band. Ivy and Gracie’s bands were the only two that knew what they were doing. I was thrilled to bits.”

The Gracie Cole Band’s schedule was hectic. “We travelled around, sometimes we’d go somewhere in France and stay for two months and in other places it was one-night stands. Elvis Presley was at one army base we visited. He was introduced to all of us, but I didn’t drink in those days. I’d rather read a book. Not being funny, but it didn’t impress me that much.”

A prestigious gig she played was the 1954 Jazz Jamboree at London’s Gaumont State. Other acts included the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra, Ronnie Scott and his Orchestra and the Squadronaires.

“It was an honour because it had never ever been played by a girl’s band before. It had a lot of recognition and we looked forward to that.

“And then other gigs we did – say with Count Basie – we’d be the second band. We liked that because we’d watch and listen to them.”

Around this time, Sheelagh was voted the UK’s best girl drummer by Melody Maker. It was a huge honour, but still the sexism went on. Sheelagh and the girls brushed it off by playing their hearts out. “Once they heard us play, they realised we meant business.”

In 1956, Lena Kidd, tenor saxophonist with Gracie Cole’s band, formed a quartet, which Sheelagh joined. It was more relaxed, and she could improvise.

In 1957, Sheelagh moved on to the Dinah Dee All Girl Band, but rock and pop’s popularity spelt the end of big-band jazz. Sheelagh retired from touring in 1963 as younger musicians emerged.

“This girl – a marvellous trumpeter – came in to the band. She was only 15 and I thought, ‘Oh gosh’. I was only in my thirties, but I thought I’d start looking around.”

Sheelagh tried various careers before moving to Sidmouth in 1993. Here, she joined the Sidmouth Town Band as a percussionist before retiring from the music world in 2004.

Sadly, most of Sheelagh’s former bandmates are now gone, but occasionally there’s a reminder of the past.

“One day I had a phone call and this voice said, ‘Am I speaking to the best drummer in England?’ I didn’t recognise her voice, so I said, ‘Who’s that?’ It was Marie, the young trumpeter who was 15 when I last met her. She’d tracked me down.

“And that’s the end of my story. It’s been quite a life. I’m glad I did it.”