The fast life of Buddy Featherstonhaugh
When Buddy Featherstonhaugh died in 1976, aged 66, the tuppence in his pocket was just about all he owned. Five divorces had seen to that. But what a time he had, from touring the world with his own jazz group to becoming the first British racing driver in 10 years to win a continental grand prix. And a slow reverse of fortune couldn’t change him. In the words of one of his daughters, “He always wore a cravat and spoke like a lord.” Right to the end his suits were beautiful, his shoes polished, his nails immaculately trimmed; his habit of smoking Golden Virginia roll-ups, made with a pocket machine, offered one of the few signs that his was a different kind of life, one with several dimensions.
He belonged to a group of mid-twentieth century men – among them the trumpeters Johnny Claes and Billy Cotton, the trombonist Chris Barber and the saxophonist and club-owner Ronnie Scott — in whose lives a love of racing cars shared space with a devotion to jazz. As a saxophonist, Featherstonhaugh had toured Britain in 1932 with the band of Louis Armstrong, the biggest name in jazz. Two years later, when he drove a Maserati to victory in the GP d’Albi in 1934, it represented a feat none of his fellow jazzmen could match behind the wheel.
Rupert Edward Lee Featherstonhaugh – which he pronounced the way it looks, not as “Fanshawe” — was born in Paris on October 4, 1909, the son of an English marine architect and his Scottish wife. His grandfather, George William Featherstonhaugh, a geologist and geographer, had emigrated to America, married an heiress, and was instrumental in creating the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, the first in New York State, before being appointed the first US government geologist. Later he recrossed the Atlantic and became the British consul in Le Havre.
Buddy, as his grandson would become known, was the last of the line, standing to receive an inheritance of around £200,000. He grew up at the Old Mill House in Clewer, outside Windsor, and was educated at Eastbourne College, where he had his own boat, learnt the clarinet and wore monogrammed shirts. (Later owners of the house in Clewer included the actor Michael Caine and the guitarist Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin, whose drummer, John Bonham, died there in an upstairs bedroom in 1980.) He attended his first race meeting at Brooklands at the age of 10 and in due course learnt to drive in father’s 1924 Red Label Bentley, which at some point he raced at Brooklands. At 18 he had the first car of his own, a boat-tailed one-litre Fiat, followed in quick succession by a four-cylinder Bugatti, a three-litre Sunbeam, an eight-cylinder Bugatti Type 35, a Eustace Watkins Hornet Special and a 1.5 litre Alfa Romeo, which he raced at Brooklands, winning two races in a single afternoon in 1932. There was, quite clearly, money to spare in the family, and Buddy knew how to use it to have fun.
His skills as a saxophonist were even more precocious. At 18 he had his first professional engagement, with the singer Pat O’Malley at the Brent Bridge Hotel in Hendon. In 1928 he joined the band of the violinist Jean Pougnet before passing through the ranks of many of the great dance outfits of the day, including those led by Bert Ambrose, Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson and Spike Hughes (who wrote a tune, “Buddy’s Wednesday Outing”, to feature him). He visited France with Hughes’s Cambridge Nightwatchmen, played a season in Monte Carlo with Bert Firman’s band, and joined Billy Mason’s orchestra, broadcasting three 90-minute sets per week from the Café de Paris.
It was with Mason’s band that he toured in 1932 with Armstrong, who was welcomed by British audiences despite being received by the Daily Herald’s Hannen Swaffer, one of the most celebrated journalists of his day, with a review that takes the breath away today: “Armstrong is the ugliest man I have ever seen on the music hall stage. He looks, and behaves, like an untrained gorilla. He might have come straight from some African jungle. His singing is dreadful, babyish, uncouth… he makes animal noises into the microphone.”
During that historic tour Armstrong stayed at the Old Mill House, and later Featherstonhaugh wrote in an article for the Melody Maker: “The biggest thrill I got from Louis Armstrong was not from his singing nor from his wonderful solos, not his magnificent tone on dizzy top notes, but just from the one occasion on which we played over some of the splendid arrangements which he brought with him. It was his ‘swinging’ of the trumpet lead that stirred me profoundly. He was my ideal of the perfect first trumpet, and my enthusiasm made me play better, I am sure, that I have ever done before or since.”
Not even the scourging pen of Hannen Swaffer could hold back the tide of the jazz age, and in 1933 Buddy Featherstonhaugh and his Cosmopolitans made their first recordings, “The Sheik of Araby” and “Royal Garden Blues”, for the Decca label. While appearing with Bert Firman’s orchestra at the Monte Carlo Sport Club that year, Buddy managed to combine his two enthusiasms by competing at the wheel of an Alfa in the kilometre sprint along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and the hillclimb at La Turbie – although, as he recalled, someone spiked his efforts in the latter by putting sugar in his fuel tank. The spring and summer of 1935 he recorded as a member of Mason’s band backing the trumpeter Valaida Snow, led his own band for several weeks at the new Coconut Grove nightclub on Regent Street, and took time off in July to marry his first wife, Jeanette Paddison, punting along the river to St Peter’s Church, Staines and earning a picture in the Daily Mirror with the headline “BRIDEGROOM GONDOLIER”.
The following year he was among the cream of British musicians recruited by Benny Carter, the great American saxophonist, trumpeter, arranger and bandleader, to form a new London-based band. In their recordings for the Vocalion label, Featherstonhaugh was among the featured soloists, who also included the trumpeter Tommy McQuater, the trombonist Ted Heath and the altoist Freddy Gardner.
Meanwhile his parallel career on the race track was earning him renown. In 1934 the wealthy young Whitney Straight gave him a trial in a four-year-old 2.5 litre Maserati and signed him up to his new team. After coming second in a five-lap Brooklands handicap, Buddy set off for Albi, where he faced a field depleted by the holding of two other big races on the same day, at Livorno and Dieppe, but including several of the latest three-litre Maseratis. Averaging 89.04mph in his obsolete car over 30 laps of the triangular 9km circuit of Les Planques, he beat his team mate Hugh Hamilton in Straight’s new Maserati, which had lost the lead after going on to seven cylinders, and the Bugatti of Pierre Veyron. Featherstonhaugh thus became the first British driver to win a pukka continental grand prix since Henry Segrave’s victory in a Sunbeam at Tours in 1923. Through this feat, the journalist Dennis May wrote in The Motor, he had “imperilled our national let’s-be-good losers tradition.”
To celebrate his victory, his mother commissioned the watercolour you see below. The artist she chose was H. J. Moser, whose illustrations were regularly featured in Speed, the magazine of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, and other motoring publications of the 1930s. It’s currently in the hands of the Pullman Gallery in London (details below).
The victory in the Grand Prix d’Albigeois, however, did not turn him into a superstar of the racetracks. For 1935 he bought the winning Maserati from Straight, but apparently could not afford to keep it properly fettled. He entered the Dieppe Grand Prix in a later Maserati belonging to the Swiss driver Hans Ruesch (later to become renowned as the author of The Racer, the best of all motor racing novels), and qualified seventh in a high-class field, between the Bugattis of Robert Benoist and Earl Howe. But he could end the race only 10th out of 11 classified finishers, nine laps behind the Scuderia Ferrari-entered Alfa Tipo Bs of René Dreyfus and Louis Chiron, who finished first and second. In a 500-mile race at Brooklands he shared a big red Duesenberg with the future superstar Dick Seaman, but they were forced to retire after 72 laps when the fuel-tank retaining strap broke. Partnering Jock Manby-Colegrave in an MG Magnette in the International Trophy, he took fifth place; a year later he repeated the achievement in the ERA that had once belonged to Seaman. The highlight of 1936 came in another fifth place in the RAC International Light Car Race at Douglas, Isle of Man, won by Seaman in his famous black Delage.
There was practically no racing for Featherstonhaugh in 1937. Dennis May’s report on the Albi victory three years earlier had noted that “outside these pages he is better known as the head man of the Buddy Featherstonhaugh Sextet than as a racing driver,” but now there was very little musical activity, either, although there were occasional appearances with the bands of Hugo Rignold and Gerry Moore. Instead — telling Pat Brand 30 years later that he was frustrated by “not being able to play the music he wanted to” — he concentrated on establishing himself in the motor trade, setting up an Alfa Romeo dealership in Mayfair under the name Monza Motor Service. Nevertheless he accepted an invitation to drive Ruesch’s fast Alfa 8C-35, a proper grand prix car, at Crystal Palace, where a binding brake sent him off the road, and at Donington, where the Alfa left the track during a practice session, somersaulted twice and was wrecked.
War called him away from the Alfa dealership and into the RAF, where he had the rank of sergeant. He had wanted to become a pilot, but although the wearing of spectacles did not stop him racing a car, his defective vision barred him from flying. Instead he entertained the troops at the head of a series of ensembles, including the Bomber Command Dance Band and the RAF Rhythm Club Band. The trumpeter Kenny Baker and the drummer Jack Parnell were among his colleagues as they broadcast on the BBC’s Home Service from venues including the Criterion Theatre at Piccadilly Circus. Here he is leading the Radio Rhythm Club Sextet in 1944, playing Benny Goodman’s “Soft Winds”. And here’s Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp”.
When peace came, he celebrated by touring the UK with his seven-piece band and made a fleeting appearance playing the clarinet with his Sextette in the opening minutes of Appointment With Crime, a British thriller made at Elstree Studios, directed by John Harlow and starring William Hartnell, Joyce Howard and Herbert Lom. A six-day tour of Iceland and a long residency with a quintet at the Gargoyle Club in Dean Street, with Tommy Pollard on piano and John Hawksworth on bass, prefaced a retirement from the scene. During “five almost musicless years”, as he put it, he concentrated on the motor trade — in Warren Street, Mayfair, Chalk Farm and Earl’s Court — and a sporadic and low-key return to competition, including an appearance at the Brighton Speed Trials. One interviewer described him as “tall, loose-limbed… distinguished by a rather drawly habit of speech, punctuated by zestful bursts of laughter freshening sometimes to gale force. Has no gift for the cogwheels and doesn’t personally molest the insides of motorcars.”
He recruited another band in 1951, playing in London’s western suburbs, before moving to Manchester, where he worked in a musical instrument shop and appeared with such bandeaders as Ray Allen, Sonny Swann and Harry Pook in local ballrooms, including the Ritz and the Broadway Baths. A return to London saw him providing arrangements for the Johnny Dankworth Seven and joining the drummer Basil Kirchin’s band, now — at Dankworth’s suggestion — playing baritone saxophone. In 1954 another move, this time to Edinburgh, saw him playing with Vic Abbott at the Fountainbridge Palace and Johnny Black at the Locarno, and with his own octet. Back in London at the end of 1955 he did stints with the bands of Tommy Whittle, Malcolm Mitchell and Carl Barriteau, but also formed a new quintet with which to explore his interest in the latest forms of jazz, taking him away from the task of providing music for dancers into more cerebral areas.
By the autumn of 1956 the quintet had a settled personnel and included two young stars of the British modern jazz scene, the Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and the Scottish tenor saxophonist Bobby Wellins. The group recorded two EPs, “Buddy Featherstonhaugh New Quintet Vols 1 and 2”, for Pye’s Nixa label, produced by Denis Preston. They toured the Middle East (with Duncan Lamont depping for Wellins), and spent the summer of 1957 at Butlin’s holiday camp in Clacton on Sea, resolutely declining to satisfy the demands of their younger listeners for something resembling the new sounds of rock and roll. Instead they attempted to convert the audience to the sounds of Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. The second disc featured an early Wheeler composition, the perky “Goldfish Blues”. “Buddy Featherstonhaugh has slipped into the modern idiom as easily as a duck takes to water,” one critic wrote, but jazz in its more progressive form was rapidly losing its commercial appeal.
“The moment I heard bebop,” he remembered, “I realised that jazz was very far from dead. I saw it as a logical and enjoyable development of what had gone before — although it was apparently incomprehensible to many musicians who should have known better. We’d developed a nice line in modern three-part collective improvisation, and we came confidently back to town expecting the clubs to fling wide their doors. They didn’t.”
The quintet toured British Army bases in Germany and appeared in a jazz gala at the Royal Festival Hall, but Featherstonhaugh explored the jazzman’s plight in another Melody Maker article. He listed the problems behind the music’s diminishing appeal: “1. Same old faces. 2. Same old cliches. 3. Obvious and well nigh insulting indifference on the part of too many of the musicians – e.g. lack of punctuality, lack of any effort to entertain and look happy, general lack of appreciation that they are being paid to do something which they profess is their greatest desire: to play jazz with no restrictions.”
As work became scarcer, he drifted back into the motor trade. He loved to visit the Steering Wheel Club in Shepherd Market, where he encountered friends such as Stirling Moss and Graham Hill, and he was devastated by the death in 1959 of Mike Hawthorn, who had become Britain’s first world champion only a few weeks earlier. There were occasional jazz-club appearances as a soloist with local rhythm sections, and in the early 1960s he led a band on the Orient Steam Navigation Company’s liner SS Orsova as it sailed to Australia.
In 1966 he was interviewed by Pat Brand of Crescendo, the British jazz and big-band magazine. “It is difficult to get at Buddy Featherstonhaugh,” he wrote. “One has to be something of a contortionist to avoid scratching the gleaming Volvos, Vauxhalls, Volkswagens and Vanden Plas which tend to obscure him in the Earls Court motor showrooms he runs today.”
The marriages were coming and going – except for the final one, to Vera, which lasted. There would be three sons and four daughters; he was a loving father, if a trifle unpredictable. Michele, one of the daughters, was presented with an Alfa Giulietta on her 17th birthday: “A lovely little car, but it was gone the next day. He’d sold it for a profit.” (She recalls going out for Sunday afternoon drives: “He drove like a racing driver. But he also had the chauffeur’s skill of making any car feel like a Rolls-Royce.”) Ian, one of the sons, now lives in Canada, where he restores art deco furniture using the technique of French polishing taught him by his father, who had learnt it as a hobby from his own father.
Living in Essex in his final decades, he loved to drink whisky and make model aeroplanes and talk about his favourite musicians, from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. According to Sara, the youngest daughter, “He always lived in the past. He talked about the good life and the things that had happened to him. He wasn’t really a good dad. We were brought up in a very Victorian way: he didn’t get to know us and he didn’t really want to. We hardly saw our half-siblings, except maybe once or twice. But outside that he was the funniest man you could ever meet, always with a story to tell you.”
His last job seems to have been with a Honda dealer in East Grinstead. “It probably ended in a tiff,” Michele said. “It often did. He couldn’t take orders.” He had many acquaintances but few real friends in his later life, she remembered. “He was hard up: his careers hadn’t earned him any money. I don’t think he really knew how to provide for his family. If he was hard up, which was the case most of the time, he’d just go off and come back some time later with lobster and champagne for mum. Not for us…”
When Linzie, another of the daughters, died in a car crash in Jersey in 1976, aged 25, a depression settled on him. Soon afterwards prostate cancer moved to his brain. He died in St Peter’s Hospital, Covent Garden on July 12, 1976. The funeral was held at Holy Trinity church in Abridge, a small Essex village.
The inheritance had vanished decades earlier. The divorce settlements had accounted for various houses. The recordings remain, some of them sounding surprisingly fresh, alongside a few photographs and a handful of faded cuttings from newspapers and magazines. Sara was 12 years old when he died; there must, she says, have been a side of him she’d love to have known.
* This is an expanded version of a piece I wrote in 2018 for The Classic Motoring Review and is republished by permission of the editor.
** Some of the recordings with Benny Carter can be found on Benny Carter: The Music Master (Proper Records). The two Pye Nixa EPs are contained in a Vocalion CD titled Jazz Today, featuring tracks by Featherstonhaugh, Harry Klein and Vic Ash, released in 2010. The interview with Pat Brand is in the July 1966 issue of Crescendo. The photograph of the quintet was provided by my friend Matthew Wright, who wrote about it in the February 2018 issue of Jazz Journal.
** The painting of Buddy and the Maserati at Albi by H. J. Moser is for sale at the Pullman Gallery, 14 King Street, St James’s, London SW1 (www.pullmangallery.com). The quoted price is £14,500.