Des Henly's blog

Des HenlyDes Henly on the road with Fumble in the early 1960s and 1970s


Elvis Presley, one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, died on 16th August 1977 aged 42. Inevitably there was a clamour in the entertainment industry to portray and celebrate (some would say cash in on) his life. Our band Fumble had a role in this clamour, we were invited to perform in the London West End musical “ELVIS”. The show was the brainchild of Ray Cooney (most famous for writing and staging classic British farce with the likes of Brian Rix), and Jack Good (the legendary creator of Britain’s first rock ‘n roll programme “The Six Five Special” in the late 50s).

The musical featured, amongst others, P.J.Proby and Shaking Stevens, it ran for 19 months at the Astoria Theatre in Charing Cross road, and in 1978 won the best musical of the year award.

With an on-stage cast of nineteen musicians, singers and dancers, and around twenty more technicians, make-up artists, costume dressers etc. backstage and “front of house”, we very quickly bonded into one large family. Over the following nineteen months we shared many memorable experiences, not least on opening night.

As on any opening night, no one was particularly chatty, our minds were concentrated on going over our lines, musical arrangements, and stage positions, nerves were jangling. We knew the music critics would be there in force along with all the ticket selling agencies, and many a show (and personal career) had hinged on an opening night performance – (no pressure then !).

The traditional command in theatre for everyone to take their place for the performance is “beginners on stage please” - these words came through the intercom in Fumble’s dressing room, that was it, time to go! The first show went smoothly, as first nights go, with just P.J.’s emotion packed and show stopping performance of the final song, “American Trilogy” under way, I thought we were home and dry. I was wrong!

P.J., dressed in Elvis’ famous Las Vegas white sequined jump suit and cape, with black wig and enormous platform shoes (to bring him up to Elvis’ stature), looked every inch the part - to the 2,000 plus audience, it was Elvis on stage, (but remember those shoes !).

From left to right, Mario Ferrari and Des Henly from Fumble, then P.J. Proby and Shakin Stevens on stage at the Astoria Theatre performing in “Elvis The Musical”

Like all top performers, P.J. Proby was immersed in the song, its sentiments, and was living every word. Cine camera film of Elvis’ funeral cortege entering Graceland filled gigantic screens behind the performers ….. his deep rich tones of “Glory Glory Hallelujah…” filled the theatre…….not a dry eye in the house…. “Look away, look away, look away Dixieland…”. Stepping off the rostrum, he slowly and solemnly approached the stage’s edge dropping to one knee……. “Now hush little baby don’t you cry”…, then in true Presley show style he stretched out his hand to a young boy in the front row….. “You know your daddy was bound to die…”. The youngster, somewhat embarrassed by the attention of the whole theatre, excitedly joined in the spirit of the moment, grabbed P.J.’s out-stretched hand. ……. With the words… “All my trials Lord, will soon be over…” dramatising this line, and reciprocating the young man’s involvement, he leaned another inch over the edge of the stage. Still on one knee, it was an inch too far, and a fatal error of judgment! P.J. toppled into the lap of his temporary co-star in the front row, the solemnity and drama of the moment was lost. His head, covered by his cape, and upper torso were buried in the boys lap, but his knees were still on the stage, the entire on-stage company were treated to the sight of P.J’s white sequined rear-end up in the air. Hindered by his enormous platform shoes, he couldn’t raise himself from this prone position, but managed to cling on to his microphone. This unscripted predicament would have floored many a lesser performer, but not P.J. In a slow composed Southern Texas drawl, we heard …. “Can somebody push me up..???” His head was in the boys lap, covered by Elvis’ cape, so his request was somewhat muffled, but was nevertheless clearly heard by the entire Astoria Theatre. The audience’s mood changed from the dramatic tear-jerking finale that director Jack Good had scripted, to a scene akin to one of producer Ray Cooney’s comic farces.

Helping hands from the audience pushed “Elvis” back onto the stage, the entire audience spontaneously cheered and applauded. He stood up rock solid, raised his hands with legs apart in a crucifix pose, the cheering and applause intensified. Such was P.J.’s on-stage presence and charisma, he could hold an audience in the palm of his hand, exactly what was needed at that moment, and he was doing it. Waving their enthusiastic support down, in his rich dark brown Southern voice he said… “Thank you kindly..”, the band struck up as if nothing had happened … “Glory Glory Hallelujah… Glory Glory Hallelujah… Glory Glory Hallelujah…..His truth keeps marching onnnnn…” The end of the show!!!!!

Everyone took their bows, the three principals Tim Whitnall, Shaking Stevens and P.J. taking theirs last as the curtain came down. The audience were ecstatic and on their feet cheering and applauding. The night had been a great success. The after show party was attended by many show business dignitaries, and poor P.J. (Jim as he was known to us), was the butt of many jokes (excuse the pun). He took it in great spirit, laughed and drank with us until the early hours. When we said goodnight we shook hands knowing we had all shared a very special night - a night to remember forever.

I met Jim again only two years ago when he was performing at the Playhouse Theatre in Weston Super Mare. We had a drink in his mobile home parked at the rear of the theatre and laughed again at his tumble, and at many other cherished memories from “Elvis the Musical”. Thanks for the memories Jim – Des Henly.

Next week Des will be recalling more memories, both on-stage and backstage from “Elvis”.