Jools Holland
As Later... celebrates its 25th year...

It worked like this: My great-grandmother who is called Britannia gives my grandmother who is called Rosie for her wedding present a pianola. The piano is delivered to their small terrace house in south-east London and then the Blitz comes and their street is bombed. The house is alright but all the windows have gone in with a firebomb and everything is sort of charred and burnt.

After the war they come back and they redecorate the room and get new furniture in there, but they like the piano and they can’t do anything about it.

So then a few years later in 1958 I arrive and by about sort of 1963/64 I am living with my grandparents for a bit and I’m sitting on my grandmother’s knee and she says: have you seen this piano? And she told me all about how it had been firebombed in the war, but then she opened up the lid and inside the lid it was all beautiful wood because the inside had not been touched by the fire.

She would then make the pianola play Fats Waller and I would think "this is pretty good!" but then her younger son, who was probably only ten years older than me, maybe, he played boogie woogie piano and when I heard him playing that on this same piano I thought: that’s it! The disorder, the chaos had suddenly become ordered and I thought this is the way and this is the beginning.

I was later to discover that the thing that he taught me was the very same thing that an elder in Ray Charles’ village showed Ray Charles, it was the exact same thing that Dr. John’s aunt showed Dr. John. It was that early basis in boogie piano that set me off.

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The first record we had that really got me going was pre-LP, it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe doing ‘Up Above My Head’ with her playing her that shotgun guitar which later inspired Jimi Hendrix and people like that. I thought it was her playing piano - I didn’t realise until later it was a fella called Sammy Price.

It was a 78 that had been my mum’s, I suppose, in the 1940s when she was a teenager. It’s the beginnings of rock ‘n’n roll really. That was the first record I really heard and I really did treasure it but hen later on some fucker sat on it!

Now you can just get it on a CD or you can Spotify it and it’s here for us all. That’s the good thing about the modern age - you can get all this stuff whereas then if you suddenly broke something that was the end of it, you know don’t know where you’re going to get another one of those.

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I loved the things I was hearing on the radio: I loved The Beatles, I loved hearing all those Motown records, I thought they were fantastic. I had the rockabilly records, I thought they were great, all those Sun rockabilly records.

But the first record I actually bought was ‘For Once In My Life’ by Stevie Wonder, and again if you listen to that actual album the playing is incredible and they can wrap up in three minutes such an extraordinary orchestration of music and melody that it’s quite a thing to this day. I listened to it again recently and it still stands up.

It’s really great. Stevie Wonder was young, he wouldn’t have been too much older than me, but it was just unbelievable! The other reason I like it was that it seemed so complicated to play, which is why I loved it. I since learned that often the things that sound the simplest are often actually the hardest thing, to be honest.

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Next up: I was given a record token by someone, and my dad said to me (although I was only nine) he said, well, the way you want to go is you want to go to a specialist jazz shop and ask for a boogie woogie record. He said the most famous one in London is Dobells which was in Soho at the time, so you could get a bus from Greenwich on a red rover for the day for sort of four bob or whatever it was.

So I got the 53 bus and skipped across the middle of Soho with my map, the ordnance survey, in my shorts and my big jersey, and found Dobells. I mean, Soho was quite different then - I think Ronnie and Reggie Kray hadn’t been sent to prison yet so they were probably sitting having a cup of tea outside one of the cafes as I was going past the beckoning doorways of sin.

Anyway, I go to Dobells and a very nice man there gave me a pile of ten records with all these different boogie woogie artists and then I went into the listening booth. I think the idea then was you were just supposed to listen to a little sample of each record but I instead listened to every record all the way through until eventually there was a tap on this booth and the bloke said: “We’re shutting the shop now you better make your mind up!”

So I said “yes, thanks mister, I’ll take this one”, and the one I got was of Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Jimmy Yancey. I think it was a French release called ‘The Boogie Woogie Man’ and that record I played to death. I mean it was amazing, I’d never heard anything like it.

I found it very moving so I’ve since covered a Jimmy Yancey song, I’ve done a couple of things in his style because he’s kind of forgotten about but it really meant a lot to me. I felt like they were my friends showing me the way.

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I got some Beatles, and my father bought me some classical, but the other person that I really loved was Jerry Lee Lewis. What I really like about these people is they couldn’t care less what people thought about them. That was the thing. It was wild. I liked that.

All of those guys like Jerry Lee and Fats Domino they were just so great - I played them and played them. And of course what they were doing, they twisted the blues stuff and turned it into the same thing but they put a take on it that made people want to be a bit more saucy with it.

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I went to see Oscar Peterson at the time when he was doing a piano party. A friend of mine got me the ticket - I was about 14, I think - and he was doing these piano parties for the BBC. I liked Oscar Peterson, my Dad had got me one of his records, and so I had gone to see him and I actually met him.

He was so huge and I was this tiny teenager; he was like a giant and I was like a little action man with tiny little hands and he shook my tiny little hand and I said to him “do you have any advice, Mr Peterson? I’m learning the piano!” And he said: “yes son, practice...” And I did think to myself: I’ve already been doing that, anything else?

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Ray Charles said to me, people always have to go and lift the lid up on the piano and play something even if they can’t play because it’s like a friend in the living room. It’s a musical instrument, it’s a piece of furniture... it’s an incredible thing! There’s no room that isn’t enhanced by having a piano.

You know pubs used to have pianos. People had pianos in their front rooms. All over Britain, if you could afford it, before people bought televisions or big entertainment systems, before such things were existent, people had pianos in their front rooms. Everyone would have their song that they would get round and do it.

I think they’re very human because it’s built by humans and because it’s dynamic and harmonic. It’s also the centre of the party.

It’s also one of the last things in this day and age that you buy that lasts you a life time. My grandmother’s piano, my mother’s still got it. If you buy a fridge from 1936 it doesn’t work any more. It’s one of the few things that doesn’t get updated or change. It doesn’t matter when you bought it. Everything gets worse as it goes on but the piano doesn’t it stays.

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Later... with Jools Holland toasts its 25th birthday on BBC2 tonight (September 23rd).

Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.

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