Sunday 5 October 2014

Sheila Tracy – Girl with a Trombone

Though she’d have probably denied it Sheila Tracy was something of a feminist pioneer by working in what were, at the time, mostly male preserves: touring the country with a big band; broadcasting on the Light Programme when few other women hosted record shows; being the first woman to read the main news bulletins on national radio and being the trucker’s friend on an overnight music show. With a broadcasting career that spanned fifty years I remember Sheila Tracy who sadly died earlier this week.    

Born and raised in Helston, Cornwall Sheila went on to study piano and violin at the Royal Academy of Music “but soon realised I wasn’t going to become a concert pianist.” Noticing that the brass section of the Academy’s orchestra didn’t contain any women she plumped for the trombone, thus unwittingly launching a long career as a professional trombonist.

Leaving the Academy in 1956 Sheila joined the Ivy Benson All Girls Band. A year later she and Phyl Brown, a vocalist in the Ivy Benson outfit, formed the Tracy Sisters. They got their first break when they replaced the Kay Sisters on a Moss Empire Variety tour with Mike and Bernie Winters. Their first radio broadcast was on 24 May 1958 on In Town Tonight.  Other appearances followed on Workers Playtime, Mid-Day Music Hall and Saturday Club.

Her move into full-time broadcasting came in February 1961 when, with prompting from her mother, she successfully applied to become an in-vision announcer on BBC TV, joining the other women on the team: Meryl O’Keeffe, Valerie Pitts and Judith Chalmers. When the BBC stopped using in-vision announcers Sheila worked on a number of regional news shows: Spotlight South-West in Plymouth, Points West in Bristol and South Today in Southampton.

Sheila also worked with Michael Aspel on the BBC1 show A Spoonful of Sugar which was broadcast from hospitals and where they would surprise staff and patients with people they wanted to meet. She recalled on programme where “we had fixed for Mike Yarwood to be hidden in the corner of the ward while I was talking to the patient. The cameras started to roll and I go into my spiel about how much red tape we’ve had to cut to get this special guest on the programme. Mike then does his impression of Harold Wilson. ‘And who do you think this is?’ I ask the patient. Obviously very excited she goes….’Ooh Ooh…it’s…Freddie Frinton’ Poor Mike Yarwood was absolutely devastated. Harold Wilson was his favourite impersonation. However it was all quite hilarious and all went out just as it happened!”
An early Radio Times billing for Sheila from
March 1963. Late Choice was a 20 minute Sunday night show.

Meanwhile Sheila was picking up some radio work on the Light Programme. Her first solo broadcast was in February 1963 on the Sunday night show Late Choice. “I wasn’t allowed to play anything loud or fast”, she recalled. There were also appearances on Melody Fair, Anything Goes, Music for Late Night People and, in 1967, one of the presenters of It’s One O’Clock billed as “music for late night people” and produced by Aidan Day.  

In October 1973 Sheila joined BBC Radio 4 as a staff announcer – making her first appearance on the 8th of that month (most websites incorrectly state 1974). She later claimed that she had made the move with “the express purpose of doing a breakthrough in news.” That breakthrough came on the evening of 16 July 1974 with a certain amount of subterfuge on the part of Presentation Editor Jim Black. Colin Doran was reading the early evening news and Bryan Martin was due to take over the late shift, as was the pattern at that time. Sheila was already on the rota to do that evening’s continuity when at the last minute a switch was made with Bryan supposedly being ill Sheila stepped in to read the late-night news bulletin.  Thereafter she became a regular newsreader on the network.

Whilst the press made a fuss about Sheila reading the Radio 4 news she wasn’t, of course, the first woman to actually read a news bulletin on the radio. In the regions it had long being the practice to have female news readers and even on national radio Angela Buckland, Ann Every and Patricia Hughes, to name but three, had for years being reading the early morning bulletins on the Home Service and on Radio 3. However, it did open the way for the likes of Susan Denny, Pauline Bushnall and Laurie MacMillan to become regular readers on the station.

In 1977 Sheila moved across to BBC Radio 2, again as a continuity announcer and newsreader – making her first appearance on 21 January – but also having the opportunity to present a number of music shows. Firstly there was The Late Show and the overnight You and the Night and the Music as well as Saturday Night with the BBC Radio Orchestra and The Early Show (weekends in 1982/83).

This clip of You and the Night and the Music is from 4 April 1980. With apologies for the slightly dodgy tape.

But it was Big Band Special that proved to be the long-running success. Initially planned as a 12-part series it ran for 34 years (1979-2013), with Sheila at the helm for nearly 22 of them. For the first couple of programmes the featured band was Nelson’s Column before the BBC Radio Big Band took up residency under the baton of Barry Forgie, himself a trombonist, as was the show’s first producer Robin Sedgley and even the second producer Bob McDowall.

From 1987 the BBC Radio Big Band started to undertake a number of tours in addition to its regular recording commitments. Occasionally Sheila, who’d compere about 50 concerts a year, would herself fill the gap on trombone if an additional player was needed or even conduct the band if Barry Forgie fancied a turn on his trombone. She also played with the BBC Club’s Ariel Band and the Delta Jazz Band. The highlight of her time with the show was the 1992 three-week tour of America with guest star George Shearing. Sheila’s last appearance as host of Big Band Special was in 2001 when she was replaced by jazz singer Stacey Kent.

Here from 12 February 1990 is the 500th edition of Big Band Special. For these live concerts Sheila would put in lots of preparation and learn her script beforehand so that she wasn’t seen on stage behind a sheath of papers.

Sheila returned to the programme for its 25th anniversary to speak to Stacey Kent. This show was broadcast on 4 October 2004.

The other programme Sheila’s best known for was the late-night Truckers’ Hour. Initially this was just a segment of her weekly You and the Night and the Music show. Apparently she’d got the idea when on holiday in the States and read about the DJ Big John Trimble who would broadcast his show from a truck stop on KGA in Spokane, Washington and then WRVA in Richmond, Virginia. When in May 1981 Sheila went freelance she introduced Truckers’ Hour five nights a week between 1 and 2 a.m. It also cashed in on the use of CB radio amongst the truck driving fraternity and Sheila herself adopted the handle of Tiger Tim.

In May 1981 an hour was shaved off Round Midnight
to make way for a new series of Truckers' Hour
The first regular Truckers’ Hour was broadcast on Tuesday 12 May 1981. I originally posted this online in 2011 and it was included in a blog post over on 80s Actual but here it is again complete with mention of Jarrell’s Truck Plaza, a nod to Big John Trimble who broadcast from the stopover on WRVA.  

Eventually the show was pulled after Sheila was inadvertently reading out some racy messages. “Some of the blighters send me rude messages and I’ve read them out without realising”, she claimed. Signing off with “keep the lipstick off your dipstick” didn’t go down well with the BBC management. The show was dropped in April 1982, though Trucking with Tracy remained as a feature of YATNAM for a while.   

Leaving the BBC in 2001 Sheila joined Primetime Radio and then Saga Radio with her Swingtime shows.  More recently a similar show was broadcast in the States on Pure Jazz Radio in New York and in the UK on Age Concern’s The Wireless.

Sheila Tracy 1934-2014
“Tiger Tim saying thanks for the ride. I’m down and I’m gone.”

There were tributes to Sheila in this week’s LastWord on BBC Radio 4. Tonight’s Clare Teal show on BBC Radio 2 will also celebrate her life and career.  

Ivy Benson is remembered in a couple of week’s time on Radio 4 in Ivy Benson: Original Girl Power on Saturday 18 October at 10.30 a.m.

Sheila presented Big Band Special between 6 October 1979 and 26 March 2001.
Truckers' Hour ran as a stand alone show from 12 May 1981 to 3 April 1982.

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