(John Arlott)... always had something to say that was worth hearing .And Humphrey Lyttelton. Too many things are now too scripted. People work out in advance what they're going to say and they agonise over it. They try to be too clever. But I always used to think with Humph's programmes that, when the record ended, he was at a bit of a disadvantage as he'd been so busy listening to the music, and thought "oh f**k, I've got to speak. And I like that. Even the hesitation sometimes, or the catch in his voice, or the sly stumble. Again you'd think: this is a real person in real time responding to something in a real way.Humphrey Lyttelton (1921-2008) is credited by Wikipedia with no less than five occupations - composer, trumpeter, radio presenter, cartoonist and writer. Musically, he was most influential in the 1950s, with his early bands pioneering the British traditional jazz revival and inspiring numerous imitators, some of whom went on to enjoy commercial success. His only chart hit, "Bad Penny Blues", impressed both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who is said to have based his "Lady Madonna" on it. Yet Lyttelton never sought stardom, continuing to play jazz in the style which he preferred, usually labelled "mainstream". Despite annoying both New Orleans purists, for whom his band seemed too modern, and modern jazz lovers who found it somewhat old hat, he was able to lead a successful career as a bandleader until his final years.
(JP, quoted in Mark Ellen's Peel tribute, "The Godfather", in Word, issue 22, December 2004)
However, Lyttelton is fondly remembered by a wider public as a broadcaster. Like Peel, he managed to develop a following on two BBC radio networks. He wrote and presented The Best of Jazz, which went out on Radio 2 on Monday nights, from 1967 until 2008, When Peel was broadcasting on Mondays between 5.15 and 7 p.m., after the swingeing economies imposed on Radio 1 in 1975, he would remind his audience to listen to "Humph"'s programme, which followed his own, after the 7 p.m. news. As Peel admitted, he had started collecting records in the pre-rock'n'roll era of the mid-1950s and had bought jazz magazines, without having much knowledge of the music itself. Nonetheless, he later developed a liking for jazz, generally in its older forms, and in the 1970s Lyttelton's programmes tended to concentrate on the jazz classics rather than new, cutting-edge material. He doubtless also saw Humph as a fellow music-lover who made no concessions to showbusiness and therefore as an ally in his struggle with what he saw as the BBC/Radio 1 establishment.
Lyttelton also shared with Peel a public school background, a taste for comedy and a fascination with language. This was evident not only in the presentation of his programmes (although he did sometimes work from a script, despite Peel's comments above) but in his journalism, as well as the numerous books he produced. The two volumes written to accompany The Best of Jazz examined key performers of the 1920s and 1930s respectively, in a style combining musical analysis and anecdote, but several of his other books are unabashedly comic works. His wit and timing contributed greatly to his success as chairman of the Radio 4 programme, I'm Sorry, I Haven't A Clue, a kind of anarchic, surrealistic quiz programme characterized by puns and outrageous double entendres. Like Peel's Home Truths, this programme gained Lyttelton an audience which was quite distinct from the jazz lovers who tuned into his Radio 2 shows.
In the course of time, The Best of Jazz broadened its scope to include a wider variety of jazz styles, Lyttelton admitting on many occasions that records which had once sounded radical and alienating were now accepted as part of the jazz tradition. Like Peel, he sometimes played privately produced recordings, sent to him by the artists themselves; he also enjoyed a surprising moment of fashionablity in 2001, when his band guested on an album track by the band Radiohead. After meeting Lyttelton at the Sony Radio Awards, Peel spoke on the show of 23 May 2002 of booking his band for a session, after playing an old Humph record as a Pig's Big 78, but this never came to fruition - even if Peel's admiration for his fellow award-winner remained. In Margrave of the Marshes (p.406) Lyttelton is one of the small group singled out by Peel as "really great broadcasters".
Humphrey Lyttleton & His Band
- 23 May 2002: Dallas Blues (Pig's Big 78)
- 29 May 2002: 1919 March (Pig's Big 78)
- 05 June 2002: Cakewalkin' Babies Back Home (Pig's Big 78)