Born: November 14, 1935;

Died: August 28, 2021.

WHEN the great jazz drummer, band leader and drum tutor George McGowan died recently, aged 85, many heartfelt tributes were received by his family. Among them was one from Southern California.

Ray Weston, who has played the drums for such artists as Peter Green, Robert Palmer, Tom Jones and Wishbone Ash, remembered being a “young, impressionable, self-taught fledgling drummer”when he first met McGowan.

George, on the other hand, was “everything rolled into one – a Buddy [Rich]-type player and all the other great jazz and rock players [of] the time”. McGowan tutored him, and inspired him to take music further. “His playing always left me in awe”, Weston adds.

George McGowan enjoyed a remarkably long and diverse career, being a key part of his friend Alex Harvey’s Soul Band, which toured widely, had a residency in Hamburg, and supported such notable acts as Chubby Checker. Later, he worked as a session player and drum teacher, before finally putting together the 17-strong George McGowan Orchestra, which for many years was a hugely popular fixture in Glasgow.

The many members of the orchestra included Bruce Adams, the awards-laden jazz trumpeter, who twice won solo prizes when the band entered top-level big band contests.

George McGowan was born in Glasgow in 1935 to Samuel (Sammy) McGowan and Ruby (née Ferguson). Like his siblings Matt, Samuel and Ruby, he attended Adelphi Terrace Public School. Sammy played the drums. “I used to watch him”, George told the Evening Times in 2009, “and he knew I was interested in his work, and I picked it up from him.

“Much later on, when I was 14, and living in Caledonia Road in the Gorbals, I first heard the late, great Stan Kenton and his orchestra. I loved the wonderful sound they made, and that was me hooked. At the time we were listening to big band music on the old 78 rpm records, but we also had radio stations, and cafes with juke-boxes”.

He was still in his teens when he played his first professional engagement, and during his National Service he played the drums in a pipe band. He was part of numerous local bands throughout the 1950s, including the Ricky Barnes All-Stars – “what could arguably be described as Britain’s first rock’n’roll combo”, in the words of Scots rock and pop historian Brian Hogg. “That was a big group at the time”, remembers George’s son, Ronnie.

Alex Harvey had been “hunting” McGowan to join the Soul Band, and the move happened. “My dad”, Ronnie adds, “was the jazzer in the band and Alex was the rock’n’roller. George was a great artist, and had been a graphic designer when he was younger but gave it up when he began playing with Alex”.

Like many other British groups, including the Beatles, the Soul Band honed their craft in the clubs in Hamburg, including the Star Club. In May 1960 they supported singer Johnny Gentle at Alloa Town Hall; Gentle’s own backing musicians were none other than the Silver Beetles: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Tommy Moore.

“My dad wasn’t too impressed with their musical skills”, says Ronnie. “But Alex pointed out that they had great harmonies – which of course was something that the Beatles became famous for.

“There’s another story that my dad told me. This was way back, when the Rolling Stones were just starting out. They were playing town halls across England with the Soul Band in support, and apparently the Stones’ manager got the Soul Band kicked off the tour because they were blowing the Stones away.”

McGowan, however, managed to get a handout photograph of Jagger, Richards and co., and got them all to sign it. That photograph now belongs to his younger brother, Samuel, who lives in Australia. Says Ronnie: “I told him, you know that that’s the original Stones and that the photo is worth a lot of money?’

“My dad knew that the Stones would be famous one day, even though he wasn’t impressed with them”.

McGowan didn’t enjoy the touring side of life with Harvey, and eventually left in the mid-60s, together with saxophonist Bill Patrick. As Hogg relates, the two musicians worked with such visiting US acts as the Four Seasons, Little Eva and Brian Hyland. McGowan also became part of various jazz combos, as well as teaching drums and playing on sessions and doing radio and TV work.

Ronnie, who had been taught the drums by his father at a young age, became in his mid-teens an unofficial roadie for the jazz combos; he remembers Glasgow venues “that were absolutely jumping on Saturday afternoons. That’s my fondest memory of my dad.

Harvey himself kept in touch; even when he was enjoying success with the Sensational Alex Harvey Band he would frequently visit George at his Easterhouse home and talk about the old times over a drink.

“My dad put his Big Band together in 1979-80. That was always his first love. They put out an album and they played all over Glasgow. There’s also a video of a concert they did at the Mitchell Theatre round about 1990, with Jimmy Alston on vocals”.

There were times when Harvey, his old friend, would see the Big Band at the Shadows venue and get up on stage and sing Delilah. It went down a storm.

After the break-up of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Alex wanted to reform the Soul Band with McGowan as the drummer, but he declined, saying, “Sorry, I’m not touring again!”

George retired only at the age of 75 because he was no longer able to hold his drum-sticks because of a form of arthritis. He had been wrapping elastic bands around his fingers so that he could hold the sticks, “though he was still playing great, as he had done his entire life”, his son says.

The Big Band kept going for a long time, with McGowan gradually ceding drum duties to other musicians. He ventured into city venues to see them entertain customers.

George was pre-deceased by his wife Kathleen and is survived by his children Ronnie and Roseann.