Several times over the last couple of years I’ve been asked about big-name LGBT recording artists from my home town. Sadly, I’ve been at a loss to think of one that made any kind of impact. Until now.
Russ Conway was a huge star in Britain in the 50s and 60s, our Liberace if you like (he didn't!), although Russ eschewed the glitz and glamour for a jaunty sweater as he plinked and plonked at his tack piano at a time when Winifred Atwell and Mrs Mills were also demonstrating their chops.
Conway (not to be confused with the Canadian-American actor of the same name) was also homosexual, at a time when, like Liberace, to come out would have killed his career stone dead.
Born Trevor Herbert Stanford, on September 2nd, 1925, Conway placed 20 piano instrumentals in the UK Singles Chart between 1957 and 1963 and scored two Number One hits. Discovered by producer, songwriter and A&R man Norman Newell, Russ was born in Bristol, and, as a youngster, won a scholarship to Bristol Cathedral Choir School. But the troubled young man was unhappy, and a difficult relationship with his overbearing mother (how stereotypical!) caused huge issues. When he was 13, he was cast in the school play as Maid Marian, and his mother made him a dress and hired a blonde wig. The story goes that, day following his first performance, she made him put on dress and wig and marched him through the streets of Bristol, on to a bus and into a photographer's studio to have his picture taken. Almost as soon as he had left school he began to get in to trouble, and on his 15th birthday he was sentenced to three years in Borstal after stealing money from his employers, a local firm of solicitors.
Luckily his incarceration was not wasted, as he used the time to teach himself how to play piano. He would always claim that, prior to this, he had only ever taken one piano lesson, when he was just four years old.
Conscripted into the Royal Navy during the Second World War, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) as a signalman in a minesweeping flotilla, and after the war he joined the Merchant Navy. He was discharged in 1948 on health grounds: a recurring issue with a stomach ulcer.
Conway was talent-spotted while playing in a London club, and signed to EMI's Columbia label by Newell, who had him spend the next few years writing songs and providing piano accompaniment backing for other artists on their roster, including Gracie Fields and Joan Regan. He recorded his first solo single, Party Pops, in 1957; the medley of standards reached Number 24 and stayed on the charts for five weeks. His fifth and sixth singles, Side Saddle and Roulette, both went to Number One. Russ quickly became a fixture on light entertainment TV and radio shows, he appeared at the London Palladium on several occasions and became a regular on the Billy Cotton Band Show, one of TV’s most popular variety shows. for several seasons.
Sadly, Conway’s career was blighted by ill health; in 1963 he had a nervous breakdown and, in 1965, was blindsided by the first of two strokes which prevented him from performing. In 1968 he announced his retirement. He was also a drinker and a heavy smoker, getting through up to 80 cigarettes a day. His lifestyle brought him close to bankruptcy, and in 1970 he attempted a comeback, signing with Chapter 1 records for his first album of new material since 1966.
After he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the late 1980s, he founded the Russ Conway Cancer Fund. Even after his diagnosis he kept working: although his years of chart success were long over, he was still a popular live draw; in 1992 he was awarded the Lord Mayor of Bristol’s Medal for his charity work and his contribution to popular music, and in 1994 he appeared, as himself, in the French and Saunders Christmas special, playing in their spoof of the hit film The Piano. Although he did not come out during his lifetime, in interviews he occasionally touched on his sexuality, telling the Daily Mail’s Nicola Tryer that “It doesn't surprise me that people question my sexuality. I question it myself. I haven't the faintest idea what it is. I was certainly no angel in my younger days and I have tried everything there is to try. Now I have learned to live alone without being lonely.” In his late 50s/early 60s heyday it would have been impossible for the family favourite to be open about his sexuality, and newspapers talked about his blighted love life: a WREN who was posted to a different ship, a girl from South London that left him, and Hazel, who died after a minor operation while he was away on tour. Away from the headlines Russ was a frequent visitor to several of London’s underground gay bars, including Soho’s Golden Guitar Club, part owned by impresario Larry Parnes. According to scene gossip, he once had an affair with another hit artist at Columbia…
Russ Conway died on November 16th, 2000, just two weeks after his last public performance and two months after he issued his last album, Old and New. He was 76. His funeral service was held at Bristol’s historic St Mary Redcliffe church on December 6th; Elton John, whose own piano playing style had been influenced by Conway, sent a wreath. The service was followed by a cremation at South Bristol Crematorium. A tribute concert staged at the city’s Colston Hall the following year raised £11,000 for local cancer charity St Peter's Hospice.
Here's a clip of Russ playing Side Saddle on the Billy Cotton Band Show
And here he is again, playing Lucky Five in the Michael Winner movie Climb Up The Wall