Jamaican saxophonist Louis Stephenson (85), first came to Britain in 1927 with the West India Regiment Orchestra, and became an influential figure in London jazz circles during the war. His friend, Lauderic Caton (82), who grew up in Trinidad, was a pioneering electric guitarist and founder member of the popular 1940s Ray Ellington Quartet. The pair lost sight of each other for over 30 years until 1988, when they met again at a club for old musicians. Louis is a widower with a council flat in Hackney, east London. Lauderic lives in a chaotic flat in Bloomsbury filled with electronic gadgets.
LOUIS STEPHENSON: The truth is that there’s a lot of competition, as well as envy and suspicion between musicians. It’s nice when you’re playing with good ones and you get in that groove. But that’s momentary. You’re not living with the person, are you? But with Lauderic and myself, our friendship goes outside the band.
We met more than 50 years ago at the Havana, one of the London clubs where black musicians used to play. Lauderic came in, took his guitar out with this electric bit - the amplifier. The others said: ‘What ‘im doing?’ When he started playing the melody, it was something new to them. Here he was, improvising, playing it like a saxophone] They didn’t like it, but I said: ‘You carry on.’ I think he appreciated that, and we took it from there.
If you played music, you were supposed to be drinking and talking and smoking and womanising. Well, that’s the image. But Lauderic wasn’t like that, he was a homebody. He was one man just like myself - at ease in his own company. I looked on him as a sort of mentor, for he was much more educated than I was. I didn’t know that he’d been a teacher in Trinidad. He doesn’t tell you these things - you become aware of it because of his achievements. He has tremendous abilities. He used to make guitar amplifiers, then one day he said: ‘Look, I’m going to make a television.’ I said: ‘You’re joking,’ but he was serious.
In the Fifties, there were all these little shops where you could buy the valves, and so on. Lauderic made his calculations, then he took me around with him to buy what he needed. One day, he said: ‘Sonny boy, this is the moment of truth.’ He stuck this aerial outside the window, and I saw the racing at Ascot.
Lauderic’s been a devoted yogi for years. He fasts, sometimes for a week, just drinking water. One time I saw him on his prayer mat, standing on his head. It’s just as well he’s really physically fit, because he hardly ever leaves his flat. He just comes out now and then, looks around, then goes back in. He’s got cable TV, and he listens to music. And he’s always reading. He puts on his clock radio with the alarm to remind him to watch the Cosby Show, but he has no regular pattern. Day or night, it’s all the same to him. He just sleeps when he feels tired.
There’s been two phases to our friendship: Lauderic and I lost sight of each other for 35 years when I left the music business to work in a factory. Then, in 1988, someone asked me to this hotel in Holborn where the old musicians get together. Then, in walks Mr Lauderic. I saw the grey hairs and everything - well, we all look different from when we was bopping. After a while he said: ‘I’m bored, shall we leave?’ So we walked around to his place and I saw this typewriter-like thing there - a computer. I’d heard about it and its magical doings, but I’d never seen one before. He said, ‘Try it, you can’t hurt it.’ He switched it on, and showed me the menu. And I was intrigued. He said: ‘Why don’t you get one?’ So I did. Now I do all the correspondence for my pensioners’ club.
This is what Lauderic has done for me. This little thing alone is a breakthrough. He’s achieved something, getting me interested in something worthwhile at a time when, you know, I thought I’d be sitting at home, singing ‘Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me’.
LAUDERIC CATON: I was playing at the Embassy, the number one Mayfair nightclub, in 1940. We were all supposed to be Cubans, so we wore these bloody bright red frilly shirts. That was where I met Louis. He was playing the saxophone, and when one of the other musicians soloed, he’d shake the maracas. We became friends right away, and I can remember I told him I was 30 years old, and he said he was 33.
‘Lauderic, have you ever been to the dogs?’ he asked me. As soon as we went, I saw a black dog called Lazy Afternoon. I said: ‘That’s the dog for me.’ Louis said: ‘Oh no, that dog’s on a left-hand track, and he can’t run.’ But I bet on it anyway, and I won. I sat down there, feeling good, and then I saw Louis, betting pounds 12 a race. That doesn’t sound much now, but I was earning pounds 3 a week, so it was a lot of money, believe me.
Louis really likes sports. He even took me to a football business in Brentford in this English wintertime. But he enjoyed it, and naturally, being my friend, if it’s something he likes, I’ll go and see football. Otherwise I’m not going anywhere near the damn thing.
When I got my electric guitar, we were both working at the Havana. I carried my amplifier on to the bandstand and all of them said ‘Don’t put that thing by me’. Louis was the only one who didn’t make a fuss. He’s like that. But if he doesn’t like something, he’ll tell you straight off. That’s why myself and him were very good friends. Some people will go and say what they think behind your back, but he’ll come right out with it. Then Louis went and joined up. I don’t know what the hell he did that for, but see, he’d always played music in a military band. Most of these RAF fellows were stationed at Uxbridge first, so he used to go there during the day, then come back and play each night at the Havana. One night, Louis fell fast asleep on the bandstand. When he woke up, he started playing again where he’d left off - but the rest of the band had finished that part of the tune and moved on.
After a while, the RAF posted Louis away to Oban and I’d only see him sometimes. But when the war finished, he came to see me one day with some other fellows, talking about forming a band. We used to rehearse around a broomstick for a microphone, singing. Two of them were on one side, and Louis and me on the other with my guitar. Louis is a very good singer, but the other fellows let us down and sang flat. Anyhow, at the BBC the producer said: ‘Listen, Lauderic, if this is a joke, I’m not laughing.’ I’d already spent all the money for our suits, but Louis could see what was happening. The band petered out, and Louis went and got aday job.
I didn’t see him for quite a while but eventually we met up again, at the Coda Club, in Holborn. I only went because someone told me that Louis would be there. I felt very well seeing him again. He told me how his wife, Norah, had died, and I started thinking.
I know if a man stays home he’ll die very quickly. Louis is not a fellow who is studious. He doesn’t read books, and I told him he must learn this computer business. He used to come here every day. Maybe people don’t like something academically, but they like it practically. That’s how Louis is, and it keeps him going. After a while, something happened that made me feel hurt: Louis thought I was bringing him in every day to keep me company. He wrote me a letter about it. But I thought that doing something every day would be the best way for him to get a grip on the computer, so I told him to come whenever he likes.
I always say that if I win the pools, I’ll buy Louis a car so he can get down here to Bloomsbury in comfort. When he comes, I put the horses on the TV. Louis must do his bet. He knows every jockey. He comes into my flat with his papers, and says who’s going to win the 2.30. You see, that’s how people become friends: you know their limitations, what they like and don’t like. I’m not a gambling person, but I like to see the horses coming up on the rails. If Louis’s horse is coming up, he feels very well. And then I feel well myself.-