Band leader who, as musical director at ATV, had responsibility for shows such as The Muppet Show
Jack Parnell, who died on Sunday aged 87, was a drummer, a popular bandleader in the Fifties, and went on to become musical director at Associated Television. In this capacity he had musical responsibility for the whole of ATV's output, from Sunday Night at The London Palladium to The Muppet Show.
Parnell was the real conductor for music used in The Muppet Show, which was filmed in London. Onscreen, however, the Muppet band was led by a cheery baton-wielding muppet called Nigel, who was often manipulated by the show's creator Jim Henson.
Parnell could claim credit for getting one of the jazz world's most celebrated drummers, Buddy Rich, on to the show. Henson claimed never to have heard of Rich, but his appearance went on to became famous for a percussion duel with The Muppet Show's own resident drummer, Animal. The drum battle starts backstage, when Animal, led in on a chain, meets Rich for the first time. He greets the guest star with the words: "Kill kill kill."
Jack Parnell was born in London on August 6, 1923, into a theatrical family. His grandfather had been one of the first music-hall ventriloquists. His father (stage name Russ Can) also began his career on the variety stage before becoming an announcer on Radio Luxembourg and eventually a theatrical agent. His uncle, Val Parnell, was managing director of the Moss Empires chain of variety theatres.
Parnell began learning the piano at age five and the drums at eight. When he was 10 years old his father took him to the first British appearance of Duke Ellington's orchestra, which determined him on a musical career. He took his first professional engagement at 16, with a concert party at the Futurist Theatre, Scarborough and joined the RAF in 1940.
Parnell played throughout the war in bands attached to Bomber Command, including a sextet led by the saxophonist Buddy Featherstonhaugh which also featured the trumpeter Kenny Baker.
His ambition to play in a big band was achieved in the summer of 1945, when he joined the newly formed Ted Heath and his Music. Heath's intention had been to lead a "sweet" band playing music from the pre-war era, but the corps of young musicians he had hired, including Parnell and Baker, persuaded him to adopt a more jazz-flavoured style. As well as playing drums, Parnell took over the job of singing the swing and novelty numbers. He appears in the 1946 film London Town, performing what is almost an early form of rap music.
Parnell's family connections were instrumental in establishing Heath's regular Sunday "Swing Sessions" at the London Palladium, which began in December 1945 and continued well into the Fifties.
In 1951, Parnell left Heath and formed his own band. Its first engagement was playing for the West End show Fancy Free. When Fancy Free closed, Jack Parnell and his Orchestra went on tour. The impresario Leslie Grade offered Parnell advice: "You can't lead a band sitting down at the drums, Jack. You're the star, so you'll have to stand up in front. And the show must have a high-spot." Parnell hit upon the idea of a synchronised drum duet with the band's drummer, Phil Seamen. "It wasn't anything like as difficult as it seemed," he admitted in later years, "but it looked terrific and very clever. The band had been losing money, but the duet saved us. It caused a sensation and made our name."
Parnell accepted the job of musical director at ATV in 1956, a post he was to hold for 26 years. The company's flagship show, Sunday Night at The London Palladium, was broadcast live for most of its run, with rehearsals during the day. Disasters were sometimes only narrowly avoided, as when the orchestra, accompanying Placido Domingo in a rehearsal of excerpts from Pagliacci, turned the page and found itself playing a soft-shoe shuffle. The library had sent along Harry Secombe's music by mistake.
In all, Parnell conducted more than 2,500 shows for ATV and worked with virtually every top entertainer of the period. Parnell retired from ATV in 1983. He had not touched the drums for 16 years and was looking forward to resuming his old trade. He took delivery of a superb new kit, but found that he could barely play. Lack of practice had caused his drumming muscles to lose all their tone. Nevertheless, he eventually returned to full-time playing at the highest level. Through the Nineties he toured with the show Best of British Jazz.
On reaching the age of 80, Parnell declared that he had retired. In the next breath he listed the activities with which he intended to avoid boredom in his retirement. These included drumming at weekly jazz club sessions near his home in Suffolk and conducting recording orchestras for his friends. In his spare time he played Bach on the piano.
Jack Parnell was thrice married. He is survived by his wife Veronica and five children.