Ernie Dunstall

Born: October 27th, 1932, Woolwich, Greater London (United Kingdom)
Nationality: British

Eurovision record
Ernie Dunstall orchestrated and conducted Gina G’s ‘Ooh… aah… just a little bit’, a set piece Britpop dance tune with minimal orchestral accompaniment. Although being the hot favourite with the bookies and by far the most modern song in that year’s contest, it failed to impress the international juries and finished eighth.

Biography
Ernest ‘Ernie’ Dunstall grew up in a trading family in South East London, where his parents became the owners of several greengrocery shops in the immediate aftermath of World War II. From a very young age onwards, he was fascinated by the piano, the instrument his uncle Cyril played and which Ernie learnt to play himself in his early teens. After having done technical school and an engineering apprenticeship, Dunstall started working as an engineering draughtsman in a factory. All the time, however, he was a semi-professional musician, playing in jazz clubs and touring as a pianist with several ensembles, including the co-operative band The Polytone Seven. For some time, he ran a jazz club in Woolwich together with some friends. When he was twenty-one, he gave up his daytime job once and for all and began working as a fulltime pianist.

Having joined the Teddy Foster Band, Dunstall played in that ensemble for a couple of years, before becoming a member of the Harry Leader Band, with which he worked for two years in a ballroom in Brighton in the late 1950s; moreover, with Leader, he performed in countless live ‘music while you work’ broadcasts for BBC Radio. Dunstall also played in a co-operative band as well as in the Len Turner Orchestra, working in dance halls in Leicester and Bristol. The last dance band he was a member of, were The Dennymann Seven, which he left in ’64.

From 1960 onwards, Dunstall got involved in accompanying various artists, most notably Welsh singer Dorothy Squires (1915-1998), for whom he had already worked occasionally in earlier years. He performed with Squires in variety theatres across Great Britain and made a month’s tour with her in Australia in ’60. Over the next three decades, Dunstall regularly met up professionally with Squires, performing in the Talk of the Town Cabaret in London with her and composing several of her songs, including ‘There is no room in my heart’ (1965), ‘Have I waited too long’ (1965), and ‘Look around’ (1974). Together, they wrote a musical called ‘Old Rowley’, which was never brought on stage, however. Making his mark as a songwriter, Dunstall had other of his compositions recorded by Cleo Laine (‘You gotta have love’, 1962) and Danny Street (‘Cold cold winter’, 1963). His song ‘Where in the world’ was a moderate hit in the version of crooner Matt Monro, whilst Kathy Kirby made a recording of it as well.

At the piano, rehearsing with Dorothy Squires for a live concert album, around 1960

From the mid-1960s onwards, Dunstall developed a longstanding working relationship with another important singer in the British music scene, Vince Hill. He became Hill’s musical director, arranging much of his repertoire. How did he learn to arrange for orchestras without any formal education? Dunstall comments: “I never consciously learnt how to arrange. In the early days, while I was still semipro, I was always experimentally working on writing arrangements, but this was for rhythm section only. Brass and violins were still a closed book to me at that time. It was in the 1960s, when I got to play in better and bigger dance bands, that I got used to working with saxophones and trumpets. Somewhat later, I was asked to write a couple of arrangements for the resident BBC orchestra in Bristol, the so-called West of England Players. Honestly, I had no idea what to do with strings, but as my experience in the world of music grew, I learnt how to do that as well – although I would not be able to explain how it came about! Conducting was largely the same story. I was conducted by all kinds of people who were very good, most notably Alyn Ainsworth, and by working with them, I learnt how to conduct by the many versions of how it is done. You get thrown into situations a lot of times as a pianist or musical director and you learn terrifically quickly how to get out of trouble. It is a wonderful kind of inside education of all the nooks and crannies of musical problems that can come up. So it was another case of learning your profession as you go.”

Dunstall arranged and conducted the orchestral accompaniment to many of Vince Hill’s live shows in the 1970s. He accompanied Hill on extensive tours through Australia and New Zealand, which included a performance at Sydney’s Opera House. Hill participated in a song festival in the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with Dunstall conducting the orchestra for him. Hill and Dunstall formed a formidable songwriting team: their composition ‘I’m gonna make it’, which was interpreted by Joe Cuddy, represented the United Kingdom at the 1973 Castlebar Song Festival in Ireland and was chosen as the winner of that competition, beating Malta’s Mary Spiteri into second place. Another of their songs, ‘Why or where or when’, was recorded by Mr Lee Grant and topped the New Zealand charts in 1968. The Dunstall-Hill co-composition ‘I never did as I was told’ was picked up by Canadian superstar Robert Goulet in 1971.


Mr Lee Grant - "Why or where or when"

From the early 1970s onwards, Dunstall became involved in playing and orchestrating for BBC Radio, collaborating on several series of the popular show ‘They sold a million’; for this weekly programme, he played the piano and wrote many medley arrangements. With Vince Hill, he recorded a host of songs with BBC orchestras which were subsequently used for broadcasts on Radio 2. For television projects, he had the opportunity to work with the likes of Vera Lynn, Neil Sedaka, and Gene Pitney.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Ernie Dunstall was one of the most sought-after composers, arrangers, and musical directors for television broadcasts. How did that come about? Dunstall explains: “Alyn Ainsworth was the musical director of most of the live entertainment programmes on both sides – ITV and BBC. But Alyn got ill; a couple of years later, he died. He recommended me at the BBC for a couple of shows, including ‘The laughter show’. Thus, I was given the opportunity to do lots of BBC television work, which Alyn would normally have done. In subsequent years, I built up a good personal and professional relationship with TV producers, especially Michael Lego. When I first did ‘The laughter show’ in 1984, he was one of the junior directors. We hit it off very well personally. Later, Lego progressed up in the BBC, becoming Head of Variety. This resulted in even more television work being given to me. So I had a ‘hot’ period with the BBC in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

At the piano, +/- 1990

For the BBC, Ernie Dunstall was the musical director of the final season of the sketch show ‘The laughter show’ (1986). Other entertainment programmes he was involved in as an arranger and conductor included ‘The generation game’ and all seasons of ‘Noel’s Saturday road show’ and the highly popular ‘Noel’s house party’ (1991-1999) with Noel Edmonds. Apart from writing and arranging pastiches and other “bits and pieces of music” for these shows, he composed the theme tune to ‘Noel’s house party’ as well as other television programmes, including ‘Something for the weekend’, ‘The other half’, and ‘Noel’s Christmas presents’. Moreover, he conducted the orchestra in the 1989 edition of the BAFTA film and television awards show and was the musical director of the Laurence Olivier Theatre Awards on one occasion. Both award shows were brought live on screen by BBC television.

For Independent Television (ITV), Dunstall was the musical director of a couple of Des O’Connor Shows and three seasons of the stand-up comedy show of singer-entertainer Joe Longthorne (1988-1991). He collaborated with Longthorne for seven years, being the musical director for his Live at the Palladium show in London as well as accompanying him on his tours which took him to as far away as Australia, where they played at all the major venues, including (once again) the Sydney Opera House. With Longthorne, Dunstall composed half a dozen songs which were all included on the 2004 CD album ‘I wish you love’.

A concert with singer Joe Longthorne

Ernie Dunstall in the Eurovision Song Contest
Ernie Dunstall was involved in the Eurovision Song Contest on one occasion only, orchestrating and conducting ‘Ooh… aah… just a little bit’. With this song, Gina G came a mere eighth for the United Kingdom in the 1996 festival in Oslo, in spite of being the hot favourite to win the competition. This song, composed by Steve Rodway and Simon Tauber, was a bouncy dance tune, with which BBC producer Jonathan King hoped to revive interest for the contest domestically and rejuvenate the international competition. The day after the Eurovision Song Contest final, it reached the number one spot in the British charts; in ’97, it was even nominated for a Grammy Award. In the live broadcast in Oslo, a tiny string accompaniment was added to the backing track produced by Rodway. The song was not helped by the quite unconvincing live vocal performance of the Australian vocalist.

Why was Dunstall asked for the job in the first place? The conductor comments: “That year, Kevin Bishop was the BBC Head of Delegation and he thought it would be more fun to have me there as the conductor than Ronnie Hazlehurst, who was still around at the BBC at that time. The next thing I did was liaising with the two guys who wrote that song. They had already recorded it with Gina G and it had been in the charts for several weeks by the time we travelled to Oslo. They really did not want anything added to it – no orchestration. I then suggested to just put a gentle little bit of strings and harp in towards the end, which added a slight warm feeling to the song perhaps… but, in truth, you could have ‘em or leave ‘em out!. I don’t know if you heard much of them during the live broadcast anyway. At that time, adding an orchestration to a Eurovision song was thought of as something that was part of the deal, something that had always been done.”

Dunstall rehearsing with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Eurovision 1996

What nobody at the BBC seems to have realized, was that the use of the orchestra was not compulsory in 1996. As long as all instruments on the backing track were shown with the artist on stage, no live accompaniment was required. In fact, in 1986, the United Kingdom’s entry, ‘Runner in the night’ by Ryder, had not had any orchestration. Steve Rodway, who co-composed ‘Ooh… aah… just a little bit’ with Simon Tauber and also was the song’s producer, however, was not aware at that time that the live music rules were not as strict as everybody around him assumed either:

“Although I actually love strings myself, I would probably have chosen not to use the orchestra, but we had no idea that was allowed. The record had minimal synthesizer strings and, as a record producer, the last thing you want is to have a live performance of your song that sounds way different from the studio version. Remember, our song was never written to be a Eurovision tune and moreover was a hit in the UK and some European countries already before the actual contest. Hence, the audience was familiar with it, as it was all over the radio and clubs. We did not want to put them off by risking something very unusual, in this case: an orchestration added to it. Simon and I, however, assumed the orchestra was a tradition of Eurovision and so apparently did everyone at the BBC and our record company. When we talked to Ernie, we explained we did not want the strings to ‘stick out’ in any way, so to speak. During rehearsals, when I heard the orchestration for the first time, it brought a smile to my face; there was even a harp in it! Thinking back, if I had been commissioned to produce a song for Eurovision from the outset, I would probably have added strings to it. In the case of ‘Ooh-aah’, however, part of the record’s charm was that people remember it for being different from traditional Eurovision repertoire. Thus, it was ironic that we ended up having an orchestration added to our song; that said, during the performance of the Eurovision final, the orchestra level was very low in the mix.”

In a documentary which Sky TV did about the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest, Ernie Dunstall was asked some questions while waiting for the moment to count the orchestra in during one of the rehearsals. In a very relaxed way, he commented that the string arrangement “adds something to it”, but “it is not absolutely necessary, that is what I am saying”. And then, ironically, while standing up from his chair to start conducting: “This changes the whole character of the piece, I can tell you that!”

Dunstall waiting to count in the orchestra during rehearsals in Oslo

Despite feeling slightly superfluous, the UK musical director has pleasant memories of his stay in Norway: “It was a very relaxed week. Eurovision really is a madhouse and most television companies organized parties to promote their entries. Local authorities in Oslo laid on everything they could to promote tourism with a grand reception in the town hall with lavish food and drinks for the delegates. You were receiving invitations the whole week through. Moreover, what I did not know beforehand, was the fee I was going to receive for this commission… as the show went on in twenty-six countries, the BBC paid me twenty-six fees… thank you very much! While, to be honest, it was a joke, because I hardly had anything to do. Just following the pre-recorded tape, that was all. Generally speaking, my years with BBC television were extremely lucrative.”

“What I remember very vividly”, Dunstall continues, “is that our delegation split in two parts. There was the BBC on the one hand and the record company on the other, and these were different articles altogether. The company people were obviously interested in getting their face on there and plug their records – which is what they should do. I only talked to Gina G on the BBC party, but that was all. We did not have any social interaction worth mentioning. The tune was ok at that time, it was what was considered ‘Britpop’. I was certainly amongst the people who thought we had a good chance of winning the competition. I do not have a clue why we came nowhere near the top. But I watch Eurovision year after year and I never picked the right winner anyway. I am always absolutely flabbergasted by whoever wins!”

With one of Gina G’s dancers, waiting for the votes to come in

One day before the Eurovision Song Contest broadcast in ’96, there was the threat of the conductors from various countries going on strike, because Norwegian producer Odd Arvid Strømstad wanted to skip the customary introduction of the conductor before each song. In the end, he withdrew his plan and all conductors were given the opportunity to bow to the audience and all TV viewers. Was Dunstall involved in this looming strike? “Not at all, because I could not care less!”, is his straightforward first reaction, “I said as much to the guys who were making that Sky documentary and who were rushing around trying to get a bad reaction out of you in little interviews. I did not know anything about the issue when I was first asked about it, but anyway… as if I minded! I mean, the writing was always on the wall: in the 1990s, live orchestras in television broadcasts had already become some sort of an anachronism. A couple of years before Eurovision, when I was involved in the Olivier Awards as an MD, most of the music was generated by computers; all I had to my disposal were two trumpets and one violin… while, with the BAFTA Award Show I did a couple of years earlier, I still worked with a twenty-five-piece orchestra – which was hugely expensive and, in retrospect, very wasteful. That was the way the music business was changing in those years. Do I regret that? Well, not really; it is simply the way the world is! In Eurovision, they stopped all that orchestral thing a couple of years after I was involved in it, and, in the case of Gina G’s song, doing a live arrangement was a waste of everybody’s time anyway…”

Other artists on Ernie Dunstall
Composer and producer of ‘Ooh… aah… just a little bit’, Steve Rodway: “Ernie was very pleasant to work with, a lovely guy. I had the utmost respect for anyone who was a proper music conductor. I must admit we did not have a lot of contact in the course of the week of rehearsals, but before the contest, we had a conversation about what Simon Tauber and I wanted the orchestration to be like. No, Ernie was a delight, in one word.”

Ernie Dunstall in 2001

Links & sources
  • Bas Tukker interviewed Ernie Dunstall, February 2011. All pictures courtesy of Ernie Dunstall.
  • Thanks to Steve Rodway (a.k.a. Motiv8) for talking to us (March 2011) about the enigma of why a live orchestration was added to his composition ‘Ooh… aah… just a little bit’ in the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest. More information about Steve’s work can be found on his homepage www.steverodway.com.
  • British Sky TV made a documentary about what happened backstage in the run-up to the 1996 Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo, “It’s a killer – Eurovision Song Contest Oslo 1996 – Behind the scenes”. Ernie Dunstall features in it several times, being interviewed and conducting the orchestra during the rehearsals.
  • Thanks to Joseph Beaver for finding Ernie Dunstall for us.

  

Songs conducted
1996: Ooh aah… just a little bit