A couple of years ago, vibraphonist Peter Appleyard released an album of terrific material he recorded with an all-star group in 1985. At the time, I interviewed him at length, and put together the following overview of his career. Like many English-born men of his time, he was a complete gentleman, but he told hilarious stories, including a great one about spending the night—listening to records, and nothing more he assured me—with Ava Gardner. His late night caused him to be late for a rehearsal with Benny Goodman the next day. It was the one-and-only time that Goodman shot him the infamous ray that so many Goodman sidemen talk about, but it was because the bandleader didn't believe that all they did was spin records. Peter Appleyard, you will be missed.
Stretching across more than 65 years, Peter Appleyard’s musical career has more than enough twists and dynamic evolution to form the libretto for an opera.
Born August 26, 1928 in Cleethorpes, England, a small community on the country’s east coast, Appleyard began as a drummer in the Boys’ Brigade near his home. Apprenticed as a compass adjustor, he became a professional musician when he joined Felix Mendelssohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders for £17 per week.
After an 18-month stint in Royal Air Force bands and the purchase of a small set of vibes for £15 from a man who turned out to be a British spy, Appleyard departed in 1949 for a hotel gig as a drummer in Bermuda. Missing a flight connection in New York City allowed him to visit Bop City in Midtown Manhattan, where Lionel Hampton was sharing the bill with George Shearing. Seeing Hampton improvise 10 choruses of “Stardust” set Appleyard’s course. He acquired a full set of vibes and spent every spare minute of his 18 months in Bermuda practising.
In 1950, Appleyard emigrated to Canada, arriving in Toronto at a tremendously opportune time: the decade brought a new liberal attitude to the city, and with it a number of new bars and clubs. After a year out of music—awaiting the issuance of a union card—Appleyard plunged back in, attending jam sessions at the Baldwin Club, gigs at the Colonial Tavern and listening parties where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Duke Ellington and Clark Terry. A regular job with American expatriate pianist Calvin Jackson brought television exposure and a high-profile gig at the Park Plaza Hotel. Jackson’s band also worked as far afield as New York City, where it appeared opposite Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, and Chicago.
After splitting with Jackson in 1956, Appleyard started his own band and entered a busy period of commercial work, expanding his arsenal to include tympani and appearing frequently on television and radio across Canada.
In 1972, his career took another dramatic turn. A casual conversation with Benny Goodman backstage in Toronto led to him joining the renowned bandleader for eight years of globetrotting tours, and paved the way for Appleyard’s formation of a Goodman tribute band in 1985.
In addition to Goodman, Appleyard has accompanied headline performers like Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé, and toured the world under his own name and as a co-leader with pianist Dick Hyman.
Looking back, Appleyard mused: “When I was starting out, I never dreamed I would even see Benny Goodman, let alone play with him for eight years. The music keeps me going. I would still travel miles to play.”