James Blades Is Dead at 97; a Percussionist for Victory

 

By Nick Ravo, , May 25 1999

 

James Blades, a popular British percussionist whose most frequently heard work was the "V-for-victory" Morse code signal broadcast by the BBC during World War II, died on Wednesday, May 19, at his home in Cheam, in Surrey, England. He was 97.

He also created the sound of the gong at the beginning of movies made by the J. Arthur Rank studios; his recording was mimed by a boxer, Bombardier Billy Wells.

The most notable sound he made, however, was the dot-dot-dot-dash ditty of Morse code that the BBC broadcast to encourage the Resistance in continental Europe during World War II.

The recording, transmitted 150 times a day, echoed the da-da-da-dum phrase that begins Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. To create the signal, he used a tympani mallet to strike an African membrane drum, essentially a tom-tom, with the sound damped with a handkerchief.

"That was the greatest noise I ever made," he said, according to an obituary published on Saturday in The Daily Telegraph of London.

Blades, who also played tympani, xylophone, marimbas and more, performed with circuses and symphonies and in the cinema. He was also a lecturer, mesmerizing audiences that ranged from teen-agers and the disabled to music teachers and professional musicians.

He was the author of an encyclopedic reference work, "Percussion Instruments and Their History" (Praeger, 1971), which detailed everything from the aburukuwa to the zuzu.

"If there is anything you want to know about percussion, old or new, consult Blades," wrote Harold C. Schonberg in The New York Times in a review of the book.

Blades was born in Peterborough, England, on Sept. 9, 1901. He fell in love with drumming while watching a member of the Salvation Army banging a bass drum. He received his first musical training from an uncle who was fond of beating his knife and fork on the dinner table. When he was 14 he joined a circus, in which he played the cymbals and a bass drum, providing the beat for a dancing elephant.

Later Blades began performing in local bands and dropped his apprenticeship in engineering. He spent most of the 1920s working at a movie theater, creating sound effects for silent movies -- gunshots, thunderstorms -- and playing in dance bands around Britain.

In 1932 he joined the London Film Society Orchestra; he also played the Rank gong beginning in 1935. Sought after by symphonies in the United States and Britain, Blades joined the London Symphony Orchestra in 1940 and moonlighted with other orchestras and ensembles.

After World War II, Blades was occupied mostly with operas, symphonies and chamber music. He was also invited to join the Coronation Orchestra in Westminster Abbey in 1953.

In 1954, he was appointed a professor of percussion at the Royal Academy of Music. He also lectured, often working with physically and mentally handicapped children. He put his engineering skills to use making the children instruments, like a glockenspiel for quadriplegics to play using their mouths. He retired from public performances in 1971, except for the premiere of Benjamin Britten's opera "Death in Venice" in 1973.

Besides "Percussion Instruments and Their History," Blades wrote "Orchestral Percussion Technique" (1961); "Drum Roll" (1977), an autobiography, and a second, shorter autobiography, "These I Have Met" (1991). He was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1972.

His first wife, Olive Hewitt, died in 1945. He is survived by his second wife, Joan Goossens.

 


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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov