Aroundtown Meets … Kevin Grunill

From the Top of the Tower to bright lights of Granadaland, the sound of one man’s musical repertoire has waltzed around the dancefloors and theatres of some of the UKs finest establishments over the past twenty five years.

But for Barnsley-born organist Kevin Grunill, the symphony of his musical journey began with an impromptu bout of glandular fever aged 12.

Off school for six weeks, Kevin was stumped for what to do after feeling much better just three weeks in.

At their Worsborough home, Kevin’s dad Barry had a little Magnus Chord Organ he bought from Woolworths; a popular addition to 1970s family life.

“My Dad was tone deaf and couldn’t play a note. But I thought, if he can attempt to knock a tune out, I might as well have a go,” Kevin says.

Picking out notes, progressing to chords and teaching himself the basics, Kevin was hooked with the idea of this simple electronic organ and needed to play more.

With an organ exhibition coming to town, Kevin pestered his dad to go and have a look. Leaving with a Conn organ, Barry suggested his son might as well take lessons.

Taught at Fox’s Music Shop on Cheapside, Barnsley, it was here that Kevin’s devotion to music began. Becoming part of the fixtures and fittings, his Sunday lessons turned into him being the Saturday boy when he was around 14.

Practicing for hours each day, Kevin says it took a couple of years for it to sound like real music rather than someone just bashing out a tune.

“I’d practice an hour before catching the bus to school. Then I’d come home, shoes off, school bag thrown on the floor, organ on. I’d have an hour before tea, do my homework, and then an hour before bed. But I’d always have a half hour curfew so my parents could watch the news.

“Mum and Dad were always supportive – they’d never say: ‘Don’t you think you should be doing more practice?’ It was always: ‘Don’t you think you’ve done enough.’”

The Conn organ lasted around three weeks in the Grunill household. A limited instrument, Kevin was used to tinkering on premium equipment at Fox’s, with a showroom of instruments at his hands, waiting for him to try.

With a second organ bought by his dutiful parents, Kevin now had the scope to practice on this wonderful instrument and refine his talents.

When Grandma visited for lunch as she did every Sunday, she asked to look at the new organ. Sitting down and pressing a few keys, Kevin and the whole family were shocked to hear a beautiful melody sounding out.

“Apparently, she used to play in her late teens at the chapel. But when she got married and had children, she stopped completely. Nobody ever knew, not even my dad. The musical talent must have missed a generation with him – although he is very gifted when working with wood or mechanical engineering.”

Having always had a keen interest in music, a secondary school teacher at Broadway Grammar School opened up many possibilities to a young Kevin. Mr Charlie Brammar started at Broadway around the time Kevin did. Enthusiastic and a brilliant man, Mr Brammar had a quarter of the school playing instruments after just one year.

With a school orchestra and jazz band, the children had many extra-curriculum activities at their feet – or fingers. When the school merged to become Kingstone, the young musicians put on an event to celebrate.

“I remember rehearsing and thinking he’d given me the wrong part. I played percussion and piano, and he’d given me the music for bass guitar. When I questioned him, he said: ‘It’s alright, you’ve got six weeks to learn it.’

“But that’s what he was like. He’d suggest being a roadie to events, then say: ‘If you’re lugging that drum around, you might as well have a go playing it.’”

Back to those early days of the electric organ, it was around the same time that Kevin first came across his dream instrument; the mighty theatre pipe organ.

In 1984, a 12-year-old Kevin was dragged along to the dreaded supermarket run. Like most kids, the thought of staggering behind your parents as they questioned every item pre-trolley is one that made him shudder.

“I hated it. I’d stand in the magazine aisle and read for an hour. This one time, a certain cover caught my eye. There was a bloke on the front who was sat at what looked like the Concorde flight deck.

“Dad came and found me while I was still reading it but I didn’t want to put it down. I read it cover to cover and I still have it today.”

The article was a story about a theatre organist who had a concert coming up at Ossett Town Hall, Wakefield. The catalyst to Kevin’s dreams, it was from this that he realised the pipe organ was the instrument for him.

Having always been fascinated with theatre, the architecture, seats and curtains enthralling, it was a fitting choice for young Kevin to explore the depths of such a theatrical instrument.

Captivated by its sheer size, Kevin pestered his parents for tickets to the Ossett show. On arrival, he was given a pamphlet about the organ which said the pipes were set under the stage.

With his childhood intrigue still intact, Kevin bravely asked a steward if he could have a look. The man said he could, but only if he could play, which spurred Kevin on even more to learn.

“It was amazing to me that one person created every sound of an orchestra. There’s no band, just one person in complete control. I was bowled over that someone could use ten fingers and two feet to control the entire music.

“Why play the piccolo when you could play everything at once?”

Little did Kevin know that seven years later, he would be sat on the stage playing to an audience himself.

For a young lad, the thought of mastering a machine such as the organ may be doubtful. But as Kevin says, the process for him was just like learning to drive.

With co-ordination key, Kevin says it’s not the easiest of instruments to learn. But once you’ve cracked it, there’s no forgetting the technique.

“Take a trumpeter, they have one instrument, one line of music to learn. With an organist, they’re technically controlling a whole range of sounds. There’s three lines of music to follow, and you may play five notes at a time with one hand, plus using your feet, not to mention having to carefully select the desired stops in order to produce the sound required.

“But it’s similar to driving a car. That first lesson you sit there and think – I’m never going to get to grips with foot on the clutch, changing the gears, and checking the mirrors at the same time. But it soon comes natural.”

When Kevin’s first music teacher left Fox’s, luckily he found yet another musical inspiration in his new organ tutor, Terry Herrington. Terry played for some of the biggest names in show business and was very well known and respected throughout the variety clubs in South Yorkshire.

“Terry taught me how to accompany an artiste and a totally different technique – how to play for dancing – giving me another string to my bow.”

Starting on the club scene aged 15, Kevin gained a name for himself around Barnsley, Sheffield and Wakefield. Whilst studying at Huddersfield School of Music and taking a degree course at Bretton Hall, part of Leeds University, Kevin was still working five nights a week on the club rounds.

“I was young and daft,” he says. “But it provided me with such great experience and helped me to learn my trade as a professional musician.”

After graduating, Kevin was asked back to Leeds as Keyboard Studies teacher, where he stayed for a year before taking a year out – which he jokes he’s done for 21 years now.

But looking back, his life has since been filled with many wondrous venues and hours spent entertaining the masses – a gruelling schedule hopping from one town to the next, show after show.

Whilst playing the Wurlitzer organ on the Studio Tours at Granada TV, Manchester back in 1997, Kevin received a call to ask whether he’d ever consider being the resident organist at Blackpool’s North Pier. With a huge reputation for providing the very best in entertainment, he jumped at the chance.

Working through the summer season, Kevin played in the Sun Lounge – a 500 capacity semi-open theatre that overlooked the sea.

With two shows a day, seven days a week, 22 weeks a year, each show was different, meaning his repertoire needed to be enormous.

“I’d also get requests. Someone might ask for Boyzone, some might ask for a classic. I had a huge spectrum of songs that I needed to play. I was thrown in at the deep end but it was fantastic grounding for me and one which I absolutely adored.”

Consequently, Kevin was also invited to join the team at the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool, working there six nights a week in addition to his shows at North Pier. The training and experience that he had gained during his time with Terry was proving to be invaluable.

After eight and ten years respectively, Kevin left Blackpool behind for new horizons. Since then, he has continued to enthral audiences across the UK with his mix of big band classics, light orchestra and popular show music.

“This job isn’t like work, its playtime every day. But I always think you need to have empathy with what you do in order to do it well. If your heart isn’t in it fully, you won’t do it to the best of your ability. That’s why there’s some genres I won’t play as I don’t like the styles myself.

“I recently saw a billboard near a theatre I was performing at in Bournemouth. It read: ‘If you do something you love doing, you will do it well and you’ll never feel like you’ve worked a day in your life.’ I thought that was very fitting and it certainly made me smile.”

With songs by the likes of Adele Rolling in the Deep with recognisable show tunes to create the Music of the Night, Kevin’s shows are loved by all.

“Just because it’s an organ doesn’t mean it has to be Sunday hymns. Most modern music doesn’t tend to work as solos on any instrument as there’s too much vocal gymnastics; but I play what does work. And everyone can relate to show tunes. Whether you’re ten or 60, songs from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mary Poppins and Les Miserable span generations.”

“The main part of my performances is to play music that I hope the audience will enjoy. If they enjoy themselves, then I’ve done my job well. Making other people happy gives me a sense of achievement.”

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