Kenny Clayton, composer and arranger who had a long working relationship with Petula Clark – obituary
Kenny Clayton, who has died aged 86, had a remarkable career; he was never famous himself, but as a composer, accompanist, arranger and pianist from the 1950s onwards he played with an extraordinary roll call of stars and helped to promote their careers.
Among others, they included Alma Cogan, Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black, Matt Monro, Robin Gibb, Charles Aznavour, Sacha Distel, Anita Harris and Roger Whittaker. Most important of all was Petula Clark, with whom he had a long and fruitful relationship which lasted 50 years. He regarded her as the finest female British singer of the 20th century.
Nothing could have been less glamorous and star-studded than Clayton’s own beginnings. He was born illegitimate on May 9 1936 in the East End of London. His mother was about to send him to a Dr Barnardo’s home but her brother, an army PT instructor, and his wife, agreed to adopt him instead. Clayton said that to be brought up in a proper family in a house with a piano in the front room was his first bit of luck, and he later took his adopted mother’s maiden name, Clayton, as a stage name.
He was lucky again during the war, when his family’s house in Edmonton was bombed during the Blitz. His brother had the presence of mind to cover him with pillows and blankets as he lay in bed during the attack, and although the ceiling fell in his life was saved.
Even as a young boy Clayton’s musical talent was obvious. He took his first piano lesson aged seven; having passed all eight grades in piano exams by the time he was 11, he was admitted to Trinity College of Music.
On leaving college he took a variety of lowly jobs for a music agent, one of which was to turn the pages on stage for the concert pianists on the company’s books. For £5 a week Clayton was also given his first job as a pianist at the Little Club on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge; the manager was a woman called Ruth Ellis.
The job came to an end when he was 18 and was called up for National Service with the RAF. When he was discharged he discovered he had lost the job for good. Ruth Ellis had become notorious as the last woman in England to be hanged after shooting her lover David Blakely outside the Magdala public house in Hampstead.
After touring Britain with Alma Cogan, Clayton played at a Mayfair club and performed in Thank Your Lucky Stars for ABC Weekend TV. George Martin signed him for the Parlophone label and he released a single, Tenerife. The record failed to reach the charts but in 1962 Clayton had what he called his third piece of luck. His agent phoned him to say that Petula Clark’s pianist was unavailable and she was looking for a new pianist and arranger for a forthcoming tour of France.
After he had auditioned for the singer and her husband they spent the next 15 months on the road, touring around the Mediterranean, the south of France and in Beirut. “It was superb,” he said, “one of the best times of my life.”
He eventually became Petula Clark’s permanent arranger and was regarded as part of the family. His many concerts with her also took him to South Africa, Canada, the United States and Paris. There were also numerous television appearances. In 1983 Clayton collaborated with her when her 40th anniversary concert was staged at the Albert Hall.
Kenny was charming and funny, like a little gnome. He always wore black, and in later years he played in black gloves, but they made no difference to his dexterity. He had homes in London and Brighton but he was a Soho figure who drank considerable amounts in its pubs and clubs. Another of his long relationships was with Paul Ryan, another Soho figure, a crooner who specialised in the American Songbook; together they recorded a CD, Blame it on My Youth.
Clayton could be ingeniously creative. If one of Ryan’s songs included the word “rain”, he might sneak in a phrase from Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head or Singin’ in the Rain. Both close friends and rivals, Clayton and Ryan behaved like an old married couple.
They also both endured long illnesses: Clayton said that if Ryan went he would not be far behind; Ryan died in July. Kenny Clayton is survived by Sarah, his wife and manager of 20 years, a daughter from a previous marriage, and three stepdaughters.
Kenny Clayton, born May 9 1936, died October 10 2022