By Adrian Hawkes, Special to ASSIST News Service
LONDON, UK (ANS — August 1, 2016) — My dear friend Ken Butcher, known to many as the “Incredible Piano Man,” died recently. I was not able to go to the funeral as I was in Sri Lanka at the time. It’s always sad when a friend dies, even though we are a people with and eternal hope.
I am not quite sure when I first met Ken, but it must have been the early 60’s, probably at a weekly Sunday night even that I ran in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, England, called: “In This Upside Down World, Late Night Special Is A Must.” It started each Sunday Night at 9.00 p.m., and of course our invitation leaflets where printed half upside down. Ken came along with the group from Shirley Baptist Church, his home community.
It was not long before Ken became part of the team, playing piano with the resident band each Sunday night, leading the singing, during which we sang hymns, at four times the normal speed. Ken would take the key up each verse so by the end you probably had laryngitis. The even took the same format each week, with singing and a talk, and it was all over by 10.45.p.m. Then we would have a time to talk, drink tea and eat biscuits, and it would often go on until midnight, during which we shared the good news that Jesus was alive, with the many that attended.
There were lots of fun stories from those days — that would need a separate report to cover — but suffice to say, the church whose hall that we were using, were not that sympathetic to the “not so nice people” that attended out Late Night Special, so they would not allow us to start earlier because the “nice people” who had attended the evening meeting, needed to go home before we started. Hundreds of young people came every Sunday night, and many were the many rockers on their large motor bikes. That did not make us popular with the neighbours with 50+ motor bikes starting up together and going home at midnight, making quite a sound. Probably being under an airport runway, would have been quieter.
The leaders of the church were probably right about us not being “nice” as one Sunday morning at 3.00 a.m., I received a phone call asking me to “come straight away” as the hall had been burnt down, and “whoever had done it had used our Late Night Special advertising leaflets to start the fire.” It was the end of a remarkable long running event.
All was not lost, however, as I had a phone call from my friend Dan Wooding of The Messengers team, which included his wife Norma, and sister Ruth, and based out of the nearby Sparkbrook Mission, invited our team for a meeting with the Rev. Cannon Bryan Green, Rector of the famous St Martin’s In the Bullring, the central Church of England church for Birmingham. He offered us his large, rather posh hall for Late Night Special, and wanted to help with cost and gave us a float of £50.00 UK pounds) to start us of (which would be like giving us £500.00 today) and he topped it up every time we spent it.
So Dan Wooding with The Messengers and our Ribbons of Faith team, moved to central Birmingham, with same Ken Butcher on keyboards. We had the same band, and the only difference was now that we were attracting much larger crowds, possibly 500 each Sunday Night. Ken still played just as fast and we still ended up with laryngitis.
The Ribbons of Faith was the youth team I was part of, and this was overseen by a small group of four of us — Peter, John, myself, and Ken. Ken’s other skills came to the fore here as he was a great administrator and this was before computers. Ken organised us with team dates, schedules, letters, organized the finance, made phone calls, and did everything to make smooth running possible for a team of 75 young people plus. Out of The Ribbons of Faith came a music team, obviously with Ken in the mix, and this was a 10-piece band with five girl singers, Ken on keyboards and four other boys on drums, and guitars.
I got to know Ken’s administrative skills better, as I got to know him better. At t 17 he was in charge of a large central Birmingham Insurance company, and he was so that I don’t think the large staff he oversaw knew how old their manager was.
Then, in late sixties we all started to move off in different directions. I went to college, and the next time I really saw Ken was when I got married, and he kindly agreed to play for the wedding along with another friend on the organ named John Corsie. As I awaited the bride to turn up, I noticed that the “waiting music” was somewhat pointed, “Rescue the perishing,” “Fight the good fight,” and other songs that I guess we could say were inappropriate. I am not sure if our best man, Dan Wooding, noticed these things, but I did.
I kept in touch with Ken for a long time after leaving Birmingham. I had to as he handled my entire car, house, and any other insurance. He was the only insurance man I knew that you could phone at 1.00 a.m., and say, “I am sorry. I forgot to insure my car,” and, Ken being Ken, would reply, “The cover note is in the post.”
When I moved to Middlesbrough, he came and stayed with us, and of course played keyboard for our services. I discovered then he was not too clued in with little children. We had gone out somewhere and he had my 4-month old youngest daughter to hold in the back of the car. On arriving home, I stopped the car and he opened the back door, the next I heard my young daughter crying very loudly. I got out and saw her lying on the pavement (sidewalk) a bit battered and bruised. On picking her up, I asked Ken what had happened, and he said, “I don’t know. I just stood her on the pavement.”
Over the years, we lost touch, though I heard he was playing for a singer called Pam Osman at some very large gatherings. But then there were lots of things I have just learned about Ken. Firstly, he had a stage name Ken Allan, and secondly, I found out that he was adopted, and although I had been to his house in nearby Solihull, and met his parents many times, I did not know this. His Father was quite disabled and I remember Ken looking after him many times, assisting his Mother.
Then there were also the things I learned about Ken from his Funeral notice such as: Ken gave pleasure or support to many others, whether they were established stars or aspiring performers. He was respected because he was a superb pianist, accompanist and quiet, supportive musical director. He could play anything you wanted on the piano!
He was also loved by friends in many different groups, especially in the theatre, and musical concert communities. He was born and brought up an only, adopted child in Birmingham, then lived in Nottingham, Bournemouth and latterly, Weymouth. Musically educated at the best – Chetham’s School of Music — Ken loved to travel in earlier days; Cyprus Crete and Corfu were among his favourites. Ken has strong musical connections in Devon, and Dorset as well as all the places mention above. In the 80’s he toured as pianist with Sir Cliff Richard on this amazing performers long and praised Gospel tour. He was a trustee of the Birmingham Christian Arts Project and was the musical director for Crescent Theatre Company for 10 years.
He was the company manager for “Shirley Valentine” at the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis. In 2004, and was the theatre company’s MD and accompanist touring some 100 theatres with “Circle of Life,” “In the Mood,” and “String of Pearls,” until his retirement in 2006 due to ill health.
However Ken continued to play at various events on the West Coast of England, until 2008, and volunteered as adjudicator for the Dorset Pantomime Competition and made many friends, along with Brian Packer, throughout Dorset whilst doing this. Ken has no family – they have all passed – but because he worked with hundreds of people, he considered them to be his family. He kept all pockets of his life quite separate. He had a wonderful sense of humour and self effacing nature.
As I write this, I have a picture in my mind of Ken leading worship on his heavenly piano, and slowly speeding up the hymns, but at least his choir won’t get laryngitis, as there won’t be any sickness in heaven.
So Ken, my dear friend and brilliant piano man, you will be missed by so many that your musical talents blessed. Your life and passing has certainly has given me time for reflection, as I guess, it will have many for so many others. Keep those fingers flying!
Photo captions: 1) The Ribbonettes all-male backing group with Ken Butcher on the piano. 2) The girl singers of The Ribbonettes. 3) Four of the Ribons of faith motorcyclists who attended the Late Night Special in Sparkbrook. 4) Wedding in Birmingham of Adrian and Pauline Hawkes, with best-man Dan Wooding on the left. 5) Peter Gale one of the Rockers that came to the Late Night Special, and is now leading a church. 6) Ken Butcher in later life with two of the musical stars he played for. 7) Adrian Hawkes with his wife, Pauline.
About the writer: Adrian Hawkes is married to Pauline — Dan Wooding was best man at their wedding — and they have three children, 10 Grandchildren and two Great Grandchildren. He is still part of the Rainbow Church North London which he used to lead and he also works with Sri Lankan churches in France, Switzerland, Norway, Canada and Sri Lanka, as well as a church in Norway. He helped to form Phoenix Community Care Ltd, which looks after some 30+ unaccompanied minors, and vulnerable adults in housing in North London; alongside his wife Pauline, he established PCC Foster Care agency and has launched London Training Consortium Ltd., which trains refugees and asylum seekers with ESOL, IT, and Literacy. He has also written various books including: “Leadership and.,” “Attracting Training: Releasing Youth,” “The Jacob Generation,” “HELLO is that you God?,” “Culture Clash,” and his first, fiction book, “ICEJACKED.” He can be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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