Will Ray Kirk please take to the dance floor? Ask that question and you will get a shake of the head – but he can play a rumba, samba, tango, jive, veleta, St Bernard’s waltz. Well, you name it and Ray will play it.
He has been hosting Tuesday afternoon tea dances at Whitby Pavilion for the past 14 years and was playing piano and organ in venues ranging from village halls to hotels from the age of 17. He is now 75.
He combined working for the council in his home town of Retford in Nottinghamshire with his first love – music. “In those days there wasn’t karaoke or big screen TVs showing football. If you went into pub and it had a piano and you could bash out a tune you could stay there all night and not spend a penny,” said Ray.
Having a father who was a church organist and a grandfather who was an accomplished violinist, it is not surprising that he has a natural musical ability which first became evident at six years of age when he would sit at the family piano picking out tunes with one finger.
“I failed GCE music. My dad sent me to piano lessons but I only went three times before the teacher said ‘you’re wasting my time and your dad’s money,’” said Ray.
Ray said it is a gift, a natural musical ability, that allows him to listen to a tune and then just sit down and play it.
His musical career kick-started when he got together with two friends in his late teens to form a trio of piano, bass. They made a name for themselves playing swing jazz. It was also the time that Ray remembers most fondly, not least of all because of the quirkiness of some of the gigs – including playing at a church dance held at a vicarage. They could not get the piano outside so Ray sat at the piano near an open window and his bassist and drummer played outside.
Ray was also pursuing a full-time career in local government and it was this which brought him to Scarborough, a place he was familiar with from family holidays.
He started in the town clerk’s office and worked his way up to principal administrative officer in the chief executive’s office before taking early retirement, aged 55.
Numerous piano playing jobs here and there kept him in touch with his music until the 1970s, when, while still working for the council, he became part owner of a small hotel and restaurant, Muston Lodge, which boasted a small dance floor and this became a popular venue for private parties and Saturday night dinner dances.
This led to Ray changing his beloved piano for an electronic organ because, as he said, “you can’t dance very well to a solo piano”. After subsequently selling the hotel, he continued his musical life for some years in a semi-professional capacity as a resident organist/entertainer in various larger hotels under contract to major companies such as the Rank Organisation, Mecca and Shearings Holidays and one of the most memorable occasions of his life was when he had an hour to play the Mighty Wurlitzer at Blackpool Tower Ballroom.
The hotel residencies forced him into making a major addition to his musical repertoire. As a resident hotel musician, in addition to playing the ballroom, swing jazz and Latin American styles he had grown up with, he was also expected to play for modern sequence dancing. So he familiarised himself with the full range of sequence dances and tempos and has never regretted it in view of its current popularity. Although not being able to dance a step himself, he has become an expert at playing it.
In 1995 Ray took voluntary early retirement and started playing music professionally. Giving up hotel residencies and swapping the organ for more portable multi keyboards, he became much in demand, playing dance and party music in many local venues and travelling frequently to play for special events and at dance clubs throughout the North.
He took over the Tuesday tea dances contract at the Pavilion in May, 2001 and this is now his only commitment. The dances take place every Tuesday all year round except for January when he and his partner Jacqui seek out some sunshine. His repertoire includes modern ballroom, popular sequence, Latin American, old time and jive and, as there is never any set programme, Ray is more than happy to include any requests.
Two years ago Ray was taken ill while playing for the Tuesday tea dance, resulting in the Yorkshire Air Ambulance being called. Happily it did not turn out to be serious and he was featured on the television series Helicopter Heroes.
On doing a follow-up interview for the BBC he publicly committed himself to promoting an event and raised £1,600 for the air ambulance charity.
He and Jacqui live in Wyekham and as well as enjoying Januarys in the sunshine Ray likes dining out on good food with red wine and driving old vehicles, of which he has three.
He is also a volunteer driver for the North Bay Railway in Scarborough. “It was the first place I headed to when I was a boy and came to Scarborough on holiday.”
Jacqui and his daughter Stephanie organised a surprise 70th birthday party at the Glass House Bistro – opposite the railway station in Northstead Manor Gardens. Part of his present was a “driver experience”. The next day he signed on as a volunteer, sweeping leaves, painting fences and he has taken a train driver’s course.
“I have a good life playing music and loved every minute of it,” said Ray. “In fact, I’ve loved everything I have done.”