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  • Writer's pictureLesley-Ann Jones


Full disclosure, John Altman is a cherished chum and one of my favourite people. He is also the busiest. His more-than-fifty-year career has made him one of the most successful composers, conductors, arrangers and producers in music history. As a gifted saxophonist, he has recorded and performed with countless celebrity artists. Yet few outside the industry know his name. He has been threatening to write a book for ages. He even asked me to write it for him, at one point. We had fish and chips at the Groucho Club to discuss, several years ago. Our schedules were heading in different directions. It got parked. John has finally got around to writing it himself. That's me off the hook, then.

Despite having hob-knobbed with the greats for half a century - as dear Hans Zimmer says, 'without exaggeration... half the music of the twentieth century wouldn't exist without John's contribution' - it has never gone to his head. John's humility and self-deprecating humour, his boyish amazement at the life he has led and his never-less-than-charming approachability lend no clue as to his talent, achievements and the circles in which he has moved. Never once have I known him to big himself up. Indeed, to see him on stage last night telling wondrous stories about being mentored by genius lyricist Don Black; about teaching 'Little Voice''s Jane Horrocks how to sing, when he MD'd that film, and coaching Alison Moyet in stagecraft; about the 4,000-odd commercials he not only composed for, but also arranged - and if we dare to dismiss the art of arrangement as less than important, we have only to think of songs like Neil Diamond's 'Sweet Caroline' or Tom Jones's 'Delilah' to realise that arrangements are every shred as indispensable as melody and lyrics; revelations about the dependence of James 'Titanic' Cameron on John alone, which led to most famous scene in cinematic history; his work with Bjork and Amy Winehouse; the rap record he made with Brian Clough; tales from The Secret Policeman's Balls, and working with Eric Clapton, Billy Connolly and the Monty Pythons; the immeasurable part he played in the creation one of film's most famous songs, 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' from 'Life of Brian', which he performed on a mini sax for us last night (oh yes, we sang it). Written by Eric Idle, arranged and conducted by John, it remains one of Britain's favourite community choruses at football matches and funerals; the many television soundtracks he has composed, including those for 'Peak Practice', which ran for ten years, 'Miss Marple', 'Play for Today' and 'Saturday Night Live'; and the shock-and-amaze that that's him, not band member Ray Thomas, playing flute on the Moody Blues' 'Nights in White Satin' - 'the last time I ever touched a flute', admits JA.

I might have to lie down. It has fair exhausted me, writing that. There is more to come, if I have whetted your appetite. Grab a ticket, go see him. Listen to him talk and play. Snap up the book. Marvel at his stories. You couldn't make it up. John hasn't.


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