Thursday, August 21, 2008

Much Moore than "Cuddly Dudley"....

When Dudley Moore died in 2002 aged 66, he was described by Hollywood as “lovable 5 ft.2 inches of ‘Cuddly Dudley’, a ‘thimble-sized sex-symbol’ and a ‘British-born actor, comedian and star of over 40 films’. However, the other story behind those obituaries is that during his lifetime Dudley Moore had reached incredible heights of musical expertise despite painful physical and emotional handicaps that affected him for most of his life. He was one of my idols when I was a teenager frequenting the London Jazz clubs where he played piano.

Born in Dagenham, Essex to working-class parents, he had one leg shorter than the other and a foot that was turned and twisted inward. Even though he bore the brunt of taunts, jokes and rejection from schoolmates, his developing sense of humour usually diffused the first signs of any aggression. Humour, jokes and the ability to make people laugh became his means of survival.

Early in life he discovered a talent for music. While other boys were out playing football and sports, Dudley was developing his musical abilities. He writes: “Drawn towards the piano in the living-room at home I was soon experiencing the thrill of early discoveries like the sequence in classical harmony found in so many popular songs in some way or another. I played it endlessly, mesmerized by the wonderfully comforting sound it produced.”

From the London Guildhall School of Music he gained an organ scholarship to Magdalen College Oxford. It was rare in those days of the British class system for working-class students to enter the hallowed portals of a university. He encountered another obstacle: his deformed foot could not reach the organ pedals and to rectify this he wore one of his mother’s high-heeled shoes strapped to his foot and leg.

At Oxford he was invited to join Peter Cook, Alan Bennet and Jonathan Miller to form the University review “Beyond the Fringe”, to become a success on BBC TV and later the stage. His cabaret act with Peter Cook toured the world.

Dudley kept up with his piano playing. He joined John Dankworth’s orchestra and although a good accompanist for singer Cleo Laine, he was asked to leave because of his difficulty in restraining his own exuberant improvisations. He formed his Jazz Trio, which was enormously popular for regular club work, television programmes and international tours. He also ventured into the world of composing music in the classical style for ballet and opera and wrote the scores for six films.

In the 1970s Hollywood beckoned him to become the popular comedic character leaving a little scope for his musical talents; he would play the piano to amuse his restaurant patrons, or take gigs at various clubs. In June 2001 he was created a Commander of the British Empire (CBE). Despite his deteriorating condition he attended the ceremony at Buckingham Palace to collect his honour.

He died from a rare degenerative brain disorder similar to Parkinson’s disease, alone and wandering in a strange foggy world without the use of mind or hands to create his beloved music. Dudley Moore had certainly made his mark on the world of show business, but for many people like me he will always be remembered for his incredible musical talents, especially as a jazz pianist.

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