Len Black 1931 – 2011
Actor, Musician, Humorist
It was my good fortune to meet Len in London in 1975. He was working as a song plugger for Chappell’s, the music publishing house, and I, as a graphic designer and jazz musician. We were both born in Scotland; he, in Glasgow, and I, in Edinburgh. He moved to Whitley Bay, a seaside resort town near Newcastle, and eventually to London.
One of the pieces he plugged was Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore.” Released on Columbia Records, it became the biggest instrumental hit of all time, number one on both sides of the Atlantic. His friends included many musicians and songwriters. On one notable occasion, he spent a delightful evening at London’s Savoy Hotel with Judy Garland, who was in town to perform a concert with pianist Dave Lee. Dave and Judy were discussing repertoire, and Len was there — ostensibly — as a representative of the music publisher.
In 1979, I flew to the U.S. to visit a friend in Santa Barbara. I fell in love with this beautiful place and decided to make it my home. I wrote to Len and described Santa Barbara to him. He took me at my word and came over to visit. He was similarly enchanted and also decided to come and live here.
He became involved in “Improv” — improvised theatrical performances popular at the time. These took place at various stages ’round town, principally Claire Rabe’s Tuesday-night meetings at Baudelaire’s with S.B.-area actors Frank Califano, John Kelly, Brad Bronk, Lois Yarochevsky, and others. This developed into conventional acting roles in plays such as Arsenic and Old Lace at the Lobero Theatre, The Country Girl with Eva Marie Saint at the Garvin Theatre and other venues like Le Petit Cabaret and the Cliff Room on the Mesa. His day jobs were numerous and diverse. They included building repairs, T-shirt and bumper sticker sales, instructional video sales, etc.
When he retired from those jobs, his skill at dialects and speaking styles led to calls for radio voice-overs and jingles. He utilized his experience from years in the music industry when he put his hand to songwriting.
A capable pianist, singer, and guitarist, he was able to produce good recordings of his compositions. He wrote many songs, including “So Long,” for which he used James Antunez as vocalist; “Crossing the Line,” a delicate instrumental tribute to his mother, Rachael; and the lawn bowler’s anthem “Bowling on the Green.” His modesty was on display when he telephoned me with the news that he received a large royalty check from the Performing Right Society. “They must have made a mistake; what shall I do? I should send it back.” It turned out there was no mistake.
Len is greatly missed by all his friends and family. We all remember his kindness, sharp sense of humor, courage, and optimism in fighting the many health issues he faced later in life. He used to say that his lifespan had been extended by many years because of the expert medical treatment he received in Santa Barbara.
For that I am also grateful.