DURING a sold out show at Swindon Arts Centre around 18 months ago Andy Fairweather Low, former Sixties pop star turned exquisite guitarist who for many years toured as a member of both Eric Clapton and Roger Waters’ bands, took a couple of minutes out to make an announcement.
It went something along the lines of: “I’d like to mention someone in the audience tonight who’s had a big impact on my career.
“Back then we used to call him Dr Rock. Without his help and encouragement and the sort of music he opened us up to, I don’t think we’d have got anywhere. I probably wouldn’t be up here on-stage tonight. Thanks Alan Burston.”
After the gig Alan is having a pint at The Hop Inn next to the venue when there is a loud knock on the window. It is Andy Fairweather Low who has just packed up his gear and, with a cheerful grin, is waving goodbye to Alan, who modestly acknowledges the gesture with a big smile.
There are people in Swindon who in all likelihood would not be listening to the music they have cherished for decades had it not been for Alan Burston.
As a Swindon DJ and broadcaster – which includes stints at BBC Wiltshire, GWR and now Swindon 105.5 community radio – Alan has turned on an endless and varied amount of people to an endless and varied amount of music.
While his radio shows tend to focus on the many facets of rock’n’roll, Alan can speak knowledgably and at length on anything from ska to bluegrass, rhythm and blues to doo wop, folk to world music, soul to cajun… and then magically produce some CDs, vinyl albums or scratchy old 45s to illustrate the excellence of the music he has been extolling. The names of obscure bluesmen and long gone rockabilly rebels roll off his tongue with ease.
Be it Zappa or zydeco, Alan – unquestionably – has The Knowledge.
Alan’s warm, under-stated vocal delivery is so distinctive that, much to his discomfort, he has on occasions been stopped in mid-sentence with a tap on the shoulder and the enquiry: “Excuse me, but are you Alan Burston – I recognise your voice?” Alan says: “I have always felt… I wouldn’t so much say embarrassed but maybe a bit awkward or uncomfortable with that.”
The whole point, of course, is that what he is doing is totally geared towards the music.
He is the very antithesis of the familiar jabbering DJ/presenter who is on a permanent quest for self-promotion rather than seeing his or her slot on air as an opportunity to play some exciting or interesting music.
You would never, for example, catch Alan Burston speaking over the intro or outro of a track he is broadcasting.
Of his low-key presenting style he says: “I speak into the microphone as though I’m talking to a friend or a family member. It’s not about me – it’s always about the music.”
Alan, who has been presenting a Saturday lunchtime rock’n’roll show for Swindon 105.5 community radio for six years, was born in South Wales in 1941, spending his first five years at his grandmother’s house.
“Due to her religious views there was no radio or gramophone at home so my only exposure to music was chapel hymns,” he says.
When his father left the RAF in 1946 after serving in the Far East Alan lived in Penarth where he was at liberty to explore his dad’s extensive collection of pre-war pop, swing and classical 78s.
He was especially taken with the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers and at ten bought the first of thousands of discs that he would acquire over the coming decades – Whoopin’ The Blues by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Delivering groceries and newspapers, Alan’s hard-earned cash was speedily converted into 78s and 45s, although their prohibitive price made albums out of the question. He had to wait till he was 12 before nabbing his first LP, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band featuring Louis Armstrong.
Other early purchases included Hank Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Frankie Laine, Jimmie Rodgers, Carson Robison.
When rock rolled around Alan’s cash was dispensed on the recently arrived vinyl format with even greater alacrity. Also, his American grandmother obligingly mailed “some great records” from across the Atlantic, which he span between bands at his first dee-jaying gigs, the local teen hops.
Working at a Cardiff steel mill in the late Fifties, Alan continued dee-jaying at various events, immersing himself in the area’s rock’n’roll scene, and exposing the likes of a young Andy Fairweather Low to new, raw and exciting music, mostly from the States.
Alan said: “I always earned money to buy records. I would buy records instead of going out drinking with my friends.”
After extensive world travels (during which an abundance of recorded music was further acquired) Alan settled in Swindon in 1967. Undertaking a mature students’ college course in politics, economics and history he became students’ union social secretary, staging a string of concerts and dances.
Among those he brought to Swindon were Dave Edmunds, Shakin Stevens, Freddie Fingers Lee, Crazy Cavan’s Rhythm Rockers, Diz Watson, Laurel Aitken, Brinsley Schwartz and the Jets.
Reflects Alan: “Especially nice was the chance to book rockabilly legend Billy Lee Riley and blues greats Son House, Arthur Bigboy Crudup and Johnny Shines.”
Alan’s extensive dee-jaying around the pubs and clubs of Swindon opened many a young and impressionable ear to a brave new world of music, from West Coast psychedelia to rootsy soul, reggae and r’n’b.
His on-air career began in 1977 when Shirley Ludford, of Swindon’s experimental Viewpoint community TV invited him to set up the station’s radio arm.
His became a well-known and trusted voice on Swindon airwaves, forever dropping the needle onto grooves that would entertain and illuminate, from old time country to greasy rock’n’roll.
Alan’s time on BBC Radio Wiltshire and Wootton Bassett-based GWR drew in many an aficionado who had probably given up hope of ever again hearing two hours of solid, non-stop rock‘n’roll based music being aired on radio.
He left Swindon for his native South Wales in the Nineties to look after his elderly mother who has since died. In 2008 Alan was invited by Shirley to present a show on the new Swindon community radio station which she was setting up.
He says: “I have always admired Shirley’s work ethic and her kind dealings with colleagues and the public, so I jumped at the chance to join Swindon 105.5.
“Although it has been a great privilege to play some of the music I love on each of the radio stations I have worked for, the current gig at 105.5 is the most satisfying. Community radio is something I strongly believe in.”
So what was popular music’s greatest period Alan? “For people of my era, the Fifties. It’s when rock’n’roll began to happen and I was earning money to buy records.
“But really, you have to say any time from 1902 to 2014. It’s been a delight ever since recording began.”
- Asked for his all-time Top 20 favourite tracks Alan reacts as most of us would… that it is an impossible request as his choice would change from day to day.
However, on this particular day Alan’s response was that these were his current favorites’ (in no particular order):
- Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller – The Wobble
- Jerry Lee Lewis – It’ll Be Me
- Smiley Lewis – Shame, Shame, Shame
- Russian Metropolitan Church Choir of Paris – The Creed
- Carl Perkins – Matchbox
- Hank Williams – Move It On Over
- Jussi Bjorling – Nessun Dorma
- Little Richard – Long Tall Sally
- Fats Domino – I Want You To Know
- Elvis Presley – Mystery Train
- Johnny Cash – Rockabilly Blues
- Bob Dylan – Mixed Up Confusion
- Louis Armstrong – West End Blues
- John Lewis Trio – Not Quite The Not
- Barbecue Bob – Motherless Children
- Larry Williams – Slow Down
- Laverne Baker – Hey Memphis
- Jimmie Rodgers – Blue Yodel Number Nine
- Janis Martin – It’ll Be Me
- Blind Willie McTell – The Twelves
Hear Alan Burston every Saturday from 12 noon to 2pm on Swindon 105.5 community radio. Also repeated at 9pm.