We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Race, Stephen Russell [Steve] (1921–2009), musician and broadcaster, was born in the St Catherine's area of Lincoln on 1 April 1921, the second son of Russell Tinniswood Race, solicitor, and his wife, (Annie) Robina, née Hurley (d. 1964). His grandfather Joseph Russell Race (1848–1880) had been a Methodist missionary in China, and Race researched his life for the book The Two Worlds of Joseph Race (1988).

After his father died from a heart condition in 1926, aged forty-seven, Race's mother encouraged the young boy to study diligently and play both the piano and the xylophone. He was educated at Lincoln School and he often played in school and church concerts. When he was sixteen he entered the Royal Academy of Music and soon realized how strong the competition was. At the same age he wrote to the News Chronicle deploring a disparaging review of a dance band and as a result he became an occasional critic, also writing for Melody Maker. In 1939 he joined Harry Leader's dance band as a pianist.

Race made his first BBC broadcast with Willie Wilson's band from the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly in March 1941. His wartime service was with the RAF, mostly playing in the RAF Swing Stars and the Bomber Command Dance Orchestra. He also wrote arrangements for the Skyrockets. He married Marjorie Clare (Clair) Leng (1922–1969), telephonist, and daughter of Thomas Leng, civil servant, on 7 June 1944 at the Methodist chapel in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. They had a daughter, Nicola.

On demobilization Race worked initially as a freelance pianist and arranger, and played at different times with the bands of Cyril Stapleton, Lew Stone, and George Elrick. He also worked for the BBC, often providing accompaniment at auditions. He recognized Max Bygraves's potential immediately and lobbied hard for Tony Hancock. In 1953 he became a popular children's entertainer via the Saturday teatime television programme Whirligig, which featured Mr Pastry and Mr Turnip. The puppet Hank the Cowboy would ask Race to play tunes on ‘the old Joanna’. One week he asked children to compose a tune for the recorder. He received 600 entries and chose three winners. Unfortunately he hadn't recognized plagiarism and was mortified when the Sunday Express ran the headline, ‘BBC Gives Mozart Second Prize’.

In 1955 Race became the light music adviser to Associated-Rediffusion and held that post until 1960. He conducted the musicians for variety programmes which featured, among others, Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers. In the mid-1950s he frequently told his readers in Melody Maker that he loathed the advent of rock 'n' roll, calling it ‘the antithesis of music’. Later his views mellowed as he warmed to Lennon and McCartney's compositions, and he introduced the Beatles' live performance of ‘All You Need Is Love’ during the satellite broadcast of Our World in June 1967. On radio programmes such as Jazz In Perspective he was a lynchpin in jazz broadcasting but he was outspoken, both on air and in print. After likening the American saxophonist Roland Kirk to the clown Charlie Cairoli, he was invited to join Kirk on stage and he did not disgrace himself.

Race's own composition, the Latin-tinged ‘Nicola’, named after his daughter, won an Ivor Novello award in 1962. The following year he made the top thirty with another composition, ‘The Pied Piper’. About this time he was writing commercials, including one for Birds Eye frozen peas. He presented an annual event for the Methodist Association of Youth Clubs at the Royal Albert Hall.

A workaholic, Race had a heart attack in 1965, which made him stop smoking and lose weight. He reduced his commitments, but had a further setback with the death of his wife from cancer in 1969. His wife was a breeder and judge of Afghan hounds and an annual award was presented in her honour at Cruft's. Race married, second, on 14 April 1970 at Westminster register office, Léonie Rebecca Govier Mather (b. 1928), radio producer, and daughter of Louis Leonard Mather, cabinet maker. There were no children of this marriage.

From 1967 (when BBC Radio 4 was launched) to 1994 Race presented the radio panel game My Music. (There was also a television version, from 1979 to 1983.) He set the questions, played the piano, and carefully selected his guests, always including the singer Ian Wallace. There was much musical punning when he featured the comic writers Denis Norden and Frank Muir. From 1967 to 1970 he also presented Home in the Afternoon on Radio 4. The programme then developed into the early evening programme PM, hosted by William Hardcastle, but Race, who had strong left-wing views, presented many of the items.

Like many jazz musicians (such as Humphrey Lyttelton, George Melly, Benny Green, and John Chilton), Steve Race was a prodigious writer. He wrote for Jazz Journal, The Listener, Punch, the Literary Review, and many newspapers, and set the quick crossword for the Daily Telegraph from 1998 to 2009. He published his autobiography, Musician at Large, in 1979. Reviewing the book, Philip Larkin chided Race for spreading himself thinly, but remarked, ‘There seems to be nothing he cannot do’ (The Guardian, 2 Feb 1979). His correspondence with Larkin was published in 1992. He was made a freeman of the City of London in 1982 and appointed OBE in 1992. Always immaculately dressed and sporting a neat white beard, he toured arts centres with An Evening with Steve Race. He died of a heart attack on 22 June 2009 at his home, Westcott, Martin's End Lane, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, and was survived by his wife, Léonie, and his daughter, Nicola.

Spencer Leigh

Sources  

S. Race, Musician at large (1979) · Daily Telegraph (23 June 2009) · The Times (24 June 2009); (29 June 2009); (2 July 2009) · The Guardian (24 June 2009); (26 June 2009); (8 July 2009) · The Independent (24 June 2009); (26 June 2009) · Lincolnshire Echo (24 June 2009) · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. certs. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

FILM

 

BFI NFTVA, light entertainment footage · BFI NFTVA, performance footage


Likenesses  

W. Hanlon, bromide fibre print, 1950, NPG · Zichy, half-plate film negative, 1954, NPG · group portrait, photograph, 1957, Getty Images · group portrait, photograph, 1995, Photoshot, London · photograph, 1995, Photoshot, London · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£1,362,347: probate, 3 Dec 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales