Saturday 4 May 1985


The following article is an overview of the career of American-born Swiss singer, composer, and arranger Anita Kerr. The main source of information is Bas Tukker's email exchange with Anita Kerr, September 2010. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Anita Kerr's Eurovision involvement (part 4).

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2010

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about Anita Kerr
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: October 13th, 1927, Memphis Tenn. (United States)
Died: October 10th, 2022, Carouge, Geneva (Switzerland)
Nationality: American (1927-1970) / Swiss (1970-2022)


Anita Kerr – a composer and singer from the USA most famous for her close harmony formation, the Anita Kerr Singers – wrote, arranged, and conducted the Swiss entry to the 1985 Eurovision Song Contest, ‘Piano piano’. This song, which has German lyrics, was performed by Pino Gasparini and Mariella Farré. Anita Kerr is one of only three women who ever conducted the orchestra in the Eurovision Song Contest.


Anita Kerr (pseudonym of Anita Jean Grilli) was born into a family of Italian immigrants in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father had a grocery store. At four years old, encouraged by her mother who was an excellent singer, she took up classical piano lessons which she continued until 1942 under the guidance of several teachers. Aged 9, she became the organist at the local Catholic Church; it was here that she became interested in singing and harmony, writing the vocal arrangements for the church choir. 

In 1939, her mother took her to the twice-weekly show which she presented for local radio to be her piano accompanist; later, Anita became a radio staff musician at WREC in her home town, working as a vocalist, pianist, and organist. Because it was unaffordable for the family to allow her to go to college upon her graduation from high school (1945), Anita decided to wholeheartedly devote herself to music, playing in clubs around Memphis as part of her brother’s jazz combo and trying her hand at penning orchestral arrangements.

In 1948, Kerr moved to Nashville, where she took over the Sunday Down South Choir, a vocal group consisting of four female and four male singers; with it, she performed in broadcasts for WSM, the most important country radio station in the southern states. Two years later, she wrote the arrangements to the studio recording of ‘Our Lady Of Fatima’, which was sung by Red Foley accompanied by Kerr’s vocal group, now renamed the Anita Kerr Singers – which featured Kerr herself as the soprano. It was released as a single by Decca Records and peaked at #16 in the Billboard’s Pop Charts. 

Close-up, 1956

Decca’s producer Paul Cohen was quick to recognize Kerr’s talent and signed her as well as her vocal group, which was later reduced to four singers; in the years after, she worked as a vocal and instrumental arranger for many country artists, such as Burl Ives, Ernest Tubb, and Eddy Arnold, who were all backed up by her group. 

In New York in 1956, the Anita Kerr Singers won Arthur Godfrey’s talent show which was broadcasted on nationwide television. Godfrey was so impressed by the group’s close harmony sound that he decided to hire it on a regular basis. Thanks to her many TV appearances, Kerr became more and more in demand as an arranger in the Nashville studios, recording with the likes of Floyd Cramer, Bobby Vinton, Rosemary Clooney, Pat Boone, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, Perry Como, Roy Orbison, and Jim Reeves. 

Between 1961 and 1963, she worked as a producer in the A&R department of record label RCA Victor, releasing the Anita Kerr Singers album ‘From Nashville… The Hit Sound’, containing country repertoire wrapped in mainstream arrangements. Moreover, the Anita Kerr Singers performed in Jim Reeves’ nationwide radio show five days a week; in 1964, when Chet Atkins and Jim Reeves made a European tour, the Anita Kerr Singers accompanied them and Kerr herself wrote the vocal and instrumental arrangements for the entire tour. 

Winning a Grammy (1966)

In 1965, Kerr moved to Hollywood to fulfil her ambition to work with orchestras. From the beginning onwards, she was much in demand as an arranger and a background singer. However, she refused many sessions, because she had decided to work with new singers and build up her name as a composer. As a favour to Ken Nelson, A&R director with Capitol, whom she had known since her Nashville days, she worked on an album with Dale Evans. In 1967-68, she teamed up with lyricist Rod McKuen to record twelve best-selling albums under the artist name The San Sebastian Strings – Kerr’s dreamy orchestrations accompanying McKuen’s poetry. 

Meanwhile, as her Nashville vocal group had been unwilling to move to the west coast, she had formed a phoenix version of the Anita Kerr Singers, including tenor Gene Merlino, bass Bob Tebow, and alto B.J. Baker. For Warner Brothers Records and DOT Records, she produced no fewer than six albums with the new formation as well as one solo LP, ‘Touchlove’, for which she played her own compositions at the piano. In 1967, she worked as the choral director of the first season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour for CBS Television.

In 1970, Kerr left the United States, moving to Geneva (Switzerland) with her Swiss husband and manager Alex Grob, who helped her securing a record deal with Phonogram International to record seven trademark ‘easy listening’ albums with the Anita Kerr Singers and to work as a producer with other artists. With her vocal group, now consisting of herself and three British session singers (Anne Simmons, Danny Street, and Alan Lynton), she performed in many television shows, especially in the Netherlands. In 1979, she recorded an album specifically for the Dutch market, 'Together', with pianist Pieter van Vollenhoven and arranger Harry van Hoof

"We subdivided the arranging work for that album," Van Hoof recalls. "One time, she told me out of the blue, "You know, Harry, there are two sorts of people, squirrels and moles; and you are definitely a mole!" That tells a lot, doesn't it? Moles prefer to vanish, delving deep underground. Squirrels, on the other hand, are happy to be in the light, enjoying life in a playful way... yes, I guess she was right in her judgment! Anita and I had a good working relationship. I remember one time, when we did a TV show, she came, but two of her regular singers from America didn't show up. I then asked my orchestra, "Who of you can sing?" I picked out two of them - and the rehearsals were fine... and Anita was happy with that. I've heard stories about other people who had a hard time working with Anita, but I cannot begin to understand why. I never experienced any trouble with her." 

For the recording of the Anita Kerr Singers album ‘Anita Kerr’s Christmas Story’ (1971), she not only composed, wrote, and arranged all material, but also conducted the ninety-man-strong Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the London recording studios. One year later, she penned the soundtrack to USA film production LIMBO, starring Kate Jackson; Kerr was the first woman to score a movie completely by composing, arranging, and conducting the recording session.

In 1974, she signed for another record company, Words Inc., before she and her husband Alex Grob opened their own Mountain Recording Studios in Montreux in 1975. They hired Westlake Audio and studio designer Tom Hidley to build the studio in the Montreux Casino, where it recorded all live performances of the Montreux Jazz Festival. Additionally, the tax advantages of the studio's location in Switzerland proved popular, with British artists as David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Chris Rea, Yes, Rick Wakeman, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Queen recording at Mountain Studios over the first few years. In 1979, Queen acquired the studio from Kerr and Grob, and subsequently utilised the facilities for several subsequent Queen albums, as well as solo projects from band members Freddie Mercury, Brian May, and Roger Taylor.

With her Singers and Rod McKuen (centre) receiving a gold record for the album 'The Sea', released in 1967

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, while continuing to perform in concerts and appear in television shows across Europe with the Anita Kerr Singers, she also arranged and recorded orchestral music for American radio stations and the BBC, wrote choral and instrumental arrangements for the Hal Leonard Publishing Company, and regularly conducted clinics at various colleges and universities in the United States. Amongst the albums which she recorded later onwards, the 1988 production ‘In The Soul’ deserves mention, which features the poetry of Walt Whitman; Kerr composed music to it, playing various electronic instruments for the recording.

From the 1960s onwards, many prizes were bestowed upon Anita Kerr. In 1963, she was first nominated for a Grammy Award for the trademark Anita Kerr Singers single release ‘Waiting For The Evening Train’. In total, she was nominated for seven Grammy Awards between 1963 and 1979, of which she won three: the Best Vocal Group Performance for the Anita Kerr Singers album ‘We Dig Mancini’ and Best Gospel Album for ‘Southland Favorites’, performed by Anita Kerr and George Beverly Shea – both in 1965; one year later, the Anita Kerr Singers again walked away with the Grammy for Best Vocal Group Performance for ‘A man And A Woman’. In 1969, she received a gold record for the San Sebastian Strings album ‘The Sea’ and later a platinum record; four years later, two different LPs by the Anita Kerr Singers were rewarded with gold records in the Netherlands and the United States. Moreover, she was honoured with the Netherlands equivalent of a Grammy, the Edison Award for the album ‘The Anita Kerr Singers Reflect On The Hits Of Burt Bacharach And Hal David’ (1970). 

In 1979, the Gospel Association handed her the ‘Dove Award’ for Best Gospel Record Album by a Non-Gospel Artist for ‘Walk A Little Slower’. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers congratulated her for her contribution to the Nashville Sound with the ASCAP Award. Lastly, in 1992, she was honoured with a Governors Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) in recognition of her contribution to American music in general.

Anita Kerr lived in Switzerland until her passing in 2022, at the age of 94.

Conducting a studio session


In 1985, Anita Kerr composed and arranged the Swiss Eurovision entry ‘Piano piano’ (German lyrics by Trudi Müller-Bosshard), which was performed by the duo Mariella Farré and Pino Gasparini. After having won the Swiss pre-selection in Geneva, this charming duet with a striking brass score in the chorus finished twelfth in the contest held in Gothenburg.

When asked why she decided to enter a song into the Swiss Eurovision qualifiers in the first place, Kerr comments, “I don’t remember exactly how it came about. My husband, who also was my manager, told me that I had been asked to write some songs for Eurovision. At that time, there was a very nice musical director at the Zurich Radio Station who was a fan of the Anita Kerr Singers and I think was the one who made the request. Later on, shortly after the Eurovision show, he wanted to sing with me, so he asked me to write some arrangements for a Swiss vocal group and record them for the Zurich Radio. The Swiss vocal group was a trio, to which he sang along and I was the lead voice – so the arrangements were for five voices. In the songs I had written, there were no words, because only one of the other singers spoke English… so just ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, accompanied by the Zurich orchestra. It turned out great!”

Subsequently, Kerr submitted the song ‘Piano piano’, which in spite of its title has German lyrics by Trudi Müller-Bosshard, to the German-language Swiss broadcaster DRS. Kerr about the song writing process, “What a good lyricist Trudy was! She was so easy to write songs with. I composed the music first and then she would write the German lyrics for them. Although I am not entirely sure, I think we wrote four songs for Pino Gasparini and four songs for Mariella Farré which were never released… and, of course, this duet which in the end was chosen for the Eurovision Song Contest."

"Actually, it was the first and only time that Trudy and I wrote songs for Pino and Mariella. After the contest, we continued to work together on some more songs, but we only managed to get one German artist to record them. Trudy and I liked working on music a lot, but we were not the type to contact a lot of people in order to push our songs. A year or so after that, I went to the USA for several years and that put an end to our writing together.”

“By the way, Trudy and I did not choose the performers ourselves. We were not involved in that part of the decision making – they were chosen by an internal committee of the broadcaster. DRS in Zurich had a special radio programme where they played demo versions of all selected songs and the listeners chose the songs they liked best. Upon our selection, Pino, Mariella and I had to go to Geneva where we competed against songs from the parts of Switzerland where Italian and French were spoken. Our song walked away with the highest number of votes and was thus selected to represent Switzerland in Gothenburg.” 

The duo performing 'Piano, piano', Pino Gasparini and Mariella Farré, both had represented their country on previous occasions - Pino as lead singer of the Pepe Lienhard Band in 1977; and Mariella as a soloist in 1983

In the Swiss pre-selection, Kerr did not conduct the orchestra, which was an amalgamation of the Groupe Instrumental Romand led by jazz drummer Stuff Combe, and the strings of the Collegium Academicum. The voting procedure was a close call, but Pino and Mariella won the ticket to Sweden in the face of heavy competition from acts who had previously represented the Alpine country in the contest, such as Arlette Zola and Rainy Day, as well as Daniela Simons, who came second in the Eurovision Song Contest one year later, in 1986.

Now that 'Piano, piano' had been chosen, Swiss television allowed the winning act the choice of who would conduct them - and composer and arranger Anita Kerr of course chose to take the honours herself. In the voting, 'Piano, piano' finished in a somewhat underwhelming 12th place.

When asked about her memories of Gothenberg, Kerr replies, “I was sorry that I did not have more time to visit the city of Gothenburg, but everything else went along smoothly – the musicians and the people in charge of the production were professional and very nice. The whole broadcast was done very well. Naturally, I was disappointed our song didn't win. Being an American by birth, I would have been proud to have been able to win it for my new home country Switzerland. All in all, it was an enjoyable experience. Moreover, it was the first time that I performed in front of an audience as an orchestra conductor. Although I had conducted many recording sessions, I had only been performing as a singer with my Anita Kerr Singers during all of my personal appearances and television shows with an audience.”

After Monica Dominique (for Sweden in 1973) and Nurit Hirsh (for Israel in 1973 and 1978), Kerr was only the third-ever (and incidentally also the last) woman to conduct a Eurovision orchestra, but she is not very militaristic about this fact or the role of women in music in general. 

“I had learnt conducting when I started working in Los Angeles in 1965. At first, I was terrified at the prospect of leading an orchestra. You know, there is an old saying, "The hardest thing in the world is to start an orchestra, and the next-hardest is to stop it." That sounds funny, but it is true. It was my husband and manager Alex who insisted that I could do it and walked me up to the conductor’s platform during the first session I had to conduct in L.A. But to return to your question, I think it is great that women are conducting orchestras. Why not? If they are musically talented enough to be able to do it, they should conduct. After all, it does not take a lot of muscle to wave a baton!”

Anita Kerr in the short film shot by Swedish television introducing the 1985 Swiss Eurovision entry


Poet and singer Rod McKuen extensively worked with Anita Kerr in the late 1960s, “I can’t say enough about Anita Kerr. The San Sebastian Strings albums were a total collaboration in every way. Anita composed all the music, did the arrangements and led the orchestra, while I wrote the story line and the words. Anita was a pioneer in the record industry. In Nashville, she arranged recordings for all the top country artists and she formed at least three different sets of personnel for the multi Grammy award winning Anita Kerr Singers; without, I might add, ever loosing the original sound of the group. In the religious community she is known for a string of stirring instrumental and vocal albums. I’d cross the desert to record with her again. Female recording artists have always been a staple of the record business, but Anita was that rare person as important behind the scenes as out in front. And, she was a woman respected by all her peers. Alas for the cause of women in music in general, most of her peers were men.” (1998)


Country – Switzerland
Song title – “Piano, piano”
Rendition – Mariella Farré & Pino Gasparini
Lyrics – Trudi Müller-Bosshard
Composition – Anita Kerr
Studio arrangement – Anita Kerr
Live orchestration – Anita Kerr
Conductor – Anita Kerr
Score – 12th place (39 votes)

  • Thanks to Anita Kerr for providing us with minute memories of her Eurovision involvement in 1985 (email exchange, September 2010)
  • Photos courtesy of Anita Kerr


The following article is an overview of the career of British pianist, trumpet player, arranger, and conductor. The main source of information is an interview with Mr Coleman, conducted by Bas Tukker in London, February 2012. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to John Coleman's Eurovision involvement (part 4).

All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2012

  1. Passport
  2. Short Eurovision record
  3. Biography
  4. Eurovision Song Contest
  5. Other artists about John Coleman
  6. Eurovision involvement year by year
  7. Sources & links

Born: August 9th, 1934, Manchester, England (United Kingdom)
Nationality: British


Apart from being involved as a musical director in the British pre-selection, A Song For Europe, John Coleman conducted five Eurovision Song Contest entries for the United Kingdom in the first half of the 1980s, most notably the winning ‘Making Your Mind Up’ for Bucks Fizz in Dublin (1981).


John Anthony Coleman was born into a family of Irish and Scots descent. In 1939, he went with his mother for a holiday to visit family members who had emigrated to America. Whilst there, World War II broke out and his father, who was a cotton piece goods salesman, thought it would be best if they stayed there until the war was over, unaware that it would last for nearly six years. Initially, mother and son lived in Lawrence, Massachusetts, with an aunt and later close by in Andover as guests of the Farnsworth family. He received his primary education at Saint Augustine’s School in Andover. 

“One of the nuns there asked me if I would like to have piano lessons. I must have been seven or eight years old at that time. My mum said yes and somehow managed to find the money to pay for them. It was that nun who taught me and it turned out I was a relatively quick learner. As it happened, the piano at the Farnsworth’s house was a player piano and I was the only one in the house who knew how to work it. So on one of their regular soirées, they woke me up, in what seemed to me to be the middle of the night, to go downstairs in my pyjamas and show them how to work the piano!”

John and his mother returned to Manchester in October 1944, where he continued his piano studies with a local teacher. He also got to try his hand at two other musical instruments, as he recalls.

“My father, having discovered my musical abilities and himself being a frustrated brass bandsman, thought it would be good idea for me to learn to play the cornet and join a local brass band. Moreover, my aunt Nora who lived in Blackpool owned two violins and she thought it would be a good idea for me to learn to play that instrument as well. So the violins came from Blackpool to Manchester and my mother found a violin teacher. This episode did not last too long though, because I fractured my left wrist in a traffic incident in which I was knocked off my bicycle. With hindsight, it was a good thing I was given the experience of these instruments, which has been helpful when writing arrangements and orchestrations. Though I played in a brass band for many years, the piano was always the instrument in which I invested most effort, going through many piano examinations.”

The Ivor Kirchin Band, with John Coleman second from right in the brass section (second half 1950s)

Unsure of his future plans, John left grammar school at the age of seventeen, spending a year working at the Manchester branch of the Yorkshire Insurance Company. Between 1952 and 1954, he did the obligatory two years National Service in the Royal Air Force, stationed at Turnhouse Aerodrome in Edinburgh and working underground at Barnton Quarry. During this time he became good friends with the fledgling jazz pianist Alan Howarth, who was at the same station and introduced John to jazz music. 

“Up to that point, my musical education had solely been the classics, both theoretical and practical. What was more, my piano teacher had once told me that, if I ever considered turning to commercial music to earn a living, she would no longer be able to teach me. With hindsight, though, I think this was not so much a threat as more an admission that she had no experience in that field. After my time in the RAF I went back to her for a time, but after the two year break I found it very difficult to pick up where I had left off. It was a different world and I had to get a job. So I went back to the insurance company."

"At the time I wanted to play the trumpet and my trumpet teacher Freddy Barrett, who ran a music shop in Manchester, got me some gigs, playing in dance bands performing in town halls and palais, dance halls. I was second trumpet in the Ken Nelson Orchestra for some time, the first trumpet being Nigel Carter, who later became the lead trumpet with the BBC Big Band. Playing for up to five nights a week eventually began to catch up with me and I was regularly late for work at ‘The Yorkshire’…. I was burning the candle at both ends. Eventually, the branch manager sent for me and told me that, in his opinion, I should decide if my career was to be in music or insurance – a choice I had been carefully avoiding for a year. Although both of my parents were apprehensive about my future, it was obvious to me that I was doing better at music than insurance, so I left the Yorkshire Insurance Company in 1956.”

That same year, John became a professional trumpet player with the Ben Oakley Orchestra on the pier in faraway Southsea. After the 1956 summer season, he passed an audition to join the Ivor Kirchin Band at Sale Locarno, a well known Mecca ballroom just outside his native Manchester and he stayed with the band for almost three years (1956-59). 

“One of the conditions of the contract with Ivor was that I had to write an arrangement each week, for which I got the princely sum of two pounds and that included the copying! I wrote dance band versions of popular American songs such as ‘Diana’ by Paul Anka and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ by Elvis Presley. I had to take down the lyrics of each song simply by listening to the record. In the case of Elvis I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about! “The prison band was there and they began to wail”… not a clue! Learning to arrange was essentially a case of trial and error. Admittedly, the Kirchin Band was not very large, but still – four trumpets, four saxes, a rhythm section, and a singer. It was quite a challenge!”

In 1959, John decided to try his luck in London, where he joined a band with the evocative name André Rico and his Cha Cha Chaleros. 

“André had a regular Sunday night gig at the Marquee when it was in Oxford Street, but we also played all over the UK. After about a year, I heard that Woolf Phillips, whose orchestra played in the Pigalle – a theatre-restaurant in Piccadilly – needed a trumpet player, as one of his was leaving to go work at the BBC… none other than Ronnie Hazlehurst! We did a floor show twice a night… one of the most exciting was a two week stint with Sammy Davis Jr. Meanwhile, with the rock ‘n’ roll revolution going on around us, life for dance band musicians in the early 1960s was not always easy and there were times when I thought seriously about leaving London and going back to Manchester. The Woolf Phillips band was dissolved in 1962. Luckily, I was offered a job as a pianist with a trio at the Arno’s Court County Club in Bristol. Every week, we accompanied a different cabaret artist, such as Bob Monkhouse or Engelbert Humperdinck – who in those days was known as Gerry Dorsey. Accompanying such artists later proved a wonderful grounding when I started working in the television industry.”

In 1965, Coleman returned to London, getting involved in a wide range of professional activities. He continued playing the piano in ensembles in West End restaurants such as The Latin Quarter and The Stable and later worked with quartet leader Ray Ellington on a regular basis. Most significantly perhaps, Coleman managed to get his foot in the door in the film industry. 

“Basil Kirchin, Ivor’s son, was a drummer and we got on well. While I was in Bristol, he used to come down to compose and write arrangements together for his father’s band. His ambition was to write film music and, in 1965, he was commissioned to pen the incidental music for Catch Us If You Can, a film featuring the Dave Clark Five. Basil needed an orchestrator and conductor to assist him – so he asked me! Conducting an orchestra of session musicians in the studio for the first time was a new experience and although I had conducted Ivor’s band when rehearsing my arrangements, I was not at all comfortable standing up in front of the orchestra, albeit fairly small. How would I know when to start? Was there time for a count or did I have to start with a downbeat? “Wait for the ticker, John,” I was told, but nobody bothered to tell me what a ticker was… it took some time to get familiar with the methods used in soundtrack recording!”

Drawn profile of John Coleman by Rolf Harris, one of the performers in 

With Basil Kirchin, Coleman co-composed, arranged, and conducted several more film scores, including Assignment K, The Strange Affair (both from 1968), I Start Counting (1969), and Freelance (1971), as well as signing for the music to the highly controversial documentary Primitive London (1967). On top of all the aforementioned activities, Coleman was successful as an accompanist for various singers, such as Diana Dors, Dusty Springfield, and Lulu. 

“The job with Lulu came my way thanks to impresario Dick Katz, Ray Ellington’s former pianist,” Coleman recalls. “He phoned Ray one day to ask which pianist he was using, the next question no doubt being: “Is he any good?” The answer was probably in the affirmative, because Dick booked me to do a week’s cabaret in Darlington with his wife Valerie Masters. On the Saturday night, Dick turned up and said, “I’ll do the show tonight”, but I replied, “No, I’ll do it, because the musicians in the band are accustomed to me leading them.” Dick backed down and followed the show in the audience. Afterwards, obviously pleased by the performance, he came to the dressing room and said, “I am going to get you a lot of work!” 

"I got to do more gigs with Valerie and some other of Dick’s artists, including Lulu, for whom I led a nine-piece-band touring the country. As a result, I was asked to play piano with the Johnny Harris Orchestra when he conducted for Lulu in the 1969 edition of A Song For Europe. ‘Boom Bang-A-Bang’ was the winning song. Poor Lulu! After that, she ended up singing it in every cabaret performance for many, many years.”

The 1969 edition of Song for Europe was John Coleman’s baptism of fire in the world of television, which became his main working ground for the following 25 years. 

“Lulu really paved the way for me… I worked very closely with her for a number of years as an arranger and musical director. After her Eurovision victory, she did several light entertainment shows with the BBC. As her regular accompanist, I was usually asked to play piano for these programmes. She recorded a series of shows with musical director Alyn Ainsworth, in which I played Hammond organ and wrote some arrangements. More work followed on other programmes and series with the result that gradually, in the course of the 1970s, I became well established in the world of television. Some of the programmes that I worked on regularly were Top Of The Pops, which had a live orchestra at that time with Johnny Pearson as its conductor, and the Benny Hill Shows for Thames Television with musical director Ronnie Aldrich.” 

Coleman conducting Grace Kennedy in the 1979 Intervision Song Contest 
held in Sopot, Poland

In 1977, Coleman conducted the BBC entry for the international Golden Sea Swallow competition in Knokke (Belgium), winning first prize with The MDCLXXVII Show featuring Rolf Harris, Bonnie Tyler, Guys & Dolls and… a real horse!

Away from his TV work, Coleman did the arranging for 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' a musical composed by Chris Andrews, which was staged at the Cambridge Theatre in London’s West End in 1971. Moreover, he worked extensively as musical director with artists such as Dana, The Nolan Sisters, The Three Degrees, and Shirley Bassey. 

“Initially, I was to be the pianist in the orchestra on Shirley’s tour of the UK and Scandinavia in 1977, while MD'ing the support acts which preceded her performance. We had just done a BBC TV series for which Arthur Greenslade was the musical director. Unfortunately he tore a ligament in his right shoulder on the first gig, which was in Manchester. He told me that conducting was too painful and asked me to dep for him for the remainder of the tour. My first show as a conductor was in Brighton. Afterwards, Arthur told me that Shirley was happy and felt comfortable on stage with me behind her, which was a relief, because she could be quite demanding at times! Subsequently, I did the rest of the tour in England and several cities in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.”

A special episode in John Coleman’s career is having been part of the Frank Sinatra London Orchestra for three tours of the United Kingdom and mainland Europe with Ol’ Blue Eyes between 1975 and 1978. 

“Don Costa was to conduct Frank’s European tour, but he had a heart-attack and was replaced by Sinatra’s pianist, Bill Miller. Looking for a replacement for Bill in the orchestra, they turned to me, as I had been booked to be the pianist and MD for the Nolan Sisters, who opened the bill with Frank Sinatra at the Royal Albert Hall. Working with Sinatra proved enjoyable and nerve-wrecking at the same time. The man was such a giant in the industry! At times, he could be intimidating. Once, during a rehearsal, he stopped singing, because he was not hearing what he wanted from the string section. He said to Bill, “No, not like that. I want it like this”. He then turned to the string section and conducted them through the passage in question, technically perfect – and the string players responded magnificently. Turning to Bill he said, “Like that!” He expected high standards, from everyone! These tours are amongst the unforgettable experiences in my working life, finding myself in the middle of an orchestra encompassing the best musicians in the country.”

In a studio session (mid-1980s)

In 1979, Alyn Ainsworth decided to work for director and producer David Bell at ITV, giving up most of his BBC gigs. 

“Much of Alyn’s BBC work had been for director Stewart Morris, a powerful man at that time. Stewart was not the easiest man, but once you had won his trust, he would call upon you over and over again to work for him. Thanks to him, I had been given the opportunity to go to Knokke with Rolf Harris and to be the musical director for a TV series with Les Dawson and Lulu in 1978. Alyn suggested that Stewart should use me as musical director and most of his television work now came my way."

"The 1980 Song for Europe was the first of many programmes that I did with him. By that time, I had learnt a lot about the TV business and about working as a musical director… first of all simply by watching the conductors that I worked for. Johnny Harris was a showman, but a true professional and I took note of everything he did. Like me, Alyn was never trained as a conductor, but he developed a recognisable style of his own and was well-liked by the musicians. Moreover, he brought in a wealth of experience; he had been the conductor of different BBC ensembles and orchestras from the 1950s onwards. Working with Alyn and Johnny helped in developing my conducting skills.”

In the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, John Coleman was one of the most sought-after arrangers, musical directors, and conductors in the world of television. Mostly with director Stewart Morris, he not only conducted five editions of A Song for Europe between 1980 and 1985, but also worked on three BBC series with Grace Kennedy (1980-82), who he accompanied as a musical director to the 1979 Intervision Song Contest in Sopot, Poland as well. Moreover, Coleman did three series of Bob Says Opportunity Knocks with Bob Monkhouse (1987-89), and five seasons of shows with Les Dawson spread over more than a decade (1978-89), while also teaming up with the likes of Lena Zavaroni, Marti Caine, and Bruce Forsyth. 

Being freelance, Coleman also worked on programmes for Independent Television, such as Saturday Royal with Nigel Lythgoe (1983), three series of the Ronn Lucas Show (1990-91), as well as a string of different comedy shows. Coleman conducted the orchestra in several big televised spectacles, such as the Royal Gala in aid of the XIII Commonwealth Games (BBC: 1985), the opening ceremony of these same Commonwealth Games (BBC: 1986), and the Royal Gala to celebrate VE Day (ITV: 1995). For Coleman, this gala was one of the highlights of his TV career. 

“The show went out live from the London Coliseum and I had a marvellous orchestra in the pit. The cast of artists appearing was quite prestigious, with, amongst others, Céline Dion, Darcey Bussell, and Harry Secombe. Really exciting! Another highlight no doubt was working with tenor José Carreras. I did a Bruce Forsyth special for the BBC and Carreras was one of the special guests. The prospect of working with such a world star made me quite nervous. In the days before, I studied the score every free moment to get to know it, even listening to a cassette of his performance in the taxi on the way to the studios. But… everything went well – so well in fact that, when he came to do another BBC programme sometime later, he specifically asked for John Coleman to be his conductor!”

In 1979, Coleman was introduced to film composer Marc Wilkinson by a mutual friend. “Marc was looking for an orchestrator for the film Eagle’s Wing,” Coleman remembers. “He gave me the opportunity to work on that film. As he was satisfied with the things I came up with, we did several more films together. Marc, in his turn, introduced me to other composers, most prominently Trevor Jones, who asked me to write orchestrations for many of his film scores. The function of a movie orchestrator is to get the intention of the composer down on paper correctly. I have been doing this type of work to the present day and have been involved in some American box-office successes. I cannot say I have always liked being an orchestrator, as working in the film industry as a rule involves extreme time pressure, but there is undoubtedly certain kudos in having your name going up in the credits! Over the years, the job has changed due to the computer making its appearance. Nowadays, orchestration is no longer done with pencil and paper.”

Amongst the original soundtracks for which Coleman orchestrated the score are The Fiendish Plot Of Dr. Fu Manchu composed by Marc Wilkinson (1980), Excalibur (1981) by Trevor Jones, and Best Revenge (1984) by Keith Emerson. Moreover, Coleman worked on the orchestrations of TV series such as The Last Days Of Pompei (1984), and TV films including Doctor Fischer Of Geneva (1985), based on the eponymous novel by Graham Greene. Thanks to his involvement with composer John Powell, Coleman also got to pen the orchestrations to some successful American productions, such as Rat Race (2001) and the computer-animated films Shrek (2001) and Kung Fu Panda (2008).

In more recent years, Coleman was commissioned by Martin Yates of West End International to produce new orchestrations for several crossover concerts of pop music standards and film music with classical orchestras (2007-10), whilst he has continued writing arrangements for the radio show Friday Night Is Music Night with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

At home in London (2012)


John Coleman conducted five UK entries in the Eurovision Song Contest between 1980 and 1985, while he also was the musical director of the pre-selection programme A Song For Europe in these same years. It was producer and director Stewart Morris who offered Coleman the job. 

“Stewart had worked with Alyn Ainsworth for nearly all his TV shows in the years before. When Alyn left his BBC work to go to ITV, Stewart chose me as his successor. It was Alyn himself who had suggested me to him. Given that A Song For Europe was one of Stewart’s programmes in those years, he called me up saying he had a nice little fun job for me. I really enjoyed working on A Song For Europe, because as far as I was concerned there was a lot less pressure involved than in a usual TV gig. My only responsibility was to form an orchestra and to rehearse all songs properly with it. There was no writing to do – I was never allowed to arrange any of the participating items, because the BBC could be accused of prejudice and favouritism in case one of the songs I had been involved in won.”

As A Song For Europe was a live show, occasional hiccups were unavoidable. “One time," Coleman recalls, "when I was preparing to count in the orchestra for one of the participants, I noticed my drummer Harold Fisher staring at me with a horrified open mouthed expression The act that was coming on stage was not the one I was expecting. I pushed the button to the control room to ask Stewart if this was right. He said yes, immediately followed by, “Cue music!” At the same time, I was going through my scores like a madman and I found the right one just in time. It felt like a nightmare, though, because one of the last things I used to do at the end of a rehearsal was to go through the music and check that everything is in the right order. To this day, I do not know what went wrong, but we lived through it anyhow!"

"On another occasion, in 1985, all songs for Song for Europe were previewed on The Terry Wogan Show. I was there with a live orchestra on stage. When James Oliver came on to do his song (‘What We Say With Our Eyes’ - BT), something went wrong and his vocal could not be heard by the TV audience at home – in the theatre yes, at home no! From the control room, director Kevin Bishop told me to stop the band. However nothing seemed to be wrong and James could be heard properly, so Kevin had to repeat the order before I reacted. The next thing was to get my musicians to stop playing. My face must have shown the stress. Nobody stops the orchestra in the middle of a live transmission! Therefore, they played on… and on…and James kept on singing. I managed to get the strings to stop, but the rhythm section kept on going. All of this only took seconds, but it seemed to last an eternity. In the end, Terry Wogan came on stage to tell James and the audience about the technical problem. That certainly was a night to remember!”

Prima Donna performing 'Love Enough For Two' on the Eurovision stage in The Hague

The 1980 edition of A Song For Europe was won by Prima Donna, a three girl-three boy group tailor-made for the Eurovision Song Contest, including in their ranks Sally Ann Triplett. They represented the United Kingdom in the international final in The Hague with ‘Love Enough For Two’, composed by Stephanie De Sykes and Stuart Slater, and came third behind the entries from Ireland and West Germany. 

“As this was my first experience at the Eurovision Song Contest, I was nervous going there. After all, it was a very prestigious event and you cannot make any mistake! I took my pocket metronome with me to make sure that I got the tempo right. Standing in front of the orchestra for our first rehearsal, I was extremely tense. What I did not know yet was that Eurovision orchestras were always marvellous and well-rehearsed! It was a matter of prestige for the organizing country to get the best of their musicians together. What was more, the musicians were friendly and all on your side – they wanted to get it right as much as you did! I quickly realized that all I had to do was go and stand there, say, “Ok, here we go”, and count to four. In fact, a conductor could even have counted them in wrongly and they would still have started playing in the right tempo. From that moment on, my nerves subsided.”

As Coleman was never involved in writing the UK entry’s arrangement and was part of the BBC team, he naturally spent more time with the BBC delegates to the contest than with the songwriters and artists. 

“All artists I worked with in the Eurovision Song Contest were pleasant and very friendly when you spoke to them. The songwriters and arrangers were there at the rehearsals and observed, but on no occasion did they interfere with me. The arrangements were usually pretty straightforward and as I prepared the conducting of the score carefully, there was hardly anything to talk over with anyone. Apart from these rehearsals, such a Eurovision week left me with a certain amount of leisure time. My wife Fiesta was always with me and we usually had the opportunity to do some sightseeing, which was nice.”

Short biog of John Coleman in the official Eurovision 1983 programme

In The Hague, John Coleman met Noel Kelehan, the conductor of the Irish delegation. Ireland won the festival with Johnny Logan and ‘What’s another year’. 

“It was only on the night of the broadcast that he introduced himself to me. He had seen me using my metronome. When I went up to the green room after we had done our song, Noel shook my hand and offered me a drink. “Would you mind,” he asked me, “if I borrow your metronome? We are very close to the three minute time limit and I don’t want anything to go wrong.” After the Irish performance, the two of us spent the rest of the evening deep in conversation. Being English and Irish, I guess we naturally gravitated towards one another. We paid no attention to the voting whatsoever. When the Irish won, the floor manager had to come looking for Noel to get him to conduct the orchestra again. “What are you doing here? You have won!,” he shouted out to him. Noel and I had not even noticed the voting was over.”

As a result of Johnny Logan’s first Eurovision victory, the contest moved to Dublin in 1981. At the time, representing the United Kingdom in Ireland was not without its problems, ‘The Troubles’ being very much a fact of life. 

“When the British delegation arrived at the airport in Dublin, we were given a police motor cycle escort to take us to our hotel and throughout the following week the security was always heavy. But I never felt uncomfortable, rightly or wrongly, I made the assumption that no one would be interested in harming musicians.”

The United Kingdom’s entry that year was ‘Making Your Mind Up’, written by John Danter and Andy Hill for the quartet Bucks Fizz. The arrangement to this up-tempo effort was written by a former Eurovision conductor, Nick Ingman. In an exciting voting procedure, Bucks Fizz managed to shake off its competitors and won the festival. 

Bucks Fizz and their winning Eurovision performance of 'Making Your Mind Up' 

“Just like ‘Love Enough For Two’ the year before, this was an excellent Eurovision song – not the sort of the thing that I would put on for an evening of entertainment at home, but very effective and objectively much better than some of the other entries that we heard on Eurovision… and some of the it was excruciatingly funny as well. In a repeat of what we did in The Hague, Noel Kelehan and I spent most of the evening together chatting in the greenroom. I had had a great time all week with him and the musicians of his orchestra, who were very hospitable. When we won, I was delighted – that is, when I was told we had won. Like in 1980, Noel and I had simply not been following the voting procedure.”

As a result of Bucks Fizz’ win in Dublin, the United Kingdom – meaning the BBC with Ronnie Hazlehurst as musical director – had to host the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest which was held in Harrogate. Hazlehurst also conducted A Song For Europe that year.

“Nonetheless, I could have had an involvement in the contest," Coleman recalls. "I was phoned at a very late stage by a member of the production team, asking if I would be able to play synthesiser for one of the acts – I was never told for which country. However, by that time, I had other commitments, which meant I couldn’t accept the offer. A pity, as it would have been quite lucrative!”

In 1983, John Coleman was back as conductor with the British delegation. In the contest held in Munich, West Germany, the United Kingdom was represented by Sweet Dreams, another manufactured group, with the song ‘I’m Never Giving Up’ by songwriters Jan Pulsford, Ron Roker, and Phil Wigger. Sweet Dreams finished sixth.

“We had a great time in Munich with the BBC delegation”, Coleman recounts. “Jim Moir, the head of Light Entertainment was, when he was off duty, an extremely funny man with a great sense of humour. Wherever he was around, especially in the bus taking us to and from the venue, everybody was in stitches. Much later I thought that maybe this was his way of getting us to relax and ease the tension.”

Sweet Dreams winning A Song for Europe in 1983

“The rehearsals and contest were organised with this typical German thoroughness and efficiency, except that, in rehearsals, there seemed to be a very lengthy pause between the moment when the artists were told to come on stage and the cue to start the orchestra. The conductor of the song before ours (This must have been Sigurd Jansen from Norway - BT) and I commented on this; we agreed that it did not seem fair to leave the artists out there roasting on stage. We did not have a clue why this had to be, so we decided that, at the next rehearsal, we were going to start the orchestra as soon as we got up there. This turned out not to be a good idea… there was no doubt a reason why they wanted this delay and the floor manager immediately started blowing a very loud whistle like a football referee to stop the orchestra. “Please start when we tell you to start and not before!,” she shouted. They wanted it done exactly their way.”

In the 1984 contest held in Luxembourg the UK entry, ‘Love Games’, was performed by Belle & The Devotions and obtained seventh spot on the scoreboard. 

“Going to Luxembourg was very pleasant; particularly the day-off which I spent with my wife roaming the Ardennes. We visited the Battle of the Bulge Museum in Bastogne. Unfortunately, it was obvious from the start that the British were not very popular in Luxembourg. A couple of months before some English football supporters had behaved very badly there during an international match. I got the feeling that our hotel was possibly not where we could have stayed had the hooligans not done their damage; it was a little basic. There was also a mix-up with the reservations, resulting in my wife and I being put in a single room. Fortunately, Terry Wogan was kind enough to swap rooms letting us have his double."

The song ‘Love Games’ was surrounded by controversy, as the composition by Paul Curtis and Graham Sacher was deemed by many to be an obvious rip-off of the style of song which Holland & Dozier had penned for the Supremes. 

Belle & The Devotions, the UK entrants in Eurovision 1984

“Though I could not really understand why such a song had been chosen in our country, I was indignant when members of other delegations had a derogatory attitude towards it. Come on, these were simply Eurovision songs, not classical symphonies! To my mind the criticism was not just about the entry, but about our country! We were representing the United Kingdom with a song that had been chosen by the British public. It is always possible to disagree with the outcome of a majority vote, but the bottom line is that you respect it. The nicest thing about all of this was that the country which had been most critical of us did not do well in the voting at all.”

Coleman’s last participation in the Eurovision Song Contest was in 1985, when the festival was held in Gothenburg, Sweden. The United Kingdom came fourth with ‘Love Is…’ by Vikki (Victoria Watson), who wrote the song in collaboration with James Kaleth.

“The contest in Sweden was smoothly organised. We were collected from the airport by our hostess, Margareta, who was most charming and did a good job for us all week. At the rehearsals, there was some discussion with the Swedish production team about certain camera shots, but, with Stewart Morris in the delegation, you could be sure that things would be sorted out in the end – and they were. This edition of the contest must have been the only time I paid any attention to the results, as after each song, the artists with their conductors were seated together… I guess to make it easier for the floor manager to find the winner when the time came.”

Due to an air strike, the British delegation could not fly back to London as scheduled. “Jim Moir came up with the solution,” as Coleman remembers. “He organised a coach, which took us from Gothenburg to Copenhagen from where we caught a plane which brought us to England that same day. For me personally, this was a great relief, because I had to be in East Germany the next day for a show at the Friedrichstadt Palast in East Berlin with choreographer Nigel Lythgoe. It was a special commission – a dance performance for which Nigel needed me to take care of the arrangements. If I had not got back to London that Sunday, I would not have been able to catch the flight via Schiphol to the GDR the day after.”

Vikki Watson with Terry Wogan after winning A Song for Europe

In 1986, Coleman was in Edinburgh with Stewart Morris and choreographer Lud Romano for the Opening Ceremony of the XIII Commonwealth Games. The responsibility for UK entries for Eurovision passed to other BBC producers, who chose their own musical director. In 1991 and 1992 Morris returned to the Eurovision but without Coleman who was unavailable being involved in other projects, making Ronnie Hazlehurst the natural choice instead. 

When asked about Hazlehurst, John comments, “I never got to know Ronnie very well, but he was always most friendly and helpful. He was a talented musician, who had the gift of writing appropriate, effective and memorable music for television. Of course, I would have liked to have done Eurovision again, but it was not to be!”


The composers’ team of the 1983 UK Eurovision entry have good memories of John Coleman. Jan Pulsford says: “I am proud to have been associated with him in Munich. John conducted both on and off stage like a true consummate professional." Ron Roker adds: “John did a wonderful job on our entry and was a great help to our three young singers in Sweet Dreams. The 1983 contest was their first major international TV appearance – a big enough test for any performer – so they were rightly nervous, but John’s style and friendly manner helped them produce a relaxed performance. He is an excellent musician and arranger, and great to work with.” (2012)


Country – United Kingdom
Song title – "Love Enough For Two"
Rendition – Prima Donna (Lance Aston / Alan Coates / Danny Finn / Jane Robbins / Kate Robbins / Sally Ann Triplett)
Lyrics – Stuart Slater / Stephanie De Sykes
Composition – Stuart Slater / Stephanie De Sykes
Studio arrangement – Graham Preskett
Live orchestration – Graham Preskett 
Conductor – John Coleman
Score – 3rd place (106 votes)

Country – United Kingdom
Song title – "Making Your Mind Up"
Rendition – Bucks Fizz 
(Jay Aston / Cheryl Baker / Bobby G / Mike Nolan)
Lyrics – John Danter / Andy Hill
Composition – John Danter / Andy Hill
Studio arrangement – Andy Hill
Live orchestration – Nick Ingman 
Conductor – John Coleman
Score – 1st place (136 votes)

Country – United Kingdom
Song title – "I’m Never Giving Up"
Rendition – Sweet Dreams 
(Carrie Grant / Helen Kray / Bobbie McVey)
Lyrics – Jan Pulsford / Ron Roker / Phil Wigger
Composition – Jan Pulsford / Ron Roker / Phil Wigger
Studio arrangement – Jan Pulsford / Ron Roker / Paul Greedus 
Live orchestration – Bill Pitt
Conductor – John Coleman
Score – 6th place (79 votes)

Country – United Kingdom
Song title – "Love Games"
Rendition – Belle & The Devotions 
(Kit Rolfe / Laura James / Linda Sofield)
Lyrics – Paul Curtis / Graham Sacher
Composition – Paul Curtis / Graham Sacher
Studio arrangement – Paul Curtis
Live orchestration – unknown
Conductor – John Coleman
Score – 7th place (63 votes)

Country – United Kingdom
Song title – "Love Is…"
Rendition – Vikki (Victoria Watson)
Lyrics – James Kaleth / Victoria Watson
Composition – James Kaleth / Victoria Watson
Studio arrangement – James Kaleth
Live orchestration – James Kaleth
Conductor – John Coleman
Score – 4th place (100 votes)

  • Bas Tukker interviewed John Coleman in London, February 2012.
  • Many thanks to Ron Roker and Jan Pulsford for their additional comments.
  • Photos courtesy of John Coleman, Jan Pulsford, Bill Holland, and Ferry van der Zant