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Friday, 17 November, 2000, 14:51 GMT
Pianist with the golden smile
Russ Conway
Conway was one of the Queen Mother's favourite entertainers
He was the pianist who brought joy with his tinkling fingers and his twinkling smile.

This attractive combination brought Russ Conway huge success in live concert and on record, and made him one of Britain's biggest-selling artists of the 1950s and 1960s.

From his first chart success in 1957 with a medley of other artists' Party Pops through to his 1962 hit Always You and Me, Conway spent 168 weeks in the music charts.

His 1959 number one record Side Saddle spent an incredible 30 weeks in the charts.

Russ Conway at the piano
A tune and a twinkling smile
He dated his keyboard career from 1957 and the evening he accompanied Dorothy Squires on the variety bill at the Metropolitan Theatre in London.

Before that, he was "a postman, a sailor and a pub pianist".

In fact, Conway could not remember a time when he did not play the piano. He was born the son of a commercial traveller in Bristol and displayed a natural talent for music.

But he lasted only one piano lesson before playing truant and instead spending the money on cinema tickets.

After leaving school at 14, his father found the young Russ a job in a solicitors' office, but this ended when he was sent to borstal for three years after stealing some money he found in a packet.

Russ Conway had always wanted to go to sea and, following his release from borstal, his father agreed to send him to a Merchant Navy Training School.

Russ Conway
Russ Conway took a number of jobs after the war
World War II saw him serving in the Royal Navy, where he took part in minesweeping operations in the Aegean. It was while he was in the Navy that he lost the tip of his little finger during a prank with a bread-slicing machine.

But beyond this, his "gallantry and devotion to duty" was rewarded with a Distinguished Service Medal. After the war, finding it difficult to adapt to civilian life, Conway returned to the Merchant Navy.

Russ Conway was discharged in 1948 with a stomach complaint and worked as a salesman, machinist, plumber's mate and barman before another spell back at sea.

But he soon took up his hobby again, performing in nightclubs and bars, and was soon spotted by choreographer Irwin Davis, who lined up work for Conway as a music-hall accompanist.

Gracie Fields and Conway's great friend Dorothy Squires were two big stars to enjoy his light touch, polished performance and genial manner on stage.

Russ Conway, a housewife's favourite
A housewife's favourite
Working as a plugger in 1957 with music publisher Chappell was to bring Conway his big break. His boss Teddy Holmes had a new tune and no pianist, and his young employee soon came to his attention.

Two years later, with such songs as Side Saddle, Roulette and China Tea, Conway was the top-selling UK artist.

On the sheet music chart in the same year, three compositions under his real name of Trevor Stanford were at number one for a total of more than six months.

This heralded a decade of tinkling activity, when Conway was one of the regular guests on Billy Cotton's weekly variety show, and appeared in three Royal Variety Performances.

Russ Conway was one of Britain's biggest-selling music artists before The Beatles, chalking up sales of 30 million records, but his career came to a premature halt when he suffered a stroke in 1965.

Russ Conway in his 40s
He suffered a stroke in his forties
By the early 1970s he was, by his own admission, "becoming difficult to work with". Drinking heavily and addicted to anti-depressants, he went from considerable wealth to near bankruptcy.

But, with the help of many showbusiness friends, Conway fought back and returned to work, though on a smaller scale, doing summer seasons in resorts across the country.

In 1990, with his career back on the rails, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He set up his own Cancer Charity, but nevertheless continued to perform.

Most recently, Russ Conway hosted his own 75th birthday celebration concert in Eastbourne, inviting back Joan Regan and many of his other old musical companions.

He also released a CD in August 2000, bringing together old and new music, the celebration of an enduring talent and a time when all a best-selling record needed was a good tune.

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16 Nov 00 | Entertainment
Pianist Russ Conway dies
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