I got a text message the other night from my old friend Sara Turner back in Essex. She and I would regularly go to the Star pub in Ingatestone High Street on Monday evening's to listen to live folk music played by a random group of musicians - nothing was really planned or rehearsed, it was just a case of who ever turned up, then played. Among the great musicians who turned up regularly were Dave Wilcox - banjo player supreme; Alex Mihailovic - a superb fiddler; Mike - a great guitarist, mandolin player and vocalist; and many more. Some evenings there would be just one musician, other evenings there would be ten or more, all crammed into one corner of this funny little old pub and belting out great music. But of all the attractions, there was really only one true "star" - and that was Gus.
Gus Dallaway was originally from Trinidad and had come over to the UK in the 1950's. He worked for British Rail as a line man and lived in Margaretting, a small village in Essex just to the south of Chelmsford. My grandparents and my father lived in Margaretting and knew Gus very well, particularly from his time playing as a member of the village cricket team. Gus was clearly not the world's greatest cricket player, but he brought infectious enthusiasm to the game and, as an added bonus, each week would make up a calypso about the previous week's match and would bring in each member of the team into his songs. I remember Gus from when I was a young child as this larger than life colourful character who permanently seemed positive and a force for good.
When I met up with Gus again in the 1990's at the Star Pub in Ingatestone it was a revelation. Gus would not turn up until about 9.30pm at the very earliest, he would sit at the bar and have a couple of drinks, but would then launch himself onto the "stage" with the band, and just take over! His staple songs would include "Yellow Bird", "Pick a Bail of Cotton", "Bless This House" and, best of all, an absolutely heart stopping version of "Old Man River" which may sound like a bit of a cliche, but Gus' version was so truly moving as to reduce grown men to tears (the author included).
As Gus got older, so his rheumatism and arthritis got worse and he finally decided he would like to go back to the warm climate of Trinidad for his final years. In 1996 a massive farewell party was organised at The Star with all the musicians playing for Gus. Sara and I got there and the place was packed - but of Gus there was no sign. The band started playing and the evening got going with a swing, but still Gus hadn't arrived. Finally a shout went out that Gus had finally got to the pub. A hush descended on the bar, the band stopped playing and the lights were dimmed. The double front doors of the pub slowly swung open to reveal Gus, silhouetted against the freezing cold Essex night, dressed in a long Matrix style black leather coat right down to the ground but done up tight to his neck, and on his head a white fur Russian military hat. There was a stunned moment of silence as everyone took in this awesome image, then a small drunken voice near the back of the room said:
"F*ck me, it's a pint of Guinness." The room erupted into laughter. It was a magnificent evening with a party that will live with me until the day I die. Gus was on marvellous form and totally dominated the entertainment all night. It was a truly fitting send off for one of the finest natural showmen and entertainers I have ever had the pleasure to meet. And so Gus departed our shores, leaving the country a little duller for it and settled back in Trinidad.
A few years back my parents were on a cruise in the West Indies and one of the stops was at Tobago, Trinidad's sister island. They phoned Gus and were going to try and meet up with him, but unfortunately it never came to fruition.
And so I got Sara's text message two days ago. There had been an announcement in the Essex Chronicle newspaper that Gus Dallaway had passed away at the ripe old age of 89 on the island of Trinidad. I sat quietly and remembered back to all those old days back at The Star in Ingatestone, the fun evenings, the entertainment that Gus had given to everyone and the pleasure he brought to so many people's lives. And most of all, to those hushed moments when he would perform "Old Man River" and get to those magical lyrics near the end:
But you and me,
We sweat and strain,
Body all aching and wracked with pain,
"Tote that barge!"
"Lift that bale!"
You Get a little drunk,
And you land in jail.
I gets weary
And sick of trying
I'm tired of living
But I'm scared of dying,
But ol' man river,
He just keeps rolling along.
Gus Dallaway, rest in peace my friend.