‘Are you sure they’re still going?’ asked Prince Charles, when Phil Collins mentioned the Dark Blues. The band’s jazzy numbers had filled the dance floor at his 21st, and now, two decades later, Collins was suggesting they play at his 40th. The party was a rip-roaring success (so much so that Collins booked up the band for his wedding) and in 2006 the Dark Blues is still driving the dance floor in marquees, on beaches and in gardens all over the country.
It is not difficult to see why Nigel Tully, who founded the now legendary band, has become a bespoke entertainer of royalty, landed gentry and celebrities. Born and brought up in central Leeds and definitely not the type to ‘nerd around on the internet’ (he still sports a pony tail), Tully is more traditional than he would care to admit. He met his first wife Prue while playing at a hunt ball – and he knew full well she was the Master’s daughter as he wrote her telephone number on his hand. ‘I resisted my foolish prejudices,’ he says, ‘although when I came downstairs to find my children dressed to go on the children’s meet it could have spelled the end of my marriage.’ When Prue’s stepmother died, Tully inherited the hunt kennels and a sizeable country house and began running the Dark Blues from Hertfordshire, becoming good friends with the local hunt.
But Tully has not always been so popular. His love of Buddy Holly was scorned by jazz enthusiasts at Oxford University in the 1960s, so much so that the celebrated Miles Kington refused him membership of the Oxford University Jazz Club. But his ability to replicate the rock n roll music of the moment meant he became a popular feature in bars in Birmingham and Oxford. In the summer of second year at university he struck gold when he was invited to play during the break at an outdoor gig at the Victoria Arms. The audience refused to let him leave the stage ? and Tully realised there was a market for a covers band. ‘I didn’t have the talent to write my own music,’ he admits, ‘I just played well known tunes, the types that make people dance.’
The covers band he started ? the Dark Blues ? has since made over 5,000 appearances. Tully leads a six-piece band of professional singers, saxophonists, drummers and keyboard players. All of them are lead vocalists and multi-instrumentalists, enabling them to cover almost any hit of the last 40 years with uncanny accuracy. Tully believes the secret to the band’s success is that he never plans what he will ask them to play next. ‘No band leader has ever done it before,’ he explains. ‘All my band members are better musicians than me ? just as the song ends I can tell them what to play next depending on the mood.’
After years of gigs, Tully still finds that the challenge of every evening is to find the right music. ‘You’ve got to get it right so I don’t decide anything in advance,’ he says, admitting that weddings are perhaps the most difficult. ‘They always have a wide mix of people and families that don’t know each other. People have turned up not necessarily wanting to be there ? it is just not the same atmosphere as when they’ve bought tickets to a charity ball.’ The Dark Blues’ repertoire spans across the ages; they have recently learned Charlotte Church and Madonna (Hung Up). ‘Its hard to tell what will become a classic today. In the time of the Beatles you would know straight after a record was released, now you only know six months after a song has come out.’ The band can also learn specific music for a particular party; ‘We had to brush up on our reggae while playing in Bermuda,’ he said, explaining that in April 2006 they were booked as house band for the first international 20-20 Classic Cricket Festival in Bermuda.
Just as Tully’s repertoire spans the ages, he believes parties that include all ages are the most fun. ‘A family party such as joint silver wedding, 21st and 50th,’ he says, ‘is always a really good once in a lifetime bash.’ When it comes to hosting his own party, Tully is very specific. ‘I wouldn’t throw the sort of party I play at,’ he admits, ‘Because I’d want to be playing!’ Instead he enlists the musical talent of Tim Garland’s Underground Orchestra and puts up a marquee in the gardens of his Hertfordshire home (in case it rains). The party takes place during the day with children’s entertainers, swimming, and an eclectic mix of business colleagues and local friends wandering round the rose gardens. ‘I always serve good wine and proper beer and employ a professional caterer.’
Having played in castles and palaces, glass sided marquees on cliff tops, and islands, Tully finds it hard to pinpoint a favourite venue. ‘King Hussein of Jordan threw a good party on the beach outside the Royal Palace,’ he says, describing how the army built a fantastic stage. ‘And guess how many people he invited? … 38. Any fool can play for a thousand people but it is much harder to entertain a small audience.’
Volume, according to Tully, is all important. ‘We can play at any volume and don’t rely on the bass. Some people have disapproving neighbours or older guests who don’t like the music too loud’ he says. One party host specifically requested that none of his guests dance. ‘We just turned down the volume and played much jazzier pieces ? it went down well.’
But for Tully (and the host) the most exciting part of a party is always the point when granny gets up and starts dancing, or when the crowded dance floor is so exhausted the crowd needs a slower track to let them catch their breath ? or, according to Tully, when King Hussein shakes your hand and gives you a signed photo.