There is no doubt that, with the passing of Jimmy McGroaty in 2007, the Rhodesian and Zimbabwean music scene lost one of its most popular, colourful and charismatic personalities. Ever the gentleman, he won friends wherever he went.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 2 March, 1920 and educated at St Mungo’s School, Jimmy’s father was a barber and stage actor whilst his mother kept the home fires burning. His brother, John, ran a pub in Rothesay, Scotland. Jimmy taught himself to play piano as a child, learnt to read music and acquainted himself with the trumpet, followed by the xylophone and double bass.
Jimmy relocated with his wife and three children in the early 1950’s to what was then Southern Rhodesia. Prior to this, and during the years of the Second World War, he had established himself as a member of ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) providing entertainment for the troops. During this time Jimmy played with such luminaries as Jimmy Cagney. Many well-known stars have performed at ENSA, including George Formby, Wilfred Bramwell, Joyce Grenfell, Paul Scofield, Rebecca Cantwell, Dora Bryan and Vera Lynn.
Shortly after his arrival in Bulawayo, Jimmy announced his presence on the local music scene when he played with the Bulawayo Philharmonic Orchestra before going on to play with various bands over the decades that were to follow. When it came to music and entertainment, Jimmy was “a man for all seasons”, ever eager and willing to participate in any live event that was being mooted.
A loyal and dedicated member of the MOTHS, Jimmy played the Last Post on numerous occasions at ceremonies at the MOTH Shrine in Bulawayo. Aside from the MOTHS, he belonged to various other clubs in the city.
Jimmy left his mark on many of the bands and musicians he played with over the years. Rick Laing of Ramblers fame is one who treasures these memories. Rick’s Dad, Bill, played piano with Jimmy for many years in groups which included other distinguished local performers such as Mike Barker (guitar) and Davey Dick (upright bass). As a fourteen year old, Rick was invited to play with the band filling in on bass when the regular musician was absent or indisposed. He recalls how much he learnt from Jimmy about music, particularly when it came to key changes! These Jimmy indicated through a unique finger signalling system he had devised and which all the band members understood. Three fingers pointed to the floor, for example, indicated E flat!
He made regular appearances on local television shows such as RTV’s annual Christmas Eve event. He also did session work on recordings for various artists.
In 1967 Jimmy was presented with a shield for ‘the best jazz trumpeter in southern Africa’. Over the years he played with Eddie Calvert and is credited by many as having performed a more impressive version of “O Mein Papa” than did Calvert. He also backed a number of other renowned artists, including Eve Boswell.
Jimmy’s enthusiasm even saw him performing on trumpet with the Boswell-Wilkie’s Circus which, unlike most modern day circuses, boasted a live band during its performances. Jimmy’s willingness to temporarily join the “big top” allowed the resident trumpeter to take a break from the constant touring. In 1968 he travelled throughout Rhodesia and Mozambique with the circus for three months. Although the circus’s management would have liked Jimmy to have become a permanent fixture, he and his wife decided that living in a train compartment with their little dog, despite its being comfortably fitted out, wasn’t all that appealing. Nevertheless, his three months with the circus provided him with a wealth of experiences and memories to generate a multitude of funny stories about his time performing with lions, elephants, clowns and other performers!
On his 70th birthday, and whilst working for Acol Chemicals, he bought the Oasis Restaurant. This was the perfect acquisition for him as it provided a regular entertainment platform from which he could ply his musical skills. During this period he performed on trumpet and keyboard alongside his best friend, Jack Buckell, who played the accordion. Their combined talents ensured that diners were well entertained and eager to return for more.
In the 1980’s he started his own mobile disco and was a popular choice, not only for his selection of music but for his jokes, too!
Throughout his life in Bulawayo, Jimmy was always willing to be a part of any musical or entertainment project that was in the offing. He never hesitated, for instance, to don a Santa Claus outfit and will be fondly remembered by many, parents and children alike, for his many appearances at clubs and nursery schools as a particularly jovial, warm and generous Father Christmas!
One of the greatest accolades he received came during Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Zimbabwe in 1991. This came in the form of being asked to trumpet her Majesty’s arrival at the Church of England for the Sunday morning service. When he had, literally, played his part, he realized that someone had inadvertently moved the chair which had been provided for him to sit on. The Queen, seeing him standing against the wall, beckoned him to sit next to her where there was an unoccupied chair. Jimmy readily accepted the invitation and had the honour of the Queen sharing her hymn sheet, and exchanging a few conversational words, during the service. True to form, he caused something of a stir after the service when he asked the Queen if he could introduce his wife to her!
In 2003, Jimmy and his wife Theresa followed the rest of the family back to the United Kingdom. They took up residence in Putney where, despite hating the cold and the rain, he made the most of his time there until his death in 2007. Theresa passed away in 2011.
Jimmy is survived by his older son, Jack, who is presently in rehearsals with some ex-Rhodesian musicians who now live in London and hope to get some gigs booked over the coming months. He was known as ‘Jumping Jack’ when he was in Harare and performed with KLUNK, along with Benny Miller, and was with HOLY BLACK and some other groups prior to that.
The ashes of Jimmy and Theresa are still with the family, however, the intention is to have them scattered at the MOTH shrine in the Matopos when this can be arranged.