About thirty years ago, at an Art exhibition in Christchurch Mansion, I fell into conversation with a former Opera singer. We discussed the images in front of us with the casual informality of strangers and before we moved in opposite directions, he informed me our five minute interlude would not have been possible if he had still been singing professionally. He would have been saving his voice for any upcoming performances and moved around public spaces in silence. I was therefore more than a little grateful Gerry Bremner, professionally known as Il Tenore, afforded me both time and conversation when we met at the start of this wintry November. Many of you may have heard him sing at various K.A.T.C.A.G.[i] events or at the Hand in Hand. Such is his ease of delivery, it’s easy to imagine he trained from an early age but the story of his musical career has not been straightforward.
Gerry’s working life began in Ilford, in and around the area until about 1983. He found his first employment after leaving school working in the advertisement industry, although,
“My first job was in an advertising agency but I really wanted to work in a creative job in the Music industry. I had been an instrumentalist at school, although I was also very much into football. I was on the fringes of the music scene in the late Seventies and early eighties. I heard about a job working in the Marquee Club[ii] in their recording studio and moved there. I found myself working alongside some of the Studio’s big names: Elton John, Barclay James Harvest, Mud, Adam Faith and Colin Blunstone were all artists of the studio. I was working in a bubble but at the weekends I would be pursuing my other passion, football.
When I was working, I would often be asked out to lunch and on one particular occasion I was offered and artist and development opportunity with Chapel Records and was invited to do a demo record at The Chapel Recording Studios. This was a really big decision for me. But just before that, I was offered the opportunity to work on a double album with the band Mud as the second engineer, alongside Pip Williams. The recording was to take place at Sir Richard Branson’s studio, The Manor’[iv]. I had to be in London on a Saturday morning by 8.00 o’clock. When I came home on the Friday night, I spoke to my father about it and he said it was a great opportunity for me. I went to bed for the early start the next day but during the night, heard my mother calling out. She was trying to wake my father up. He had suffered a heart attack and she couldn’t rouse him. We called the ambulance but before they could reach the hospital, he was declared dead.’
In any circumstances, this would have been a traumatic event. Dealing with the shock and enveloped by new responsibilities, Gerry had to support his mother both emotionally and financially. The work in the studios, whilst providing everything he wanted concerning as a career, didn’t pay very much. He had to look for alternative employment. In one evening, his life changed for not only did he have to take on significant responsibilities, he discovered he was physically affected. The impact of his bereavement was to affect his voice; it developed an uncontrollable vibrato when he sang. It was to be more than twenty years before he started to sing again.
The work situation was addressed. His code for living encompasses a strong work ethic and always to do the very best he can in whatever role he takes on. After the death of his father he worked a Sales Team in Suffolk. He has always been involved with physical sports and keeping fit from school days onward. He played football for Brentwood at a Senior Amateur level. An opportunity arose to work for a health club, it seemed a natural fit. Apples, a large Keep Fit centre just outside Ilford, took him on. At the time many celebrities used the facility including Frank Bruno and the West Ham football team who were regulars. There would be queues of people waiting to do aerobics and the organisation was successful, not least because it was at the start of the Gym and fitness culture. At a certain point Gerry was asked to run the operation in the area and took it on with great success.
As part of a Sales Team, he began to travel around the country and driving through Suffolk began to feel a sense of peace as he passed through the small villages. The thought flashed through his mind it would be the perfect place to raise a family. He came to Felixstowe one wild, wet day when a gale was blowing in from the North Sea He stayed in a hotel on the seafront and when he left never expected to return there again. By chance he met Wendy in The Butts Wine Bar in Ipswich when she was working in a team for Willis Faber. Their relationship bloomed as did the fitness Club, Apples. It had proved to be very successful and the owner made the decision to sell it. This in turn created a natural opportunity for Gerry to make the break and move to Suffolk.
Wendy was working in one of the new telephone shops in Ipswich. As this was the mid-eighties, you may need to be reminded mobile phones were in their infancy. Gerry met the owner of the shop who, impressed with his ability as a sales person, offered him a job in mobile telephony. He helped to built up that side of the business and could see this was going to take off in a significant way. At a certain point Gerry decided he wanted to settle down in the area and he and another man decided to work for themselves. Gerry’s business was based in Felixstowe Docks and surrounding companies were swift to install mobiles into their own establishments. The infant mobile technology industry was growing rapidly and a clever understanding of the business meant that by adapting to a formerly unperceived business need, the whole operation took off in a major way. Gerry put their success down to two factors: firstly, they were the main distributors for British Telecom and secondly, the product was very cost efficient for the Hauliers’ Companies. It was a booming situation that was to last for about fifteen years.
His work involved travelling all over the country and covering a thousand miles a week was not at all uncommon. The hectic pace of life intensified his love for the Felixstowe area. Countryside walks around the area in his wellies and pottering about in a beach hut were high points of pleasure. They enabled him to step out of the fast lane and remove himself from every day pressures. In an age of intense communication, it was good to step outside of the system.
By the late nineties. Gerry was both successfully and comfortably established. He had married Wendy and moved initially to Rushmere St. Andrew but moved to Trimley St. Martin when he found a plot of land where he could build his own home. It became a happy place where his two daughters Keeley and Abi could grow up. They both went to Kingsfleet School, then under the Headship of John Trotter, who was known for his enthusiastic promotion of music.
“They talk about their childhood and how special it was for them. They both felt happy and secure in the countryside environment. You can’t place a value on it but I think it’s important for our well-being. We still live in a predominantly rural area and need to value our village communities. Since moving to Trimley in the nineties I’ve seen the changes in the area, particularly the differences in the traffic. Accessing the High Road from where I live has become increasingly difficult.
The business premises occupied twelve thousand square feet, housing sales and repair teams, in addition to the admin offices necessary in any business. His company was one of the first selling mobile phones to be B.S.I[v]. accredited and was also the country’s top distributor for B.T. But the nature of the business had changed. Mobile phones were no longer confined to the business sector as the consumer market began to open up. Concurrently, the Internet was becoming widely available in domestic and commercial spheres. It became clear the High Street traders were about to become major players. For Gerry, the sensible move was to sell the business and that was exactly what happened. What did Gerry do next?
“I spoke to my wife, Wendy. She had never even heard me sing at this point but it was decided I should just do it! I needed to start having singing lessons and found Barbara Windsor who lives in Belstead, who took me on at a basic level. She directed me to singing in a choir and from thereon, things started to firm up and I started to sing solos. After a while Barbara thought I should engage with musical theatre, something I had never considered, and she directed me to the Ipswich Operatic Society. At the time they were producing a show called, ‘Chess’ and the audition pieces was ‘Anthem’[vi] from the show. It’s a big song but I was asked to play the lead. Unfortunately, through the remainder of the audition process they struggled to find enough for the Chorus and the show was cancelled. But it was not a dead end because someone suggested I audition for a principal role in the Ipswich Gilbert and Sullivan Society[vii] and I got in. Suddenly I was in the G & S operas, performing lead roles such Nanki Poo in the Mikado and singing other principle roles. They used to be performed in the Corn Exchange in Ipswich with a thirty five piece orchestra. During the process I learnt about being on stage, how to perform and all the elements of public singing.
Gerry in ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’
It was during this period I heard of the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival[viii] and decided to try for a secondary role because I wanted to test myself against those who had received classical training. The auditions were held in Soho and I was lucky enough to perform in Buxton with the professional company, making good friends who have stayed with me and I loved the whole experience. Then in about 2013 the decision was made to go solo. I began to look at suitable music and recognising how much I loved Bel Canto (‘Beautiful singing’) started introducing classical music into my repertoire. As my range expanded to included different genres, another decision was made to re-brand myself as Il Tenore and so I began to perform.
Knowing there is always room for improvement, a few years ago I contacted one of the top guys, the highly regarded Professor Ross Campbell[ix] who asked me to send some of my material. He was willing to take me on because he thought the raw material was there. We worked together for about a year and he dismantled my singing from the bottom up. His tuition was invaluable and confirmed that training is crucial.
Singing is now the vital and pre-eminent feature in my life. In recent years I have begun to sing with my daughter, whose professional stage name is Forest. The main difficulty is finding time to perform together.
Forest and Il Tenore performing together at a Gala Dinner
Quattro Amici is another one of my singing commitments. I perform with this quartet, composed of people from the Gilbert and Sullivan Society and rehearse with them about twice a week. We have regular gigs in Colchester. Singing practice is about two or three times a week. I perform perhaps about six times a month, resting my voice in between times. It’s now possible to cherry pick what I do and where.’
However, Gerry’s life does have many other elements to it and K.A.T.C.A.G. is one. For some of us, this is where we first encountered him, organising the distribution of leaflets and speaking passionately about saving Trimley land from the proposed developments outlined in the Local Plan. The fight to save Trimley from concrete continues and he was one of those who gave evidence at the Inspector’s hearing in August and September. His charitable singing outings include donating his voice to K.A.T.C.A.G’s. fund raising events, notably their Auction of Promises and last night’s Quiz. His role has been that of a roving campaigner, passionately speaking to promote the cause. My final question was to ask him why. His reply:
“The land is at the heart of the fight. It’s not just ours to manage but it’s about passing it on to the next generation. It’s about doing what is the right thing for me to do and fighting for it, otherwise I will always regret not doing anything. I genuinely believe the evidence base for the proposed land development is not accurate.”
If you have any comments or would like to be part of this Trimley St. Martin project, please contact me at:
[i] Kirton and Trimley Community Action Group
[vi] You can hear the song ‘Anthem’ sung by Josh Groban by following this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61DiWi00d2w
[viii] Now held in Harrogate.