David Power, Showman
David Power lives in a comfortable Peabody flat round the back of the London Coliseum and, with his raffish charm, flowing snowy locks and stylish lambswool sweater, he is completely at home among the performers of theatre land. Yet, although David may have travelled only a short distance to the West End from his upbringing in the East End, it has been an eventful and circuitous journey to reach this point of arrival.
Blessed with a superlative talent, both as a pianist and as a composer, David interrupted our conversation with swathes of melody at the keyboard – original compositions of assurance and complexity – and these musical interludes offered a sublime counterpoint to the sardonic catalogue of his life’s vicissitudes. Settled happily now with his third wife, David organises charity concerts which permit him to exercise his musical skills and offer a lively social life too. At last, winning the appreciation he always sought, David has discovered the fulfilment of his talent.
“I’ve done a lot of things in my time. All my family were boxers. In those days you had thirty or forty fights a week before you could make a living. It was a different world. Them days we had some good fights but they were hungry then. They punched the fuck out of each other but they were all friends too.
Me, I love boxing but I was a prodigy at the piano at the age of five. My mother, Lily Power, she couldn’t afford no piano lessons for me because we were poor. People have no idea how hard it was in the thirties and forties. I was born in Hounslow and my mother moved us back to Spitalfields where she was from.
My mum paid five shillings a week rent at 98 Commercial St but she wouldn’t let me answer the door when the rent collector came round. Today you couldn’t buy it for two million. Wilkes St was called the knocking shop because the brass went round there for the top class girls. They said, “Can we help you out, any way you like?” Itchy Park, next to the church, we called that Fuck Park – you could get it in there for sixpence. It was a wonderful, wonderful world.
Then I was evacuated to Worcester but I ran away about nine times. Each time, the police picked me up when I got to Paddington Station and put me on the train back again, I was nine years old. It was very funny.
They gave my mother an old pub in Worcester and she took in twenty armaments workers. There was no water, it was outside in the scullery. She charged one pound fifty a week for bed and breakfast and I used to get up at five-thirty to do the fires each morning in 1940. The most wonderful thing was when they brought gas into the house and we had a gas stove, and I didn’t have to worry about making up the fire each morning and heating the water for everyone for bath night on Friday. I got in a lot of trouble at school because I was Jewish and they used to say, “Show us your horns!” and that’s how I got into fighting.
I started work in Spitalfields Market when I was fourteen, I worked with a Mr Berenski selling nuts – peanuts and walnuts. The place was piled high with nuts! I had to stack them up with a ladder. I remember once the sack split and the nuts went everywhere and he chased me around the market. But Harry Pace, my cousin, he was a middleweight, he protected me.
I got a job in The Golden Heart playing the piano at weekends, earning one pound for two sessions. An old guy asked me to play, “When I leave the world behind,” and I thought, “He ain’t got long to go.” I earned three pounds, seventeen shillings and tuppence but, when my father discovered, he hit me round the ear and said, “You’ve been thieving!” Then my mother explained what I had been doing, and he took the money and gave me two bob.
After the war, my mother moved to Westcliff on Sea and that’s when she could afford two and sixpence for piano lessons for me, but by then I was much more interested in sport. As a child, I could play any music that I heard on the radio but, when I had my first lesson at ten years old, I thought crochets and quavers were sweets. There was a big Jewish community in Westcliff and I went to Southend Youth Club and started boxing there until I was called up for the army. I played football for Southend, we won the cup and I scored two goals. In the army, I sent my mum one pound a week home, but I was supposed to have been a concert pianist at eighteen. Fortunately, my Colonel liked music and I was in the NAAFI playing the piano and he asked me to play for the officers. They shipped me out to Hong Kong and Singapore and I played twice a month in the Raffles Hotel on Sundays and for the Prime Minister of Hong Kong.
When I came out the army, I was supported by Harriet Cohen, a concert pianist. I told her I was a ragged man but she wrote to the principal of the Guildhall School of Music. The professor told me to play flat, so I lay on the floor. I said, “You asked me to play flat, you fucking nitwit.” Then I went for an audition at the Windmill Theatre but they only offered me eight pounds a week for playing fourteen shows, so I jacked it in and did the Knowledge and became a cab driver, and got married in 1960. Then I decided to go into the markets and I worked in Covent Garden for twelve months as a porter, until my wife’s dad and I went into hotels – The Balmoral in Torquay and Hotel 21 in Brighton, but in the recession of the nineties I went bankrupt. We couldn’t compete with the deals offered by the big chains where businessmen used to bring their dolly birds at weekends.
Then I went on the road selling and I was earning three or four hundred pounds a week, especially in Wales. They didn’t know what a carpet was there. I once bought ten thousand dog basket covers for five pounds and sold them all at four for a pound as cushion covers in Pitsea Market. And that’s when I went into Crimplene, and then china, and then ties. Those were great days. Eventually, I went back in the taxi, worked like a slave, had a heart attack and died. Half of my heart is dead. I’ve been in and out of hospital with the old ticker ever since, so I decided to give something back by holding concerts for University College London Hospital. I do it all. I know talent when I see it and we have shows every month.
I never played the piano for twenty years, until ten years ago I went back to it – I wrote a piece of music when my wife died. I always wanted to be a pianist because music is something I get wrapped up in. A lot of people never believed I played the piano because I was so ragged, I had a ragged upbringing. If you come from the background that I came from, you’ve got keep putting money on the table. To be dedicated to music, you to have to be rich or a fool. I’m a born showman, that’s what they tell me, “David, you’re a showman.”"
David (on the left) enjoys a picnic with his mother Lily and brothers and sisters in Itchy Park, Spitalfields in the nineteen thirties.
David as a young boxer in the nineteen fifties.
Concert Pianist Harriet Cohen encouraged David to become a professional pianist.
David Power, Showman