Record-breaking Phil Kelsall is celebrating 40 years of playing the organ at the iconic Tower Ballroom
Dancing a dramatic tango on the hallowed floor of Blackpool Tower Ballroom is a dream for many a dancer.
Although they wouldn’t be expecting to hear the strains of party tune the YMCA resontating from the venue’s mighty Wurlitzer
But record-breaking organist Phil Kelsall admits enjoying the moment he drops that into his set now and then.
Phil’s been pulling out all the stops to entertain visitors to the Ballroom for 40 years - now surpassing the legendary organist Reginald Dixon who retired after playing from 1930 to 1970.
And he’ll be celebrating the landmark achievement with a special concert performance on Sunday, being attended by relatives of both Dixon and his successor Ernest Broadbent.
It will be an unusual event as the organ will be played in concert mode, which seldom happens thanks to the Ballroom’s use for dance events.
And the repertoire will vary from the usual dance tunes played, although that’s not to say there aren’t some unusual tracks heard echoing round the hallowed Ballroom when Phil’s on the keys.
“For each dance style there are only so many tunes you can play,” he explained. “As organists, we have a collection of 20 or so tunes in our heads for each dance.
“I came back for the season last week, after not playing all winter, but it comes flooding back; it’s amazing how the brain works.
“How playing for playing in the ballroom works is that we announce it’s a waltz, for example, and then play the waltz tunes we know.
“There’s a real mix of music, people love dancing to the American smooth, Fred and Ginger type songs, but we play more modern things too.
“Not that it’s exactly modern, but I do the YMCA as a tango.
“It gets a good reaction. People hear the rhythm first, and set off in a tango, then you see them realising what the tune actually is.
“As with any dance, I announce it as a tango, start the rhythm, then the tune doesn’t matter so much.
“When I include the Birdy Song, people do do the actions, but not so much with the YMCA.”
Phil was 14 when the family moved from Warrington to Blackpool, for his dad to run the post office in Church Street, but they had been regular visitors to the resort - travelling every week to come and hear Reg Dixon play at the Tower.
“I’d sit and watch him play, every week, and it was a great inspiration,” Phil said.
He learned to play piano at school and went on to play classical organ at church and got to know Reg’s replacement Ernest Broadbent, who allowed him to practise on the Wurlitzer once a week.
“Looking back, I’m very grateful for this,” Phil said. “And it was Ernest who recommended me to the music manager Ken Turner for the circus orchestra with Charlie Cairoli in 1975.
“During that time, Ernest had every Friday off and I used to play in his place as that was the day the circus shut - so I had my foot in the door when Ernest retired in 1977.
“Then the owners, EMI at that time, introduced a policy of non-stop dancing in the Ballroom in 1977, which meant two organs and three or four organists were needed to allow for that.
“I was 21 - what a great present for my 21st birthday, being given the chance to play the Ballroom organ every day.”
The non-stop music policy remains in place today, and Phil says the Ballroom Wurlitzer is played even more now that it was in Reg Dixon’s heyday - and thanks to TV show Strictly Come Dancing the Ballroom’s even more popular than ever.
“That’s still the policy now,” Phil said. “It works.
“And dancing at the Ballroom is even more popular now, thanks toStrictly Come Dancing - for a large part, it’s given dancing a new lease of life.
“People are aware of the Ballroom because of the show and the dancing sessions are often completely sold out these days.
“As well as dancing fans, we get a lot of people coming for big reunions, like birthdays or anniversaries, making a really big event of it. There’s also dance clubs and schools coming, and a lot more serious dancers coming now than there were in the 70s and 80s, and they come year-round not just when the dance festivals are on.
“When I started, we didn’t even open on New Year’s Eve. 1980 was the first time we did, and it was heaving - like it still is these days.
“It’s as busy on a Wednesday in January as it is in July now.”
Among Phil’s most memorable events was meeting and playing for the Queen and Prince Philip in 1994 when they visited to mark the centenary of the Tower building.
He also recalls some more challenging musical engagements - having twice played on the outside of the Tower.
“I once played for 24 hours non-stop at the top of the Tower on an electric organ for the First Leisure charity,” he said.
“That was so popular that they then rigged and organ and me to the side of the Tower, on scaffolding, 250 feet up.
“Getting the MBE in 2010 was also very special. I received it from Prince Charles, and he invited me to play the Buckingham Palace organ - it didn’t happen though.
“And my next highlight is reaching this anniversary, 40 years at the Ballroom. I’ve tied with Reginald Dixon.
“I’m sure if he were here now he would be very pleased that his brainchild - he designed the ballroom Wurlitzer - has kept going.”
In addition to the MBE, three of Phil’s recordings have won The Music Retailers Association awards and Phil has been proud to receive the coveted Gold Badge Award of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors for his service to the British music industry - with fellow recipients including Dame Shirley Bassey and Jools Holland.
While Strictly Come Dancing may make its annual pilgrimage to the Ballroom, Phil’s TV credits extend much further and Royals haven’t been the only famous faces Phil’s met.
He’s been filmed for shows including Songs Of Praise, The Antiques Roadshow and Great British Train Journeys, and Terry Wogan, Barbara Windsor and Jo Brand are among those reeled off.
“Jo Brand has to learn the organ in three weeks for a programme,” he said. “Then we had Roy and Hayley from Coronation Street a couple of years ago, when Hayley wanted to dance in the ballroom before she died.
“They danced to The Carpenters’ Close To You and it was a good foxtrot.”
When not playing at the Tower, Phil travels the country and around the world, acting as an ambassador for the resort - billed on posters as the ‘Tower Ballroom organist’,
Travelling to Australia 15 years ago, the show was advertised as a ‘Blackpool Night Out’, and he’s hoping to confirm a return trip in the near future.
He plays 40 to 50 concerts a year in the UK, and said no venue or organ compares to the Ballroom and its organ.
“There are some nice ones around,” he said. “But the combination of the Wurlitzer and the acoustics of the room make a big difference.
“And then there is the atmosphere of the room too.
“It has been a wonderful career,” he said. “I’d say I was lucky; it fell into place.
“I joined Barclays after school, and worked in dad’s post office and my intention would have been to carry on the family business. I’m glad I didn’t though, post offices have almost disappeared.”
It’s safe to say the Tower’s going nowhere.