Obituary: Tribute to notorious show's banjo player, Clem Vickery, 73

Clem

Clem Vickery - Credit: ARCHANT

It was a chance discovery in his grandfather’s dusty attic at the age of nine which inspired a lifelong love of music. 

As soon as Clem Vickery picked up the long-forgotten banjo, he was hooked. 

And by the age of 16, the talented musician had acquired enough skill and knowledge to perform.

His passion and enthusiasm for the instrument became the start of a 40-year professional music career - with his big break coming when he began performing on the now notorious The Black and White Minstrel Show - and he built up a repertoire from taking renowned music from the Western Classical tradition and arranging it for the banjo. 

Clem Vickery who was in the Black and White Minstrels performing at Palgrave House

Clem Vickery who was in the Black and White Minstrels performing at Palgrave House - Credit: ARCHANT

A long-time resident of Wicken Green, near Fakenham, north Norfolk, he thrived as the director of the fretted instrument company Clifford Essex and designed some of the finest banjos, mandolins, and ukuleles available anywhere in the world. 

Born Clement Andrew Vickery on January 31, 1949, in Forest Gate, London, he was the only son of Clement Horace Vickery and Gladys Florence. His two sisters were Kathleen and Doreen. 

As a child, he was very passionate and knowledgeable about model aeroplanes and boat making. He would take great pride in ensuring his models would survive as long as possible and would spend hours, even days, completely engaged in these activities.  

Clem Vickery who was in the Black and White Minstrels performing at Palgrave House

Clem Vickery who was in the Black and White Minstrels performing at Palgrave House - Credit: ARCHANT

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The part he loved the best was flying or sailing the models, with test spaces in abundance at the time due to there being a boating lake around every corner.

He had recently expressed a renewed eagerness to make these models again and had been looking forward to assembling a model Tiger Moth bought for him last Christmas.  

Mr Vickery attended Plaistow Grammar from 1960-66 but later confessed to the desire to attend the local technical college instead to fulfil his love of design and wood and metalwork. 

Following the discovery of his grandfather’s banjo, by age 16 Mr Vickery had acquired enough skill and knowledge to play in local dance bands. Over the years he played in many as well as running his own. 

Clem Vickery who was in the Black and White Minstrels performing at Palgrave House

Clem Vickery who was in the Black and White Minstrels performing at Palgrave House - Credit: ARCHANT

He also appeared on television shows including a David Nixon season and his own show, Mini Melodies, during the mid-1970s. During this time, he was also chosen to represent Great Britain in the first International Banjo Jubilee in California, United States, where he finished in a podium position. 

Later in his career, he performed as a soloist and one of his most rewarding periods was touring around the United Kingdom in a motor home with his late-partner Jenny and their many dogs, sometimes leaving their home village of Wicken Green for months at a time. 

Clem Vickery in his camper van with his dog Scamp

Clem Vickery in his camper van with his dog Scamp - Credit: ARCHANT

In 2007, the couple decided to revive Clifford Essex Music Limited from their home. Mr Vickery became its director and designed some of the finest banjos, mandolins, and ukuleles available anywhere in the world.

At this time, he also revived and edited The BMG–Banjo, Mandolin, Guitar–magazine. This saw him work with David Cotton, Alan Middleton, David Wade, Garry Silbert, Bob White, John Baldry, and countless others. His dedication to the company was unwavering and he was still processing orders and buying stock just days before he died. 

His son, Clem Vickery Jnr, paid tribute to his father on behalf of the family, describing his life as a “colourful one”. 

A write-up on Clem Vickery in Fretwire magazine

A write-up on Clem Vickery in Fretwire magazine - Credit: SUPPLIED BY FAMILY

He said: “Dad started his working life as an apprentice telecommunications engineer. However, early into his apprenticeship, he caught sight of a shop assistant role advertised at Clifford Essex Music in Covent Garden. Despite a severe pay cut, he took the job.

“Whilst he was working for Clifford Essex he also played nightly in a variety of ensembles around London, so essentially, he had two jobs. He knew burning the candle at both ends wasn’t sustainable, however, he kept going as best he could.

"I remember him mentioning the few times he would slip into work late and bleary-eyed, to be called in for a chat with his boss.

“One of Dad's regular tasks at the shop was to demonstrate banjos for customers. One day, whilst fulfilling such a task, and unbeknown to him, a BBC producer was browsing in the shop. He was blown away listening to Dad’s virtuosic wizardry and didn’t hesitate in inviting Dad to audition for a musical role at the BBC a few days later. 

Clem Vickery who was in the Black and White Minstrels performing at Palgrave House

Clem Vickery who was in the Black and White Minstrels performing at Palgrave House - Credit: ARCHANT

“Consequently, Dad began performing in the BBC TV series ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’ in 1971. This was his big break, he knew he’d have to let go of his position at Clifford Essex, however, as fate would have it, he would eventually find his way back 35 years later. 

“In 1973, George Mitchell offered him an eight-month season in the West End stage show at the New Victoria Theatre which naturally he accepted. He wasn’t too keen as it turned out he would be required to mime, but it was too late, he was under contract. 

“He was passionate about his music and had a great sense of humour. He was always driven, hardworking, and thrived for perfection.”  

Mr Vickery died on February 6 and is survived by his children Tracey, Clem, Amanda, Maria, Lloyd, Andy, and Iain.  

He was buried with “the love of his life” Jenny, beside his parents, at a celebration of his life on February 25.