The History of the Band
In January 1933, Mr. Fred Felton called a Northants Evening Telegraph reporter to his factory to tell him: “We are going to form a band and we are going to aim high”. Two years later the Munn and Felton Works Band were champions of Great Britain – and a brass band legend was born that has lived on for over 90 years.
When Mr. Felton spoke to that reporter from Kettering’s local newspaper, the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, he could hardly have known what success the next three quarters of a century would bring. But he started a musical tradition, which is continued by one of the most famous names in the brass band world – GUS.
Under the names of Munn and Felton, GUS (Footwear), The GUS Band, Rigid Containers Group Band, Travelsphere Holidays Band, the Virtuosi GUS Band, then finally the GUS Band the sound of Kettering brass has rung throughout Britain, Europe and America in concert halls, on television and radio and on records and CDs.
Thousands have applauded the band in concert, and the Midlanders have dented the Northern pride of Yorkshire and Lancashire, traditionally the home of brass bands, by winning no less than six national titles, the British Open Championships and being proclaimed World Champions.
Now the band is celebrating 90 years of outstanding music making and a story which had its beginning in a small Northamptonshire shoe factory.
The formation of the Munn and Felton Band
Unemployment in the 1930s and rumours of a new works band willing to pay a price for its men saw the start of the bands formation. One who was to apply was a young euphonium player just back from a tour of the USA and Canada with the famous Besses o’ the Barn Band, but who had been out of work for three years and had a wife to keep.
He was Bert Sullivan, who was to play a major part in the GUS history and ultimately became the band’s longest serving player with 35 years as principal euphonium.
Players arrived one by one, instruments were bought, the band room found and a set of uniforms purchased with their black tunics and lavish gold braid. The last piece of the jigsaw still had to be fitted – a conductor for what was to be the best band in Britain.
Halliwell was a giant of the brass band world with a considerable string of contest successes behind him. He was a conductor of the National Champion band nine times between 1910 and 1928 (and there was a five year gap for the First World War) and he conducted Fodens to a double victory in 1910. Halliwell was quite a catch for the ‘unknowns’ from Kettering and they knew it.
The result of Halliwell’s influence soon began to show with minor contest wins around the country and then in 1934, the Munn and Felton name was inscribed on the winner’s cup in the second section of the National Championships.
All that was left was the biggest title on offer to any brass band in the country – National Champions.
Preparations were under way for the biggest day so far in the brief life of the band. “Pride of Race” by K. A. Wright was the chosen work that was going to test the band and 19 others taking part in the championship section of the 1935 Crystal Palace festival. Whilst William Halliwell had applied all finishing touches and was satisfied that no more could be done, he never thought for one moment that the band were going to London to win.
Win they did! They played well and performed what became an epoch-making rendering of “Pride of Race”, the splendid though difficult test-piece. Loud cheers greeted the result, hats thrown into the air… Munn and Felton were Champions of Great Britain.
Fred and Bert Felton along with their bandsmen lifted the Thousand Guinea Trophy for the first time before dashing away to the BBC National Studio to broadcast to the nation later that evening. As one would expect, the Munn and Felton Band became one of the country’s best-loved concert bands.
The second world war
Bandsmen were called away to fight all over the world and the band stopped play for nearly seven years. As the war ended, players were drafted back to the shoe factory and more importantly to the band, which bounced back to success straight away under their new resident conductor Stanley Boddington.
After winning the Midland contest on the old test piece “Labour of Love”, the band took third place at both the National Championships and the British Open at Belle Vue. Despite placings in the big championships, a second major title eluded Munn and Felton, which led to the link with one of the brass band world’s famous personalities, Harry Mortimer.
Harry made the period after the war his own with eight National victories in eleven appearances and six Belle Vue triumphs out of nine!
When Harry was taken ill, Stanley Boddington took up the challenge and swept to victory for the first and only win in the open. It was another historic day for the Munn and Felton to play first and win – an almost unheard feat!
The GUS name is born
In 1962, when the massive GUS Group purchased the Munn and Felton factories following which, the GUS (Footwear) name was born, marking the change of sponsorship.
The GUS (Footwear) performance of Gilbert Vinter’s “Variations on a Ninth”, won the 1964 National Championships. This later became one of the most famous and a best-remembered performance of all time and has its place in brass band history. The band’s relationship with Vinter was cemented after this performance and he later composed three pieces for the highly acclaimed GUS Quartet.
This famous quartet consisting of John Berryman and David Read on cornet, John Cobley on horn and Trevor Groom on euphonium, enjoyed enormous success and won the Champion Quartet of Great Britain three times in 1966, 1967 and 1968 playing Vinter’s pieces.
In 1971, the GUS (Footwear) Band was proclaimed World Champions under the leadership of Stanley Boddington. The test piece was by the controversial English Composer Dr. Robert Simpson, his tone poem “Energy”.
In 1975 and after 42 years service with the band, Stanley Boddington retired and the bands links with its roots were finally severed. The band immediately appointed Geoffrey Brand as Musical Director who remained with the band for three years before handing over to 30 year-old Keith Wilkinson.
After a period of re-building, the year of 1980 became a very important milestone in the bands history. The band won the winter contest, recaptured the Midland title and was named best of brass winners in the BBC’s popular television contest and in 1982 was voted BBC Band of the Year.
As the band entered its Golden Jubilee, the name of GUS was firmly established amongst the pacemakers of the brass band movement. GUS sponsored the band for 25 years in total, before coming to an end in 1987.
The band was fortunate enough to gain immediate sponsorship with local packaging manufacturer Rigid Containers, based in nearby Desborough.
Rigid Containers provided the band with 10 years of security during which they provided a new base for the band in their factory and financial support to enable the band to continue to perform at the highest possible level.
The highlight of this period was being proclaimed British Open Champions in 1989, playing Wilfred Heaton’s “Contest Music”, that was especially commissioned for the contest. The Band’s guest Conductor on that occasion was Bramwell Tovey.
Following the end of Rigid Containers support in 1997, the band worked hard to survive, fighting ever-demanding economic pressures put upon brass bands today. The band’s determination was eventually rewarded when they were able to announce on April 1st 2000, that a new sponsorship deal had taken effect with the tour operator Travelsphere Holidays.
During the band’s association with Travelsphere Holidays, the band reported many successes. 3rd and 4th placings at the All England Masters, 7th place at the prestigious British Open Championships, 6th place at the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain under conductor David Stowell and two Midland Area Championships.
A decade of “Virtuosic” music
In January 2007, the band secured a sponsorship deal with Virtuosi England Ltd. The deal secured the future of the band and included provision of a band-room and commercial resources, as well as a financial package that enabled the band to continue to compete at the highest level.
Virtuosi England Ltd manufactured a full range of instruments and accessories, for bands in the UK and Europe.
The band’s first contest success under its new sponsors came in the first month at the National Mineworkers Brass Band Championships, where the band won the set test-piece “Northern Lights” and scooped the top prize for the “Most Entertaining Championship Band of 2007” with Musical Director David Stowell.
Another success was in June of 2007, when the band accepted an invitation to take part in the French Open Brass Band Championships, during which they were awarded 1st place in the famous March Championship! The band performed magnificently alongside the beautiful setting of the Amboise Castle on the Loire Valley and won this contest after playing a perfect performance of The Australasian March by Willam Rimmer. The band were conducted on this occasion by John Berryman.
90 years of consistent music-making
Despite the changes in the band’s history brought by time and economic circumstance, one thing that remains the same is the standards and ideals started by the Felton brothers in 1933 when they started their band and proclaimed: “We are going to aim high”.