Life & Culture

How saxophonist Benny Green’s son is keeping the family’s musical tradition alive

Leo Green thought of himself as a musician before he started playing an instrument


Showman: Leo Green playing at a concert in support of Prostate Cancer UK, in 2015 Credit: Alamy

A lot of little boys, when they are growing up, dream of being a fireman or an astronaut or maybe even a footballer. Not so, Leo Green, now 51 and son of the illustrious musician and broadcaster Benny Green.

“The weird thing is I thought of myself as a musician years before I started playing an instrument.” Green tells me.

“It must be like we don’t get a choice if we’re left-handed or right-handed or have blond hair or curly or straight or whatever. I can’t really explain it. I always thought I was a musician and it seemed as natural as putting my socks on in the morning.

“There was always music on in our house. Not just my dad’s stuff but I have two older brothers, so they were listening to their stuff. We had a piano, which I played, but then, when I was nine, I started on clarinet and moved on to a saxophone when I was 15.”

By then, Benny was more known for his writing and BBC Radio 2 shows, which ran for decades until his death in 1998. “Dad hardly played then,” says Green, “Except when it was one of our birthdays and he would bring out his sax and play Happy Birthday”.

We’re meeting on Zoom and Green is a little worse for wear having been performing the night before in one of his regular shows in Covent Garden, The Leo Green Experience. “I finished the show and came in and started some work and suddenly it was 4am! I’ve not been up very long!” he says nursing a mug of coffee in his farmhouse-style kitchen at his home in Amersham. His wife of 22 years, Victoria, a florist, is busy in the garden and bobs in and out. The couple have four children, one of whom, Albert, is an actor and a dancer. “I’m lucky enough to have a brilliant and amazing wife and kids,” says Leo.

But he has one constant source of bemusement. “Why don’t they find my jokes and sense of humour as hysterically funny as I do?”

Green’s work was the last-minute preparations for the first of his shows at the London Palladium. For the first time in its illustrious 114-year history, the historic venue is hosting a monthly orchestral residency beginning in February 2024, which will see iconic artists’ music celebrated by the Leo Green Orchestra. “It’s just wonderful. It’s a, well, the word is privilege.” He says, clearly thrilled. “You kind of dream up things or you ask things or pitch ideas and ‘what do you think of this?’ and occasionally someone says yes! I’ve wanted to do this for a while and I know it says it’s orchestral but it’s not really people just playing piccolos, it’s more rock’n’roll. It’s a kind of modern take on the songs of David Bowie, the Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees
and others.”

It’s hosted by his old friend, the singer Cerys Matthews, with whom, Green casually tells me, he played with on the exemplar recording of Baby It’s Cold Outside with Sir Tom Jones.

But then Green, during a fabulously successful career, has played with what can only be described as the crème de la crème of the music industry beginning when he was just 18 and becoming part of Jerry Lee Lewis’s band. “That was a real pinch me moment!” he says. For many years he played with Van Morrison, someone whom he considers a friend. His other collaborations are too lengthy to list but include the likes of Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood. Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. He was also artistic director at the legendary jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. Now he has his own orchestra.

Green grew up in Watford, with his brothers Justin and Dominic, and sister Natasha and actress mother Toni Kanal. Dominic is a musician- turned-writer who used to contribute to the JC and wrote a biography of their father. Benny Green died aged 70 from leukaemia.

Now  Green’s mother lives not far away from him. “She’s a very strong 82-year-old,” he says. “Dad kept working until the end. His quality of life, thank goodness remained OK, except for the last six months. He was very ill, and it was really hard, but he kept working. He battled his illness for about 15 years.

“Because he loved doing his radio show and writing, I think it was the thing he loved most.

“We didn’t have a particularly showbizzy upbringing. But a lot of Dad’s friends were musicians and were round our house often.” Sometimes the children would be taken to concerts and go backstage. Memorably, he recalls meeting Frank Sinatra in 1989. “My dad had done the sleeve notes on one of Frank’s albums, so we went to the concert and Dad said: ‘Let’s go back and say hello’ Suddenly I’m in front of Sinatra and he’s asking me how I’m doing!”

Benny was born in Leeds, where his father David was a tailor and played the saxophone. The family’s roots were Russian Jewish. “My brother Dominic has tried to trace some of our genealogy but it’s all blurred because the borders kept moving,” says Green.

He admits to not having an especially Jewish upbringing but being Jewish is central to his being. “I’m very proud of it and to me being Jewish is more a racial thing than a religious observance.”

He says he’s been fortunate not to experience any antisemitism personally. “Not that I’m aware of anyway,” he says, “but am I aware of antisemitism? Absolutely and it’s shocking, especially at the moment.”

Like his father before, Green also has made quite a name for himself as a broadcaster, particularly for the BBC and at Jazz FM. It was a career he embarked on after his father died and ironically because of his death. “When Dad died, he’d just finished recording his radio show and he had the script for next weeks in his briefcase.” Green recalls. “When my mum sold the house and found his briefcase with the script in it. I said to Radio 2, ‘Look, we’ve got his last script here, do you want it?’

“And they said, ‘Well, better than that, why don’t you present it? Why don’t you do the show that he never got to do?’. Which was amazing.”

Green also recalled being about ten years old and going to Hollywood with his father, who was out there interviewing several legendary film stars. By which time, Green senior was a regular contributor to outlets like Punch and The Spectator as well as writing books. So I said to the BBC ‘I’m sure I’ve got the interviews at home.’ They asked me to put a programme together, which I did. After that I went on to do so many documentaries and shows for the BBC.”

Green still regularly hosts Friday Night is Music Night on Radio 2.

Now though his focus is on the Palladium shows with a hope that the format may tour the UK.

What does he think his dad would think of his Palladium residency? “I hope he’d be proud, he liked to push boundaries himself so maybe I can carry on doing that.”

Orchestral Series at The Palladium celebrates the music of Bowie on 18 March, the Bee Gees on 24 April and Phil Collins on 6 May

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