Tribute to Sunderland’s piano man who shared the stage with stars

Tom Sharratt

Tom Sharratt

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TODAY we pay tribute to Wearside’s own piano man.

A MUSICIAN who entertained generations of Wearsiders has died at the age of 77.

Tom Sharratt headlined at The Palatine Hotel in the 1950s – and even shared the stage at Sunderland Empire with top singers Ruby Murray and Dorothy Squires.

In later years he played the organ at Ryhope WMC four nights a week, as well as performing each Monday at Pennywell Comrades Club during a dancing night.

“Sadly, he had to give up music in July, after it got too much for him,” said his wife, Jenny. “He was diagnosed with a rare abdominal cancer at around the this time.

“Dozens of people have told me how much they miss his music. He wasn’t just a pianist or organist, he was an entertainer – a wonderful man who is missed by many.”

Silksworth-born Tom’s love for music started as a child, when he begged for piano lessons. His first classes, at a shilling each, were taken with Miss Minnie Hodgson.

“She used to teach from her now-demolished home in Church Ward, Ryhope, which was just behind the rent office,” recalled Tom in an Echo interview in 2006.

“I didn’t take any Grade exams, as my teacher didn’t believe in them. But that didn’t stop me learning all sorts of music, from classical to popular songs.

“My friends used to watch me practising through the window and laugh, because they were able to play outside, but it paid off for me in the long run – and they agreed.”

Tom joined the staff at Ryhope Co-op after leaving school, but was called up for National Service at 18 – serving with the Royal Artillery in Edinburgh for two years.

Once demobbed, he returned to the Co-op, where he met wife-to-be Jenny. His spare time was divided between courting his sweetheart and playing his beloved music.

“After leaving the army, I played the piano for ballroom dancing lessons at Bert Elliott and Joan Field’s ballroom, which was above La Strada,” he said.

“I was part of a five or six-piece band for the lessons, which was good grounding for later on. It was while I was there that band manager Andy Williams approached me. He asked if I would play in a trio at The Palatine, and I said yes. I’d be on the piano, while Mark Lowerson played the accordion and Ronnie Reed was on the guitar.

“We played whatever we wanted. There were so many good songs in the 50s, and old standards like The Lady Is A Tramp and You Stepped Out Of A Dream were popular too.”

Such was the popularity of Tom’s trio that they played each weekend and also at dinner dances – when a drummer and bass player were called in for a full band sound.

“I was courting my wife Jenny at the time, and she used to sit in a back room knitting while I was out front playing,” said Tom. “I had a lovely time at The Palatine.”

The musician even enjoyed a brief taste of fame during this period, when he spent a week performing alongside Ruby Murray and Dorothy Squires at the Empire in 1957.

“I was asked by a Ryhope singer, Brian Page, to accompany him during a couple of songs twice a night for the week. I think we got paid £5 between us,” said Tom.

“I was a bundle of nerves on the first night; my foot was bouncing up and down on the piano pedal. Friends came to support me, but that made me even more nervous.”

Tom, latterly of Ryhope, eventually left the Co-op to become an insurance agent. He always retained his love of music, however, until his death on September 18.

“Both Tom and his music is a great miss,” said Jenny. “I received over 150 cards when he passed away, as he was known and loved by so many. Tom will never be forgotten.”