Roger Ward is former MD of BDH/TBWA and now owner of Manchester’s independent chop houses
L-R: Andy Hamilton, MBE, Mark Hamilton and Roger Ward in Studio Egrem, Habana, Cuba, Dec 1999
I was with my dad, Norman, for three weeks before he died in September 1999. I still miss him everyday.
The last question he asked me was why I was still working for other people. BDH (as I still call us) had just won Agency of the Decade.
After his funeral, I went back to work and finished chairing the IPA’s area Advertising Effectiveness Awards. We held a dinner on the set of Coronation Street. Ruby Wax was our host. And a few days later on a Thursday night. I was at the Band on the Wall watching a gig by my dad’s best friend, my 84-year-old godfather, and once Errol Flynn’s bandleader, Jamaican tenor sax legend Andy Hamilton.
He had dedicated a new song to me in the first set. He made a nice joke about it. And we were chatting when Eric Cantona came up, excused himself politely and asked Andy for his autograph and a photo. When Andy returned he asked me if I knew of Cuba? Did I know Havana? He told me he was about to visit to record with Buena Vista Social Club. An incredible ‘band’ of veteran Cuban musicians who became world famous when discovered, recorded and filmed by Ry Cooder.
Their song Chan Chan was one of the tracks of that era.
It was the time of Macy Gray. Moby’s Play. And OK Computer. Oasis were still probably the biggest band in the world. But Buena Vista Social Club were cooler.
I asked Andy why he looked so worried about the prospect. Then it occurred to me that he might not enjoy the travelling at his age. Without thinking, and really just trying to be helpful, I asked him if he would like someone to carry his bags. He looked at me with his arms wide, with that Nelson Mandela vibe he conjured without trying, and said, yeah man.
Julie, my ex-wife, said, you’ll be mad if you don’t go.
The next day I walked into the office and asked for three months compassionate leave.
I was on a plane to Cuba the following Monday. I met Andy and one of his son’s Mark, also a great sax player, in Madrid. We completed the journey together.
Jet lag started my first morning in the old town early. To my eyes Havana was the most ‘foreign,’ the most exotic, the most Graham Greene place I had ever been. Castro was still alive. There was a policeman on every corner. No recorded music anywhere. Live bands in every bar and hotel. A statue of Hemingway in the bar of El Floridita. Which inspired me later to pay tribute to Lowry in his local, Sam’s Chop House.
We had the trip of anyone’s lifetime. Recording. Carrying Andy’s horn. Pretending to be Mr Hamilton’s bodyguard. Sightseeing. Clubbing. Staying up all night. “Boys, you behavin’ like Errol Flyn.” Mark and I bonded. By the second day he knew I would never return to BDH. I did too. I had seen the world and wanted more of it. The reason I had to go? The reason I gave up the best job in Manchester at the time? Not only was Andy my dad’s best friend. Not only was he my godfather. He called his Selma saxophone Norman.