Tam-tam, China, c1930s
Bequeathed in 1989
Musical Instrument Collection: MIMEd 2889

This large gong was one of a group of three that were imported from China by the Premier Drum Company in 1934. It is decorated with an etching of a dragon surrounded by floral patterns. Percussionist James Blades used this instrument as an orchestral tam-tam and in his lecture-recitals. Blades was one of the leading percussionists of his day and played with many of the top orchestras, including working for the film industry.

This instrument is linked with the J Arthur Rank film company, established in 1935. Various athletes, including boxer Bombardier Billy Wells and wrestler Ken Richmond, were filmed as the scantily clad and well-oiled ‘gongman’, seen hitting a large – cardboard – gong at the opening of all of Rank’s films. Behind the scenes was the much smaller Jimmy Blades, hitting this very instrument to make the sound we hear.

James (Jimmy) Blades (1901-99) is remembered as one of the finest percussionists and musical educators of the twentieth century. His musical training began at the dinner table, drumming with his cutlery under the direction of his uncle and, more formally, in the choir of St Marys Church in Peterborough.

In 1915, he began an apprenticeship with an engineering firm but never lost an opportunity to listen to bands of all kinds and to hone his own skills. He began to fill small parts in local groups until, in 1921, he was released from his apprenticeship and took up music full-time, firstly with Ginnett’s Circus. This led to time in cinema and theatre bands followed by symphony orchestras and hotel bands.

By 1932, he was working with the London Film Symphony Orchestra and during the Second World War he toured with the Entertainments National Service Association in Britain and France. After the War, Blades worked with most of the major London orchestras and counted many great conductors, composers and players among his friends, including Benjamin Britten, Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Blades was generous with his time and knowledge, both to his pupils and to the many school groups and music societies with whom he worked. With his second wife Joan Goossens he spent a great deal of time working with children with special needs and developed versions of percussion instruments that could be played by individuals with differing motor skills. Blades was also very knowledgeable about musical instruments and his volume on the history of percussion instruments remains important to this day.

Story by Dr Jenny Nex, Curator, Musical Instrument Collection