Sammy King, the man who wrote Roy Orbison hit Penny Arcade, to release single with Ossett choir

Sammy King wrote Penny Arcade, a big hit for American singer Roy Orbison. Now he is releasing a version of the song with a community choir in West Yorkshire. Laura Drysdale reports.

Wednesday, 29th May 2019, 7:04 am
The Local Vocals choir, who are releasing a version of Penny Arcade with Sammy King. Photo: Kevin Pearson of Eternity Photo

It was May 1969 when a nervous Sammy King approached his idol Roy Orbison before a performance at Batley Variety Club.

He was clutching a cassette tape of his own original music, hopeful that the American singer would offer feedback on three songs he had written.

“Is there any more on the tape?,” Orbison asked when King finished playing the tracks to the star and his entourage at a nearby restaurant after the show. There was. There was six in total – and the last was Penny Arcade.

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Songwriter Sammy King. Photo: Kevin Pearson at Eternity Photo.

“I actually didn’t think it would suit him to tell the truth,” King, then 28, says. “His son came over a few years ago and when I was talking to him, he did mention that [Orbison] had said to him that the song had some magic to it.”

Chart success

He was the only one that thought so, King claims, but he recorded it nevertheless. “He did it and it sort of revamped his career. It proved very popular.”

The song enjoyed worldwide success, peaking at number 27 in the UK charts in November of 1969, and making it to number one over in Australia, where it temporarily knocked The Beatles off the top spot. Inspiration had come to King a year earlier on a camping trip with friends in Anglesey, North Wales. He pulled out his guitar as the sun went down.

“It went really black and at the other side of the bay, some water lights flicked on and that was the start of the song (A light shown in the night some way ahead...). I put a rough melody to it and then when I got home, I worked on it and finished it off and made a demo.”

It wasn’t the only song of King’s that Orbison went on to record. After Tonight, Say No More, and I Got Nothing, all written by the Batley Carr musician have appeared on Orbison’s albums.

“I couldn’t believe it,” King says, looking back. “He was one of my great heroes. When I was a teenager, I used to play his songs to death on the jukebox in the local cafe. I never thought I would even meet him, let alone that he would record my songs.”

“When he died, it was a great blow to us all,” he adds. “He was a real gentleman.”

New single

Fifty years since the initial success of Penny Arcade, King is now releasing a version of the song with Ossett community choir Local Vocals.

It follows his performance of the hit with the group at a variety show to celebrate 110 years of Ossett Town Hall last June. “I had never sung it with a choir before and the concert performance went down really well,” he says.

With the help of a mobile team from Leeds College of Music, the single was recorded at the choir’s rehearsal location - Newspring Church in Ossett - back in February.

“Members have really enjoyed recording it,” says director Jenna Fan, who is originally from Bingley but now lives in the town. “Sammy has become a real friend of the choir. He is really supportive. He is such a lovely man, so passionate and he has a real sense of humour. It has been an absolute pleasure.

Early life

King, whose real name is Alan Twohig, was raised in a one-up, one-down terrace in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the son of Edmond, a shipping clerk, and Marion. “Everybody was struggling just after the war, but we had a wonderful community,” the now 77-year-old says.

After his primary education at St Joseph’s school in Batley Carr, he went on to St Bede’s secondary in Bradford. But his schooling was cut short.

“I always wanted to be a professional footballer,” says King, who now lives in Heckmondwike.

“Whilst I was in St Bede’s, I was playing for the school team and I got a bad injury. I got an infection on my hip and it left with a pronounced limp.

“I never actually finished my schooling because for two years I was in hospital. I had no qualifications and I couldn’t do a heavy job either.”

Aged 17, he worked as a sales rep for a small confectionery company, selling sweets and chocolate to local shops.

In his free time, with his brother Brian, he joined a skiffle group, having bought a drum kit to try to strengthen his legs and aid his recovery.

He later got into guitar and began songwriting, whilst playing local pubs and clubs in several small-scale bands.

Rock band

Then, aged 21 and by that time living a stone’s throw from Batley Variety Club, he “went professional” with rock and roll band The Voltaires, who accompanied acts including Cilla Black and worked on the same bill as the likes of The Rolling Stones.

The group made four records at Abbey Road Studios, made famous by The Beatles, before later turning to the cabaret scene. “It was very hard work especially when you are the frontman,” says King. "I actually overworked and ended up having a breakdown.”

Out of work, with health problems and time on his hands, King turned his focus back to songwriting- and it was then that a friend told him about Orbison’s appearance at Batley Variety Club and he made his break.

“By this time I had accrued quite a bit of debt, because you can’t live on nothing. It paid my debt off and gave me a little start. By that time I had started courting again and it helped pay for a mortgage on our house. It set me up again really.”

The list of people King has worked alongside, as a songwriter and performer, including with The Voltaires, is a who’s who of Sixties and Seventies showbiz...Louis Armstrong, Cliff Richard, The Hollies, Lulu, Dusty Springfield, Dame Shirley Bassey and more.

“It was wonderful - I’ve never been fazed by anything like that. When you get to know people, you realise they are just ordinary people like everyone else, who have got lucky so to speak.

“They are all down to earth. Usually, it was the big stars that were really nice and it was the ones that thought they were big stars that were a bit off.”

Community spirt

King, who married his current wife Linda in 2004 and has a daughter, Amanda, from a previous marriage, retired in 2006, though he still does the occasional performance, including in Glasgow.

Back in 2011, King recorded a charity version of Penny Arcade, which fans of the city’s Rangers team had sung in the stands for years and it went on to raise thousands of pounds for Erskine care, which supports former servicemen and women.

The latest version will support the Local Vocals, which was established as a pop music choir in September 2017 and has around 40 members, to enable them to perform at more community events. It will be released in the coming weeks.

“I am a great believer in community spirit,” King says, reflecting back on the post-war camaraderie of his childhood.

“I realise how lucky I have been. From adversity which changed my career, when I look back, I think I have had a hell of a ride.”

*Youtube video credit: Les Benson