Arthur Wilson was a Londoner born and bred, a third generation professional trombonist whose father, Stanley, was a busy player in dance bands (Harry Davison's in particular), radio broadcasts and theatres between the Wars. His family, which consisted of five boys, lived in Battersea and when he was 16, his father lent him his spare instrument, a good quality medium-bore Courtois, to learn on. By today's norm, Arthur was a late starter, but within a short time he made good progress, his stylistic ambitions along the lines of Tommy Dorsey, whose popular recordings had been a strong influence on his father's playing. Only a matter of months after Arthur had taken up the trombone his father took back Arthur's instrument. Since money was short there was no hope of a replacement instrument of the same quality, and so visits to the local junk shops procured a bell in one, a slide in another and a mouthpiece in yet another - early evidence of the determination that was to be such a feature of Arthur's character. Despite having a professional player as a father, Arthur remained self-taught mainly because his father was out until late in the evening; often later than he might reasonably have been expected home. Here are his own words on this period from a speech he gave when he retired from the Royal College of Music:
It will probably come as no surprise to you to learn that I had no formal tuition. My Dad was a trombone player and a very good one. But he was too busy or something to teach me. He always maintained that it was because of his bad experiences as a youngster. His father, who was a big time trombone player in the military band world, would arrive home in the early hours much the worse for wear and would drag him out of bed and demand to hear some scales. My scales may not be great but I got lots of uninterrupted sleep... The best my Dad could do was to send me to a string bass player who doubled a bit on the G [bass trombone]. He was the father of Adrian and Ian Beers [principal bass of the ECO and second horn of the Philharmonia]. Their father's name was Wish Beers. I never did discover what the Wish stood for but I had some ideas... He told me that he didn't know much about the trombone but would show me how to fake the notes. I didn't think the trombone was the ideal instrument to try to fake anything on.
Arthur told a wonderful story about waking up one morning to find a decrepit cart horse standing in the front hall way of their terraced house. It seems his father - whose habit it was to walk to and from work - had in the early hours of the morning chanced upon a gypsy taking this particular beast on its final journey to the 'Knacker's Yard'. Stanley Wilson, after several pints of beer, felt great sympathy for the animal but without giving the provision for stabling further thought, offered to relieve the owner of his burden for an undisclosed sum.
Compulsory conscription was still on the statute books in the UK until some 15 years after the end of the War, and so most young men were obliged to enlist into the armed forces. Anyone with musical talent tried to opt for a military band rather than the often brutal and Spartan regime of everyday 'squaddy' life. Because of a tragedy, when, towards the end of the War some members of the Coldstream Guards Band were killed in an air-raid on the Guard's Chapel, there was a vacancy for a trombonist, and Arthur was fortunate enough to be appointed. Although throughout his life, Arthur was suave and debonair - polished shoes, collar and tie, the norm - army life and the insensitivity of the RSM and other non-commissioned officers didn't make him happy, his natural temperament was much more officer class, than private. Even so, life in a guard's band, was much less arduous than you might imagine, morning rehearsals which finished, most days by 12 o'clock. Periodically, there was a month's recruiting campaign in the North of England when the Band would march through the high streets of various industrial towns, hoping to attract young out-of-work players already musically trained by their local brass band. One such campaign resulted in only one recruit, who lasted six weeks in the Regiment, at which time his father 'bought' him out.
Student wind and brass players were in short supply in London in the late 1940s and so the Royal College of Music offered exhibitions to military bandsmen, like Arthur, in return for playing with the College Orchestra. Part of the deal was that they received a weekly instrumental lesson. This was a turning point for Arthur, in as much as for the first time he was exposed to mainstream orchestral repertoire, and had the benefit of a trombone teacher, Morris Smith who was also Orchestral Manager at the Royal Opera House. Morris was to become a great friend and confident of the General Director of the Royal Opera House, Sir David Webster - he that made the famous "you will tell your grand-children about this" Callas/Tosca speech - and so became very influential in orchestral appointments in the profession.
More than anyone else though, it was Arthur's meeting at the Royal College of Music with Evan Watkin, who was a fellow student and was destined to become an iconic orchestral trombone player that exerted the most musical influence. Although Evan was a Welshman, he was, paradoxically, a member of the Scots Guards Band. Evan's playing was outstanding; he was renowned for a wonderfully full, rich, free sound that was the most thrilling in fortissimo and beguiling in pianissimo. When Evan left the Royal College of Music, Morris appointed him at Covent Garden where he stayed for five years before becoming principal trombone with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; a position he held for more than thirty years. You can hear his playing on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's Berlioz recordings with Beecham. Experiencing Evan's playing first hand made Arthur realize that he had a great deal of work to do if he was to catch up - and work and catch up he did.