The first band Sting ever played in was a college one, when he was eighteen. However, this didn't exactly offer him the professional experience he was looking for so, one night, he went along to one of the Newcastle Big Band's gigs and asked if he could sit in on bass. The Newcastle Big Band was an assembly of around 20 experienced and accomplished musicians who played a mixture of rock and jazz on saxaphones, trumpets, trombones, drums, guitar, bass and keyboards. They were very popular in the Newcastle area and had their own large and enthusiastic following, and the whole line-up was fronted and led by keyboard player Andy Hudson.
They agreed to let Sting play bass on three or four numbers, but Andy couldn't offer him a permanent place with the band because of one major problem - Sting couldn't read music, and it was vital that members of the group should have the ability to read because they rehearsed and learned new numbers by reading musical scores that were drawn up for each one of them to play. Andy can still remember his amazement when, a mere six weeks later, Sting approached him again and announced that he could now read music, so would the band give him another chance? They tested him and found he wasn't bluffing - he had mastered the skill in that incredibly short period of time. "Actually, I found it pretty easy to learn", Sting said. "Reading music is quite a logical, mathematical process". It also meant, for the first time, Sting could write his own compositions down on paper instead of having to rely on his memory.
Andy Hudson started the Newcastle Big Band in 1968. By 1970 when Sting first sat in with them, they had achieved international status and were playing at jazz festivals all over the Continent. Sting was in the line-up at the San Sebastian Festival in 1970 and 1972. While they were appearing there, they got friendly with organisers of the Pau Jazz Festival, in South-West France, and were invited to perform at that one, too. So Sting certainly had some experience of touring abroad long before he joined the Police. By 1974, he'd formed his own band, Last Exit, and after Sting had appeared at Pau with the Newcastle Big Band, he went off to Bilbao in Spain to play some gigs with Last Exit.
1972 also marked Sting's first ever appearance on record. Contrary to popular opinion this wasn't on the Newcastle Big Band album but was an appearance playing bass on a very rare Phoenix Jazzmen single of King Of The Swingers. All the tracks on the Big Band album were recorded live, half of them at the University Theatre in Newcastle and the other half at the Pau Jazz Festival. Side one of the LP consisted of Adam's Apple, Macarthur Park, Li'l Darlin, and Hey Jude while side two was composed of Mercy, Mercy, Trane Ride, Love for Sale and Better Get It In Your Soul, a good mixture of rock and jazz standards. The band's version of Hey Jude was remarkable for the fact that they crammed 600 of their most loyal supporters into the University Theatre when they were recording it and, in Andy Hudson's own words, "It's the only version with the six choruses arranged for alto sax and crowd!"
The album's eight numbers were all recorded on a two-track Revox tape recorder - a vastly different set-up to those most groups record on today! Only 200 copies of the album were pressed (catalogue number IS/NBB/106) and these were sold at the band's gig's. They soon got rid of the lot, but didn't have a re-pressing, so these albums are now very rare indeed and if you come across one, you've certainly got a collector's item - expect to pay ¬£150+ for a copy should you come across one. The first 50 copies didn't even have a proper label on them (see right), as the band never believed they would sell so quickly, but a Wudwink label was added for all the remaining 150 copies.
Apart from playing great music, another thing the Newcastle Big Band were famed for was their sense of humour. Andy Hudson led the clowning around, and all the other musicians joined in, including Sting. In fact, the notes on the back of the album convey something of the riotous and ribald spirit of this particular musical ensemble. Beneath the heading "Points to Note To Add To Your Enjoyment Of This Record" are such items as "the tracks recorded live in the University Theatre were put down after a large curry luncheon. Unfortunately, the added nasal impact cannot be reproduced on record".
The Newcastle Big Band generally played one or two gigs a week and Sting continued to perform with them right up until the band split in 1976. On other nights of the week, he sat in with different jazz groups, including the Riverside Men and the Phoenix Jazzmen. As he gained more experience, his bass technique and his knowledge of chords and runs improved in leaps and bounds. By the time he started Last Exit, he was considered a very talented and accomplished bass player, although he had yet to explore the possibilities of his singing voice.