AMONGST all the tragedy and hardship, one of the positive consequences of the coronavirus pandemic is that people have started talking to each other.

Have you noticed how strangers say hello and ask each other if they are OK much more than they ever did? It’s really lovely and, the thing is, until you start a conversation with someone, you have no idea what they might have to tell you about their lives.

Who’d have thought, for example, that my wife and I would meet Percy Sledge’s guitarist during an afternoon walk down by the River Tees?

We’d gone for our daily exercise down to Neasham, near Darlington, and passed a grey-haired, bespectacled man, leaning on his bicycle, and quietly watching the river roll by.

“Hello – are you OK?” my wife, Heather, asked.

“Fine, just watching the heron – he’s quite a fisherman,” came the reply in an accent clearly not local.

“Is that a South African accent?” Heather enquired.

“Yes, I’m from Cape Town,” said the man.

And, so, the conversation progressed. We learned that he’s called Dave and that he’s desperately missing his wife because she’d flown to Cape Town to visit family in February and hadn’t been able to get back to England.

Everyone you talk to has a story – and this is Dave Ward’s…

He was born as an only child in 1952. His mother, Ann, was an Aussie, and his father, Richard, was a civil engineer who’d emigrated from Sussex and settled in Cape Town, then Durban.

It was a happy childhood dominated by a love of music, inspired by his father’s banjo-playing. Dave, however, decided to learn the guitar. “It was a lot cooler than the banjo, and rock and roll, with the likes of Elvis and Buddy Holly, were all the rage,” he recalls.

Despite being a naturally gifted guitarist, music remained a hobby and, in 1971, after a year of compulsory military training, Dave began a career in the hotel trade. His ambitions changed when an English musician, called Justin Lee, was contracted to play in hotels around South Africa and Dave got the chance to get up on stage and jam with him.

“Why aren’t you earning a living from music?” asked Justin. It was a question that had never occurred to Dave, but it altered the course of his life.

After being mentored by Justin, Dave was given a job as a guitarist for the hotel group that by now employed him as a manager, and his career as a session musician went from strength to strength. After hearing him play in Johannesburg, an agent asked Dave to audition for South Africa’s biggest hotel group, Southern Sun, and he ended up touring across Africa, including a gig in Harare, performing in front of Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of what was then Rhodesia.

The highlight of his career came by chance in the late 1980s when rhythm and blues superstar Percy Sledge – most famous for the number one hit When A Man Loves A Woman – was touring South Africa, and two of his band members fell ill. As well as a percussionist, he needed a guitarist to finish the tour and Dave passed the audition.

It clearly went well because, at the end of the contract, with the original guitarist still sick, Dave was asked if he fancied joining Percy on a tour of America.

The Northern Echo:

“It was a dream come true and Percy was such a fantastic guy,” says Dave. “He was very flamboyant but what I loved about him was that he never failed to thank his musicians on stage. Imagine – me being thanked by Percy Sledge?

“The music business is all about being in the right place at the right time, getting the breaks, and making the most of them.”

Having made the most of his time with Percy, pictured left, Dave stayed in America to play with a nine-piece lounge band before returning home to South Africa in 1989 to continue his career as a session musician.

Travelling with his dog, Missie, in a caravan towed by a Cortina pick-up, Dave earned the nickname of Mr Bojangles. He was devastated when gas bottles on the caravan caught fire and he lost many of his most treasured possessions, including pictures of him on stage with the great Percy Sledge.

Having grown uncomfortable with the political situation in South Africa, Dave decided to sell his beloved Gibson Les Paul 1950 guitar to help pay for a flight to England, and he headed to Cornwall where he stayed with family friends. Once established with a job as a musician and entertainer with a holiday company, his girlfriend, Lizzie, followed a year later, and they got married.

The couple moved to Darlington in 2003 and have lived in the town ever since – Dave continuing to work as a session musician and Lizzie getting a job in the duty-free shop at Teesside Airport.

Indeed, he loves the town so much, he’s become a street champion, arranging litter picks to keep his community tidy.

“I’d always wanted to come to the North-East because it’s always been such a great place for music. Sting, Mark Knopfler, Chris Rea, ACDC, The Animals, Lindisfarne – they all came from the North-East. I’ve had the life of Riley through my music and we’re really happy living in Darlington,” he says.

That happiness has been interrupted by Lizzie being stranded in South Africa, with still no date for when she’ll be able to fly home.

“I’m missing her desperately,” he says. “Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer, because it’s killing me every day she’s not here.”

When a man loves a woman…

NOT surprisingly, the public speaking tour has dried up since the lockdown, but it was nice to get back into the swing of things on Friday by addressing 50 members of Darlington Rotary Club on Zoom.

The title was “News during the lockdown” and just as I got underway from the safety of my office, it began to hail outside of my window. Breaking lockdown news – hail in June.

CAPS off to the evergreen Ronnie Canvin, below, who made the headlines in The Northern Echo last week as one of Britain’s oldest paperboys at 78.

Ronnie delivers papers in Willington, County Durham, and hasn’t let the pandemic stop him.

His gaffer, Graham Sheldon, told me: “He’s one of the best paperboys we’ve ever had – totally reliable and a fantastic fella too.”

A case of ‘old the front page’ if ever there was one.

The Northern Echo:

FINALLY, the Headline of the Week award goes to the Daily Telegraph for last week’s Pulp-inspired description of MPs forming a kilometre-long queue to vote on ending the virtual parliament: “I wanna queue like Commons people queue’. Magnificent.