This page contains a selection of articles which have appeared in previous editions of Memory Lane. They are reproduced in their entirety, latest first but the links below are in alphabetical order.
DANCE BAND PERSONALITIES
By Barry McCanna
When the discography of British Dance Bands On Record, by Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes, was published in 1987 one benefit was that collectors, including me, were able to appreciate properly the enormous contribution which had been made by hitherto neglected figures as Jay Wilbur. By rights, he should have been just as familiar as Ambrose, Jack Hylton and Jack Payne, all household names in the thirties. His recorded output was equally prolific, his choice of material just as discriminating and the results were issued on cut-price labels such as the 7-inch Victory and its successors the 8-inch Eclipse and the 9-inch Crown. Since these could be bought only in Woolworths, initially for sixpence a record (the equivalent of four for 10p in today’s currency!), it might have been reasonable to assume that they would be lacking in quality. Nothing could be further from the truth, as witness those who bought them then and those who search for them now.
His neglect is ironic because as a studio director he was able to call on the cream of London’s dance band musicians. Ambrose was one society bandleader who disliked his highly-paid personnel moonlighting (or more appropriately daylighting!) in this way, although there was nothing he could do to stop them. But because Wilbur’s personnel assembled for recording purposes only, and most of the sides appeared under a bewildering variety of pseudonyms, he did not establish himself as a competing force in his own right until the mid-thirties, by which time the pecking order was well established.
James Edward Wilbur was born in Bournemouth, the year being given as 1898. Both parents worked for Carl Rosa, Britain’s oldest opera company, which held a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria. His father was a member of the orchestra and his mother was the wardrobe mistress. In his formative years Jay took singing lessons, became a soloist in the local church choir when he was 11, and began studying the piano. In his early teens he featured in Bluebell in Fairyland, a stage musical written by Sir Seymour Hicks in 1901 and revived regularly at Christmas. He was also involved in a vaudeville act called Casey’s Court, part of which required him to be wheeled on stage. It has been claimed that the lad pushing the soap box was none other than Charlie Chaplin. If so, this could not have been later than 1910, the year Chaplin went to America with Fred Karno’s company.
Young Jay Wilbur was stagestruck, and his seaside location presented a wide range of opportunities, from straight theatre to variety. He was much in demand as a boy soprano, particularly since he could accompany himself. When he was 16 and his voice broke he decided to concentrate on the piano. This was a fortuitous decision, because the movie business was developing rapidly, and silent films needed a separate musical accompaniment. According to one account, by 1912 Jay had been chosen to play the piano in some of London’s early cinemas, went on to form one of the first cinema orchestras and developed a system of cue sheets to ensure the music was consistent with the action. However, this seems inconsistent with his prior history, and raises the question whether his year of birth should be earlier than that normally quoted.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the need to concentrate from close range and for prolonged periods on the poor quality images projected on-screen by the early "flicks" was not beneficial to the eyesight. As a result, when conscription was introduced in 1916 to replace the volunteers who had been slaughtered in the trenches during the early part of the First World War, Jay was classified C3 and given the job of a coppersmith. The purpose of this eluded me, but my wife suggested that it involved making bullet casings, and that would seem an inspired guess. Although forced to abandon a burgeoning career in the cinema, he was still able to continue playing, albeit at fashionable parties and in restaurants after he’d finished work for the day.
In 1919, the year the Original Dixieland Jazz Band toured England, Jay formed his own small dance band, and worked on the Continent for a couple of years. When he came back to England he became the musical director for the Ashton & Mitchells Agency, and supplied dance orchestras for society venues. This led to a chance meeting with Edward, Prince of Wales, who was an active socialite and always keen to try his hand on the drum kit, often to the despair of the regular percussionist, to say nothing of the band. That encounter resulted in Jay playing at Buckingham Palace on several occasions.
After he left the agency he joined Emlyn Thomas’ London Band, and in September 1923 he participated in their first recording session, although the three titles cut that day were not issued. He then reformed his own band, and after various London venues including the Piccadilly and Savoy Hotels, he returned to the Continent and played at the Hotel Bristol in Oslo and the casino in Spa, Belgium. Following that, he was asked to provide the ship’s orchestra for a luxury cruise to the West Indies. When the liner berthed at New York he took the opportunity to meet as many of that city’s bandleaders and musicians as possible. They included Paul Whiteman and André Kostelanetz, and the experience brought home to him the growing importance of orchestration to successful dance band performance.
The next firm date is March 1926, when he recorded two sides with Van’s Ten, a numerically correct tag for Leon Van Straten’s Orchestra. He was involved in further recording sessions with them but only those for the cardboard-based Duophone label were productive. He was replaced during February 1927, and this was probably when he again assembled his own band, this time to play at the Tricity Restaurant in the Strand, where he took over from Ben Blue and his Band. He left in the autumn of 1928, and was succeeded by Joe Kosky (who later, as Joe Kaye, played violin in Nat Star’s band). The reason for his departure was to take up the post of musical director with Dominion Gramophone Records Ltd., a newly-formed company with a share capital of £150,000. This is perhaps a good point at which to mention the persistent rumour that Jay’s surname was actually Blinco, because whether or not that was the case, it is the name James Edward Wilbur that appeared in the list of the board of directors of the company.
The studio orchestra which he put together for Dominion featured a highly sought-after first trumpet in the person of Max Goldberg, with whom he had played previously, and who at that time was recording with Arthur Rosebery’s Kit-Cat Dance Band, Jay Whidden’s Band and Bert Firman’s various ensembles. Tony Thorpe who, like Max, later joined Ambrose’s band, was on trombone and the pianist was Billy Thorburn. Most of their recordings were issued under pseudonyms, no doubt to make it appear that Dominion was a larger enterprise than was the case. They also provided the musical accompaniment to various singers (including a risqué Elsie Carlisle, discreetly masquerading under the nom-du-disque of Amy Brunton). Unfortunately the label barely had time to establish itself before the Wall Street crash, and it was an early victim of the Great Depression. Having begun with high hopes, by mid-1930 the Dominion Company had ceased trading.
One door had shut but, true to the old saying, another one opened almost immediately. In July 1930 Jay Wilbur announced in The Melody Maker that he had accepted the position of musical director to the Crystalate Gramophone Manufacturing Co. Ltd. of Tonbridge, Kent. As established producers of the cut-price Imperial and Victory labels they were far better placed than Dominion had been to weather the economic storm. Furthermore they were keen to expand their British dance band output, rather than continuing to be dependent on American masters, and had just opened their new recording studios in Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead for that purpose. The colour of the Imperial label was changed from mauve to red to mark the new era, and Jay began an association that was to last for thirteen years.
One of his first credited sides, Adeline on Imperial 2355, is interesting, because two takes were issued. The first take employed the vocal trio of Al Bowlly, Les Allen and Jack Plant, but a later take 4 is purely instrumental, and both are well worth looking out for.
At the end of January 1931 the last Victory side was cut, and that label was superseded by Eclipse, together with a proliferation of the pseudonyms under which Jay’s recordings were sold in Woolworths. The Hottentots and The Biltmore Players were joined by The Ambassadors Twelve, The Connecticut Collegians and The Radio Serenaders to name but a few. As mentioned already, he appeared under his own name on Imperial, but towards the end of 1932 that practice ceased and the label became dedicated solely to Jack Payne before being phased out altogether at the beginning of 1934. His recordings continued to be released on Eclipse, still mainly under aliases, and were featured also on some Broadcast 4-in-1 sides but in mid-1933 he reappeared under his own name on the new Rex label (which was styled "The King Of Records").
The final stage of this revamp took place in mid-1935, just as the Eclipse label passed its one-thousandth issue, after which it was discontinued and replaced by Crown. This new entry (out of the same stable as Imperial and Rex) maintained the practice of cloaking Jay Wilbur’s identity. Even more pseudonyms were generated for the purpose, of which perhaps Manuel Espinosa and his Rumba Band was the most exotic! In 1937 Crystalate was acquired by Decca, at which point the Crown label was discontinued.
In the meantime Jay had secured his own radio programme on the strength of his recording success. Radio was not an entirely new medium to him, because he had begun broadcasting with small string orchestras in 1927, the year the BBC became a public corporation. Then however light music had been seen as a necessary evil, now it was de rigeur. As a result of the popularity of Melody From The Sky, which began in April 1936, Jay continued to broadcast - most memorably in the series Music While You Work and the wartime comedy series Hi Gang, which was broadcast from Bristol, whence the BBC Variety Department had been evacuated on the outbreak of hostilities.
The latter programme featured the American couple Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels, who had settled in England, as well as Vic Oliver, the son of an Austrian baron, who had begun his career as a conductor and classical violinist. It was when the latter turned his talents to comedy that he met and married a young chorus girl, thereby becoming Winston Churchill’s son-in-law! The fast pace of the show was exemplified by its theme tune I’m Just Wild About Harry, and Wilbur was assisted by vocalists Sam Browne and The Greene Sisters. One measure of its success was that the cast starred in a 1941 film adaptation also entitled Hi Gang.
In May 1942 the series finished, after which he and his band toured extensively as part of the war effort. In consequence recording sessions, now with his Hi Gang Orchestra, became far less frequent, finishing in September 1943. The war was not without its tribulations; his son, an aerial photographer for the RAF, had been killed in 1940 at the age of 21. It seems probable that it was this loss, coupled with an unremitting work schedule, which led to a deterioration in his health and eventually he was ordered to take it easy.
That was the end of an era, not just for Jay Wilbur, but for dance bands generally. On his return he faced a very different scene, to which he adapted with typical resilience by carving out a new career in light orchestral music. He left England in 1946 for New Zealand, resettled in Australia in 1948, and broadcast regularly with his 18-piece orchestra in a programme called Music Hath Charms. But his wanderlust continued, and in 1958 he moved to Capetown, where he broadcast on Springbok Radio with his Firestone Strings. He died in Capetown in 1970.
Unlike some other band leaders, Jay Wilbur was very highly regarded by those who had the pleasure of recording under his direction. One of them recalled his efficiency; there were none of the usual tests or changing position for balance. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it. The musicians, whose studio work was sandwiched in between live evening appearances, knew that they could get on with the job in hand and not have to hang about unnecessarily. There were many bandleaders who insisted that their own name had to be carried on the label. Jay Wilbur knew that what mattered above all else was the music, and that is what he provided in abundance.
I know of only one LP devoted to Jay Wilbur, which was Hi! Gang on Decca Recollections RFL 21. Since the advent of CDs Vocalion has issued three volumes, namely Sing, Baby, Sing (CDEA 6016), We’ll Meet Again (CDEA 6071) which was centred on the Rex recordings and from my liner notes for which this article has been adapted, and Round About Regent Street (CDEA 6090) which concentrated on the Crown era. Timeless mine the same seam on CBC 1-047, which compilation comprises recordings by the Rhythm Rascals and The Swing Rhythm Boys, plus Sid Phillips. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Jay Wilbur directed the studio orchestra accompanying singers on the Rex roster, including Bebe Daniels and Elsie Carlisle. That is but a fraction of the enormous legacy of his recordings, yet they stand as testimony to his work as a true professional.
Barry McCanna © August 2005
When the Count Outshone the Rain
By Tony Parker
Almost everyone can remember the first time that they saw one of the great American bands in action in this country, when they were allowed to visit after the lifting of the notorious Anglo-American Musicians' ban in the 1950s. My recollection, although perhaps a little different than most, is every bit as relevant. In my case it wasn't so much the exciting prospect of seeing and hearing the great Count Basie orchestra in action, on a cold, wet and windy November night at the City Hall, Sheffield, in 1958, but more a question of whether or not I'd be able to get into this marvellous South Yorkshire venue. Also, it wasn't that I didn't have a front-stall ticket. I did. In fact, that night I had more tickets than I could handle. Intrigued? Then let me elucidate.
As a band-loving teenager, and living in a town that was starved of such attractions, I used to organise sold-out, 35-seat coach trips (charabancs as they were known in those days), to the various venues that were within easy reach - such as the Free Trade Hall and Belle Vue, both in Manchester and Sheffield's City Hall. These successful trips enabled my 'customers' to see, among others, stalwarts such as Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. When it came to booking a coach to see Count Basie, it was a different story altogether.
For weeks in advance, many came and booked seats for the Sheffield show; nearer to the date, however, many dropped out for various reasons. On the night of the concert I realised that if things didn't improve I was going to be stuck with about fifteen, 30 bob (£1.50) tickets on my hands. Well, things didn't improve and I was, in fact, left with those tickets as we arrived in Sheffield.
Standing on the steps of the City Hall, with a fistful of unsold tickets made me look nothing more that a tout. However, on a more positive note, and as luck would have it, there were many enthusiasts who did turn up that night without tickets, and were only too glad to take them off my hands - even though I did have to reduce the price. In fact, those £1.50 tickets were given away at the ridiculous bargain price of ten bob (50p). Imagine seeing Count Basie for 50p! What a bargain, eh? And the upshot was that I managed to flog them off in time to see the concert commence.
There on stage at the piano, and fronting his legendary 17 piece orchestra, was one of the greatest pioneers of big-band music, William 'Count' Basie - a leading figure of the swing era who, alongside Duke Ellington, was a true representative of the genre. Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, on August 21, 1904, Basie was not only a pianist of the highest order but a bandleader who possessed an impeccable taste when choosing not only his personnel, but also his choice of musical programme.
As a young man, and after studying the piano with his mother, Basie went to New York where he met James P Johnson, Fats Waller and a host of other pianists who frequented New York's Harlem district. Basie joined Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra in 1929 and took over the band when Moten died. By the time he was 20 he was touring extensively as a solo pianist, accompanist and musical director for many blues singers, dancers and comedians. In 1936 he formed his first big band, and became contracted to Decca Records: a year on and Basie's outfit had become one of the leading bands of the swing era. By the end of that decade he had acquired international fame with recordings of One O'Clock Jump, Jumping At the Woodside and Taxi War Dance.
In 1952, after reorganising his big band, he undertook a long series of tours and recording sessions that eventually led to him becoming an elder statesman of jazz. He also took on board such sidesmen as Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, Serge Chaloff and Buddy Rich. As time went on however, Basie, for various reasons, often changed his personnel - not always his idea, but those such as Terry and Rich who had visions of their own. But the one obvious thing was that there was never a shortage of able musicians willing to step into their shoes; as Thad Jones, Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis, Snooky Young, Wendell Culley, Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Freddie Green, Joe Newman and Sonny Payne were quick to illustrate.
In that year of 1958, Basie had arrived to tour this country following a Trans-Atlantic exchange deal with the Vic Lewis orchestra crossing over to America, with all these now-household star names sitting there in his employ. At the time the 'Count' also had the distinction of having a rare, and one of the most requested hit records of the day as part of his musical CV, -April in Paris.
But there was more - much more - to a Count Basie concert than April in Paris. Since the formation of his new band, Basie had also enlisted some of the best composers and arrangers around, all of which added up to an unequalled, relaxed precision and control of the new ensemble's exciting dynamics. These names included Thad Jones, Quincy Jones, Benny Carter and perhaps the most prolific of them all, Neal Hefti.
Evidence of the new band's prowess was reflected in the sales of the many albums that were produced. Two especially, The Atomic Mr Basie and The Chairman of the Board helped to illustrate just how much Basie's new line-up (both on and off stage) had grabbed the imagination and attentions of the swing-loving public; as a result, both albums hit the top of the charts. At a later date these aforementioned albums were reissued in a single, double-format release as The Atomic Mr Chairman. Once again this winning formula reached the pinnacle of the LP charts.
As in most of his UK concerts, great emphasis was placed not only on Basie's highly personal, laconic and blues-oriented style as a formidable jazz pianist, which sometimes bordered on laziness, but on the output of the band's rhythm section. This supported the interplay of brass and reeds, and served as a backdrop for the unfolding of solos - all of which Basie was able to firmly control from the keyboard.
Interesting, too, was the musical programme which Basie had formulated for the tour. For most of the numbers revolved around the release of the two albums, which served to give them a timely and well-deserved plug, while at the same time illuminating the expertise of Thad Jones, with scores such as The Deacon, Mutt and Jeff and Speaking of Sounds. But more than that it helped to underline the invaluable contributions which Neal Hefti made to the Basie organisation, by way of his arrangements and compositions, during that particular period. Evidence of this was well to the fore with such numbers as Splanky, Whirly Bird, The Kid From Red Bank, Flight of the Foo Birds, Fantail, Midnight Blue and Li '1 Darling.
There are those who have later said that on that particular tour Basie could easily have got away with playing a whole programme of Jones and Hefti numbers, with no-one probably batting an eyelid. More to the point, there are also those who maintain that with the odd exception, such as April in Paris, that's exactly what he did do! But the 'Count' was indeed a wily old bird, for when you threw in the immense talents of the powerful blues singer Joe Williams, you realised that there was much more to Basie's outfit than met the eye. Between them, Basie and Williams added a whole new dimension to the ensemble, and they reshaped the role of the big band singer without sacrificing their innate taste and musical imagination.
Although Count Basie died in April 1984, at the age of 79, his musical library containing all those classic Jones and Hefti scores has been lovingly protected over the years since his death.
Although since the band's halcyon days there has inevitably been many personnel changes, it's interesting to note that when the band came to this country three years ago, apart from Mitchell it contained five other members who had played under the sadly-departed 'Count'. These were drummer Butch Miles, who took over from Sonny Payne, trombonists Clarence Banks and Bill Hughes, tenor-saxist Kenny Hing and baritone-saxist John Williams. For reasons which are self-explanatory, and even after all these years, the sounds and the music of Count Basie will forever be around. Just as on April in Paris, those immortal words, 'one more time' will always serve to remind us of one of the truly great swing bands of the century.
By Barry McCanna.
Many centuries ago Juvenal wrote "Travel light and you can sing in the robber’s face", a saying Valaida would have done well to take to heart. She travelled extensively, and as a result was as well known in Europe and the Far East as she was in America. She also sang, danced and played several instruments, chief amongst them the trumpet. Before we go any further, we need to start at the very beginning, but exactly when that was is in doubt.
It seems clear that her birthday was the 2nd 0f June, but which year? There are varying dates on record (1900, 1901, 1903, 1905 and 1907) but she is supposed to have left high school in 1920. Her African American mother Etta was an accomplished musician who had been educated at Howard University, Washington DC. That city has been claimed as Valaida’s place of birth, but it vies with Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has the edge. According to Valaida her father John V. Snow was white, and that seems borne out by her features which displayed the stunning beauty typical of a mixed race. She had several younger brothers and sisters, the closest in age being Alvaida and Lavaida. Here again there is some confusion, it having been assumed that both were girls, but more recently reference has been made to Alvaida as a boy.
Her mother was an entertainer and music teacher, who taught her daughter to play a number of instruments, but the trumpet won out over the more ladylike choices of piano, violin or harp. Her father had showbiz connections, and at an early age Valaida and Alvaida were part of the vaudeville act "Snow’s Gold Dust Twins", which raises the question of whether they actually were. It’s even possible – given the anagrammatic nature of their names – that the three eldest were triplets, but that is mere speculation on my part. In her late teens, Valaida appeared in vaudeville as part of Gonzelle White’s team. In 1919, whilst on tour, she married dancer Nappy Brown (which sits oddly with her reported year of graduation) and during 1920 her act could be seen in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
She was part of Will Mastin’s troupe in 1922 for the revue Holiday In Dixieland, and later that year joined Barron Wilkins’ popular Harlem cabaret. In 1923 she was back on stage, first in a revival of a musical farce called The Man From ‘Bam, then in a revue called Ramblin’ Around, of which Blanche Calloway was the star. Follow Me, starring Mamie Smith, opened at the Lafayette Theatre in late 1923, and Valaida was in the cast when the show went on tour. In 1924 she was featured in the Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake show Chocolate Dandies which toured for six months before opening on Broadway in September. Elisabeth Welch was in the cast, and Josephine Baker and Lena Horne were in the chorus.
Following an unsuccessful audition for Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1926, Valaida presented herself again during its London run and was then taken on as understudy to Florence Mills. However, she turned down the opportunity of taking over the role when Florence quit. The reason was that she had the chance to front Jack Carter’s band which was set to tour the Far East, and this she did for the next two years. Carter was a drummer who subsequently played with Noble Sissle, and at some stage he married Lavaida, thereby becoming Valaida’s brother-in-law.
It was probably on this extended tour that Valaida polished her routine. She would be featured singing with the band, then she would play trumpet and finally she would perform a dance routine, which entailed several changes of shoes, each dance being appropriate to the footwear. Paradoxically, it seems to have been that versatility which held her back. Reminiscing about her, Mary Lou Williams wrote "She was hitting those high C’s just like Louis Armstrong. She would have been a great trumpet player if she had dropped the singing (and by implication the dancing) and concentrated on the trumpet."
Valaida returned to the USA in 1929, where she worked in Chicago with Earl Hines at the Sunset Café (she recorded the song "Maybe I’m To Blame" with him in February 1933), then appeared at the Apollo in Harlem. However, the effects of the Great Depression were making themselves felt and before the year was out she had returned to Europe. According to the Chicago Defender she played Paris and Russia with Louis Douglas and his Black Flowers revue, but that is contradicted by other reports that the Paris show was Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds and the Eastern European tour was with the show Louisiana. Those reports are not necessarily incompatible, since she could have set off with Louis Douglas and switched en route, particularly given her earlier association with Lew Leslie.
On her return to America in 1930 she participated in a short-lived revival of Shuffle Along, then co-starred with Ethel Waters in Lew Leslie’s revue Rhapsody in Black, but despite the star-studded cast, including the three Berry Brothers, the show did not break even. As a result the two stars were subjected to Leslie’s machinations, which were aimed at persuading one of them to quit. Neither would budge but Waters took a cut, after which the show began to show a profit. According to a contemporary report, in mid-September 1931 Valaida tried to commit suicide by drinking iodine, but within three weeks she had rejoined the show.
Three months later she married Ananias "Nyas" Berry, who at 19 was some years her junior. He was an integral part of the Berry Brothers’ act, but the newly-weds set up their own act, which did not endear them to Mr. Berry Senior. Matters were complicated further because her first husband claimed (allegedly with some encouragement from her new father-in-law) that they had not been divorced. Initially she was able to fend off the charge, and a New York court acquitted her in late 1933, but in March 1934 a court in Pennsylvania found her guilty, although she avoided imprisonment. Just to back-track a little, in October 1932 she recorded under the aegis of the Washboard Rhythm Kings, standing in for Taft Jordan on six numbers for Vocalion.
If things were difficult in her private life (her mother had died in September 1933), professionally she was riding high. The cabaret pianist and singer Bobby Short recalled that she "travelled in an orchid-coloured Mercedes-Benz, dressed in an orchid suit, her pet monkey rigged out in an orchid jacket and cap, with the chauffeur in orchid as well". Together with her two siblings, she and Nyas starred in the Grand Terrace revue, fronting their 12-piece Sepia Syncopaters. In the summer of 1934 Lew Leslie arranged for her to star in Blackbirds of 1934, which opened at the London Coliseum on 25th August, and was such a successful production that its run was extended in December by the simple expedient of changing 1934 to 1935. At the beginning of March the show went on tour to Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Streatham.
Just prior to that she made the first recordings under her own name, cutting ten sides with Billy Mason & his Orchestra, of which eight were released on the Parlophone label. One was her own composition Imagination, but the seller seems to have been I Can’t Dance (I’ve Got Ants In My Pants) which was coupled with I Wish I Were Twins. On 11th May the cast left Liverpool bound for New York City, and on her return she appeared first in Manhattan, at the Club Ubangi, then at the Club Delissa in Chicago. She also visited Los Angeles, where she and Nyas took part in two film shorts, Take It From Me and Irresistible You. However, all was not well in their marriage and in 1936 they divorced, doubtless to the great relief of the two other Berry Brothers, whose act Nyas rejoined.
Valaida returned to Europe, and sometime during 1936 appeared in a French movie called L’Alibi. By September 1936 she was again in London, where she recorded a further ten sides for Parlophone, accompanied by the Six Swingers, albeit they were uncredited on the label. A further three of her own compositions were included, namely High Hat, Trumpet And Rhythm, I Want A Lot Of Love and Take Care Of You For Me.
According to an article in Storyville by Derek Neville, a band was assembled in London by John Pillitz for a Continental tour, probably in early 1937. It included Johnny Claes on cornet and Reg Dare on tenor sax, Derek being summoned at short notice as replacement on alto after they had opened at the Tabaris Club in The Hague. He recalled that she was an exceptionally good show-biz personality. He wrote "She had a very good voice and was a superb trumpet player; just a little slip of a girl, yet the volume of sound she could get out of a trumpet was fantastic, she had a real Armstrong style". Amongst the audience at the Tabaris was Coleman Hawkins.
In May 1937 they moved on to a four-week booking at the Sihlporte in Zurich, were lavishly toasted at the local Hot Club, and retained for a further two weeks. She returned to London in July 1937 and recorded her last twelve sides for Parlophone, with swing accompaniment provided by virtually the same musicians with whom she had toured, before crossing back to the Eden Bar in Vienna. In March 1938 she returned to America, but although she found work in New York and Chicago she was still footloose. June 1939 found her back in Europe, where she again put in a film appearance with "Pièges" (also released as "Snares"). Europe was now in turmoil, but despite being warned of the dangers, and urged to return to the USA, she headed north from Paris in her Mercedes, and finished up in Denmark.
At which point it becomes extremely difficult to separate the facts from the myth that has grown up around her arrest during the Nazi occupation. At its most extreme, legend has it that she was charged with theft, the possession of drugs, spying and playing decadent music, confined in a concentration camp for anything up to three years, suffered starvation and torture, and weighed only 68 pounds and bore many scars at the time of her release. Let us examine the facts. According to Rust, she was in Stockholm at the end of August 1939, where she recorded four sides with Lulle Ellboj’s Orchestra for the Sonora label. Miss Valaida (as she was then styled) cut six sides in Copenhagen during 1940, all for the Tono label. Four were with Winstrup Olesen’s Swingband in July, the other two with "Matadorerne" (The Matadors?) in October. The Germans occupied Denmark in April 1940, which was a tactical manoeuvre designed to forestall the Allies’ use of that country as a base for operations, rather than a hostile invasion.
In other words, for at least six months after the Germans had occupied Denmark, Valaida remained at liberty, which runs counter to the received wisdom. I suspect that this situation would have continued but for the fact that in December 1941 America entered the war against Germany, at which point Valaida’s status would have changed from being a citizen of a neutral country to that of an enemy alien. That would be entirely consistent with internment, just as innocent Germans and Italians were interned in Britain during the period of the conflict. The fact that she was imprisoned in Copenhagen rules out a concentration camp because these were located further east. It seems more likely that it was a POW camp, because she is supposed to have been repatriated as part of an exchange deal for German POWs.
If that was the case, then what gave rise to the rumours, and how explain the condition in which she was repatriated? I’ve come to the conclusion that Valaida’s release handed the Americans too good a propaganda weapon for them to pass up. She herself had nothing to thank the Nazis for, not least because all her jewellery, costumes, car and other valuables had been confiscated by them. Thus there was no reason for her not to co-operate in the claim, given also that the publicity generated was certainly helpful to her career. The public had only her word to go on, and who in that climate would have dared challenge it? As to the matter of her weight, she was only five feet tall and extremely slender, and someone so diminutive in stature would not have weighed very much to begin with.
That is not to say that her health did not suffer in consequence; indeed, she is reputed to have spent six months in a sanatorium recovering. The Chicago Defender reported that she reappeared first on 24th April 1943, fronting a band at the Apollo Theatre. Thus it seems logical to conclude that her internment lasted for about ten months, from December 1941 to October 1942. In 1945 she recorded with the Buzz Adlam Orchestra and the session was reissued on Gold Star 5657. During 1946 she toured the USA and Canada, and on 7th February 1948 she appeared on Paul Whiteman’s radio show "On Stage America". In 1950 she recorded with Jimmy Mundy, the result being issued on Halo LP-50280.
Sometime after her repatriation she had married producer Earle Edwards, and they settled in New York City where she based her work, alternating with the Catskills during the summer season. In 1965, to mark its return to a vaudeville policy, she was booked into the Palace Theatre, New York for the first week in May. After the final show she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, and died in hospital on 30th May 1956.
The thirty sides which Valaida recorded for Parlophone between 1935 and 1937 were reissued by EMI in 1979 on two World Records label LPs, SH 309 (High Hat, Trumpet and Rhythm) and SH 354 (Swing Is The Thing). I can’t help feeling that a CD release is long overdue.
© BMC May 2005
NOTE: My thanks are due to Mike Hart, for once again coming up with much vital information, without which this account would have been far less complete.
By Ray Pallett
"A singer whose voice over the air or on the records is heard by millions – but whose personality is known to few." These are the words that introduced a Pathé film clip in 1935. And I believe it is an accurate assessment of the career of Jack Plant, the singer featured in the film. If you possess 78rpms of the English dance bands, you are certain to have encountered this vocalist with almost perfect diction on records by top West End bands including Roy Fox, Ray Noble, Savoy Hotel Orpheans, Jack Hylton, Sydney Lipton, Teddy Joyce, Hal Swain plus less famous or local bands such as those led by Bertini, Harry Bidgood, Howard Godfrey, Tommy Kinsman and many others. However, frequently his name is not given label credit, or if it is, it would be a pseudonym.
Although he did not make as many records as Sam Browne he almost certainly would be in the top ten of British vocalists of the 1930s. Bandleader Sydney Kyte was another to record the voice of Jack Plant with his band and later recalled in an interview that Jack was a quiet unassuming man but lacking in personality. Perhaps this may explain why he never made to the top with a regular long-lasting engagement with a West End band. He seems only to have stayed a matter of months with each band he joined. Maybe he was a shy man, not very ambitious and certainly never got the attention from the musical press accorded to his "rivals" such as Al Bowlly and Sam Browne. It has been estimated that he made around 1,000 recordings, which does put him on a par with Al Bowlly. I have heard Jack Plant singing on a number of records but I had not previously realised how prolific his output was. But the more I hear him, the more I consider he had his own charm and style.
Jack Plant was born in Partington, near Manchester on 26th August 1896 and began his working life as a clerk with Co-operative Wholesale Society salt works in Irlam. His first singing of note was as a member of the choir at the Congregational Church in Partington. Jack was called up in 1914 and served in the newly-formed Tank Corps and spent three-and-a-half years in France. It was whilst in the army that he began to sing entertaining fellow servicemen in Concert Parties.
Following the war, Jack re-joined the CWS and also became a member of the Manchester Bloom Street Choir and even appeared in an Eisteddfod near Pontypridd in the Rhonda Valley where he won a prize. Ivor Novello’s mother exclaimed" What a beautiful voice". Jack managed to get an introduction to Webster Miller, a leading tenor at the Beecham Opera House, who brought him to London and gave him singing lessons, whilst his secretary trained him in elocution. However, his voice did not develop as expected and as it was not considered strong enough for grand opera so he took up chorus work and toured with musical comedy companies up to 1928. He appeared in many musical comedies such as The Beggar’s Opera.
Around this time renowned singer Maurice Elwin was beginning to become well-known with the bandleaders in London and introduced Jack to the world of the dance bands. He must have made a good impression because in late 1929, having apparently abandoned an operatic career, he was singing with the Savoy Orpheans with whom he was to become resident vocalist. He appears on a number of the band’s records, even duetting with Jessie Matthews on a 12 inch 78rpm, The Cat And The Fiddle selection (Columbia DX348). Jack also broadcast with Carroll Gibbons from the Savoy Hotel in London.
In 1930 he was hired by Jack Hylton to supplement his regular vocalist Pat O’Malley, although he was never a regular member of the band. The first record Jack made with Hylton was Far Away which dates from February 1930. Jack appeared with Jack Hylton at the London Palladium. During the early 1930s, Jack Plant recorded with both these bands. In fact, he took part in the historic Hylton live broadcast to America on 15th December 1931. Jack sang the opening number, a concert arrangement of My Sunshine Is You.
During 1930, Jack Plant was being engaged by Ray Noble regularly to sing with his New Mayfair Dance Orchestra. In one notable recording session Ray Noble booked him to record his own composition I’ll Be Good Because Of You. A classic recording. An observer at the time could be forgiven for thinking that Jack was going to become Ray’s regular singer. But Ray had used another singer a couple of times by then and by February 1931 this other singer had become Ray’s regular vocalist virtually excluding Jack. The other singer, by the way, was until shortly before an out-of work vocalist named Al Bowlly.
When Lew Stone took over the Monseigneur Dance Band from Roy Fox, the latter had to form an almost entirely new band for his new contract with the Café Anglais in Leicester Square. Roy had met Jack in a club and remembering him from his Savoy Hotel days hired him as vocalist. Jack Plant sang on most of Roy’s records from October 1932 to the end of 1933 when Denny Dennis joined the band. Jack appeared with the Fox band in concerts in Holland and back home at the Palladium. Among the titles recorded by Jack with the Fox band were Love Me Tonight, My Romance, Please, Here Lies Love and Isn’t It Romantic.
Jack’s next engagement was with Canadian Teddy Joyce’s band which he joined in September 1934 and sang on most of Joyce’s records for the rest of that year. By January 1935, Eric Whitley had taken the vocalist’s role. However, this was not before Jack had made some fine records with the orchestra including Then I’ll Be Tired Of You, Lost In A Fog, I Never Slept A Wink Last Night and London On A Rainy Night.
From January to July 1935 Jack Plant was the principal vocalist with Sydney Kyte and his Piccadilly Hotel band. Jack went on tour with Kyte. A number of records were made for the Panachord label and today these are in the main rare collectors’ items. If you are lucky enough to hear any of them, good examples of Jack’s singing can be heard on such titles as Stars Fell On Alabama, Dancing With My Shadow and The Oregon Trail.
During the 1930s, Jack could be heard with many bandleaders with whom he sung
on records in a free-lance capacity. But he also recorded prolifically as a
soloist on the more obscure labels, mostly using pseudonyms. Jack himself
reckoned that he made nearly 400 records as a soloist. He recorded as Jack
Gordon on Imperial and some of his 1930/31 sides for this label include:
Dream Lover/You're Always In My Arms, What Have I Done, Meet Me In
My Dreams Tonight, Horatio Nicholls Gypsy Melody, Say A Little Prayer For Me,
Ma Cherie, Heartaches, Faithfully Yours, Vienna City Of My
Dreams, Time Alone Will Tell, Sally and Kiss Me Goodnight, Not
Goodbye. It should be noted that not all records on Imperial shown as by
Jack Gordon are by Jack Plant. Some are by Val Rosing or Billy Scott-Coomber!
One wonders what the record-buying public thought – or indeed, whether they even
noticed! One interesting record on this label is Imperial Revels Parts 1 and 2
(Imperial 2359). This features many artistes and they all signed the 'wax',
including Elsie Carlisle, Wag Abbey, Len Fillis and others including Jack. On
the record Jack is introduced as Jack Gordon, and in the 'wax' he signed his
name as Jack Gordon.
On Eclipse he recorded as Carol Porter. Some 1931/32 sides include: I Surrender Dear/Rose Of Old Japan, Lonesome, For You, Just A Song Called Home Sweet Home, Would You Take Me Back Again, Dreamy Egypt/Gipsey (sic) Moon, and This Love In My Heart For You, While We Danced At The Mardi Gras.
On Victory, Jack seems to have started in 1930 as Don Davies, examples including Dream Mother and When The Organ Played At Twilight. He then becomes G. Jack, and recorded among others Will The Angels Play Their Harps For Me, Molly, Two Dark Red Roses, After Your Kiss, Meet Me In My Dreams Tonight and Happy Days Are Here Again.
Other pseudonyms he used were G Jack, Vernon Wallace, Al Terry, Percy Clifford, Albert Carr, Don Davis and the Velvet Voice. He also supplied the vocal refrain for many accordion band records. Most of Jack’s records were made using an assumed name or as a un-named singer with a band. But on Columbia, Jack Plant did record under his own name in the early 1930s with piano accompaniments by Arthur Young, or Harry S. Pepper and sometimes with an orchestra conducted by Len Fillis. Among the titles he recorded were Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder, My Heart Belongs To The Girl Who Loves Somebody Else, When You Were My Sweetheart, You Were The Kid Next Door, Underneath The Lover's Moon, I Surrender Dear, It Must Be True, Just Two Hearts and Lovely Lady.
In the 1933/34 period American organist Jesse Crawford made a number of records in London on HMV and Jack Plant provided the vocal refrain on 6 of them, the titles being My Love Song, The Old Spinning Wheel, Drifting Down The Shalimar, Hold Me, Friends Once More United and In The Valley Of The Moon. An interesting aside, these recordings were made at the console of the Empire Wurlitzer in Leicester Square. Jesse Crawford was uncomfortable when the HMV engineers hooked up one small microphone to record the Empire organ. In fact, he protested. Victor Record engineers in the United States had told him that large theatres simply swallowed up the sound. The HMV engineers assured him that one microphone would be adequate. The results bore them out. Sound recording in England was clearly more advanced than in America! The first of these records revealed this, and Crawford was extremely pleased. Jack also recorded with other famous organists including Reginald Foort and Sandy McPherson.
Also in 1934, we find Jack’s solo records on Decca, among the titles recorded
were Wagon Wheels, Beside My Caravan, Ol' Pappy and Let's Fall In Love.
Jack also recorded as vocalist with what might be called "light orchestras",
rather than dance bands, for example the Splendide Hawaiian Quartette and The
New Mayfair Orchestra both conducted by Ray Noble; the Columbia Light Opera
Company and Alfredo and his Orchestra. In 1938 he was accompanied by Felix
Mendelssohn and his Orchestra on Decca F6832 which was their second "Singers on
Parade" release. On this Jack sings Time And Time Again .
Jack also appears on two Mantovani Pathétone shorts made in 1939. Jack is featured with Stella Roberta in both and sings Violin In Vienna and Hear My Song, Violetta. Having viewed all these films, I think Sydney Kyte was being a little unkind when he saw Jack as lacking in personality. In these films at least, Jack comes over as an accomplished and relaxed performer.
By 1939, Jack was Mantovani’s regular vocalist making records and personal appearances with the orchestra. In 1939 Billy Butlin booked Mantovani for the Summer Season alternating between the holiday camps at Clacton-on-Sea and Skegness. Jack Plant shared the vocalist’s duties with Mantovani’s sister Stella Roberta.
In 1942, Jack joined Henry Hall’s orchestra with which he had previously recorded and stayed for a short period. With Henry, Jack could be found entertaining the troops including an ENSA tour and broadcasting on the Forces Programme from places like Wrexham and Bristol. Worthy of note was that on one such broadcast on 5th February 1942, one of Jack’s songs was Some Chicken, Some Neck. The story behind this song was that Winston Churchill addressed the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa and mentioned that the French generals had prophesied that Britain would get its neck rung like a chicken. Back in Britain, an enterprising songwriter got to work and the song was quite popular for a few weeks, although it was never recorded.
Among his other more notable engagements around this time was a broadcast as guest singer with Ambrose And His Orchestra from the Regent Cinema, Marble Arch. He sung Humpty Dumpty Heart on this broadcast.
Post war he broadcast regularly into the 1950s. His professional career ended around 1960 following a broadcast in Henry Hall’s Guest Night and an appearance in Variety Bandbox with Frankie Howerd and Derek Roy. His last broadcast was as a pianist duetting with Billy Mayerl. Not many people knew that he was a talented pianist although he seldom played in public.
In retirement he used to entertain the other pensioners in the Evelyn Norris House, just off the sea front in Worthing, a Harmony Trust Home for retired show-biz folk where he lived for the last three years of his life. Memory Lane correspondent Doug Wilkins visited him there. Doug recalls "It was infuriating. Several times I tackled him, trying to discover details of his earlier life – but to no avail. His memory was very poor and he constantly "drifted" away from anything I asked him. However, his last few years were happy and enjoyed in reasonable health up until his final illness. He was overjoyed that people still remembered him, although he had previously suffered a period of hardship and even despair including a broken leg which failed to heal properly making walking difficult. He did marry and I believe to a Roman Catholic. (I also believe he, himself, was half Jewish.) Jack had one son who came from Nottingham. As far as I know, the cause of death was heart attack whilst in Southlands Hospital, Shoreham-by-Sea. I was present when it happened. During the last couple of years of Jack’s life, I got to know him quite well, entertaining him at home and the occasional visit to the local pub. Jack did manage to recall that he had recorded a series for Radio Nottingham about his life under the title Music From The Thirties but I do not know if they were ever broadcast."
Doug Wilkins unearthed a tape of a talk Jack gave in 1972. On the tape inlay card it mentions that it was recorded at Penlee House, although Doug is unable to say where that is. Jack gives a rather sketchy outline of his career but says nothing of his family life. It was always his ambition to make records, he recalls and ends up by saying that he broke his leg in 1958 which finished his career.
Jack died on Tuesday, 21st August 1973, having been hospitalised as an emergency a week earlier. The funeral took place on 24th August 1973 at the Downs Crematorium in nearby Brighton. Doug Wilkins recalls that there were not many mourners present and the floral tributes were small in number. A full obituary appeared in the local newspaper, but the only nationals to report it were the Evening Standard and the Daily Telegraph which both gave Jack just minimal coverage.
Jack Plant was a small man, always neat and well dressed, with a voice which has been described as "plaintiff". One can detect his "operatic" background quite easily. Chris Hayes recalled "he never earned what he deserved, because he didn’t ask the fees to which he was entitled with his enormous versatility and soft warm voice." Jack had a great love of life , of nature and birds. As a young man he was a good athlete, able to run 100 yards in 10.2 seconds and an excellent sportsman; in 1920 he actually had a trial for Manchester United!
I would like to thank Terry Brown and John Wright for most of the discographical information in this article. Most of the biographical material came from the previous short pieces in previous issues of Memory Lanes, Chris Hayes’ book Voices In The Air and from Doug Wilkins and Peter Bone. Gordon Howsden supplied the younger photograph of Jack, Doug Wilkins the one of Jack as an older man.
By Barry McCanna
It is a fact that some bandleaders donned the mantle of a more flamboyant personality by means of their music. Geraldo and Felix Mendelssohn are obvious examples, but with Roberto Inglez what began as a simple name embellishment went on to embrace the South American lifestyle.
His real name was Robert Inglis, and he was born at Elgin, Morayshire on 29th June 1913. He displayed early proficiency on the piano, and by the age of 15 was leading his own dance band, reputedly earning £10 a week in the process. It was hardly surprising therefore that music won out over attempts to point him towards a career as a dental technician. By the mid-thirties he was leading a semi-pro five piece band which supplied the music for dancing at a roadhouse called The Oakwood, two miles out of Elgin on the Inverness road. In 1935 they won the Melody Maker Dance Band competition for the North East of Scotland, and he took the prize for best musician. His band were called the Melodymakers, which title may well have originated from their triumph. It seems also to have encouraged him to head south, leaving the band in the lurch – minus not only pianist but also transport.
In 1937, studying at the Royal Academy of Music, he met Edmundo Ros, then newly arrived in England. Subsequently Ros joined Don Marino Barreto’s Cuban Orchestra, and when he left to form his own outfit he recruited Bertie (as he was then known) as the pianist. Edmundo suggested that being the only British player in the group, he should adopt a Spanish persona by the simple expedient of adding one letter and altering two others. Ros opened on 8th August 1940 at the Cosmo Club in Wardour Street, but his music proved such a draw that the audience outgrew those premises. He relocated to the nearby St. Regis Club, but that was soon demolished by a German bomb, so the band kept moving!
Roberto was ambitious, and within a relatively short space of time he left to form his own small group, somewhat to Edmundo’s consternation. In early 1944 he was involved with Paul Adam (a well-known society bandleader) in taking over at the Milroy Club while Harry Roy took his own band off on an extended tour. According to the Radio Times, in 1945 he was playing at the Berkeley Hotel, part of the Savoy chain. The band began broadcasting regularly on the BBC, and in 1946 he secured a residency at the Savoy Hotel itself, which was the domain of that doyen of the keyboard, Carroll Gibbons.
He began recording in late 1945, using an augmented line-up, and his records were issued in England by Parlophone, and on the associated Odeon label in Spain and South America. Overseas sales figures were sensational (one release was said to have sold 10,000 per day) thereby confirming the authenticity of his interpretation of the Latin-American idiom. Not that he was confined to it, and in 1950 he accompanied Steve Conway on six sides that were recorded for Columbia.
"The Melody Maker" was a composition written by Noel Gay, and it was the natural sobriquet for Roberto Inglez, who subsequently adopted it as his signature tune. In August 1952 the Melody Maker magazine informed its readers that following repeated approaches from a Brazilian impresario, Roberto Inglez had agreed to visit that country and lead a 30-piece local orchestra. The fact that he would receive a net fee of £1,000 per week net of Brazilian tax and expenses seems to have clinched the deal. The tour began on September 11th, and they played for four weeks in Rio at the Casablanca nightclub, followed by two weeks at the Hotel Lord in San Paulo, with broadcasts from both venues by the local radio stations.
That trip was a resounding success, and he returned to England in triumph. Later that year one of Brazil’s most popular female singers, Dalva de Oliviera, came to London and undertook a two-week engagement at the Savoy, backed by his band. They also recorded seventeen titles together, thirteen of which were released in Brazil, including the Christmas song "Noite de Natal" (Silent Night).
Given that he seemed at the peak of his career, there was something of a mystery about his abrupt decision to sever his connection with the Savoy Hotel in early 1954. Carroll Gibbons was ill at the time and he died in May, added to which there were problems with the Musicians Union. The deciding factor was probably rather more personal, because he had met and married Patricia Palma, a Chilean who worked at the American Embassy in London. In any case, it was to her home country that they emigrated in March 1954.
There he styled himself as Roberto Inglez y sua Orchestra Romanza, and featured a vocal sextette known as the Choro Brasileirinho. He broadcast regularly and toured the sub-continent, but did very little more in the way of recording. He also undertook a year-long tour of the USA, which included an engagement at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (whose resident bandleader for many years was Xavier Cugat) and gave a concert at the Pasapoga Hall in Madrid in 1956.
Roberto Inglez believed that the Scots had a natural affinity with Latin-American rhythms. That may well be because many of the crews of the defeated Spanish Armada were shipwrecked on the north-west coast of Scotland after Philip the Second’s fleet was scattered in the English Channel in 1588. Certainly his dark good looks could well have attested to a Latin ancestry. If so, he found his roots both in the music he produced and in his choice of Santiago as his home, where he died on 4th September 1978.
Vocalion have produced two CDs devoted to Roberto Inglez; the first is entitled "Come Closer To Me" (CDEA 6062) and the second, from the liner notes for which this article has been adapted, is called "The Melody Maker" (CDEA 6095).
© March 2004
Rex Owen – A Spotlight of Fame
Rex Owen, the well-known dance band musician is profiled here for Memory Lane by his daughter June
My father Rex Owen was born in Canning Town, East London in 1905. He was an only child. His mother wanted him correctly brought up and he went to work in a bon-bon (i.e. Christmas crackers) factory for extra money needed for education and music lessons. Rex learned to play the piano from the age of 5 and his mother made him practice for half an hour each day,
His parents were educated in school locally in Canning Town and surprisingly both learned to read and write beautifully. His father’s writing was "Copperplate" as they called it in those days and he became a printer.
Before Rex started school the family moved to East Ham and rented a house near Goosely Park by the side of the Southend Road. Rex was educated at the local school in Vicarage Lane, and later went on to Technical College. His mother wanted him to be an engineer and apprenticed him to a firm in Stanford- le-Hope in Essex. But Rex hated this.
In his teens he decided he wanted to be a musician and went to Holland. I believe he started to play the saxophone there. He came back to England and started to play with bands all over the British Isles, as he became well known.
It was in large restaurant in Cardiff while performing on stage in a small band, that he met my mother Kathleen Williams. She was a waitress. They were married in 1929, bought a semi-detached house not far from his parents, nearer Goosely Park. They had two children, Myself June born in 1930 and in 1931 my brother Barry.
In1933 the family moved to North West London and bought a house from George Scott Ward, the well-known musician of that time. They lived in the same road as Charlie Kunz the pianist who had a wife and two sons.
Around this time my father joined Roy Fox and his band. Roy and his wife came to partied held at the house hosted by Kitty and Rex. Other guests were Al Bowlly, Denny Dennis, Peggy Dell, Hughie Tripp, Bill Apse and many others.
Rex toured the country with Roy’s band and played soprano sax, alto, tenor and baritone as well as the clarinet. Rex also sang did comedy sketches. They made many records.
Rex did write for a magazine and advertised the saxophone.
In 1939 he wanted to join the forces but was unable to do so because of stomach ulcers. He also could not join ENSA because of this. However he continued to work in the West End during the war, through all the air raids, doodlebugs and rockets. Nothing put him off.
Rex played with the well known bands – Geraldo, Ted Heath, Ambrose and others. He did recordings with Ann Shelton, Dorothy Squires and Vera Lynn. He did film music with Jessie Matthews, George Formby, Will Hay and Kitty McShane with Old Mother Riley.
I remember on one record Rex sang The Hawaiian War Chant. This fascinated my brother Barry and I and I thought it was a strange language. Dad, for want of an explanation, said it was "scat" which was popular at the time. However we never really knew how they managed it.
Towards the end of the war my father joined Carroll Gibbons at the Savoy Hotel in London. At the time I was at boarding school in Golders Green. We used to socialise with the musicians in the band and had some good times with their families.
I can remember one time going with my father to a BBC broadcast when he played the baritone sax with Fred Elizalde. It was mostly 20’s jazz.
Around 1947 the family went to a broadcast of Take It From Here. I believe Charlie Shadwell did the music. Jay Nichols, Dick Bentley and Jimmy Edwards did the show. My father played alto sax and clarinet.
In the late 40’s Rex developed a serious skin problem, similar to Dennis Potter as was portrayed in the TV presentation The Singing Detective. This was how it affected him.
He became restricted in the work that he could do. He started his own band in a Piccadilly club but when his skin was bad he was unable to appear on stage. It was this that decided Rex and Kitty to buy a small hotel in Brighton. He did a few small gigs in there. However the skin problem became worse, so he had to give up. His lips became dry and cracked as well as his hands. It was impossible to play anymore. Specialists were unable to offer a cure or even find the cause.
In 1976 he decided to move to Swindon to be near my family and me. He bought a bungalow and enjoyed woodwork and gardening He socialised with musicians in Swindon and he was delighted when Harry Gold and his Band came to the Art Centre. My dad was invited to go on stage where he was introduced to the audience and received a standing ovation. He was quite shocked.
Sadly he died suddenly in 1985, his wife Kitty in 1988.
Of all the distinctive musical sounds which emanated from the 1960s, none can be more so described than that associated with the orchestra of the late Bert Kaempfert. As connoisseurs of good music will readily testify, it was one of those rare, compulsive and instantly-recognisable sounds, with its main emphasis being on a swinging beat and underscored by an air of rich quality, plus many shades and facets - all of which had the mark of the Hamburg-born master stamped all over them.
Records by Bert Kaempfert, who tragically died in 1980 at the age of 56, sold in their millions: Bye, Bye Blues, Wonderland By Night, Snowbird and Swingin' Safari were merely the tip of his orchestra's iceberg, while his prowess as a songwriter saw him pen L-O-V-E for Nat King Cole and Wooden Heart for Elvis Presley, while Spanish Eyes and Strangers In the Night proved to be the biggest hits that A1 Martino and Frank Sinatra respectively recorded.
It doesn't end there either, for artists of the calibre of Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey and Vic Damone all benefited by recording his songs. To add a further string to his bow - and despite the claims of about a hundred others in the music business - it was Kaempfert who first discovered the talents of the Beatles, when they were working in a rather downbeat club in Hamburg called the Top Ten.
After his death it appeared that eventually the famous Kaempfert sound would fade away to become just another musical memory, to be heard intermittently. But in 1993, Tony Fisher, one of this country's most respected and experienced musicians, who was Kaempfert's former lead trumpet throughout the 1970s, teamed up with Bert's daughter Marion, a record producer. Their liaison led to a new musical era.
Between them they recovered Kaempfert's priceless arrangements from their safe hiding place, blew away the dust and the cobwebs and then set about assembling a new orchestra. Their partnership proved to be a success from the start: Marion for her foresight in bringing her father's original sound back to life, and Tony for his powers of persuasion in getting her to agree to what was his idea in the first place.
But then it's difficult to imagine any musician, other than Tony Fisher, who would have dared to suggest a relaunch of the orchestra at a time which coincided with Kaempfert being posthumously inducted into the world-renowned Songwriters Hall of Fame. Taking on the prime role of keeping the sound of Bert Kaempfert alive, Tony said at the time: 'In my 30 years' experience, playing in almost every orchestra in England - and indeed Europe - I thought it tragic that all that high-quality music was left unheard or performed. So I got together with the Kaempfert family and we jointly decided to relaunch the whole thing.'
In so doing, he proved to be the ideal man for the job of reforming the Kaempfert orchestra, which comprises 24 of Britain's finest musicians, plus singers. To further underline his credentials, Fisher has, during his extensive career, played in the bands of, among others, Oscar Rabin, Eric Delaney, Ken Mackintosh and the great Ted Heath. Tony is also the regular lead trumpet in the Don Lusher Big Band, and can frequently be seen in Laurie Holloway's studio band on the BBC's Parkinson show. He has also done extensive studio recording work in the orchestras of Nelson Riddle and Henry Mancini, and backed singers as diverse as the Beatles, Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra.
But it is towards the Bert Kaempfert orchestra that most of Manchester-born Tony Fisher's energies are directed, guaranteeing that the sound of Bert Kaempfert lives on. Evidence of his commitment to the legacy is apparent to all who attend the concerts of this great musical institution. For apart from the faultless style and the faithfully reproduced Kaempfert sound, in all its glory, the whole musical adventure provides another insight into what makes Fisher's musical and versatile inheritance tick.
Not content with pleasing his audiences with a programme of that renowned and melodic wonderland-by-night style, the other side of Bert Kaempfert's scoring prowess is demonstrated. And, as a leader with that top big-band pedigree to his credit, Tony Fisher relishes pulling out all the stops to help illustrate his former boss' versatility. From within the ranks of this very fine orchestra there is the scope and ability to expound not only some excellent Kaempfert big-band arrangements, but also a clear demonstration of how much he was equally at home producing, arranging and recording this highly popular sound.
As a result, the big-band sound, via numbers such as Take the A Train, Jumpin' at the Woodside, Two o'C1ock Jump, Apple Honey, Airmail Special, Tuxedo Junction (with strings) and Mr Anthony's Boogie, among others, come across like a breath of fresh air. In summary, then, and with so many variants to the programme, fans of Kaempfert and his music can relax: his delightful sounds rest in the capable hands of Tony Fisher - a man who knows exactly what is required and, more importantly, also knows how to deliver the goods.
Spike Hughes 1908 – 1987
By Richard Ives
At first glance to include Spike Hughes in a series of articles about British dance bands on record might seem rather singular, after all he only made 44 records under his own name and 7 of these were made in America. But, as I hope to show his influence on the dance band scene was far reaching, not only for the small number of recordings he made, but by his astute criticism and enthusiasm of the bands that made up the popular music field of the 1930's. So how did Spike Hughes, who was later to become a respected critic and author of books on Mozart and Glyndebourne, become embroiled in the world of popular music?
Patrick Cairns Hughes was born on October 19th 1908 to an English mother and Irish father. The name "Spike" was a generic name, much the same as all Clarks are called "Nobby" and Whites are "Chalkey". Actually he came to dislike the nickname which probably came about not from Naval tradition but because being a double base player his spike on the instrument indented the floors. His father Herbert Hughes was a successful composer and musician having written and set a collection of Irish folk songs amongst other works. He later became a respected music critic for the Daily Telegraph. His mother had studied piano at the Royal Academy so obviously music was going to play a part in the Hughes household, which could be described as being comfortable middle class. Unfortunately for one reason or another the marriage began to break up when the young Hughes was only four and he ceased to know anything about a normal family life after that. His mother decided that an everyday life with its boredom and routine were not for her and young Spike, so began a childhood which could only be described a Nomadic.
At the age of 6 whilst in Cape Town, music, that is "classical", first influenced him. Although he had been having violin lessons for a while the enthusiasm which was to later shine was still remarkably absent but he was keen enough to try and bang out tunes on his mother's piano. The trouble was that in the lifestyle he was living it was almost impossible to give a serious study to anything and given that his mother was highly irrational at best did not help. Unfortunately, his father's influence ended when he was only 16 even though his input in previous years had been largely ineffective. It was whilst on a holiday in Vienna in 1923 music took a serious hold when he went to the opera to see Wagner's Lohengrin. What such a profound work must have had on a boy of 14 one can only guess but he had already seen Faust, Falstaff, La Traviata and many more; but it was Lohengrin which created a new world and was a catalyst in that he at last started to take both himself and music seriously. Although he had dabbled in composing he must have realised that a more academic approach was needed and to this end his mother thought he should go and study with Dr Egon Wellesz (1885-1974) who was both an authority on the history of music and teacher, also composer of a vast number of works, although these are seldom heard today. From Wellesz, who was very much an avant garde figure, the young Hughes was coached in all aspects of music making, composing, playing (he had taken up the violin again) and performance. It was around this time, he thought it would be rather fun to be a music critic, "I had no ambition to be a particularly distinguished one, though I hoped at least to be an important one whose presence at concerts would be pointed out in hushed tones". Some aspiration for a 15 year old! Nothing daunted he attended the premiere of Alexander Zemlinksy's one act opera based on Wilde's Birthday Of The Infanta. After making copious notes during the performance he typed up a review and sent it to the offices of "The Sackbut" in London. This was a monthly magazine which had as a previous editor the composer Peter Warlock, who, years later Hughes got to know quite well until Warlock's suicide in 1930. In order that his father might not know what he was getting up to in Vienna, Spike called himself Patrick MacHugh. Anyway, this led to other assignments most notably in The Times who commissioned him to report on other musical events in Vienna, so his precociousness was given a terrific boost when these reports were published with the legend "from a Vienna Correspondent". He even had the audacity to have some visiting cards printed "Mr Patrick Hughes - contributor to The Sackbut, The Musical News and Herald etc". This, of course, led to free seats at the opera like all other critics.
In 1924 two piano pieces were published, Grotesque and Noon By The Sea At Taorminn. These were not too technically difficult because Hughes was not much of a pianist and had already determined to play the piano for his own amusement only. There was very little of what could be called music in the second piece as the dynamics never rose above pp and as a consequence was all but inaudible! These were published in London and the news arrived the day before his sixteenth birthday, surprisingly to date (1946)
Hughes informs us that 33 copies had been sold. Encouraged by the perceived success more works were to follow, for example a ballet named The Secret of the Goddess in which the lead was to appear entirely nude except for the prerequisite G string. An opera was planned out and actually started but it was surprisingly a sonata for solo 'cello that was successful both in private performance and publication.
It can be deducted from the foregoing paragraphs that popular music in the 1920's meant nothing to Spike Hughes. That indeed was the case, his one aim, if it can be said to be an aim, he imagined would be fulfilling his life either as a composer or critic, that was until early 1925 when he heard a Negro jazz band led by Arthur Briggs in a small night club in Vienna. It fell on Briggs to try out Hughes first attempts to write in the popular field. These can said to be of questionable value as the pained look on the faces of the dancers showed, probably the arrangements and not tight corsets and bad ventilation as Hughes says. He arrived back in English in late spring of 1925 to take up his lapsed academic studies at Cambridge, this was to last two years. This time was not wasted as he got valuable experience conducting. He admitted to being a very bad conductor mainly, it seems, from an inability to concentrate, time was also spent trying out instruments and of course arranging. The inability to concentrate also led to a bemusing number of exploits during the national strike of 1926, as along with some 2,000 young men of Cambridge Spike offered his services to the Government to help keep the railways running, obviously something a young lad would jump at. He had duties as a guard, then signalman where the temptation proved too great to send trains in different directions to the allotted ones. Still great fun was had in the secure knowledge they had helped the country keep going.
The summer holidays were spent in Salzburg during the music festival where celebrities like Bruno Walter and Richard Strauss conducted, he also arranged to meet influential people and gain admittance to extravagant parties where he indulged in his taste for liquor. There were also the mad love affairs started in committed faith but somehow unenduring. Back in England and by 1927 Hughes was writing more music, some of it was performed, some was unheard because of various reasons. The aforementioned 'cello sonata was played at the International Society of Contemporary Music where it gained polite and encouraging reviews in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Observer and strangely The Christian Science Monitor. It was left to the high-brow Musical Times to describe it as "modern stuff" on its publication. Looking back Hughes said "…..I might be justified in regretting that I should have done so little to fulfil what promise I did show as a composer of seventeen, but I have no regrets". Other commissions, although not of a musical nature came. He was asked to translate a large volume in German by Paul Bekker titled Richard Wagner: His Life in his Work. He got paid £60 for his work although he says neither he or anyone else could make head or tail if it.
Something else happened in the summer of 1927, Spike renewed his interest in jazz. He visited the London Pavilion which was showing Blackbirds but he found the star Florence Mills too refined, preferring the raucous blues singer Edith Wilson who was also appearing. He did, however, admire the remarkable orchestra in the pit, the Pike Davies band. Something like the sound heard at the Blackbirds revue can be heard on Columbia 4185 and 4238 under the name The Plantation Orchestra. Its appropriate here to mention the effect Blackbirds had on an other English composer, Constant Lambert, who attended several performances and when Florence Mills died he wrote a short piece in her memory called Elegiac Blues. There was perhaps an even more important reason that rekindled Hughes interest in jazz and that was the appearance of some hot records pressed over here but recorded in America by "Red" Nichols and his Five Pennies. Washboard Blues was one such "....was tuneful and well formed......had an atmosphere of chamber music….not hitherto encountered in jazz at all". This can be heard on English Brunswick 3407 or 01801, the latter is quite easy to find. The personnel are Red Nichols - cornet; Jimmy Dorsey - clarinet and alto sax; Arthur Schutt - piano; Eddie Lang - guitar and Vic Berton -drums. It was recorded in New York December 8th1926.
You can imagine the impact this music must have had to somebody who had only known jazz from what he had seen personally and from Negro bands. He was by now, of course, well aware of dance bands and the popular repertoire. From Red Nichols he went on to discover other luminaries who were having a potent influence on the popular music front. People like Fletcher Henderson, (Duke Ellington had only started recording in 1924 and until 1927 his records would have been only available in America), Bix Beiderbecke,
Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti and Adrian Rollini. Hughes said "These players….brought a new charm to jazz, a technical dexterity". He thought that they were also "uncommercial" which appealed and they were playing for the fun of it. This could not apply to Henderson who ran a commercial band but the small groups formed by people like Frankie Trambauer did so because they loved what they were doing, away from their steady and restrictive work in the larger bands. I think the chamber music quality of so many of these smaller groups appealed because mainly it appeared spontaneous and was not cluttered up like so many bigger bands e.g. Whiteman, and they were tuneful. Digressing slightly, Hughes has some salient remarks about later music and especially "swing" bands. "Your modern swing band makes a noise fit only for morons and obsessional adolescents, for the essence of swing is the repetition of an imbecile phrase starting fortissimo and getting louder from there" sic. He goes on but we get his meaning, writing in 1946 he looked back on 1927 and the following few years as a golden age in popular music, never to be seen again and who are we to disagree?
In part 11 we will see how Spike Hughes entered the Dance Band world and went on to make some classic recordings.
"Among those who take jazz seriously……. it is considered that the only True Jazz is that which is entirely improvised; to write it down is to forego all claims to sincerity or spontaneity. This strikes me as absolute nonsense". So wrote Spike Hughes in 1946. As we learnt in the previous article the new jazz he heard in 1927 made a deep impression, but it was still a few years before this bore fruition. It was in 1927 he got his first proper job, as a secretary in a psychoanalyst surgery; he met William Walton and the now forgotten English composer Walter Leigh, these were to have a lasting impression on him. Tiring of things he went to Berlin in January 1928 but found it unrewarding and was glad to return in June when he applied for a job at the BBC as a concert producer! Being turned down was the best thing to happen to me, he says, nothing daunted he continued to lead a topsy turvey existence.
The International Contemporary Music Festival at Sienna was visited where the lively programme produced a minor riot. One of the works was Walton's Façade and the Tarantella caused the Italians to revolt; even shoes were thrown at the performers. The other work was Webern's String Trio and the demonstration that produced was pure entertainment. Back in London he found himself in serious financial difficulties and had to make do with the small reward of concert notices. As he now had a wife to support things were looking decidedly difficult when one day looking at a discarded instrument in the corner of the room that had been put aside by an erstwhile lodger, he thought he should learn to play it, the instrument was a double bass.
There was, of course, simplicity involved in Hughes taking up the double bass (so named because it is actually pitched an octave down from the bass clef in music) because he found it relatively easy to pick out the bass chords of any modern popular piece of music. I think he does himself an injustice because in 1931 he was voted Britain's Best Bassist in a Melody Maker poll. Anyway he thought that by playing bass it would open up a new future playing in dance bands, so we find him in the Spring of 1929 assiduously finding work. He did get a job, of sorts, however not playing but by offering to arrange some popular works of the day for, well Hughes just says for a band that played nightly in a Very Smart Hotel led by the Immaculate Aristocrat of Society Music; a subtle hint that it was Ambrose and his May Fair Orchestra. On the appointed evening Hughes, complete in evening attire, presented himself and his arrangement at the Very Smart Hotel and introduced himself to Ambrose by saying "Your office said I was to bring this arrangement down this evening to try over, it’s a new tune - Cole Porter". Ambrose replied "O.K. Mr Porter after the cabaret", Hughes: "I arranged it, Cole Porter's the composer".
Well after that it can be imagined what happened, the band faced with a hand written score they had never seen before, let alone had a chance to run through, but it was the first Hughes arrangement to be heard in England. Of course it was a near disaster as Hughes complicated writing had made it very difficult, and as he observes British Dance Band musicians are not the best sight-readers. There were moments of almost total silence because parts had been written for solo guitar and with no microphone, unlike in a studio, these were lost in a ballroom. His three minute arrangement lasted five minutes before it ground to a halt, much to everyone's relief. The dancers clapped and Hughes escaped through the kitchens and out. At least he had started at the top! Luckily he met quite by chance Bill Harty the drummer who suggested he came along the next night to the Piccadilly Hotel and met Al Starita.
This led to Hughes being commissioned to write a number of arrangements for the Piccadilly Players. Not, however, the work he had hoped for, instead of interesting material for which he could gain experience, he was given the mundane task of arranging dull stuff like Twenty One Today, a flashy waltz and unbelievably the National Anthem! This sort of material is usually left to any "hack" orchestrator. Further similar tunes followed Happy Birthday, the wedding march from Lohengrin etc., just the sort of thing to pacify the dinner/dance clientele. In between time he filled in writing articles and concert notices for The Musical Times and Monthly Musical Record; it should be said that in the 20's and 30's there was not the sharp dividing line between Classical and Popular music that there has been in subsequent decades. However, he did wonder if he would ever perform in a dance band on bass, and thoughts were being kindled that he might have to form his own band.
However, by chance, as frequently happens in life, he did get a job as bassist in a band called "The Night Watchman" that played in a Restaurant in Westminster named St Ermin's. It was only a small band but it included Philip Buchel who played the piano (black notes only), saxophone and danced. The band was really made up of gifted amateur performers, half of which Buchel included, could not read music but Hughes was paid a weekly wage of £10 so they could not have been too inadequate. They then became very lucky to get the relief band job at the Café de Paris, the main band being the Blue Lyres, Hughes enjoyed this as he could study "….the sex life of London Society as easily as if I had had my ear and eye to a Mayfair keyhole", So now at least he had a full job and a regular income to finance his drinking.
A chance meeting up with William Walton led to an introduction to Phil Lewis who was the recording manager of the newly formed Decca Record Company. Lewis who had been an orchestral player with the London Symphony Orchestra but latterly had been directing pit bands at London shows. Under him Decca had made quite a stir by recording Walton's Façade suite with Constant Lambert and Edith Sitwell as the reciters. Anyway, this chance meeting did give Hughes the opening he had been hoping for, Lewis said he was looking for a new band to expand his fast growing catalogue, but Spike said he did not actually have a band, "Then get a band of your own together and bring them down", Lewis replied. Of course this was to be only a test recording but in Hughes eyes it was a gift from the gods, as he later stated he could already see the headlines in the Melody Maker and the sleek motor car. Here at last was a chance to prove his arrangements were just not the work of a gifted amateur but a real working musician.
He quickly got some people together including Philip Buchel, on sax; Stanley Andrews, on violin and Val Rosing from the Night Watchman, the rest of the band comprised of Leslie Smith guitar and on piano Eddie Carrol, and naturally Hughes on bass. The only "mystery" musician was the phenomenal American trumpet player Sylvester Ahola whose identity had to remain a close guarded secret as he was under contract to Ambrose. The group presented themselves at Decca Chenil Galleries on the 18th February 1930. Their chosen titles being Can't We Be Friends? and Futuristic Rhythm. The nervous tension that preceded the warning buzzes and the red light were terrifying but not nearly as terrifying as the play back! Hughes was dumbstruck and wished he had never entered into the fray. However, the Decca engineers were delighted as was Phil Lewis who wanted to release them.
Unfortunately, we shall never be able to hear what these two sides sounded like as the publishers had issued an injunction against their performance as the tunes had been illegally imported from American shows. So three weeks later Hughes again took his band into the studio to record five sides that infringed no copyright. These were It's Unanimous Now, Body and Soul, A Miss is as good as a Mile, Crazy Feet and Moanin' Low. The last named was rejected. The other four were issued on Decca F1690 and F1703. One problem remained, however, what to call the band. The typed white label on the test pressing said "Patrick Hughes and his Orchestra", this sounded far to mundane and dull, so in a whimsical moment Hughes suggested "Spike Hughes and his Deccadents". This was agreed on but the whole effort was ruined by the label printers who altered it to "Spike Hughes and his Decca-Dents"! It was the first time in England that a band was let lose in a studio to record and play however they wanted to. So what did these first efforts sound like?
MB-1057-2 A Miss Is As Good As A Mile. Decca F1703 After a short 4 bar introduction Buchel states the main theme for 8 bars this is then embellished by Ahola, a short solo by Andrews leads to the vocal by Val Rosing which is sung in a laid back fashion ending on a (too) high A, Ahola takes over with a good hard solo, Andrews shines with his reworking of the tune and it all leads to a complete circle and ends. It has a lovely bassy sound provided by Hughes. This is a typical performance of the early sides. They make Body and Soul on the reverse side, sound fresh although Rosing is no match for Sam Browne with Ambrose also on Decca M118.
After the session in March the Melody Maker reviewed them with enthusiasm, here at last was a group who were not afraid to go off in an entirely different way to the run of the mill commercial dance band, and although it lacked the polish of there American counterparts i.e. Red Nichols, Joe Venuti etc., they showed by their recordings that a British band could pass muster. I am not saying that these recordings emulate those from America because they don't. They all have a very distinct individualism which is unique. Anyway the upshot of the sessions at Decca were that Hughes was sacked from the Night Watchman but then offered a job by Lewis to play in the Decca House Orchestra and write arrangements. He also played with Roy Fox, Henry Hall and in October 1932 - Jack Hylton. All Decca artists, at that time.
The next session a fortnight later produced four more sides - The Boop-Boop-A-Doop-A Doo Trot, The Man From The South, What Wouldn't I Do For That Man? and Fascinating Devil. These were issued on F1709 and F1710 respectively. The only difference between this and the previous session was that Max Goldberg - trumpet, replaced Sylvester Ahola who was forbidden to do any more free lance work (he was anyway under contract to Ambrose) by the Ministry of Labour.
MB1124-2 The Main From The South Decca F1709 After a slow introduction (these introductions as with the bridge passages and modulations and codas were always written out in full by Hughes) the band heads off at a cracking pace, after 4 half tempo bars Rosing sings the chorus, after which Buchel improvises then Goldberg takes the lead, another half tempo break before the band go headlong to the ending which recalls the beginning. Impossible to dance to but great to listen to. By the time the next session, April 16th, the band had been increased by an extra Clarinet doubling Alto Sax, and Jack Jackson replaced Goldberg. In MB1203-1 A Ship Without A Sail Decca F1748 we start to see the Hughes band formulating the style that would culminate in the USA recordings exactly three years later. The coarseness has been smoothed out, the sharp edges removed, a slightly softer approach is adopted. Listen especially for the fine trumpet of Jackson.
By June the band got bigger still, I'll list it in full:- Norman Payne - trumpet; Jock Fleming - trombone; Harry Hines - clarinet, baritone; Philip Buchel - alto; Buddy Feastherstonhaugh - tenor; Stan Andrews - violin; Eddie Carroll - piano; Alan Ferguson - guitar; Spike Hughes - bass; Bill Harty - drums. Quite an impressive line-up. It was basically this line up that remained for the rest of the recordings, although other musicians were added later on. The session in June produced some good sides amongst the titles were Dancing Time on F1816 and two numbers from the Paramount film The King of Jazz with Paul Whiteman, these were I Like To Do Things For You and Happy Feet both issued on F1844.
Space forbids a full listing of all the recordings so I am picking out the ones that will probably appeal most to Memory Lane readers. I Like To Do Things For You is very satisfying with plenty of inventive solo work while not being outlandish in any way. In July Cinderalla Brown by Jimmy McHugh was committed to disc, this is the only (English) recording of this number and has an unusual opening, as with most Hughes arrangements there is one foot in the "classical" camp. The whole number is very relaxed and on the reverse is a good version of Bessie Couldn't Help It Decca F1880.
Hughes has some interesting comments. "The music we created at Chenil Galleries was primitive; we were experimenting with a language we liked the sound of but which we did not yet speak fluently…… We had no rehearsal until we entered the studio for our three-hour session, during which time we were expected to record four numbers". But he goes on to say that as the arrangements grew more complex more time was needed, but it says a lot for the standard of musicianship that these sides, which are complex and difficult to bring off, mostly were accomplished in 1 or 2 takes. It must also be borne in mind that these recordings were alien to most British band leaders at that time, but the musicians loved it! As time went on it occurred to Hughes to write some of his own tunes, why should he "……..let some unknown composer, whose tune we rendered entirely uncommercial by our methods, draw the royalties". Why indeed.
….."the tunes we chose to record had little or no merit of their own, and their creators were colourless minor composers whose names were scarcely known to anybody…." So wrote Spike Hughes way after he had put to disc his famous versions of some of these tunes. Not unsurprisingly Hughes and his Decca-Dents found their fame spreading to Europe, for in the Summer of 1930 they were invited by the Decca agent in Holland to appear in person.
Hughes was doubtful at the outset but reluctantly agreed to a week’s tour. Unfortunately, it got off to a dubious start as Henk, the Dutch agent, had asked for a photograph of the band for advance publicity, and to comply Decca arranged for 10 of the office staff to hold the instruments they were supposed to play as nobody in the real Decca-Dents wanted to be photographed! As it happened only four of his regulars travelled with him to Holland, the five others were picked up musicians who were most certainly not conversant with the Hughes arrangements.
The first engagement was at Scheveningen for a Sunday tea dance where mostly stock arrangements were played and Hughes was kept busy giving the dancers excuses why they could not play the hot numbers on Decca F1690 and F1709. A lot of "hot" music fans must have been very disappointed, but worse was to follow. Three of his regulars had to return to England straight after the engagement which left him short of a trumpet, saxophone and violin, and a concert at the famous Concertgebouw (Concert Hall) in Amsterdam later in the week.
Fortunately, a good trumpet player was cajoled into joining plus a couple of other unlikely players, so the concert went ahead. Even by the end of the first half the repertoire ran out, so after an interval lasting longer than the first half, the second half was made up with individual members busking choruses with the rest of the band filling in…."who had only the haziest idea of the key we were supposed to be playing in". Hughes filled in with some piano improvisation and somehow the audience was kept from falling asleep and were persuaded that they were listening to a new form of modern jazz. Actually the press next day were not unduly unkind, so Henk arranged another concert a couple of days later. This was a happier affair, taking in audience participation as well as a better prepared programme. The rest of the time in Holland was taken up with a broadcast from Hilversum Radio and a dinner dance at a university. It must have been sheer relief when Hughes set foot back in Harwich a week later.
The untimely death of Phil Lewis in 1931 robbed Hughes of a dependable and likeable colleague as well as a good friend. Life in 1931 was not easy, the depression was beginning to bite and work was getting hard to come by, after all even four records a month would hardly pay much more than the basic rent. Fortunately, he was beginning to be in demand as a double bass player so quite a lot of time was taken up playing in various bands, this with a steady trickle of arranging saw him through a period which, for others, were very difficult times.
I should just mention the instrument that Spike played, unlike the normal wooden double bass, was made of tin! This probably accounts for the rather penetrating tone which can be heard clearly, and also it was ideal to transport around being impervious to the rough treatment that was meted out. He was lucky, however, to get a job in a pit orchestra that was playing for CB Cochran's 1931 Revue, first in Manchester and then London.
The show did well in Manchester but completely misfired in London so once more he had missed out on a regular job, but things again turned around and he was appointed a record critic to the Melody Maker. It was under the pseudonym of "Mike" that he wrote for the paper for the next thirteen years. Of course he reviewed his own records but tried not to abuse his position, but he raised many hackles when reviewing the more commercial output of most of the main bands, perhaps not unsurprisingly.
Meanwhile back at Chenil Galleries Hughes band continued to record four sides at three monthly intervals, GB1059 Moanin' Low coupled with GB2544 Button Up Your Overcoat are interesting as Betty Bolton sang the vocals, her deep rasping voice suitably blending with the orchestration. There are good solos on both sides, Moanin' Low perhaps the best and is really sung with feeling, and all through there is the driving bass playing of Hughes, one of his arrangements on top form. It was issued on F2217.
It was about this time that Hughes thought of writing his own tunes, to this end he took his material from four spirituals, these were Joshua fit de battle ob Jericho, Is there a Place Up There For Me? , Witness and I've been in the Storm So Long. The first issued on Decca F2373, the second and third on F2649 and the last on F2936. They all have vocals sung in a very individual style by Joey Shields, a Harlem lad who Hughes had met during the 1931 Revue. Although he treated the subject reverently the BBC saw fit to ban all four records without ever hearing them.
The interesting thing is the trio of Joshua which Hughes later expanded to make up the theme of Nocturne on F3563, a poignant and nostalgic tune. Commissions came from the BBC (a body of people Hughes does not always sympathize with) for a musical programme, it was also at this time he wrote his first film music, albeit for a documentary. Actually, he wrote quite a lot of music for film e.g. the BTF Lancaster Coast and full length films, perhaps the best known being Fiddlers Three released in 1944 starring Tommy Trinder.
By the Autumn of 1931 Hughes brought to fruition the idea that he should be writing for his own orchestra, after all given his band consisted of some of the cream of London's musicians he would be a fool not to. The idea of writing a short Jazz inspired symphony had obviously occurred to him for a long while but when he came to writing he was forced to compose a work which would fit on two sides of a 10 inch record. This became A Harlem Symphony, one side slow the other fast. Issued on F2711 it was a good seller, over 5,000 copies, not perhaps in the Ellington class of say Creole Rhapsody on HMV C4870 but is remarkable for the development of basic ideas with the theme stated at the outset and developed with solo work always keeping the theme not far out of sight, a key change lifts the last 12 bars.
Side two is very much up-tempo giving the main theme a more optimistic character with further development to a rousing finish. Another good recording came out about the same time (November 1931) F2735 I Can't Believe She's Mine has a vocal by Joey Shields and the reverse is Hangin' on to that Man on which for the first and last time Elsie Carlisle had the vocal, actually this was made first in June of that year but rejected. GB3601-2 is quite hard driving with Elsie giving her pulsating best, solos on trombone and tenor sax are excellent.
Sirocco on F2844 is a Hughes original and nicely conveys the atmosphere of the hot south winds which blow across the Mediterranean from the Sahara desert. It is mood music, no solos everything being played from the full score. It was one of Hughes’ favourites. The reverse is the well known Six Bells Stampede on which he collaborated with the moonlighting Billy Munn (Jack Hylton's pianist and arranger), and nicely sums up the anticipated rush to get out of the studio and into the nearest public house. That record was one of his most successful, good copies are easily found.
One rather amusing episode occurred early in 1932. Hughes got a commission to supply the music for dancing at some up-market venue in Huddersfield; how he got the job remains a mystery. After engaging ten musicians, most of whom had not played with him, he discovered just before leaving London that he had no music! After scouring some publishers around Charing Cross Road he got a library together and headed north. The engagement was a flop, the dancers were there in white tie and tails, Hughes is bitingly critical of the way ladies dress up however, saying that "….the English woman is at her best only when she is dressed for the company of those horses and dogs which she so much resembles." At the dance instead of what happened in Holland, the reverse came true, people kept asking not the "hot" number on Decca F2611 but Polkas, Strauss Waltzes and to add insult to injury Barn Dances!
After the interval Spike retired to the bar with most of the band not to emerge again, they left it all to the pianist and rhythm section! After that episode Spike only fulfilled two more "gigs". "On a personal note, it is a sad fact that having had eight years of playing in a modern Big Band the public were never more happy when we played the dross of the repertoire. There was, however, one time when the audience were unrestrained with enthusiasm and that was at a dinner-dance for visiting American tour operators."
Unlike some of his colleagues Hughes was rather fond of the Chenil Galleries as a recording venue, the dead sound actually helping the band, however there is no doubt that as time went on the quality and clarity did improve. In June 1932 he got a commission for a ballet to be performed at the Savoy Theatre, this was called High Yellow and what emerged was a jazz score for orchestra and dance band. Critically it was an ephemeral piece but not without a certain chic. In July Hughes received his first really important assignment, he was to orchestrate Noel Coward's new revue Words and Music. Coward was 32 and the two got on well together. The work progressed steadily although it took up an enormous amount of time. He even conducted some of the performances in Manchester where it opened for a three week run before coming down to London's Adelphi Theatre. He was paid £500 for his work, quite a sum in 1932.
The end of March produced four great sides, Buddy's Wednesday Outing clearly shows the emerging influence of Duke Ellington being used to good effect in another Hughes composition. The familiar chase sequences showing off the fine playing of Buddy Featherstonhaugh on tenor sax. Long Night Scamper also by Hughes is the reverse - on F3089. The other two sides are Limehouse Blues, treated in a very laid back fashion and Hughes’ own Elegy which is more like a funeral wake passing and going out of earshot, the ending just fades away, these two numbers were issued on F3004. It was not until November that Hughes recorded his last four sides for English Decca, perhaps the most interesting being Siesta dedicated to Noel Coward and is a gentle acknowledgement in music to the master. Then in January 1933 Hughes sailed to America.
Although Hughes only hints at it, I think the real reason he went was simply that he had gone as far as he could at that time and he did not go with the intention of making further recordings, what transpired was completely unexpected. He had already met Irving Mills in London and he had introductions to Archie Selwyn and Irving Berlin. So nothing daunted he sailed away on Cunard's Aquitania. His first contact in America, and also the most productive, was John Hammond who turned out to be both a wealthy and influential lover of jazz, Spike had met him also in London in 1932.
It was through John's contacts that he met Benny Carter, a man who was familiar with Hughes' work and a great admirer. It’s nice to think that great American musicians were aware of what was going on in England, its so often the other way around. Anyway, Hughes was captivated by the Carter band "….(they)….produced a sound brilliant and incisive as a diamond; in England it had been paste".
It was not long before Hughes came up with the idea of recording some numbers, so Brunswick, who had an arrangement with Decca of London, were put to the task. Benny Carter got the band together and so began the seven classic records known as Spike Hughes and his Negro Orchestra. They were recorded between April and May 1933. Hughes decided not to play the bass but preferred to stand giving the beat, actually as it happened Spike did play on one side, Sweet Sue - Just You Decca F3972. Interestingly all the records were one take issues and seven out of the fourteen were Hughes original compositions.
Without exception the recordings are superb, listen to the pathos and longing in Nocturne F3563; the joy of Music at Sunrise F3836; the exuberance of How Come You Do Me Like You Do? F3972; the precision of Firebird F3717. With musicians like Henry Allen, Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, Wilbur de Paris, these are records which all collectors should be proud to have adorn their shelves.
Something should be said about the prices of Hughes 78's. The later American recordings are readily available and should cost no more than £3 at a fair or £5 in auction. Most of the later British recordings are rarer and in fact a sliding scale is appropriate. The very early ones command high prices, at auction £30 up but you can find them at fairs where condition might not be too good for £5 up, but some are very hard to find anywhere. For a modest outlay all his output is available on CD's 1930 -32 on Kings Cross Music KCM 003/004. The American output being available on Retrieval - Spike Hughes/Benny Carter, HMV list this as a stock item at £10.99.
At the end of May he sailed back to Southampton turning his back on ever being a jazz performer again. It is strange that someone who had obviously so much talent in writing and arranging music should not have gone on to even greater heights but he had done, as far as jazz was concerned, all that he wanted to do. Benny Carter said on a radio interview in August 2002 about the American recordings, "that Hughes could have achieved total perfection if he had been left to get what he wanted, as it was it achieved as near as anyone ever got".
Edgar Jackson wrote in The Gramophone that Hughes was one of the cleverest and most original dance musicians and arrangers we have in this country (March 1931). Constant Lambert in Music Ho! (1934) wrote of the highbrow jazz of Milhaud, Kurt Weill, Copland, Schulhoff and Spike Hughes, quite exalted company. After America he became music critic for the Daily Herald as well as broadcasting about music matters. In 1938 he wrote an opera for television Cinderella (after Perrault), another opera St Patrick's Day was broadcast in 1947, a musical Frankie And Johnny was televised in 1950.
His post-war fame rests, however, on several books, some about travel , others on music from Great Opera Houses 1956 to Famous Verdi Operas 1968. Talking on Television in 1970 Hughes was critical of some of the band leaders who jumped on the "Hot Music Bandwaggon" without having a talent or love for it. Well he certainly had talent, but I will leave the last words to Spike Hughes. "That faith (in his music) has prevailed over the years, but with a diminishing strength……until I feel that I should now start a legend about myself as one of the greatest might-have beens in the business".
References: Opening Bars Spike Hughes Pilot Press 1946
Second Movement Spike Hughes Museum Press 1951
Constant Lambert Richard Shead Simon Publications 1973
Jazz on Record Brian Rust Storyville Publications 1970
A backward glance at the outstanding career of the young London University Economics Student cum ace trumpet player who became leader of one of Britain’s top swing bands in the early forties and who turned down a promising film opportunity in favour of his love for music.
By Bert Booth
Johnnie Claes was born in London in 1916, his mother was Scottish and his father came from Belgium. From an early age he and his mother travelled extensively and his schooling ranged from Brussels to the South of France, Italy, London and on to the Lord William’s Grammar School in Oxford. Whilst not an outstanding scholar he was a good rugby player, a keen swimmer and always popular amongst his classmates. It was during his final terms at Oxford that he bought his first trumpet and with little musical background began the challenging task of mastering the instrument. Master it he did, sufficiently well to be able to play as a semi-pro around London during his time at university.
Whilst playing in the band at the Tufnell Park Palais he was spotted by Billy Mason and invited to join his band at the ‘De Cabin’ night spot in Shaftsbury Avenue. This turned out to be a rather unfortunate move, the club closed within three weeks and Johnnie did not get paid. His first professional engagement turned out to be somewhat of a disaster.
Undeterred he joined Victor Collins at the Nest in the West End, long hours midnight to 5-30am, seven days a week, all for the sum of £4.00. However the atmosphere at the ‘Nest’ was terrific, visiting coloured artists and musicians gathered there after hours and young Johnnie Claes was learning fast and associating with many of the greats including The Mills Brothers, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Carter, Fats Waller and Valaida.
Buck Washington of Buck and Bubbles fame, who also played trumpet and piano was able to guide Johnnie along the righteous jazz path. Swing music was not yet in vogue in England at that time and often attempts to play ‘hot’ were rebuffed. However this was not the case at the ‘Nest’ and with the introduction of trombonist George Chisholm the band improved greatly backing the all-coloured cabaret artists. The Nest became the ‘Hot Centre’ attracting an ever increasing clientele.
Having heard Johnnie Claes play at the Nest cabaret star the delightful dusky vocalist / trumpet player Valaida invited him to join her band for an engagement at the Tabaris Dance Hall in the Hague. The band also included Derek Neville, Reg Dare on reeds and Gunn Findley quoted to be a phenomenal boogie-woogie pianist and arranger. The band was highly acclaimed by the Dutch audiences as they appreciated jazz to a greater degree than many did in this country. The show moved on to Zurich to perform at the Café Shilporte where once again the audience approval was highly responsive. The band returned to London and recorded for the Columbia label before Valaida returned to the States and the band’s contract terminated.
Earlier Johnnie had met Coleman Hawkins who was now fronting an out-and-out swing group in Holland. When invited to do so he had no hesitation in joining the ‘Hawk’ at the Mephisto Negro Palace in Rotterdam. Johnnie Claes was indebted for the experience the Hawkins experience gave him; it was the start of a lengthy spell of playing with top continental bands throughout Europe.
But there were bad times ahead and as high standard swinging engagements became scarcer and as Johnnie would not readily accept a reduced standard of remuneration, he found himself at a low ebb, roughing it and almost penniless.
He joined a band in Switzerland but they only played sugary commercial dance music which was not really his scene. However his fortune did change in the September of 1938 when he joined the Dutch tenor saxist Johnny Fresco who was leading a band at the Tabaris Dance Hall. Johnnie Claes was once again happy to be part of the swing scene on the continent. Incidentally, featured with the band was Max Geldray, the Dutch jazz harmonica player who later was to play a part in the Goon Show along with the Ray Ellington Quartet.
Within a year, Europe was in turmoil, borders closed and the threat of war was on the horizon. The future seemed very uncertain and thus reluctantly Johnnie listened to his father’s advice that he should abandon music and join one of his father’s companies in Belgium. Starting at the bottom as a trainee crane driver, he was soon operating the sixteen ton monster without his workmates knowing he was the boss’s son.
But the draw of music was too great and soon Johnnie Claes was playing at weekends and occasionally on one night stands with Jack Kluger’s Band. This was one of Belgium’s top broadcasting and recording bands who were chosen to play opposite the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra at the Zurich Exhibition.
Late 1939 Johnnie was set to go on a six week vacation to New York and he arrived in London to collect his U.S. visa, only to find that Germany had invaded Poland and consequently all visas were cancelled. He stayed for a month in London but was forced to abandon his trip to America and return to Brussels once again to work in one of his father’s factories. He returned to England on a business trip during March 1940 where he was forced to remain as the Nazi forces had invaded the Low Countries.
Returning to his first love, the music scene, he played with various pick-up groups at the Boogie-Woogie Club in Denman Street before joining Teddy Joyce and His Band. Billed on the variety hall circuit as the ‘Canadian Stick of Dynamite’ the Joyce band included future prominent musicians Duncan Whyte, Reg Dare and Bobby Midgely. When Teddy Joyce died suddenly in February 1941 Johnny returned to London
Johnnie was immediately approached by club owner Jack Leon of the Beach Underground in Wardour Street to form a swing band that could also play for dancing. Grabbing the chance to form his own band, an achievement he had eagerly longed for, he gathered around him musicians of high standing. The eventual line-up of the Clae Pigeons included Reg Dare, Spike Hornett on reeds, Rube Stoloff on trombone, Charlie Short on bass, Carlo Krahmer on drums, Art Thompson on piano, plus the addition of West Indian trumpet virtuoso Dave Wilkins. The band was sensational and attracted much attention from other fellow musicians who came to hear the band. So great was their interest that Johnnie was forced to instigate a strict rule that no visiting musician be allowed to ‘sit-in’ with his band.
Having heard a young jazz-style vocalist Benny Lee singing at Glasgow’s Piccadilly Club Johnnie had no hesitation in sending for him to join the band. By the end of April 1941 the Melody Maker was acclaiming the band to be ‘the best English swing group ever’. Besieged by offers to take his band into other night-spots Johnnie decided to accept an offer from the management of a new restaurant The Montparnasse in Piccadilly Circus. This move necessitated a four sax line-up and saw the introduction of Harry Hayes and Aubrey Franks into the fold. The Montparnasse, like the Beach, soon became the rendezvous for musicians to gather in order to listen to the Claes Band.
Earlier in his career Johnnie Claes had taken a lesson or two from fellow bandleader Nat Gonella and when Nat heard him play at The Montparnasse he was so impressed that he arranged for the Clae Pigeons to audition and record for EMI. With the addition of Nat on trumpet the small swing group made their entry into the recording scene. The Columbia management were not slow to recognise that here was a band that warranted further opportunities to display their talents and they were signed up to record a further eight tracks. The issue of these later recordings being strictly controlled by the wartime shortage of shellac supplies to the recording companies.
Johnnie Claes always employed top musicians and arrangers to ensure the band’s high standard of playing was maintained at all times. This of course was an expensive policy to adopt and when The Montparnasse management suggested cuts within the line-up Johnnie refused and terminated the engagement.
However, it was not long before the band found a residency at the Nut House and in addition was able to make their debut at variety theatres. Surprisingly by this time swing music played in the Claes fashion was deemed to be a winner with music hall audiences and opened new avenues for further engagements for the Clae Pigeons. Once again he was faced with management interference at the Nut House: they wanted to replace Benny Lee with an additional sax player. Again expressing musical solidarity his decision was to refuse this request and leave.
One night stands, variety hall appearances featuring guest stars including Harry Parry and Doreen Villiers helped promote the band to wider audiences. Their performance at the 1942 Swing Concert at the London Coliseum was a further indication of their new found success.
Whilst playing at the ‘Nut House’ Johnnie Claes and His Clae Pigeons impressed film producer Pattison-Knight of Piccadilly Productions and their entry into the world of film making followed. Their first film was Escape To Justice in which the band performed in the night club scenes and Johnnie, the tall, good looking, well groomed personality was given a leading role as a German agent. The film company were anxious to sign him as an actor and although he enjoyed his short filming career his heart was in music rather than celluloid.
The band’s success continued with contracts to play at the Panama and the Cuba Club; in addition they were able to undertake weekend one nighters. Always on the lookout for new talent Johnnie featured Coleridge Goode on bass, Bernie Fenton on piano and Lauderic Caton on guitar.
Their next achievement was to replace Harry Roy and His Band at the Embassy Club for a six week engagement. The Embassy maintained a strict policy of featuring only top ranking bands and the appointment of the Claes band is further proof of their high standing in the profession and their popularity with the public. Johnnie Claes within fifteen months of forming his band had achieved acceptance and respect amongst the leading bandleaders in wartime England. It was during his spell at The Embassy that a young Scottish vocalist with a vivacious, infectious personality, Billie Campbell joined the band. She gave up a coveted plum job at Hatchetts in order to sing with the band, such was her faith in the future success of the group.
During his career Johnnie Claes faced various set backs and at this stage there was more to follow. Fortunately his tenacity and determination ensured that he overcame adversity. Such was the situation when he was scheduled to play the swanky night spot Romano’s. The club were forced to cancel his appointment as they failed to obtain a licence to re-open their premises. A bitter blow to the ambitious bandleader, yet once again his keenness to achieve even greater success was paramount.
A new fashionable night club The Astor was about to open in Park Lane and Johnnie and The Clae Pigeons were first choice. The club soon established itself as a magnet for the many stage and screen stars amongst its patrons. The band was in top form and their one month contract was immediately extended to three months. Next came a lucrative move to the Potomac Restaurant in the West End where the progressive management claimed to give its patrons ‘London’s Best Dance Music’.
Johnnie Claes had blazed the trail from the Beach Club to the Montparnasse on to the Nut House, the Embassy, the Astor and now the Potomac maintaining a standard of matchless achievement. His inspiration, respect for his musicians and his comradeship ensured he fronted a happy, friendly band throughout his career in this country.
After the war Johnnie Claes returned to Belgium, opening his own club in Blankenberge, the year 1946. The following year he started an import / export company and surprisingly gave up playing professionally. He soon became increasingly active as a racing car driver and in the 1950s competing on the International Circuit at Goodwood, Silverstone, Monaco and Le Mans where in 1955 he claimed third position driving his Ecure Belge Jaguar. It was tragic that he became seriously ill having contacted tuberculosis.
The trumpet of Johnnie Claes fell silent, he sadly passed away in February 1956.
Dance Band Personalities
By Barry McCanna
The gods must have been smiling on 27th May 1903, the day George Scott Wood was born in Glasgow. His was a musical family, and he became something of a child prodigy, who went on to fulfil that early promise. His father was a keen amateur musician, and when George was five and a half he started him on the violin, albeit with the complication that his young son played left-handed. After nine months he switched to the piano, taking lessons from the popular concert pianist Philip Halstead, and after 6 years progressed to the studio of the celebrated Benno Moiseiwitch. At the age of 14 he became the official accompanist to the Glasgow Arts Club, by which time he had broadened his range to include the piano accordion. He also competed in various music festivals, winning a total of 26 medals and, in a chamber music group with his brothers, carried off the coveted Marchant Cup. A further indication of his virtuosity was that during his fifteenth year he performed Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto at St. Andrew's Hall.
There is some question whether or not his surname was Wood or Scott-Wood, one contemporary explanation being that he grew tired of being called "Wee Georgie Wood", and adopted the hyphen in order to overcome the problem! Accounts of his life during the twenties are somewhat confused, but I've tried to reconcile them in an attempt to arrive at a reasonable synopsis. Around 1920 he began studying marine engineering at Glasgow University, and joined (or may even have formed) a small band of undergraduates, then known as the Omega Five. In 1921 he signed on as the ship's pianist with the s.s. "Majestic", a transatlantic liner. Whilst on shore leave in New York, he was able to perform in public, most notably at the Pennsylvania Hall. By 1923 he'd given up the sea and was playing at the Plaza Ballroom, Glasgow in a band led by his brother Chalmers. There is reference also to a tour of the USA and Canada in 1925, but in the context of a series of concerts, whereas it seems clear that by then George had switched his allegiance to the vogue for jazz.
By 1927 the Omega Five had become the Omega Collegians, and had ventured south to Liverpool, at which point they lost their pianist and asked George to join them as replacement. It's possible that the situation arose because the previous pianist didn't want to travel further south, because by the time George joined them they were playing at the Metropole Hotel in Brighton (which engagement was at the behest of Jay Whidden). Renamed the Five Omega Collegians, they cut four sides for the Edison Bell label in early 1928, and in October they moved to the Empress Rooms in Tottenham Court Road.
They surfaced next at the Villa Marina, in Douglas on the Isle of Man, where they spent the 1929 summer season in association with the Al Davidson Band. The ensemble was billed as A1 Davidson's New Claribel Band, presenting the Omega Collegians, and provided for a complete line-up of seventeen musicians, which could both play together and break down as occasion demanded into the two separate outfits. George was billed in a contemporary article as playing piano, accordion and goofus, arranger and singer for the Collegians and accompanist to the Claribel Band. Special mention was made also that an advanced system of electrical amplification had been installed in the ballroom, which would enable the balance of the band to be adjusted to best effect. Following that residency, George joined the band of violinist Jay Whidden, then in residence at the Carlton Hotel in Mayfair, first as pianist and soon after as principal arranger also. It's said that the Collegians disbanded at that point, but they may simply have been swallowed up by Al Davidson, and at a later stage their trumpeter Hamish Christie played with Oscar Rabin and Harry Roy.
George's move to Jay Whidden virtually coincided with the onset of the great depression, one effect of which was to curtail drastically the demand for gramophone records. As a result, Whidden subsequently made only a handful of records, eight sides for Imperial in November 1929 and six sides for Decca in April 1930, before deciding in November 1930 to return to America, where he resurfaced at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. In the meantime, however, George had been approached by HMV who asked him to become a director of light music, in conjunction with Phil Green, for the Parlophone label, headed by Oscar Preuss. In that capacity he directed a range of studio groups, provided arrangements for Harry Roy, one of Parlophone's star bands, and supplied accompaniments to a wide range of artists, including Larry Adler, Webster Booth, Elsie Carlisle, Bebe Daniels & Ben Lyon, Gracie Fields, Flanagan & Allen, Hildegarde, Beatrice Lillie, Richard Tauber and Sophie Tucker.
In 1932 George provided the accompaniment to five of the solo recordings which Al Bowlly was then undertaking for the rival Decca label. On 15th November four titles were recorded, namely So Ashamed, Rosa Mia, I'll Follow You and A Million Dreams. On the first two George doubled on piano and accordion, augmented by Alfie Noakes on trumpet, Harry Berly on clarinet and viola and Tiny Winters on bass; the latter two were piano only. A further session produced Glorious Devon with solo piano, which was coupled with Owen Brannigan singing Let's Put Out The Lights And Go To Sleep. In theory, that was to demonstrate how each artist could do justice to the other's type of repertoire, and perhaps as a result the issued 78rpm is something of a rarity. All but Rosa Mia (which had been reissued on Decca RFL 1) came out on the Saville CD SVL 163.
A further session with Al Bowlly took place in early April 1933, when the Scott-Wood Accordion Quartet provided the accompaniment to five titles, namely Sweetheart, Can't We Meet Again, Pale Volga Moon, The Goodnight Waltz and Oh! Mr. Moon. These are unusual on two counts, because this was the only occasion on which A1 sang to an accordion accompaniment, and they were the only Al Bowlly vocals ever issued on Parlophone. The second title has been reissued by ASV Living Era on AJA 5484, which was compiled as a centenary issue to George Scott-Wood.
The Parlophone studio in Carlton Hill had been taken over by Trusound, and George was heavily involved in the production of their records, which were flexible pictorial issues, aimed not least at the nursery market. Thus George Scott Wood and his Novelty Imps could be heard on Trusound A-612, in Fairy Tale and Song Of The Butterflies. On A-613 George was at the keyboard, playing selections from A Bedtime Story and 42nd Street. His hand could be detected also in recordings by Domenico Capaldi and his Accordion Band. More substantial fare was served up by Chris Denver and his Dance Orchestra (probably a studio group directed by George) which featured Freddy Gardner and vocalists Sam Browne, Dan Donovan and Cavan O'Connor on a total of twelve sides during 1933.
In early 1934 the magazine Rhythm sponsored a contest for amateur and semi-pro dance bands, which was won by Stan Herbert and his Band. Part of the prize was a recording session for the Regal Zonophone label, which had been introduced a couple of years previously by the simple expedient of phasing out two separate and long-standing labels and merging them. White Jazz and Vladivostock were duly recorded but then rejected, and Decca recorded the band instead, albeit in less exacting numbers, again with George acting as studio director. I've referred to that event at some length because Pathé took the whole of the back page of Rhythm to advise readers that from Monday, 26th March 2,000 cinemas would be screening the contest in Pathétone Weekly No. 209. Since George was one of the guests at the event, and played some piano accordion solos accompanied by Bert Read at the piano, it may well be worth searching the Pathé website to see him in action.
George had been appointed Musical Director for the Regal Zonophone label the previous year, his task being to establish the identity of the new label, and he employed his talents to the full to achieve that end. First, he made a series of recordings directing the London Piano Accordion Band (having taken over leadership from Billy Reid), which capitalised on the vogue for that instrument. Secondly, he made a number of recordings with his orchestra (actually a hand-picked studio group) which featured his keyboard and arranging skills. Some of these were issued pseudonymously, as the Midnight Minstrels, the Silver Screen Orchestra, the Masqueraders (not to be confused with the Carroll Gibbons group on Columbia), the Odeon Dance Orchestra, the Midnight Revellers, and Wally Bishop and his Band (also used for Harry Leader). There is a reference to George taking the orchestra to Brussels, where they gave a concert at the Opera House.
Last but not least, he formed a studio group known as the Six Swingers (or later, as Scott Wood and his Six Swingers), which between late 1934 and March 1940 produced a total of 150 sides. It is a tribute to George's skill as a director that the vast majority needed only one take, and none was rejected. It is for the Six Swingers recordings that George Scott-Wood is best remembered by collectors, partly because in 1977 EMI reissued the first 36 recordings on two World Records LPs, SH 248 and 249. In his sleeve note to the first, Brian Rust wrote "They started as a mystery group, sponsored by the Melody Maker, which ran a competition to determine the personnel of the first two sides. The winner, who had to submit his diagnosis by December 8, 1934, was a reader in Birmingham, and the prize was a brand new radiogram that cost twenty whole guineas". The stumbling block seems to have been Scott-Wood himself, who had not recorded before in such a rollicking piano style, the effect of which was to throw all but the most discerning sleuths off the scent. The other more readily identifiable participants were Max Goldberg (doubling on mellophone), Lew Davis, Freddy Gardner, Dick Ball and Max Bacon.
Sam Browne took the vocal honours on Your Mother's Son-in-Law (recorded eleven months earlier by Billie Holiday with Benny Goodman) and I'm Walking The Chalk Line. Both songs had been written by husband and wife team Mann Holiner and Alberta Nichols for the show Blackbirds of 1933. The show was a flop, and there are few alternative versions of those songs, but the Six Swingers' versions are quite splendid in their own right, and were heralded by Edgar Jackson with the words "There really is hope for British dance music". To be truthful, the Six Swingers' style owed less to dance-based music than to small group jazz. I suspect that George was endeavouring to recapture the sort of carefree sound exemplified by the Rhythmic Eight on the defunct Zonophone label, albeit updated to take account of later developments. Brian Rust likens their approach to that of Tommy Dorsey's Clambake Seven and Bob Crosby's Bob-Cats, to which I would add Fats Waller and his Rhythm from the point of view of sheer exuberance.
In addition to Sam Browne, male vocalists Sam Costa, Brian Lawrance, George Barclay and Frank Kerslake were featured. Some unusual female vocalists cropped up; apart from the Australian Marjorie Stedeford's deep contralto there was Nora Williams from Virginia, 12-year old Connie Russell on Organ Grinder's Swing and Georgette Vedey. Two vocal groups also put in an appearance later on, namely The Jakdauz (which group had its origins with Jack Jackson at the Dorchester) and the Cavendish Trio (Kay Kavendish, Dorothy Carless and Pat Rignold, Hugo's sister). As well as making records, the Six Swingers featured in broadcasts, appeared on the fledgling BBC Television transmissions from Alexandra Palace and undertook a tour of Scotland in 1936.
Another facet of George's career during this period was that almost a year after the first Six Swingers recordings, by which time they'd switched to Columbia, a studio group directed by Mario "Harp" Lorenzi began recording for that same label. George played vibraphone and supplied the arrangements, Freddy Gardner featured on reeds and Marjorie Stedeford was the vocalist. Again, these are superb small-group recordings and merit a good commercial reissue, but only Everything Stops For Tea is available on a Past Perfect compilation.
One reason for the change of emphasis to Columbia may well have been that in 1935 George became Musical Director for that label also, plus HMV which had lost Ray Noble's services when he took up the offer of employment in America. Another effect of Noble's departure was that directorship of the HMV house band, the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra, began to assume the characteristics of a relay race! In June 1935 the baton passed to George, who directed seven sessions during the remainder of that year. Freddy Gardner was again in evidence, Brian Lawrance and Marjorie Stedeford numbered among the vocalists and a harpist (thought to be Lorenzi) was featured in the later sessions. Eleven of the titles were reissued recently by Vocalion on their New Mayfair Dance Orchestra compilation CDEA 6089.
A few months after A1 Bowlly's return from America he teamed up again with George, this time in the HMV recording studio on 25th May, 1938, when the latter supplied the pipe-organ accompaniment to Goodnight, Angel and When The Organ Played `Oh, Promise Me'. Both number amongst Al's finest solo recordings, and have been reissued on CD, most recently by Living Era (AJA CD 5064: Proud Of You). Sadly, the other two sides, which were to have been medleys, and would have produced Maria, My Own/ Marta, coupled with Stormy Weather/ Brother, Can You Spare A Dime, were rejected after two takes, reputedly because of technical problems.
George's appointment as Musical Director for EMI finished in 1939, very possibly by mutual consent to enable him to devote his talents towards the war effort. That seems borne out by Kenneth Pitts' recent article on Terry Devon (Memory Lane 129), which read that she was born on 19th May 1922, enlisted with ENSA as soon as she could but was told she was too young to tour abroad, and that she therefore went on a tour of UK bases with George Scott-Wood. Having resumed live performances, between 1943 and 1947 he topped the bill at variety theatres as a solo piano act, appearing also at garrison theatres, hospitals and factories.
After the war he reformed his accordion band and started broadcasting again, being featured extensively in Music While You Work, and tried the same thing in 1950 with the Six Swingers but without the earlier success. In 1957 a revamped group, which comprised three accordions, piano, guitar and drums, was billed as George Scott-Wood and His Music, and broadcast regularly until September 1967, when he decided to take a well-earned rest. He was the composer of a number of light orchestral pieces, such as Dainty Debutante, Flying Scotsman, Holiday For Accordions, Serenade To Evening, Shy Serenade and Song Without Words. His name was well-known amongst accordion players, because he had produced a tutor in 1940, and appeared regularly in advertisements in Melody Maker and Rhythm to endorse Scandalli piano-accordions. George was married with a son Lindsay and daughter Norma. He died at Eastbourne on 28th October, 1978.
© September 2004, Barry McCanna
Acknowledgement: My thanks are due to Mike Hart, whose help in tracking down and copying the relevant articles from Melody Maker (June 1929 & September 1930), The Gramophone (October 1933) and Nostalgia (Winter 1990), proved invaluable in producing this article.
By Steve Rawton
Few British bandleaders achieved significant success in America before the Second World War – Jack Hylton and Ray Noble being two well-known exceptions. Other bandleaders’ attempts to break into the American popular music scene failed when their initial record releases flopped - but a few including Lew Stone, Roy Fox, Harry Roy and Bert Ambrose did enjoy considerable success in the United States. Additionally, the Ambrose Orchestra in the mid-to-late 1930s was one British-based band that almost made it into the ranks of the great swing bands.
Unlike Jack Hylton and Ray Noble, Ambrose achieved popularity in America without actually performing there, his success being due almost entirely to gramophone recordings made in London. Only a couple of films ensured some appreciation of the human element behind the music. America, however, was not exactly uncharted territory for Ambrose, as this extract from a brief biography issued in the early 1930s disclosed:
‘Ambrose – leader of England’s snappiest dance orchestra – is thirty-five and although born in London came to New York while still a youth. After completing his musical studies Ambrose played violin in symphony and theatre orchestras, then formed his own band for ballroom and nightclub engagements that included New York’s Club de Vingt, Palais Royale and Clover Gardens. Ambrose returned to London in 1923 for a residency at the Embassy Club, then switched to the May Fair Hotel in 1927.’
Ambrose, then, spent his formative years in America and at first concentrated on ‘serious’ music. He certainly had a reasonable grasp of musical theory and was known to be interested in ‘modern’ composers like Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok. So far as his fiddle playing was concerned, Ambrose was professionally competent, but not a virtuoso. When performing a solo with his band he would play the melody ‘straight’ with one of the front line instruments providing a jazzy obbligato in the background. This was quite effective in the early days, but as time went on his solo efforts became somewhat perfunctory, and consequently rare. Although Ambrose’s presence on the bandstand seemed somewhat ‘surplus to requirements’ his influence behind the scenes was pivotal to the band’s success and it is as a first class manager of talent, rather than an indifferent musician, that he deserves to be remembered.
The band that Ambrose formed for the Embassy Club was an octet that included pianist/arranger Max Raiderman. Over the next few years there were considerable personnel changes, including the addition of American jazz trumpeter Henry ‘Hot-Lips’ Levine, and by the time Ambrose opened at the May Fair some notable British musicians were playing with the band, including sax player Joe Crossman. Ambrose also had by this time a brilliant chief arranger Lew Stone, whose influence on the band’s development cannot be overemphasised. The distinctive ‘Ambrose sound’ for which the band became famous in the early 1930s was due principally to Stone’s consummate arranging skills. Another important acquisition was American banjo/guitar player Joe Brannelly who, apart from his duties in the rhythm section, was influential in selecting talent for the band. In 1927/8 ‘Ambrose and his May Fair Orchestra’ made a few records for Brunswick and, more significantly, started broadcasting for the BBC. And it was regular broadcasts that enabled a mass audience in Britain to appreciate what the Ambrose band had to offer. Ambrose’s recording career at this time was still meagre, although throughout 1929 the band made some interesting records for Decca that unfortunately were marred by poor recording technology.
Also in 1929 Ambrose spent some time in New York and among other things reviewed the latest trends in popular music. He was certainly spoilt for choice considering that Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller and Bix Beiderbecke were all performing within a few blocks of each other! So far as most of the better-known American dance bands were concerned, Ambrose would have found little difference between them and his own band. By now the best bands had assimilated some basic jazz innovations such as swung rhythm, twelve-bar blues structures and block-chord harmonisation. Lew Stone understood these things and by scoring for baritone sax under lead alto and trombone under lead trumpet, ensured a distinctive ‘sound’ for the band. Stone also persuaded Ambrose to replace the tuba and banjo with the more ‘modern’ string bass and guitar, and to include a small string section for which he developed an innovative scoring technique.
In the spring of 1930 Ambrose started to record for HMV but it was not until mid-1931 that some of his records began to appear in America. This was the band line-up around that time:
Brass: Sylvester Ahola (trumpet), Dennis Radcliffe (trumpet), Ted Heath (trombone).
Reeds: Joe Crossman (alto/clarinet/baritone), Jack Shields (clarinet/alto), Joe Jeanette (tenor/flute), Johnny Walker (baritone).
Rhythm: Max Bacon (drums/vibraphone), Joe Brannelly (guitar), Dick Escott (bass), Bert Read (piano/arranger).
Violins: Ernie Lewis, (first violin)…+ others.
Vocals: Sam Browne, Ella Logan.
Arrangers: Lew stone, Sid Phillips, Arthur Lally, Ronnie Munro.
Over the next two years, approximately 10% of the Ambrose band’s HMV output was issued in the US on Gramophone, Victor and Bluebird labels. Ambrose’s HMV contract was somewhat restrictive regarding the titles that he could record and he had no control over the American selections. His main rivals at HMV were Jack Hylton (who overshadowed all others), and Ray Noble. Of the forty-eight titles issued in the US the following are some notable examples:
Gramophone. (Vocals by Sam Browne)
Star Dust (instrumental), Blue Again, Out Of Nowhere, Joey The Clown (+ Carlyle Cousins), You’re Blasé, Mona Lisa, Goopy Geer, Open Up Dem Pearly Gates, The Voice In The Old Village Choir (+ organ, choir and boy soprano), Song Of The Harp (+ Harry Chapman on harp).
Victor. (Vocals by Sam Browne)
Close Your Eyes, Got A Date With An Angel, Eleven More Months (2-sides), Tom Thumb’s Drum, I Don’t Want To Go To Bed (+ Max Bacon and Ambrose).
Bluebird. (Vocals by Sam Browne)
Yes, Yes (+ Carlyle Cousins), Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing.
By the time the HMV sessions ended in late 1932 there had been considerable personnel changes in the band, although the instrumental line-up and arranging techniques remained essentially unchanged.
From March 1933 until June 1934 Ambrose recorded for Brunswick where he had to compete with Roy Fox, Lew Stone and (once more) Jack Hylton for inclusion in Brunswick’s American catalogue. Again, roughly 10% of Ambrose’s British output was issued in the United States. The following were the most successful, all with a vocal by Sam Browne:-
Butterflies In The Rain, Bom-Ba-Diddy-Bom-Bom (+ Ambrose), Down The Old Ox Road, Love Locked Out, We’ll All Go Riding On A Rainbow, On A Steamer Coming Over, Unless, Play To Me Gipsy, Hand In Hand, Experiment, The Show Is Over, My Hat’s On The Side Of My Head.
Ambrose certainly didn’t take America by storm in the early 1930s and in the popularity stakes came way behind Jack Hylton and Ray Noble, and just about equal to Lew Stone and Roy Fox. However, things started to improve after Ambrose engaged Music Corporation of America (MCA) to handle his interests in the United States. Early in 1934 Ambrose (without the band) spent some time in New York and Los Angeles. Apart from the usual tour of nightspots he met with MCA to discuss possible future activities in the US, including a two-month summer residency at the Cocoanut Grove, and a series of sponsored radio shows for the CBC network. In exchange, Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club band was to visit Britain. After negotiations involving the (British) Musicians Union (MU) and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) an exchange was authorised. Cab Calloway did eventually bring his band to Britain, but for some reason Ambrose did not take-up his option. A pity, because band exchanges soon became exceptionally difficult to arrange, a situation that lasted until the mid 1950s.
In the autumn of 1934 Ambrose signed a recording contract with Decca, a British company that had recently established a branch in the United States. Although Decca’s British chief, Edward Lewis, was nominally in charge of both enterprises, in practice the American side of the business was almost entirely controlled by its resident head, Jack Kapp. His main concern was to attract and retain leading American talent and to maximise Decca’s record sales in the US. However, a select number of Decca’s British recording artistes were included in the American catalogue in the early years. British bandleaders, apart from Ambrose, who benefited included: Roy Fox, Lew Stone and Harry Roy. The first American bands to record with Decca were the Dorsey Brothers, Guy Lombardo and Ted Lewis - later came Bob Crosby, Jimmy Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, the Casa Loma Orchestra, Guy Lombardo, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Les Brown.
Decca’s American venture proved to be an immediate success and went from strength to strength throughout the 1930s. Apart from top-line bands, its solo talent came to include Bing Crosby, Dick Powell, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers and the Andrews Sisters. With such a wealth of home-based talent available it is not surprising that the American Decca catalogue came to feature fewer British artistes than Edward Lewis desired. Rather than interfere with Kapp’s policy, he introduced the Anglo-American Series enabling some of Decca’s British output to be distributed in the United States as a separate operation. American radio stations were supplied with complementary copies of all releases from both sources. Decca, like other record companies on both sides of the Atlantic, would initially issue an artiste’s record as a ‘current release’ item. If it did sufficiently well it would be included in the next issue of the record company’s catalogue. All of Ambrose’s American releases made it into the catalogues, and some titles were included for many years! American Decca also pioneered the concept of the record ‘album’ whereby several records would be issued as a box set with title, artwork and sleeve notes. Over the coming years Ambrose would have several albums issued in the United States some of which became very popular. Also we mustn’t forget that by the late-1930s the jukebox had become an important factor in popular entertainment, and Ambrose had several long-running jukebox successes in the United States.
Although American Decca’s success was impressive it should be appreciated that in the mid-1930s total record sales in the US were still much lower than they had been before the onset of the Great Depression. Before 1929 the ‘million seller’ current release hit was not uncommon – in the 1930s it was rare. Radio, however, had remained relatively stable and by the early 1930s about half the households in the US possessed receiving sets. As well as the large network corporations such as Columbia and National, almost eight hundred local radio stations were in operation by the mid-1930s. Local broadcasting had a direct bearing on record sales because when not transmitting broadcasts by one or other of the major networks, playing records rather than featuring more expensive live shows became standard practice – the ‘disc jockey’ had arrived. Another innovation that had appeared by the mid- 1930s was the multi-selector ‘jukebox’. Despite the importance of records it was still sheet music sales that dominated the popular music scene (and would continue to do so until the late 1940s). In 1935, the Lucky Strike cigarette company sponsored a weekly radio show called Your Hit Parade that presented the top popular songs according to sampled radio-plays. The same year a similar venture publicizing, in ‘chart’ form, the twenty most popular record titles also appeared. Although not as sophisticated as the ‘charts’ introduced by music trade weekly Billboard in 1940, this early version did give an indication of the comparative popularity of recording artists. Having mentioned Billboard, the significance of other trade publications such as Variety and Metronome also needs to be appreciated – and, for jazz and swing, the appearance of the publication Down Beat in the mid-1930s was particularly important.
Here’s the Ambrose band line-up for most of 1935:
Trumpets: Max Goldberg, Harry Owen.
Trombones: Lew Davis, Tony Thorpe, Ted Heath.
Reeds: Danny Polo (clarinet/alto./baritone), Joe Jeannette (alto./flute) Billy Amstell (tenor/clarinet), Sid Phillips (baritone/clarinet/arranger).
Rhythm: Bert Read (piano/arranger), Joe Brannelly (guitar), Dick Ball (bass), Max Bacon (drums). Strings: Ernie Lewis: (first violin)…+ others.
Vocals: Sam Browne, Elsie Carlisle, Rhythm Sisters, Rhythm Brothers.
Arrangers: Bert Barnes, Ronnie Munro, Arthur Lally.
Deputy Leader: Reg Pursglove
Some personnel changes occurred during 1935 – in the spring Bert Barnes replaced Bert Read on piano, in the summer Jack Cooper replaced Sam Browne and Elsie Carlisle, and in the autumn Clifton Ffrench replaced Harry Owen, and a third trumpet (Billy Farrell) was added. Also, because he spent much of the year touring British variety theatres (in addition to recording and broadcasting) Ambrose engaged, on a short-term basis, an American singer called Evelyn Dall. These then were the talents that constituted…‘The finest dance band in the World’ (Jimmy Dorsey), ‘A really great band’ (Artie Shaw), ‘Undoubtedly the best band in Europe’ (Jack Payne), One of the greatest bands of all time’ (Rudy Vallee)…so there!
Of course, Jimmy Dorsey’s tribute is arguable, but notice that he used the term ‘dance band’ - and throughout the 1930s (for better and worse!) dance music was synonymous with popular music. The universal appeal of dance music was really a consequence of the wide range of musical styles that could emanate from a single musical entity – the dance band – and this held even though many people just listened and possibly couldn’t even dance. It was because the Ambrose band achieved such a remarkable degree of authenticity and perfection in each of the several styles that dance music then encompassed, that it was held in such high esteem. There was, of course, a down side; almost the entire output of Tin-Pan Alley consisted of popular songs – music and words. As vocal techniques improved and ‘crooners’ gave way to ‘song stylists’ dance band tempos proved to be too restrictive. And, of course, similar problems arose as jazz styles became more innovative and genuine blues and country music attracted wider audiences. Such things came to be appreciated over time – in 1935 they were not so apparent!
Ambrose’s recording contract with Decca gave him much greater freedom over choice of music to be recorded than he had previously enjoyed. Titles that would normally be regarded as ‘insufficiently commercial’ might now be considered for release. Like (almost) all other recording artists, Ambrose had no say in whether – or when – a title would be released. And Decca, like other record companies, could usually ensure that commercially unsuccessful releases affected the artist more than the company at least in the long run. The greatest problem was the instrumental. Most popular music at the time emanated from Tin-Pan Alley, or stage and film musicals. Generally, the record buying public went for songs rather than mere tunes. In such highly competitive circumstances record companies had little choice but to comply with perceived public demand. However, the sheer size of the American record market meant that minority tastes could be catered for to a greater degree than in Britain and this was beneficial to the Ambrose band. Indeed, before the war Ambrose’s jazz-inspired instrumentals received much greater appreciation in the United States than in Britain.
Early in 1935 American Decca selected a number of Ambrose titles for release in the United States, all having been recorded in London in 1934, and most on current release in Britain. Ambrose, of course, had no say over what would be released in America, but could not have been displeased with the selections for 1935 – they gave him four major hits, and several minor ones! As a reasonable guide to the popularity of individual titles I have taken information used to compile the published record charts. Here, then, are Ambrose’s most popular 1935 titles, with those that made the top twenty underlined and numbered:
Instrumentals: Argentina, Lament For Congo, Dodging A Divorcee, Hors d’Oeuvres [No. 6], Streamline Strut, Caramba, Embassy Stomp [No.18].
Sam Browne: Night And Day, Anything Goes, I Get A Kick Out Of You, London On A Rainy Night [No.20], The Continental, La Cucaracha, Lady Of Madrid (US release only), I’ve Got A Note, I’m On A See-Saw [No.3], She Wore A Little Jacket Of Blue, The Piccolino.
Elsie Carlisle: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Home James, My Kid’s A Crooner.
Donald Stewart: South American Joe.
Clearly then, 1935 was the year that the Ambrose band achieved widespread popularity in America. Much of its success, particularly entry into the record charts, was due to radio – the disc jockey now being pivotal in promoting a band like Ambrose’s that could not broadcast live. The band also enjoyed excellent record reviews in publications such as Variety and Metronome – one commentator called it ‘the band with bite’! The most significant hit was really the jazz-inspired instrumental Hors d’Oeuvres because, at the time, it was unusual for a record without a ‘vocal refrain’ to do so well. Indeed, its very popularity made Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and others whose musical ambitions extended beyond the dance band idiom, pay more attention to the Ambrose band than might otherwise have been the case. Other successes at the time indicated that Hors d’Oeuvres was not just a one-off – for example the two jazz instrumentals Lament For Congo and Embassy Stomp, both arranged by (and the latter composed by) Bert Barnes. Output like this – and more to come – would ensure for the Ambrose band a toe, if not a whole foot, in the door labelled Swing Era.
Early in 1936 Ambrose went to New York at the invitation of MCA to discuss a range of options regarding future activities in the United States. One outcome was an agreement with a major broadcasting network for a series of sponsored half-hour radio shows. Another involved a six-week tour of American east coast cities, commencing with a big concert in New York. As it was by now almost impossible to bring over British musicians, Ambrose was expected to recruit a temporary band in the United States. Although this tour was later announced in various music publications it did not actually take place. It is worth noting that Jack Hylton, Ray Noble and Lew Stone were all successfully fronting American-based bands at this time. Ambrose was well aware of this, and also important changes that had occurred in the American popular music scene since his last visit. Although the "great depression" was by no means over, the "new deal" was beginning to have tangible effects and a degree of optimism was in the air. This coincided with a discernable change in musical tastes - at least by a significant proportion of the market for popular music. The Swing Era had - just about - arrived.
Early in 1936 there were some personnel changes in the Ambrose band. Jazz trumpeter Teddy Foster replaced Max Goldberg, and the trombone section now comprised Les Carew, Eric Breeze and Don Macaffer. Ambrose also strengthened the string section by including a cello, viola and extra violins - and on some recordings one or more of the following can be heard: oboe, celesta, xylophone, timpani, and bongo drums! Ambrose’s arrangers always ensured that this variety of orchestral effects was used subtly and never sounded pretentious. For routine vocals Ambrose now used Jack Cooper or the Rhythm Sisters, and also featured American ‘Blonde Bombshell’ Evelyn Dall who specialised in up-tempo, and occasionally risqué, numbers. No wonder that the Ambrose band could now count among its admirers such luminaries as Benny Carter, Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa. The most successful Ambrose releases in the United States during 1936 were:
Instrumentals: Limehouse Blues, Rhapsody In Blue (2-sides, Bert Barnes, piano solo), B’Wanga, Copenhagen, Wood And Ivory, Hide And Seek, The Night Ride, Creole Lady.
Sam Browne: Body And Soul (+ Ambrose, violin solo).
Jack Cooper: Everything’s In Rhythm With My Heart, Squibs, Rags, There Isn’t Any Limit To My Love, I Can Wiggle My Ears, Swing, The Sunset Trail, I’m In A Dancing Mood [No.16], On Your Toes, Serenade In The Night.
Evelyn Dall: The General’s Fast Asleep, Mrs Worthington, Wotcha Gotcha Trombone For?, Cuban Pete, Lost My Rhythm.
Rhythm Sisters: Memphis Blues.
Rhythm Brothers: Dixieland Band.
By the end of 1936 the Ambrose band had contributed about seventy titles to American Decca’s catalogue – 5% of the total entries. Quite good, considering the wealth of American home-grown talent that was then contracted to Decca. We must however acknowledge that other British-based bands were not doing too badly either. Roy Fox, Harry Roy and especially Lew Stone enjoyed considerable success in the United States and others such as Billy Cotton, Henry Hall, Jack Harris, Charlie Kunz and Jack Jackson were not entirely unknown. And of course Jack Hylton and Ray Noble still towered above all others when it came to a share in the American record market.
By early 1937 more changes had taken place in the band’s line-up – Tommy McQuater had replaced Teddy Foster and Alfie Noakes took over from Clifton Ffrench, Albert Harris had replaced Joe Brannelly (who was now band manager), Jack Simpson had been added on timpani and xylophone, and Sam Browne had replaced Jack Cooper on vocals. Later, Tiny Winters replaced Dick Ball on bass, and Vera Lynn and the Manhattan Trio joined the vocal section. Decca’s release schedule for 1937 allotted the Ambrose band around fifty titles, the most successful being:
Instrumentals: Tarantula, Champagne Cocktail, Hick Stomp, Midnight In Mayfair, Swinganola, Caravan, Twilight In Turkey, Power House, Toy Trumpet, Escapada, Deep Henderson, Cotton Pickers’ Congregation, Swing Patrol, Medley Of Hebrew Dances (US only).
Jack Cooper: We’re Tops On Saturday Night, What Harlem Is To Me.
Evelyn Dall: Organ Grinder’s Swing , On The Isle Of Kitchy Mi Boko (+ Roy Smeck, Hawaiian guitar), Swing Is In The Air, Rhythm’s OK in Harlem, Gangway.
Sam Browne: Blue Hawaii (+ Roy Smeck), Harbour Lights, My Lost Love, Moon Or No Moon, Lord And Lady Whooziz (+ Vera Lynn), Hometown, Rock And Roll, When Day Is Done (abridged version, US only).
In 1937 American audiences at last got a chance to see, rather than just hear, the Ambrose band in action. Not, unfortunately, in the flesh but at least on film. Soft Lights And Sweet Music was Ambrose’s first feature-length film and had been released in Britain the previous year. The storyline is little more than an excuse to present a succession of variety acts clearly selected to appeal on both sides of the Atlantic. The Ambrose band swings into action with a couple of instrumentals, and also provides support for Evelyn Dall, Elizabeth Welch, Donald Stewart, Jack Cooper and the Rhythm Brothers. I can find no evidence of any US radio shows featuring the Ambrose band in 1937 other than some short broadcasts each comprising a number of consecutively played Ambrose records. It is known, however, that some Ambrose titles did particularly well on the Jukebox circuit including Organ Grinder’s Swing and Cuban Pete. So far as reviews of Ambrose’s records in the musical press were concerned, Variety and Metronome were fulsome in their praise, and the magazine Down Beat, influential in jazz circles, took great interest in the band’s instrumental output. A front-page headline at the time read: ONE BRITISH BAND GIVES AMERICAN BANDS A RUN FOR THEIR MONEY!
Towards the end of 1937 Max Goldberg returned to the trumpet section in place of Alfie Noakes and Sid Phillips left the sax section to be replaced by Chester Smith as second alto (the baritone sax being dropped from the line-up). Also in late 1937 Ambrose ran into difficulties over the renewal of his Decca recording contract and consequently made no records for about a year. This is why the American releases for 1938 were somewhat sparse. Here are the most popular for that year:
Instrumentals: Message From Mars, Ritual Fire Dance.
Evelyn Dall: It’s the Natural Thing To Do.
Sam Browne: Watching The Stars.
Jack Cooper: OK For Sound, Free, There’s A New World.
After leaving the sax section Sid Phillips spent a few months in America, but returned early in 1938 and rejoined the Ambrose outfit, primarily as chief arranger. According to press reports Sid had been bowled-over by his reception in New York: ‘Everywhere I went people told me how much they thought about the Ambrose band, and many musicians rated it as tops’. Possibly inspired by Sid’s remarks Ambrose briefly, and without publicity, visited New York in the spring of 1938 for discussions with the AFM and others regarding a possible band exchange. Apparently some kind of deal was made allowing the Ambrose band to undertake a limited engagement in America in exchange for Ray Noble’s band coming to Britain. In fact Ray Noble did bring his band to Britain that summer, but for some unknown reason Ambrose did not, once again, take up his option. Also in 1938 another film featuring the band opened in New York. Calling All Stars was really a sequel to the previous film and had the Ambrose band supporting Evelyn Dall, Sam Browne, Elizabeth Welch and Larry Adler.
Towards the end of 1938 Ambrose renewed his Decca recording contract and the full band had now been re-formed. This is its line-up:
Trumpets: Tommy McQuater, Stan Roderick, Archie Craig.
Trombones: George Chisholm, Les Carew.
Reeds: Joe Crossman (clarinet/alto), Joe Jeanette (alto/flute), Billy Amstell (tenor/clarinet).
Rhythm: Bert Read (piano/arranger), Ivor Mairants (guitar), Tiny Winters (bass), Max Bacon (drums), Jimmy Blades (timpani/xylophone).
Strings: Ernie Lewis (first violin), Norman Cole (violin), + others.
Vocals: Denny Dennis, Evelyn Dall, Vera Lynn, Jack Cooper.
Arrangers: Sid Phillips, + others.
By the end of 1938 Ambrose’s total contribution to the American Decca catalogue consisted of 120 titles, about 3% of their complete listings. Given the number of famous US bands by now appearing on the Decca label, it is not surprising that Ambrose was becoming somewhat surplus to requirements. However, a selection of recordings made in 1938/9 (together with some previously unreleased titles) was issued in 1939. These were the most popular:-
Instrumentals: Plain Jane, Early Morning Blues, Ah! Sweet Mystery Of Life, The Wedding Of The Sophisticated Dutch Doll, Man About Town (US only), Hors d’Oeuvres (reissue).
Evelyn Dall: Organ Grinder’s Swing (reissue).
Denny Dennis: South Of The Border [No.8], My Prayer, Mexicali Rose, The Donkey Serenade,
Hear My Song, Music Maestro Please.
Jack Cooper: Empty Saddles,
Sam Browne: The Moon Was Yellow, *Falling Leaves, *Piccadilly, (*K-series 12-inch records).
Also released in 1939 was Ambrose’s third feature-length film – The Playboy (UK title - Kicking The Moon Around). This was much better than previous efforts and was distributed as a main feature movie. Directed by Walter Forde and written by Tom Geraghty and Roland Pertwee, it was well received by reviewers and moviegoers alike. Apart from Ambrose, who played himself, Evelyn Dall, Harry Richman, Florence Desmond and Maureen O’Hara had the main fictional roles with Max Bacon and Les Carew providing comic support. The Ambrose band was in fine form, especially when backing Evelyn Dall who sang the film’s big production number It’s The Rhythm In Me.
By the time Ambrose’s version of South Of The Border made it big in the American record charts war had broken out. Of course the United States was not yet directly involved and for a while it was business as usual. Not so, of course, in Britain! Wartime restrictions meant that Ambrose had to shelve plans for the band’s development (which were definitely in the swing direction) and make the best of what he could get in the way of musicians not subject to call-up. By the summer of 1940 he was leading a twelve-piece band augmented for recording and broadcasting purposes by a substantial string section. This set the pattern for the next five years and despite inevitably frequent personnel changes the Ambrose Orchestra remained one of the best British civilian bands of the early war years. Also in mid-1940, Vera Lynn, by now a singing star in her own right, left the band to pursue a solo career, and Evelyn Dall became too busy with stage, film and troop concert commitments to continue recording with the band. Fortunately, Ambrose had just discovered a young singer, Anne Shelton, whose vocal range encompassed the contrasting styles of both Vera and Evelyn, and she remained his principal vocalist until 1947.
By 1940 Ambrose’s Decca releases in the United States amounted to over two hundred titles, many still in the catalogues. This needs to be emphasised because although there were few new releases during the war, Ambrose’s record sales remained buoyant and his popularity was largely undiminished, as noted by music journalist Leonard Feather reporting to Melody Maker readers from New York in 1940. Here then, are the major titles released between 1940 and 1945:
Instrumentals: Blue Romance, War Dance Of The Wooden Indians, The Penguin, A Burmese Ballet, *Nocturne, *Serenade, *Liebestraum, *Waltz Of The Flowers, (*Arranged by Ambrose),
Oasis, Stage Coach, Pony Express.
Evelyn Dall: Cuban Pete (reissue).
Denny Dennis: Sing A Song Of Sunbeams, That Sly Old Gentleman.
Vera Lynn: I Love You Much Too Much.
Jack Cooper: A Latin From Manhattan, Her Name Was Rosita, Ridin’ Home, Nursie,
So Deep Is The Night, El Rancho Grande, If I Should Fall In Love Again.
Anne Shelton: A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, Stormy Weather (US only), Moonlight In Mexico, Something To Remember You By, The Last Time I Saw Paris, Darling, Taking A Chance On Love, You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, I’ll Walk Alone, San Fernando Valley.
Ambrose also made two live broadcasts to the United States via a BBC/NBC hook-up in November 1944, and American radio stations, particularly in New York, continued to present record shows based on his output throughout the war.
Shortly after the war ended in 1945 Ambrose received another offer from MCA for a United States tour with a band comprising American musicians and featuring Anne Shelton and Evelyn Dall. Ambrose announced that he would take up this offer the following year but, as usual, negotiations broke down before anything could be finalised. In October 1946 he went to New York for a few weeks and made the usual round of theatres and clubs. By this time, as Ambrose must have appreciated, considerable changes had taken place in the popular music scene. The popular singer, rather than the bandleader, now reigned supreme. Moreover, the various music styles that had been encompassed by the dance band’s repertoire now had dedicated fans requiring a degree of authenticity that dance bands, however good, could not really provide. Jazz, country music, Latin American rhythms, blues, and rhythmic light music had by now gone their separate ways, and even dancers wanted strict tempo outfits unencumbered by vocals and instrumental solos.
Despite all this, between the end of the war and the early-1950s the Ambrose Orchestra remained the best-known British band in the United States. At the same time record sales, most of which were re-issues or albums comprising past hits, continued apace. Some new releases appeared between 1945 and 1952, including:
Instrumentals: Swing Low Sweet Clarinet, Dance Of The Potted Puppet, Dardanella, Rose Of
Washington Square, Air Raid Shelter, Piano Concerto, Jazz Pizzicato, Jazz Legato.
Vera Lynn: When Your Hair Has Turned To Silver, How Lucky You Are.
Denny Dennis: By Candlelight, The Lonely Shepherd.
Anne Shelton: Tenement Symphony (2-sides), Love Locked Out, Happy And Contented.
In the mid-1950s there was a brief resurgence in Ambrose’s popularity among American big-band fans when MGM issued a number of stylish instrumentals by his London-based recording band. These included: Whistlin’ Willie, Slide Rule, Get Happy, and Marching Through Georgia. Since the mid-1960s many of the LPs (and later CDs) featuring Ambrose’s best output have been issued in the United States…so acknowledging his small, but significant, contribution to American popular music throughout the Golden Age of Dance Bands.
The Leader Who Invented Sax Appeal
By Tony Parker
During the early Forties, when the world was still at war, big bands ruled everywhere in the country's ballrooms and palais and a woman's place was out there in the audience. Or at least that was the general theory. But one diminutive, young red-haired saxophonist - a 'rebel' from Leeds - had an idea of her own, and that was to break into the male-dominated world of dance music by forming her own all-girl outfit. Furthermore she worked tirelessly to bring her idea to fruition, and it was one that outraged the brotherhood. To add insult to injury she even selected the Gershwin Brothers' Lady Be Good as her signature tune. As it turned out, Ivy Benson's outfit proved to be one of the most popular in the land - long after the war was over, and well into the fifties.
When the orchestra was launched in 1944, many male bandleaders sent a joint protest to broadcasters and booking agents not to touch her. It was to no avail, so, when they couldn't get at her that way, they laid a claim that her orchestra was full of lesbians! None of it worked. They even tried to halt Ivy's progress with musical arrangers putting wrong notes in the scores, and attempting to coax theatre managers to block the band from appearing. Once again their efforts failed.
Born in 1913, and after leaving school, Ivy Benson worked as a clerk at Montague Burton's store in Leeds for the paltry sum of eighteen shillings a week. She came from a working-class musical background and was always destined to spend her life doing something musical. Her father played in the pit orchestra at the Leeds Empire, and he nurtured dreams of Ivy one day becoming a concert pianist. The 'rebel' had other ideas, though, for by this time she had become an efficient saxophonist who could also play the clarinet, and to supplement her meagre day wage she played both instruments in a club for 7/6 a night. It was during this time that Ivy had the impulse to form her own band, and also experience all the acrimony from the male leaders. They hated her to a man, because they saw her as a rival. And the bookers, too, thought there was something indecent about the idea of a lady who led a dance band. However, she was to prove them all wrong for she turned out to have a gift for organisation, and a solicitude for the members of her band which those male leaders of the time would have done well to imitate.
But despite her musical skills, her business acumen and her reputation for being very strong, Ivy was treated as something of a joke by the male chauvinists in the band business. They couldn't get their heads round an all-girl orchestra. One classic gag asked: 'What is the only sight less sexy than a man playing a trombone? A girl playing a trombone.' But quips like this made no difference to the super-tough Ivy, who died in May,1993, at the age of 80.
With a dispassionate look backwards, the first time I saw Ivy's band in 1956, apart from the glamour element of her players, it was not one of the best that I'd ever heard: to be fair, though, some of the male bands (with the odd exception or two) also left a lot to be desired. But her style appealed, and that was all that really mattered.
Since that time, and up until she went into retirement, she had often been described as the female Joe Loss due to the fact that she had led an orchestra for almost as long - 30 years, in fact. Ivy played the kind of neat, precise dance music beloved of the up-tempo brigade, and the fact that her rise coincided with the war made her an obvious choice as an entertainer of the troops overseas. As a rule the British troops tended to cheer and dance, and leave it at that. But the Americans had only to dance a couple of foxtrots before they proposed marriage. Consequently, dozens of Ivy's girls married GIs, and eventually so did Ivy. In fact, she married twice but both marriages failed.
It was in 1977, when working as a show reviewer for the Manchester Evening News, I got the chance to meet up with Ivy again, after an absence of over 20 years, when she and her orchestra made a rare appearance at a long-gone nightclub in Stockport. At the end of her act we found a quiet table where we sat, had a drink and reminisced. We talked of times past, present and of her not-too-often appearances in the nightspots and ballrooms. It was then that she opened her heart, off the record, I might add. 'I'm semi-retired these days - almost fully retired and living in Clacton-on-Sea. I tell you, I hate retirement and I hate Clacton. I hate not being in the swim and I miss the musical life - I made the greatest mistake of my life by coming down here and giving up. I still dream of London.' Later, she sold up in Clacton and moved to Chiswick.
Plucking up courage, I asked Ivy about her two failed marriages. I expected some kind of backlash. It didn't happen, instead I received an honest reply. 'Both marriages failed because of my husbands' infidelity while I was on the road. After that I would tell my girls: "If you get married, don't stay in the band - this is farewell to romance. Take my advice and put your sax in the fridge".'
Before we departed that night, with the customary peck on the cheek, I asked Ivy if she could recall a cold, wintry night in January, 1957, when her band was booked to appear for a dance at the Pavilion Gardens in Buxton. Because the town was virtually cut off by the snow, and they were stranded some 15 miles away, Ivy and the girls had to change into their stage dresses in the coach. The result was that they didn't arrive at the venue until about 10.00pm - two hours later than booked, and shivering.
'I remember that night very well. In fact, it was one of the coldest that I've ever spent. Have you ever tried playing a sax suffering from near frostbite?' she laughed. Ivy's reply was not only humorous, but it turned out to be a postscript that I'll always remember.
Dance Band Personalities
By Barry McCanna
Bandleaders fall into three categories. There are those about whom there is so much information available that the problem is not finding things to include in an article, but deciding what to omit (Ambrose, Jack Hylton and Henry Hall spring to mind). Then there are those around whom myths grew up, so that the difficulty is knowing what to believe (Felix Mendelssohn acted as his own publicist, creating much confusion in the process). The subject of this article falls into the third category, namely those about whom not enough is known. He deserves to be remembered, not least because Al Bowlly recorded with him around the turn of 1930. Fortunately, members of the British dance band group had a discussion about him on the Internet earlier this year, and I’ve gone back to that thread for much of what follows. Quite fortuitously, Doug Wilkins supplied more detail to coincide with the production of the article.
According to the 1901 census, Marius Charles Bernard Winter was shown as the three-year old son of Paul Gustave James Winter, living in Streatham. He began his career as an office boy with a firm of oil merchants (remember, there was no school leaving age in those days) and during the First World War served in France for three and a half years. In 1918 he went to work in the City with his father, who was an importer of canned goods. A year later, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band came to England, and stood the music business on its head.
His dance band career began when, having saved the then princely sum of £34, he booked the Town Hall in Wallington (then a leafy Surrey suburb, now in Greater London) on New Year’s Eve, engaged a London band at considerable expense, and sold all the tickets in three days. He then formed a band for a theatrical garden party, and presumably never looked back. It’s unclear what musical training he’d received, but as well as organising he played the drums. Clearly he was something of an entrepreneur, because in due course he approached L. Stanton Jeffries, the musical director of the newly-formed BBC (which went on air for the first time on 14th November 1922) and suggested they should let him broadcast. As a result, his was the first dance band to go on the air, from the attic of Marconi House (the former Gaiety Restaurant building in The Strand) on 26th March 1923. Thus he predated both Sidney Firman’s London Radio Dance Band, and the residency granted to Jack Payne almost exactly five years later.
A handful of records by Marius Winter’s Dance Orchestra were issued on Zonophone in late 1923, but the titles held out no promise of excitement, their most noteworthy feature being the presence of Jack Padbury on reeds. The following year he supplied a band for Selfridges, and this is borne out by Harry Gold, who wrote in his autobiography –
"…gigs were coming along via Ivor Mairants, who was working with a society bandleader and drummer named Marius B. Winter ……. Ivor, Les Lambert and me were doing a lot of gigs for Marius Winter, including regular performances on the roof garden of Selfridges Store in Oxford Street, playing for teas and dances. Incredible as it may sound, we dressed up as minstrels, complete with wigs and our faces blacked up with cork." (There is a photo, circa 1931, which bears this out).
From this it can be seen that as well as leading a band, he was also supplying bands for dates, and during the thirties he would have as many as twelve bands on the go, with a wages bill often in excess of £300.
It is perhaps ironic that Winter replaced Jack Payne when the latter moved to the BBC. Around the end of 1928 Marius B. Winter’s Hotel Cecil Dance Band (with Dick Ball on brass and string bass) cut a somewhat more promising clutch of titles which were issued on the Homochord label. The line-up was unusual, comprising alto and tenor saxes, violin, piano, banjo/guitar, bass and drums (by then, of course, Jack Padbury was leading his own group at the Cosmo Club). Marius claimed to have introduced the idea of a signature tune at the Hotel Cecil, by starting each session with a rendition of "Whispering". Somewhat disarmingly, he went on to write that when Roy Fox came to England in 1930, with the soubriquet "The Whispering Cornettist" he let it go.
By then his "Black Cats" had begun broadcasting on Sunday evenings from the commercial station Radio Paris, which activity continued almost throughout the decade. He claimed to have been the first to use a woman announcer and to have introduced musical links between numbers. He was also one of the first bandleaders to play at the Bandstand in Worthing, when he followed Al Davison onto the podium (hitherto only brass and military bands had played at such venues), although it’s unclear exactly when that change came.
Around September 1930 he began a series of sessions for the Broadcast label, with a new eleven-piece band that included George Melachrino on clarinet, alto sax, viola and vocals (some six years before his first vocal with the Savoy Hotel Orpheans), and Bill Airey-Smith on drums. The first session produced "Harmonica Harry" c/w "Swingin’ In A Hammock". Four more titles followed in October, with vocal honours split evenly between GM and MBW. The following month two of the four titles recorded, namely "What A Perfect Night For Love" and "Beware Of Love" (Broadcast 2600), were sung by Al Bowlly. At the beginning of December Al sang "Never Swat A Fly" which was released on Bcast 2606 backed by "Sing Something Simple" sung by Marius, and the two duetted on "Sunny Days" released on Bcast 2607 with Al singing "Roamin’ Thru The Roses". The first of the five titles was reissued on Decca Recollections RFL 1, "Al Bowlly – The One And Only Al", and the other four on Saville SVL 148, "Al Bowlly – The London Sessions 1928-1930".
January 1931 saw another four titles, two sung by Al, "There’s Something About An Old-Fashioned Girl" and "A Little Love Song", a duet with Marius on "Okay, Baby" and a vocal by Marius on "I Am The Words, You Are The Melody". The two long titles were issued on Bcast 3003 and the other two on Bcast 3004. "A Little Love Song" was reissued on Decca DDV 5002. That concluded Al’s involvement with the recording sessions, but it raises the question in my mind as to whether he was also involved in the Radio Paris broadcasts. Marius recorded a further three sessions for Broadcast, with an excellent version of "Choo Choo" in February, and the involvement of Val Rosing in April.
September saw him broadcasting for the BBC, and in October he was resident at Romaro’s Restaurant in The Strand, where he provided backing to "Hutch" (singer and pianist Leslie Hutchinson). So far as recording was concerned, there was nothing further until May 1935, when his Carlton Orchestra recorded four sides for Imperial, two of which were selections from "On With The Show, 1931". That same month he also recorded "State Ball Memories" for Decca, no doubt inspired by the Guildhall Jubilee Ball at which he played in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary. He continued playing until the late thirties, when he concentrated instead on the agency side of the business. Kelly’s Post Office Directory for 1938 lists him as a Musician & Band Provider with a business at Carlton House, Regent Street, S.W.1. He teamed up with Jack Payne’s former manager Harry Mills as the Mills-Winter Agency, which must have been at a later date. Marius B. Winter died in 1956, and as I said at the beginning, he deserves to be remembered. In fact, his recorded output would be ideal for a CD release.
© Copyright BMC
PARDON MY SOUTHERN ACCENT
The story of Anne Lenner
By Ray Pallett
Anne Lenner, the vocalist mostly associated with Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans had a silky voice and sung with perfect English diction yet was able to put feeling into her songs and sing rhythmically when called for. Her voice can be summed-up, perhaps as "sophisticatedly sexy".
I first became aware of her lovely voice when listening to an album of radio transcription discs made by Carroll Gibbons with Anne for a Radio Luxembourg programme sponsored by Hartley’s Jam. Not only were the arrangements really attractive but it was Anne’s singing which made the album instantly one of the favourites in my collection. Discographer Brian Rust, who wrote the liner notes to the album described Anne as one of the best three female vocalists in Britain at the time. One of the tracks on the album is Pardon My Southern Accent. Of course the song refers to the deep south of the USA, but Anne sings it with her perfect Southern Accent, meaning in her case, the south of England!
I had, in fact, met Anne several times at the Memory Lane Party Nights held in London during the 1980s and 1990s. She attended many of them and used to sing a few numbers with the band. She was one of our most popular celebrity guests. Looking back, I was witnessing history being re-made – but I did not realise it at the time. She was a most charming lady and never disappointed the many fans who talked to her at the Party Nights. Several people recently wrote to me asking for an article on Anne and amazingly I realised that although we have run articles on her two famous sisters, Shirley Lenner and Judy Shirley, we had never devoted a feature to Anne. We now aim to correct this very serious omission.
Anne was born as Violet Green on Christmas Eve 1912 to a show business family in Aylestone, a suburb of Leicester and attended the local King Richard’s Road school. Her father was Londoner Arthur Green a veteran variety artiste who had adopted the stage name of Tom Lenner and toured in reviews and variety with Anne’s mother Florence Wright (her maiden name) who also sang. Anne had five sisters, Florence (who became Judy Shirley), Maidie, Ida, Rosa (who used the stage name Sally Rose) and Ivy (who became Shirley Lenner). At the time of writing, the only sister still surviving is Rosa who is still sprightly and lives in Sussex. The sisters all followed their father into show business apart from Maidie who married a property millionaire. Anne also had two brothers, Herbert and Arthur. Herbert died at a young age and Arthur went on to become a cobbler! Sister Shirley Lenner had a successful career in show business and sung with Joe Loss among others; she died at an early age due to an accident in her home.
Anne’s first stage appearance was in a family production of acting, singing and dancing billed as Tom Lenner and his Chicks. Later Anne teamed up with Ida and formed The Lenner Sisters. Anne remembers from her early days in Leicester doing a concert at the de Montfort Hotel, as well as singing Ramona with Ida on stage at the City Cinema, tea dances at the Palais de Danse in Belgrave Gate and Sundays at Aylestone Boathouse. The Lenner Sisters song and dance act ended when Ida got married and started a double-act with her new husband. Her elder singer Judy paid for Anne to have dancing lessons so she could understudy Judy in a production showing at the Loughborough Theatre.
Around this time, Anne married a dance producer of a review she was appearing in by the name of Piddock who is now deceased. They had one son Jeffrey who went into show business under the name of Jeffrey Lenner. Jeffery was educated at Bedford School but ran away to join the Ice Follies which came through town when he was in the 6th Form. Anne’s nephew John Doyle, whose mother was Maidie, assisted with information for this feature and recalled that Anne had hoped for a diplomatic career for her son! John recalls that Jeffrey could not find work after his return from Australia where he hosted his own TV programme, which was probably the zenith of his career. He was never able to emulate the success his mother enjoyed in her earlier career.
Unfortunately Jeffrey died following complications after pneumonia about four years ago at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London near where he lived. I recall Jeffrey accompanying Anne to the Memory Lane Party Nights. John Doyle has fond memories of Jeffrey: "I hero worshipped him as a kid and he was a big brother to me. He was a terrific athlete at school and was altogether a super guy with a terrific sense of humour. He had much of Anne's charm, talent and good looks when he was younger and I was enormously fond of him and devastated by his inability to cope in later life."
Returning to her earlier career, Anne was now performing solo at charity shows, benefits and social clubs. She was soon heard by agents who were impressed by her unique voice and by 1933 engagements in London were being offered. She appeared at Jack’s Club and the Cabaret Club where she had to perform with a megaphone! At another engagement in 1934 at Murray’s Club in Soho’s Beak Street she was heard by Savoy Hotel bandleader Carroll Gibbons.
Carroll was so impressed with Anne’s sweet and fresh voice that he invited her to record with his group for a Radio Luxembourg broadcast sponsored by Hartley’s Jam. The story goes that the session was booked for 9:30am the next morning but Anne was late for what was her first really big break. But Carroll was so keen, he booked another session with Anne for later that day. The broadcasts were so successful that Anne was given a three year contract to sing with Carroll at the Savoy Hotel. The stuffy Savoy management objected to the presence of a girl vocalist, but Carroll believed in Anne so much that he refused to give in. In the event she stayed with him for seven years.
Apart from the Hartley’s Jam programme, Anne also appeared with Carroll Gibbons in the "Ovaltineys" programme where she became known to millions of children as "Auntie Anne".
Anne never adopted the "mid-Atlantic" twang affecting many of her contemporaries. Nor did she "project" her voice at the audience. With her soft pure voice she was ideal for the typically English sounding Savoy Orpheans and fitted in very well, becoming very popular not only with patrons of the Savoy, but also with the record-buying public and the huge radio audiences. It was a glamorous world in which she was a part. Many of her fabulous dresses were designed by Colin Becke whose sister was vocalist Eve Becke. Anne recalled: "My days were always very full and time flew. I was very lucky to be singing during a period of the best song writers and I think when British dance music was at its best."
Her contract for the Savoy did not prevent her from recording just one song with Joe Loss in 1936 or appearing with Eric Wild and his Tea-timers who were regularly on pre-war TV from Alexandra Palace. Anne recalled having to wear green lipstick when on the embryonic TV station. In the same year she also contributed to bandleader George Scott-Wood’s record "Fred and Ginger Selection" where she sung Lovely To Look At and duetted with Brian Lawrance on I Won’t Dance.
Some of the other standards Anne recorded and especially enjoyed during the 1930s were All The Things You Are, There’s A Lull In My Life, A Foggy Day, Room 504, Sing For Your Supper and Broadway Rhythm. . She made over 150 titles with Carroll, both with the full band and with a smaller contingent which Carroll called his Boy Friends. It was with the Boy Friends that Anne made the Hartley’s Jam broadcasts mentioned above. These radio programmes were introduced by Jimmy Dyrenforth who introduced Anne as the "girl friend". Incidentally, Carroll and Dyrenforth co-wrote many of the songs sung by Anne on the Hartley’s shows.
Anne spoke very fondly of Carroll Gibbons. In her own words: "To work with, he was the most understanding, gentle and kind person. The boys respected and loved him. He was not only the boss but interested in their private lives and was a friend to all of them. Carroll’s boys all looked good and were very versatile, especially George Melachrino who played oboe, viola and sax and Reg Leopold who played violin, viola and sax. I loved singing with the full orchestra but also enjoyed sessions with The Boyfriends and the sweet trumpet of Bill Shakespeare. Through Carroll’s influence, I enjoyed tremendous respect and kindness from all of them."
Around the outbreak of war, Anne got married again to up-and coming actor
Gordon Little who was in the Navy stationed at Portsmouth. Nephew John Doyle
recalls: "My earliest recollections were of a house in Warsash, Hampshire during
the war, which Anne rented to be near Gordon who was commanding a torpedo boat
in the Navy at the time with the flotilla moored near Warsash. I remember there
where lots of parties but he was a disciplinarian who was not very kind to
Jeffrey or myself." Anne and a friend Eustace Hoey opened the Ward Room, a very
smart club in Curzon Street especially for Gordon so he and his Navy chums had
somewhere to go on visits to London. The marriage didn’t last for long after the
war. Gordon apparently deserted her and remarried ! There were no children
and Anne did not marry again.
Anne had left the Savoy Hotel in 1941 to be able to spend more time with Gordon. Nevertheless she kept up her broadcasting and recording dates with the Savoy Orpheans. She also appeared on BBC radio in the weekly series Composer Cavalcade with the BBC Concert orchestra directed by organist Sidney Torch. She shared the singing spots with Denny Dennis, George Melachrino and Sam Costa, all of whom were by now in the forces. She was also in demand for ENSA shows and was called upon to sing at official Government functions and performed in front of Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower among others.
She appeared in the 1940 British comedy film Garrison Follies which also included David Tomlinson and Barry Lupino, and on another occasion her singing voice was dubbed for actress Ann Todd.
During the war years, Anne sung with a number of other bands notably Jay Wilbur, Jack White, Louis Levy, and Frank Weir at the Astor club where George Shearing was in the band. She only recorded a handful of songs with these bands. She also recorded just one song with Maurice Winnick; on the other side of the record Al Bowlly took the vocal. Anne also sung on broadcasts with the Stan Atkins’ Band around this time.
After the war she did troop shows in Austria, Germany and Italy, one with her trio which included Spike Milligan on vocals and guitar of whom she later said: "He is a lovely man, so talented. We still keep in touch and I visit him and his wife at their lovely Sussex home." Her overseas work also included Monte Carlo where she had a show at the Casino and in Paris where she sung with Bert Firman. She never sang in the USA although a tour was planned but was scuppered by the outbreak of war.
Back in the United Kingdom, Anne was singing solo. She could also be found teaming up with Bob Harvey for a double-act entitled "Just The Two Of Us".
Anne noticing that the entertainment world was changing, decided to retire from show business. John Doyle believes that her voice was starting to fail which may have been partly due to heavy smoking and the strain placed on her vocal chords by working without microphones during her early career. By now her marriage to Gordon Little was over and she was looking for a new direction. Following a chance meeting with an admirer from the Savoy days, she managed to get a job as a telephonist in the Civil Service working for the security services. John Doyle recalls her producing the annual Civil Service show on several occasions.
Of her later life, John Doyle has these memories: "Anne was my favourite
Aunt, she was intelligent, used to do the Times crossword in half an hour
and seemed to have many interests but above all, a very big heart. She
was funny, with a terrific personality, always interested and interesting, a
great, natural, entertainer with a big personality. She was devastated by her
only son's inability to cope with his later life and spent a lot of her later
years taking care of,
Anne died at the age of 84 on June 4th, 1997 at Barnet Hospital after a short illness. Anne's death certificate states the cause of death as metastatic carcinoma. Carroll Gibbons’ widow Joan recalls "Anne was a marvellous raconteur, a very quick brain and with a strong sense of humour. She once told me that she would have liked to have been a comedienne. She suffered from failing eyesight towards the end of her life and found it difficult to get around."
THE BANDS AND THEIR RECORDS
by Richard Ives
With his wit, charm and grace, Roy Fox soon established himself a reputation of distinction amongst the patrons of the exclusive night clubs in London during the 1930's. A far cry from Denver, Colorado where he was born in modest surroundings to Salvation Army parents. Obviously with music around it was not long before young Roy got interested and at the age of eleven his mother bought him a second-hand cornet and he took to it as a duck to water, as he later said "….once I got started it all came easy, too easy". It was not long before he started playing in local bands and orchestras, one of which was the Los Angeles Examiner Newsboys' Band. Then the family had settled in Belvedere by this time. It was through the band that Roy got his big break, as a studio had asked the bandmaster if he had anyone who could do bugle calls, the upshot was that Roy found himself at Sunset Boulevard studios at the disposal of no less than Cecil B DeMille. This, of course, being the silent era of films. Evidently Mr DeMille wanted a bugler to call for silence before a take thus saving his voice. Naturally the young Roy got to know the stars of the period, people like Gloria Swanson and later when playing at Marcels restaurant in Los Angeles he met William S Hart, Pauline Frederick and many others whose names mean nothing today but at that time made an indelible mark on the young impressionable Fox.
Of course it was only a matter of time before, if you can make the grade that is, Fox landed a plum job with Abe Lyman and his Band who were engaged at the Sunset Inn. Judging by his comments it must have been quite a place with everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Rudolph Valentino frequenting the Inn. It must have been a golden period, in more ways than one, for the young lad of only seventeen was earning over $100 a week! He soon moved to Henry Halsteads band at the Palace Royal, after that literally burnt down he joined Art Hickman at the Biltmore Hotel and it was with Hickman that Fox made his first records for Victor in June 1924. Other engagements followed and he played on a casual basis with the California Ramblers and Gus Arnheim.
The culmination was that in 1930 Fox joined the William Fox Studios as musical director and it was there that he fell in love with almost everybody, that is female, but it is probably Jean Harlow who made the greatest impact, as in 1975 when writing his autobiography he devotes a whole chapter to her! It is strange and open to question with everything going for him, why did Roy Fox come to England in late 1930? Firstly, it was only going to be an eight week contract, and at the Café de Paris one of the most prestigious Night Clubs in London at the time and also he knew some English celebrities, so one can surmise that he thought it would make a change if nothing else. Perhaps also Jean Harlow was causing a rift between Roy and his wife Dorothea, who knows?
The opening at the Café de Paris must have gone down well with Roy and his American musicians as in October 1930 he met E.R. Lewis, head of Decca Records, and was asked to record for the company. This resulted in eight sides being made under the title of Roy Fox (The Whispering Cornetist) and his Band. These particular records are quite rare but must have made an impression as he was persuaded to stay on, after his musicians returned to the States, for a long-term contract with Decca. He also did broadcasts from the Café de Paris. Of course this necessitated forming a new band and this is where Fox shows some very shrewd thinking. He was able to snap up Lew Stone as pianist/arranger and Bill Harty on drums and it was at their recommendation he hired an out of work singer by the name of Al Bowlly. Other luminaries joined the band - Max Goldberg, later replaced by Jack Jackson, trumpet; Lew Davis, trombone; Buddy Featherstonhaugh, clarinet and tenor sax; Ben Frankel, violin; Spike Hughes, string bass/arranger. A dozen or so successful records were made.
Then in April 1931 Fox was approached by a Mr Upton who was building a new club in the West End and wanted a top band for it, this was to be the Monseigneur. Fox immediately re-organised his band, he enticed the brass section from Billy Cotton, much to the latter's chagrin. The new band was Nat Gonella and Sid Buckman, trumpets; Joe Ferrie, trombone; Billy Amstell - Micky Amstell, clarinet and alto sax; Harry Berly, clarinet and tenor sax; Lew Stone, piano and arranger; Al Bowlly, guitar and vocal; Don Stutchley, bass; Bill Harty, drums. That is the line up that opened at the Monseigneur Restaurant in May 1931. One of the top three bands in London, the others being Ambrose and Jack Hylton, not forgetting Ray Noble, but his was just a recording band and Hylton was really a show band, so in the early 30's Roy Fox almost led the way.
On purely recorded evidence we can examine just how Roy Fox stands up musically against other recognised leaders in the field. One stroke of genius was his choice of vocalist in Al Bowlly who was very suited to the musical style of the band, and more than rivaled Sam Browne, Ambrose's lead vocalist. The other reason for his success must be down to Lew Stone's brilliant arrangements. Although Fox was not a Jazz musician he was astute enough to gauge what the public wanted, smooth music to dance to with a hint of hot choruses from his solo players to keep it interesting. On the early Decca records he is billed as the Whispering Cornetist and can be heard especially on Whispering (F2469) but as time went on I think he was happy to let his star players shine, but on Whispering we do get a glimpse of his musicianship. (The records he made in America are very difficult to find) but his playing was once praised by no less a celebrity than Jascha Heifetz the world famous violinist. Fox was fond of name dropping.
Back to the records; in total he made 52 records (104 sides) whilst at the Monseigneur, this was up to September 1932 when Fox decided to leave as he was unable to agree terms on the contract renewal and here is where a bombshell was dropped. After telling the band that he was leaving to perform at the Café Anglais he naturally presumed his band would go with him, well they did not. In fact only Sid Buckman went with him, the result was that Fox had to find a whole new band. He managed to get Rex Owen on clarinet and alto sax, Harry Gold on tenor sax and Ivor Mairants on guitar and others. This in no way measured up to his previous line up. Lew Stone inherited the fine band and took over at the Monseigneur. Fox still made records for Decca and in 1933 moved to the Kit Cat Club and after a short stint he again moved to the Café de Paris and in December 1935 left Decca for HMV, his records being issued on the cheaper BD series. He also started touring but ill health forced him to disband in 1938.
As I have said the quality of the Monseigneur Band was superb, showing it up to be one of the best in the country, but, and here I'm sorry to bring in a negative opinion, the quality of the early 30's Decca recordings just do not stand up to scrutiny. Let me quote Fox. "Decca was using this place (Chenil Galleries in Chelsea) for recording studios for quite a while, and the acoustics weren't all they should be - ever" sic. This was not the first time musicians had complained. The shame is that the Fox band did not record as well as other contracted bands for Decca. There is a leaden sound on all the early Decca's which emphasise the low and mid-range pitch. Having said that, musically I think these early recordings are the best that Fox ever made so if I short list just a few it will come as no surprise to see I have ignored his later HMV output, for while they might stand as perfectly good examples of mid 1930's dance music they contributed little to the genre.
A word about prices, the early Fox on Decca sold remarkably well and prices in the main are reasonable, bearing in mind that most contain vocals by Al Bowlly which obviously contribute to the value. So up to Decca F3298 the end of the Monseigneur contract, I would say at a Record Fair good copies should be about £2/3 and in an auction no more than £5/6. From Decca F3243 when he reformed his band for the Café Anglais and later Kit Cat, no Al Bowlly of course, on any of these, I would say about half the above prices, and the HMV's? well ….. half of the half!
Bubbling over with Love Decca F2328
Lazy Day " F2396
Tell me, are you from Georgia? (AB with Gonells vc) " F2451
Nobody's Sweetheart " F2716
The Longer that You Linger in Virginia " F2760
You Rascal You (Gonella vc) " F2805
Kiss by Kiss " F2867
Was That The Human Thing To Do? (Eve Becke vc) " F2888
One More Affair " F3093
How'm I Doin? (Gonella vc) " F3198
Sweet and Hot " F3289
Drowsy Blues " F5124
It's interesting to note that amongst his competitors Roy Fox had the greatest admiration for Ambrose and his Orchestra and in his peak the rivalry must have been very close. After the war Fox made various attempts at forming a new band but he was a man out of his time, but as he says "..what a wonderfully lucky guy I have been". Not many can say that.
References: Hollywood, Mayfair and All that Jazz - Roy Fox Leslie Frewin Publishers 1975
British Dance Bands on Record - Brian Rust - Sandy Forbes Gramophone Publications 1989
By Barry McCanna
Jack White’s line-up, which included his two brothers, remained virtually unchanged throughout his career. His musicians were not star players, but he carved out success in the top dance halls of the day. He made many records and numerous broadcasts, yet until fairly recently he had been virtually forgotten.
He was born in Liverpool on 2nd December 1905, and christened Eugene Joseph. The Jack of the family was his father, who supplemented his building work by acting as MC at local dances. Young Eugene showed musical talent on the concertina, on which instrument he began to pick up the odd half-a-crown, and thus encouraged progressed to the piano. The repertoire then in vogue was swept aside in 1919 when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band arrived in England. Suddenly the piano was passé: he wanted instead to be a drummer! As before, his mother helped out by paying for the kit, and for lessons from the pit orchestra drummer at the Hippodrome, and he was soon earning good money from playing gigs. But after a while he decided to switch to the saxophone because the instrument was becoming increasingly popular and there was a shortage of players in the area.
He taught his father to play the drums in his place, and in 1924 the family band came into being as Jack White and his Collegians which, despite the ostensibly transatlantic overtones, was inspired by the local collegiate school. It carried his father’s name, but as Eugene fronted the ensemble that became accepted as his own name. Thus he became the nominal leader by default, but it seems that he was the right man for the job, with a talent for arranging in addition to his instrumental skills.
Being canny, he didn’t give up the day job. He’d started work in a commodity broker’s office but then switched to motor mechanics. He was also very keen on sport, and a good enough footballer to consider making it his career, but the story goes that he was advised against it by Dixie Dean, the centre-forward for Everton who also played for England. At the time Dixie was earning £8 per week, and reckoned Jack could do better from playing music rather than football. It just goes to show how times have changed!
Brothers Tom and Jay played the saxophone and banjo respectively. Of the three Jay was the oldest and worked during the day as a decorator, and Tom was the youngest having just left school. The band was remarkably successful, winning several local Melody Maker contests, and also playing two summer seasons on the Isle of Man in 1928 and 1929. In between, they carried off the Jack Hylton Trophy in the All Lancashire Championship in December 1928. This was all the more remarkable given that his father had died in that year, as a result of which Tom switched to drums, Jack himself remained on alto and Jay progressed to tenor.
Thus prepared, and now numbering six players, they embarked on music full-time in November 1929, with a residency at the Rialto Ballroom, Liverpool, a prestigious venue featuring famous visiting dance bands. After two years they moved to the State Café for a further two years, then played at the West End Ballroom, Birmingham. This was during the Great Depression, when employment was hard to come by, and promoters could take their pick of what was available. That the band remained in work throughout probably owed less to luck than to the merits of their playing.
As the economic circumstances improved the work became more congenial, with a spell in Brighton followed by a summer season at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight before returning to Brighton in 1935. That would have suited Jack, who allegedly owed his weather-beaten appearance to his passion for golf.
The summer of 1935 found the band at the Hammersmith Palais, but it was in May 1936 that the most significant event occurred, which was to set the pattern for the remainder of Jack White’s career. The Astoria, Charing Cross Road, was a Mecca Ballroom which had been built ten years earlier on the site of a former jam factory. It was in a prime location, and attracted music lovers of a terpsichorean disposition (not necessarily the case with those exclusive West End establishments where entry was governed by social status).
Joe Loss and his Band had been playing there since November 1934, but they were due to go on a variety tour, and a replacement band was needed. Jack White accepted the offer, and fulfilled the requirements so successfully that his band was kept on after Joe Loss’s return, taking over the top spot when the latter left in 1938. Having such a residency no doubt helped in securing a recording contract with Parlophone, which began at the end of 1937, switching to Regal Zonophone in March 1940.
In 1936, holidaying in Scotland, he was telephoned by his brother Tommy, who told him that they were to begin broadcasting the next night. Jack promptly cut short his break and drove back to London to make the date. The radio work continued beyond the outbreak of war in September 1939. A year later the band was on the air from The Astoria (which served as an unofficial air-raid shelter) when a bomb fell on the Dominion Theatre nearby. They had just finished a number when a loud explosion was heard by listeners, and the effect of the blast was felt in the ballroom. Jack calmly cued in the perfect tune to relieve the tension, namely The Lambeth Walk, and was thanked subsequently by the BBC for staying cool under duress.
For broadcasts, he was able to supplement his resident vocalists by drawing on the talents of Marjorie Stedeford, Anne Lenner and Dorothy Carless, each of whom was occasionally drafted in also to record with the band. He was associated most closely with "Music While You Work", a radio programme aimed at factory workers in order to boost output. It was launched in June 1940 with official backing, and was so successful that it continued running well after the end of hostilities.
The band remained at the Astoria until 1941, when all three brothers received their call-up papers. Not surprisingly, Jack and Jay were enrolled in the Central Band of the RAF, but drummers being less in demand Tom found himself earmarked for the Catering Corps. He managed to obtain a transfer into the RAF, but was unable to rejoin his brothers. Jack was able to form a service band (five of whose personnel had been with him at the Astoria) which he fronted with the rank of sergeant, and they toured the length and breadth of the British Isles.
After the war Jack returned to the Astoria, where his place had been taken in the meantime by Harry Leader. He resumed playing as the number one band, with a new signature tune "Out Of Nowhere". Harry Leader remained there also, and the rivalry between the two bands became so intense that the leaders ended up not on speaking terms. Jay left the band for health reasons and moved to Hove, where he died in March 1957. The band broke up in November 1957, and Tom also moved to Hove, and opened a grocery store. Jack continued to broadcast using freelance musicians until he retired from the music business in 1966, when he also moved to Brighton and started a very successful printing business. For whatever reason, he then discarded all his musical souvenirs, and became something of a recluse, not wanting to meet anyone who might remind him of his former career. He died on 25th June 1988 at the age of 82.
I wrote at the beginning that Jack White had been virtually forgotten. Although he enjoyed great success, his reputation had fallen into neglect because reissues were concentrated on the late twenties and the early thirties. Indeed, I could find only five of his records which had been reissued on vinyl. Happily, that situation improved significantly two years ago, when Vocalion produced a splendid compilation of Jack White and his Collegians from the Astoria Dance Salon, Tottenham Court Road. The title is "Let The Band Play", and this article has been adapted from my liner notes for that release, the catalogue number of which is CDEA 6076.
by Ray Pallett
Mention the name "Ken Johnson" to many people and they recall one of two things. One was the Café de Paris bombing in which Ken died. The other was that legendary record Ken’s Band made of two Shakespearian lyrics with Al Bowlly backed by the Henderson Twins. Ken, himself, had a most interesting, if short, life story.
He was born Kenrick Reginald Huymans Johnson in British Guiana on 10th September 1914. The Johnson family was of one the elite in the British colony, and Ken’s father was a prominent doctor in the community. He attended Queens College, Georgetown in British Guiana, and at the age of 15, his parents sent him to The William Borlase School in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
Ken did well at school, and also played for the school cricket and football teams. He was a tall boy, well on the way to his full adult height of six foot four inches, making him an ideal goalkeeper. Although his parent’s had medical aspirations for their son, Ken had other ideas.
Ken had been interested in the music and dance of the West Indies, and this continued in England, where he sought out the American choreographer, Buddy Bradley. Bradley had coached stars such as Ruby Keeler, Lucille Ball, Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire. He came to England to work with Britain’s bright young musical comedy star Jessie Matthews in her 1930 show Evergreen.
Buddy Bradley taught Ken Johnson to dance. Johnson developed a hip-swivelling dance of a fluid and flexible style demonstrated by Earl "Snakehips" Tucker in America. And that is from where he also borrowed the nickname "Snakehips"! He would always be dressed immaculately, often in a white suit with a flower in the lapel. There is only one brief film clip of Ken dancing, part of the 1935 Gainsborough film Oh Daddy, for which Bradley was the dance director. Ken performs a routine called Old Vaazoo but it is interspersed with many cutaways to the main cast.
Musicwise, it was the new American swing sound that inspired Ken. In 1934, he made a trip to the United States where he got a little film work in New York, and starred in cabaret in Hollywood. He visited Harlem where the orchestras of Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson inspired him to form his own orchestra.
In 1936, Leslie Thompson asked Ken Johnson to join his band, The Emperors of Jazz (also known as "The Jamaican Emperors"), as a ‘dummy conductor' because he looked good, was charismatic and could dance. Agent Ralph Dean (who had previously been instrumental in signing-up Al Bowlly with Roy Fox’s band) booked them up for a 6 months residency at The Old Florida Club in Bruton Mews, Mayfair beginning on New Year's Eve 1936. The Emperors comprised: Abe 'Pops' Clare (string bass), Yorke de Souza (piano), Reg Amore (trombone), Freddie Greenslade (trombone), Arthur Dibben (trumpet), Leslie Hutchinson (trumpet), Leslie Thompson (trumpet), Ken Johnson, Winnie Cooper (vocals), Louis Stephenson (alto saxophone), Bertie King (tenor saxophone), Robert Mumford-Taylor (alto saxophone), Tom Wilson (drums) and Joe Deniz (guitar).
The future for The Emperors of Jazz seemed good. However, after a couple of months, Johnson had signed a new contract with Dean, which ended his association with Leslie Thompson. Ken went on to form his own orchestra, originally billed as Ken Johnson and his Rhythm Swingers. This band comprised Ken Johnson, Tom Wilson (drums), Carl Barriteau (alto saxophone), David Williams (alto and tenor saxophone), Dave Wilkins (trumpet), Wally Bowen (trumpet), Freddie Greenslade (trombone and trumpet), George Roberts (alto and tenor saxophone), Joe Deniz (guitar), Abe 'Pops' Clare (string bass), Claire Deniz (piano).
Incidentally, Leslie ‘Jiver’ Hutchinson, who was a close friend of Johnson asked Johnson to be godfather to his daughter, jazz singer Elaine Delmar, when she was born in 1939.
However, Johnson had to replace some musicians, and looked to the West Indies for new instrumentalists. Four new players duly arrived in 1937, including saxophonist and clarinettist Carl Barriteau. Together they responded to Ken Johnson's desire to recreate an American style swing sound.
The band recorded for the first time in February 1938 for Parlophone but both titles were rejected. However, they entered the Decca studios on 22th September 1938 and four titles were recorded and issued on two 78 rpms. The line-up for this session was: Ken Johnson, Dave Wilkins (trumpet), Leslie "Jiver" Hutchinson (trumpet), Wally Bowen (trumpet), Lad Busby (trombone), Carl Barriteau (alto saxophone), Bertie King (clarinet/alto saxophone), George Roberts (alto and tenor saxophone), David Williams (alto and tenor saxophone), Errol Barrow (piano), Joe Deniz (guitar), Abe 'Pops' Clare (string bass), Tom Wilson (drums). The band were billed a Ken Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra.
The band continued at The Old Florida Club, and received enthusiastic reviews. Their next residency was as Willoughby’s from April to October 1939. Willoughby had been head waiter at the Old Florida Club.
Ken "Snakehips" Johnson and his West Indian Orchestra were regarded as one of the top swing bands in the country and in late 1939 obtained a residency at The Café de Paris in London's Coventry Street. By 1940 they were recoding for HMV where they recorded a further 12 titles.
Ken was more a dancer than a musician although he had studied piano as a boy in British Guiana and violin at school in Marlow. But he was not in the same league as the musicians he led. There has always been speculation as to who rehearsed the band. Carl Barriteau and "Jiver" Hutchinson both did from time to time as did Johnson himself.
So what was Ken Johnson like? Everyone who met him knew just how kind and gentle he was as a person. He was never heard to say a wrong thing about anyone; rather the reverse; he always found something nice to say about everyone, and it was this attractive quality that made him so loved by those who knew him intimately. Outside of his absorbing passion for his music his tastes were simple, if expensive. He loved good food, good wines, and above all a really good cigar. To indulge in these tastes he set himself a timetable which he rigidly adhered to.
He would dash back to his flat from the Café de Paris, after the tea dance, and bath and change. Then he would stroll over to one of his favourite restaurants, the L'Ecu de France, Le Coquille, Pastori's, or the Embassy Club. There he would leisurely eat a well-chosen dinner with perhaps a glass of wine, and then settle down to the enjoyment of a really big cigar.
With all his popularity Ken had no swollen head and he loved nothing better than to go to one of the night-spots, after he had finished at The Café, and sit in with the boys and jam to his heart's content. He was a marvelous dancer and could quite easily have made a fortune out of this gift alone, but to him it was merely a means of expressing his music. Often after a tiring day he would go down to a night-spot to relax, only to be spotlighted and called on, to get up and do his stuff. He was rarely known to refuse.
Another side to his character was his love for the water. He owned his own boat and loved nothing more than to slip away at weekends during the summer and explore the backwaters of the Thames. Coupled with his love for sailing was his passionate desire for sunshine. Naturally he was accustomed to tropical heat and our varying climate had the power to change his moods with the weather. When the sun shone he was like quick-silver, radiant and shining. With his boys he was like a father. Their troubles were his and he would leave no stone unturned to see that they were happy and satisfied in their work and in their home life. From time to time he was criticised for apparently being too lax with them, particularly at broadcast or stage rehearsals, but he always defended them and said they would be all right on the job. As they always were, it seems he knew best.
The band were spotted by BBC producer Leslie Perowne while they were performing at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire who arranged for them to broadcast. Their first broadcast was in January 1938 but it did not get a very good review in the musical press. Part of a review reads "The broadcast must, I am afraid, be written off as another of the-all-too-many failures in this "Connoisseurs" series. Reason? The band was just not good enough. True, it had a veneer of that sense of style and rhythm which seems inherent in all Negroes, but as an ensemble it lacked the polish which would permit of the word "musicianly" being applied to it. At times the intonation of the saxophones, and particularly the singer, was distressingly bad."
Nevertheless the band must have improved in subsequent broadcasts because Johnson gained a good following through radio broadcasts for the BBC where he came over as well-spoken and articulate. When he began broadcasting, Johnson opted for Dear Old Southland by Henry Creamer and Turner Layton. (He had previously used On The Sunny Side Of The Street as his signature tune, retitling it On The Side Of The Street That's Sunny.) When the music called, he responded so enthusiastically that he was asked to calm down his performance!
The two Shakespearian lyrics which Ken’s band recorded were It Was A Lover And His Lass and Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind. They were recorded on April 23rd 1940 at a prestigious session at the No 1 Studio of EMI in their Abbey Road studio complex in St John’s Wood, London. Al Bowlly was contacted to sing the two Shakespearean "poems" in up-tempo arrangements with Triss and Wyn, the Henderson Twins, who were comedian Dickie Henderson’s sisters. BBC producers, senior executives of EMI, Musicians’ Union officials, and other celebrities were present in the gallery to see first hand this innovation. It was considered by the superstitious, to be unlucky to perform Shakespeare in the jazz idiom. It did turn out to be a bad omen for what fate had in store for both Ken Johnson and Al Bowlly who also died in a bomb raid a few weeks after Johnson.
On Saturday 8th March 1941, Ken Johnson and The West Indian Orchestra were at work in the Café De Paris as usual. That night, the area between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square was subjected to heavy air raids. One bomb found its way down an airshaft into the Café where it exploded. Guitarist Joey Deniz recalls that the band would usually start around 9.30pm, and that night they had just started playing Oh Johnny, probably ten minutes later, when the glass ceiling of the club was shattered. The numbers of dead and injured vary, but most reports agree that over 30 people died and a further 60 or more were injured by the blast. Among the dead was Ken Johnson. An eyewitness recalls how he was found lying dead, but unmarked by any outward signs of injury, a flower still in his lapel. He was 26. The only other member of the band who was killed on that night was saxophonist David Williams. Ken’s funeral took place at Golders Green in north London and one year later his ashes were interred at his old school in Marlow.
Ken Johnson may not have been a great musician personally, but neither were Kay Kyser or Victor Silvester and it never held them back. But Ken had the gift of imparting his terrific enthusiasm for swing music to his band, and the combination of his ideas plus the ability of his arrangers to interpret them gave us those wonderful arrangements which placed the West Indians in a class of their own. The future looked so rosy for Ken and his boys. The West Indians were booked to make a nine days' personal appearance tour in Manchester and district for the Newton Lane Agency, and he was full of ideas for making it a huge success. He also secured a new recording contract which would have enabled him to give full scope to his plans for popularising swing music the way he loved it. And the crowning achievement of all his plans was to be the stage show he had planned in collaboration with his great friend, Buddy Bradley. This was to be a band show without equal, and it would have been sensational.
Ken may be gone, but his contribution, although it lasted only a few short years, will never be forgotten. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the Café de Paris, a Ken Johnson memorial concert was organised at his old school in Marlow. The event took place on 9th March 1991, and amongst the speakers were former schoolmate John Turk, band vocalist Don Johnson and guitarist Joe Deniz. Also performing that night were tap dancer Will Gaines, together with a band led by Rod Hamer. They played Exactly Like You, The Hucklebuck, Serenade In Blue, All Of Me and You Win. Subsequently, on May 6 1998, a blue plaque was unveiled at the school in Ken’s honour, and every year at the School Prize Day, there is an award made entitled The Ken "Snakehips" Johnson Prize for improvised music.
A Profile by BOB DEAL
The Starita brothers were three young Italian-Americans who made a big impact on the British dance band scene in the 1920s and the early 1930s. They were not difficult to tell apart- A1 wore a moustache and glasses, Rudy a moustache and Ray wore neither. Rudy, the eldest, was born in Naples two years before the family emigrated to the USA in 1902. In 1921 Rudy with his brothers formed a band which had a following, known as the 'Paul Whiteman of New England'. That was two years before Ray and A1 came to these shores in November 1923 to play with the Original Savoy Orpheans, an eleven-piece band directed by Dublin-born Debroy Somers. A1 played clarinet and alto and Ray clarinet and tenor. They were just two of a number of American dance band musicians making a living here thanks to the then liberal minded attitude of the Musicians' Union towards foreign players. The Savoy Orpheans and the Savoy Havana Band were the two highest paid orchestras contracted to EMI in the 1920s.
When Ray took a break in the States at the end of August 1925 the outfit had recorded no fewer than 284 titles, many of them with Carroll Gibbons at the piano and another American, Pete Mandell on banjo. A number of these recordings were made under the name of the Romaine Dance Orchestra and some as the Miami Syncopated Orchestra or the Albany Dance Orchestra. On his return a year later (!) Arthur Lally and future Piccadilly Hotel dance orchestra leader, Sydney Kyte, (on violin) had joined the band. Cyril Ramon Newton was directing with Norman Long as compere on some 78s. When he left the band Ray had cut another 47 sides. Ray returned with brother Rudy who had been playing in Mal Hallet's Band. He formed the Piccadilly Revels to play in the Piccadilly Hotel with Rudy busy on drums, vibraphone and xylophone. By February 1928 this eleven-piece outfit had recorded more than 100 titles, some with Ray Noble arrangements. A number were issued as the Raymond Dance Band and a couple as Ray Starita and His Ambassadors Band. Phil Cardew on reeds and violinist Eric Siday were nearly ever present throughout with American Eddie Grossbart on vocals. Ray also made a recording, I Left My Sugar Standing In The Rain, for the Dancing Championship Massed Bands concert, the other bands being Debroy Somers, the London Radio Dance Band and A1 Starita' s Kit-Cat Band , with (Bless Her Heart)
In March 1928 Ray took a seven-piece outfit into the Ambassadors Club, a three-piece brass section (initially Andy Richardson, Freddie Pitt (tpts) and Bill Hall on trombone) being added for recordings only. Rudy was in the line-up, as was bassist Arthur Calkin - for four and a half years, even recording for Ray after he had joined Harry Roy and his New Lyricals at the Bat Club in April 1931. In November 1928 the band took fifth place in the Melody Maker's Readers' Poll, Lew Stone's arrangements no doubt being much appreciated. As time passed the brass section was subject to many changes, those heard included Sylvester Ahola, Ted Heath, Lew Davis, Philippe Brun, Jack Raine and Leo Vauchant - some Jack Hylton influence here perhaps. The battery of vocalists included Betty Bolton, Pat 0' Malley, Sam Browne, Lou Abelardo and one side by Lily Morris, Truly Rural in 6/8 time! From May 1929 Phil Cardew made the arrangements, Lew Stone having become chief arranger for Bert Ambrose, resident at the May Fair Hotel. Changes in the personnel continued to be made; new faces were Harry Jacobson (p), Bert Wilton (tpt), Sid Buckman and Nat Gonella (tpts) plus vocalists Elsie Carlisle, Les Allen and Fred Douglas (Leslie's father). A note in Rust and Forbes states: "In November 1932 the Melody Maker reported that Ray Starita had not returned to the Ambassadors Club after a lengthy summer vacation ....Ray is now in America and his future movements are not known at all."
From this I conclude that he was not on the sessions of August to November when 48 tunes were recorded. It is likely that during this final period reedman Nat Star (who had a prolific recording outfit of his own for nearly eleven years) directed the band, certainly on the last three sessions. However, the output under Ray's direction amounted to 210 tunes. There was some speculation regarding his signature tune. He would open at the Ambassadors Club with Casabianca or Rudy Vallee and Charles Henderson's Deep Night. According to Rust and Forbes the former was written by Stanley Damerell, Robert Hargreaves and Tolchard Evans although Chris Hayes says Don Backy, Mariano Detto and Norman Newall. Chris favours Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's 1930 song Get Happy as the signature tune, which the band recorded with Nat Gonella featured on trumpet. Albert McCarthy's The Dance Band Era carries a photograph of Ray's Ambassadors Band showing Ray seated with his clarinet. However, the caption mistakenly states that it is Rudy's band whereas he is, in fact, shown standing behind his brother. It would appear that Ray Starita never returned from America where he became the owner of an amusement park until his death in 1967.
By May 1924 A1 Starita had left the Savoy Orpheans and in August cut four sides with saxist Herb Finney's The Finney Tribe, a quintet that included Billy Thorburn at the piano. Around this time Al joined the Metro-Gnomes, a group founded by the singer Ennis Parkes, who was (or was to be) Mrs Jack Hylton. The outfit, which included Ted Heath, 'Poggy' Pogson and Phil Cardew toured but never recorded. In June 1925 A1 took a twelve-piece band into the newly-opened Kit-Cat Club on behalf of Jack Hylton; among the personnel were Sid Bright, Hugo Rignold, Fred Hartley, Ted Heath and 'Poggy' Pogson. During the latter part of 1926 Al made some recordings with Percival Mackey's Band and then from December, when the Kit-Cat residency ended, until the following May, the name Jack Hylton's Hyltonians was used and by March 1928 over 160 titles had been recorded. During the last ten months of the band's existence Billy Ternent was on alto.
In April A1 moved into the Piccadilly Hotel with his Piccadilly Players - only George Smith (reeds) and Sid Bright (p) remained from his previous line-up. New men included Joe Brannelly and Bill Harty with no brass section at the hotel. For recordings Sylvester Ahola (tpt), Ben Oakley (tb) and Perley Breed were added. 90 numbers had been recorded by November 1929, with four vocals by Florence Oldham. Eddie Carroll (p) and Van Phillips (reeds) came in on a few sessions, Van also having his own band at the time while Lew Stone is known to have made the arrangements for six months. There were occasions when Rudy joined the band on vibes and xylophone. As to a signature Al would open at the hotel with Do Something by Bud Green and Sammy H. Stept; it was recorded by eight British bands but not by A1 who seems to have disappeared from the scene c.1930. Certainly there is no evidence of his playing with either Ray or Rudy in the 1930s, so presumably he returned to the USA where he became a newspaper editor and died there in 1963. Rudy Starita first recorded with his own group (personnel unknown) in July 1931 when he cut two sides under the name of Rudy Starita and his Marimba Players. It was not until December 1932 that he formed his actual band - why not before this we shall see later - a ten-piece, the personnel of which I have been unable to trace except for the singers, the excellent Elsie Carlisle and Sam Browne. Twenty five titles were recorded, the last in March 1933. He did have a signature tune, Just Another Dream Of You written in 1932 by Benny Davis and Joe Burke although he did not record it. Then for a brief period he played in an all-ladies band, (minus one, of course!) and he also made solo appearances with his vibraphone and xylophone on stage. In 1938 he played for Joe Loss and in 1942 he led The Starlites (personnel unknown) although he recorded with neither.
His recording output for other bands was indeed colossal. With Bert Firman and John Firman's orchestra, firstly under Bert's direction (with John or Cecil Norman on piano) and then under John's direction, he was on almost 1,000 sides between March 1926 and September 1932! Ronnie Munro had the benefit of his services on more than 160 numbers, on xylophone only on occasions, with Max Bacon on drums, this over a period of three and a half years in the second half of the 1920s. Six months for Jack Hylton in 1928 produced 76 titles. Shortly before his death Harry Hudson recalled that he always used Rudy or Wag Abbey on record. For Arthur Lally he featured most often on vibes and xylophone with Max or Bill Harty taking over on drums. Between January 1930 and November 1932 he was heard on 275 titles for Arthur Lally! Spanning six years he made numerous recordings for the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra under the direction of Carroll Gibbons and then Ray Noble. He also recorded 60 sides with Van Phillips Four Bright Sparks whose vocalists included Bobby Howes and Billy Milton. Between July 1940 and November 1942 - another prolific period - he could be heard with Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Orpheans plus Anne Lenner, Edna Kaye and Leslie Douglas to name but three very popular singers. There were small groups with whom he cut only a few sides; The Caberet Four and the Versatile Four, both in.1930; four titles for Len Fillis and his Novelty Orchestra, A1 Bowlly playing guitar; Carson Robison and his Pioneers in 1932 and Ginger Johnson and his Swinging Seven in 1933.
Post World War II Rudy had a photographic store in London until 1952, then returning to America where he lived in Florida and died there on 19th February 1978, aged 78. The three young brothers definitely lit-up the dance band world in Britain, the so much-in-demand Rudy more than his brothers, it could be said. In the words of Art Noel's war-time hit, as sung by Flanagan and Allen, what more can I say?
by Richard Ives
This is the first part in an occasional series of articles about the Dance Bands of the 1920's and 30's and the recordings which were issued commercially. I must state at the outset the choice of recordings is personal and in most cases culled from forty years of collecting, or in other cases performances which are known to be exceptional or contain playing of merit. Unfortunately, then, as now, the buying public was not always discernable enough and quite often, or indeed in the majority of cases, with some bands the recorded item is just routine and dull. It is hoped that in some instances you will disagree with my choice of material or you may know instances in which better examples exist - good. But if this, and future articles, prompt you to look further afield and widen your scope then I shall be pleased.
I am going to attempt something new for this and hopefully subsequent features, namely to give a value on the records, this will offer newcomers to the 78 collecting field a guide as to their worth. There are prices given after the record number e.g. 2/5 which will mean the first figure is the price one would expect to pay at a Record Fair, the other is the price the record might realise on an auction list. Obviously, this is a guide only and if the collector is determined to win the record at auction then the price could go many time higher. These prices are for an E or E- record, one that has been used but is without signs of much wear, and is free of major scratches. It must also be capable of playing without distortion. Other conditions must be taken into account and the prices adjusted accordingly.
Billy Cotton occupies a unique position in the recording field as being one of the longest recorded artists. He made his first record in London in July 1928 and he continued into the 1960's. He also made his first broadcast on radio in 1929 and his "Band Show" on television lasted for eleven years, everybody, who is over 50, must remember his introduction shouted out "Wakey Wakey"! This famous introduction started innocuously enough after the war when the Band had been on tour the night before and had to be at the BBC studio in London at 7 o'clock to rehearse for a broadcast later that day. When Cotton came in he found most of the Band asleep so he cried out "Wakey Wakey" and it stuck for the rest of his career. What is perhaps not so well known is his love of fast cars and he could often be seen at the Brooklands race track with his beloved E.R.A. gaining not a few awards. The serious side of motor racing began in 1935 with a Riley Nine, the next year he won a handicap race at Brooklands in a MG K3 Magnette, other wins followed and in 1937 he acquired an ERA which were out and out racing cars, and which he remained faithful for the next two years and gaining further trophies. His other love was flying having served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War 1. This became very useful as when the band got engagements around the country they were sent off to the destination by coach or train while their leader flew himself there! He later said that "Flying was my indulgence and my compensation". Something he probably needed to turn off from the busy lifestyle he led.
His recording career falls into three main categories, the early ones 1928 to 1929 were made for the Piccadilly Company and comprise of thirty-nine titles. From March 1930 he held a contract with Regal Records, a subsidiary of Columbia, producing twenty-six titles, subsequent to January 1931 until November, his output appears on Columbia afterwards reverting back to Regal where he stayed, producing hundreds of titles until he broke with EMI, as it had become, in November 1936 to a new contract with Rex where he stayed until after the war.
If we take the Piccadilly sides first, these appear as Bohemian Band on the label, the following are moderately good in terms of what can be regarded as reasonable performances.
Sunny Skies Piccadilly 108 1/4
That's My Weakness Now. voc.BC " 128 2/4
Ida Metropole 1122 Piccadilly 214 2/5
My Southern Home Metropole 1144 Piccadilly 287 1/4
Other than a brief sojourn at Decca (which produced two sides of little interest), Cotton's career jumped to March 1930 when he joined Columbia first appearing on their cheaper Regal label. In the intervening period the sound of the band got much tighter and the recognizable Cotton sound began to appear, although with almost the same personnel. Things changed however when Nat Gonella joined in August 1930, the Band became much brighter and with a more assured sound. This must be partly due at least to the superior recording facilities at Columbia records, Piccadilly was afterall a fairly cheap label and sometimes the recording left a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, Gonella was given precious little material to shine with. From this period the following will be found to be worth looking for:
Happy Feet Regal MR107 3/8
You Gotta Be Modernistic " MR127 3/8
That Rhythm Man " MR 157 3/10
You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me " MR 185 2/5
Bessie Couldn't Help It " MR 221 5/12
My Baby Just Cares For Me " MR 242 5/12
That Lindy Hop Columbia CB 237 5/12
I Lost My Girl from Memphis " CB 258 3/8
You Wouldn't " CB 297 3/8
It was at this point (May 1931) that Cotton lost his whole brass section, trumpets Sid Buckman, Nat Gonella, trombone Joe Ferrie, to Roy Fox and the subsequent sound is obviously different and as a compensation the size of the band was increased from 11 to 14 but somehow did not come up to the earlier sound. It also was the beginning of the development of the Show Band style which pervaded until the end of Billy Cotton's career. These few stand out:
Nobody's Sweetheart Regal MR 450 3/6
Heat Wave " MR 1423 1/3
The Man from Harlem Regal Zon MR 1501 1/3
Dinah " " MR 1945 1/3
After You've Gone " " MR 2028 1/3
Some of the later recordings on Rex carry on in the same style but their value would be lower.
Although his recording career only started in 1928 he actually fronted a band seriously for the first time in 1925 at the Southport Palais. At first Cotton led the band from the drums (that was his only instrument) but it was not long before a professional drummer was engaged! It was here that the group first put on a Band Show at a local cinema and as he said later "…..the experience ……changed my outlook. My thoughts became more and more concerned with presenting a band as sheer entertainment". This comment has to be borne in mind when evaluating his output because, like Jack Payne, Hylton, Teddy Brown and others, to these Show Bands the quality of the music became secondary to the entertainment value. To quote again "..I .. determined not to run a resident band anymore. I was all set for a stage career and from that time onwards Billy Cotton's Band became a touring unit" (1930). His attitude was honest and businesslike but the question has to be asked whether a band devoted to pure entertainment can develop as a first class musical outfit. Think of some of the other famous bands in the 1930's, people like Roy Fox, Lew Stone, Harry Roy and of course Ambrose who dedicated himself for perfection in performance. Billy Cotton could have attained equal status had he not branched out the way he did.
References: I Did It My Way - Billy Cotton Harrop 1970
British Dance Bands on Record - Brian Rust and Sandy Forbes
Gramophone Pub. 1989
It was Josephine Bradley’s good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, but to appreciate that properly it’s necessary to place her in the context of the changing times into which she was born. At the beginning of the last century the European dance tradition was replaced by new musical forms from America, each of which required a new dance pattern. The Charleston, the Lindy Hop and the Black Bottom turned out to be passing fancies, but other new styles, in particular the fox trot and the quickstep, were here to stay.
As a result, those fortunate few with the skill to teach dancing found a ready clientele for their services, not least amongst the aristocracy. It was the custom for debutantes to be presented at Buckingham Palace at the start of the season, following which they would appear at as many fashionable events as possible. This ritual enabled well-bred bachelors to serve a useful purpose by dancing attendance upon them. Introductions having been effected, society bands were on hand to supply the music, those expensive lessons could be put to good effect and the rest was left to nature! (Of course, it didn’t always work out as planned - one extremely eligible bachelor opted instead for an American divorcee, thereby sparking a constitutional crisis).
As the popularity of the new dances increased, lessons expanded beyond merely teaching the steps. Attention began to be given also to the way in which the dancers held themselves (and each other), and to the standard of their accoutrements. The famous cricketer C.B. Fry was a keen student of ballroom dancing, and he commented "It is not the quantity of movement that counts, but the quality". As a result of that formal approach ballroom dancing became a quite separate pastime, with regular competitions being staged to determine the best in class, and successful couples were able to derive a comfortable existence by giving exhibitions, or even starring in stage and screen musicals. (One such couple were Vernon and Irene Castle, who were immortalised, albeit posthumously in his case, in a 1939 RKO movie starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers).
Underscoring the difference was the music, because the dance bands of the twenties and thirties played with a syncopated rhythm, and often featured vocalists. Ballroom dancing on the other hand dispensed with the vocal refrain as an unnecessary distraction. What was essential was an unvarying beat, and one moreover at a speed which suited the dance rather than the tune – hence its designation of strict tempo. One dance band leader who managed to keep a foot firmly planted in both camps was Joe Loss, who from early 1937 used a small contingent from his main band to produce strict tempo records (helpfully designated as "Dancing Time For Dancers").
One of the pioneers of ballroom dancing was Santos Casani, who opened a school after the First World War, and became famous through a newspaper photograph of him dancing the Charleston with a "flapper" on the roof of a London taxi as it drove down Kingsway. In 1933 he opened his Casani Club in Regent Street, and engaged Charlie Kunz to provide the music. Four other teachers decided to meet the growing demand for strict-tempo records by supplying that commodity themselves. Victor Silvester, whose school was located in New Bond Street, began recording in August 1935. He was closely followed by Henry Jacques, who from July 1936 attended a number of recording sessions as adviser and lent his name to the products as a hallmark of their suitability. Maxwell Stewart began recording with his Ballroom Melody (which included such illustrious players as Freddy Gardner and George Chisholm) in July 1937.
The female member of the quartet is of course the subject of this article. She was born in Dublin on 24th March 1893, the youngest of eight children. Her father was a strict Roman Catholic, who abhorred dancing and the theatre, but he died when she was ten, and an older sister subsequently succumbed to tuberculosis. By then the family was living in London, and because it was feared that Josephine could be infected also they moved to Chorley Wood, at that time a rural village on the borders of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. She attended the local convent school, and was singled out for praise by the gym mistress after a class in deportment, but her school days ended prematurely. She had persuaded her mother to buy her a pair of brown lace-up boots, and when told by the Reverend Mother never to come to school in them again took her literally rather than revert to the regulation black. That gave early indication of her love of fashion, which was to be a major factor in her career.
In those days education was not compulsory, and being "mother’s pet" the baby of the family was able to convince her that she’d do better by staying at home. There she practised the piano, and acquired a degree of proficiency sufficient that when ballet lessons were organised for some local children her offer to provide the music was accepted with alacrity. The teacher, who had been engaged by a coterie of well-to-do families, was Hervet d’Egville, cousin of the celebrated ballet dancer Louis. Whilst playing she assimilated his technique, and when he went on holiday she stood in for him. She was so successful that the organiser persuaded Josephine’s mother to allow her to learn ballet dancing herself. After a year she took over the ballet classes, which numbered amongst the pupils Daphne and Angela du Maurier.
Josephine recognised the need to continue with her own training, and selected Madame Vandyck from a copy of The Dancing Times for that purpose. It is telling that she picked out her teacher-to-be by virtue of her immaculate appearance, which reflected her own philosophy that standards of dress were important. Her new regime involved catching the steam locomotive to London every day, but after about six months that schedule became too wearing. Josephine therefore handed over her classes, which she had expanded meantime into the neighbouring districts of Rickmansworth and the Chalfonts, to a fellow student and moved to London.
She stayed at the Three Arts Club in Nottingham Place, near Madame Tussaud’s, a cultural institution where young ladies of artistic ability could rent rooms according to their means. Thus she found herself in the company of the young Binnie Hale, Gwen Frangçon-Davies and Dodie Smith. This was during the latter part of the First World War, and the girls were much in demand to accompany men friends home on leave. Josephine began to get a taste for night life, and the vibrant music that accompanied it, and perhaps as a result her classical ballet lessons began to pall. According to her own account, in her 1947 autobiography Dancing Through Life, there was another studio in the same building which other members of the class used to visit. One day she joined them and got her first glimpse of the foxtrot being danced, as a result of which she never returned to her ballet lessons!
Just to digress, the rudiments of the foxtrot originated with the vaudeville actor Harry Fox. In May 1914 he was appearing between shows at the New York Theatre, which had been converted into a movie house. At the same time, the Dolly Sisters were featuring in a nightly revue on the rooftop Palais de Danse. One of his routines consisted of a series of trotting steps around the stage, probably to a ragtime rhythm, in a manner that became known as "Fox’s Trot". It’s not clear whether he danced it on his own or with Jenny Dolly, to whom he was married, but it created something of a sensation. The American Society of Professors of Dancing recognised the new dance, and the teacher Oscar Duryea smoothed out the steps into a gliding movement of two slow walks and four quick trots, which corresponded with two bars played in 4/4 rhythm, and was more accessible to the general public.
The new step was brought to England by the famous Canadian dancer G.K. Anderson. He and Josephine Bradley met at Murray’s Club, in Beak Street, Soho in the early 1920s, and began a celebrated partnership, becoming World Foxtrot Champions in 1924. That same year the Imperial Society Of Teachers of Dancing formed a Ballroom Branch, and Josephine Bradley was one of the select few invited to formulate the basic techniques of waltz, foxtrot, tango and quickstep. She was already giving lessons in the ballroom of the Knightsbridge Hotel, and moved to nearby Basil Street in the late 1920s. She formed a new partnership, both professional and personal, with Douglas Wellesley-Smith, and they married in 1927. It was a perfect match, but lasted only four years, because he died at the age of 35. It took some time for Josephine to recover from her loss, and it no doubt helped that she found a sympathetic new dancing partner in the person of Frank Ford. By the late thirties her school was located in Grosvenor Place, just over the garden fence from Buckingham Palace.
She participated in the 1937 British film Let’s Make A Night Of It, which contained the first sequence featuring a formation dance. In it she and Frank Ford, together with Victor Silvester and his wife and two other couples, danced to the music of Jack Jackson and his band. In March of that year she made her first foray into Decca’s recording studio, and between then and October 1945 over 200 sides were recorded. Personnel varied according to who was available, and details of the line-up are at best sketchy and in the case of most sessions non-existent. That was broken by a brief stint with Columbia in the first part of 1940, when her Ballroom Orchestra was restyled as her Strict Tempo Dance Orchestra, and Geraldo directed the proceedings. Probably because of the hostilities, no further recordings were made until the beginning of 1943, when Josephine re-entered the Decca studios.
In November 1943 a rather exceptional recording session took place, the four sides from which were issued as by Josephine Bradley and her Jive Rhythm Orchestra. That aggregation included Chick Smith and Kenny Baker on trumpet, Jock Bain on trombone, Nat Temple on clarinet, Pat Dodd on piano, Ivor Mairants on guitar and Carlo Krahmer on drums. It’s interesting to note that this took place just three days after the first recording session by Victor Silvester’s Jive Band. Ironically, these departures from the norm were prompted yet again by the New World, from whence came the massive influx of G.I.’s consequent upon America’s entry into the Second World War.
That session was no mere gimmick, but typical of Josephine’s lively interest in all forms of dancing. To quote from a subsequent profile "When Jive took hold, there was Jo, diving into an Oxford Street Club, watching, dancing and eventually shaping what she saw into something teachable. Now the undauntable (sic) lady is having a go at Rock ‘n’ Roll!" After the war she found new premises in Clareville Street off Brompton Road, where she established a monthly venue for the cream of the profession. She was renowned for her outstanding ability to analyse movement, and became known as the First Lady of the Ballroom. Always immaculately dressed, she was a strict arbiter of acceptable standards, and abhorred dresses shaped like tents, as she described those made of layered net. Fortunately for the viewing figures of the subsequent BBC television programme Come Dancing, that view did not prevail!
Whilst not the only factor, the Second World War certainly contributed to the demise of the dance band era, but people still wanted to dance, and Josephine continued to meet that demand. She died in 1985, and has been commemorated by the Josephine Bradley award, for which contestants must perform eight dances, four ballroom and four Latin-American. That is a fitting tribute to someone who played such a major role in laying the foundations of modern ballroom dancing.
NOTE: Adapted from my liner notes for Vocalion CDEA 6099 Josephine Bradley & her Ballroom Orchestra – Dancing In The Dark.
A Profile by Jimmy Brown
Billed as the Smiling Voice of Radio, musician, entertainer and agent, George Elrick was 95 when he died in a London nursing home.
Born in Aberdeen the eldest of a family of nine, George dreamed of becoming a surgeon and even won a bursary to Robert Gordon’s College but lack of funds forced him to leave school and take a job as a traveller in stationery and fancy goods. In his spare time he played drums in local dance bands and after winning the best drummer award in the All-Scottish Dance Band Championship for 1929 he went professional to take a band into Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom.
Then in 1931 he left Aberdeen to seek fame and fortune in London. Initially he found it difficult to break into London’s clique of highly skilled session musicians but he got his first break when he was engaged as second percussionist to Max Bacon in Ambrose’s orchestra for a nationwide tour. Next Henry Hall signed him as drummer and featured vocalist in his BBC Dance Orchestra. Broadcasting nightly at 5.15 pm, George Elrick’s happy voice soon turned him into a household name, with such chart-toppers of the day as The Music Goes Round And Round.
He left Henry Hall in 1937 to lead his own band round the ballrooms and music halls of Britain and was a regular visitor to Glasgow in those days, playing in the Dennistoun Palais, Barrowland and Green’s Playhouse Ballroom, where he was billed as "Mrs Elrick’s Wee Son George." He was appearing at Dennistoun Palais in 1940 when the BBC started their Music While You Work programmes. He secured a broadcast from the BBC’s Glasgow studios and the band was all set, with just minutes to go, when the producer suddenly asked: "What about the sig tune?" There was a bit of a panic at this since no one had told them about the sig tune and they had no parts.
Piano player John McCormack and trumpeter Duncan Whyte were the only ones who thought they knew the tune so they went on the air busking the sig tune on trumpet and piano for a few bars before launching into their programme. John McCormack suspects that the producer did not like George Elrick and deliberately dropped him in it. The Elrick piano chair was John McCormack’s first full time pro job, although he went on to play with many of the other bandleaders of the day such as Lew Stone and Carl Barriteau. Son of Glasgow accordionist and music shop proprietor, Neilly McCormack, John was only eighteen at the time and before he left home he had been sternly warned by his dad against the hazards of band touring such as predatory groupies and excessive drinking.
George Elrick was already tiring of the stresses of bandleading in wartime and when he suddenly gave the band notice to quit, siting their drinking habits as his reason, John was naturally concerned about what his dad would say, particularly since he was still a tee-totaller at the time. John complained to Elrick about this unjustified slur on his character and George withdrew his notice just as suddenly.
Competent musicians willing to tour in wartime were scarce and when fourteen-year-old Edinburgh trumpet player Freddy Clayton applied for an audition in 1942 Elrick decided to hear him despite his youth. The band was resident in Glasgow’s Green’s Playhouse at the time and when young Freddy turned up George broke out a new orchestration just up from London. But unknown to him Freddy had already been playing this particular piece for a fortnight in his brother’s band in Edinburgh so he sailed through his test and was duly signed up to start a career that took him onwards and upwards through the Lew Stone and Geraldo bands to become a star session man in the London studios. Freddy told me that when he joined Elrick he was approached by the Playhouse’s legendary bouncer, Big Adam, who put the bite on him for the price of a drink. Fred coughed up to the extent of five bob (25p), quite a sum in 1942, and Big Adam was touched at this generosity. The rest of the band were spilling out of the hall at the time and Big Adam nodded over to them, asking Freddy: "Any of them you want thumped?" Young Clayton hastened to assure Big Adam that no such action would be necessary, while thanking him for the kind offer which he said he would bear in mind.
George Elrick signed a record contract with EMI and enjoyed reasonable success with his band, grooming such promising musicians as trumpeter Archie Craig and sax man Harry Lewis, both of whom later became featured players with the famous wartime Number One RAF Dance Orchestra, "The Squadronairs." But the rigours of wartime touring eventually forced George to give up bandleading and he became an agent for such as Mantovani of Charmaine fame. He still retained some links with the entertainment world, however, appearing as a disc jockey on programmes such as the very popular Housewives Choice where he accidentally coined one of the very first gimmicks one day when he hummed along with the going out music at the end of the broadcast. He thought he was humming to himself but his mike had been left open by mistake and his cheerful chortling went out over the air. Listeners’ reaction was so favourable that he had to keep the gimmick in his act for the rest of his time on Housewives Choice.
Always very active in the show business charity organisation, The Water Rats, George Elrick was in line for the award of the OBE in recognition of this when he died. His wife, Alice, a former model, died in 1992 at the age of 82 while their only child, Ian, was tragically killed in an accident in 1954 at the age of 20. He was survived by his sisters, Peggy, who lives in Aberdeen, Winnie of Montrose and Bessie of Plymouth.
Parker In The Swing - Buddy Rich
by Tony Parker
For someone who decided to take up playing the drums at the tender age of two years old, Bernard "Buddy" Rich did very nicely on his way to becoming universally accepted as the best swing drummer of all time. His status was not only accepted by everyone in the world of big-band music, but by Rich himself: modesty never was one of Buddy's strong points!
Which, perhaps, goes a long way in explaining why he nearly always wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, "I'm the Boss That's Why". But the "Boss" he most certainly was, in many senses of the word. He was the man who, at the age of 69, shook off the traumas of open-heart surgery and was back flailing drumsticks and rhythm brushes and driving his swinging band forward on a concert tour of Britain within weeks of leaving hospital.
He was the boss of an instrument which he played with consummate skills and demoniac energy, and of course he was the boss of those who worked for him before he died in April, 1987. As the message on his T-shirt suggested, Buddy Rich was not a man to hide his light under a bushel. His fame did not come about overnight so there was no need for him to adopt airs and graces.
Born in New York, in September, 1917, he appeared on stage at the age of two in his parents' vaudeville act, playing the drums and tap-dancing. In 1937 he joined Joe Marsala's band, and then played briefly with Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Artie Shaw and Benny Carter, before moving on for a three-year stint with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
Rich's career, of note, began when he left the US Marines in 1944 and rejoined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Later he was to become an integral part of impressario Norman Granz's Jazz At the Philharmonic packages, playing in the illustrious company of such jazz giants as Dizzy Gillespie, Barney Kessel, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, before forming his own big swing band in 1966.
But Buddy Rich's appeal was not just confined to the swing purist, it crossed many boundaries and touched even the most unlikely of audiences. To exemplify this, who will ever forget his enthralling display of drumnastics in front of HM the Queen, in the 1963 Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium? All this at a time when Britain was in the grip of rock and roll and Beatlemania, and the Mersey Sound was at its peak.
With the passing of time Rich was to adopt a no-nonsense philosophy, a virtue that was to become his trademark: some even regarded it as a gimmick. But not all were able to understand it - some weren't even able to get to grips with it, let alone accept. Like a couple of rather naive and wet-behind-the-ears reporters who crossed his path and found, at no small cost to their pride, that Buddy Rich was no pussy cat and definitely not the easiest of subjects to interview.
After a 1987 concert in Stockport, I was privvy to be invited into Rich's dressing room, along with these colleagues, when one of them asked why it was that he took up the drums at such an early age, Rich impatiently retorted: 'Because I was p….. off with office life'. Not surprisingly, Buddy's response did not appear in that particular reporter's newspaper!
It was obvious that neither hack had done his homework, as the other newsman stuck his neck out also, asking why Rich didn't smile and show his teeth more on stage. The reply was pure Rich vitriol, and was almost rammed down the unfortunate chap's throat: 'Tell me, son, did you come here tonight to watch me smile and show my teeth, or did you come to hear me play the drums?' My colleague's 'No comment' dignified the question.
But journalists, thankfully, weren't the only ones with whom he had a beef. There was no doubt that Buddy Rich led his band by example. When you consider his triumph over his heart condition it should surely come as no surprise to learn that he was not at all sympathetic with musicians who pleaded illness as an excuse for a poor performance. He was once quoted as saying to an ailing sideman: 'The public pay to see you play at your best, not to see you ill'. He was sent packing, picking up his P45 along the way. If necessary, even members of his audience came in for a bit of stick if, in Buddy's eyes, they warranted it.
There was the occasion when the late British actor John Le Mesurier (Sergeant Wilson of Dad's Army) arrived late, with a lady friend, at one of Buddy's concerts at London's Royal Festival Hall. Buddy fixed the lady with a riveting stare and grittingly inquired: 'Is that man with you?... He is?... Well, never trust a man who is late for a concert!' Le Mesurier didn't have to be an actor to know that he had been put on the spot by a very hard nut.
Buddy Rich was the driving force behind a band which was described by many as the most exciting outfit since the days of Stan Kenton. Although lacking the decibel-shattering force of Kenton, Buddy's band, with its controlled aggression, was certainly capable of making the Richter scale nervous on quite a few occasions. Aficionados who attended his many regular British concerts over the years will never quite be able to erase from their memories Buddy's treatments of, among other great numbers, Love For Sale Norwegian Wood and his famous show-stopping arrangement of West Side Story.
The Buddy Rich Band will no doubt continue in the same tradition as many others have done following the death of their leader. There are certain to be personnel changes, but the music and the arrangements will live on as before. Yet the absence of this particular band's supremo will leave a gap as wide as the Grand Canyon. True, the band will have an excellent drummer to drive it along (it will need to), but where in the world is there likely to be such a skilled percussive mechanic as Buddy Rich was? The two-fold answer is: there isn't, and there never will be.
Buddy Rich really was the Boss, that's why.
A profile of Billy Ternent by Johnny Howes
Happily we can still listen "live" to the music of Glenn Miller, Joe Loss and Syd Lawrence, played by follow-on and tribute bands faithfully recalling their distinctive orchestrations and presentations.
I have often wondered why there has never been similar musical recognition, and no band touring the halls today, of one whose style, without doubt, was as instantly recognizable of that of, say, Billy May, George Melachrino and James Last. I refer to the unmistakable, She’s-my-Lovely-sound of Billy Ternent, one of our top British postwar broadcasting orchestras.
Imagine my delight, therefore, when fingering through the nostalgia section of my local chain record shop – which mercifully is located on the more restful classical upper floor of the store – I came across a "must-have" CD of Billy Ternent (Empress RAJCD 913) presenting 25 titles and starring his regular vocalists of the 40s and 50s: Sid Buckman, Ken Beaumont, Eva Beynon and Don Emsley. Listening to tracks new to me sent me scurrying to dig out those other Ternent discs in my collection – all 33 1/3 vinyl LPs recorded in the early 1970s.
If there was one music tempo in which Billy Ternent excelled it was the slow foxtrot: Sunday, Monday or Always, I Wonder Why?, The Object Of My Affection, which featured four muted trumpets playing staccato to brilliant effect. And in the quicker You Forgot To Remember his saxes showed they could do the same.
Another typical Ternent touch came in numbers such as I’ll See You In My Dreams, where all the instruments play the melody in unison with just the piano providing counter-melody and variations. Then there is You’re My Everything where the orchestra swells up into full melody crescendo and a Miller-blend front line features in Dream A Little Dream Of You.
But for one number bringing together pretty well all the Ternent hallmarks: wow-wow bowler-hatted trombones, solo left-hand piano, front line melody, full orchestra, staccato, in unison, you have to listen to his wonderful arrangement of I Left My Heart In San Francisco.
A Geordie from Tyneside, Billy Ternent was born in 1899 and had a musical career spanning 65 years until his death in 1977. He began with the violin at the age of seven and at twelve was engaged to play in a picture-house trio accompanying silent films. Four years later, at the tender age of 16, he was an orchestra conductor. Such was his enthusiasm that before long he was able to play every instrument in the orchestra.
It was in 1927, after a spell in London Piccadilly’s Kit-Cat Club, that Bill began a twelve-year association with Jack Hylton as arranger, pianist and impromptu performer in any section of the orchestra where there was an empty chair. That all ended in 1939, not directly because of the outbreak of war, but to take up the position of MD of the BBC Dance Orchestra. This meant not only radio dance music but also on-stage band work for the many variety shows going out on the air at the time - among them, ITMA, for which he had written the famous It’s That Man Again signature tune.
The Ternent sound was developing and in 1940, when American bandleader Hal Kemp died, Billy adopted his brass section triple-tonguing, which had long fascinated him. From time to time the sounds of Russ Morgan and Carmen Cavallero also came through.
When the bombs of the London Blitz began to rain down the BBC sent their staff dance orchestra off to their studios in Bristol. During this period Bill suffered a bout of ill health and in 1944 resigned from the BBC. But he was soon back, formed a new orchestra and went on tour.
During the war the BBC launched a Sunday evening smash-hit programme billed as "bringing the people of variety to a variety of people" – Variety Bandbox. It was a fast-moving show with a high comedy content and from the start enjoyed tip-top big band accompaniment: John Blore & his Dance Orchestra, Charles Shadwell & the BBC Variety Orchestra, Eric Winstone, the BBC Revue Orchestra under Frank Cantell. One of the indelible memories of my youth is of collecting a girl friend of those late 40s-early 50s days, climbing aboard the top deck of a London tram in the Kingsway subway and riding off across the Thames bound for the Camberwell Palace to see live radio on-stage transmissions featuring, yes, the legendary Billy Ternent Orchestra.
Variety Bandbox gave audience and radio airing to an abundance of newcomers, with a series of resident comedians on a rota system to provide a finale to the show: Albert Modley, Reg Dixon, Derek Toy and Frankie Howerd among them, for whom Bill would be feed or stooge to their jokes from his stand in the orchestra pit.
It was around this time, 1949, that I met the man himself. I was working in the divisional headquarters of the newly formed British Railways at Crewe, in a department devoted to arranging complimentary group reservations for school parties, cricket and bowls clubs, football teams, film and theatre personalities … and orchestras, both dance and classical. Everyone travelled by train in those days.
Since most of my famous passengers passed through Crewe I would pop down to their train to check that all was to their satisfaction – and to collect the odd autograph or two. I remember finding Bill’s compartment empty then saw him bustling along the corridor towards me. I introduced myself and in his bluff Tyneside manner, yet with a wry smile across his face, he mildly reproached me for having given him a first-class compartment to himself while "the boys" were all together in four third-class compartments in the next carriage.
"It’s a hell of a way for me to have to keep walking up and down to see what they’re up to," he grinned.
His orchestra certainly had style and … and strict tempo. In addition to the beautiful blend of his arrangements he had a way of stringing together a trio of tunes which glided from one to the next as if they had been written that way from the very start: It’s The Natural Thing To Do/ I’ve Got A Pocketful Of Dreams/ One-Two Button Your Shoe and Don’t Blame Me/ Hold Me/ Try A Little Tenderness.
Billy Ternant died just 26 years ago, having not long before cut a number of LPs. While no tribute bands appear to have attempted to replicate his exquisite, smooth, distinctive sound, there is a least one CD of today to which one can sit back, relax and rightly apply the epithet, "She’s My Lovely".
By Tony Parker
In the annals of big-band history, there can't be a single buff anywhere who would dare to dispute Ted Heath's claim to having fronted Britain's greatest-ever, swing band (arguably the world), although there have been a great many outfits since then who have laid a claim to this very same title.
The only difference is that when it comes to scrutinising their CVs, a majority of those bands can, with due respect, at best be described as also-rans. Because in essence there has never been a band so unique, so polished, so professional and so popular as that of Ted Heath's. Furthermore, the truth of the matter is that there never will be again.
Ted Heath, was born on March 30, 1900, in Wandsworth, London, and by the age of 10 he won a prize for playing tenor horn in a brass band concert. His father was the leader of the Wandsworth Borough Band. He switched to trombone when he was in his early teens and, later, frequently had to play as a street musician due to lack of work.
While busking in London's West End, he was discovered and signed up by Jack Hylton, with whom he played until 1927. He then joined Bert Ambrose and stayed with his band until he was sacked in 1935. With some unstinting guidance from the gentlemanly Sidney Lipton, Ted joined the ranks of Geraldo. It's open to speculation whether the virtues and good habits of his new employer eventually rubbed off onto Ted, and influenced his own modus operandi as a band leader later on.
As time passed by while he was playing with Geraldo, Ted Heath's dream of fronting his own band had become visionary. He even had the layout of his own outfit firmly implanted in his mind. He wanted eight brass and five saxes, plus rhythm, which was on a par with the bands of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. Ted left Geraldo in 1944 to fulfil his dream, with the parting words of his employer, 'You'll regret it,' ringing in his ears.
At first, leading his own band was nothing short of a struggle, and expensive. However, with wife Moira, the two made the whole thing financially possible. Moira, an excellent lyricist, penned the words to two numbers which Ted had written: That Lovely Weekend and I'm Gonna Love That Guy. The result was two hit records, and the royalties provided the necessary finance for the band.
In many ways Ted, when selecting his choice of personnel for the band, acted very much like the modern-day soccer manager. He knew the players (and arrangers) he wanted, and he went about recruiting them. This was all part and parcel of his master plan to create the best swing band that this country had ever seen, and one that would be up there challenging the Stateside outfits in the top league.
Among his acquisitions were people like Jack Parnell, Ronnie Scott, Kenny Baker, Don Rendell, Les Gilbert, Reg Owen, Dave Shand and Tommy Whittle. Three years after forming his band, and thanks to Jack Parnell's influence over his uncle, Val Parnell, the famous impresario, the band embarked on a monumental milestone when the Sunday Night Swing Sessions began at the famous London Palladium. Every fortnightly session became a sold-out affair, they ran to well over 100 concerts and since then they have become a memorable part of British big-band folklore.
Greatly encouraged as he was with the success of those Sunday Swing Sessions, it was to America that Ted Heath wanted to take his particular sound, so that he could challenge the Stateside giants in their own backyard. However, there were complications on this issue.
Due to a long-standing and bitter wrangle between the American Federation of Musicians and the English Musicians' Union, which dated back to 1935, American bands, apart from visits to USAF bases in this country, were never allowed to play concerts. In turn, the British outfits were also never allowed to tour the States.
It was not until a reciprocal agreement was worked out in 1956 that the whole grievance was resolved. Ted made no secret of wanting to take his band to America, and so, after behind-thescenes negotiations which involved Ted, the unions and Stan Kenton, the unions backed down and agreed to a Kenton-Heath exchange. The unions' bitter dispute was at last over, and the ban was once and for all laid to rest.
Stan Kenton came to Britain and wowed the big-band fraternity. But then Ted Heath didn't do too badly touring the States either! Many will remember that his was the first British band to play at New York's famous Carnegie Hall, where first, Ronnie Verrell, with Kings Cross Climax, and then Bobby Pratt and Bert Ezzard playing Memories of You, not only brought the house down but the partisan audience to its feet.
It is well documented that at this stage tears were very visibly running down Ted Heath's cheeks. He had reached the pinnacle of his career - his golden goal. After that there were more US visits for him and his musicians in exchange for the bands of Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman and Count Basie.
With such a band of high-quality musicians in his employ over the years, it therefore comes as no surprise that over a period of time many an anecdote should leak from within the Heath camp many of which were attributed to the leader himself.
Back in 1993, when I wrote the Ted Heath biography, The Greatest Swing Band in the World, I was privy to many such tales from people like Don Lusher, Ronnie Verrell, Stan Roderick, Kenny Baker, Ken Kiddier, Duncan Campbell and Dennis Lotis. All told me stories of what life was like working for Ted - some were printable, while others were not!
One such incident helped to underline just how acute Ted's uncanny ear for perfection was when it came to his band's delivery - especially on solos - and there were a great many examples which were relevant to him being labelled the ultimate professional, as well as being a strict disciplinarian.
To this end, and if any of his musicians fell foul of his requirements, Ted would call them 'Mate' - but not, however, in any way as a term of endearment. To illustrate this, perhaps the most famous story surrounded trumpeter Ronnie Hughes.
It is, of course, common knowledge that on the original hit recording of Hot Toddy, it was Ronnie who played the muted solo halfway through the record. However, at one particular concert when the number was played, and not too long after the record had reached a high spot in the charts, Ronnie stepped down from the trumpet section to perform his solo.
The only thing was that it was somewhat different to that on the record. It took Ted about 10 seconds to spot the difference. During the interval Ted took Ronnie to one side and pointed this out to him by reminding him that Hot Toddy was a hit record, and informed him that the solo should be consistent with the one on the disc.
Ronnie, truthfully, told Ted that during the recording session he had in fact improvised and made the solo up as he went along. He explained the difference by saying that he could not remember the exact original chord sequence, and therefore he had not made any notes. Upon hearing this, Ted, in typical 'Mate'-like fashion, replied: 'Well you'll just have to go out and buy the bloody record, won't you?'
After a long illness, Ted Heath died in November, 1969. Although his music, and his band, lived on under the direction of Don Lusher, until December, 2000, it proved to be the end of a very special, exceptional and exciting era - the likes of which will never again be repeated.
A profile by Rod Holcombe
Born in the University City of Bangor, North Wales in January 1912, he was educated locally and his school report at the age of 13 indicated that he was a diligent pupil and "a born musician". He had since the age of 10 played in a local brass band, but later took up the saxophone and won the All Wales championship on this instrument. He then took up the clarinet which was to become his favourite instrument. By day he was now working at the University in Bangor as a scientific instruments maker, and by contemporary accounts was considered adept at that too.
However, the call of music was too strong for him, especially the new "swing" style, and after playing in a band at Llandudno he left Wales to play in several dance bands in the London area, such as George Colborn, Neville Bishop, Percival Mackey and Oscar Grosso. This led eventually to his becoming a member of the Jackdauz vocal group (trio with George Crow, and Miff Ferrie) on BBC Band Wagon which starred Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch. After playing both at home and mainland Europe with increasing success he was asked to form a trio to play at London’s "Coconut Grove" nightspot. Other members of the trio were George Shearing on piano and Ben Edwards on drums. Such was the success of the group that was now a dedicated swing style unit, that they were engaged at the St Regis Hotel, and were augmented to a quintet, (the St Regis Quintet), with trumpet, clarinet, piano, bass and drums.
It was here that they were heard by Charles Chilton BBC producer, who realised that here was a group with the right potential for his Radio Rhythm Club, which was to play swing music on the BBC Forces Network and later the BBC Light Programme. The group was changed slightly to mirror the Benny Goodman sextet in instrumentation (clarinet, vibes, piano, bass, guitar and drums) and when they started their recording career with Parlophone there was a not dissimilar sound. The Parry Radio Rhythm Club sextet had the distinction of being the first English group to be issued on Parlophone’s "Super Rhythm Style Series" and between the first recordings in January 1941 until October 1949, 96 sides were issued for this label. The "century" was made up by All Star groups for HMV (First English Public Jam Session in 1941), Columbia (Columbia/Melody Maker Jazz Rally in 1947) and Decca (Melody Maker Competition Band in 1942).
Harry’s relationship with BBC’s Radio Rhythm Club developed further a year later, when he took on the rôle of presenter and producer as well as being featured with his group, and other British jazz musicians. This continued for 2 years, until Charles Chilton returned from the RAF. On the domestic London scene the blitz was at its height and the St Regis Hotel was destroyed putting a sudden end to the St Regis Quintet. Even worse was the bombing in 1941 of the Café de Paris when 60 people were killed including the Guyanese bandleader Ken "Snakehips" Johnson and two of his musicians. Parry was more than keen to employ some of the survivors in his own group, such as trumpeter Dave Wilkins, Joe Deniz (gtr), Tommy Bromley (bass) and Yorke de Sousa (piano) and all benefited as a result.
In 1942 Harry Parry was voted top clarinet in the Melody Maker poll, above Carl Barriteau. In 1944 the Parry Sextet was voted top small group, whilst he was voted third favourite soloist beneath George Chisholm and Carl Barriteau, and second in the clarinet category, this time below Carl Barriteau. Although he continued to rate as a clarinettist and bandleader in the Melody Maker polls for several years he never regained his 1942 peak of fame. The BBC needed a host for their new Jazz Club programme in 1947, which was produced by Mark White, and gave Parry the job. Parlophone retained him as a recording artist until 1950.
Harry Parry had other talents as a broadcaster, and became quite well known by the late 1940s as a disc jockey on Housewife’s Choice, and Radio Luxembourg, and also as a solo artist on stage shows such as the 1952 package in which he toured with the Goons, playing the clarinet, singing and even telling a few jokes. He appeared on television in 1955 with a small group on Crackerjack programme.
There seem to be a number of possible reasons why his musical career took a downturn with the end of the War. Firstly, there was the changing taste in music. Vocalists were in the ascendant and dance bands were secondary to them. These were years when the bop influence was present, but before the "trad" revival really got under way. This left Parry slightly uncomfortably in the middle, for he fitted in with neither extreme. He did employ arrangers to give a modern flavour to his group’s material e.g. China Boy, Memories of You. His niche had been the Goodman style small groups of the early 40s, and although changes of instrumentation led to an overall change in the sound of his group, it was still essentially a small group relying heavily on quite intricate arrangements, with spaces left for soloists
In wartime London, musically at any rate, he had the fortune to be in the right place at the right time. He had the best of musicians to play with him such as George Shearing, Dave Wilkins, Reg Dare, Kenny Baker, and George Chisholm, and the public was hungry for his version of swing music. A few years later, he was surrounded by players who had moved on musically, and Parry must have been aware of the gulf between his playing and the abilities of his musicians. Also players of the calibre of George Shearing and Dave Wilkins were no longer available to him.
In these years the Melody Maker was very influential with its reviews of jazz records. The regular critic Edgar Jackson was not always kind to Parry, and once or twice unreasonably harsh, which may have directly affected record sales, and public attitudes. This cannot have done much to help an already struggling Parry. Additionally his health was not good, reflecting the stresses and associated irregular lifestyle associated with touring and playing nationwide.
His last record to be issued was recorded in 1949, and was his sextet augmented to an octet. The arrangements were by Steve Race, then a trail blazing modernist, with the respected pianist Dill Jones, and trombonist Harry Roche. A young Joe Temperley was on tenor, and the singer (Dorothee Baronne) was used instrumentally à la Ellington on I’ve Got You Under My Skin and Blue Acara. His last recording session was the next year but nothing was issued from the session.
In 1952 he made the decision to take a small group (including his wife Jean Bradbury as vocalist), for a year’s tour in India. This must have further removed his name from the public domain as far as the UK was concerned. On his return he did some more radio work, and had a spell playing in holiday camps.
He was said to be working on a new sound, but unfortunately it was not to be, for he was found dead in his London home on October 1956 following a heart attack. He was aged only 44.
What of his musical legacy to us? Little of his musical output exists on CD. Empress (Gone with the Wind RAJCD 840) and Tring (GRF 209 Radio Rhythm Club) both cover the earlier recordings. There are other CDs with one or two Parry tracks (e.g. Proper Box) but overall his recordings are neglected, as recent correspondence in Jazz Journal will testify. He was featured in four or five films made in about 1943 such as Pathé pictorials, Swing-o-Nometry" and even had an acting rôle What Do We Do Now in 1945 with Edmundo Ros and Gloria Brent.
He composed several tunes such as Parry Opus (which was also published as a clarinet/piano piece for aspiring clarinettists), Plink Plonk, Potomac Jump and his signature tune Champagne. Although he is largely overlooked these days, he played a pivotal rôle in the development of British Jazz in the war years, bringing it to the notice of a wider public via his many broadcasts, and performances. His early death may have deprived us of much in the middle ground of music.
Acknowledgements and further sources of information
Harry Parry bio/discography by Tony Middleton (1995).
Archives Department University of Wales, Bangor
National Sound Archive, The British Library, London
National Jazz Foundation Archive, Essex County Council Libraries
Person communications Bert Booth, Peter Powell, Louis Donaldson
Recalled by Jimmy Brown
Jimmy Miller first came to public notice in his early teens as accompanist to his violinist brother, Willie, in Harry Gordon’s shows at Aberdeen’s Beach Pavilion. They secured a broadcast in Children’s Hour and when impresario Jack Hylton heard this he immediately booked them for his London show, Life Begins at Oxford Circus.
Next they went on tour with Mrs Jack Hylton’s Band with Willie in the string section and Jimmy playing piano and handling the vocals. Willie went on to become one of London’s top session musicians while Jimmy continued on the variety halls as a member of the all-star Ambrose Octet alongside such luminaries as Vera Lynn and Max Bacon.
At the start of the Second World War the Royal Air Force was the youngest of the three services and possibly because of this it had the most enlightened attitude to dance music - the pop music of it’s day.
Director of Music Wing Commander R.P. O’Donnell, MVO, let it be known that if dance band musicians of military age were to volunteer to join the RAF he would see to it that they were formed into five-piece units to entertain at the various RAF stations up and down the country. Set apart from the hundreds who joined in this way were the thirteen selected to become the RAF’s Number One Dance Orchestra - The Squadronairs. The largest number to come from any one big-time band were the eight who joined up with Jimmy Miller from the Ambrose Orchestra - at that time generally acknowledged as the best in the land. They were the cream of their profession and no civilian bandleader of the day could have afforded the salaries necessary to keep them together.
"But the RAF got us for five bob a day," Jimmy recalled with a grin when we spoke about those days. Apart from his musical ability, Jimmy had talent as a personable singer and the rest of the band voted him leader, although he was only a Leading Aircraftman at the time - the lowest of the low. Legend has it that he was promoted sergeant after some RAF top brass heard him rehearsing the band and giving directions to lead trumpet Tommy McQuater, who was a corporal, but Jimmy’s own recollection was that he was made a sergeant so that he could sign the rest of the band into the sergeants’ mess for a dram after the show.
"It didn’t matter what rank we were anyway," Jimmy told me ruefully. "We were all "acting, unpaid".
For six years the Squadronairs played at camps up and down the country, and on the Continent as the Allied troops advanced into Germany, broadcasting frequently and making a regular stream of records. Post war they kept together as a co-operative unit, making regular appearances at Glasgow’s Green’s Playhouse ballroom, but the big-band scene was in decline and one by one the band’s stars left to take up the more lucrative and settled life their talents could command as session musicians in London. Trombonist George Chisholm, for example, left the band to become a successful comedian in the long-running Black and White Minstrel Show, although he always preferred to be known as a musician.
Jimmy Miller stayed with the band till 1949 before leaving to take up a post with Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans at London’s Savoy Hotel. He took over this band for a few years following Carroll Gibbons’ death in 1955 and later worked as a conductor for several London shows. He even quit the profession altogether for a spell to manage a businessman’s club but music always remained his first love and he was playing piano for local schoolchildren till shortly before his death.
"It’s been a great life," he told me the last time we spoke. "I wouldn’t have missed it for anything."
Jimmy Miller died last year aged 85. He was survived by his wife, Mary, and sons Martin and Gordon. Mary told me Tommy McQuater (only survivor of original Squads) was at the funeral and he played Auld Lang Syne on trumpet for Jimmy. A nice touch, don't you think?
By Tony Parker
In the early 1950s, which were still regarded by many (some with great affection) as the post-war years, certain elements of show business in Britain were thriving: cinemas, music halls and an elite band of dance orchestras.
With regards to the latter, the influence of radio highlighted both the popularity and regular broadcasts of such worthy band leaders as Geraldo, the great Ted Heath, Vic Lewis, Edmundo Ros, Ken Mackintosh, Joe Loss, Johnny Dankworth and Cyril Stapleton.
As a result of their regular appearances on the 'wireless' it was good news for ballrooms: dancers have always shown a preference for a name band. It was also a training ground for the many musicians who had aspirations of eventually fronting their own outfits.
All of which meant that the name of Geraldo was especially held in the highest regard, and not just because of the excellence of his music. His orchestra had, arguably, proved to be the best training ground of them all. Remember a certain trombonist called Ted Heath, and everything that he went on to achieve in later years? Also, into this equation appeared the name of drummer Eric Delaney.
Delaney was born in London on April 25, 1924, At the tender age of six, Eric, a natural drummer, played to his first live audience and from that day his obsession with show business began. By the time he had reached his early teens, Delaney toured the country with the Royal Kiltie Junior Band and the Hughie Green Roadshow.
When he was 16 he was voted Britain's Best Young Swing Drummer, and in 1941, at the age of 17, he joined George Shearing and the famous Ambrose Octet, which saw him touring the many variety theatres which were around at that time.
From 1947 to 1954 Eric provided the rhythmic impulse for the great Geraldo Orchestra, but he resigned his post to take the bold step of forming his own big band. The event proved to be a unique highlight for the bold, talented Delaney, for in his first year after leaving Geraldo to become a fully-fledged bandleader - plus having a double-sided hit records in the charts with Oranges and Lemons and Delaney's Delight - Eric won three prestigious awards in Melody Makers' readers' poll. These being Band of the Year, Musician of the Year and Drummer of the Year.
In the long history of BBC Television News, the number of occasions when a performing individual was responsible for the delaying of one of its bulletins can almost be counted on one hand.
But in 1955, during a programme preceding the summary, drummer Eric Delaney, who was well into one of his famous solos, did exactly that, causing the news to be held up for two minutes in order that he could finish his electrifying stint.
It was to prove a historic landmark for Delaney in what had already been a remarkable year, and it prompted a BBC spokesman at the time to record: "The only other person we've held the news up for was Winston Churchill."
When analysed, the success of Eric Delaney at this period can be attributed to two main factors.
First, he nursed a desire to front a band that was strikingly different from any of the others. To this end the new and dynamic young leader introduced what he described as his "symphonic percussion equipment". This comprised two drum kits and three tympani, which certainly put him ahead of his contemporaries.
Second, by bounding from one set of drums to the other during his solos, he dedicated his energies in the direction of becoming this country's number one big-band showman - a factor endorsed by his ever-increasing army of fans, together with the results of those readers' polls in the musical Press.
There was also another very good reason as to why this new showband achieved its aim, for unlike so many of the other aggregations which were around at the time it was soon apparent that the Delaney outfit did not fall into the conventional category of music to dance to.
Right from the word go, Delaney's stock-in-trade was powerhouse music, described by the pundits of the period as a "time bomb waiting to happen". His band was labelled incomparable and a complete change from the established and fashionable sounds of the day.
This high-powered brand of music played a very important part in the format of Eric's line-up, with five trumpets proving a prominent feature and the saxophone section providing a further tower of strength. Not to mention, of course, that dynamic array of drum kits and those famous solos.
There was, however, a sense of irony in the fact that when Eric Delaney formed his exciting orchestra, rock and roll was beginning to make its presence felt. Consequently, when the new musical craze swept these shores, and when there were at least 30 big-name dance bands in existence, it came as no surprise when many found themselves unable to compete and went to the wall.
Only a small handful were able to survive during this climate: Eric Delaney's was one of them.
But then the line of thinking of this showman band leader, now 78, was different - he had his own ideas and plans firmly in place in order to avoid becoming one of the casualties. In short, he survived the strangle-like grip of the new idiom during the 60s, thus proving that he had no intentions of going under.
And in the 70s, 80s and 90s, in order to compete with the ever-changing musical vogues, Delaney adapted both the size and personnel of his various bands to suit the financial needs of himself, his musicians and the promoters - a decision that proved to pay off handsomely.
Consequently, over the years he has many times diversified his stage presentations, both as a soloist and a band leader, and has succeeded in becoming one of the most popular attractions on the seaside summer season and variety club circuits, the most notable of which are his regular guest appearances around the country with Lancashire's popular Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra.
Coming up to nearly 50 years as a band leader and drummer, the aggressive and almost maniacal playing style of Eric Delaney (obviously a bit slower these days due to his age) shows no drastic signs of abating. In show business circles, as the saying goes, most things are possible and what goes round comes round -as this extraordinary entertainer can confirm.
Now domiciled in Spain, the question as to whether or not we will ever again witness one of Delaney's solos causing another delay to a television news summary is at best arguable, but as we all know, in show business anything is possible and nothing is impossible.
By Doug Wilkins
In the previous issue I featured Julien Vedey as a 'Jack of all Trades'. The same sobriquet would perhaps be appropriate for Eddie Pola. True, he did not have the number and diversity of talents that Vedey had, but those he possessed were more than sufficient to make him a prominent man in the entertainment world, particularly before the war.
I have it that Eddie Pola was born on 23rd June, 1907 in New York City. By the twenties he was over here on a course of studies, but his first steps to gain recognition - literally as well as metaphorically - was to compete in and win a national Charleston contest at the Royal Albert Hall. That was in 1926 and opened up various avenues of entertainment for him.
During the last two years of the decade, Eddie was to be found working for the bands of Ray Starita, Jack Harris and Harry Bidgood - mainly as a close- harmony vocalist.
In the early thirties he was back in the States and was busy writing musical scores for shows. He continued with this line when he returned to this Country in 1932. In 1937 in fact, he appeared on the stage of the Palace Theatre as one of the principals in the Rodgers and Hart musical comedy On your Toes.
Eddie however was not restricting his work to the stage, but to radio and films as well. In regard to films, it happened he appeared in one each year; from 1936 to 1939 inclusive. They were: Sunshine Ahead (1936) starring Jack Payne and his Band; Catch As Catch Can' (1937) with a young James Mason in the cast; Hey Hey, U.S.A (1930) a Will Hay comedy and finally The Outsider' (1939) with George Sanders in the lead. In addition, he was featured as a solo pianist in a number of Pathe Pictorials.
On radio, Pola had a successful series called Twisted Tunes’ but another which was more notable if less regular, was America Calling. Not only hid he devise both series, but was compere as well. The latter was a burlesque on commercial radio as heard in America, using well-known British performers to impersonate those in the estates.
As an example, the first programme (of July 1933) featured Al Bowlly (singing a la Bing, if I remember correctly), Mary Lee, The Southern Sisters and Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans. By March 1935 there was a completely new cast of Anne Lenner, Gordon Little, Gerry Fitzgerald and The Radio Three. (1 am indebted to the late Denis Gifford for the names of the artists mentioned). Throughout the programmes, Pola used the catch-phrase 'You ain't heard nothin' yet'.
Yet another productive field for Eddie was as a music writer - I'm not sure whether he was a composer or lyricist. His hits included Marching Along Together' (1932) ; I Was In The Mood (1933) ; I’m Gonna Wash My Hands Of You (1934); The Girl With The Dreamy Eyes (1935); and Till The Lights Of London Shine Again (1939). A curiously named number he composed in America, but not recorded by any British band, was I Didn't Slip, 1 Wasn't Pushed, 1 Fell In Love'!
As far as I can ascertain, Pola stayed in this Country during most if not all of the war years. During the immediate post-war years he appears to have divided his time between America and the United Kingdom, and in 1955 he joined the Granada Network. However, I believe he had finally settled down in his native land by the sixties.
So to summarise, he achieved fame as a writer and producer, composer, compere, close harmony vocalist, pianist, dancer and actor - variety in abundance. Little is known of Eddie Pola's private life, except that in the mid-thirties he married an English lady by the name of Marjorie Merton. Like Julien Vedy, I have no knowledge of his demise; if he is still alive, he would now be 95 years old.
by Alan Ross
In December 1944 as World War II was entering its final stages and Liverpool was licking its wounds, two young ‘scousers’ (Liverpudlians) were just starting out on that rocky road known as ‘show business’. They enthusiastically entered any talent contest they could find, one with a ventriloquists dummy named ‘Dickie Mint’ and the other with a voice that his mum thought was equal to that of the great Bing Crosby.
Roy Edwards, for that was the latter’s name, was a sales assistant in Alderman Morrows Tailoring Shop in Lime Street, and the other young tyro was Ken Dodd, already tickling the housewives by driving the family’s house ware van around the council estates. Well, I guess both succeeded although Ken Dodd got to impress the tax man more.
In November 2002 both reached the milestone age of 75, and both are still trying to see if they can make it in show business.
It was, in fact, Roy’s mum who got his career as a singer kick-started by writing to bandleader Oscar Rabin in 1945, asking him to give her son an audition on his next visit to the New Brighton Tower Ballroom. Oscar obliged and was immediately impressed by Roy’s natural, deep brown voice. After warning Roy of the insecurity of show business, as against the safe tailoring job, he offered him a start at six guineas a week. Roy did not hesitate and the following week he was with the band at the Dome Ballroom, Brighton. His digs cost four guineas a week but the ever paternal Oscar reminded Roy not to forget to send money home!
In doing what he had long dreamed about Roy was elated and a year quickly passed by before his career had to go on hold at the request of HM Government. He expected to be away for the statutory two year ‘National Service’ but as it happened he was soon back, medically discharged, only to find that Bob Dale was Oscar’s new vocalist. Undeterred, he joined Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders and made at least two recordings, One Rose and Treasure Island. However, he had to cast off his grass skirt when he accepted an invitation from Ken Mackintosh (ex Oscar Rabin) to join his newly formed band.
Roy had been brought up in Toxteth, Liverpool, attending Granby Street School, where he first met Joyce who was later to become his wife. Others attending the school included Leonard Rossiter, Frankie Vaughan and Lita Roza. They would soon join well established stars who also hailed from Liverpool, such as Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey and Ted Ray, and one is tempted to believe that there must have been something special in the local water! And to this roll call of honour I must also add another rival to Bing Crosby, the late, great Michael Holliday,
For Roy, life could not have been sweeter. Although he had never had a lesson and could not read music, opening his mouth to sing, he always claimed, was as natural as turning on a tap. Success continued when he joined the Squadronaires, the Royal Air Force Dance Orchestra, and many 78rpm records were made during his four years with that great outfit. The band’s trombones formed a triumphal arch on 3 February 1951 as Roy and Joyce left the church on their wedding day. At the time the band was playing the Ritz in Birkenhead – and the paying customers could enjoy a film as well!
It was a hectic time with engagements all over the country. It was not quite a different town every night as occasionally bookings extended to a week or even a summer season. One such engagement was at the Palace Ballroom in Douglas, Isle of Man and whilst they were there, Joe Loss was playing at the Villa Marina. How spoilt for choice we were in those days!
When the Squad’s leader, Jimmy Miller, tired of the travelling life and left, Ronnie Aldrich (pianist) and Roy were elected to take over the running of the band. Roy waved the baton whilst Ronnie continued to tinkle the ivories. However, in Roy’s eyes the number one band in the country was Geraldo’s and when a telegram arrived from the maestro inviting Roy to join him at the Winter Garden’s Blackpool, the only question was whether to swim across the Irish Sea or wait for the ferry.
That was the start of four years with Geraldo, whose band boasted a large string section along the lines of the former Glenn Miller AEF Orchestra. Every week the Geraldo’s ‘Tip Top Tunes’ programme was on BBC Radio with Roy as one of its stars. Sadly no recordings were made at this time and consequently very little of this fine orchestra can be found on LP or CD. Alan Dell was once asked why he did not play more tracks featuring Roy Edwards and replied that he would love to but that so far he had only found two!
It was a fact of life that fewer recordings were being made of the Big Bands as the rock and roll sound; Elvis Presley, the Beatles and others captured the imagination of the postwar generation. Youngsters were no longer learning the quickstep, foxtrot and waltz preferring to jump and scream to the sound of amplified guitars. Even the Geraldo band was eventually unable to keep going.
By now television was the growing entertainment medium and Roy found a way in via the Midland TV show called ‘Lunch Box’. This was broadcast five days a week and continued for six years. The Jerry Allen Trio provided the music and Roy had to learn three new songs every day. Vocal duties were shared with Eula Parker, Peter Elliott and Noele Gordon and the programme final ceased when the latter left to find increased fame in a new soap called ‘Crossroads’. Roy appeared in a total of 1255 shows – surely a feat that ought to be recorded in the Guinness Book of Records. A Pye LP called ‘Lunch Box’ was released in 1963, the year before the programme ended.
Roy found himself back on the radio with the BBC Midland Light Orchestra, as MC and resident singer in shows such as ‘Time For A Song’. The latter ran for three years and he also enjoyed a 13 week season with ‘Swing Song’ in which the music was provided by the Johnny Douglas Orchestra.
An LP on EMI’s Music For Pleasure label came out in 1969, Memories Are Made Of These, with Roy, Julie Dawn and the Rita Williams singers, backed by Alan Moorhouse. Around this time he joined another great orchestra at the BBC – The Northern Dance Orchestra – which boasted Syd Lawrence as one of the trumpet players. Roy, Sheila Buxton, Roger Moffat and co. had a lot of fun doing those Manchester shows.
Before too long BBC economies wound up that happy gang but great compensation was to come. The story of Syd Lawrence’s Rehearsal Band in a Manchester pub leading to the re-birth of Big Bands in the UK is, however, another story. Syd asked Roy to be part of the new venture but he had already accepted an invitation from the Entertainments Manager of the Royal Viking Cruise Line to join them. For the next 12 years he ‘joined the navy and saw the sea’, travelling around the world four times.
In 1986 Roy was approached by Cunard with an offer to be one of their top entertainers on the QEII. They recognised the value of his quick wit and easy manner, as well as that ‘golden brown voice’. Roy even managed to keep the passengers happy on that dreadful QEII trip to New York when it had left the UK with an unfinished refit. Joyce was with him on that occasion, as she had been on some previous voyages. Sometimes she acted as a social hostess and it must have given them both much pleasure when they were able to sing a duet together.
In June 1994, a ‘Tribute to Geraldo Concert’ was given at the London Barbican Centre and broadcast by the BBC. It was introduced by Alan Dell who invited Roy to sing four songs. During the 1990s Roy frequently guested on BBC’s Radio Merseyside but, sadly, Joyce had become unwell and Roy devoted himself to caring for her at home.
When Ken Dodd brings his ‘Happiness’ show to New Brighton in the Wirral, he asks Roy to find a carer to look after Joyce, and that is when my wife steps in so that Roy can do a guest spot. He also manages to keep his voice in good shape by accepting other local invitations for charity and there is nothing he enjoys more, in the words of one of his favourite songs, than “Making Friends And Meeting People”.
Incredibly, a CD featuring Roy Edwards has yet to be produced so perhaps this article will nudge a promoter to rectify this omission so that everyone can enjoy his superb voice.
The Sweet Jazz Sound That Will Last Forever
By Tony Parker
In 1952, and in common with almost every other callow, 13‑year old schoolboy, it was a time that could best be described as being informative: a period when we were deep into learning about the many aspects and styles of music of that era. In fact, when we should have been concentrating our efforts on such mundane yet important subjects as maths, English, history and geography, the minds of the majority were centred on, among other things, an infectious new sound and an equally haunting instrumental melody of the time called Lullaby of Birdland,
This composition heralded not only a new area in the field of jazz (which we were rapidly learning about), but over the decades since it was penned it has proved to be one of the greatest and most enduring jazz standards of all time. One can only hazard a guess as to how many records it has sold worldwide. It was a number that was easy to hum and whistle, and, because of its sheer simplicity, it was no surprise that almost every pupil could be heard quietly humming it. What was surprising, at least to the teachers, was the number of pupils who suddenly took music lessons seriously and wanted to learn the piano.
The name of George Shearing suddenly became one that elevated him to cult status. He was the hero of the hour, and every selfrespecting jazz lover either couldn't wait for his next release to be issued, wanted to see him in concert, or, more audaciously, attempt to actually meet him. In those days that was the stuff of dreams, not reality.
Shearing's musical style became instantly recognisable: quiet and smooth and comprising a quintet of piano, vibraphone, guitar, double bass and drums. With it was a sound that scored a hit not only with us classroom rebels, but with jazz lovers worldwide.
Born in Battersea, London on August 13, 1919, and blind from birth, George Shearing, the youngest of nine children, began playing the piano at the age of three. But his only form of training in music was at the Linden Lodge School for the blind, which he attended from the ages of 12 to 16. His immense talent earned him many university scholarships, but he was forced to refuse them in favour of a more financially rewarding pursuit ‑ playing the piano in a neighbourhood pub for the princely sum of £1 a week! Later, Shearing joined an all blind band in the 1930s, and developed a friendship with the noted jazz critic and author, Leonard Feather. This contact with Feather enabled him to make his first radio appearance on BBC.
By 1936 he was listening to the recordings of such luminaries as Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. His absorption of jazz music was so rapid and convincing that for seven consecutive years he was voted the top British pianist by the Melody Maker, which was then regarded as the jazz lovers' weekly bible.
In 1947, George Shearing moved to America and settled in New York, and became strongly influenced by the bop style of music, and in particular that played by pianist Bud Powell. It took just two years for George to establish his famed 'Shearing Sound', courtesy of the Discovery record label and which featured his now‑famous quintet. By popularising this quintet sound, Shearing achieved commercial success on a scale rarely known in the world of jazz, and in 1949 his recognition in the States was firmly consolidated with his recording of September In the Rain for MGM.
The record proved to be an overnight success and sold more than 900,000 copies. It also led to his US reputation becoming permanently sealed when he was booked into Birdland, New York's legendary jazz spot. It was his appearance there that prompted him to write Lullaby of Birdland as a theme for the famous jazz club and its radio shows. Since then he has become one of the world's most popular performing and recording artists, with classics such as East Of the Sun, I Remember April, One Note Samba and Stardust to further add to his unforgettable portfolio.
But although George Shearing is still very much a musician of the people, and not forgetting his humble beginnings in London, he has in the past been invited to play for no less than three US Presidents at the White House ‑ Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, plus also performing at a Royal Command Performance in London for the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.
In April, 1996, while recovering from the first of two heart attacks, I received a telephone call from my very dear friend, London‑based concert promoter, artist manager and boss of Horatio Nelson Records, Derek Boulton. What he had to say proved to be one of the biggest tonics imaginable, and, with due respect, certainly better than any medication that my GP could prescribe!
His words brought back memories of those long‑gone schooldays, and the difference between dreams and reality. 'Have I got a treat in store for you!' enthused Derek. 'I'm putting on a George Shearing concert next month at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. It's the only one in the country. There's a couple of tickets reserved for you, and I've told George he'll be meeting ‑you.
George would be meeting me! This just couldn't be for real
Now I've known Derek for a number of years: it was he who, on many occasions, supplied me with guest tickets for concerts by the Ted Heath Hand, which he had promoted, and who was also instrumental in my writing Ted's biography, The Greatest Swing Band in n the World.
I also know what his sense of humour is like, and he knows mine. He's an Arsenal supporter, it's true, but then nobody's perfect! And I know for a fact that in no way was he trying to be patronising when he mentioned the meeting. What he was trying to do was accelerate my recuperation, and it has to be said it worked like a charm.
On the night of the concert, Sunday, May 6, we arrived early at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool, and there was Derek waiting in the foyer to greet us. 'Come on,' he said, 'we're going to have tea and cakes in the restaurant. George is waiting to meet you.' Derek saw the questioning look on my face. 'Shouldn't that be the other way round?' I asked.
Derek put a friendly and reassuring hand on my shoulder. 'Listen, don't put yourself down,' he said. 'In your own way you're both in the same line of business.' I have to admit that despite Derek's line of reasoning I was in awe of George for the whole of the time that I was in his company. Naturally, it was both a night and a concert that will live with me forever, with those early days at school in the 1950s at the forefront of my mind.
These days, George Shearing and his wife Ellie divide their time between their New York apartment and an idyllic country cottage, deeply hidden away in the heart of the Cotswolds. There at the tender age of 83, he is currently working on his autobiography, in between long walks and listening to cricket and tennis matches. However, every now and then, and in breaks in his busy schedule both at home and abroad, George follows his own personal belief: 'Why should a man work when he has the health and strength to lie in bed?'
Surely a maxim for every jazz‑loving schoolboy to take to heart?
by John Marsden
A true ‘character’ in London’s show-biz world during the 1930s, Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohn achieved enduring fame with his Hawaiian Serenaders. During the 1940s they made thousands of stage appearances and broadcasts and left a long and varied recorded legacy.
Felix was born on 19th September 1911 at Brondesbury Park, London. Although his father, Martin, was a stockbroker, show-biz was in his blood through his maternal grandfather, Richard Warner, a prominent theatrical agent. In giving him his famous name, his parents hoped he would be musical but, after being educated at the City of London School, Felix started work for his father. "He set me cleaning inkwells in his office. I stuck that until I could stick it no longer and ran away to sea." Finding there were worse things than inkwells to clean on a ship he returned briefly to his father’s office. "I found that most of my time was taken up in arranging charity concerts and it fascinated me." Again wishing to try something different, he joined a repertory company. "That gave me a great deal of valuable stage experience, though I only stayed with the company for six months before going back to London to manage a night club." This was The Glow Worm, near Selfridge’s, and as a sideline he also opened a dress agency.
A meeting with bandleader Harry Roy earned a commission to write a story, which was successfully published, and so began Felix’s career as a press agent and publicist. His famous name was a great asset and he built up an impressive list of clients, including Arthur Tracy, Al Bowlly, Joe Loss, Billy Bissett, Mantovani, Carroll Gibbons, Monte Rey, Charlie Kunz, Sidney Lipton, Lew Stone, music publisher Lawrence Wright, and many more. Harry Roy acknowledged him as ‘the greatest publicity man any artist could ever have wished for’, and said, ’99 per cent of my success and fame was due to his brilliant handling of my publicity’.
Felix seemed to pop up everywhere, organizing concerts, presenting prizes, writing articles, and he even composed a couple of songs which were recorded by Harry Roy in 1933 and well received. The Melody Maker (Nov. 30th 1933) described him as ‘one of the most extraordinary fellows in the business,’ and added that he had carved out a unique niche for himself. It also announced Felix’s intention to form a band of his own to handle engagements that came his way, which he had previously handed on to others.
In May 1937 the band started to record for Decca. Perhaps it was just chance that his first session included a Hawaiian song, the Oscar-winning Sweet Leilani. They were heard regularly in commercial programmes, such as "Top Hat Express" and "Café Aulait" from Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy. They also provided music for the BBC’s "Crooners’ Corner", a quiz programme devised by Felix which aired in 1938-9. Stanley Barnett, bandleader at the Café Anglais, was Felix’s musical director.
Ever on the lookout for something new, Felix later wrote that during this period he had become more and more interested in Hawaiian music, seeing its popularity in the States and the great appeal of South Sea films. He envisaged forming a Hawaiian band which could really swing and so lead British dance music into new spheres.
The band led by French-Canadian steel guitarist Roland Piché (anglicized to Peachy or Peachey) at the Florida Club was exactly what Felix had in mind. Born in Montreal on 10th January 1912, Roland had come to England in January 1937 to open a steel guitar school. Featuring an impressive triple-necked guitar, he played dance music in a modern, chordal style far in advance of anything previously heard in this country, and had appeared at the London Palladium in 1938-9 in the Crazy Gang Show, "These Foolish Things". Felix arranged a Parlophone recording session on 8th November 1939 but Roland was furious to find the credit to Felix Mendelssohn’s Hawaiian Serenaders, with no mention of his own name! Reluctant acknowledgement of Roland proved a running sore, but the band did its first BBC broadcast on 15th January 1940. Recording sessions continued for Parlophone and then Columbia, and Felix arranged much West End work. In January 1941, they went into the prestigious Café de Paris, doubling with Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson’s West Indian Orchestra. When still nothing was done about billing, Roland simply walked out and thus he and his band fortuitously avoided the disastrous bombing on 8th March.
February 1941 was a difficult month for Felix – he was also called up for military service – but it saw the creation of the Hawaiian Serenaders as a new unit in its own right, as distinct from the Peachey band playing under Felix’s name. Multi-talented Kealoha Life and Wally Chapman handled immediate engagements, and by the summer Al Shaw was leading the stage band. They were featured as a variety attraction in the transatlantic revue "Yankee Clipper", which opened on 26th January 1942 at the Metropolitan, Edgware Road, and at the end of November Felix engaged the Pulu Moe Trio. Pulu Moe and Louisa Reyes Moe had left Hawaii with a touring show at the end of 1928 to play in the Far East. Coming to Europe with ‘Tropical Express’, they were joined by Javanese guitarist Kaili Sugondo.
Through 1943 leadership of the stage band alternated between violinists Davros (Dave Rosenberg) and Eugene van Schelden, while a pool of session musicians in London, led by guitarist and steel guitarist George Elliott, handled broadcast and recording dates. By early 1944, the Serenaders were joined by Harry Brooker, one of the greatest steel guitar talents ever produced in this country. Harry, who had been Roland Peachey’s pianist, insisted upon modern, sophisticated arrangements when he took over as steel guitar lead. In 1945, a young steel guitarist and dancer from Norwich – Cynthia Read – joined the show and that same year Felix achieved his wish to ‘fill the stage with girls’ as he formed his South Sea Lovelies. And what a stunning show he created. The Serenaders would normally fill the second half of an evening’s programme, and they toured the length and breadth of the country.
Television recommenced for the London area on 7th June 1946 after its wartime shutdown. Felix correctly saw it as the medium of the future, but theatre managements were concerned about its threat to their audiences. When Felix insisted on accepting a TV date on 12th July, he was banned for 32 weeks by the important Moss and Stoll chains. Although he managed to keep his show fully booked with dates at independent theatres, ice rinks and one-night stands, he lost money and this was nudged into a financial slide. Peace was made in April 1947 and he recommenced touring for GTC.
Harry Brooker quit in August 1946, his place being admirably filled by 20-year old Sammy Mitchell from Belfast. After briefly returning in 1948-9, Harry went on to lead his own band in Southend, sharing recording and broadcasting dates with Sammy, who remained with the touring show.
Felix’s financial slide continued but he resisted any reduction in the payroll. In January 1950 he accepted ‘at own risk’ an engagement at the Scala Theatre in The Hague, Holland. His company of almost fifty found themselves stranded with insufficient funds to return home. Passage on a troop ship was negotiated by giving a performance for British soldiers in the Hook of Holland transit camp.
Finances had reached such a state that in July 1950 Felix appeared in the Bankruptcy Court facing liabilities of £5,994 with assets of £1,040. He swore to repay every penny, but his health began to give way and in September he was forced to cancel all touring commitments. After an operation and radium treatment he resumed touring in the spring of 1951, but was in and out of hospital. The Serenaders did some film work and toured North of the Border, but eventually came off the road sometime that autumn.
Harry Brooker handled the final and unissued recording session of 7th September 1951 and the last broadcast was on 7th December. Felix died, aged only 40, of Hodgkins’ Disease in Charing Cross Hospital on 4th February 1952. His funeral on 7th February at Golders Green Crematorium was attended by many show-biz personalities. The broadcasting group, renamed the South Sea Serenaders, and directed by Ernest Penfold, survived and continued to broadcast and record through the 1960s.
In white suit and lei, Felix made a stylish emcee and conductor. Although no musician, he occasionally sang and had a marvellous ear for what he wanted. The stage band was much larger than the ones heard on record and Felix knew just how to present a thrilling show. During difficult years he gave the public lilting music and lovely girls. A keen cricketer, he was friendly, funny, always in a hurry, an incurable optimist, loved the ladies, enjoyed musicals, opera and ballet, and had a notorious but endearing stammer. Though engaged four times he never married. He was totally obsessed with his show and his name is inextricably linked with the beautiful and exotic music he promoted so effectively. His recordings have set an enduring benchmark of excellence.
I would like to give special thanks to Kealoha Life, Marion Mendelssohn Page, Sammy Mitchell, Cynthia Read and Edward Kirkman for their help regarding this article.
Harlequin HQ CD 93 and HQ CD 162; Jasmine JASMCD 2557 and JASMCD 2589; Music & Memories MMD 1181; Vocalion CDEA 6057; Crystal Stream Audio IDCD 39 (Australian issue).
With other artistes: ASV CD AJA 5121; Flapper PAST CD 7817.
South Sea Serenaders (as "Kana King & his Hawaiians"): Air Mail Music SA 141059; Hallmark 302012.
Billy Munn, who died in April 2000, was one of the most talented pianists to grace the UK dance band scene. At the tender age of 18 he was hired by Jack Hylton to become the pianist for unarguably the UK’s greatest show band. In later years he recorded his reminiscences on tape for Ian Horner, who has kindly made them available to Memory Lane. These have been transcribed and edited by Gordon Howsden and will be published over the next few issues of Memory Lane. They give a fascinating insight into the career of a top class musician who rubbed shoulders with many of the greats of the jazz and dance band world.
I was born on 12 May 1911 in Parkhead, Glasgow, not a stone’s throw from the famous Celtic Park. My father had been in the fairground show business and had been an actor in the old melodramatic days. He got involved in the then new-fangled cinematography and in point of fact my birth certificate gives my father’s occupation as ‘Bioscope Operator’, which was rather funny for 1911.
My mother’s father had been a cornet player in a touring opera company, so with the stage on one side and music on the other the dice was loaded in favour of me becoming a stage musician from the very beginning. Coupled with which the year I was born, 1911, was the year that Irving Berlin wrote Alexander’s Ragtime Band and, when little more than a baby, I picked up this tune and sang it as one of my party pieces for admiring relatives and friends. It was quite an achievement at that time, apparently, for a wee child to sing a bang up to date tune like this. My parents thought that this kid has obviously got a feeling for music and as soon as my hands were big enough they sent me to piano lessons. In those days the piano was considered quite a noble profession!
Anyhow, that was in the future because when I was about five I went to a local elementary school, Newlands in Parkhead, until I was eleven and then I went to a high school in Glasgow, which was a form of grammar school, at which I stayed until I was 17. I got the Higher’s in Science, Mathematics and Languages and that sort of thing, which I mention because it fits in to my future life.
At seven I started piano lessons at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, which was then known as the Glasgow Atheneum, and stayed until I was 12. I did quite well and by that time I was already playing my first professional job in a cinema. It was in a little place called Bayliston, which is a suburb outside Glasgow. It was a very small cinema, which my father was managing at the time and, of course, he pushed me on a bit. From there I went to a cinema in Parkhead playing children’s matinees – remember I was only 11!
When I was about 13, I was playing in the cinema one night when a boy called Andy Lothian came up and asked if would like to play some dance music. I promptly agreed although the band was only a trio with Andy, his brother Bill on drums and myself on piano. Well, we played various little gigs around the place and on Sunday evenings, when there was nothing to do, Andy and I used to go around all the ice-cream shops. They all had bands in those days and we used to walk in shyly and say, "Could we play a tune?" Well, just to humour the children, the band would agree, and we carved them up hill and down dale. They could have murdered us!
It wasn’t very long before it got around that these two kids were quite something and we were offered a regular job. Andy and I stayed at that café until 1927 when Louis Freeman, who was a sort of impresario, gave me the job of relief pianist at a dance hall called the Plaza, in Glasgow. It was a considerable achievement for a youngster to get a job like that and it was the first really good band I had played with. The band was presented by Louis Freeman, and led by Jock Scott, who was Ronnie Scott’s father, and it contained some very fine players –Billy Higgs, Tommy Flint, trombone, a magnificent drummer called Murray Scott, and one or two others. I had only been there for about a fortnight when they put another piano on the stage and I became the second pianist. Before the job was over I became the first pianist. That’s the way things went.
All this time I was still at school and having got the ‘Higher’ certificate I was supposed to go up to University with the intention of eventually becoming a chemist. But I had never been ill in my life and had gone straight through all the exams and I was a year too young. So, as I was enjoying myself I thought I might as well play around for a bit longer and go up to University the next year. Around this time I was suddenly bitten by the jazz bug. Terrific records by Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, even Paul Whiteman and the Rhythm Boys, all hit us like a ton of bricks and I became absolutely carried away by this music. Also, believe it or not, the Jack Hylton Band, which at that time was suddenly becoming quite something. Anyway, after finishing at the Plaza I was offered a job at the Ritz Ballroom, also in Glasgow, with a smaller band containing some of the Plaza people.
From then on I went to the Locarno for the next season – 1928/29 – a band formed by another impresario, Chalmers Wood. That band contained a lot of young lads who afterwards became quite well known. People like Don Macaffer, of the Macaffer brothers, Alan Ferguson, Gerald Gibson and Max Abrams the drummer. We did that job until 1929 and then, at the end of that summer season, the Locarno closed down. It had been a white elephant – it wasn’t run by Mecca or anything like that, it was a private concern and it was a bit too big and grandiose for Glasgow. We were out of work but it did not really worry me because, as I said I, was waiting to go up to University.
Then to London…
It so happened that Billy Sutton, who was the nominal leader of the Locarno band, and I, were both offered an audition by Henry Hall at the Gleneagles Hotel. Henry was the musical director of the whole railway chain at that time. I went up to Gleneagles, did the audition and got the job, which was for the Adelphi, Liverpool. Shortly after I received a letter and a telegram. As the letter was from Henry Hall I opened it first and it was to the effect that due to reorganization the job at the Adelphi had fallen through. I then opened the telegram, and it was from Alan Ferguson, the guitar player at the Locarno, who stated that Arthur Rosebery in London wanted a piano player and suggested I travel down straight away. Also, Leslie Jeffries, who led the band at the Locarno two years before I went there, wanted me to audition for a job in Montreux, Switzerland.
This must have been in September or October 1929. Well, I packed all my things and travelled to London with Max Abrams, who was also being auditioned for the Montreux job. We did the audition for Leslie Jeffries in Chelsea and he asked Maxie if he could also sing. Well, Max, who had never sung in his life, said, "Yes," and had to sing I’ll Always Be In Love With You. He was dreadful, so he lost himself the job - Max Abrams, one of the best drummers in the world! The same night I went from Chelsea to Great Newport Street, a pub called Argentina’s, and I did an audition for Arthur Rosebery. I was offered both jobs but I didn’t want to go to Switzerland – London was, after all, the Mecca for all musicians.
So, on the very next morning I did a recording session with Arthur Rosebery, the very first that I had ever done in my life, and the titles were: Making Whoopee and Kansas City Kitty (in Rust & Forbes as c 19 Sept 1929). I didn’t do any jobs with Arthur, because he could play the piano too, but he conducted on the recordings. Nevertheless, life was pretty hectic for the first month or so as we did plenty of recordings for Sterno and Homochord. I was also offered a job at the Café de Paris with Jack Martin, who ran the relief band opposite Arthur Lally’s Blue Lyres. I only stayed at the Café de Paris for about a fortnight because I was offered a much better job at the Hotel Cecil. The Cecil, of course, no longer exists, as it was acquired by Shell who made it into a block of offices. But at the time it was a big hotel in the Strand, right next door to the Savoy.
Joining Jack Hylton
While I was there I got around and played in all the clubs and mixed with the jazz and show people, and I don’t think I ever went to bed! I got very friendly with Edgar Jackson, who was Jack Hylton’s manager, and Edgar asked me one day if I would I like to audition for Ray Starita. Ray had a band at the Ambassadors Club, which was another Hylton combination. I liked Ray’s playing so I did the audition and it was satisfactory. Then, unfortunately, just as had happened with the Gleneagles Hotel audition, I was told that job wasn’t available because of reorganization. This meant that Jack Hylton was going to have one pianist over, Peter Yorke, and the idea was that he would be joining Ray’s band.
That occurred about the end of the week and on Monday morning down Archer Street, where the musicians hang around, Jackson came looking for me and asked if I could go up to Glasgow right away, as Jack now wanted me to audition for the main band. Ray Broderick, who was the leader of the Cecil Band and an awfully nice old man, raised no objection and I went straight up to Glasgow, did my audition on the Tuesday and started in the band on the Wednesday night. I firstly did an audition for Jack in the Grand Central Hotel, Glasgow, and then another audition for his number one boys - Bill Ternent, Leo Vauchant, Rignold and Pogson, at the Theatre. Rather amusingly, I had only left Glasgow two months before and here I was back again and joining the number one stage band in the world. I was walking on air I can assure you.
The Hylton band was never permitted to use music on stage but an exception was made in my case for about three nights whilst I memorized the show. And what a magnificent show it was, a terrific experience, but difficult to describe. First of all the band was beautifully rehearsed and ‘together’, and so funny I could hardly play for laughing. Amazing!
The layout of the band on stage was exactly like a minstrel show. In other words it wasn’t the traditional symphonic layout with the brass at the back, the strings at the front and the percussion at the side, the way a normal orchestra is laid out. He had the orchestra set out in one long row, in a sort long curve in front of him, with the two pianos behind and the drums in the middle at the back and the bassists on either side of the drums. There was this enormous line and his two key comic men were at the ends, Lew Davis the trombonist on the left and Johnny Raitz on the right hand side, as you looked towards the stage. Jack played the part of the man who runs the minstrel show - I think he is called Mr Interlocutor.
After Glasgow we started touring and then we went into the Kit-Cat in London for a season. Although we worked in the theatres we also played for dancing. My first recording session for Hylton was January 1930 and we did four titles, Hang On To Me, Just You Just Me, both arranged by Phil Cardew, a horrible number called, Bunkey-Doodle-I-Doh, written by Sarony and sung by Jack, and I May Be Wrong, which I think from memory was a Vauchant arrangement. What a funny session, three magnificent numbers and one terrible comedy number. But that, of course, was the Hylton band. I played my first piano solo with the band on Hang On To Me, which pleased me rather a lot. It was the first time I had ever been properly recorded because those HMV recordings were very, very good.
Jack and the Band
Anything that I say about Jack and the other people in the band is entirely my own personal opinion and is not any consensus of views, so please don’t take my comments too seriously. Jack was an amazing chap and he had a wonderful business sense. The story of how he formed his own band is remarkable and I will come to this later. Jack’s upbringing was with a family that was involved in show business in Blackpool, which is, of course, a big show biz town. His first dealing in music was with concert parties on the pier at Rhyl and on the north west coast. The music that he loved, and the music in his background, was the Edwardian music hall, as you can tell from his records, particularly the 12-inch records - Good Old Songs, Still More Old Songs. When we recorded the hits from Cavalcade, the Noel Coward Cavalcade, he just used that as a vehicle to play the same old songs like Oh, Listen To The Band, which was his theme song.
Jack didn’t like jazz music, didn’t like it at all. Jack’s scene was the songs of the period just before and after the First World War. When he went to Berlin, a short time before I joined the band, he did become aware of Continental music and this opened up a new world to him. He made records of I Kiss Your Hand, Madame, Handsome Gigolo, and similar things, but he still didn’t like jazz. It was a battle for the youngsters in the band to try and get some jazz feeling into our music. We tried to all the time - never stopped, in fact.
Jack Jackson left the band on the very day that I joined, which was a very sad disappointment to me, as I felt that Jack was one of the greatest musicians in the world. Joe Crossman had joined the week before me and Philippe Brun joined the band the week after. The personnel then remained pretty constant for about three months until Vauchant and Harry Berly left, followed by further gradual changes throughout the years.
The saxophonists in the band were Joe Crossman, who had just joined, E O Pogson, D’Amato, Bill Ternent and Johnny Raitz. Johnny Raitz was one of the very early members of the band and his playing had a fine tone. He was one of the blue bloods, one of the oldest members of the band. Bill Ternent was quite astonishing. Practically a self-taught musician from Newcastle, he had played in the cinemas and restaurants around the north east and was adequate on practically every instrument you could think of. He was quite a good violinist, in fact that was probably his best instrument, and he played a reasonably good baritone saxophone solo, but he wasn’t a genius. The point was, however, if anyone was ill, irrespective of who they were in the band, Bill could sit in right away and play their part. Wonderful! Pogson, of course, was a multi-reed man and Chappie D’Amato was a marvellous personality. He and I worked together long years afterwards.
The strings included the fantastic Harry Berly, who was a magnificent viola player. Hugo Rignold, who went on to be a conductor, and Johnny Rosen, who was one of the old originals. We carried a lot of people in the band who looked as though they played instruments and this has caused a lot of mistakes to be made among discographers. They pick up personnel from programmes and articles in the Melody Maker and often put down Eddie Hooper as playing violin. Eddie Hooper never played a violin session in his life - he was a dancer. Instead of having rosin on his bow he had soap. It looked as though he was playing but he wasn’t making a noise at all. There were one or two people like that in the band and some were surprised that although there were 30 people on the stage only about 24 would be playing.
The brass section when I joined was Jack Raine, a wonderful lead trumpet player, who had been with the band a long time, Philippe Brun, a newcomer, who joined a week after me, Leo Vauchant, a superb trombonist and arranger, and Lew Davis, another wonderful trombone player who had been with the band a very long time.
Up until 1935, when we started recording again for HMV, Jack always used two basses on records. We used Clem Lawton on sousaphone plus a string bass, always a man called Jim Merritt senior, as there was a son who played too. Jim was a fine bass player. This dated from the acoustic era when Jack thought that two basses would give more depth, as bass was difficult to record. Actually, Paul Whiteman did the same thing, he used two basses, but his were even more ponderous than ours and that’s saying something! By God, it was difficult to play with those two basses bashing in your ear. Clem Lawton was a magnificent player, one of the best sousaphone or tuba players I have ever heard. He went for a time to the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra and I used him on a session many years later to play some funny choruses on the sousaphone, which he did magnificently. What a beautiful player he was.
Apart from playing all the instruments, Bill Ternent was an arranger of absolute clarity. I can’t think of any other word for it. His work was never involved and his ideas were crystal clear all the time. But he hadn’t the genius of Vauchant who was an absolute Ravel among arrangers - utterly fantastic. Peter Yorke was academic to the nth degree and entirely different. Not long after I joined, Vauchant left the band, having had a row in a recording session. Vauchant was very annoyed about the fact that he was the only arranger who was not allowed to rehearse his own work. Bill and Peter could rehearse their arrangements because they didn’t have to play, but Leo couldn’t because he had to play the trombone all the time - there was no one else to play his part. This annoyed a perfectionist like Leo to a terrible extent and that was one of the reasons why he left the band. We missed him. He was replaced by Paul Fenoulhet, who was also a very fine musician, and had previously been with the Arthur Rosebery band.
After leaving Hylton, Leo Vauchant played around Europe for a bit and then he went to America. I heard that he had changed his name to Leo Arnaud, which was his original name, Vauchant having been adopted earlier in his career. He did a lot of arranging for Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians before going to the west coast where he worked on all the great musicals.
Jack Hylton’s Story
On one occasion I was sitting with Jack Hylton on quite a long train journey and I asked him how he had started the band. Now this is Jack’s story, it may be wrong in some small details but this is exactly as Jack told me. It was the early 1920s when he got a job at the Queen’s Hall Roof, a woman called Mrs Henry had started afternoon and evening dancing there, as the American style of ballroom dancing, in particular the foxtrot, was becoming quite the rage. Jack was offered a job as relief pianist, which he snapped up. The band was a five-piece unit, including people like Claude Ivy on piano; a coloured saxophone player called Ed Jenkins, and two or three others whose names he could not recall at the time.
Anyway, everything went swimmingly for a while and then Mrs Henry went to America and came back with some gramophone records of the Paul Whiteman orchestra. She played the records to the band and told them that this was how she wanted them to sound in future. As the musicians listened to the records Jack commented that they were obviously playing from music. No one believed him and they told him in a few short words not to be so daft. But Jack was adamant that Whiteman’s band was playing from music that had been specially arranged for them. The boys laughed at this north-country upstart telling them such things but in the end they told him to copy out the arrangements for them to play. This he did, they played the arrangements, and they were successful. In fact, so successful that the HMV people offered the Queen’s Hall Orchestra a recording contract.
Although the records were popular the band began to get tired of Jack as they thought he was an upstart and too bigheaded. Because of the dissention Mrs Henry called the band together to find out the cause of the trouble. Hylton’s unpopularity was soon made clear and although Mrs Henry was quite happy with him, she left it up to the band members to decide what to do. So the boys gave Mrs Henry a round robin letter saying they didn’t want Hylton and he was fired.
Jack was very disconsolate about this, which took place on a Thursday or Friday evening. As he was walking down Southampton Row he came across a pal of his, a very famous jockey whose name escapes me. When asked why he was looking fed up Jack confided to him that he had just lost his job. The upshot was that his jockey friend suggested that Jack should go with him to Paris as he was racing at at Longchamps that weekend. So Jack went over to France and came back early the next week.
When he got back there were some frantic messages waiting for him. It turned out that the Queen’s Hall Orchestra had gone to Hayes to make some recordings for HMV but without Jack’s special arrangements these had been considered unsatisfactory. So, they were now dying to get Jack back again. Jack thought about it and said he would come back provided that his name went on the label. It was one of the smartest things that Jack ever did.
Shortly afterwards, another thing happened, which really created Hylton’s reputation. Paul Whiteman came across to the UK with his orchestra to perform at the Grafton Galleries in Knightsbridge, London. They only got a work permit for the engagement on the basis that a British band with similar numbers was employed to play opposite them. Well, who else could they give the job to? Jack was on the spot and he was asked to form a band of exactly the same size as Whiteman’s. So not only was he leading a much bigger band but he was also playing opposite Whiteman, which was an education in itself. When Whiteman went back to America Jack was given all sorts of offers, including a variety date at the Bedford, Camden Town, which he seized with both hands. That was the beginning of the Jack Hylton Show Band and he never looked back from there, he just went from strength to strength.
Memories of Great Years
Jack was an arranger in the very early days and, as related in ‘Jack’s Story’, he had no problem transcribing the Paul Whiteman arrangements. But, in my experience, he didn’t write anything and I don’t think he was capable of doing it in the days when I was with the band. But I will tell you a funny story about one particular theatre date when Jack gave the pit orchestra a duplicate set of parts to ours. The idea was that they would be playing exactly what we were playing and it made for a good finale for some of those speciality numbers that we used to do on stage. On Monday morning rehearsal at the theatre, which was the normal rehearsal time for a weekly show, there was a commotion in the pit and someone was saying, "I have no part." We looked down and it was the cellist. Well, of course, we did not use a cellist as a full time member of the orchestra; Sonny Farrar dabbled a bit on the cello but never on record. There was some form of Union ruling at that time that if the pit orchestra did not have a complete set of parts they were entitled to refuse to play. That was a rule brought in for cases where variety artistes turned up with appalling music, expected a good performance and blamed the orchestra if they didn’t get it. Anyway, this fellow created because he hadn’t got a part. We did not have any cello parts so Jack asked Bill for a piece of manuscript. Bill gave it to him and Jack took a pencil and wrote on the top of the manuscript, ‘Jack Hylton’s Band’ and at the top right-hand corner he put, ‘Cello’ and right across the page in big letters he wrote ‘TACET’. Then he handed that to the cellist and told him, "There’s your part." The man had to accept it. That was his part – and that was Jack’s sense of humour.
Now, about Leslie Sarony. Sarony toured with us as an act from time to time, as a bit of a comedian. It was a separate act from the band and Jack once took him to the Continent and what the French and Germans thought of those novelty numbers I shudder to think! He was responsible for most of the comedy numbers – the so-called comedy numbers – we used to do in the band, particularly the ones we did on records where he used to sing.
A number of the comedy records contained hot solos but these were not actually Jack’s idea. The reason for them was that the musical content in these records was appalling that the arrangers had terrible trouble doing anything with the material to make it last a whole eternity of three minutes. The way arrangers used to get out of this was to stick in a hot chorus, then a vocal chorus, then another hot chorus, and so on. That is the reason hot solos were used so frequently in comedy numbers and they rescued some of these from complete mediocrity. Anyway, that’s my opinion.
Another interesting story is how Philippe Brun had come into the band. Someone had said that there was a wonderful trumpet player on the Continent and Jack Jackson had gone across to find this fellow but brought back the wrong man – which was a lucky mistake as Philippe was a superb player. He was originally a straight violinist and was part of an orchestra in a restaurant called, I think, L’Hermitage Moscovite. He picked up the cornet on hearing jazz as a youngster but he could never play jazz on the violin, a peculiar thing. Not like Grappelly, who incidentally was originally a pianist. He made those Hot Club recordings on the fiddle after being on the instrument only two years - it must be some form of record. In my view Grappelly was a monumental genius. I worked with him a lot so I can tell you there is only one Grappelly!
But, back to Philippe. When he joined Hylton he played a French cornet, which must have been about 6" long, if that! It was the funniest looking cornet you have ever seen but the noise he could make with that thing! He had sat in with an American band in Paris, which included such famous names as Bud Freeman, tenor sax, Dave Tough the drummer and some of the other Chicago musicians of the period, and they had an enormous influence on Philippe. They introduced him to Louis Armstrong long before we in the UK had ever heard of him. Philippe came as the complete jazz man and his early playing, in my opinion, was phenomenal.
When he joined the band he was, I think, two years older than me, about 20. Anyway, Philippe and I struck up a friendship for almost the entire period we were with Jack Hylton and we actually both left together in 1936. Philippe only used the cornet for about three months, perhaps less. Although it sounded marvellous it did not fit in pitch-wise with the rest of the band. It had the most fantastic valve action that I have ever felt - out of this world. He used a trumpet in Tid-dle-id-dle-um-pum! and all those records from that period.
Here’s an interesting thing – when Leo Vauchant joined the band Lew Davis went through a very bad patch. Vauchant was so brilliant that Lew got a sort of complex and felt overshadowed, and his playing quite definitely suffered. It wasn’t cured really until he left Hylton and joined Ambrose. Everyone knows from the records Lew made with Ambrose what a wonderful player he was. But you will notice on the Hylton records he never reached those heights. Ted Heath had the same experience when Lew Davis joined Ambrose. Ted was completely outshone, having for years been Ambrose’s only trombone player, and he developed such a complex that he had to leave. It wasn’t until he joined Lipton that he regained his ego, got his self-respect back, and began to play like his old self. I think Ted has actually mentioned that in his autobiography.
Regarding the sax section, Bill Ternent, as mentioned earlier, played all the instruments but usually just the alto sax and the baritone on stage. On records he sometimes did and sometimes didn’t – it usually depended upon how many saxophones we had in the band at the time. For example, the baritone player in Chasing Shadows was not Bill, Bill was in America at the time with Jack, and the baritone player on that one was Jim Easton. Jim played with Lew Stone among others and was a very fine player.
Coming back to the bassists we used; up to 1931 and the end of the first HMV recording contract, after which we changed to Decca, we used one bass on stage and that was Clem Lawton playing sousaphone. On records we used two basses – Clem Lawton and Jim Merritt. When we went over to Decca we used Clem again and Jim Merritt until half way through the contract. That must have been late 1932 or early 1933 when Jack replaced Jim Merritt as session bass player with Spike Hughes – the well known band leader and hot composer. As it happened, I was also recording for Decca with Spike at the time. Spike was then the golden boy at Decca and he was also writing reviews in the Melody Maker. In fact, Jack had been very annoyed with something Spike wrote a while before but they got friendly again and Jack engaged him. Although he was a fine musician, Spike’s bass playing was atrocious and you can hear this on Hylton Stomp and other Hylton records of that period. That continued for a little while and then Clem left and was replaced by Al Roach or Wally Morris. My memory is not too good on this point as to who came first. In any case, for a time he carried two bass players but only one on records and I am sure that it was Wally Morris who was recording with us when the Decca contract ended. That would have been about November 1933. During that time we used two basses on stage - Wally Morris on string bass and Al Roach on sousaphone.
1934 was the year in which we did no recordings at all. It was a blank year for us, which was a pity as at that time the band was excellent. But Al Roach, the sousaphone player, also played trombone and Bill Ternent and I wrote some stage arrangements using six brass. I played third trumpet and Al played third trombone. My piano chair was immediately behind the brass section so it was beautiful for me, just to pick up a trumpet and join the section. That was some of the best fun I ever had, I loved playing third trumpet. I even played trumpet on a few of the records. I made some of the stage arrangements because Bill wasn’t always comfortable with six brass, but he used to write little bits of codas for them to employ the section.
Apart from the trumpet I also played accordion lots of times and indulged in a little scat singing. I only did it for a laugh as I never thought I was much of a scat singer. It was an idea the arrangers came up with. I took off Louis Armstrong just for fun because I loved Louis. I saw him at the Palladium in 1931 or thereabouts. David Shand, my great pal from the sax section, and I stood up in our seats and yelled with enthusiasm.
Of course, everyone in the band was a multi-instrumentalist –we all messed around with a second instrument some time or another. We all played saxophones in a number once on stage – we had been given saxophones for nothing – marvellous days they were.
Leaving Hylton and the War
We had a wonderful period between 1930 and 1935 when we toured all over the world, made films and did everything worth doing. We went to America late in 1935, having completed the film She Shall Have Music, but we were not allowed to work there. Jack thought that once we arrived, Petrillo or no Petrillo, we would get the necessary permissions but he backed a loser! We hung around New York for 12 days kicking our heels and I had a lot of fun in the clubs and going up to Harlem, sitting in with various bands. Eventually we had to come back to London and started work again while Jack stayed on. He was allowed to work with an American band and, would you believe it, he had a band in New York as well as the band he was working with in Chicago.
Back home we did a couple of weeks being conducted by Buddy Rogers, the American film actor, as a bit of a gimmick. By that time I was doing quite a few numbers on the stage, conducting the band and doing impressions of Louis Armstrong, which were going down all right. Then one day Frank Barnard, who was Hylton’s manager, said that Jack had phoned to ask if I would take over the band for the period until he came back from America. And this is where I made a terrible mistake - one does these stupid things in life - I actually told him that it might be a better idea if Sonny Farrar conducted the band because his playing would not be missed half as much as mine. I realized later that that was comparatively unimportant. Anyway, Sonny conducted the band for a couple of weeks and the last week of all it was fronted by a chap from South Africa called Charles Manning. Then Jack put the band on an 8-week suspension, which annoyed me considerably. I don’t know why it should have, as we had been working solidly for years, but you know how you get in a state sometimes about things.
Frank Barnard came up to me and said that Mrs Jack Hylton, who ran a band at that time, would be delighted if I would work for her until Jack came back. But having this enormous chip on my shoulder, I told him that if it was the last band in the world I wouldn’t work for Ennis Hylton. I was quite unnecessarily rude because she had always been very kind to me but, as I have said, this is the silliest moment of my life! Anyway, I left the band and joined the Sydney Lipton at the Grosvenor House for exactly one-third of the salary I was getting with Jack. This was quite a let down but I eventually made up my wages by arranging, which nearly killed me, but that’s another story.
I stayed with Lipton right up until war broke out when, as it happened, we were touring, as we had four weeks off from the Grosvenor House. We were doing a tour of four towns: Morecombe, Blackpool, Dundee and Aberdeen, and the Sunday we finished at Aberdeen was the very day that war was declared. The band immediately broke up and we all went back to out own homes as no one knew what was going to happen. It was quite chaotic; we expected to be bombed to smithereens the very first day.
Anyway, within a few weeks everything seemed to return to normal. I was at home in Glasgow when I had a letter from Lipton to say please come back to London straight away as, to keep people’s morale up, dancing was starting again. We went back to London and played there. When the blitz started not long after that, we went downstairs and started playing in cellars. Incidentally, I tried to get into the Navy but it was quite hopeless. The recruiting centre had no time for anyone and we were told to go home and wait to be called up. I was actually invited to go into the Irish Guards to play a Tuba in the band but I didn’t fancy that very much.
Incidentally, at this time, just before the war, I was a member of the British Motor Cycle Racing Club at Brooklands, because my hobby was engines, engineering and scientific things like that. Bill Farrell, the trumpet player and a good pal of mine, made the suggestion that we should join the Royal Naval Volunteer Patrol Service. Following the Dunkirk evacuation it was thought sensible to have a small boat service for emergencies. Part of the idea was that if musicians manned such a service, they could provide entertainment at various Naval Stations. The only snag was that we would be liable to be called up instantaneously.
In the event we were called up suddenly and Bill and I had to leave the Grosvenor House overnight. But of the 30 boats that were supposed to sail down from Teddington to Tilbury, only two arrived! Bill and I were on one of them and we were told to go back to Teddington because the whole thing had become a fiasco. It is hard to explain what happened and what it was like in those times. Anyway, when I got back I was told to ring home straight away and discovered I had been offered a job by GEC, in an engineering capacity, through the Motor Cycle Club. I decided to take this job but when I eventually wanted to leave to join the RAF, I couldn’t get released. So I never had a chance to play in the Squadronaires. I would have enjoyed playing with them, as they included all my old pals - Tommy McQuater, David Shand, and all the boys I had more or less grown up with.
Before I left Grosvenor House, however, Sidney Lipton made a series of records for Columbia. This would have been late 1939 and 1940 and the arrangements I made for these recordings were among the best things I ever did.
The Café de Paris
Everyone around in the 1940s claimed to have been somehow or other connected with the Café de Paris bombing. If that was the case then the Café de Paris must have been bigger than the Albert Hall! But this story is true! My wife, Eileen, was a dancer at the Café de Paris at the time. George Melachrino and Ken Johnson led the bands playing there, alternating one week on and one week off. Eileen was in the floorshow and the week before the bombing she had a row and walked out. The very place the bomb fell was where she used to stand and watch the dancers before the show started. She was very lucky to escape that one. I was playing at the Grosvenor House at the time and when the news came through I dashed downstairs and woke Eileen up to tell her. We couldn’t believe the lucky escape she’d had.
In the prewar period vocalists did not have the stature that they have nowadays. In those days they were considered as part of the band and, as far as the band musicians were concerned, they were rather an unnecessary evil! We hated the vocalists because they cut into recording time that we could have used and I can’t tell you the number of times I bent my ears trying to listen to what was going on behind the vocal because that was more interesting to me than the vocal. Nevertheless, the vocalists were given every consideration by the arrangers - indeed they had to be.
Now, the reason why they were so often singing high is quite easily explained. In the early days there were no microphones on stage and the vocalists were expected to sing to enormous audiences in halls that often were not perfect from an acoustical point of view. For example, we worked to audiences of 7,000 at the Kursaal, Ostend, 5,000 in Cologne and 3,000 odd at the London Palladium – all without mikes. Now I know from my own experiences of singing on stage that I had to shout the words like a maniac. There was no point in whispering as you would not be heard at all. So, the orchestrators pitched the vocal keys as high as they could bearing in mind that low singing could not be heard. The thing was to put the vocalist at the extreme height of his range and sometimes over his range. It had to be that way in a live performance, and it also applied to acoustic recordings, the vocalists still had to shout like hell. It didn’t occur to anyone when electric recordings came in that mikes and the like could be applied to the stage as well. It was not until Bing Crosby showed conclusively that you could sing in a low register, very quietly with a microphone, and create the same volume. And also the quality was ever so much better. That is the main reason why such an enormous difference is found around 1934–5-6, when mikes became available in all the theatres. We found keys suddenly going down to ‘crooning ranges’. I know the difficulty of singing on stage in the wrong key because that’s impossible. Yes, the arrangers gave every consideration to the vocalist with that one proviso that the keys had to be very high in those early days.
As a point of interest, Sam Browne could not read a note of music, not a note. We normally used to do four titles in a recording session and he would turn up not having seen any of the numbers before. I played them once through on piano and he got them! He had a fantastic memory and he recorded straight away numbers he hadn’t seen until then. Very rarely did I have to go over a phrase more than twice with him so he could get it. Sam was absolutely wonderful that way. Pat O’Malley was not as quick; Pat was good, but not nearly as quick.
Unheard Bowlly and Whispering
I know there is a lot of interest in Al Bowlly and many people may not know that in about 1938 Monia Liter brought together a band of recording men, session boys, to do an audition record for Radio Luxemburg. It was a two-sided record and contained some quite good musicians – Joe Crossman, Albert Harris on guitar, Jock Jacobson on drums and myself on piano. Monia did the arrangements and the interesting thing is that he used Al Bowlly as the singer. It was recorded by HMV as Monia Liter and his Orchestra and carries the matrix numbers RPX 84/1 and 84/2. Being an audition record it was never released and therefore contains some unheard Al Bowlly. Funny thing is, I never heard whether Monia got the job or not.
Another interesting session occurred when Jack Nathan, the piano player with Roy Fox, called and asked me if I wanted to do a half-session with Roy’s band. It was only for two records which Jack wanted to conduct. Roy didn’t conduct, he sat in the control room – Jack Hylton always conducted sessions but Roy Fox preferred to sit in the control room listening. That’s how I came to record the well known concert arrangement of Whispering.
Swing and Arrangers
In my view the swing era had a bad influence on arrangements and arrangers in general. There were so many terrible riff arrangements, no thought, nothing put into them at all. I thought Bill Challis was ideal as an arranger, and I liked Ferdy Grofe and all the Whiteman arrangers. Also, a pianist called Tom Satterfield was very good, and Lennie Hayton wasn’t too bad either although he had a slight touch of the swing influence kicking into his work – Nobody’s Sweetheart, China Boy, and those sort of numbers.
I met Bunny in Antwerp when he was with Hal Kemp and the Jack Hylton band was playing at the Concert Hall. We met up in a nightclub, La Peroque, and we were sitting at the bar – well it would be the bar with Bunny although I didn’t know he was a lush at the time. So was I too! Anyway, we were sitting there having a drink on those high bar stools, Bunny on my left, Philippe Brun on my right and on the other side from Bunny was Peter Kingsley the guitar player with Kemp at the time. Four of us talking away when suddenly a great big chap approaches from behind across the small ballroom floor and knocks me completely off the stool. He hit me hard; completely surprised me and I went flying. Bunny came straight away to my rescue and it was eventually all straightened out. The answer was quite simply that it was a case of mistaken identity. On Philippe’s other side he had a friend, a Frenchman, who was making rude remarks about a party across the room and I was pointed out by mistake for Philippe’s pal. I think it was the only time I have been saved from a massacre by a good jazz man!
After the war I formed a group and played at the Orchid Room in Mayfair and when I left there I led the band for Maurice Winnick at Ciro’s. Maurice then went to America but when he came back and disbanded the Ciro’s band. At that time I was also playing at the Jazz Club in London and I wasn’t terribly worried about fixing anything else but a friend of mine, Adrian Foley, who was an old habitué of the Orchid Room, came up with a suggestion. He had just been on holiday in Torquay and told me that the manager of the Imperial Hotel there wanted a new band. My wife was about to have a baby and I thought it would be a nice place to work. I went there with the intention of staying only for the season. I arrived in December, fixed up the job, and stayed for nearly 30 years!
By Ray Pallett
Ask old time musicians, or fans of the dance band days as to what they remember about Ambrose vocalist Evelyn Dall, the comments back will nearly always centre around her appearances on the stage bra-less and musicians in the Orchestra missing their cue! For years, no one seemed to know what happened to the girl they called "The Blonde Bombshell" when she left Ambrose and returned to the States. After extensive research by Mark Spry involving the Internet, contact was made with Evelyn’s nephew Don who lives about 25 miles from her in Florida. With Don’s help, Memory Lane can now tell, for the first time ever, the full story of Evelyn Dall.
Evelyn was born on January 8th, 1918 in New York City and as a young girl was trained as a ballet and tap dancer. Her parents had no connection with show business and raised no objections to their daughter’s theatrical ambitions. At the age of 15 she left school and can be found in a dancing act called Fields, Martin and Dall for which she was paid 50 dollars a week. Evelyn found that her role in the act was a kind of stooge and took some knocking-about. After only two months she quit the act and try to find something better.
The Paramount Theatre in New York was giving auditions for a girl singer. She discovered that the person conducting the auditions didn’t care for jazz and wanted a sweet and demure ballad singer. So although Evelyn was more inclined towards up tempo songs, she decided to try her luck and so went along and sung Did You Ever See A Dream Walking? She got the job. She tried to introduce jazz into the act, which although pleased audience, did not please the boss. It was not long before she looked for something more in keeping with her own style.
She managed to get a job through singing coach Al Seigel with whom she developed her skills as a singer. On one occasion during a show the regular singer didn’t turn up and so in desperation Seigel persuaded Evelyn to act as stand in. She sung When A Woman Loves A Man and her performance led to an audition with cabaret producer Felix Ferry who was taking a show to Monte Carlo. Evelyn was only 16 and her mother, Frieda, wanted her to get the job in the club in Monte Carlo where the minimum age to work was 18; so her mother lied about her age. Evelyn got the job which basically launched her European career. Sometime later the show came to England and appeared at the Grosvenor House where one Bert Ambrose was in the audience. After the show Evelyn returned to America to appear in New York in the Theatre Guild production Parade. But Ambrose had made a note about the new blonde singer...
By this time, Evelyn had made four short films in the States, one of which, Tickets Please was shown in the United Kingdom. She also appeared in a night club act at the Manhattan Music Hall. Then out of the blue, came a telegram from Ambrose in London inviting Evelyn to join his Orchestra. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Evelyn accepted the offer and sailed to England to join what was probably Britain’s most famous dance orchestra of the decade. Singing with a famous orchestra was a challenge for Evelyn, who was still only a teenager. Elsie Carlisle, Ambrose’s previous singer was going to be a hard act to follow! Ambrose wasted no time; she was broadcasting with the band the same night that she arrived. Her song South American Joe was an instant success and there was no doubt that Evelyn "had arrived". The next day she made her first public appearance at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool.
Evelyn started recording with the Ambrose Orchestra in September 1935. Her first disc was Mrs Worthington backed with Lulu’s Back In Town which Evelyn changed to Louis when she sang it. Altogether she recorded just over 30 titles with Ambrose, the last being No, Mama, No! made in June 1940. A recording of particular note was Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off which was a duet with Sam Browne. During the 1940s, Evelyn went on to make some solo recordings including Mr Jones, Are You Coming To Bed, My Wubba Dolly and Something For The Boys.
One of her high spots with Ambrose was an appearance at Buckingham Palace in June 1938 where she sung Nice Work If You Can Get It before a thousand distinguished guests which included Neville Chamberlain and the American Ambassador Joseph Kennedy. This was the coronation and Evelyn recalls that she was both awed and elated when the newly crowned King and Queen came to her and remarked about how much they enjoyed her performance.
George Elrick remembers a gig in Newcastle, a very hot day and everyone took their coats off - including Evelyn, who wasn't wearing much (or anything) under her dress - the spotlights shone right through the dress and the band began to giggle - Ambrose couldn't understand what was going on till he turned round!
Evelyn liked to go out horse riding and sometimes George Elrick accompanied her.One day she went riding with a group that included a woman who was close friend of hers. The friend's horse threw the woman off and into a tree. The woman was killed and Evelyn never rode again. Later, she remembers people asking why she had a closet full of jodhpurs when she wasn't a rider!
Evelyn was known to have conducted the Ambrose band for awhile. She recalls that when she conducted the orchestra it was because Ambrose had the idea that the audience would love to watch her rear-end move since she was facing the orchestra, not the audience. She moved her rear-end appropriately and the audience loved it. Evelyn didn't think anyone in the orchestra paid any attention to her conducting but she had great fun doing it anyway. By all accounts, as soon as Evelyn came out on stage all the boys rushed down the front to get a good view and totally ignored their girl friends!
It can be revealed that Evelyn became Ambrose’s mistress during her association with his Orchestra and that she threatened to return to the States unless he married her. However, she knew from the outset he would never marry her. Evelyn recalls that she left because "I was sick of him and just wanted to get away from him."
Although Evelyn was a smash hit singing with the great Ambrose Orchestra, her first love was musical comedy. She appeared in pantomime, Robinson Crusoe at the end of 1940. She remembers doing Present Arms then a show called Something For the Boys an American Show in which she played the Ethel Merman part and was the star. It was very successful as all of the American Service men came to see it. However, after D-day they all went off to battle and the attendance dropped. She then did Follow The Girls with Arthur Askey. This show initially opened at the Palace, Manchester, then on to Liverpool and Blackpool to open in Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, on 26th October 1945. Evelyn played the part of a night club singer and her songs in the show included I Want To Get Married. It was the last show she did
Evelyn appeared in a number of films and I must thank film historian Graham Newnham for details of her cinema appearances. Evelyn appeared in the following British feature-length films: Soft Lights and Sweet Music (1936); Calling All Stars (1937); Kicking The Moon Around (1938); He Found A Star (1941); King Arthur Was A Gentlemen (1942); Miss London Ltd (1943); Time Flies (1944).
In Soft Lights Evelyn sings I’ve Lost My Rhythm and I’m All In and in Calling All Stars she sings Organ Grinder’s Swing and I Don’t Wanna Get Hot, all four with Ambrose and his Orchestra. In Time Flies she sings Hey Mr Bellman.
Evelyn also appeared in four British film "shorts":
Pathetone Medley No 513 (1940) - Franklyn D Roosevelt Jones with Ambrose and his Orchestra
Swingtease (1940) - Sing As You Swing
Music Man (1940) - song unknown
Music Box (1940) - Let’s Dance with Mantovani and his Tipica Orchestra
Evelyn remembers doing a show called One-Hundred Percent Broadway. It was done in a room converted to a studio at Victoria Palace. Evelyn believes it was the first British comedy television programme ever and perhaps the first anywhere in the world. The American Comedian she did the show with was named David Burns.
The story of how Evelyn met her husband was that she used to play poker on a regular basis with an American officer on duty in London. The officer had a close friend in the U.S. who was an avid amateur golfer. The golfing friend took an extended holiday in the UK to play golf with the American officer and met Evelyn in the process. He ultimately asked Evelyn to marry him and she said yes.
So in November 1946 she returned to the U.S. She sailed on the first post-war passenger voyage of the Queen Elizabeth. Evelyn left show business completely and moved to New England to live as a housewife and mother with her husband Sam, a successful businessman. In 1948 she gave birth to a daughter, Marylee and in 1950 had a son, Brian. The daughter is a systems analyst living with her husband, a physician, in the south-west U.S. and her son is retired from the engineering and testing division of a major automobile manufacturing company. He lives in California and collects films and cars. Regrettably, Sam passed away in 1974. Evelyn has a fear of flying and as a result has travelled very little.
Evelyn has lived a very private life since retiring from show business and would like it to remain that way. She now lives alone, in a townhome, in a gated golfing community in Florida although she doesn't play golf. She is very healthy and as sharp as ever still doing her own shopping and other errands. She is socially reclusive as most of her friends are gone now. Evelyn is able to view many of the British programmes on cable TV and really enjoys watching them. She stays busy. Not that long ago she bought a "Brew your own beer at home" kit. This adventure ended when it "blew up" in the closet. Her house smelled "beer" for a week. She laughs about it. For that matter, Evelyn finds the humorous side of almost everything.
As a footnote, Evelyn’s nephew Don wrote "Evelyn and I had an interesting conversation regarding this article and some of what she read in Memory Lane. What I think she enjoyed most out of Memory Lane was that it jogged her memory and brought back thoughts of very happy times. I asked her some questions and her replies were as follows:"
What was your favourite show?
Follow the Girls where I didn’t have the whole onus of being the star and of course I was very fond of Arthur (Askey) who was trotting around after me too. Although he was a married man as well. All the married men chased me. I don’t know what they were looking for!
What film did you enjoy doing the most?
Time Flies, because it had a good story and I just adored the guy who played the professor, Felix Aylmer, a very respected actor and it was a pleasure to work with him. I was thrilled when it came out on video.
Who was your favourite person to work with?
Arthur Askey, he was very malleable, very sweet and very giving. By contrast you meet so many leading men and comics who are just so selfish thinking only of themselves.
What part of your career did you really despise?
Ambrose sending spies after me when I was dating other people! That’s really why I left. Wherever I went there was someone snooping. When I got back home (to the U.S.) he called after my husband and I were married, and he said he wanted to visit and see how I was living now and I thought "Oh No!" But he did visit. He was our guest for awhile. I know he’s gone now but I think he’s sneaking around after me still!
Is there any big regret you have about your career in show business?
None whatever, I had a ball!" Why should I regret any of it? I met the most fascinating people and the most fascinating people were interested in me. The Duke of Kent, to show his appreciation, got us booked for the Coronation at Buckingham Palace and that of course made the headlines everywhere in the world. I still have a book full of all the write-ups in the New York papers - "New York Girl Sings At Buckingham Palace."
I started working at 15 ½. I was ready for it anyway. I had been taking the singing, dancing, and ballet lessons since I was a baby, Mama was "Gypsy Rose" but I adored it, I loved it. I was 16 ½ when I was sent to Monte Carlo and Mama swore that I was 18. I never looked back, but I want to tell you one thing which I regret most. I’m so sad when Father’s Day comes because my Dad never got any credit for anything and he was a love. My father's name was Isidore. They called him "Izzy". I was just crazy about him. His father started as a janitor at a block of buildings and ended, in the same lifetime, being a landlord of a whole block of East Side (New York) apartments. My father kept the books and his dad never gave him a cent. I had the best association with Dad of all the family. When I started working I would come in at 2:00 or 3:00 o’clock in the morning and he was up because he was a supervisor on the night shift at the Pennsylvania train station. We had little meetings at 2:00 or 3:00 o’clock in the morning eating together and talking.
While talking about family names and her stage name:
I remember I got the "Dall" from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grandchild because Curtis Dall married one of FDR’s daughters. I liked the name so I took it.
by Michele Breeze
Alan Breeze was commonly known as the " man with the golden voice ". But not many people know that whilst he could literally sing anything from opera to a tongue twisting comedy pop song with perfect diction, he in fact, could hardly speak being afflicted by the most terrible stammer.
He joined the Billy Cotton Bandshow in 1931 after Bill was agonising with his Musical Director over the problem of choosing a male singer for the band. The vast spectrum of music covered by Big Bands in those days meant that they simply couldn't find one person to perform this task and the band couldn't afford to hire three male singers.
Whilst Bill was discussing this with his MD, Alan happened to stop by chance, outside The West End Theatre where Bill was appearing and began busking to the waiting theatre queue to earn his bus fare home to the East End. Bill shouted in exasperation, " What I need is someone like that geezer singing outside " . The conversation stopped as they scrambled to open the dressing room window and look below.
There, was an emaciated young man with glasses, singing his heart out and weighing at most, 8 stone. When he finished, Bill whistled down and shouted " Hey you ! ..... you down there with the glasses " . Bill called him in for an audition and afterwards he said to Alan , " O.K. son, I'm going to give you a weeks trial ". Alan replied " Oh.......0h.....Oh .... Oh " and Bill, getting bored, took that as an O.K. !
Alan Breeze often laughed and said he remained on a weeks trial for the next 40 years. He never had a contract with Bill throughout the whole of their association and never missed a show.
A Retrospective View of the Great Bandleaders by Gordon Howsden
I have an amusing vision of Geraldo standing in front of a mirror, immaculately dressed as always, with his hair impeccably groomed, and saying in his ripe cockney accent, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greatest bandleader of them all?"
During the 1930s, as his fame grew and his mastery of an impressive range of musical styles increased, he must have longed for an answer in the affirmative. For I suspect that what motivated Geraldo above all other things was ambition. I doubt that my imaginary mirror would have given him the answer he desired until in 1940, aided by some of his contemporaries disbanding and/or losing personnel to the war effort, he surely could claim to have the best band in the land. And as hard work was as ingrained in him as his desire for success, he remained at the very top of his profession for the following decade.
Hard work and ambition are probably essential characteristics for anyone who wants to succeed but there is another attribute, noted by many distinguished commentators, that I feel is particularly apt in describing Geraldo. Brian Rust, the eminent historian and discographer, called him "shrewd" and famed Memory Lane feature writer, Chris Hayes, used the same significant word in one of his articles about the maestro. Geraldo was shrewd enough to popularize the colourful and exotic tango as a means of gaining entry to the top echelon of London musical circles, shrewd enough to form a more conventional dance orchestra once his name had become established, shrewd enough to widen his musical competence into both light music and the emerging swing idiom, shrewd enough to hire the best musicians and arrangers and to listen to them rather than stick rigidly to his own viewpoint, and shrewd enough to form a business empire based on his extensive connections within, and wide knowledge of, the music business.
It is not surprising that Julien Vedey, founder of The Musical Express, wrote in 1950 that, "Geraldo is the Goliath of popular music." Mr Vedey also had no hesitation in stating that Geraldo was "the most versatile band leader of all time", and whilst that claim may sound rather excessive it was probably in line with popular sentiment in 1950. But, of course, to reach such a pinnacle had involved Geraldo in a long, hard and sometimes risky climb.
Geraldo, real name Gerald Walcen Bright, was born in London in 1904, and both he and his twin brother Sidney proved to have a special aptitude for the piano.
Such was their musical progress that both attended the Royal College of Music where they were distinguished students. A musical career did not initially appeal to young Gerald, and his father, a tailor in London’s East End, paid for him to be apprenticed in the fur trade. It did not take Gerald long to realize that this type of work was not for him and he left after a few months. As other jobs were hard to find he supplemented his income by becoming a relief cinema pianist in the Old Kent Road. From there he moved to Lyons Corner House in the Strand where he was hired to play the organ. Not having had any experience on the instrument that job was short lived but at the age of 15 Gerald was nothing if not tenacious. He took lessons, studied hard, and within six months had got his old job back. His progress was such that Lyons soon promoted him to leading a small orchestra.
Despite these early glimmerings of a possible promising musical career Gerald, or Gerry as he became universally known, decided he wanted to see the world and took a job as pianist on a passenger liner. But a life at sea was not for him either and disembarking at Liverpool he again took temporary employment playing piano for silent films. But before long he landed a job with a band at the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool. His fluent playing, and engaging personality made him a talking point and it was no surprise when he had an offer to lead his own five-piece band at the nearby Metropole Hotel. It was 1923 and Gerald Bright at 19 was already a ‘name’ in local circles. The band moved to the Majestic Hotel in St Anne’s-on-Sea where his fame was spread more widely through regular radio broadcasts.
No doubt, Gerry could have stayed in the north-west and pursued a comfortable career but after five years at the Majestic he decided it was time to broaden his musical outlook. Subsequent publicity stated that he went to South America to study Latin rhythms but whether he did or not Gerry had, by 1930, developed a passionate interest in the tango. London society had long been receptive to all the new dance crazes and that is where Gerry headed to recruit the specialist musicians he needed. He decked them out in colourful costumes, rehearsed assiduously, and duly won a month’s booking at the prestigious Savoy Hotel. The Savoy had regularly featured Latin orchestras from abroad but it is believed that Gerry’s was the first British band they engaged to supply such rhythms for its customers. Originally called Los Gauchos, the band played opposite the established Savoy Hotel Orpheans. The Savoy bands were featured regularly on the radio and with this exposure in mind Gerry changed this own and the band’s name. The Italian members of his orchestra already referred to him as ‘Geraldo’ so he adopted the name and was featured thereafter as ‘Geraldo and his Gaucho Tango Orchestra’.
He was an instant success and his original booking extended into a 10 year residency. His tango orchestra was honoured with an appearance at the Royal Command Performance of 1933 but with his reputation securely established he set about forming a more conventional dance orchestra. Thus, Geraldo and his Sweet Music made its debut both on record and at the Savoy. But such was the popularity of the Gaucho Tango Orchestra that it continued to record and play to enthusiastic audiences until it was finally pensioned off during 1937.
Meanwhile, brother Sid had been quietly making a useful career for himself as a dance band pianist assisting many top bandleaders. Geraldo had no hesitation in giving Sid the piano chair in his own band where he also acted as deputy leader. Another long and loyal servant of the various Geraldo orchestras was alto saxophonist Cyril Grantham, whose vocal contributions over the years have probably not been given the credit they deserve. Better remembered is another vocal talent regularly used by Geraldo, although principally with the tango orchestra, Monte Rey. Monte, real name James Montgomery Fife, had a powerful classically trained tenor voice, and regularly appeared with Geraldo on records, broadcasts and concert dates.
Apart from being featured on the radio from the Savoy, Geraldo and his Sweet Music had their own programme called ‘Dancing Through’, and one of these broadcasts was reported to have included 170 different tunes played in an hour. Another series of programmes titled ‘Romance in Rhythm’ followed, giving Gerry the opportunity to feature his 30 instrument concert orchestra, and in 1937 he had a further hit radio show with ‘The Music Shop’. This presented the ‘hit’ tunes of the previous two weeks based on sales of sheet music – a forerunner of today’s chart programmes. Gerry added another string to his bow when he became Musical Director of Herbert Wilcox Productions, whose film output from the Elstree studios was considerable.
Although the Savoy, the BBC and his growing legion of fans were more than happy with the music he was providing, Gerry probably realized that to move forward he needed some new and more progressive musicians. During 1938 he made two key appointments by hiring George Evans and Harry Hayes, both late of Sydney Lipton’s Grosvenor House Orchestra. For his recording sessions, previously with Decca and now with HMV, he used the special talents of Al Bowlly and Eve Becke, and when Al was not available Sam Browne was a more than capable deputy. Max Goldberg was recruited to lead the trumpet section in 1939 and in the months leading up to the outbreak of war the Geraldo orchestra was undoubtedly making superb music.
The war when it came naturally caused great disruption among the dance bands, as it did to all other forms of peacetime activity. The Savoy could no longer afford two orchestras but as Gerry prepared to move out after ten years another door opened in the shape of a plum appointment as Director of Dance Music for the BBC. Shortly afterwards he also acquired the influential position of supervisor of the bands division of ENSA. Some may have buckled under the strain but Gerry just worked harder and continued to enhance his band with top flight musicians. Particularly noteworthy was the string of top class vocalists that he added to the payroll, including such stars as Dorothy Carless, Len Camber, Beryl Davis, Doreen Villiers, Johnny Green, Archie Lewis and Carole Carr.
On the air ten or more times a week, giving concerts, recording, appearing in films - it was non-stop activity for Gerry and his band. At times rehearsals were just not possible but the unflappable Gerry took it in his stride, confident that his hand picked musicians could sight-read their way out of trouble. In 1943 Gerry took his band, entertainer and singer Derek Roy and a full complement of vocalists to the Middle East and North Africa for a gruelling tour entertaining the troops. Concerts and broadcasts from the European mainland followed in 1944 and 1945. Prior to that had come Geraldo’s wartime pièce de résistance, a charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall where Gerry conducted an orchestra of 70 through a strenuous programme consisting of all types of music. Ivor Mairants, star guitarist with the orchestra for over ten years, relates that the whole of the second half was unrehearsed but Gerry calmly carried the event through to a triumphant conclusion.
Peace brought little slackening in Gerry’s activities, as his musical empire stretched into providing bands for clubs, restaurants, ballrooms, theatres and for the Cunard shipping line. Gerry’s was also the first band to appear on post-war television, and on radio ‘Tip Top Tunes’ became a long running success. Wally Stott, Woolf Phillips and Robert Farnon were among his talented roster of arrangers, and up and coming stars like Eric Delaney, Eddie Calvert, Don Lusher, Eve Boswell and Rosemary Squires all cut their teeth with the band. The one fly in the ointment was provided by Gerry’s own former trombonist, Ted Heath, who took the gamble of leaving well paid employment to start his own band. After some initial difficulties, Ted and his music quickly rivalled and to my ears eventually outshone his old boss.
During the 1960s Gerry concentrated more and more on his business empire, organized from his offices in Bond Street, with just the occasional concert appearance. Gerry never retired but sadly died in harness whilst on holiday in Switzerland in 1974.
Despite his enormous success, and the capacity he had for playing all types of popular and light music, I suspect that Geraldo is less revered among dance band enthusiasts today than he should be. Perhaps the fact that his concert orchestra was famed in light music circles has weighed against him. In addition, he was never ‘one of the boys’ and his band may have lacked the camaraderie that other leaders engendered in their musicians. But, for all that, he seems to have been an approachable and fair-minded employer. Anyone not up to the required musical standard, however, was dispensed with speedily but Gerry, like one or two other leaders, could be childishly churlish if anyone gave in their notice to leave him!
His recorded music was always of good quality but from 1938 it changed from being ‘very good’ to ‘great’. A lot of the credit for this must go to George Evans, not only a fine tenor player and vocalist, but also an outstanding arranger. Bearing in mind the tasteful and often inspired charts that he wrote for the band I can even forgive him Gerry’s signature tune Hello Again and the occasional overuse of the Hal Kemp type triple tongued trumpets! Harry Hayes also provided genuine class as leader of the sax section, and once a standard of excellence was achieved Gerry never let it drop. His wartime output was prodigious and his contribution to the morale of the country incalculable.
There may be some who would consider that Geraldo’s true genius was for business and organization rather than for making music, but I am not one of them. It is safe to say that my Geraldo LPs and CDs will always remain a treasured part of my collection.
A Retrospective View of the Great Bandleaders by Gordon Howsden
To the Great British public of the 1930s he was dance music. During his period as Director of the BBC Dance Orchestra he was heard on the radio several times each week playing music that catered for all tastes and ages. Millions tuned in to his radio shows and his slightly hesitant but amiable voice became known the length and breadth of the nation. On the rare occasions his BBC band performed in public he was always given a rapturous reception and at times he had to have police protection such was the fervour of his many fans. Henry Hall was, in short, an entertainment super-star.
Such adulation can be short lived but Henry remained a popular and respected figure in show business for many years. Whether leading an orchestra, topping a variety bill, producing shows or hosting a TV music programme, his friendly and modest demeanour found an instant rapport with his varied audiences. He made everything he did look simple, but no one achieves the kind of success that Henry enjoyed without talent, business acumen and a lot of hard work.
Born on 2 May 1898, the son of a Peckham blacksmith, there was no easy way to the top for young Henry. His parents were keen that he and his brothers and sisters learned musical instruments and Henry was entrusted with a trumpet from a very early age, later adding the piano and concertina to his range of instruments. Never very keen on the theory and practice of music Henry, nevertheless, won a scholarship to the Trinity School of Music, which he attended on Saturday mornings. At the age of fourteen he was released into the world of commerce and obtained a job as a page boy at the National Health Insurance Commission at the princely wage of nine shillings a week. Music was now starting to dominate Henry’s spare time, so when the opportunity arose to join the Music Department of the Salvation Army, he accepted with alacrity.
Although his job was mainly clerical, Henry’s lunch hour was usually spent playing the trumpet or the office piano, and indulging in his penchant for composition. Perhaps as a result of absorbing the atmosphere of the Salvation Army, or the onset of the 1914-18 war, his early works were all marches. In December 1916 Henry became Gunner Hall in the Royal Field Artillery and, if nothing else, the Army taught him how to smoke, dance and play cards. Eventually, his musical ability was recognised and he was transferred to the Military Band based at the Cadet School of the Royal Garrison Artillery.
After being demobbed in 1919, and with regular jobs hard to come by, Henry decided to try for a career in music. After a few spasmodic solo bookings, he formed a trio called "The Variety Three" which played a number of the lesser theatres around the country. The act eventually foundered and in desperation Henry took a job as a cinema pianist in Tooting. Although his confidence was shaken, Henry was determined to succeed and enrolled for piano lessons at the Guildhall School of Music. Then, in December 1922, he was offered a job as relief pianist for the Christmas season at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. Anything was better than cinema duties in Tooting, so Henry accepted.
Fact is often stranger than fiction, and that temporary engagement was to change Henry’s life. At first, it did not seem that way. Playing in a dance band was very different to accompanying silent films and Henry got plenty of black looks from the musical director. But when his big chance came it was as sudden as it was unexpected. On New Year’s Eve the Hotel arranged for some exhibition dancers to perform a cabaret and they needed time to change between their numbers. The musical director whispered in Henry’s ear, "Play something – quick!" With only a moment’s hesitation, Henry performed a showy Chopin study, The Butterfly, and literally stopped the show. Fortunately, the managing director of the hotel group, Arthur Towle, was in the audience and there and then marked Henry down for better things.
Within a matter of weeks Henry was not just a permanent member of the band, he was leading it. And such was his ability to absorb and learn anything musical he soon mastered the complexities of dance band rhythms and the organisation of an orchestra. The ability to relate to and understand the needs of both customers and management came naturally to Henry, and it earned him a privileged niche in the organisation of the LMS hotel chain. The Gleneagles Hotel, newly built in 1924, was the flagship of the group, and Henry was given the opportunity of forming a resident orchestra. Broadcasting was in its infancy, but Henry was quick to see its possibilities and persuaded the BBC to broadcast the opening night of the Gleneagles Hotel on 4th June 1924. This was followed by several more broadcasts and, in addition to reaching a wider audience, it resulted in the orchestra landed a recording contract with Columbia.
By now happily married to Margery, Henry was adding new bands to his list of responsibilities at a rapid rate. By 1931 the total had reached thirty-two, and managing them meant extensive travelling up and down the country. London was usually on his itinerary as keeping the bands supplied with the latest numbers as soon as they were published was a constant requirement. Often Henry prepared the arrangements and band parts for such numbers on the train and, with his continuing interest in composition, it seemed as though he was constantly immersed in music. One of his more durable works was Come Ye Back To Bonnie Scotland, which was adopted in 1929 as the signature tune of the Gleneagles Hotel Band.
The New Year of 1932 found Henry as a seasoned musician, an experienced bandleader and an able administrator, who was holding down a responsible, interesting and secure job. The receipt of a telegram from the BBC on 8th January caused him no particular concern. He assumed that the message calling him to a meeting was simply to discuss a future broadcast for one of his bands. But no sooner had he arrived at Savoy Hill than he was told that Jack Payne and his immensely popular BBC Dance Orchestra was leaving after a period of four years. If that was a surprise the invitation to take over as Payne’s replacement was a total shock. The BBC demanded an instant response from Henry who, after talking to his wife over the telephone, decided to accept the job. As the current BBC Orchestra was contracted to Payne personally, it meant that Henry’s first task was that of forming a new band, which at the BBC’s insistence had to be of a different style to its predecessor.
Quite why Henry was the BBC’s choice has not to my knowledge ever been revealed. Henry, as a provincial bandleader, had not had the exposure given to some of the London society bands and was also a less experienced broadcaster than many of his contemporaries. But the choice was a wise one and it is doubtful that the BBC ever regretted their decision. Henry’s first orchestra was certainly different to the Payne line-up, with just one trumpet and one trombone, and the sixteen-year old Richard Matthews on oboe. Among the other young musicians recruited was violinist Cyril Stapleton, fresh from the Trinity College of Music. Leading the sax section, however, was the experienced Burton Gillis, a stalwart from Henry’s Gleneagles Orchestra.
The first broadcast was made on 15th March 1932 when the strains of It’s Just The Time For Dancing were heard over the air for the first time. The programme of ten numbers concluded with Henry'’s own composition, Here’s’ To The Next Time. It was a huge task to replace the ebullient Jack Payne and it took Henry time to establish himself. The BBC eventually agreed to augment the brass section of the orchestra and the main vocalist, Val Rosing, gave way to the more adaptable Les Allen; but not before the former had recorded the million selling hit The Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Another huge success from 1932 was Underneath The Arches where vocal duties were undertaken, of course, by Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen. The latter were present at the inaugural broadcast of the famous Henry Hall Guest Night programmes, which took place on 17th March 1934.
In order to keep his style of presentation and orchestrations up to date, Henry visited the USA several times. On one early trip he left the announcing duties in the hands of his producer George Hodges, but the press found out and thereafter Henry’s distinctive introduction, "This is Henry Hall speaking", became quite a catchphrase. Henry’s continued success was recognised in many ways, A Royal Command Performance in 1934, topping the bill at the London Palladium the same year, a starring role in the 1935 film, Music Hath Charms and guest conductor on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary in 1936. Not least among his accomplishments was to persuade the BBC to hire the talented multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter as an arranger.
In the constant quest to vary his programmes and to keep listeners on their toes, Henry substantially increased the size of the band and the number of featured vocalists. The cost to the BBC was considerable and it became known in the press that there was a real possibility that the dance band might be disbanded in favour of a rota of guest orchestras. On 15 March 1937, the fifth anniversary of the first broadcast, Sir John Reith met with Henry Hall to break the news that the BBC Dance Orchestra was to go. Henry had already thought of leaving for the variety stage so there was an instant meeting of minds. Six months notice was given, and the farewell broadcast took place on 25 September. Two days later, Henry’s own band was topping the bill at the Hippodrome, Birmingham, and a new chapter in an extraordinary success story was opened.
Until the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, Henry toured extensively, always as the top attraction and never failing to fill theatres with ease. In 1940, the tours recommenced with service camps now included in the itinerary, and with the BBC reviving the ever-popular guest nights. In 1945 the band toured Europe and then returned to the British variety theatres, which continued to be widely patronised. By 1947, however, the future for the music halls seemed less certain, and Henry was anyway tiring of the touring life. His recorded output had already ceased and now he decided to hang up his baton and become a producer. He was associated with many of the successful Blackpool shows and was instrumental in furthering the careers of such stars as Al Read, Norman Wisdom and Ted Ray. He even made a hit on television with his programme, Face the Music. His last appearance as a bandleader took place in 1969 and the following year his great service to music was recognised by the award of the OBE. Henry retired to Eastbourne, where he died aged 91 in 1989.
Whilst Henry has never lacked for fans among the general public there are many among the cognoscenti of dance music who denigrate his musical output. This is hard to understand, and may be based on the fact that Henry, with a regular audience of millions, tried to cater for all musical tastes in his many broadcasts. There is also the possibility of familiarity breeding contempt, and with Henry’s music being heard so often on the wireless some of his audience may have taken the excellence of most of his output for granted. For today’s listeners, there is a good deal of material available on vinyl, cassette and CD. Particularly interesting are the two CDs of Henry Hall’s Hour, which were issued a few years ago. A good deal of reissued material includes a cross section of Henry’s work, including children’s, novelty and semi-symphonic arrangements. Maybe this is another reason why dance band music only enthusiasts do not rate him too highly. I suspect, however, that should a CD be issued solely devoted to Henry’s up-tempo and hotter arrangements such doubters would be pleasantly surprised.
A Retrospective View of the Great Bandleaders by Gordon Howsden
In 1939, after years of struggle, heartache and financial loss, Glenn Miller’s orchestra finally made it to the top. By the end of that year it was without question the most popular band in the USA and was breaking attendance records wherever it played. And yet there were some in the music business itself who had reservations about the band, which to my mind were admirably summarised by one critic who wrote as follows: "as an aggregation that has been rehearsed until every bar of every tune is letter perfect, the Miller men probably have no rivals. For precision, attack, shading and blend, the band cannot be topped. But, is letter-perfect playing worth the inevitable sacrifice of natural feeling?"
The adoring fans who bought the records and who flocked to the dance halls and theatres to see the band play had no doubt what the answer was, and it is doubtful if Glenn himself was bothered too much by what such critics had to say. There is evidence to suggest that Glenn wanted his band to swing as freely as the units led by Basie, Lunceford, Goodman and Shaw but his character and background as much as his musical priorities just did not allow this to happen. The critics, including some of his own musicians, might argue that the band could have sounded better but whatever failings the Miller Orchestra had were not apparent to the general public. And Glenn could point to his ever-growing bank balance as ample evidence that his way was the right way.
Miller was undoubtedly a very private and complex man. Stubborn, tenacious, honest, hardworking, competitive and determined he was, above all, a creature of his environment. Born in the Midwest of America in 1904 and christened Alton Glenn Miller, he knew from an early age the insecurity that lack of cash can bring. His first musical training was on a mandolin that his parents had bought for him but one day he came home with a battered trombone. At school his passion for American football and his trombone ensured that he never obtained any great academic achievements. After leaving school he obtained his first professional engagement as a musician with Boyd Senter but this was short lived and eventually he went on to further education at the University of Colorado. Once again his studies took second place to football and music and he left without taking his degree, but he did find time to meet and date an attractive fellow student called Helen Burger, who later became his wife.
Glenn’s first major musical opportunity came when he was hired by the well-known Ben Pollock band who at the same time also employed a young lad called Benny Goodman. Although Glenn’s trombone playing was never in the top league he wrote several arrangements for the band and made himself useful in many other ways. In 1928 Jack Teagarden joined the band and there was no way Miller could compete with such a virtuoso, so he resigned and joined Paul Ash’s Orchestra at the New York Paramount Theatre. Pit orchestra work and recording sessions with the likes of Red Nichols, the Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman kept Glenn busy for a few years until he went back on the road with a former colleague, Smith Ballew. The latter was a good singer and a useful front man, but he needed the organising skills that Miller could provide
In 1934 Miller left Ballew and helped the Dorsey Brothers to get a permanent band on the road. Again, his flair for business and organisation were as important to the brothers as his proficiency at playing trombone and arranging. Although as an arranger Glenn lent heavily on the mathematical approach to harmonies extolled by Dr Joseph Schillinger he did have many interesting and inventive musical ideas. By now, Miller’s character as a stern, unbending, hard working disciplinarian was well established, but the fact that he was honest, reliable and knew the music business inside out was the major factor in him landing his next important assignment. Miller constantly found himself in the middle of the squabbling Dorsey brothers’ arguments so when the opportunity came to set up a band in New York for Ray Noble he handed in his notice.
The band that Glenn assembled and assiduously rehearsed was full of stars, including trumpeter Charlie Spivak and pianist Claude Thornhill, who in later years would form their own bands with Miller’s help. When Noble arrived to take over the two worked well for a while but both had strong personalities which inevitably clashed. The final rift in their relationship was caused, not surprisingly, by money. The Noble band had initially been extremely successful and all the musicians were earning top money. But when bookings started to tail off Noble asked the musicians to take a cut in salary which Glenn and some of the other star players refused to contemplate. Before this happened, Glenn had penned a melody to which Eddie Hayman had written lyrics called Now I Lay Me Down To Weep, and this came to the attention of Al Bowlly who loved it. Unfortunately, Al never had the chance to record it, perhaps due to the schism that had developed between Miller and Noble. In later years this same melody with a different title was to resurface as Moonlight Serenade.
Forming a band for Ray Noble had got Glenn thinking that maybe he should be running his own outfit and late in 1936 he began scouting around for players. He collected together a group of young musicians and patiently rehearsed them through the early months of 1937. But the economics of running an unknown band started to eke into Miller’s savings, and when he brought in more experienced players like Irving "Fazola" Prestopnik on sax and clarinet and Bob Price on trumpet he found it a mixed blessing. Both were excellent instrumentalists but they also regularly hit the bottle and could be unreliable. One of the positive aspects of Fazola’s tenure with the band was that Glenn scored some tunes with the clarinet doubling the tenor-sax lead, which in all probability was the basis for the famous Glenn Miller reed `sound’.
By the end of 1937 success for the Miller band was as elusive as ever, and with losses mounting he gave his musicians notice and broke up the band. But his competitive spirit and the desire to succeed meant that within a few months Glenn was again recruiting musicians and vowing not to repeat his previous mistakes by hiring any `prima donnas’. Glenn had always been keen on the showmanship aspects of his band with trombones, saxes and trumpet hats waving in unison. He now tightened up on smartness on the stand by insisting on short hair, shiny shoes and matching triangles of handkerchiefs in each man’s breast pocket. He made further efforts to give his band a special distinctive sound and concentrated on a flowing legato style for the reeds with a clarinet lead. Although Glenn was happy to play a sweeter style than Goodman, Shaw and the Dorseys, the `dependable’ players on whom he concentrated, particularly in the rhythm section, just could not get the band to swing. As the new band became recognised and he was able to afford more experienced musicians the situation improved, but even the acquisition of Maurice Purtill on drums and Trigger Alpert on bass did not entirely solve the problem.
By September 1938 Glenn was starting to make some headway, and a new recording contract with RCA Victor helped. Financially, however, it was still a struggle until Miller finally achieved one of his ambitions and obtained a booking at the prestigious Glen Island Casino. Not only was it a favourite venue for the kids who could make or break a band, it also had extensive radio links to the rest of the USA. They opened on 17 May 1939 and from the start the band proved to be sensation. At last everyone wanted to book the Miller band and for the next three years it was a continuous round of recording sessions, radio shows, theatre dates and lucrative one-night stands. As one of the icons of the US entertainment scene Miller and the band inevitably ended up in Hollywood and the two films they appeared in, Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives, were among the best of the genre. But for America’s involvement in the war the amazing run of success may well have continued, but when hostilities commenced Glenn, a very patriotic citizen, started to wonder how he could best serve his country.
Well before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Glenn instituted a radio programme called Sunrise Serenade aimed at the service training camps. Each week out of his own pocket he donated a radio phonograph and records to one of the camps. Although over the maximum age for the draft, Miller nevertheless registered in February 1942 and, after having an application to join the Navy turned down, was finally accepted into the Army on 7 October. The band’s last performance, which took place on 29 September, was an emotional affair and even the taciturn maestro himself was so choked up that he had to leave the stand before the final theme had been completed.
His early months in the Army were frustrating but after being assigned to the Army Air Corps the newly commissioned Captain Miller did manage to get at least one of his pet projects off the ground. That was a super band for the AAF using as many of the top musicians from the leading civilian bands as he could get his hands on. Some of his own favourite sidemen like Tex Beneke and Willie Schwartz had already joined the Navy but pretty soon he had the nucleus of what was to be the most famous big band in the history of popular music. Among the musicians who Glenn recruited was a key arranger from his civilian band, Jerry Gray, who was also the composer of such memorable Miller hits as Caribbean Clipper and A String of Pearls.
By mid-1943 the band, complete with a large string section, was performing regular radio broadcasts in the soon to be famous I Sustain the Wings programmes. Even those associated with the band who had worked with the world’s leading classical conductors had to admit that Glenn was outstanding at getting the best out of his players and in interpreting the arrangements. Despite the valuable morale boosting work that the band undertook, including raising millions of dollars at war bond rallies, Miller wanted to get closer to the war zone and this finally came about in June 1944. Because of the busy schedule of broadcasts and live concerts the AAF Band, whilst in Europe renamed the American Band of the AEF, was split into different components. Among these were the full orchestra with strings conducted by Miller himself, a 17-piece dance band called The Swing Shift directed by drummer Ray McKinley, and The Uptown Hall, a jazz sextet led by pianist Mel Powell, which was frequently augmented by trumpeter Bernie Privin.
Wherever the band played it received an ecstatic welcome and service men and women of all nationalities eagerly awaited its broadcasts. But with the success of the D-Day landings Miller, by now promoted to Major, became impatient to take the band to France and he finally received his orders to do just that in November 1944. Don Haynes, Miller’s executive officer, was originally supposed to fly to France ahead of the band to make arrangements for their arrival, but Miller had the orders changed so that he would go instead. His date of departure was 13 December but appalling weather conditions led to all regular flights being cancelled for several days. In his anxiety to get to France Miller eagerly accepted an offer to fly out in the commanding general’s plane which was ferrying a Lt Col Baesell to Paris. They took off from Twinwood Farm airfield, Bedford, on 15 December in very cold, murky and overcast conditions but failed to arrive at their destination.
Over the years many stories have circulated as to what happened to the Norseman aircraft and its occupants. The most likely explanation is the simplest, that the plane was flying at a low altitude because of the weather and crashed into the English Channel. The band arrived in Paris on 18 December and despite the loss of their leader they were able to continue the programme that had been mapped out for them. They followed the Allied troops into Germany and even gave a concert to a large contingent of Russian officers. In August 1945, the band was shipped back to the States where they gave one final performance in the presence of General Eisenhower and President Truman. The latter led the standing ovation at the end of a memorable evening.
It was natural that other bands would want to recreate the well-loved and commercially successful sound developed by Glenn Miller. Tex Beneke led an `official’ Miller orchestra for some years and later in the 1950s Ray McKinley took over fronting the band. Jerry Gray also led a band that played many of the old Miller arrangements and in the UK the late Sid Lawrence did as well as anyone in recreating that special Miller magic. Even now, the loss of such a great talent at the height of his powers is keenly felt, but at least a huge library of recordings is available to dedicated fans and casual listeners alike. As recently as the last few years, previously unreleased digitally re-mastered recordings have appeared of many of the broadcasts Miller prepared with his AAF and AEF orchestras
The war gave Miller the chance to perfect his musical ideas and the opportunity to set up and rehearse to his exacting standards an orchestra of extremely talented musicians. When that other superb wartime band led by Sam Donahue played side by side with Miller’s orchestra in London there were some who felt that Donahue had the edge; perhaps that old criticism of not playing with `natural feeling’ was still considered to apply. But Miller was a great innovator, the master of harmony, and he produced an instantly recognizable and memorable sound that thrilled and delighted millions during some very dark days. That surely should be enough to guarantee immortality.
Mary Lee writes exclusively for Memory Lane from her home in Glasgow
Firstly, hello to all Memory Lane readers. I was delighted when Ray Pallett asked me to write this ‘mini-autobiography’ especially for you.
I was born on the 13th of August 1921 in Glasgow Scotland. My parents were William McDevitt and Isabella McDevitt respectively. My father was a lorry-driver for Shell Mex Oil Company and my mother a housewife. My young life was working-class but happy. At the age of 13, I noticed in the local paper 'Personality girl wanted for Roy Fox Orchestra’.
I skipped school that day and went up to a local store when the auditions were to be held. I sang My Kid's a Crooner and thought to myself I'd better be getting off home before my mother became alarmed at my absence. I heard a voice through the microphone saying 'would Miss Mary McDevitt please come to the Empire Theatre on Friday night and bring her parents. This I did and I was delighted to win the competition as the prize was five pounds. My parents and I were astounded to find the great man wanted me to join his orchestra immediately. My father told him I was only 13 and the compromise was Roy Fox would send for me when I became 14 years of age. I remember saying to my mother that ‘I suppose they'll forget all about me’. Not so! On my 14th birthday a telegram came telling me to join the orchestra at the Streatham Ballroom London.
It was left to my mother to find a chaperon for me. A lady called Alice Balnave looked after me on my travels with the band. She had lived for a couple of years in America and to my mother's eyes was the right person to travel with me. Alice was a lovely woman and looked after me with great affection. I joined the Orchestra in September 1935 and remained with them until 1938. Three of the happiest years of my life and also the best college education I could have wished. I was groomed in every way – speech, dress, manners you name it I had it. But the only thing I wasn't instructed in was singing.
Roy Fox used to say to the band-boys don't let the kid hear any Ella Fitzgerald records or Peggy Lee records. He wanted me to keep my own style of jazz singing which come from no-where but looking back the best musicians and singers came from Scotland! Don't ask me why. It's just my own opinion of course! We toured the entire three years of my stay with this great orchestra and made many records for Decca and HMV. The Radio Shows which we recorded for Radio Luxembourg were done after the show at night on stage wherever we were playing.
The line up of the Fox Orchestra at that time included Denny Dennis, Syd Buckman, Art Christmas, Jock Bain Andy McDevitt, Harry Gold, Les Owen, Les Lambert, Jack Nathan, Maurice Burman, Ivor Mairants plus two dancers Eddie and Earl Franklyn holding dummy-string guitar. They were the nicest men I have ever had the good fortune to work with. Mind you I learned later that Roy Fox told them never to swear in front of me or tell naughty stories so it was little wonder I saw very little of them just a quick 'Hi Kid' before going on the stage.
Roy Fox changed my name at the beginning of my stint. Mary McDevitt doesn't jump out at you from a marquee. I was called Mary Lee, short and sweet and easily remembered. He always announced me as ‘Little Mary Lee’. I have fond memories of my time with Roy Fox he always seemed like a god to me, always immaculately dressed in Savoy Row Suits and with Rolls Royce cars at his disposal. He had his own race-horse called 'Whispering'. It was so wonderful, I really thought I had died and gone to heaven!
We did prestige gigs like the 21st birthday party of the Earl of Shrewsbury. We did a show for Queen Mary at a west end theatre but everything just slid over my little head in those days. I only give them due regard now. The Fox band took their holiday in the month of August and in 1938 I thought it would be the same. At the end of that particular month I received a telegram requesting me to join Jack Payne's band. I was quite perturbed about this as we had no indication that the Orchestra was going to disbanded; but off I went minus chaperon to join the Jack Payne band.
I have to say this was the unhappiest time of my life. I never spoke to the gentleman except through his manager and I was happy to leave his merry band after three months. Luck was with me I joined Jack Jackson's Band. What a joy that man was! I had a fun time with his outfit but unfortunately I didn't record with either band. In fact the only recording session I did in my own right was for Parlophone. I was accompanied by most of the Fox boys as Maurice Burman had set up the deal for me.
I tired of touring and longed for a residency in London. Maurice Burman's sister Alma Warren had a super nigh-club in Soho called the Nut House and she would give me work when I was between jobs. It was a very hip place to work in those days. I did a stint at ten o'clock and another at two am. It wasn't easy but very interesting. When the band went off for a break a young fellow called George would play so beautifully on the piano. One night my pianist was sick and I asked Alma what am I to do. She said that George will play for you which he did. The boy was George Shearing - enough said! Another time Alma asked me to sit with a crowd of men at a table in the club. I thought this funny because she knew I didn't drink (and didn't mix with the customer) but she seemed determined to get me to do so. Mindful of her kindness to me, I did. They were charming boys and I took my leave of them to get ready for my act. It was a Friday and the audience noisy and I heard a loud voice shouting ‘give Mary a chance’. The whole club went deathly quiet. My boys had been the famous Messini Gang much feared in the West End. You could have heard a pin drop and I got on with my act with great relief.
I got a lot of good work from the Nut House and it left me free to take any other work offered to me. At this time I worked with Ambrose and his Orchestra on their Saturday night broadcasts from the Mayfair Hotel London. I had no contract with Ambrose just verbal and it was, I must admit, a good rate. I think Ambrose must have been on his gambling mode at this time as it took me three months to get my money. But get it I did! I was happily doing my rehearsals with Ambrose at the Mayfair and one day a young girl of about 15 years of age came in. I think she sang My Yiddisher Mama so beautifully and you don't have to be the 'brain of Britain’ to figure out the girl was Anne Shelton. And that was my last broadcast with Ambrose and Anne took my place. Such is life!
Around this time war-clouds were looming and when they did I was happily playing a week's variety in Paignton with the well-known double act Jewell and Warrris. Everything closed for tea and the next day I was back on the train to Glasgow. I hid in the loo as much as I could because I'd never seen soldiers before and felt sure they were not on our side! I stayed in Glasgow for about four weeks then back to town and work. I did a lot of work in Bristol where all the broadcasts were being done during the war. Then my agent thought I would be better off in Scotland or let's say safer so I got my first summer season in Dunoon. I liked playing in Scotland and got to learn show-business as opposed to band-singing. I stayed in Scotland for the next ten years leaving it on two occasions one to go to the Middle East to sing with Harry Roy and his band. and secondly to work in an act called 'Stars of the Air’ which featured Sam Browne, Max Bacon, Gloria Brent and myself. 'Stars of the air' was booked by Joe Collins the agent father of Joan Collins and sister Jackie Collins. They took their business sense from him.
The Harry Roy Middle East experience was good and all went well but unfortunately for me I took a nervous breakdown in Cairo and had to be hospitalized there. It took a while but I get well and back to the thing I knew best - show-business. Whilst working in a show in Belfast I met a fellow who was to become my husband namely Jack Milroy. We have worked together since 1952 to this very day. He is one of our most famous comedians in Scotland and reached the peak of his career with his comedy partner Rikki Fulton known as Francie and Josie. This will ring a bell to Scottish readers. I think the brightest spots of our career was the Royal Variety Show at the King's Theatre in the presence of Her Royal Highness Princess Diana and Prince Charles on 2nd October 1993. We met the lady who was charming but not as shy as one might think. Prince Charles said to Annie Ross the Jazz singer 'How do you walk in those high heels?’ she said 'with great difficulty sir'. It was quite a night. Jack has had honours galore and well deserved. Both of us were honoured by the Variety Club of Great Britain during the eighties.
For myself one of the happiest times was when I made myself known to dear Alan Dell to thank him for playing all my old records on his show. We talked and he recorded the chat and used it to great effect on his programme when he was playing a ‘Little Miss Mary Lee’ record. He invited me to the Festival Hall on two occasions. On the first I sang a medley of songs; the line up was Carol Kidd and George Chisholm. Roy Fox was in the audience and we were happy to become friends again after all those years. The second time I was to appear at the Festival Hall which was after Roy's death when Alan Dell paid tribute to him. The show featured Denny Dennis myself and a trio singing a al the Cubs. We did a concert version of Whispering. Denny and I sand Let's call the whole thing off and I did Nice work if you can get it. A very nostalgic night.
Jack and I have done many television shows mostly shown just in Scotland . The last radio show we did together was the Radio Clyde Hogmanay show this year, 2000. So we do keep our toe in the water. Jack is the breadwinner and I do the occasional show with him. I should tell you I was a Radio Clyde presenter for 3 years 1991 till 1994. A homely show geared to the Golden Oldies. However it did give me the chance to play all the big band stuff which was enjoyed by young and old alike. Along the way I picked up a Sony Award for the show which pleased me no-end.
I have a son called Jim and a daughter called Diana. My daughter has her own business and my son is a splendid drummer. I have no complaints. I have been a lucky lady in every way and I hope you all live to be 100 and mine is the last voice you hear! so it's Bye Bye from Jack and it’s Bye Bye from me.
Editor's note. Sadly, since Mary wrote this article for Memory Lane, her husband Jack died.
By Ray Pallett
Val Rosing will probably be remembered by many readers of Memory Lane as the man who sung Teddy Bear’s Picnic on the million-seller Henry Hall record. And because of that record, he has become one of the most-often heard voices from the "dance band days" on radio and TV. But one of the greatest mysteries of the English dance band scene is "what ever happened to Val Rosing?" It seems to be common knowledge that he went to America in 1937 but no one appears to know anything about his life and work in that country.
A chance discovery while I was browsing some directories in Southend-on-Sea Public Library was that a book had been published in America a few years ago entitled "Val Rosing – Musical Genius" by Ruth Glean Rosing. After a moment I realised that this was a biography of Val’s father Vladimir Rosing, a notable opera singer in the States. However, this provided a point of contact with the Rosing family in America.
A letter to Ruth Rosing’s publisher via my American contact Ray Johnson brought an almost instant offer of help both from Ruth, herself, and Val’s widow and daughters. With the information they sent to me about Val’s work in the States and some press cuttings sent to me 20 years ago by Dennis Bigwood of Bristol, for the first time ever, Memory Lane can bring you the Val Rosing Story.
Returning to where we started with Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Back in the 1930s this record was often played – as a test piece for all BBC transmitters because it contained music with a very wide pitch. The BBC must have bought them by the boxfull. Val also aired a lot with Henry Hall although it seems he became a forgotten man. The vocalist on Ray Noble’s lovely record of Try A Little Tenderness had been a mystery for years among Ray Noble enthusiasts before the epic Brian Rust discographies were published. The vocal was by Val Rosing.
Val Rosing has been much neglected in contemporary works concerned with jazz or dance music of the 1930s; little has been written about him anywhere. I have always found his voice attractive although sometimes he sung a little too high pitched and over-employed the affect of vibrato. Like Al Bowlly, he could handle both ballads and up-tempo numbers with a unique voice that had character. In reviewing Val Rosing’s career in a sleeve note for a CD, famous discographer Brian Rust says that Val was "trained in the same strict school as his father, but who saw better prospects in the world of popular entertainment". It should be no surprise, therefore, that he made the leap to becoming a successful opera singer in what was, in reality, another life in another country. Not only was his life in America unknown to everyone in England who I quizzed on this, but his family in America had little idea of his career in England; they had certainly never heard any of the records he made here.
Val Rosing was born in London on 21st February 1910 and named Valerian. His father was a famous Russian tenor, Vladimir Rosing. During the period 1918 to 1923, Vladimir Rosing made numerous appearances in this country and the critics hailed him as "an interpreter of genius and unique emotional and dramatic gifts and also a supreme exponent or Russian song in general". Vladimir Rosing also worked extensively in America and became quite well known; he died there in 1963. Val’s mother Marie was a singer and well-known language teacher. Young Val want to Westminster School and Oxford where he studied international law. Val was a follower of football, tennis and golf. And he was an ardent jazz fan. One of his ambitions was to travel the world and write about it. Another was to become a serious opera singer.
He appeared first to come to public attention in March 1930 when he succeeded Pat O’Malley as vocalist and drummer with the Cambridge Nightwatchmen at the Café de Paris. The Melody Maker, reporting this, tipped the Oxford undergraduate to become a star vocalist. Future progressive band leader Spike Hughes was a member of the Nightwatchmen and when Spike was invited to record for Decca it led to Val recording with Spike Hughes as both drummer and vocalist. It is believed that Val’s first record was with Spike Hughes and his Decca Dents - It’s Unanimous Now and Crazy Feet on Decca F-1690 recorded on 12th March 1930.
During the early 1930s, Val can be heard on records by a number of bands including those led by Billy Cotton, Howard Godfrey, Jack Harris, Billy Hill, Harry Leader, Percival Mackey, Ray Noble, Nat Starr, Jay Wilbur and Marius B Winter. However, the first major milestone in his career was when he joined the BBC Dance Orchestra directed by Jack Payne with whom he recorded a number of titles from October 1930 to April 1931.
However, it was Henry Hall who gave him his first major break by recruiting him for his new BBC Dance Orchestra. Val broadcast with Hall and appears on the majority of Henry Hall’s records from March to September 1932 when he left the band. Other than Teddy Bear’s Picnic, notable Rosing vocals include the two Henry Hall signature tunes It’s Just the Time For Dancing and Here’s to the Next Time plus Nobody Else But Elsie, My Extraordinary Girl and one which still crops up a lot on radio and TV, The Sun Has Got His Hat On.
Val made a number of records in his own right as both a solo singer and as leader and vocalist with his own small groups. Early-on DJ Christopher Stone broadcast Val’s records tipping him to become a star vocalist. On Imperial he was billed him as "The Sweet Singer". Some of Val’s records for that label were issued under the name of Jack Gordon, a name which also covered recordings by other vocalists including Jack Plant and Billy Scott-Coomber. From Imperial he went to Rex for whom he made 10 discs from October 1933 to June 1934. Rex billed Val as "England’s Supreme Singer of Sentimental Songs" although this description did not appear on all the record labels. Val also recorded for Regal Zonophone including one duet with Kitty Masters, One Little Kiss and June in January (MR1601).
The Melody Maker, reviewing Val’s recording of A Street In Old Seville and When Love Comes Knocking At Your Door on Regal Zonophone MR 1665 for which George Scott-Wood provided the accompaniment, comments that Val is singing better than ever and he sees no reason to doubt that Val will continue to improve.
Since his early recording days with Spike Hughes, Val became acquainted with an eminent professor of singing from whom he greatly benefited, being a hard worker and a stern self-critic. By June 1936, the Melody Maker reported that Val, himself, had become a singing teacher at the London School of Broadcasting in New Bond Street who pride themselves as having a roster of the "best available experts".
In August 1936 the Melody Maker reported the formation of a swing band by Val containing such notables as Don Barigo (tenor), Frank weir (clarinet), Chick Smith (trumpet), Jack Llewellyn (guitar). The following September the Melody Maker, referring to Val as a very popular "straight" vocalist, carried the story that Val Rosing’s new stage combination was to open at the Pavilion Theatre in Liverpool on September 21st 1936. This band was put together with the collaboration of Claude Bampton. Les Cripwell, who was one of the tenors in the band, recalls from his home in Nottingham: "We had several rehearsals and the band was really top class. Then I was given a rail ticket to Liverpool. We attracted full houses and the band was a great success, but imagine our surprise when on the Friday of the first week we were given our tickets back to London. In fifty years as a pro, this was the only time I did a week’s work without being told the job would only last a week!".
Of particular interest to jazz enthusiasts were the recordings of Val Rosing and his Swing Stars and those of the Radio Rhythm Rascals, which were directed by Val. It appears that these were the same group in essence. In March, 1935 the Melody Maker reports that Val is embarking on a solo career with records for Regal Zonophone and variety appearances with his Radio Rhythm Rascals.
With his Swing Stars/Rhythm Rascals he recorded for Columbia and Regal Zonophone in the 1935-1937 period. Val sings on all the titles which I have heard. Brian Rust in his discographies does not identify the members of what seems to be a quartet. However, I have found that Len Fillis and Jack Llewellyn are present on guitar on some titles, as are Bruce Merrill on piano and Dick Escott on bass. I suspect Val may be drumming.
Reviews of the Swing Stars and Rascals records in the musical press were generally most flattering comparing them favourably with American imports of the time. It is worth noting that Val lets the musicians "have their head" rather than dominating the performance himself. However, a review in Rhythm of the Radio Rhythm Rascals playing Shine and Whispering comments "Whispering is not helped by the Crosbyesque scat singing of Val Rosing. Even Bing is bad at this type of singing, and Val, imitating Bing is worse".
In his day, Val received good reviews from the musical press, whether as a dance band vocalist or singer in his own right. In contrast, the contemporary comment there has been about Val, and there has been very little, has been mostly a lot less flattering.
Val appeared in a number of films in the United Kingdom. He can be seen with Henry Hall in a clip in which he sings one of Henry Hall’s signature tunes. In this film Val seems very relaxed, walking up to the microphone with a nonchalant hand in his pocket. He was also seen in the 1935 film In Town Tonight which starred Howard Jacobs and his Orchestra, Billy Merrin’s Commanders, Stanley Holloway and the famous sand dancers Wilson, Kepple and Betty. However, Val’s first real part was in the 1937 release Feather Your Nest, with George Formby in which he played the part of Rex Randall.
Val did his last "live" broadcast on the BBC on 24 August 1936, probably with his Swing Stars/Rascals. In October 1937 the Melody Maker reported that the ex-Henry Hall crooner had been picked by MGM in Hollywood for grooming as a future actor-singer. Val was, in fact, brought to America by the late showman Louis B. Mayer and was under contract with MGM for two years. In America, Val changed his name to Gilbert Russell. This was later made official when he became an American citizen in 1946. In America. he was known to everybody as Gil. To his family and friends in England, he was known as Valli, a name he had since boyhood.
So what did Val do, during his contract with MGM? Leonard Feather in the Melody Maker in 1940 writes that he received a telephone call from Val who disclosed that during those 2 years in Hollywood, he did nothing but draw his salary! After his MGM contract , Val went to New York and worked on Broadway as both a singer and actor. He played the leading role in Song of Norway for three years and also appeared in The Student Prince, Roberta, Music in the Air, The Great Waltz, Rosalinda, Gypsy Lady and Merry Widow both in the east and west coasts of the United States. In 1940 he went on the road with Irene Castle in a Noel Coward play.
Val then turned to the operatic and concert fields. He toured the States with the Philadelphia Opera Company and was also a leading tenor with the New York City Center and San Francisco Opera Companies. He has been guest soloist with such conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham, Arthur Fiedler, William Steinberg and others.
He received "rave" reviews in the press. The following three give a flavour:
The New York Herald Tribune: Mr Russell’s voice was prevalently appealing in quality and deftly employed in its phrasing and musicianship".
Arizona Republic: Gilbert Russell was magnificent as Faust.
New York Times: He has a strong tenor voice of excellent quality.
In television, the singer made numerous appearances including the Dennis Day Programme and The Colgate Comedy Hour. Radio appearances included The Standard Hour and The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show. Some airchecks from the 1950s survive and copies were kindly given to me by Val’s widow. On these, his voice is superb with great power and artistry. He certainly bears no resemblance, as far as I could hear, to the "English" Val Rosing with whom we are all familiar.
He appeared in a number of films, but mostly they were "bit" parts. Look out for him when the following appear on television: So This Is Love, La Boheme (1953), Grounds for Marriage, Strictly Dishonourable, The Great Caruso, Light Touch, House of Strangers, Prince of Foxes, Everybody Does It, Knights of the Round Table and Brigadoon. In another film The Glass Slipper the song Take My Love, supposedly sung by Michael Wilding in the film was actually sung by Val.
With all this activity, Val was very busy in America with a successful career being billed as the star in stage productions across the country. However, I have come to the conclusion that he was not particularly famous there evidenced by the fact that he did not have leading roles in films and that he did not record commercially after leaving England.
Incidentally, in the early 1940s BBC Radio featured him in their series "Morning Star"; other singers included in the series were Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jolson and Bing Crosby. So someone at the BBC rated and remembered Val Rosing. He made a couple of visits himself to England; one in the late 1950s to see his mother and half brother Billy and another in the early 1960s at the request of George Chakiris who wanted Val to work with him on a recording session.
Whether as Val Rosing or Gilbert Russell, he had a very full and varied career ranging from crooning with Henry Hall and others in Britain to radio, films, concert and opera in the United States. Sadly, Val died at the comparatively young age of 59 on June 14th 1969 following cancer of the colon. This was particularly tragic because the cancer went undiagnosed by a trusted doctor. When it was finally discovered after 2 years by another doctor, it was too late to save him.
In the last few years of his life he became a teacher of singing. Among his pupils were Shirley Jones, George Chakiris, Natalie Wood, Celeste Holm, Peter Falk, Beau Bridges.
Val was married three times. His first wife was Meriel Carrington whom he married in London in 1932 while he was with the BBC Dance Orchestra. Val and Meriel had one daughter, Anna, who now lives in France and is an artist.
Val married his second wife Marilyn Pendry, a dancer who he met whilst working together in Song Of Norway, in Los Angeles in 1948. This marriage produced a daughter Claudia who still lives in Los Angeles and is a singer.
Both these marriages ended in amicable divorces and both Meriel and Marilyn are now deceased. His third marriage to June which took place in 1963 was only ended by Val’s death. June was a pupil of Val’s and sometimes sung with him publicly.
I asked June how Val made the leap from crooner to opera singer. She explained it as follows. "Val received a vocal scholarship from a teacher in New York. However, he was a hard worker and for the most part self taught musically. Loving singing as he did, he worked every day, read about and listened to records of Caruso and other renowned singers and his voice became more and more powerful and of operatic quality and outstanding beauty. He also had a facility and skill with different languages, particularly Italian and French which he spoke fluently."
Daughter Claudia has fond memories of her father. "I remember him laughing a lot and listening to his beloved jazz records. I’m lucky enough to have a great tape of him ‘interviewing’ me when I was 4 or 5 years old in which there’s much laughter and he encourages me to sing. My time with him was so short (he died when I was nearly 15) and sometimes when I’m doing a show I imagine him being there watching me and encouraging me. I know I got my gift from him and I think he would be proud and happy for me."
Val also has a half brother (same father, different mother) Richard Rosing who is a singer, poet, musician, composer and recording artiste. He manages sound equipment for a film and video company in Nashville, Tennessee.
Writing this article has brought me much pleasure and satisfaction. Not only is it giving Memory Lane one of the most intriguing stories from the dance band era, it has put me in touch with four wonderful members of the Rosing family. According to letters I have received, the article has brought pleasure and happiness to June, Ruth Anna and Claudia. "You have brought Gil back to us" was one comment received. I also sent them a cassette of some of Val’s English records. Ruth was "amazed at the quantity and thrilled with the quality". Claudia is planning on having the cassette remastered onto CD as a permanent souvenir of her father.
To close, his widow June, who has since remarried, remembers him as "full of warmth of personality, giving his best always as an artist, a teacher and a human being. All who knew him felt enriched by his presence. He worked hard to encourage a promising student. Gil enjoyed his teaching and cared about his pupils". Jimmy Durante said of Val "He is a ‘gentleman’ and very rare to meet nowadays".
England's Romantic Singer
By Ray Pallett
During the "austerity years" after World War II, before the advent of "youth culture" and rock ‘n’ roll, the British public were introduced to a singer with a voice as unique as Bing Crosby, Al Bowlly and Al Jolson. A voice whose quality can legitimately be compared with those names just mentioned. Steve Conway.
Steve always sang softly and sincerely and like Al Bowlly always meant what he sang. His mellow voice had a wonderful and effortless range. His smooth yet thrilling voice was warm, rich and relaxed with perfect pitch and depth.
Having become intrigued about the life and times of Steve Conway, after first hearing his voice on some 78 rpm records found in a local market, I starting making enquiries to locate his widow Lilian and daughter Janice with a view to writing the Steve Conway story for Memory Lane. I located them with the help of a BBC producer. Janice was the perfect hostess when I visited her lovely home to talk with her and her mother about Steve Conway in 1991. Lilian recalled the story so vividly and openly. Here, then is the story of Steve Conway.
Steve Conway was born on 12th October 1920 in Bethnal Green in East London. His real name was Walter James Groom but throughout his life his friends and family called him Jimmy. He was born into a very poor family, his father, Walter Groom being a labourer.
He left school when he was 14. He had a succession of jobs and was sacked more than once. His first job was making deliveries on a tricycle for an embroidery firm. From there, he went to work in a shoe factory as a machinist. From the shoe factory he went to work at Billingsgate fish market as a porter which he could do well being a very strong young chap. His fourth job was with the brewers Mann, Crossman and Pullin where he was employed cleaning out the vats. He started there around 1943 and gave up this job in 1944 to become a professional singer.
He had no musical education, could not read music or play an instrument. He did not sing in any school or church choirs. However, Jimmy had always enjoyed singing. He could memorise a song, both words and melody, from just one hearing; within 2 or 3 minutes he once said in a press interview.
He was just 16 when he was persuaded to enter a talent contest in a cinema in Bethnal Green. It was a good start; he won the first prize, a biscuit barrel. After collecting the prize, he ran down through the audience to meet his girl friend Lilian.
Unfortunately, Jimmy was rejected for military service in the navy as he did not pass his medical examination as A1. He was told that he had a heart condition. It surprised and upset him as he had always been fit and strong. He was not told to see a doctor and he had no further reason to doubt his health during the next ten years.
Lilian's sister Joyce and fiancee George decided to get married. This prompted Jimmy and Lilian to get married as well so the four of them decided to make it a double wedding. The wedding took place on 12th April, 1941 at Christ Church in Hackney.
Their first home was a house in Hackney. For the first few years of marriage it was a struggle to make ends meet. When she was expecting Janice, Lilian was taken to the Peartree Emergency Maternity Hospital in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. Janice was born on 24th February, 1944. Jimmy was always the great romantic but now that there were three of them he became first and foremost a family man absolutely devoted to Lilian and Janice.
Back to the pre-war days, Jimmy entered a further two or three talent contests during the 1936 to 1938 period. During the war, Jimmy managed to get a few bookings for stage shows around London which were principally amateur shows put on between films at cinemas.
During 1943 Jimmy appeared in a Sunday afternoon show at the State Theatre, Kilburn in London. As a direct result of this he was asked to do a fortnight's engagement at the Trocadero Cinema, Elephant and Castle in South London. He obviously made a hit here, for he was asked to return twice.
It was during January 1944 that Jimmy appeared on stage for his third return visit to the Trocadero Cinema. Jimmy was heard singing there by Reg Morgan who was an artistes' manager who, with Charlie Chester ran the Victory Publishing Company. Both Reg Morgan and Cheerful Charlie Chester thought that Jimmy had star potential. and managed to get Jimmy audition for BBC.
His first broadcast, which was in 1945, was in the Navy Mixture programme which featured a different singer every week. On this first broadcast he was called Gordon James, a name that he was using at that time.
Cecil Madden, a BBC talent scout, put Jimmy on the air in Variety Bandbox where he appeared with Reg Morgan in the "Meet The Composer" spot. Reg Morgan subsequently told Jimmy that he would never get anywhere in show business while he was working full time at the brewery. He offered him a contract worth £6.00 a week if he gave up the brewery job. Jimmy accepted and gave in his notice.
Reg set to work to make Jimmy a star. There were two things that had to be attended to, the first was his strong Cockney accent and the second was his name. As regards the Cockney accent, Jimmy was sent to Chloe Gibson for elocution lessons. A lot of effort and thought went into finding a stage name for Jimmy. He was sent lists of first names and second names to consider. In the end it was Charlie Chester who came up with Steve Conway.
Steve was still relatively inexperienced in stage craft so to gain experience he toured Mecca dance halls. Towards the end of 1945 Steve sang for Ambrose at Ciro's Club in the West End of London. He was very relaxed singing with this great orchestra. He also sang with Joe Loss, Maurice Winnink and Lew Stone. Lew's wife Joyce has on file a note that Steve broadcast with Lew from the Aoleon Hall, in London's Bond Street. She remembers meeting Steve and recalls thinking that he was one of the nicest, most unspoilt and sincere singers of the time.
By this time Steve was starting to make an impression in the music business. In the Melody Maker poll results of 1945 he was No. 13 in the male vocalist section, in front of such established names as George Elrick, Alan Breeze and Nat Gonella. This was quite remarkable for someone who had not yet started to make records.
The next landmark in the life of Steve Conway was a recording contract with EMI. In the Autumn of 1945 Steve walked into the Abbey Road recording studios to make his first record which was issued on Columbia in November of that year. Accompanied by Jack Byfield at the piano it coupled the popular Billy Reid song The Gypsy backed with I Could Never Tell. This was the first in a line of 46 records to feature the voice of Steve Conway. On every one of his records he gives a first rate performance: the only preference that one could have for a particular record would be if the preference was for a particular song.
One of his records, At The End Of The Day was used for over 30 years by Radio Luxembourg as their signing off record after each night's transmission.
Broadcasts continued. He appeared in Sandy MacPherson's series I'll Play To You and subsequently Sleepy Serenade. He also broadcast with Ted Heath and Billy Ternent. He had his own programme called "Steve Conway In Romantic Mood" again with Sandy MacPherson. By the end of 1949 he had made over 200 broadcasts for which his usual fee was 4 guineas a time.
Perhaps the best remembered broadcasts by Steve were his appearances in the Sunday afternoon series Sweet Serenade by Peter Yorke and his Concert Orchestra which also featured the great multi-instrumentalist Freddy Gardner. By January 1948, Steve had become the vocal mainstay of this series. One commentator remarked on the number of women burning their Sunday lunches due to their being distracted by Steve Conway on the radio!
Steve started a major tour of the halls at His Majesty's Theatre, Carlisle on 16th February 1948 with his London debut at the Golders Green Hippodrome one week later. He was by now topping the bill and earning £200 a week cash which was later increased to £300 a week. Steve confessed to a reporter that he suffered first night nerves every Monday night. However, when on the stage he soon relaxed and always put in quite a bit of patter between songs as he did on the radio.
On one occasion, Steve topped the bill and Max Bygraves was a supporting artiste. Bert Weedon, the guitarist, would often be one of Steve's accompanists. One night comedian Bob Hope was in the audience and after the show went backstage to congratulate Steve. Afterwards they had a drink together at the bar!
He was always pleased to meet his fans and those who did meet him recall his mannerly behaviour and a gentle sense of humour. All through his professional career he was swamped with fan mail. He always treated his fans with great respect and a report in the Melody Maker in 1949 says that he then spent a day a week answering letters.
Steve's television debut was in an edition of the Melody And Mirth variety show broadcast in December 1948. He went on to appear on post-war BBC Television a few more times.
By 1950, Steve Conway had firmly established himself as a top-of-the-bill act. All was going well with Steve's career and he had an idyllic family life. This changed dramatically after one day in the Spring of 1950. Lilian, Steve and Janice went rowing on the River Thames with music publisher Roy Berry and his wife Joyce. They were having great fun but got into difficulties with a strong current. Steve and Roy managed to row to the bank and Steve jumped ashore to tow the boat to safety along the bank. The exertion had put a strain on Steve's heart and from that day he was never quite the same man again.
Although under a private consultant in Harley Street in London, Steve continued performing up and down the country and was adding success to success. In December 1950 he was able to move his family from Hackney into a lovely detached house in the leafy London suburb of Ickenham.
Music publisher Roy Berry remembers the day Steve went to Hastings to discuss a proposed record with the Hastings Girls Choir. "He got so out of breath that day", recalls Berry. However, a record was made with the choir which was released in February 1951 and which received rave reviews.
In May 1951 Steve collapsed whilst appearing at the Bradford Alhambra. He recovered and continued working although during the months that followed his condition steadily deteriorated. Sometimes his stage appearances had to be cancelled at short notice. In December 1951 he collapsed on the stage at the Hull Palace and was admitted to Hull Royal Infirmary. His theatre dates had to be cancelled and were taken over by Josef Locke.
He was discharged from the hospital and put on a train to London's Kings Cross Station where he was met by an ambulance and brought back to his home in Ickenham on a stretcher. Lilian recalls vividly a time when she and Steve were sitting on a rug in front of the fire and he said "I think I'm going to die".
He consulted a specialist from Harley Street, Sir Russell Brock who said that rheumatic fever which Steve had contracted as a child had apparently not been treated properly and had caused mitral stenosis which is an abnormal narrowing of the mitral valve.
Soon after Christmas, 1951, too ill to stay at home, arrangements were made for Steve to be admitted to Charing Cross hospital. The following April, still in Charing Cross Hospital, he was prepared for an operation which offered a 50-50 chance of a cure. Still cheerful, he was transferred to Guy's Hospital in London for surgery. When the news broke that he had been admitted there, fans besieged the hospital. The day before his operation, Norman Newell and orchestra leader Ray Martin went there and they recalled: "his broken voice told us how ill he was and yet he joked with us, laughed with us and talked of new `gimmicks' for the records he was going to cut again - soon" .
Lilian stayed in the hospital. The operation was performed and Lilian was called when Steve came round after the anaesthetic had worn off. But when she awoke next morning Steve was dead. He was just 31. He had died on 19th April 1952. Russell Brock had apparently found complications and could not perform the operation completely.
Steve's death received wide coverage in both the musical and national press. On Friday 25th at 2.30pm he was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium in London. Melody Maker reporter Chris Hayes was among the congregation of about 100 who he recognised as bandleaders, vocalists, musicians, recording executives, music publishers, song writers, artistes, agents, managers and reporters. Chris remembers "There were about 75 floral tributes - and I should know because I looked at and counted every one - ranging from simple little bouquets from fans, to elaborate wreathes from wealthy stars. The most touching came from his heartbroken daughter and was in the shape of a miniature chair inscribed Daddy's Little Girl, a poignant memory of his hit song."
Janice still lives in the house her father bought in 1950 with her husband Christopher their 3 children, Capella, Rigel and Talita. Meanwhile in 1972, Lilian emigrated to the United States to marry there an American she had previously met whilst on holiday in Majorca. In 1989 Lilian and husband Frank returned to England so that she would be near her family. At the time of writing, they now live at Amersham in Buckinghamshire.