Stage Bands


  Jazz Development in Britain

During the two decades leading up to World War II, one of the most important outlets for the presentation of musical performances was the stage band or orchestra, playing usually in the variety theatre (music hall) or on the cinema stage. Many of Britain's finest orchestras built their public image touring in these media, supplemented by performances in radio. Such top- line orchestras as those of Jack Hylton, Jack Payne, Debroy Somers, Billy Cotton, Geraldo, Roy Fox, Lew Stone, Harry Roy and, to a lesser extent, Ambrose were able to get across to a public far wider, if less affluent, than that for the entertainment of which they performed in London's hotels, restaurants and clubs.

There were also second and third strings of orchestras formed to work almost solely on stage and, although many ,of them never achieved the heights of those listed in the previous paragraph, their musical standard was usually good, for in those days the stage orchestra had to depend upon genuine musical ability and showmanship. Only comedy "musical clown" acts depended upon the technique of smashing their instruments during the performance in order to get laughs, and even then they appeared to do it by accident; whilst none of them depended for their publicity upon their ability to wreck their "digs" at the conclusion of a week's engagement.

These orchestras usually worked a seven- day week, playing either twelve or eight performances in a theatre, or eighteen shorter performances in a cinema, where they shared the programme with the films from Monday to Saturday, plus one or two Sunday concerts in a concert hall theatre, cinema or in a concert hall. There were also some cinema circuits upon which the orchestras were required to give thirty performances a week, playing three performances each day in one cinema and two in another- spending the rest of the day travelling back and forth by coach between cinemas. Needless to say, these "five a day" engagements, as they were called, were shunned by the better orchestras.

I recall many amusing experiences during the period when I was playing with one or another of the stage orchestras. In 1937, at the Plymouth Palace Theatre with the Geraldo orchestra, I really thought I was seeing things during a performance. During the afternoon, whilst swimming, I developed a mild attack of sunstroke and went on stage feeling like an unfortunate lobster must feel when being boiled alive for the benefit of civilisation. At the time I was playing timpani and vibraphone and normally surveyed the auditorium from a rostrum which I shared with my percussion colleague Max Lewin, but on this occasion the rostrum seemed to be lacking its usual stability. We had with us a couple of adagio dancers who normally appeared once in each performance; so when later in the performance, on this occasion, the male member of the act made a return appearance in an impromptu Latin- type dance during the singing of "The Lady In Red" by vocalist Monte Rey, I simply did not believe it was happening and attributed such phenomenon to my own state of delirium. It therefore came as something of a relief to be assured after the show that the dance, an impromptu one done for a bet, had actually occurred.

Another and much bigger gag I once saw pulled, by that great puller of gags, Bud Flanagan, occurred during World War II at the theatre now known as the Cinerama in Soho, but which was then known as the All Services Club and made available to members of the various forces on leave.

The celebrated Grand Order of the Water Rats had decided to present their annual function at the club, thus enabling service personnel to enjoy a good variety programme followed by a dance. I was present as a member of the London Fire Forces Dance Orchestra, which had been engaged to play a spot in the show and also for the later dancing.

During the earlier part of the evening, when the Water Rats, having finished dinner were going through the speech period, Bud went to the microphone on stage and invited the entire assembly to receive the Prince of an Eastern country. The name he gave sounded authentic enough, and we were to be up- standing while the anthem of that country was played by Harry Fryer's accompanying orchestra. With an authoritative snare drum roll the orchestra played an "anthem" of great dignity whilst the young Prince and his equerry, clad in Arab- like white robes, made their majestic way down the steps from the circle to the stage. Everyone stood respectfully. The timing was excellent, the "royal" visitor arriving at the microphone as the last note of the "anthem" was played. Then the orchestra then slid segue into a fast stop chorus of "Bye Bye Blues", to which the "Prince" and his chum proceeded to perform an energetic tap dance.

One of the items in the Fire Forces Orchestra's stage show consisted of a patter act between Eddie Franklyn. (on stage) and violinist George Hurley in the stalls masquerading as a member of the audience. With the passing of time the dialogue hardly stands up, although it used to get the laughs and on one occasion, at one of the Luton theatres then in existence, some extra and unexpected ones.

The item opened with Eddie announcing that he would attempt to give his impression "of the ever- popular Bing Crosby", and then singing the opening phrases of the chorus of the song "Just One More Chance". He never got past the phrase: "To prove that you're the one I care for", because at that point George from the stalls would interrupt with "Excuse me, is that supposed to be like Bing Crosby?", and upon being assured that it was, his reply was something like "Rubbish. Nothin' like 'im , . plus a further exchange when Eddie would again commence the song.

Similar interruptions occurred about three times. At the same point each time Eddy made further attempts to sing the song and then the dialogue took the two of them on to other subjects. At Luton, however, there was an additional. unrehearsed interruption for, just at the point when George had made his third interruption, a strong masculine voice floated down from the top shelf, as the gallery used to be called, with the words "Why don't you shut up and let 'im get on with the blasted song?" Needless to say, we on stage joined the audience in falling about. Incidentally, if George had ever failed to interrupt, I think that Eddie would have been in trouble- he had never bothered to learn more than the two opening lines of the song.

Most Negro artists enjoyed the relaxed stage presence that made working with them in variety or cabaret particularly enjoyable. Among them were Adelaide Hall, Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson, Elizabeth Welch, all of whom worked solo, whilst many others worked as duos, perhaps the most famous of which was that of Turner Layton and Clarence Johnson. Their impact upon popular music in the 'twenties and early 'thirties was most significant. Then there were Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, the former of which at a later stage directed an excellent band which included some great jazz players, Tony Brookins and Sammy Vann, Ivan Browning and Rudi Starr, both truly grand acts, and Hatch and Carpenter.

Ike Hatch ultimately went solo and, sad to relate, died some years ago, but I always recall an occasion at New Cross Empire when his relaxed manner averted a musical crisis. I was a member of a stage band on the same bill, so was able to view the happening from the wings. Ike had completed his act, including encores, when audience response demanded still more. In the true musician's "busking" tradition, he called to the conductor of the pit orchestra "Let's give 'em `I Can't Give You Anything But Love, ' boy". The orchestra struck up but, unfortunately, there was a difference of opinion among them as to whether the key should be A flat or E flat. For the moment there was chaos; but Ike, without turning a hair and displaying a marvellous set of white and gold teeth, leaned over the footlights, held up four fingers, and called "Four of 'em, boys, four of 'em", achieving instant success. It occurred to me at the time how fortunate it was that the appropriate key was not B flat.