Over there...over here
On Irving Berlin
On George Gershwin
Remembering the war years
I wouldn't want to go through them again for anything, but I wouldn’t have missed them for the world. If that sounds ambivalent it is because I am talking about a period that caused heartaches, tears and anguish, whilst at the same time creating thrills, excitement and nevertobeforgotten moments. I refer, of course, to the war years.
Although the Twenties are said by many to have been the decade where, musically speaking, it all started, the years prior to that were really the ones that gave birth to the blues. Scott Joplin gave us his Treemonishu in 1911, and if you think that’s going back a bit, try this one for size: Mr W. H. Krell presented us with his Mississippi Rag in l897! But it could be said—arguably, no doubt—that it was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band who took this country by musical storm in 1919 and who really started the ball rolling (no pun intended) with its sheer exuberance, vitality and enthusiasm.
Although born in the Twenties (late ones, I hasten to add) I remember nothing of them, so, in keeping with many of my readers, I am totally dependent upon the records I have to know just what influence the Americans had upon the rapidly emerging British jazz/dance musician; for if the Yanks had blazed the trail, their transatlantic cousins were quick to learn and even quicker to follow. The young Nat Gonella was by then forming the embouchure that was to ensure that thousands of us would thrill to his playing for many years to come, as was the equally young Teddy Foster. The lads from north of the border were also finding their feet—or should it be lips?—for the new music, and the MacAffers, McDevitts, McQuaters and Chisholms were all doing their daily flexibilities.
There are few who would argue that the Thirties were indeed the halcyon days of the British dance band scene, for, with names such as Roy Fox, Lew Stone, Ambrose, Sydney Lipton and Billy Cotton, the profession was in good hands when it came to all that was best in entertainment, glamour and innovation. Jack Payne and Henry Hall brought an entirely new concept to the art of broadcasting, whilst those who were around at the time swear that the Jack Hylton stage show was a hard one to follow. Ambrose had a simple philosophy for his incredible success: Get the top players, singers and arrangers, pay them the top money—and you have the best.
But then, Stone, Lipton et al had exactly the same philosophy.
One very important reason for the continuous growth and success of the big band era was the fact that there was no shortage of venues for them to purvey their wares. The Mayfair featured Ambrose and his Orchestra, and their weekly broadcasts had the same popularity as did the TV programme Roots, some forty–five years on. With players such as Max Goldberg, Ted Heath, Les Carew, Danny Polo and Ivor Mairants, it had to be good. Throw in singers of the calibre of Sam Browne and Elsie Carlisle, plus the effervescence of Max Bacon, and you have what many considered to be the best band of them all.
But no writer of this period can possibly mention Ammy and the Mayfair without also mentioning Lew Stone and the Monseigneur. With characters like Nat Gonella, Joe Ferrie, Tiny Winters and Joe Crossman around, it had a special magic all of its own, and an audience to match.
Grosvenor House with Sid Lipton; The Dorchester featuring the irrepressible Jack Jackson; The Savoy presenting Carroll Gibbons showed that there was no shortage of hotels from which the discriminating could choose when it came to a night out. The clubs, too, were there by the hundreds, and The Nut House, Coconut Grove, Churchills and the Bag O’Nails were but four whereby the bright young things could spend the wee small hours in a manner that would assure them that, whatever else they were up to, they would have the best accompaniment to help them along.
So what was special about the years l939–l945? A war took place. War by its very nature effects major changes in people, and musicians were no exception to this inexorable rule. It would be true to say that the two main changes to take place in the life of the wartime player were of both dress and address. From mufti to uniform: from civvy street to service life.
And, as the war progressed, it was not only the British musician who was asked to make these changes but also, among others, his American and Canadian colleagues. It was ironic that many of the guys who had been playing “Over There” over there now found themselves playing it over here! That so many of them stayed was to be of benefit to the whole British scene for many years to come.
But more of that later. There were hundreds of service bands, playing from Bognor to Burma. Some were no more than trios, others were full–sized orchestras. There was also one civilian band that used many of the service players on its almost daily broadcasts and is probably remembered as the best of the non–military outfits: Geraldo.
I think it fair to say that the best remembered of those service bands were those of the Skyrockets; the Blue Rockets; the Squadronaires; the British Band of the AEF; the American Band of the AEF; the Canadian Band of the AEF; and the Artie Shaw Navy Band, led here by Sam Donaghue. Great bands, great players, and they did so much to brighten what was to be a fairly dark period of the Forties. The first four of these bands were as British as the Grenadiers, and their broadcasts and concerts made them all household names.
Arguably the most exciting of the lot was the marvellous Squads; led by Jimmy Miller, with Tommy McQuater, George Chisholm, Eric Breeze and Jock Cummings in the line–up, they couldn’t be anything else but marvellous. Listen to their “Anchors Aweigh” and you’ll see—or hear—what I mean. And all the time a certain Harry Lewis was playing alto with the Squads, his wife was making a name for herself—in the nicest possible way, of course—as The Forces’ Sweetheart. Her name was Vera Lynn.
But if the Squads were the most exciting bunch of players of that age, the most accomplished of the British service bands was that of George Melachrino. The others were dance bands; George’s was an orchestra. He was a marvellous musician. He could get the very best out of the guys, and he had the total respect of all concerned. When any artist took the stage and saw George there, his worries were over. Here indeed was one of the most likeable and competent of all the conductors that emerged from that particular period.
The invitation to hear my first “foreign” band in the flesh came from a guy slouched against the wall of the Queensbury Club, Old Compton Street, London. I say “slouched” as there is no other way to describe anyone leaning against a wall dressed’ in naval uniform. And I don’t mean officer’s uniform, either! It was only the trumpet case under his arm that gave away his profession. And it was that case which prompted me to introduce myself. He was Johnny Best, ex–lead trumpet with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. To see him under such circumstances, when the last time I’d seen him was on a Hollywood film musical was, to say the least, prosaic. But the smile and the welcome were as warm as the man himself.
And if the smile was warm, the sound that hit me when the band started can only be described as scorching. The phrase “a wall of sound” took on a new meaning, and I could at last hear what musicians who had heard American bands in the flesh meant when they said that, somehow or other, they “blew” differently. The fact that Best and the other trumpet player, Frankie Beach, went back to the States and dominated the Hollywood film and recording scene for the next twenty years after the war shows the standard being proffered. Another trumpet player there at the time was one Conrad Gozzo. But that story will keep for another time. It deserves to.
Donaghue himself was a great tenor player, and it was nothing unusual to see him and the jazzers in the navy band sitting in with regulars in the London clubs. The fact that bombs were falling at the time seemed to add, in a crazy sort of way, an excitement to an age that had all the atmosphere it needed. It was good to sit in with those guys, and it showed this player that when jazz musicians get together, under any circumstances, and no matter where they come from, they speak the same language.
It was bass player Tommy Bromley who nudged me one night on the stand of the Feldman Club and whispered, “See who that is standing at the door?” The guy listening to us play was as instantly recognisable as was Eisenhower to any doughboy. The face with the rimless glasses needed no major’s uniform to put a name to him; it could only be Glenn Miller. An entrance by Sonja Henie would have made the scenario complete. Strangely enough, I’d seen the face only a few days before that Sunday, but that was at a picture house on yet another visit to see one of the marvellous Miller films where he’d enchanted us all with numbers such as “At Last”, “Serenade In Blue”, “I Know Why” and all the rest of those evergreens. He joined us at the short break and was more than complimentary about our efforts. He also invited us to come and listen to the band. There were no refusals from our lot.
Like Melachrino’s outfit, the Miller Band was totally professional, both in performance and presentation. The audience was ecstatic, for Miller had a charisma that was as unique to the man as it was to the sound he had created. Seeing him give “four in” to “Little Brown Jug” has long brought nostalgic thrills to your writer.
If it is impossible to mention the Thirties without referring to such as Ambrose and Stone, it is equally impossible to mention the war years without bringing in Geraldo. There were, of course, many civilian bands who struggled on in spite of the fact that their key players were being called up for the forces.
Joe Loss kept up an incredible standard for the time, whilst bands such as George Elrick, Oscar Rabin, Carroll Gibbons and Eric Winstone did the profession proud in the fact that when they did lose an established player, they did at least give the up–and–coming youngster his chance to make the grade a lot sooner than he might have done had there not been a war on. It’s an ill wind . . But Gerry’s band was different. Maybe it is because he was in the right place at the right time. And if being in London at the worst of the German blitz comes under that heading, then Gerry fits the bill.
The BBC had the broadcasts to give, and Gerry found himself with the opportunity to take them. He got the best players available who were not being called up—players such as AIfie Noakes, Ted Heath, Maurice Burman, Ivor Mairants and Sid Bright—and with the addition of the forces players who were stationed around London (Nat Temple, Harry Hayes and the oh–so–valuable George Evans) his band was, without doubt, the very best that was going.
We touring musicians would rush back to the digs after the show to hear this marvellous outfit, and the standard was never to drop during the five or six years of its reign. The adding of a baritone sax gave a depth to the saxes we’d never heard before in this country, and the fact that the band was the first to use eight brass here made it the nearest thing to an American band we could get. Geraldo had the largest vocal group in the country, and they were all good. The fact, too, that he was influenced by the Miller sound made it all the more pleasurable, and to be on the air sometimes two or three times a day during that period made the name of Geraldo most definitely a household word.
“Can you lend me a pound?” The voice in the pub was that of a quiet–spoken Canadian. He was in uniform, looking slightly forlorn. He was tall, handsome, talented and short of money. I was all of those things, with the exception of the first three—but I did have the pound. Consequently we were to remain friends from that moment on. His name was Paul Carpenter.
“I’m singing with the Bob Farnon Band tonight. Would you like to come and see the show?” Back to the BBC Studio, and again I was listening to a very professional and accomplished bunch of guys. But when the man had said Farnon singular, he really should have made it plural, for according to the programme there were three Farnons in the band: Bob, the conductor; Brian on alto; and Denny on trumpet. Three brothers in the same band. And all good.
There was some lovely jazz from trumpeter Freddy Davis, and the touch of the pianist, Denny Vaughan, was that of class. But it was the ultra–smooth singing and announcing from the impecunious Paul that showed just why, some few years later, he was (along with Dickie Valentine, Dennis Lotis and Lita Roza) to become one of the kingpins of the great Ted Heath Band of the Fifties.
So, with all this professional display going on, why was it that I kept eyeing the man, Farnon R.? I hadn’t looked at either Melachrino or Miller like that; what was different about this conductor? It took a little while to sink in that when he was conducting this gent had something that I’d never seen displayed in front of an orchestra before. The best way I can describe it is “authority without demand”. His authority came from a look, not a voice. He coaxed crescendos with but a twist of the wrists; he enticed diminuendos with merely the shrug of the shoulders. And all the time there was just the gentle smile that seemed to ask of the band, “Please, just for me!” And they did. In a way that was different. I left the studio knowing that we’d be hearing more of this particular Farnon brother. And it was to be sooner than I expected.
The post–war maiden voyage of the Queen Mary was a “must” for many people, and Geraldo was no exception. But who to lead the band in his absence? The band was considered not only the best around, but one that had to have the Gerry touch to keep it that way. Robert Farnon walked into the studio, only this time in civilian clothes, and proceeded to listen to the number we’d been broadcasting for months. He then dismissed the trombones, saxes and rhythm, told them to come back at half–hourly intervals. and advised the four trumpet players that he’d like to do some in–depth rehearsing. The trumpet players—not exactly amateurs (Alfie Noakes, Eddie Calvert, Derek Abbott and yours truly on lead)—didn’t take too kindly to this, and the mutterings were, let’s say, of a musicianly nature!
After half an hour the trombones returned. To this day I can still hear the words of lead, Jock Bain: “Blimey, what’s happened to you lot? It sounds like a different section.” We had to own up: we’d all learned something. For once the quavers were all the same length; the fourth trumpet was blowing the same volume as the second. We sounded like one. The strange thing is that, in learning it all, we were given the impression that we were doing the man a favour, not the other way around.
Denny Vaughan was singing with the band, and was also doing some superb arrangements. Alto player (and later Goon Show conductor) Wally Stott had only recently started to learn arranging and he, like Denny, came under the Farnon spell. The band not only sounded better, the guys felt better. We were all realising our true potential. And all done with the twitch of an eyebrow and the movement of a finger. Oh, and a smile!
There is not a lot that can be added to the Farnon legend. It has all been said already. But there is one thing that might just add lustre to an already glittering star. I recall the incident particularly well. André Previn and I were having lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Camden Town, and although I had offered to pay the bill, the generous American would have none of it. I have always liked André.
I asked him who, in his opinion, was the master when it came to putting the dots on to the paper. He answered without either hesitation or equivocation. “In my opinion,” said Previn, “the world’s finest arranger is Bob Farnon. ”
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