Monthly Archives: June 2018

The Music and the 1920s become the 1930s both sides of the Atlantic

One of the pioneers of the raucous, rapid-fire, eight-to-the-bar piano style described as ‘BOOGIE’ was Jimmy Yancey.  Born in Chicago in 1896 he worked in vaudeville as a singer and tap dancer – starting at the age of 6 – before taking up the piano in 1915.  Although he did not make a recording until 1939 his student – Meade “Lux” Lewis – would become one of the first to document the boogie-woogie piano style on record with his 1927 ‘Honky Tonk Train Blues’ – a masterpiece of intricate cross-rhythms that highlighted Lewis’s skills.   In this same year Pine Top Smith gathered widespread attention with the catchy ‘Pine Top’s Boogie-Woogie’.

The 1930s were a crucial period in the development of the blues. It was then that the Mississippi Delta blues performers Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson travelled throughout the southern states, singing about their woes, freedom, love and sex to community after community.  Johnson – who allegedly made a pack with ‘The Devil’ in order to become a better guitar player – was the first true blues performance artist.  On the east coast, musicians such as Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry and the Rev Gary Davis developed a more folksy, ‘Piedmomt Blues’ style.  Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Count Basie was absorbing the blues and – reinjecting it into the big band jazz style of the swing era.  In New York Billie Holiday, one of the most famous blues/jazz singers of all time’s, began captivating audiences with her haunting, sensuous voice.  We’ll come back to her another day.

In the 1930s, Great Britain was not without its’ own performers.  Jack Hylton – born John Greenhalgh Hilton in 1892 – was an English pianist, composer, band leader and impresario that rose to prominence during the British dance band era.  Being referred as the “British King of Jazz” and “The Ambassador of British Dance Music” by the musical press, not only because of his popularity which extended throughout the world, but also for his use of unusually large ensembles for the time and his polished arrangements.

By the time the Depression started biting in 1930 Jack had downsized his band and began performing less frequently in Europe.  However, in that same year, Maurice Chevalier recorded with Jack, who also made the first record of “Body and Soul”. In 1932, Hylton was decorated by the French government, recording with Paul Robeson the same year and making the first transatlantic entertainment broadcast with Paul Whiteman and his orchestra.

In late 1933 Jack left Decca after refusing to take a pay cut and did not begin making records again until 1935 when he re-joined HMV.  He had spent 1934 touring Europe again, and adopted “The Soldiers in the Park” – more commonly known as “Oh Listen to the Band” –  as his signature tune. In 1935 he appeared in his first feature film, the musical comedy ‘She Shall Have Music’, which starred June Clyde and Claude Dampier.  That same year, Jack was finally able to perform in the United States, something he had repeatedly attempted for almost a decade, but had been opposed by the musician unions who, in 1929 cancelled his tour at the last minute.  Standard Oil signed Jack for a radio show on CBS, not only paying him and his star players, but also paying all expenses for those band members unable to play in the U.S. While in Chicago, Hylton made a number of records with his radio band for Victor but Union pressure led him to return to the UK in 1936. Pat O’Malley and Alec Templeton stayed in America, making a name for them-selves.

Upon returning to Britain, Jack was criticised for adopting the then-popular swing rhythm, so he kept playing in his well-established style, including a series of new “concert recordings”. After a new tour of Europe in 1937, which included a performance at the Scala in Nazi Germany, Hylton began appearing on radio more frequently, starring in Radio Luxembourg’s Rinso Radio Revue until 1939, when he appeared in BBC’s Band Waggon as well as its 1940 film adaption.  He mostly retired from the music industry after 1940, becoming a successful theatrical businessman until his death.

We’ll tell the story of another man of the times next week.

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The man who earned the first Victoria Cross

It was on Wednesday 21st June 1854 that 20 year old Charles Davis Lucas won the first Victoria Cross. He came from County Monaghan in Ireland and had joined the Royal Navy when he was thirteen. Now twenty, he was a Mate on HMS Hecla as part of an Anglo-French fleet at the eastern end of the Baltic bombarding the Russian fortress of Bomarsund.  The fortress mounted some eighty massive guns and, as HMS Hecla drew closer to Bomarsund, a live shell landed on the Hecla’s deck and lay there, smoking evilly and obviously about to go off, to murderous effect.

Charles Lucas coolly picked the shell up, carried it to the ship’s side and dropped it into the sea, where it exploded with a huge bang and a giant fountain of spray. Lucas was promoted to lieutenant from that day and his was the first act of heroism to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

The medal was not actually instituted until 1856, but it was made retroactive to cover the Crimean War. Queen Victoria took a keen interest in the decoration which bore her name and it was she who suggested the words ‘For Valour’ beneath the medal’s bronze Maltese cross – rather than ‘For the Brave’, which she pointed out could be taken to imply that other people were not.

Charles Lucas’s campaign medals, including his Victoria Cross, are now displayed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. They are not the original medals though – they were left on a train and never recovered!  Replacement copies were made, though the reverse of the Victoria Cross copy is uninscribed.

The crosses were actually made of metal from Russian cannons captured at Sebastopol. It was a crucial innovation that the medal was awarded completely regardless of rank and on no consideration other than a single act of valour or devotion in the presence of the enemy.

Many years later the writer C.S.Forester used this incident to good effect in one of his Hornblower stories.

1930 Britain and musicians from Grenada and South Africa

There had been mass unemployment in the 1920s in Britain with most of the decade it hovered between 10% and 12% unemployed.  However that was nothing to the early 1930s when the economy was struck by depression. By the start of 1933 Britain’s unemployment was 22.8% but over the following years unemployment fell substantially and by January 1936 it stood at 13.9% and by 1938 it was around 10%.  However, although a partial recovery took place in Britain in the mid and late 1930s there were semi-permanent depression areas in the North of England, Scotland and South Wales.  Depression and unemployment are one side of the story – but there is another side. During this decade most people with a job found that living standards rose significantly.

From about 1925 to 1946 the most popular form of music in the UK was that produced by dance bands.   The British bands never quite adopted the kind of “Swing” music that was generally associated with American “Big Band” jazz. It was quite tame compared to American jazz and was generally more sweet.  Billy Cotton had perhaps the longest fame, as he still had a prime-time TV programme until the late 1960s while the fame of Ted Heath lasted until 1964. Fans tended to divide them into “Sweet” such as that of Ambrose; Geraldo and Victor Silvester and the “Hot” of Harry Roy and Nat Gonella.  The Jack Hylton’s band was “hot” until 1933 – and then became sweeter as their success grew.

Some of the lead singers enjoyed fame on their own – and two of the most famous of the time were Al Bowlly and Leslie “Hutch” Huchinson.  Let’s take ‘Huch’ first:

Leslie Huchinson was born in Grenada in 1900 to George & Marianne Hutchinson.  As a child Hutch took piano lessons.  In 1916, he moved to New York City with the intent to study for a degree in medicine – he had won a place due to his high aptitude – but instead he began playing the piano and singing in bars.  He joined a black band led by Henry “Broadway” Jones, who often played for white millionaires such as the Vanderbilts.  This attracted the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan and, in 1924, Hutch left America for Paris.  There he had a residency in Joe Zelli’s club and became a friend and lover of Cole Porter.  There were regular visitors from England and, in 1927, Huch was encouraged by Edwin Mountbatten to come to England in 1927 to perform in a Rogers and Hart musical.  ‘Hutch’ soon became the darling of British society and the population in general. Hutch became a favourite singer of the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and became one of the biggest stars in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s – and was, for a time, the highest paid star in the country.

He was regularly heard on air with the BBC and one of his greatest hits was “These Foolish Things”.  However – in spite of his popularity – Hutch could not escape racial prejudice.  He bought a Rolls-Royce, a grand house in Hampstead, patronised London’s best tailors, spoke five or six languages and was on friendly terms with the Prince of Wales – but he was still a black man in an era of racial discrimination. When he entertained at lavish Mayfair parties, his fee was large, but he was often obliged to go in by the servants’ entrance. This embittered him.  None-the-less Hutch stayed on in England and we’ll come back to him at a later time.

Albert Allick Bowlly was a Mozambican-born South African/British singer/songwriter, composer and band-leader who became a popular jazz crooner during the British dance band era of the 1930s. He later worked in the United States and is recorded as making more than 1,000 records between 1927 & 1941.  He was born in Lourenco Marques, in what was then the Portuguese colony of Mozambique to Greek and Lebanese parents who met en route to Australia and moved to South Africa. He was brought up in Johannesburg and, after a series of odd jobs across South Africa in his youth, including being a barber and a jockey!  He gained his musical experience singing for a dance band led by Edgar Adeler on a tour of South Africa during the mid-1920s. However, he fell out with Adeler and was fired from the band in Indonesia and, after a spell with a Filipino band in Surabaya he was employed by Jimmy Liquime in India. Bowlly worked his passage back home by busking.  Next stop was Berlin where he recorded Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” with Edgar Adeler! Bowlly arrived in London for the first time as part of Fred Elizalde’s orchestra – but he nearly didn’t make it after foolishly frittering away the fare money he had sent to him by Elizalde.

That year, “If I Had You” became one of the first popular songs by an English jazz band to become well known in America as well, and Bowlly had gone out on his own by the beginning of the 1930s. First, however, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 resulted in Bowlly being made redundant and returning to several months of busking to survive. In the 1930s, he signed two contracts—one in May 1931 with Rox Fox, singing in his live band for the Monseigneur Restaurant in London, the other a record contract with Ray Noble’ orchestra in November 1930.

During the next four years, he recorded over 500 songs and by 1933 Lew Stone had ousted Fox as bandleader, and Bowlly was singing Stone’s arrangements with Stone’s band. After much radio exposure and a successful British tour with Stone, Bowlly was inundated with demands for personal appearances and gigs – including undertaking a subsequent solo British tour – but continued to make the bulk of his recordings with Noble.] There was considerable competition between Noble and Stone for Bowlly’s time as, for much of the year, Bowlly would spend all day in the recording studio with Noble’s band, rehearsing and recording, only then to spend the evening playing live at the Monseigneur with Stone’s band.

The steamship Great Eastern’s first voyage.

The steamship Great Eastern was built to carry 4,000 passengers from England to Australia without refueling.  However – for its first long distance journey it had been arranged that it would leave Southampton about 4 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, 16th June 1860 to cross the Atlantic to New York.  There were large crowds at Southampton to watch – but when 4 o’clock arrived nothing happened!  At 7 o’clock the steam began and everyone got ready to cheer.  Nothing happened!  There were stories that the delay was because the crew were drunk!  It is certainly true that the company director Daniel Gooch, who was traveling aboard, was not at all pleased!  It was not until 8 o’clock on this Sunday morning 17th June 1860, after a night at it’s moorings, that the Great Eastern finally slipped her moorings in Southampton waters and started on her first voyage to America.  The newspapers of the day note that she had just 35 paying passengers on board – 2 or 3 of who were ladies!   There were also eight company non-paying passengers, and a crew of 418. Among the passengers were two journalists; two engineers – Zerah Colburn and Alexander Lyman Holley –- and three directors of the Great Ship Company.

Although the weather was described as ‘thick and stormy’ it was recorded that she ‘threaded the narrow and tortuous channel down the Solent, and through the Needles, in safety, under the pilot-age of Mr Bowyer’.

Various telegrams give us a deeper understanding of the delays and departure.  One says ‘The weather was far too thick and stormy to render it prudent for her to have got away last night’.  Perhaps it is as well she didn’t, as on passing Hurst Castle a ‘large troop ship could be plainly distinguished stuck fast among the rocks near the Needles.’

There are, though, also stories that the delay was because the crew were drunk!  It is certainly true that the company director Daniel Gooch, who was traveling aboard, was not at all pleased!

Bing Crosby goes to prison, takes a wife and moves on

Last week we left Bing developing a following from the younger members of the audience – so much so that he was assigned a key solo spot in a major production number.  The number was ‘Song of the Dawn’ which the Whiteman band filmed in Hollywood in 1930.  But …… things didn’t quite go to plan!

It was the night before the ‘Song of the Dawn’ was to be filmed that things went ‘a little awry’.  Bing had developed a reputation within the Whiteman clan as a fun-loving boozer and womanizer – and this night he was arrested for drunken driving.  Bing was jailed for 30 days and singer-actor John Boles – a Warner Brothers leading man – was brought-in to sing the part.  However – for several of the other numbers in King of Jazz featuring the Rhythm Boys Whiteman arranged to have Crosby brought to the studio under police guard and returned to jail after each day’s shooting ended!  When the film was completed Whiteman left Hollywood and went on a national tour.

The police experience had a sobering effect on the young Crosby and he began to take his career more seriously – particularly with regard to the potential of musical movies.  The group went to work in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub with Gus Arnheim’s orchestra.  There was also another reason for Bing to stay where they were – Miss Wilma Wyatt, a singer known as Dixie Lee!  In September 1930 they married and their unity initiated some ‘interesting’ responses!  News stories had comments such as ‘Rising young Fox star weds obscure crooner’ or, as Bing put it ‘Miss Big marries Mr Little’.

Dixie had played half-a-dozen movies for Fox but soon gave up that career and supported Bing in his.  As a result he worked on improving his breath control and started singing fewer rhythmic numbers and more romantic ballads.  Things now moved on at speed.  He left the Rhythm Boys after he missed a show and the group were briefly put on the blacklist by the musicians union and CBS Radio heard him and offered Bing a network contract.  Wife, brother and Bing moved to New York and, in September 1931 began a nightly 15 minute broadcast over the CBS Radio Network.  As singer-pianist, author and record producer Larry Carr once so aptly put it:

“After six long years of learning and honing his craft, he was an overnight success!”

This was the day England’s postmen stopped delivering your Sunday post.

Sunday 12th June 1921 was the day that the postmen in Britain stopped delivering their mail on a Sunday. The Saturday Hull Daily Mail of the time spelled out the situation for their readers:

‘The changes notified by the Postmaster General as to the postage rates and the Sunday collections and deliveries come into force at mid-night on Sunday. Subject to the payment of a special fee of one shilling, plus the ordinary postage and express fee, any letter or posted packet other than a parcel, will be accepted up to time of the general night mail posting on Saturday, at selected offices mentioned below, for special dispatch to any of the towns mentioned, but not elsewhere, and will be delivered by express messenger during the hours that office of destination is open for telegraph business. By the payment of a special fee of one shilling plus postage a letter will be accepted on Sunday for the offices mentioned for express despatch to any of the towns indicated for the first house-to-house delivery after its arrival on Monday.

The selected offices are, outside London, the head offices at Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-on-Tyne and Sheffield.’

Hull was disappointed and surprised that it was not one of the selected offices.

On the water for the first time – Oxford vs Cambridge and a Boat Race

It was on Wednesday 10th June 1829 that the first Oxford University vs Cambridge University boat race took place.  It was rowed over a two and a quarter mile course from Hambledon Lock to Henley Bridge.  The Morning Post of 12th June 1829 reported:

THE GRAND ROWING MATCH BETWEEN OXONIANS AND THE CANTABS: This match, between the Students of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge took place on Wednesday afternoon in Henley Reach. The interest excited was very great, and the contest was remarkably severe. Both parties exerted themselves to the utmost. For some time the issue was very doubtful; but Victory ultimately decided in favour of the Oxonians.

We now [2018] have had 164 races completed – one was a dead-heat; 80 have been won by Oxford and 83 by Cambridge.

Just in passing – I’m a Cambridge man but I’ve never rowed a boat.  I have watch many of the races though – sitting in front of the television!

The man’s called BING

Harry Lillis Crosby – better known as Bing Crosby – was an American singer, actor, and song writer that achieved great popularity in radio, recordings, and motion pictures. He became the archetypal crooner of a period when the advent of radio broadcasting and talking pictures and the refinement of sound-recording techniques made the climate ideal for the rise of such a figure. His casual stage manner and mellow, relaxed singing style influenced two generations of pop singers and made him the most successful entertainer of his day.

He had acquired the nickname ‘Bing’ when he was in elementary school although it is unclear whether it came from a prank on a teacher or from a love for the comic strip of the time The Bingville Bugle. He came from a musical family and began to sing and to play the drums while studying law in Washington.  In the late 1920’s he was singing with the Paul Whiteman orchestra and, in 1931, he appeared in the early sound film King of Jazz. In 1932 he got his own program on the CBS radio station in New York City and began appearing in more films, so much so that by the late 1930s his records were selling millions of copies.

But let us take him back the late 1920s.

Bing and music really began when he started singing and playing drums in a small band called ‘Musicaladers’ that played at school dances and in social functions.  Bing and Alton Rinker – the brother of singer Mildred Bailey – dropped out of college in 1925 to try to make a success as a singing duo. Their target was West Coast – the home of Mildred and vaudeville theatres!  Mildred had contacts and introduced Bing and Alton to ‘a very big theatrical agent’ – they were on their way.  Some 18 months later the pair was hired by Paul Whiteman – at the time the leader of the most popular dance orchestra in the country!

Soon the two became three when Harry Barnes – a singer-pianist – joined them.   The Rhythm Boys developed a lightly swinging, easy-going vocal style that soon became one of the most popular elements of Paul Whiteman’s stage shows – AND his radio programs and recordings.

Bing had the most distinctive voice of the trio and, increasingly, was given chances to ‘go solo’ within the three.  He began developing a following from the younger members of the audience – so much so that he was assigned a key solo spot in a major production number.  The number was ‘Song of the Dawn’ which the Whiteman band filmed in Hollywood in 1930.

But …… things didn’t quite go to plan – but we’ll worry about that next week!

The King is Dead – Long live the Queen

I’m sure many millions of people across the world will know – but just in case ….

65 years ago on Tuesday 2nd June 1953 the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon took place on 2 June 1953 at Westminster Abbey.  Elizabeth ascended the throne at the age of 25, upon the death of her father, King George VI who had passed away on Wednesday 6th February 1952, and was proclaimed Queen by her various privy and executive councils shortly afterwards. The coronation took place more than a year later because of the tradition that holding such a festival is inappropriate during the period of mourning that follows the death of a monarch and also on account of the need to make preparations for the ceremony. During the service, she took and subscribed an oath to, among other things, govern the peoples according to their respective laws and customs, was anointed with holy oil, presented and invested with regalia, and crowned.

Celebrations took place across the Commonwealth and a commemorative medal was issued. It was the first British coronation to be televised and was the fourth and last British coronation of the 20th century.

She was born Miss Mortenson

On 1st June 1926 a little girl was born and, in due time, was named Norma Jeane Mortenson.  She was born and raised in Los Angeles and spent most of her childhood in fosters homes and an orphanage.  She married at the age of 16 and, in 1944 while working as part of the war effort in a radioplane factory, she was introduced to a photographer from the ‘First Motion Picture Unit’.  Photographs were taken and she soon began a successful pin-up modelling career.  This work led to a short-livered film contracts with 20th Century Fox in 1946/7 and Columbia Pictures in 1948.  After a series of minor film roles she signed a new contract in 1951 with Fox and from there her career blossomed.  Oh – by the way – by now she had changed her name.

She was now known as Marilyn Monroe!

I think we might say a little bit more about this lady in the near future!