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The British Big Bands by David Mulliss


The big band scene in England was much like that in America around wartime.  Most towns outside London had local bands and ballrooms.  And many wonderful bands there were... The bands of Joe Loss, Oscar Rabin, Lou Preager, John Dankworth, Jack Parnell, Eric Daleney and many others could cut some great swing. 

Paul Fenoulhet formed his band The Skyrockets, while he was doing military training.  He was a star trombonist and arranged for the band.  He arranged for other bands such as Jack Hylton’s.  In 1946 The Skyrockets made their home at the London Palladium until commercial television took over in 1955.  In 1947, Woolf Phillips replaced Paul Fenoulhet on trombone.  Doreen Lundy first sang with Fenoulhet’s band while she was in the WAAF. (she also sang with Geraldo) 

The Oscar Rabin band was interesting in that it had two leaders: Harry Davis and Oscar Rabin.  They formed a small band around 1924 and by 1930 their band had grown and taken up residence at the Wimbledon Palais.  The band spent two years there and they later moved to one of London’s best ballrooms: The Astoria, on Charing Cross Road.  After another five years they played at the Hammersmith Palais. 
Rabin preferred to take care of the business side of the band, and he played in the sax section, while Davis (a great entertainer) fronted the band.  Harry Davis’s daughter Beryl began singing in the band when she was eight.  (While in her teens, Beryl got to sing with the Hot Club of France; Stephane Grappelli was a friend of the family) 
The band had vocalists such as Marjorie Daw, Marion Davies, Denis Hale, Patti Forbes, Marion Williams, “Diane” and Bob Dale. 
Pete Warner a tenor saxophone player in the band from ‘51 to ‘53 said: On listening to the recordings made by the Rabin band, it was a beautifully balanced band , the arrangements were beautiful, the singers were great and Oscar never troubled us at all.  He was a lovely man, a real gent.” 

Lou Preager’s band stayed at the Hammersmith Palais from 1942 to 1959.  His vocalists were often musicians in the band, such as Rusty Hurran (trombone), Paul Rich (guitar).  The Sunnysiders, a swinging vocal group, recorded their great version of When The Red Red Robin

Ivy Benson was a highly skilled clarinetist and saxophonist.  She formed her All Girls Band in 1939 and her band began playing at Covent Garden, which was turned into a ballroom during the war.  Ivy's band was one of the top bands of the day.  When her band became BBC's resident band, some of the male bandleaders weren't very happy.  Ivy had more trouble running the band than the men's bands, due to fabric shortages for dresses (they used some silk parachutes to make dresses at one stage) and the fact that many of her musicians were leaving and marrying the GIs.  She was inspired to start a band from listening to the recordings of Jimmy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.

Trumpeter Teddy Foster put together his first band in 1929 in Birmingham.  He later led a smaller band called "The Kings of Swing."  He led a larger band from 1943 at Birmingham's Casino, and later, his 17 piece band in 1945 and it was highly successful at Covent Garden’s Opera House.  They later moved to the Strand Lyceum.  His band was probably the first British band to have an eight piece brass section with five sax, and Foster always sought out the best musicians and arrangements: some were by Roland Shaw who also did some arranging for Ken Mackintosh. 

Joe Loss’s orchestra was still very popular long after most of the big bands had disbanded.  In fact, his bandleading career lasted about 60 years.  Vera Lynn made her first broadcasts with the band.  The royal family was also a fan of the band and they played at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle many times.  His band had a great sound and it’s strict tempos kept it a favourite with dancers.  His band recorded a nice tribute to Glenn Miller.  He used "In The Mood" as the band's theme song, and often had to play it several times in an evening because the audience loved it so much. 

Syd Dean’s Orchestra played at the Regent Ballroom Brighton from 1945 to 1958, and his band starred the adorable voice of Jill Day, with such numbers as Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and A Dreamer’s Holiday with Harry Bolton, a trumpeter.  A great band... 

Ambrose was born in London and his family moved to America when he was a boy.  He began playing in a band and later ended up conducting it.  Ambrose's band was so popular in New York's high society that they named a drink after him: The Ambrose Cocktail.  On a second trip to London, bringing some American musicians, he began one of the best bands in the world.  However, this particular band finished at the outbreak of the war in 1939.  Ambrose played violin but in his bandleading days he didn't play it so often.  The band was perhaps the only band to get regular radio time in the USA.  Bert Barnes was the band's piano player and was also an excellent arranger.  The Prince of Wales like to come in and play on the drums sometimes too. 

Roy Fox, the “Whispering Cornetist” had been fronting a band at Hollywood's Coconut Grove, and in 1930 he was booked into London's Cafe de Paris.  For a year around 1931 Roy Fox and his Orchestra played at the Monseigneur. After this time the management had a disagreement wit Fox, and Lew Stone took over the band.  Fox then formed a new band which opened at the Cafe Anglais.  “Whispering” was their theme tune.  Al Bowlly sang in the band: he was known as a nice guy: he didn't smoke, didn't drink and was not a womaniser, as many tried to make out later on. Mary Lee, Peggy Dell, Denny Dennis, Rose Brennan and "Primrose" were also vocalists in the band. 

Geraldo's opening theme was "Hello Again" and the closing theme was "The Clock on the Wall."  Geraldo (Gerald Bright) started his first band when he was 19, and when he was 26, travelled to South America and brought back Latin American music, namely the tango.  During WW2, the band became the most popular dance band in England.  The band got on well with Glenn Miller's who played across them at the Queensbury Club.  An interesting note is that it was the arrangers who usually rehearsed the band.  When arranger Bill Finegan left Dorsey to study in Paris, Geraldo had him write for the band.  There were many great musicians in the band, such as Maurice Burman (drums, trumpet cornet), Harry Hayes (alto sax), Nat Temple (alto sax, clarinet), Ted Heath (trombone), Eric Delaney (drums), 

Ted Heath started out in Jack Hylton's Orchestra, and joined Geraldo's Orchestra before he started his own band.  Heath wrote the theme tune "Listen To My Music" as well as many other popular songs such as "I'm Gonna Love That Guy" and "That Lovely Weekend" which he wrote with his wife Moira.  The musicians thought he was great, and so did everybody else.  The Heath band toured Australia, New Zealand and America several times.  They were with Nat King Cole's trio when Nat was attacked in Alabama, which upset the band. 

Syd Lawrence played trumpet in many other well-known bands before he put together his in 1967.  The band soon outgrew everywhere they played until they got a weekly performance on television.  By 1969 the Syd Lawrence Orchestra was touring locally and internationally. And, it still performs, but no longer with Syd. (contact the Syd Lawrence Orchestra in the UK) 

And, of course, there were many other great bands such as Harry Roy's, whose recording of The Last Waltz of the Evening is very touching.

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David Mulliss