About this Recording
8.120604 - BRITISH DANCE BANDS, Vol. 2 (1928-1940)


Original Recordings 1928-1940

Our second volume of British dance bands continues an A to Z listing which permits contrast of the bigger names with the lesser-known but no less deserving. We commence with a recording by Fred Elizalde and his Hot Music (a select small group pulled from the ranks of Elizalde’s larger Savoy Hotel band in which, ironically, the only British musician was the drummer Ronnie Gubertini — even he was of Italian extraction!).

The heir to a sugar-cane plantation Federico Elizalde (1907-1979) was born in Manila. He had originally been sent to Stanford University in California to study law but, on discovering he spent most of his time listening to jazz, his parents packed him off to England, hoping that the hallowed cloisters of Cambridge University would exercise a calming influence. The first thing he did however was to form a dance band which played at the Footlights Revue of 1926. This band so impressed Bert Ambrose that he urged Brunswick to sign up Elizalde, even lending him some of his own musicians for the sessions. These led to Elizalde being offered the contract to replace the Savoy Havana Band who were due to leave the hotel in December, 1927. Elizalde promptly sent his brother over to the U.S.A. to recruit jazz soloists for his band, three of whom are heard to good advantage on Arkansas. After an inventive alto solo by Bobby Davis, Adrian Rollini (1904-1956) solos on hot fountain pen (an instrument he invented himself), then after a punchy trumpet solo from Chelsea Quealey (1905-1950) and a short piano solo from Elizalde himself, Rollini returns with a most expressive solo on the bass saxophone. Sadly the patrons of the Savoy could not adapt to Elizalde’s forward-thinking arrangements and rhythms and the hotel terminated his contract in 1929. Elizalde went to Spain in 1932 to study under Manuel de Falla at the Madrid Conservatoire and ended his working life as head of the Philippines broadcasting network.

The guitarist on the Elizalde record was the South-African Len Fillis (1903-1953) who offers us a lovely picturesque number By The Lazy Lagoon. Among the first to popularise the Hawaiian guitar in England, Fillis made hundreds of records, both as a soloist and with various bands and few more enjoyable than those he made with The Four Bright Sparks, directed by the American clarinettist Van Phillips (1905-1992). The group’s other members were drummer Rudy Starita (d.1978) and the outstanding British jazz pianist of his day, Arthur Young (1904-1965) and, as the freshness and spontaneity of the playing shows, the arrangements on these recordings were all ad hoc. This performance of At Last I’m In Love offers a welcome contribution from Lou Abelardo, an American singer who sang with Ambrose for a couple of years before returning to the U.S.A.

An American who stayed much longer in England was Roy Fox (1901-1982), famed not only for his soft speaking voice but also his whispering cornet style. In his autobiography, Fox recounted how whilst playing a solo with the Gus Arnheim Orchestra at the Coconut Grove in 1927, one dancing couple came over to him and the man remarked: "You play the trumpet so softly, just like a whisper — it sounds more like a violin than a horn." Fox thanked him for the compliment and was all the more gratified to find out that it was Jascha Heifetz who had thus praised him! He arrived in this country in 1930 with an eight-week contract at the Café de Paris. On their first night, however, the band did not make quite the right impression, as Fox directed wearing an American Tuxedo and it was Jack Buchanan who took him to his own tailor to get him a proper set of tails, with the result that he was soon adjudged to be the finest dressed leader in London!

In 1931 Fox opened at the Monseigneur Restaurant in Piccadilly with a star-studded band including future leader Lew Stone (1898-1969) on piano and Britain’s outstanding hot trumpeter, Nat Gonella (1908-l998), heard later with his own band, the New Georgians, complete with typical Gonella vocal, in I Got Rhythm. The Fox band heard on Moon, with vocal by Al Bowlly (1899-1941), is amongst the last records they made with Roy Fox directing them, for a month later he had left the Monseigneur following a disagreement with the management over his moonlighting to do stage work. Apart from trumpeter Sid Buckman, all of the band voted to remain under Stone’s new leadership, so Fox formed a new band at the Café Anglais.

The nucleus of this band was a quartet of outstanding musicians from the Spider’s Web, three of whom became leaders in their own right: tenor-saxist Harry Gold (b.1907), pianist-arranger Jack Nathan (1910-1990) and guitarist Ivor Mairants (1908-1998). These are heard on the second offering by Fox, It’s Been So Long, with a vocal by ‘Little Mary Lee’ (aka May McDevitt) who was talent-spotted by Fox in Glasgow in March 1935 and only fifteen at the time of this recording. In August 1938 Fox was taken ill and disbanded; in America at the outbreak of World War 2, he stayed there for the duration and returned to England in 1946. Sadly his style of music was going out of fashion. By 1951 he was declared bankrupt, although he later made a comeback as a promoter.

By a strange coincidence it was in 1946 that Bert Firman (1906-1999), sensing the changing musical trends, retired from band leading. Bert (for some years a personal friend of mine) had become the youngest band leader in the world one night in 1923 when the leader of the Midnite Follies Orchestra of which Bert was then a member had fallen off the bandstand in a drunken stupor. The following year he was appointed musical director of Zonophone records and made over 800 sides for them before going to work in America in 1928. Thereafter he worked mainly in France, cutting only four more sides with a band in 1937, including Don’t Play With Fire. This band was unusual in that it had only strings and one reed — self-taught multi-reed man Freddy Gardner (1910-1950). The combination works well and we have a lovely vocal by the fondly remembered Sam Costa, whom Bert had first employed as a pianist whilst working in France in 1932.

Freddy Gardner turns up again on one of the earliest recordings he made with Eddie Gross-Bart’s Café Anglais Band. Eddie Gross-Bart (1900-1985), another American who came to this country in 1920, was so successful that he actually ended up buying one of the clubs in which he played. He himself takes the vocal on this version of the Ray Noble (1903-1978) standard I Found You. Amongst Freddy Gardner’s most famous recordings were those made with Peter Yorke (1902-1966) who is heard as pianist with George Fisher’s Rhythm Band on A Room With A View. Fisher (real name George Fishberg) had earlier played piano in London with Art Hickman’s New York London Five and then Teddy Brown at the Café de Paris. His Rhythm Band were resident at the Kit-Kat Club where their arrangements were by Lew Stone.

One of the few British leaders who was as successful after the war as he was before it was Geraldo (aka Gerald Bright, 1903-1974) who came from very humble circumstances — his parents were Jewish immigrants who worked in the rag trade. Both he and his twin brother Sidney (d.1976 — heard to good effect on The Rhythm Of The Rumba) were child prodigies who won diplomas for piano from the Royal Academy of Music. Always one with a flair for the exotic Geraldo first came to prominence with his Gaucho Tango Orchestra (the Rumba Orchestra is in essence the same group) who were so popular they were invited to appear in the 1933 Royal Command Performance. With their black moustaches, slicked down hair and extravagant clothes, they looked so Latin-American that the Prince of Wales spoke to them in Spanish. Not understanding a word, Geraldo had to explain to H.R.H. that he was English! "The devil you are!" expostulated the astonished Prince, although one commentator quipped "They looked more Aston Villa than Pancho Villa!" The second Geraldo item, Hoagy Carmichael’s classic composition Small Fry, shows his finely integrated dance band at its best.

Possibly the best loved of the American leaders resident in England was Carroll Gibbons (1903-1954), albeit that he ended up here at all was an accident. Joe Brannelly, on a talent spotting trip for the Savoy Hotel, cabled to tell them of his great find of two young men studying at the New England Conservatory of Music — Carroll Gibbons and Rudy Vallee. The Savoy wired back "Bring Vallee. Not Gibbons." Brannelly, however, having already bought them both tickets did not have the heart to tell Gibbons that he was not wanted, so on his arrival here Carroll enrolled for lessons at the Royal Academy of Music. Eventually the Savoy engaged him and everyone warmed to his slow drawl (the result of speech therapy to mask a childhood stammer). Let’s Stop The Clock is given a typically suave Savoy treatment with a vocal from violinist George Melachrino (1909-1965), while his Boy Friends, a smaller group drawn from the ranks of the full-scale Savoy Band offer a performance of the beautiful I’ll Never Be The Same, with composer Matty Malneck (1903-1981) guesting on violin. When the war broke out in 1939, Carroll Gibbons was on holiday in America and could easily have stayed there, but he chose not to do so and despite pleadings from friends fought hard to get a passage back to England so that he might entertain all his British friends in their hour of need.

So great indeed was the demand for dance music between the wars that many leaders spent all their time purely as recording artists. One who organised many types of music from small ensembles to full orchestras was Philip Green (1911-1982), heard here directing a group from the piano in a selection from Every Night At Eight. Green also composed and arranged, eventually becoming musical advisor to Rank Studios, for whom he scored more than 200 films. Jack Grose was a pseudonym for Bournemouth-born Jay Wilbur (1898-1969) one of the most prolific studio men who recorded well over 1000 records. A Bungalow, A Piccolo And You has famous variety star Leslie Holmes as its vocalist and was issued on the Eclipse label. These were amongst the first budget-priced records, selling in Woolworths for 6d a time.

Ben Frankel (1906-1973) was a musician who subsidised his own classical compositions with dance band work and arrangements. He subsequently wrote music for films (particularly remembered is his charming "Carriage and Pair" ) as well as eight symphonies. Here he directs a studio group of whom the personnel is unknown apart from the vocalist, Bert Yarlett. Frankel penned many arrangements for Henry Hall (1898-1989) whose B.B.C. Dance Orchestra was featured on Vol.1. Here we have two more Hall tracks, one each from his pre- and post-B.B.C. days: Have You Forgotten a nice reminder of his Gleneagles Hotel Band, followed by what is really his B.B.C. orchestra with an excellent vocal by Leslie Douglas (b.1914) who himself led a band during and after the war. Another ex-Hall protégé was George Elrick (1903-1999) — a great success on radio with his pleasant friendly manner and a fine drummer to boot. His band contribute I Love To Whistle, from the Deanna Durbin film Mad About Music.

We conclude with a track by a band defined in 1939 by Melody Maker as "the finest in England" — that of Jack Harris (1901-1976), another American who first came to London in 1927. He made many British recordings and enjoyed great popularity but when war broke out he was in America and although it has been said that he wanted to return to England, he could not secure a passage. With Carroll Gibbons in mind, perhaps he should have tried harder!

Guy W. Rowland, 2002

The Naxos Historical labels aim to make available the greatest recordings of the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.

Peter Dempsey

A tenor singer of wide range and performing experience, Peter Dempsey specialises in Victorian and Edwardian genre ballads and art-song, and has recorded various CDs, including Love’s Garden Of Roses for Moidart. Quite apart from his personal enthusiasm for music in the broadest sense, through his assiduous collecting and study of 78s over many years, Peter has acquired not only a wide knowledge of recorded musical performance but also a heartfelt awareness of the need to conserve so many "great masters" who — were it not for CD — might now be lost for future generations. A recognised authority on old recordings, Peter now regularly researches and produces CD albums from 78s.

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