VIVIAN ELLIS (1904 - 1996)
Vivian Ellis is one of Britain’s great song-writers. With such a melodic gift backed by all the right attributes—harmonic resource, sense of design, ability to set a scene, and impeccable workmanship—it was natural that his output has also included a number of light orchestral compositions.
Vivian Ellis was born in Hampstead, London, into a musical family. His grandmother was a pianist and composer, writing, amongst other things, a comic opera, and his mother was a fine violinist. He studied composition and piano at the Royal Academy of Music, the latter under Myra Hess. Recognising that his talents lay in ‘light’ rather than symphonic fields his first employment was as a reader and demonstrator for the London publisher Francis, Day and Hunter. That meant on the one hand assessing songs and piano pieces submitted for publication—up to two hundred a week—and then being available in the shop to demonstrate on the piano the current publications being promoted for sale, including those from across the Atlantic by Irving Berlin and others. That experience Ellis freely acknowledges to be the most crucial part of his training as a composer.
His own skill as a song-writer was recognised by his late teens and there began a prolific output of songs and, other musical numbers for the stage, working with the great artists of the day, including Jack Hulbert, Francis Day and Sophie Tucker. He was only twenty when the great impresario C.B. Cochran invited him to write for his 1930 Revue and thus began a long and fruitful relationship. The constant turnover of new revues and musical comedies that characterised theatre in the pre-war era found Ellis in his element. His many songs included Come and Dance the Charleston, The Wind in the Willows, She’s My Lovely and Spread a Little Happiness. His first major success was Mr Cinders (1929).
In 1939 a new career beckoned and Vivian Ellis, together with his lifelong helpmeet, sister Hermione, were off to Hollywood. However, he had joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve some years earlier. When it became clear to him that war was imminent he abandoned all thoughts of a Hollywood career and returned to England. He served in the Royal Navy throughout the war, reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Commander.
After the war Ellis soon picked up the threads of his stage career and there followed three C.B. Cochran successes, Big Ben, Tough at the Top and, between those two, Ellis’s masterpiece: the light opera Bless the Bride. (Ma Belle Marguerite, This is my lovely day etc.) The book was written by author, poet and politician A.P. Herbert. It is worth noting that this work was staged after those two great American musicals Oklahoma and Annie Get Your Gun had taken London by storm, ran for just as long and was just as successful. In A.P. Herbert, both before the war and afterwards in Bless the Bride and The Water Gypsies Vivian Ellis found the ideal partner.
Characteristic of all Vivian Ellis’s songs is the perfect harmony between words and music, each feeding the other in an elegant and witty way. One should not, however, overlook the mastery of Ellis’s earlier collaborators, particularly Desmond Carter, whose lyrics come over today as freshly as they ever did, nor indeed what an accomplished lyric-writer Vivian Ellis himself was, as seen in his musical play Half in Earnest (after Oscar Wilde) and songs like Uproarious Devon. A Director of the Performing Right Society from 1955, he has been its President since 1983. In 1985 the Vivian Ellis Prize was founded, financed by PRS, offering help and encouragement to young writers for the musical stage.