[M]y auntie must have appreciated my interest in her and her late husband because when we went to leave she presented me with two big thick blue bound collections of Stanley J. Damerell songs. I couldn’t wait to get stuck into them.
At home I removed the bottles and ashtrays from the sideboard mini-piano, opened the lid and propped up the first volume. This was not the collected complete works because the first song I looked for wasn't there — a vivid number my uncle had helped write for George Formby, the banjo-ukulele strummer and singer of comic songs, who'd been a hero throughout my childhood and even into rock & roll. We all loved him, Beatles and Kinks included. So, proudly, I searched for “John Willie's Jazz Band” but to no avail....
Most of the songs were published as black and white sixpenny copies but every now and then I’d run across a deluxe two shilling edition in colour: “Dance Of The Raindrops”, for example, a “Fox Trot Fantasy” depicted as blue and orange fairies — some dancing together seductively in sheer clinging silken gowns — sylphishly 1930s figures, with no breasts — falling from the gray skies as raindrops — onto the umbrella of a young sheltering couple sitting on an idyllic hillock with a perfect stile nearby and rolling hills a distant prospect. He is wearing a blue suit and striped tie. She is in a short summer dress. Both are smiling. A very jolly rustic scene. Printed at the bottom, perhaps spoiling the mood, is the publishing company's name: Cecil Lennox Ltd, 134 Charing Cross Road, London.
Now I knew this address to be right in the heart of Britain's Tin Pan Alley, a grimy dark area close to Soho, of huddled Victorian no-nonsense buildings, stern and forbidding. And I imagined my uncle and his fellow workers hunched inside, with tea cups and curling sandwiches and burning fag ends, dreaming up these fox trot fantasies of fairies and raindrops and happy couples in suits and short dresses, dispensing sunshine to the drab lives of millions in Depression Britain. I saw salesmen in trilby hats and wasp-waisted jackets setting off for the station with bulging briefcases full of song samples to offer at shops all over the grainy isles. Finally, I saw families at little villas fronting the by-pass, standing around the piano as mother tried out “Dance Of The Raindrops”.
In the Great Depression even the makers of escape were touched by the crisis: some songwriters grew so impecunious that they were forced to pawn their own underwear.
I had noticed that “Raindrops” credited one Erell Reaves as the lyric writer. I kept coming across this Mr. Reaves as I leafed through the volumes, through a flicker of foxtrots, quicksteps, comedy songs in 6/8 time, continentals, football anthems, school songs, as well as “Lady Of Madrid”, and other lovelies of Barcelona, and even Casablanca. Finally, at the very end of the second blue volume, there was “Lady Of Spain” in gorgeous colour and there was Erell Reaves again, together with his composer Tolchard Evans — both wonderful names.
I put two and two together and guessed that Erell Reaves was an amalgam of the last five letters of Damerell and the last the last six of a certain Robert Hargreaves, whose name had popped up continuously as I’d run through the blue books. As well as that, my mother had made mention of a “Bob ‘Argreaves” as another of my grandfather's reluctantly-invited Christmas guests. The clipped ‘H’ informed me that Mr. Hargreaves was of humble origins just like Uncle Jack/Stanley or whatever his real name was. Of course, our own family respectability was in some doubt, as my mother had indicated when telling me of the Hebraic mystery. “Your grandmother was a Harrison which could have been once a Harris and Harris was a name that Jews used to cover up who they really were”. That's the trouble when you're not Royalty or famous — you never know who you once were.
There was also a Harry Tilsley listed as a lyric writer on the comedy songs but about this gent I could discover nothing. Perhaps he was also an invented name or a concoction or a pen-name. Perhaps he was Cecil Lennox, the publisher, or was he Pierre Chaventre, or pretending to be — the man who helped write such continental fox-trot romances as “That Night In Venice”.
It must have been a crowded office if these writers really did exist what with Stanley and Tolchard and Harry and Bob, plus the Frenchman (What must he have thought of Stanley's “I'm A Froggie”?) and also a Benny Thornton who appears to have taken care of the lyric chores on the slangy American-style numbers, the ones that spoke of “babes” and “hot dames”.
I was really enjoying getting lost in the big blue books, in the bright colour pictures on the cover of “Cupid On The Cake”, “Soldier On The Shelf” and “Butterflies In The Rain” (These were all composed, I noted, by Sherman Myers, a very New York sounding name, redolent of the real Tin Pan Alley). The fantasies were relieved by comedy songs like “Does A Puff-Puff Go Choo-Choo Or A Choo-Choo Go Puff-Puff?” and “I've Never Wronged An Onion So Why Should It Make Me Cry?”
I wondered what Stanley Baldwin made of these songs. Or Neville Chamberlain. Altogether my uncle and his colleagues covered a great deal of pop song territory, not always with distinction but they kept trying until they had a hit like “Lady Of Spain” or else a nice string of waltz ballads like “If” and “Unless”, as featured with utmost success by Gracie Fields — and then, much later in 1950s America by crooner Eddie Fisher, who also had a #6 smash hit with “Lady Of Spain” in 1952.
Uncle was no Cole Porter or Noel Coward, it's true: in “Lady Of Spain”, for instance, “appealing” is chased by “concealing” and then chased by “revealing”; “If” is a list: “If the world to me bow’d yet humbly I’d plead to you/ If my friends were a crowd I’d turn in my need to you/ If I ruled the Earth what would that be worth — IF I hadn't the right to you”. Even so the right combination of words and music doesn't have to make sense or be clever so long as it moves you to laughter or tears. In this way my uncle had done his work, keeping the war clouds concealed by floss.
While the lyric writers worked in teams the composers seemed to be loners: the above-mentioned Sherman Myers, together with the mellifluously-named Montague Ewing and the clashingly-named Tolchard Evans (the exotic joined with the Welsh).
At this stage of my researches I was determined to find out whether any of these English Alleymen were still living. Like their foxtrots they had become fantasies in my mind. So I rang up my contacts in what was left of pop publishing. The majority of the companies had been gobbled up by a conglomerate called EMI and as in my rock star days I’d been an EMI recording artist I had no trouble getting answers, albeit with puzzlement in the voice. “We're doing a brisk trade in Elton John, you know”.
The old timers were mostly dead — or “deceased” as the trade put it. Eventually, though, I received word that Tolchard Evans, the composer, was very much alive and living in Willesden. The name of Willesden rang a bell as somewhere I’d been lost in recently, a desolate place of Indian takeaways and laundrettes. Would Mr. Evans see me? I was assured that he'd be tickled pink. You see, said my contact, he feels neglected, he feels native melody makers have been destroyed by the Americans and especially by rock & roll. He hates The Beatles — except “Yesterday” — and all the traitors who have collaborated with the Yankee invaders and their weapons of gimmickry. Don't even mention echo chambers. Yes, he'd be tickled pink that a youngster like you would have any interest in an old geezer's melodies. He'll give you lunch, too.
The Evans house in Willesden was in a row but free-standing, made of sturdy gray-mottled brick and far from laundrettes. Laburnum bushes guarded the tiny front garden and once inside the wrought iron gate (“Dun Rovin’ But Not Dun For”) I was greeted by a riot of flowers and shrubs. Tolchard Evans himself met me at the second ring of the melodious doorbell (Was it “Lady Of Spain”?). A tall man with big watery eyes and a shock of white hair, leaning sideways, smiling kindly in a brown suit with a cardigan peeping through. "Come inside, lad. I’ll bet it's perishing out there”. We were in early summer but an electric log fire flickered in a regular meter in the front room. At a table nearby lunch was laid, cruets and sauces and all.
“I can see what you require is a brown ale or even a spirit”. A woman popped her head round an inner door, nodded and disappeared. “He'll get what we've got”, she said from somewhere beyond. “Oh never mind, dearie”, sighed the composer. “We'll go to the club”. He turned to me with his hands on his hips and anticipated merriment playing all round him like the cover of a foxtrot fantasy: “What do you say to some liquid refreshment?” “What I say is — be home by noon if you want a hot it dinner!” said the disembodied voice from a frighteningly close location. He shot me outside.
“I keep telling her it’s ‘lunch’ not ‘dinner’ down here but she’s still mired in her Lancashire girlhood”, said Evans as he stood outsider buttoning up his jacket to the very top as he regarded his house and world. “Oh well...” and he gracefully pushed back a lock of hair with lovely long fingers. “That's what I call ‘The Independent Air’”. I rejoindered with: “As in ‘I walk along the Bois Boulogne with an independent air’” “I'm the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo”, sang Evans. "You certainly know your stuff, my boy!” and he increased his pace.
So impressed was he by my song knowledge that when we reached The British Legion Hall bar he announced loudly so that all could hear: “This lad knows, you know! Have what you please! Name your poison!” I chose a Guinness. Evans pointed to the heavily-medalled, stooping barman: “A pint of Guinness for my friend — and a triple brandy for me!”. Even as he spoke the barman was sliding a big snifter glass along the bar.
“Songwriting?”, he snorted after we'd settled down in a snug corner. “I tell you, lad, it’s been ruddy hard coming up with novelties to rival the Yank attack”. As if to underline the challenge he swilled a deep draft of brandy. “Skin off your nose — and down the hatch with you!”. After I’d reassured him that I no longer had any truck with rock & roll he agreed to tell me the full story of “Lady Of Spain”:
“Your uncle and I looked at the market — it was the end of the flapper age and we'd been flooded with all that awful jizzy jazz — so we tried to decide what could be done to....” He stopped and gimlet-eyed me. “Tell me — are those your very own teeth or are they dentures?”
Real....“Amazing — but I warn you, you may be a youngster now but pretty soon they’ll be nothing but trouble. Get ’em pulled and have yourself measured for dentures. Teeth are nothing but trouble, mark my words. Worse than the old lady”.
What about our Lady of Spain? “Ah yes — you see, we had to create something different. No use slavishly aping all that darky stuff set in cottonfields, or else they’re necking on the sofa with the curtains closed — you know, the lugubrious lamentations of a disappointed lover, dreadful dirges. Irving Berlin was the master of the master of that craft.”
“So — your uncle and I — we knew him as Fred, by the way — we had a brain wave: what about a Paso Doble in 9/8 time? A far cry from the Charleston. Hence, ‘Lady Of Spain’. We'd never been there, of course. Brighton’s the farthest point I ever ventured and that was for the races not the pebbles. Nasty things pebbles — ready for another pint?”
“Didn’t take us long to write — I just repeated the opening phrase in various pitches and with various chords. Fred consulted his rhyming dictionary and Tilsley and Hargreaves got into the act”.
It seems to have required a lot of men to come up with such a simple love lyric. “Search me. They had some sort of arrangement — in the pub mainly, scribbling on envelopes or lavatory paper. It’s not a precise art, you know. Not like real music. Ah, those were the days....”
He drifted off again, beyond the smoky haze of the Legion Hall. He told me, in a stream, of the glorious days before the Yankee invasion, before ragtime, before the Great War, when Britain boasted a flourishing industry in Light Music — uniformed bands and evening-attired orchestras, properly trained musicians led by a conductor with a rigid baton, playing on bandstands in parks or by the seaside, performing decent melodies — intermezzos, descriptive pieces, nature themes, healthy outdoor music. “Yum, yum!” Music to be enjoyed on the idle slopes of an Edwardian afternoon when the grass smelled sweet as over it wafted operetta tunes by native composers, men who’d attended Oxford or Cambridge, men with good accents and their initials stamped on their napkin rings. “Yes, those were the days — the days before the jizzy jazz and the end of all sense and order. I mean to say, why should I be told to yearn for Tennessee or Alabammy when I've got glorious Devon and luscious Somerset right here on my doorstep?”
Did he sing of these counties? “I’ll say I did! I wrote waltzes in praise of them and Al Bowlly sang my work as only he could — shedding tears in every quaver”. And did the public buy these waltzes. “No — they preferred to foxtrot and after that came the juggernaut of Swing. Brrrh!”
Could he fill me in on some of the other composers with whom my uncle wrote? Who was Montague Ewing? And Sherman Myers? Both seemed to specialize in fantasies concerning fairies and raindrops and roses in the wind. Nature men. “Now there’s a story — but, oh lor! It's almost lunch time. Better be heaving home to the old battleaxe if we know what’s good for us....”
We had roast beef and two vegetables followed by roly poly pudding and custard. All very nice and sensible. Mrs. Evans kept her own counsel and, I noticed, never called him Tolchard. Maybe it wasn’t his real name. As she never called him anything I decided not to enquire. In the middle of pudding I did bring up the subject of the two nature composers again. Tolchard pushed back his plate and flicked his braces so that they snapped. Mrs. Evans made a sharp clicking and left the room.
“My boy — Montague Ewing and Sherman Myers were one and the same!”
I lowered my spoon in amazement, which pleased the composer enormously. He was clearly an effects man. I commented that this false name business seemed to be rampant in British song writing. Did anybody go by their real name? Tolchard shot me a glowering look.
“Understand, lad, that many of us were ashamed of working in the popular field when we ought to have been writing serious. Leslie Stuart, the ‘Lily Of Laguna’ man, he was really called Barratt. Worked as a church organist up north. Had to answer to the Bishop, you know. Noel Gay, of ‘Lambeth Walk’ fame, his real name is Armitage. But Montague Ewing truly was Montague Ewing. An old timer. Back in Edwardian days he’d penned a lovely novelty called “The Policeman’s Holiday” and he was clerking by day at the time, scribbling tunes on the blotting paper. Almost got the sack. Did his bit in the war, only to return to find the Americans on the rampage” With the jizzy-jazz? “You’re catching on. So he put on his thinking cap and decided that if he anointed himself with a Jewish-American moniker he might have a better chance with the punters. And he was right!
“Fairy On The Clock”, “Cupid On The Cake”.....
Not forgetting “Soldier On The Shelf”.
“Well done, lad! You’re one of us!”