Ever heard of Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty, Now I Have To Call Him Father, It Takes An Irish Heart To Sing An Irish Song, or Bless ’Em All?
What about Molly O’Morgan, Irish And Proud Of It, Too!, Hey Ho! Can’t You Hear The Steamer?, Who Were You With Last Night?, or Down Texas Way?
For a century now, the British people and their offspring
overseas have been singing the songs of Fred Godfrey. Yet, like virtually
all the songwriters of the Music Hall and early days of Variety in Britain,
and unlike many of his American contemporaries, Godfrey worked in obscurity
— a familiar figure to the stars who bought his material but totally
unknown to the general public. Indeed, one rarely meets with his name
even in the usual histories of the Music Hall. Fans of the great Australian
comic singer Billy Williams,
“The Man In The Velvet Suit,” know the name as one-half of
the composing credits on the hundreds of discs of that early recording
star, but nothing else about him. Who, then, was Fred Godfrey?
“Fred Godfrey” is, in fact, the nom de plume of Llewellyn Williams, born at 62 New Oxford Street, Swansea, Wales, on 17 September 1880. His father, Robert Williams, originally came from Holywell, in North Wales. The census and other records indicate that Robert had numerous occupations — “tinman,” “vendor of fancy goods,” “general dealer” — before ending up, sometime in the 1890s, as an auctioneer. He hoped Llewellyn would join him in that profession, as an elder brother, Lewis, had done.
Fred Godfrey’s mother was Maria Jane Knight, a sailor’s daughter, born in London and, according to Fred’s birth certificate, an illiterate. He liked to claim in later years that his mother had been Irish, the idea no doubt being to lend some authenticity to the considerable number of songs he wrote with Irish themes. Whatever her heritage, however, there is as yet no evidence of an Irish connection. Robert and Maria were married in 1864 in Caernarvon, and their first four sons were born in various towns in North Wales. By the time Llewellyn (Fred) arrived in 1880, the family had moved south to Swansea.
Details of Fred’s life are frustratingly sketchy — little is known even to his living offspring, including this author, his grandson. One can speculate, however, that he must have taken to music at an early age, and it is likely that the family always had a piano in the parlour wherever they moved. It is not known whether Fred had any formal musical training, but he certainly knew enough, or learned enough, to be able to write his own band parts and arrangements, and he was known for his skill as a pianist later in life. According to one family story, somehow, while on a personal tour of Wales, the great Polish pianist (and later Poland’s prime minister) Ignace Jan Paderewski (1860–1941) heard Fred play and offered to take him on as a pupil. Fred’s father would have none of it, however. Music was not steady work, not a trade likely to bring money into the house.
It is, then, no surprise that Fred removed himself from such a constraining atmosphere at the earliest opportunity. That came in 1901, when, on 1 July, a couple of months shy of his twenty-first birthday, Fred married Bertha Lloyd, the daughter of a railway worker in Treherbert, in the Rhondda Valley. The Lloyds had been sheep farmers in the Vale of Glamorgan. Bertha’s grandfather had owned a farm called “Great Frampton,” just outside Llantwit Major, but upon his death the farm had gone to the eldest son, and Bertha’s father had had to find other employment. Despite their straitened circumstances, some of the Lloyds had literary pretensions. One of Bertha’s cousins was Collie Knox, a well-known Daily Mail journalist of the 1930s and ’40s, and another relative, Ellis Lloyd, was a novelist of Welsh life and, briefly, a Member of Parliament in Ramsey Macdonald’s first Labour government. Bertha herself was, by all accounts, an unpretentious, no-nonsense type with a typical singsong accent.
How Fred and Bertha came to meet is unknown, but it is likely that Fred and his father had been auctioneering in the Treherbert area. The wedding took place in All Saints (Anglican) Church in Treherbert (the church no longer exists), and shortly after, Fred abandoned his father’s auction business and fled with Bertha to London. Except for brief summer holiday visits and the occasional family funeral, Fred didnt keep in close touch with his Welsh roots.
The Early Days in London
Nothing is known of how Fred Godfrey came to write songs for a living. But write them he did — nearly 800 in an incredibly prolific career that lasted well into the 1940s. His youngest daughter Peggie (this writer’s mother) thought that his first song was published in 1901, shortly after the move from Wales. She may have been right, although she also believed it had been Blue Eyes, a song that actually dates from 1915. The earliest known Godfrey songs, however, date only from 1906. Somehow, in those first five years in London, he supported himself and his growing family — a daughter, Gladys, was born in 1902 (d. 1991) and another, Muriel, known to all as “Baba,” followed in 1903 (d. 1964). It is likely, then, that many early songs remain to be discovered. It is also not known how or when Llewellyn Williams became “Fred Godfrey.” One suspects that the name was “too Welsh” and therefore had to go. “Fred” was almost certainly borrowed from the name of one of his younger brothers.
Godfrey’s first successes seem to have come in 1907 when he teamed up with lyricist Harry Castling to produce Meet Me Jenny When The Sun Goes Down and It’s The Only Bit Of English That We’ve Got, which Billy Williams, among others, recorded successfully. Indeed, with that hit, Billy Williams began to accept an increasing number of songs from Godfrey — so much so that, from 1911 until his untimely death in Brighton in 1915, almost every one of Billy’s large number of recordings was a Williams and Godfrey composition. It was quite an extraordinary blend of talents, and a testament to Godfrey’s skill at crafting songs to suit the singer.
“Williams and Godfrey” was also something of a business partnership. But Godfrey, in common with most Music Hall songwriters, was not much of a businessman. In those days, the custom, at least in Britain — American songwriters enjoyed a rather more developed system of intellectual property rights — was to sell songs outright to a performer or publisher for a few pounds. The writers rarely figured to get much in the way of a cut of the royalties. Godfrey earned quite a bit at times, and certainly enough in the better years to provide a comfortable middle-class existence for his family in the South London borough of Streatham (their address for many years was 6 Streatham Place; alas, the golden arches of a fast-food restaurant now occupy the site). He had to be prolific, however. Typical of the arrangements of the day is the letter opposite, in which Godfrey assigns his rights to Williams to song after song for a few guineas each. Williams, in contrast, would receive, in addition to half of the composing royalties, a hundred pounds or more for each recording session as well as royalties from sheet music and disc and cylinder sales, not to mention hefty performance fees. Billy was, no doubt, worth every penny, but the songwriters didn’t get rich unless they started their own music publishing companies, as did Lawrence Wright and Worton David, for example.
Godfrey’s association with Billy Williams was close in the few years before World War One but by no means exclusive. While keeping Billy well supplied, he was under contract to music publishers Francis, Day & Hunter and later Bert Feldman, and was writing a huge number of songs for other performers, among them some of the biggest stars of the Music Hall, including the Australian Florrie Forde, Mark Sheridan, Dorothy Ward, Shaun Glenville, Ella Retford, and Vesta Victoria.
The Golden Years
The year 1908 saw the birth of Godfrey’s third daughter, Nina (d. 1973), and hits such as Have You Got Another Girl At Home Like Mary?, I Want You To See My Girl (which Charles R. Whittle made a speciality), When They Ask You What Your Name Is (Tell ‘Em It’s Molloy), and two of Billy Williamss most popular numbers, Put A Bit Of Powder On It, Father and We’re All Waiting For A Girl. Despite the many hits that year, Godfrey was frequently broke. The story goes that Fred and a rival had just threepence between them when they decided to toss a coin to see who would sell a song to Vesta Victoria. Fred won. The song he offered her was Now I Have To Call Him Father.
In 1909 came Molly O’Morgan (The Irish-Italian Girl), which both Florrie Forde and, especially, Ella Retford made their own, and There Are Nice Girls Everywhere, a Whit Cunliffe specialty. Then, 1910 saw the publication of Come Into The Garden, John, a big hit for Billy Williams, I May Be A Millionaire, which Eugene Stratton sang, and Florrie Forde’s Mother’s Had A Row With Father.
In 1911, the Edwardian era ended and George V became king. That was also the year in which Godfrey’s association with Billy Williams began in earnest, and all of his hit songs that year were hits for Billy, too, including Don’t Go Out With Him Tonight, Here We Are Again, Let’s All Go Mad, Let’s Go Where All The Crowd Goes (which works the new king’s coronation into the lyrics), Wake Up, John Bull!, and Why Can’t We Have The Sea In London?.
Nineteen twelve was notable in Britain for its disasters: the tragedy of the Scott Antarctic expedition at the beginning of the year and the loss of the Titanic in April. For Fred Godfrey, however, the year saw rather happier events: the birth of his fourth daughter, Peggie (d. 2001) and still more hit songs, including, above all, Who Were You With Last Night?, the famous and much-loved Mark Sheridan hit. There were also more successes for the irrepressible Billy Williams, including I Wish It Was Sunday Night, The Kangaroo Hop (which cashed in on the dance crazes of the day; it was reprised in the 1975 Gene Wilder film” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother”), Wait Till I’m As Old As Father, Where Does Daddy Go When He Goes Out?, and I Never Heard Father Laugh So Much Before.
The last of these songs was a follow-up to Billy Williams’s 1910 recording, When Father Papered The Parlour, which was his biggest hit of all. And this seems a good place to mention that Godfrey claimed to have written several huge Music Hall hits for which he received no credit whatsoever. They include She’s A Lassie From Lancashire, published in 1907 and credited to C.W. Murphy, Dan Lipton, and John Neat; My Girl’s A Yorkshire Girl (Ee, By Gum, She’s A Champion), another C.W. Murphy and Dan Lipton song published in 1908; Ship Ahoy! (All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor), also published in 1908 and credited to Godfrey’s frequent songwriting partners A.J. Mills and Bennett Scott; and the afore-mentioned When Father Papered The Parlour, which is credited to R.P. Weston and Fred J. Barnes. These songs were always considered by the family to be Godfrey songs, and Godfrey’s claims to them were repeated in his newspaper obituaries (though, it must be admitted, the titles of Godfrey’s better-known songs were likely supplied to the newspapers by family members themselves). Reproduced here is a postcard that Godfrey gave to his grandson Peter (at an uncertain date but probably sometime in the late 1940s) on which he printed in his own hand the names of some of his big hits, as he remembered them.
In the absence of corroborative evidence, it would be unreasonable to lay claim to these songs on Godfrey’s behalf. It should be noted, however, that a number of the songs Billy Williams recorded and for which Godfrey receives no credit on record labels are known to be Godfrey compositions, as they are included in letters in which Godfrey assigns his rights to them to Williams. In like vein, the Performing Right Society lists a number of unpublished songs from the late 1930s that Godfrey apparently wrote for Max Miller but for which he is uncredited on record labels.
In 1913, Florrie Forde, among others, sang Godfrey’s Dance Your Troubles Away, while another Australian star of the Music Hall, Albert Whelan, had a hit with his Anything To Take Me Home, and Mark Sheridan sang What A Game It Is! Wow! Wow!, a catchphrase of the day. Godfrey’s biggest hit that year was probably Hey Ho! Can’t You Hear The Steamer?. The song had been written for Billy Williams but he declined to record it; other artists made it a success. Williams nevertheless continued recording Godfrey songs at a torrid pace, although few of them are particularly outstanding — among the better ones are I’m Out For The Day Today, Jean Loves All The Jockeys, Oh! Molly McIntyre, and She Is My Best Girl Now. The ragtime craze raged at its height in Britain in that last full year of peace, and Godfrey offered up The Death Of Rag-Time, Good-bye, Rag-time!, Oh, That Ragtime Waltz!, and The Ragtime Wedding, though the titles rather suggest a wish that the fad would go away.
In the last few months of peace, Billy Williams had his
last Godfrey-written successes before dying in early 1915 at the age of
37. They included I’ll
Have To Ask My Mother If She’ll Let Me, On
Her Pic-Pic-Piccolo, When
Mother Backed The Winner Of The Derby, and, ironically, There’s
Life In The Old Dog Yet. Godfrey’s biggest hits of
the year were two of Florrie Forde’s biggest Irish-flavoured hits,
It Takes An Irish Heart
To Sing An Irish Song and We’re
Irish And Proud Of It, Too. G.H.
Elliott, “The Chocolate-Coloured Coon,” also sang Godfrey’s
You’ve Got Me And I’ve Got You.
The War Years
With the coming of the Great War, Fred Godfrey, in common with many other songwriters, turned his attention to suitable morale boosters. In 1914 alone, he turned out quickly forgotten tunes such as An Entente Cordiale In La Belle France; Good Luck, Little French Soldier Man; It’s The Same Old Tommy And The Same Old Jack!; It’s The Way They Have In The Navy; My Little Red Cross Girl; When An Irishman Goes Fighting; and When I Hear Those Bells Of Brittany. He nevertheless began to develop a reputation as a writer of “war songs” that followed him for the rest of his career and led to a last burst of creativity late in his life, during World War Two.
As the war in France dragged on and spread to the Dardanelles, Godfrey continued to supply the Home Front with sorely needed diversions. One big hit in 1915 was Dorothy Ward’s Blue Eyes, which he wrote with Lawrence Wright (who used the pseudonym “Horatio Nicholls”). Godfrey’s youngest daughter Peggie always maintained the song was written about her — she would have been a blue-eyed three-year-old at the time; she also treasured the memory of Florrie Forde’s gift to her of a doll with real human hair. Also that year, Gertie Gitana sang Godfrey’s Molly McGlory, while G.H. Elliott did his There’s A Little Baby Up In The Moon and Ella Retford had a hit with We’re All North Country Lads And Lasses. More war songs followed as well, the most notable of which were Follow The Sergeant and Save Your Kisses Till The Boys Come Home, but also entertaining the civilians were Little Rosalie, My Pretty Refugee; Mister Sergeant Michael Donoghue; Oh For The Sight Of A Girl; Sergeant Macadoo (another hit for Ella Retford); There’ll Be Nothing But Boys In Khaki By The Seaside; They All Did The Goose-Step Home; and Tommy’s Learning French.
Then, in 1916, came one of Fred Godfrey’s most famous songs and one of the truly iconic tunes of World War One: Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty. “Blighty,” supposedly a Hindustani word for “home,” came to be used by the British army in India before World War One to refer to Britain. Godfrey’s song helped to spread the use of the word among the civilian population. According to Dorothy Ward, who introduced the song, Godfrey wrote it in her living room in London. It quickly became a huge success, not only in Britain but also with the Tommies in France. As for royalties, however, Godfrey said he got “not very much.”
Blighty was the biggest by far, but there were other war songs in 1916: British Empire troops from Down Under were saluted in Coo-ee! Coo-ee! (The Anzac Boy); I Love My Motherland typically appeared on the flip side of recordings of Blighty but its pompous tone doomed it to a short life; the message of Send The Boys A Little Snapshot (Of The Ones They’ve Left Behind) was clear enough. Florrie Forde told civilians that We’ve Got To Put Up With It Now, while in Pierrot Parade she sang of happier days at the seaside. Godfrey’s songs often reflected the social trends of the day — suffragettes were an object of fun in a number of Billy Williams’s pre-war songs; an example is You’re Some Tram-Conductor Girl, an echo of the burgeoning employment of women on the Home Front. A much-recorded song from the year of the Somme was Some Night, Some Waltz, Some Girl.
On 26 January 1917, the 36-year-old Fred Godfrey was conscripted at last and, like fellow composer Ivor Novello, found himself in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). As a civilian, Godfrey was never what one would have called a responsible type. He was quite useless with money — once, on holiday back in Wales, he was asked to look after a relative’s shop for an hour while the owner slipped out for a bite to eat; the owner returned to discover that Fred had not bothered charging the customers for their purchases. He would also mysteriously disappear for weeks, even months, at a time. Eventually, he would be found in a London pub with a pal (his daughter Peggie related that one such was Talbot O’Farrell, the Yorkshire-born singer of “Irish” songs). When it was suggested that it was high time he went home to Bertha, he would meekly put his hat and coat on and head off as though he were merely half an hour overdue for dinner.
In the RNAS, then, Godfrey was less than the ideal recruit, to put it mildly. His fellow “airmen” — and officers, too — quickly learned that he was the composer of so many of the songs they knew so well, and that his talents lay more with playing piano for the boys than with tugging on the end of an airship mooring line. (One of the songs he played for them was a little ditty he’d thought up, then promptly forgot about, called Bless ’Em All.) He was sent to France, but only as far as Dunkirk. He seems to have been in and out of trouble, though his service record shows only the lightest of punishments. A family story has it that the Duchess of Sutherland, on a visit to the troops, heard him playing and pulled strings to get him released. What is certain is that, by early 1918, the RNAS evidently had had enough of him and transferred him to the newly formed RAF. Very shortly thereafter, someone in authority seems to have decided that Godfrey could make a more useful contribution to the war effort by writing songs to raise civilian morale, and he found himself out of uniform and back in his old London haunts. Bertha apparently was not at all pleased, regarding his release from military service as something akin to cowardice. Indeed, both he and Bertha lost a younger brother during the course of 1918 — Godfrey’s brother Fred, from whom he had borrowed his stage name, was shot down while serving with the 22nd Squadron, RAF, while Bertha’s brother Archie, a private in the North Staffordshire Regiment, was killed in a strafing attack by a German plane — so the subject was a difficult one.
In 1917, while Godfrey was away in the RNAS, Down Texas Way, a song he had written sometime in 1916, was published and became a huge success. Songs about the Old South were then becoming all the rage and were usually referred to, in the unfortunate language of the time, as “coon” songs. So, in 1918 and back on civvy street, Godfrey, alert as usual to prevailing fads in popular music, came up with My Tennessee, Is That You Calling Me?, the first of a number of such efforts in the late teens and early twenties. His handful of other songs in 1918 tended to shy away from war-related themes, with such titles as The Bells Of Tobermory, Roses Red And Roses White, Stop Making Those Eyes At Me, and When We’re Made One, We Two, although, in a more martial vein, Shaun Glenville sang Soldiers Like It.
Popular Music Changes Key
In the postwar years, recorded music, the cinema, and radio combined to kill off the Music Halls. Popular music itself was also becoming more sophisticated. In the United States, a new generation — Berlin, Kern, Porter, the Gershwins — was replacing the old Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths. The same process was under way in Britain, and Fred Godfrey found it increasingly difficult to sell songs to publishers and artists who wanted the romanticism of an Ivor Novello or the world-weary cleverness of a Noël Coward. Godfrey was, in any case, pegged by then as a writer of novelties and war ditties. He could write other material: his daughter Peggie recalled many an evening when the family would gather around the piano as Fred played for them his latest songs, often beautiful and thoughtful stuff. “What do you think of this one?” he would usually preface. But the publishers weren’t interested.
Successes now came much less frequently, but “coon” songs were well received: Down in Virginia was a minor hit in 1919, and in 1920 G.H. Elliott sang Mammy’s Mississippi Home. Another success in 1920 was Open Your Heart And Let The Sunshine In, which the great Australian baritone Peter Dawson recorded under the pseudonym Will Strong. It was not until 1925, however, that Godfrey clicked again, with This Time Next Year. He also wrote the words for the songs in a show called “Let’s Go,” starring Lee White, one-half of the American Vaudeville team of Lee White and Clay Smith, who owned and operated the Strand Theatre in London and put on their own shows there. In 1926, Godfrey had a hit with I’m Taking That Baby Home, which several bands, including those led by Jack Hylton and Ronnie Munro, recorded. That year, he also began to write a few songs under the pseudonym “Eddie Stamper,” and it was as such that he scored with Way Down Home and While The Sahara Sleeps, both written with Lawrence Wright as “Horatio Nicholls.”
In 1927, Godfrey added a second pseudonym, “Don Grahame,” under which he had a minor hit with Mulligatawny (Where The Soup Comes From), which Clarkson Rose recorded. He began using still another pseudonym, “Edward E. Elton,” in 1928, but his one big hit that year, Janette, written with Lawrence Wright, was credited to him as “Godfrey Williams.” Janette was unusual in that it was a serious ballad, rather than a novelty song. In 1929, Tommy Handley sang Hope, Brothers, Hope, but Godfrey’s most successful song that year undoubtedly was Oh Maggie! What Have You Been Up To?, written under his “Edward E. Elton” pseudonym and recorded by Gracie Fields, Clarkson Rose, Leslie Sarony, and Randolph Sutton, among others. In 1930, Randolph Sutton sang another of Godfrey’s “Elton” compositions, I’ve Got One Arm Round Mary (And The Other Arm Round Her Ma).
Sometime around 1930, Godfrey was persuaded to join Irish tenor Tom Finglass in a Variety act that featured his hit songs. With Finglass singing and Godfrey at the piano, an ever-present “fag” hanging from his lip, the audience would join in all the beloved old choruses. The two would end with Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty, which always brought the house down. The act “topped the bill” in many provincial halls, but Godfrey was congenitally incapable of being made to stick to schedules and routine, and the act soon folded.
In 1931, Godfrey put on his old services songs hat and had a success with Skin-A-Ma-Link The Sergeant, which both Jack Payne and Albert Whelan recorded. But by then, the musical times had left Godfrey, now in his fifties, behind. As if to underscore the point, Noël Coward’s Oscar-winning 1933 film Cavalcade reprised Godfrey’s Take Me Back To Yorkshire from nearly a quarter-century earlier to evoke the long-dead Edwardian era.
The Last Refrain
Beginning in the late 1930s, however, Godfrey’s old-fashioned comic song style was just what the likes of Elsie and Doris Waters (radio’s “Gert and Daisy”), Max Miller (“The Cheeky Chappie”), and George Formby Jr. were looking for. Miller accepted several Godfrey songs in the years just before the outbreak of World War Two. His 1938 film Everything Happens To Me featured two of them, including the title song; others Miller recorded or used in his stage show. Many of the songs Godfrey provided Miller remained unpublished, according to the Performing Right Society, or were credited only to Miller on record labels.
George Formby — by the late 1930s Britain’s most popular film star — recorded his first Godfrey song, A Lad From Lancashire, in October 1939. That same month, Bertha Godfrey passed away from cancer at the age of 59, and Fred went to live with his eldest daughter, Gladys, in the North London suburb of Pinner — just around the corner from where Reg Dwight, the future star Elton John, would grow up. Fred lived with Gladys in Pinner for the rest of his life.
Formby recorded a second Godfrey song, A Lancashire Romeo, just before Christmas 1939. Then, in November 1940, came Formby’s recording of Bless ’Em All. The full story of that massive hit can be found under the song title. Suffice it to say here that Godfrey’s 1917 composition was a long time percolating, having gradually become, during the interwar years, a kind of unofficial anthem of the RAF, typically sung with scurrilous lyrics as had been the case when Godfrey first wrote it during the earlier war. When it finally appeared in published form in 1940, having been cleaned up by a couple of staff writers at Keith Prowse Music, it was an immediate and enormous success throughout the English-speaking world. Bless ’Em All became one of the most famous and often-sung songs of the war, and is no doubt Godfrey’s biggest hit.
Following on the great success of Bless ’Em All, George Formby decided to record a second version of the song in early 1941, with new lyrics provided by Godfrey. Formby went on to record several other Godfrey songs during the war, one of which, Home Guard Blues, was featured in the 1943 Formby film Get Cracking. After the war, Formby called on Godfrey once more to write special songs for his triumphant tours of Canada and the Antipodes.
Fred Godfrey died in a Pinner hospital on 22 February 1953 at the age of 72, scribbling new song ideas on odd envelopes to the last. He was buried in Pinner New Cemetery; on his headstone is the inscription “In Loving Memory of Fred Godfrey, ‘Darling Dada’...Gladys, Baba, Nina, Peggie.” On hearing of his death, Music Hall historian W. Macqueen-Pope declared: “Had Fred Godfrey been selling [his hit songs] these days, he would have been a rich man.” In his will, however, Godfrey left all of £202.
Fred Godfrey possessed a wry sense of humour and a great talent for giving the public what it wanted to hear. His songs have made generations of the British people sing — what better legacy could a songwriter have than that?