What follows is most of my MPhil thesis, which I completed in the late 1990s. In 2014 I wrote my book (which is available to buy from this site) and many 'facts' which follow in this lengthy biography were changed, added to, re-evaluated and generally improved upon. Because of the energy exerted in making the book, I can't really be bothered with editing this information, but I offer it with the caveat that I know it's not right. I urge you to buy the book, which contains as much as I could possibly know.
"A parson in a Lancashire chapel was interrogating his Sunday school on its general biblical knowledge, and, in particular, on Judas Iscariot: ‘Can you tell me’, said he, ‘a famous biblical character whose initials were ‘J.I.’?’ A dear little urchin readily responded. ‘Yes’, he said, brightly, ‘Jack ‘ylton!’"
Jack Hylton was born on July 2nd, 1892 at 75 Boundary Street in the village of Great Lever, on the outskirts of Bolton, Lancashire. He was christened John Greenhalgh Hilton by his cotton yarn twister father, George Hilton, originally from Stalybridge and his mother, Mary (formerly Mary Greenhalgh), a schoolteacher. Jack’s Cousin Fred, recalls the event:
"I remember Jack Hilton being born in Division Street, Bolton, quite well... His mother was knitting a pair of socks to earn a shilling the day that he was born."
George Hilton worked in a cotton mill, along with a great number of people in that area of Bolton in the late 1800’s. However, unlike most, Hilton senior seized the initiative to make a better life for his wife and children. George Hilton was an active trade unionist and due in part to his efforts in this field a local Socialist Clarion Club was established. Jack’s first interests in singing will have been developed through his father’s talent as an amateur singer, mostly of Victorian ballads and it is certain that his skills were put on show at the club.
Amongst its many purposes, the Clarion Club offered music lessons to local children and it is here that Jack got his first real taste of music, with twelve lessons in singing and piano, at the age of seven. There appears to be no evidence of more than the twelve lessons, but it seems that Jack quickly had the facility to accompany his father at the piano, as he sang.
By the time Jack reached the Higher Grade school in Bolton, his father had become the licensee of a public house called the Round Croft, in James Street, Little Lever, Bolton. Here George would sing to the customers as well as serve them their drinks. It is here that Jack gave his first public performances, accompanying his father as he sang popular songs of the day, such as Thora, and A Miner’s Dream Of Home.
"...the son began to develop an awareness of the responsibility in the act. The right chords; the piano and forte effects; the electrical result on the audience of a rallentando followed by an impressive sforzando as the singer hit the last big, final note. Then the applause. The banging of beer mugs on wooden tables in acclamation. This was worth while."
From the available evidence, Jack had no other career intentions than show business. There is no record of his school successes or failures and there is nothing to suggest that he began to work in the cotton mills, as his father had. By the time he was thirteen (in 1905), Jack had begun his first professional engagement in Rhyl. His cousin Fred suggests in the above interview that he began with his father’s Pierrot troupe in Mottram (south of Manchester), which then went on to Rhyl. Geoff Mellor suggests that both father and son worked for Adeler and Sutton’s Pierrots at Rhyl and New Brighton.
"Jack would sweep the stage at Rhyl and help his father dress as ‘Happy Jack Hylton - The Diminutive Comedian’ for £5 a week and a share of the ‘bottle’ (collection)."
However, it seems almost certain that Jack worked for E.H. Williams Merrie Men Of Rhyl, at least in 1905 and photographic evidence exists of a young boy with the troupe, said to be a thirteen year old Jack, who by this time had changed his name from Hilton to Hylton (see Figure 1).
This does seem to contradict most of the biographical references to George Hilton, although both Hylton’s cousin Fred and Geoff Mellor suggest that his father was part of the Pierrot Troupe. It is difficult to see how Hylton senior could juggle this work and be the licensee of a public house, particularly as the summer season can often stretch to over six months work. It has been suggested that his singing was worthy of a local pub, but little more. He could, however, have worked seasons if he were between jobs (for example, after working in the mills, but before running the public house).
It is unclear what exactly Hylton’s role was in Rhyl, but the Pierrot Troupe were involved with the ‘seaside concert parties’ which are cited in so many biographical references to Hylton. He may have been assistant (or relief) pianist or may have sung as a boy soprano, although it is more likely that both elements were part of the same show. The seaside concert party would require four shows a day – a morning show on the sand, two afternoon shows on the promenade, and an evening show back on the sand – this was described by veteran entertainers as “in and out with the tides”. One newspaper article suggests that there were five shows per day (which is likely, with two evening performances) and states that Jack earned thirty-five shillings per week . Performers would have to constantly update material, and would supplement their income by walking round among the holidaymakers hoping for voluntary contributions for their collection.
This was an unrelenting job, but excellent experience, and in subsequent seasons, Jack toured with the troupe to Scotland and Devon. Between seasons with the Pierrot Troupe, Jack was ‘on the halls’ . Although it is difficult to ascertain exactly where Jack toured, it is likely to be back in the North West, as he dressed up in traditional mill worker clothes, complete with cap and clogs, singing the popular songs of the day, and called himself ‘The Singing Mill Boy’.
By 1909, despite only being seventeen, Jack Hylton was a seasoned performer. He replied to an advertisement in The Stage for the job of musical director with a touring pantomime company. The salary was an unimpressive forty-five shillings per week. Despite his age, Hylton was offered the job, and gained his first experience with a baton, beginning his career as bandleader. The job entailed working with various small orchestras in each venue and consequently, he was working with different combinations of instruments, although never more than eight players at any one time, without the modern rhythm section of drums, bass and piano. Hylton stayed with the pantomime company for three seasons and Chris Hayes suggests that Hylton returned to the Pierrot Troupe in 1912 and took over management the following year, ultimately taking his own revue on tour through the provinces.
However, Hylton himself contradicts this somewhat, in an article written in January 1939.
"Round the Christmas season of ‘13, I was conductor of a pit orchestra in a pantomime...You can imagine...what a lift up in the world it was for me when, in January of the dramatic year 1914, I was offered a job as organist at the old Alexandra Theatre, Camden Town."
It was around this time, in 1913 that Jack first met Ennis Parkes. She was born in Douglas on the Isle of Man, began her career at the age of seven and worked with seaside parties in Rhyl, singing, dancing and playing the piano, where she met Hylton. They later married, probably in the early 1920’s and remained married, despite having split up in the 1930’s, until Ennis’ death in 1957.
Most references suggest that Hylton moved to London to work at the Alexandra Theatre, Stoke Newington in 1913, but from the above recollections of Hylton himself, it appears to have been early the following year. Here he worked as cinema organist as the accompanist for the silent movies then being shown. At the same time it appears that his father took over management at the Commercial Hotel in Stalybridge, something reiterated in music paper Melody Maker.
"A short time after this venture, he joined a Pierrot troupe... his musical duties being supplemented by the task of clearing up the pitch after each show! He later extended his activities by doubling in a hotel at Stalybridge."
The cinema organist’s job may not have been any more rewarding for Jack than the touring pantomime, but he was now working in London, with more opportunity to better himself. The following year, a diamond millionaire called Dunkles provided the backing for a new club, called The 400, (later The Embassy Club), in Old Bond Street, where an orchestra, led by violinist Stroud Haxton, would play for dancing every night. Haxton gave Hylton his first job in dance music, as relief pianist in the group, while still working during the day in the cinema.
"Actually, by this double, I got another £3 10s. a week and was in financial clover."
It was to dance music which Jack would soon devote his energies, but this new career was cut short almost before it had begun.
With the outbreak of World War One, the 400 club closed down and Hylton decided to return briefly to concert party work, before joining the army. First, he joined the 20th Hussars later becoming a musical director in the army entertainment division known as the N.A.C.B. (an organisation formed to entertain the troops). This was the equivalent of E.N.S.A., the more famous entertainment division during World War Two.
Shortly after being de-mobbed, his work with the concert party took him to Bangor, North Wales, where he became conductor of a touring version of the successful Drury Lane show Shanghai. This is where he teamed up with a young Tommy Handley (later to become a world famous comedian, and star of the show ITMA) and when the show folded, the two created a double act, Two Comedians and A Piano with Hylton at the piano. From Bangor, at the end of the 1918 season, they came to London and worked simply as Hylton And Handley in the Strand Corner House, the Bedford Music Hall in Camden Town and the Lyons Popular Cafe in Piccadilly.
"After the show [on Saturday] they tried to get their pay without very much success as the Manager had already left, so they had to walk home. At that time Tommy Handley lived in East Sheen, so he stayed in bed until Monday, when he borrowed a shilling from his LandLady to get him to Piccadilly in time for the next performance."
At the start of the summer season of 1919, Hylton travelled to Blackpool, not as a performer, but as a publisher of music. He would write songs in the popular style of the day, print a batch of one thousand, and sell copies on the promenade at sixpence each. Five pounds could be made on every thousand copies sold, which appears to be one of Hylton’s less shrewd business ventures.
One source states that following the flop of the Hylton And Handley shows, Jack wrote the music for a burlesque called Seasoned To Taste, a vehicle for Tommy Handley and Bobby Howes, which opened at the end of 1919 and ran until early 1920, at the Metropolitan, Edgware Road. What is clear is that by the end of the Blackpool summer season Jack was back in London where he took up the position as song-plugger for a music-publishing firm in London’s Wardour Street, for £2 per week. The principal demonstrator for the firm was pianist Claude Ivy, a well-respected and technically gifted pianist. He was also working for the Queen’s Dance Orchestra, the band that played on the Roof Garden at the Queen’s Hall, in Langham Place. Many dance halls had been established in London after the war, to cater for the new dancing craze.
The Queen’s Hall Roof would prove to be perhaps the most significant venue of Hylton’s early career. Claude Ivy managed to persuade the club owner Monsieur Henri (who later would found the Chez Henri Club in Long Acre), that the band needed to split their evening’s performance into sets, with breaks between sets. He then suggested Hylton as a possible relief pianist for the breaks; Hylton, of course, got the job and was, ironically, playing mostly waltz duets with violinist Dickie de Pauw, despite the fact that musically the main band was leaning towards ragtime and jazz. For Hylton, though, it was a step closer to the world of jazz and dance bands, which ultimately he would embrace.
"The band itself was a real ragtime affair, busking choruses in woeful harmony to a background of kitchen furniture noises manipulated by young Harry Robbins; well, he was young then, all right, hardly out of knickerbockers."
The one event that significantly changed the band musically was engineered unwittingly by Madame Henri, the wife of the Dance Hall owner. She visited America at a musically historic time, just as Paul Whiteman was being heralded as the ‘King of Jazz’ and his orchestra were playing some high profile dates at the Palais Royale in New York. Upon her return, she brought with her a copy of Whiteman’s first gramophone record, which she, her husband and the band (including relief pianist Hylton) thought may well be the right direction in which the band should develop. It was clear to Jack (and to the only other schooled musician in their ranks, the clarinettist Al Jenkins, a professor at the Royal Academy Of Music), that Whiteman’s orchestra was playing from music. The Queen’s Hall Roof band, by contrast, were playing from memory and improvising, creating a music which was, to all those who listened, far inferior to Whiteman.
"Thereupon, greatly venturesome, I said to Henri, ‘If I only had a gramophone at home I could write down that music’, and so enthusiastic was he about the record... that they actually hired a machine for me and sent me home to carry out my threat. I did the job, but, of course, had to adapt the parts for our instrumentation, and when I told Henri that I should have to have a trumpet added to the band to get anything like the real effect, he readily acquiesced.
Well, after a lot of rehearsal, we actually did succeed in making sense of the parts and getting them to sound more or less, mostly less, like Whiteman’s Orchestra."
This first transcription by Hylton was a Paul Whiteman number called Ilo, which would become well played by the band. From this time, Hylton began re-working all the Whiteman recordings that were available to him, as they were shipped to Britain. In doing so he became perhaps the first dance band orchestrator in Britain. Shortly afterwards, Claude Ivy left the band and Hylton took on a double role of pianist and arranger. This series of events coincided with the HMV record label looking for bands to record who were based in the most popular dance halls, and as result, the Queen’s Dance Orchestra recorded four songs in the HMV studios at Hayes, Middlesex, on May 28th, 1921. Each song would be regarded as a ‘side’, as it would appear on one side of a 78rpm disc. It was common to record in groups of two ‘sides’, one for each side of the record. The tunes on this occasion were, Idol Of Mine, Turque, The Wind In The Trees, and I’m Wondering If It’s Love. The band was paid £35 for the session, giving each of the seven band members £5.
Subsequent sessions were for the same remuneration, but Hylton was unhappy with being the transcriber and arranger of the recorded tunes, while being given no extra fee. Meanwhile, the rest of the band could not accept that one member of the band should be paid more than any other. They did, however, allow the words “directed by Jack Hylton” to appear on every record; the prestige of having his name attached would be of far greater importance to Hylton in the long term that a few extra pounds in 1921. At around the same time, the band was releasing tunes on the cheaper Zonophone label, as Jack Hylton’s Jazz Band. These were 3 shillings, as opposed to 5 shillings for the HMV discs, but the differences in the recordings were minute, if noticeable at all.
When Jenkins, the band’s clarinettist left, a saxophonist named Dixon replaced him. Dixon was hired by Hylton, but despite this – as Hylton himself soon realised – a power struggle was beginning to develop between them. Dixon was an excellent musician and now Hylton was not the only worthy musician in the band. Ultimately, Jack asked Henri to decide between himself and Dixon; Henri then took the extraordinary step of asking the band to decide which of the men should stay and Hylton was ousted.
Rather than putting him off, this event spurred Hylton on to greater things and it was very shortly after this that he secured a £120 per week job for an eight-piece band at the Grafton Galleries, in Grafton Street. Not only that, but as a result of his early gramophone records featuring the label “directed by Jack Hylton”, it was he who kept the HMV contract and not the band of the Queen’s Hall Roof. Within eight weeks of the Grafton engagement, Monsieur Henri was asking Hylton to take his new band back to the Queen’s, which he did for an inflated £135 per week and immeasurable increase in status. He was now leader of Jack Hylton and His Orchestra and on January 10th, 1923, the first HMV sessions were recorded under the new banner.
The era of Jack Hylton’s domination of the dance band scene had begun and for most of the next two decades, Hylton’s band and his reputation would continue to grow in both size and stature.
Jack Hylton was now just thirty years of age, with an eight piece dance orchestra under his baton, with his own name attached. During this period, he added cabaret to the Queen’s Hall Roof show and hired the acts himself; this was his first step toward the running of a booking agency, which he started officially in 1925. Altogether, Hylton worked at the Queen’s Hall Roof for over three years, gradually building up the repertoire of organised, written music and only broke off the engagement when a much more prestigious opening came at the Piccadilly Hotel.
The band, which had now increased in size, was initially offered just an eight-week contract and this was extended with no formal agreement.
In this atmosphere of insecurity I planned as much as I could for other worlds to conquer, and one of the ideas I got was to go on the stage.
This is a significant statement; many popular bands of the day spent most of their playing time at dances and became much loved live and on record, by the public. Hylton, however, took the band on to the variety stage, no doubt influenced by his earlier career path. This would prove to be a shrewd move, as the band became more than a necessity for dancing and would become hugely successful on the concert stage.
From the Piccadilly, the band moved briefly, in 1924, to the newly opened Kit-Kat Club in London, but soon the first opportunity for stage performance came, from the agent, Harry Day, at the Bedford Theatre in Camden Town. It was uncommon for dance bands of this nature to appear on a music hall stage, so Hylton and his fellow musicians worked for a share of the £50 fee. Hylton sensed that the small fee would pay off and indeed, it did. The following week, the band played at the Holborn Empire for £120 and moved from there to the Alhambra, for £175, where they opened on March 5th, 1925. The band played some thirty-six weeks at this theatre during the next twelve months (a record still held by the band) and in this short period, Hylton cemented his stage career to a point where they need never play just for dancing again. One aspect of this was to invest all his personal profits in new scenery, props and gimmicks to add to the spectacle of the show.
"It was now becoming clear to bandleaders, and to those who aspired to that exalted status, that there were in fact two distinctly different kinds of band, the dance band and the show band; that the two were mutually exclusive and that you had better make up your mind which of the two you wanted to lead. If you chose to lead a show band, then you and your musicians were going to need skills and talents that were only remotely connected with the making of music. It was Jack Hylton who was setting the pace and laying down the ground rules for success upon the stage. What you needed was what he had: singers, dancers, comedians, elaborate concert arrangements and grandiose finales."
During late 1925 and early 1926, the Alhambra was taking up most of the band’s performance time, but Hylton was inundated with offers of work. His entrepreneurial nature led him to organise bands and leaders, under the Jack Hylton banner, and put them into other venues. So it was in 1926, when a ten-piece band, Jack Hylton’s Kit-Kat Band was formed for a residency at the club, under the direction of American clarinettist and saxophonist Al Starita. Ray and Rudi Starita would also later be on the Hylton payroll. Ray, also a saxophonist and clarinettist, would front the Piccadilly Revels Band back at the Piccadilly Hotel, while Rudi was drummer and xylophonist for the same band. Jack Hylton and His Orchestra had no direct link with any of these bands, except in that Jack paid for the band. At the same time, he organised The Metro-Gnomes, under the direction of Mrs Jack Hylton (formerly Ennis Parkes), who were a more vaudevillian outfit, catering mostly for dancing. The band featured one of Hylton’s many ‘discoveries’ in show business, comedian Max Wall, who was at the time working as the band’s dancer. Meanwhile, the Kit-Kat Band featured trombonist Ted Heath, who of course, would later run his own very successful big band.
The next stage of Hylton’s career, despite being the most successful to date, is much less well documented than the previous decade. Hylton built the size of his band and the reputation and worked almost solidly for many years, but the main details are glossed over by most biographical references. Only Alasdair Fenton’s Jax Bax serialisation supplies a useful amount of detail.
Early in 1926, Hylton’s orchestra and Paul Whiteman’s orchestra played on the same bill at the Kit-Kat Club, playing adjoining sets. The British band for the first time was augmented by the Pougnet String Quartette, consisting of Eric Siday and Jean Pougnet on violins, Harry Berly on viola and David Cameron on ‘cello. By May 1926, there was the first sign that Hylton’s patience and hard work had been paying off as he received an invitation for the band to appear at a Royal Command Performance, taking the band back to the Alhambra Theatre. Seeing another chance to further the band’s reputation, Hylton enlisted the help of arranger Leighton Lucas (whose career would later move into conducting film music), to score arrangements for a fifteen piece orchestra, which performed at the Alhambra.
This became the new regular size of Jack Hylton and His Orchestra and this group performed a concert at the Royal Albert Hall on December 19th, 1926. The Albert Hall concert showcased Hylton’s wide range of arrangements, including Eric Coates’ The Three Bears Fantasy, Gershwin’s Valse Moderne (which featured a piano duet of Arthur Young and former Queen’s Hall Roof pianist Claude Ivy) and the Hylton composition Hyltonisms, which was a feature for soloists Hugo Rignold, Johnny Rosen and Harry Berly (on strings), Lew Davis (on trombone) and Johnny Raitz (on saxophone and clarinet). By this stage of his career, Hylton was no longer playing the piano, but was conducting the orchestra, with a pose that was to become synonymous with dance band music of the 1920’s and 1930’s (see Figure 2).
On New Year’s Eve 1926, Hylton and his orchestra shared the bill of a charity concert in aid of a Middlesex Hospital, and featured a BBC Radio broadcast at 2.00am, as part of their New Year celebrations. Sharing the bill with Hylton were the Kit-Kat Club band, under Ray Starita, the Piccadilly Revels Band, under Al Starita, and The Metro-Gnomes. These were all, of course, bands on the Hylton payroll.
The first few weeks of January 1927 included an event that has become part of Hylton folklore, known as the ‘3,000 miles a second hit New York to London hit’. Ennis Hylton, their manager George Samson and composer Horatio Nicholls set sail for America onboard the S.S. Majestic, while Jack stayed at home on tour with the band. Nicholls had promised an arrangement for Jack and apparently, this came from America, from the offices of Edgar Leshes on Broadway, via the Transatlantic Telephone Service. Jack’s arrangers took down the new tune, at a reported cost of £150 and the piece, Shepherd Of The Hills, was arranged and played that night, becoming an ‘instant hit’. Nicholls seemingly wrote the tune onboard ship after noticing a horse of the same name in the sports section of a newspaper. To what extent this story has become romanticised for the sake of the music press eager for a story and to aid Hylton’s reputation will surely never be known. What is clear is that the following day (January 20th, 1927), Jack was involved in a severe car crash on his way to the HMV studios at Hayes, Middlesex and was hospitalised for four weeks. For the rest of his life, he sported a long scar on his left cheek. Even this near fatal event would not stop Jack and his band carried on their engagements with Noel ‘Chappie’ D’Amato (the alto saxophone and guitar player, as well as deputy leader at the time) in charge.
Late in the summer of 1927, by which time Hylton had fully convalesced, the band took part in another of their most famous stunts, after their July 16th opening in the show, Shake Your Feet at the London Hippodrome. Lawrence Wright, a music publisher (otherwise known as Horatio Nicholls when writing songs, rather than publishing them) hired an aeroplane on September 4th, from Imperial Airways, with a pilot who had instructions to fly low over Blackpool Tower, while the full band played their latest release. At the same time, hundreds of copies of the sheet music for the song were released from the plane on to the unsuspecting holidaymakers. The song was Me And Jane In A Plane. One source suggests that the band parts were released from the plane and the parts were rushed dramatically to Ray Starita who was fronting the Piccadilly Revels Band in an engagement at the Palace Theatre, in Blackpool. The band then performed the number that night. Another source suggests that it was not only the band playing the song.
"...to advertise his latest hit song Me And Jane In A Plane which was currently being sung on the promenade below by young men in striped blazers, crooning through megaphones."
The song was later recorded by Hylton with a vocal trio of himself, Jack Jackson (trumpet player and later a broadcaster) and Billy Ternent (multi-instrumentalist and later a successful bandleader in his own right). Seizing the initiative as ever, Hylton had the band play a one-night stand in Harrogate, before returning to London to carry on the show.
The end of 1927 saw the band embark on their first continental tour, beginning on New Year’s Eve, at the Empire Theatre in Paris. It made sense for the band to tour Europe during the Christmas season, as most British theatres were tied up with a pantomime run, so each year at this time Hylton would look elsewhere for the best theatres in the biggest cities round Europe. The first tour was hugely successful, and stayed for twelve nights before moving to the Scala Theatre in Berlin, where they remained for a month. In just three years the band had become the biggest attraction in Britain and quickly equalled that status all over Europe.
1928 would be equally busy. On their return from the first continental tour, they embarked on a busy tour of the provinces. During some of the shows, Hylton’s extended repertoire was on show again, with a feature for violinists Harry Berry and Hugo Rignold, a version of Handel’s Passacaglia.
On March 1st, the band again played for a Royal Command Performance, this time at the London Casino. Following this success they began their second continental tour, playing at The Palace Theatre, Paris for two weeks, in Marseilles for ten days, then returning to Paris, to the Empire Theatre for another three weeks. An anonymous critic suggests that the Paris audience were being treated to something very special.
"To say the least of it, Jack Hylton and his boys... have created a furore in Paris, where the standard of good dance orchestras is fairly low. He has shown them quite a lot of things they did not know before, both in style, accuracy, and last, but not least, stagecraft... The band was kept on stage for nearly an hour, which tells its own story. The general performance of the band was definitely very creditable, particularly in accuracy, as no music was used, and also in the whole-hearted interest shown by every member of the band."
This tour took the band to April 21st, and they then began a nine-day tour of the provinces back in Britain, before embarking on April 30th on two, week long shows, firstly at the Holborn Empire, and then the Finsbury Empire.
In June 1928, Claude Ivy left the band after seven years, to be replaced by Peter Yorke, who doubled as an arranger. The following month included another well-documented incident; Hylton was now so successful that he could afford to turn down the offer of £40,000 for the exclusive services of his band at London’s Leicester Square Empire.
By October, the band were embarking on their third continental tour, beginning in Cologne, on to Frankfurt, then onto Berlin for a four week run back at the Scala Theatre. By December 13th, the band, including their first featured vocalist, Sam Browne, had worked their way round Europe into Brussels. During this period several band members had left to pursue other careers, but Hylton continued to add new talent and seemed able to spot musicians who would later become household names in their own right. Clem Lawton took over on bass (both brass and string bass), Hugo Rignold joined the violin section, Leo Vauchant became trombonist and arranger (and would later write for MGM), Peter Yorke started as pianist (and would later work as a film composer). Other musicians would come and go, but the standard of the band never dropped.
Yet again, the band was working on New Year’s Eve, this time at the invitation of the head of Citroen cars for the Citroen New Year Ball. Naturally, Jack was given a new car for his troubles, as well as being paid in the region of £1,700 for this one performance. The following day, with engagements elsewhere, Hylton hired two planes to take the band the necessary six hundred miles to the next venue. They were back to Paris the following day, and eventually returned home to London on January 6th, 1929. 1928 had been a landmark year for the band, and 1929 would prove to be equally important and even more successful.
Due to the nature of their success on record and on the concert stage, the Hylton band, unlike many bands, did not have to rely on radio exposure to build their reputation. Indeed their tight schedule of recording and performing in the best venues throughout Europe meant there was little time to arrange radio sessions. When the band did appear on radio, radio stations and listeners regarded it alike, as something of a special occasion. Consequently, the radio stations would allocate the band a peak time slot in the early evening, as it was on February 11th, 1929 when the band gave a forty minute broadcast which would have been heard by an audience of millions.
At the end of the month the band were again on tour in Europe, beginning in Geneva and Zurich before heading to Italy for concerts in Milan and Turin. The tour ended in Marseilles and the band returned to London on March 25th, where they were given a rare but well-earned rest.
Of particular note in May were the first concerts for the band to be arranged in America. They were booked to appear at the Roxy and Paramount theatres in New York, for an estimated fee of £1100 per week. However, sensing a potential loss of work, the American Federation of Musicians threatened to strike if the concerts were allowed to go ahead. This would have given the American theatres a real problem, with almost no musicians, so they decided to postpone the band’s visit. Of course, the band was still inundated with work and although this was a big blow, Hylton need not have been unduly bothered.
On August 5th, 1929, the band appeared at the London Palladium and on completion of this engagement, was treated to a three-week holiday. Jack himself used this time for a rare break, although holidaying on the French liner Ile de France, along with his wife were early jazz journalist Edgar Jackson and Hylton’s manager Mr Hunt.
Another tour of Europe began on October 16th, with the band first playing at the Champs-Elysees Theatre in Paris, then onto Antwerp, to Ghent and reaching Brussels just four days after setting off. In Brussels, the band played the inaugural concert for the new Palais Des Beaux Arts, which was attended by Crown Prince Leopold and Princess Astral.
This quick trip was followed by a slightly more leisurely November which took the band all over England and Scotland. The performance at the Alhambra Theatre in Glasgow on November 27th coincided with the signing of pianist Billy Munn. At the time of writing, 86 year old Billy is still working at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, as he has been since the 1960’s.
Despite holidays, in 1929 alone the band gave around 700 performances and travelled some 63,000 miles. Hylton records were selling at a rate of seven every minute, with a total for 1929 of 3,180,000. This made Hylton by far the most successful European bandleader of the 1920’s and he showed no signs of giving up as the new decade began.
This stage of Hylton’s career was perhaps the busiest. Some members of the band dropped out simply because the pace of life was too quick and there was little time out to spend with families, but even at this level of work, the band were turning down more work than they were accepting. In 1930, Phil Cardew left the saxophone section and this was reported in the music press at the time.
"Phil Cardew left entirely of his own accord. Although the travelling fascinated and interested him, he found it too wearing, and it denied him the facilities and time for research work into the profundities of hot orchestration."
At the start of 1930, Jack took his band for a short spell to the Kit-Kat Club, not playing for dancing this time, but performing a type of show that was now familiar to his audience. The programme included such diverse items as Handel’s Passacaglia, Eric Coates’ The Three Bears Fantasy and their famous version of La Rocca’s Tiger Rag, a popular ‘hot’ tune at that time. On February 6th, the band moved from the Kit-Kat to a six-day residency in Brighton before preparations were made for the next continental tour.
More changes of personnel came about and more names appeared who would later enjoy fame in their own right, including trombonist Paul Fenoulhet (who would later be a conductor of various BBC studio orchestras) and singer Pat O’Malley (replacing Sam Browne, who left to work for Ambrose’s band). On March 15th, the band held a farewell lunch for a tour that would cover 7,763 miles in sixty-nine days. The tour travelled to Brussels, Antwerp, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Berlin and then back through Belgium and France, returning to London by May 26th.
June of 1930 took the band to the Piccadilly Theatre in London and in August Hylton alone was back in Europe, accepting the award of Officer de L’Instruction Publique from the French Government at Deauville, for his services to France and to music.
To give an idea of the range of repertoire being released by the band, this excerpt describes the lighter side of Hylton’s recorded output.
"In 1931 he scored a palpable hit with a thing called Rhymes, a collection of faintly scatological limericks, each followed by the lusty refrain: ‘That was a beautiful rhyme, sing us another one, do’. Which of course the singer (J.H. himself) obligingly did... so successful was it that the following year Hylton recorded its sequel, called unsurprisingly, More Rhymes."
By November, the band were on yet another tour of Europe, starting in Holland and moving into Germany with concerts in Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden, before returning to Holland to play at the Carlton Hotel in Amsterdam. Here they took the rare step of playing for dancing, for a four-day residency. They continued the tour through France, Belgium and Switzerland, before returning to Holland, to Amsterdam’s Carlton Hotel, where a rare radio broadcast was made of their dancing set. Their success in Europe was unmatched and they faced receptions quite unlike anything they had experienced in Britain.
"So tremendous was the band’s reception at all its dates, that the applause was positively embarrassing at times. On one particular occasion, the boys had just played a number, when, quite unexpectedly, a great and thunderous crash of applause broke out.
Leslie Sarony, the singer... had, up to this time, been accustomed only to the moderate receptions which even the best British shows receive at home, and this continental outburst of approval left him gasping."
The band returned to London shortly before Christmas of 1930 for a brief rest, but was performing on Christmas Day evening in Paris. By February 9th, 1931, the band was appearing at the London Palladium for six days, before preparation began for another tour of the continent. This was due to begin on February 17th, at the Opera House in Paris, a concert famed for the performance of Stravinsky’s Mavra, which is discussed in more detail elsewhere.
During the 1931 tour of Europe previously mentioned, Hylton arranged a series of radio broadcasts to take place, from each major venue the band visited on their travels. They broadcast four times from Nice, six times from Prague and five times from Vienna.
During these dates, the wide-ranging repertoire of the band was increasing. One programme listed no less than sixty-four items ranging from Lehar’s The Merry Widow and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor and Prelude in G# minor through the current hits of the day, to tunes which were already deemed to be jazz classics, such as St. Louis Blues, Tiger Rag, and Limehouse Blues.
By April, the band had returned to London and appeared at the London Palladium on April 4th. The press at the time noted that the band were playing an entirely new programme and were even more successful than on their previous visit. Of particular note was a Billy Ternent vehicle, entitled One Man Band, which featured him playing all the saxophones, the violin, all the brass instruments and other ‘sundry instruments’ such as the ocarina. Soon afterwards the band were rewarded with a two-week holiday, during which time a few more changes of personnel took place, including the departure of saxophonist E.O. ‘Poggy’ Pogson.
"‘Poggy’, now retired, is one of those instantly likeable characters, and everything seemed to happen to him. On arrival in the band-coach in Hamburg, ‘Poggy’ stepped out of the door nearest to his seat, straight into the canal, and played the engagement that night in borrowed clothes."
Pogson was replaced by Abe Romaine, who recalls his first engagements with the band.
"To catch up on the programme I was allowed to use music for my first appearance, but after one or two shows I had memorised the current programme, and from then on, no music was allowed on stage. This I have always felt was a great ‘selling point’ for the band, and I’m sure that much of the success on the continent had stemmed from the great ‘ease’ which was apparent on all the programmes."
In the autumn of 1931, Hylton’s long-standing recording contract with HMV was due for renewal and he stunned the dance band world by instead signing with relative newcomers Decca. Jack was, in fact, a major shareholder in Decca and this obviously affected his decision to record for the three-year-old company. Decca were in need of a big name on their books and Hylton provided that, creating a great deal of publicity for the company and adding greatly to their sales. Despite the lesser quality of the sound recordings, the Decca releases sold just as well as the HMV titles and included one of Hylton’s greatest successes, Rhymes, which is discussed elsewhere.
The first session for Decca was on November 2nd, 1931, when the band recorded twelve sides, including Tom Thumb’s Drum, a Leslie Sarony composition, which featured a drum solo by Neville Bishop, who had recently replaced Gilbert Webster (himself a replacement for Basil Wiltshire). It was during these early Decca sessions that Jack first met Patrick ‘Spike’ Hughes. Hughes would subsequently play double bass for Hylton and was widely regarded as an excellent jazz player, although he is perhaps better known for his writing in Melody Maker (under the pseudonym ‘Mike’) and his later critical writings.
"The company was fun and I found myself being taken off to tour Amsterdam, Brussels or Paris for a week at a time with the band...I don’t think Jack will mind my saying that I was bored to hell playing at his sessions, but there I think he was too and anyway, I could do with the money."
At the end of 1931, Jack Hylton and His Orchestra were again making history, as they became the first British band to broadcast live to America, which they did at 3.00am British time, on December 16th. The programme (who consisted of two fifteen-minute slots, with a similar sized break in between) was relayed live from Savoy Hill to the American NBC network, in a show sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes. On Christmas Day, the band were working on another radio broadcast, this time in a Decca sponsored hour-long show on Radio Paris. It was normal for this to be a record show, but Decca were keen to make exceptions for the Hylton band. This was a convenient way to start their next continental tour, beginning at the Empire Theatre in Paris and moving on, in early February of 1932, to the Carlton Hotel in Amsterdam. By February 14th, they had moved to Brussels and were again graced with the presence of the royal family, including King Albert himself at the Palais Des Beaux Arts. The tour finished in Nice on March 21st, having also travelled through Italy and Monaco.
Back in England, the band took part in their third Royal Command Performance, held at the London Palladium on May 3rd. The work in June included a second broadcast to America (this time at the BBC studios at 5 o’clock in the morning, as guests on Paul Whiteman’s NBC show) and July consisted of a month long tour of Ireland.
During 1932, Hylton was again honoured by the French Government, when he was appointed the Legion D’Honneur, again for his services to France and to music. He wore both this and his Officer De L’Instruction Publique with pride when travelling in Europe. The last part of 1932 consisted of the band’s biggest tour to date, which was due to cover some 30,000 miles and would make national newspaper headlines, as well as leading to the introduction to the band of German saxophonist and comedian Freddie Schweitzer.
"Schweitzer was a clown, and a great one. Dave Shand, the lead alto player with the band from 1931-1935, remembers him well: ‘As I sat next to him on the bandstand, I became the straight man to his clowning; he used to call me ‘mein partner’. One of his acts was to balance a violin on his forehead while playing a jazz chorus on the clarinet... Sure enough, after a few days practice, Freddie was balancing the huge bass fiddle on his forehead while playing the same jazz chorus on his clarinet."
The first date of this European tour was on October 14th, in Brussels. The band moved then to Germany and from there to the Soviet Union. Visas were refused by the Soviets, so Jack instead took the band to Czechoslovakia and there they were part of another piece of Jack Hylton folklore. He was commanded to appear before Admiral Horthy and Jack is widely quoted on this matter.
"In his own words Jack says he thought “p’raps he wants to sell me a song! When I got there I’m damned if he didn’t!” The admiral played his song at the piano while his son provided the accompaniment on a set of drums. The number, says Hylton, was as corny as could be."
Recording sessions also took place in Czechoslovakia, for the local Polydor label, before moving on to Vienna. The tour carried on over Christmas, with a brief engagement at the Victoria Palace in London, early in January, before flying back to Europe for a broadcast in Paris on January 3rd, 1933. Paris was the venue for a three-week stay at the Rex Cinema, which included a performance in front of the President of France. The tour then moved on to Belgium before finally bringing the band home at the end of February 1933.
Soon afterwards came what was, at the time, Jack’s most publicised entrepreneurial success, when the Duke Ellington Orchestra made their first trip abroad, with a six-week tour of Britain, beginning on June 9th, 1933 and continuing with a subsequent tour of Holland and France. The French and Dutch legs of the tour featured a show starring both the Ellington and Hylton bands.
Its reception in England was especially warm, with large audiences turning out for concerts and critics providing extensive coverage in newspapers and the trade press.
The event (which of course featured ‘Jack Hylton Presents’ on all the publicity) seemed to be a great success, with Hylton insisting on the same disciplined attitude from Duke’s men, as he expected from his own. Some commentators, however, were not as enamoured with Hylton as they were with Ellington.
"But I learned that Jack Hylton had specifically forbidden Duke’s men to play outside the concerts or they would be fined fifty dollars... In fact, Jack Hylton was there [at ‘Bricktops’, a cabaret venue in Paris] too. Flabby and pot-bellied like an English pork butcher, he was rocking grotesquely in his chair. Overwhelmed by heat and liquor, he had a red, congested face and was splattering food on his neighbors and wiping it off mechanically when it fell on his jacket. Alongside him, Duke gave the impression of a prince of the blood, on whom had been imposed the company of a stupid upstart."
During Hylton’s time with Decca, public taste was moving away from the so-called ‘hot’ dance music and tending towards a more sentimental style. As ever, Hylton gave the public exactly what they wanted, but following Ellington’s visit, he and the band had seen the first true union of jazz, dance and concert music, prompting the arrangement of Ellingtonia. This consisted of a chorus of many of Ellington’s better-known works, played by the band in the Ellington style.
Upon Ellington's return to America, Jack Hylton and His Orchestra opened at the London Palladium. Later in the year, Hylton fell ill and was admitted to hospital for an operation, but the band carried on in his absence, with Billy Ternent in command. Another extensive tour of the continent followed, on Jack’s return to full fitness, beginning on October 17th. They played extended periods in Brussels and Antwerp before embarking on a long run at the Rex Cinema in Paris. They eventually returned to Britain on January 29th, 1934. 1933 had been a quieter year for the band, but no less successful – Jack Hylton and His Orchestra were still the biggest band attraction in Britain and all over Europe, but in 1934 there would begin a gradual distraction for Jack away from bandleading.
Early in the year, Hylton and the band began rehearsing at the London Palladium for a show entitled America Calling, while Jack was also setting up a band to play at the Saville Theatre in London for a show called Here’s How. The latter show opened on February 21st, while Hylton’s own show opened on March 1st.
This year was also the tenth anniversary of the formation of the band and a special commemoration concert was staged at the Holborn Empire, accompanied by a special feature in popular music paper Melody Maker. In March, Hylton’s band replaced the touring American band of Cab Calloway at the London Palladium and in April, Hylton followed his staging of Duke Ellington by bringing from America tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins toured and recorded with the band in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, and was so well received that he stayed on in Europe for some four years afterwards.
August saw the band’s first venture into film, with an appearance in the Carl Brisson film, Two Hearts That Beat In Waltztime. Following this, in September Hylton left for America with his manager to try to engineer their forthcoming tour there. After a three-week holiday, the band played on in Jack’s absence, firstly in Rhyl, then for three weeks in Ireland. This time, Pat O’Malley was the musical director.
Jack returned to Britain in October and the London Hippodrome was the venue for another series of America Calling, this time featuring a batch of new stars he had brought back from the States – The Gaylords, The Inkspots, Charles Faqua, Jerry Daniels, Ivory Watson and Orville Jones. All would succeed both in radio and on record on their return to America.
The end of 1934 saw several major changes in personnel. Johnny Raitz, Johnny Rosen and Pat O’Malley all left the band after many years of service, while 1935 meant the start of the band’s fourteenth continental tour, this time featuring Coleman Hawkins. They began with a run at the Gaumont Cinema in Paris, performing four shows per day. The band moved on through The Hague and into Germany, where the Nazi authorities denied access to Hawkins due to the colour of his skin. The band carried on without him and performed for eight days at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. They then travelled back to Britain, via Amsterdam, arriving on February 11th, to start rehearsal for their next project.
March of 1935 was a time for more innovation by Jack Hylton when he and his band opened in a revue based solely around themselves, called Life Begins At Oxford Circus. The show, at the London Palladium, featured the band with several vocalists, notably Sam Browne and Helen Howard. The numbers from the show were the first to be recorded for Hylton’s new record contract – back at HMV, where he signed again in March and where he would stay until the end of his career. Hylton had left Decca at the end of 1933 and his discography shows that there were no recordings made between November 28th, 1933 (on Decca) and March 12th, 1935 (on HMV). During this eighteen month period, as we have seen, the band were sufficiently busy with performing for this not to have been a problem and it may well have come as welcome relief to some of the band members.
Yet another ‘first’ for the band occurred in the summer of 1935, when they were working at Twickenham Film Studios, on their own vehicle, She Shall Have Music, a similar production to their recent revue at the Palladium. The film featured the band playing on a broadcasting ship touring the world and showed the bands’ varied talents of comedy, singing and dancing, with the grand finale vocal taken by Jack himself.
"...although the comedy content by today’s standard is utterly dire and the plot a mite creaky, it was a largely successful attempt in an English studio to create something like a Busby/Berkeley musical."
This event marked a significant stage in the band’s development. Hylton was due to work in America and the press at the time was unsure of when he would return. When he did, the band would sound different and would be less of a ‘comedy show band’. The new sound would be more American, possibly due to his time there, and certainly more like the Big Band sounds which would be popular for many years after the break up of Hylton’s band. Success for Jack, however, seemed unending and his time in America would ultimately be a rewarding one.
The first suggestion of Hylton’s negotiations for an American trip were reported in the British music press on June 9th, 1934, with the headline ‘Mystery U.S. Offer To Hylton – Ten Weeks American Tour Proposed – Permit Difficulties Said To Be Solved’. The report went on to discuss what it said was a ‘concrete offer’ from an unnamed backer.
Hylton had tried several times in the past to arrange a visit to America for his band but the American Federation of Musicians was, at that time, in a much stronger position than its British counterpart, the Musicians Union. The American musicians threatened to strike if the band was allowed to perform, despite there having been several big name bands from America allowed to perform in this country (Ellington and Hawkins, of course, were brought over by Hylton himself).
"This very strange affair opens up all sorts of prospects, because it has been known for years that the American populace would be only too delighted at an opportunity of hearing and seeing Jack Hylton and his band, which is now accepted all over the world as the greatest stage band entertainment on earth... Having played virtually every capital of Europe, his eyes have for a long time been turned to the West, where he is anxious to prove that he has an act of international merit, and that he is in a position to challenge the big guns of American stage bands at their own game."
Despite the rumours, it would be over a year later before a deal was finally struck and even then, it was not to be of the nature suggested in the above Melody Maker article. The ban on British musicians was still in force, but a permit was gained for Hylton himself to work a maximum of thirteen hours in America, with a band of American musicians. He would also be allowed to take his own singers, comedians and arranging staff. Hylton was happy to accept this – the only other way he could lead a band there would be to take out naturalisation papers as an American, which he was not prepared to do. In the past, he had been offered lucrative deals for his personal employment in the USA, but turned them down for that reason. Hylton also must have realised that while in America he would be in a better position to negotiate with the authorities for either an extended visit, or more lenient rules in the future, especially if he proved successful.
"As Jack is the most useful ambassador that British dance music possesses, it is certain that he will seize the golden opportunity of his visit to make the Federation still more amenable."
On August 31st, 1935, Melody Maker reported again, this time on a deal that had definitely been signed by Hylton, with the radio sponsors Standard Oil, for a series of thirteen hour-long broadcasts known as The Standard Hour. So keen was the company to engage the services of Hylton that they agreed to pay not only him and his American musicians, but also the members of the original Hylton line-up, who would be paid to not play. This was an unprecedented move, but one which represented how much Hylton’s performance was wanted in America by everyone but the Federation of Musicians.
Later plans emerged as to how Hylton would be received on his arrival in America; ‘Aeroplane Escort Of Honour Arranged To Receive Hylton On Arrival At New York – Triumphal Ride Down Broadway Also Planned’ was the Melody Maker headline on October 5th.
"America is agog with expectation. Julius Stein has put the whole weight of his wonderful organisation, the Music Corporation of America, through which Hylton is booked, behind the plans for Jack’s reception and exploitation.
Standard Oil are all out to get the maximum publicity from the engagement, for which money, with the utmost indifference, is being paid out on a scale suggestive of the wealth of the founder of the firm, John D. Rockerfeller."
There was to be an escort of honour from six or more aeroplanes, followed by an open-topped car journey down the length of Broadway, then a cocktail reception in his honour and finally on to a charity ball. The article also detailed plans to record the first show for broadcast in London a few days before departure, with his British band, with another broadcast from the boat, the French liner Normandie, three miles outside New York – neutral territory. The broadcasts would then continue on American soil, with the new group of American musicians.
The first broadcast to America was duly completed on October 13th, 1935 from St. Georges Hall in London and the Melody Maker reported it as ‘a raging success’.
"So said hundreds of telegrams from America arriving at Jack Hylton’s office last Monday morning following his ‘regardless of cost’ Standard Oil broadcast... Both reception and performance were adjudged by the sponsors in New York as supremely successful, and it seems that the American public started straight away to concur."
This success was despite a crippling schedule – the band had spent the day at Twickenham Film Studios filming She Shall Have Music (as previously mentioned) and this was followed at 10.00pm with a few hours rehearsal before the 3.30am radio broadcast.
On October 16th, the band made a very public departure from Waterloo Station and onward to the Normandie. The British band would holiday in New York for over a week before returning to Britain to work under the baton of either Sonny Farrar, or guest conductor Buddy Rogers (an American film actor). Between March 30th and April 4th 1936, Charles Manning conducted the orchestra and it was then disbanded.
The American shows, called Jack Hylton And His Continental Revue, became increasingly popular and both American numbers and the more light-hearted English numbers were equally successful. Radio stations claimed that after the October 27th broadcast, Jack received more than 10,000 letters from American fans.
Since his arrival, Jack had been courted by almost every big theatre, but was unable to take up any offer, as his contract had restricted him just to radio broadcasts. After much negotiation from Hylton himself, the ban was lifted and within hours of this, on November 20th, he had signed a deal with the Palace Theatre in Chicago. The engagement would last for six days, after which the show moved on for a Thanksgiving Day performance in Cleveland. These theatre shows would run for just one hour, (as the American bands tended to share the bill with a feature film) and displayed the home-grown talents of Pat O’Malley (who would marry a few days later and subsequently settle in America), Magda Neeld, Peggy Dell, Freddie Schweitzer and Alec Templeton (already a successful radio personality in America).
By the beginning of 1936, the Standard Oil contract had expired, but the company re-signed Hylton for a radio series of The Standard Hour, which began on January 6th, 1936. By now, he was also free to play almost anywhere he pleased and on January 24th, the band were at the Gold Coast Room at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, where they played for dancing.
"Jack Hylton might well be called the little Corporal of the dance band world. Having pretty well conquered all of Europe with his rhythms, he set out from his native England some months ago to conquer America...Now, having let the radio and theatre taste the power of his guns, he has moved his regiment into the Gold Coast Room at the Drake and for his first dime and dance engagement in this country, he is quickly conquering a new field...On the large orchestra stage at the Drake...it is easy to see that Hylton’s men respect him. Their eyes are riveted on his baton and on his left hand, which shades their music."
On April 4th, the Standard Oil contract again came to an end, but only a day later Jack signed for the rival NBC network, to appear on the Real Silk sponsored programme, Life Is A Song. On April 11th, the previous resident band at the Drake Hotel, Horace Heidt’s Brigadeers (sic) were due to return, but Hylton was so successful that he was retained instead. When the run at the Drake finally ended, Hylton took the band on a short tour of Canada, eventually returning to conclude the Real Silk shows on June 28th. This orchestra was then disbanded, but Hylton made one last broadcast from America, with an all-star session band, in New York.
Hylton then sailed back to Britain, arriving on July 7th, 1936, having worked consistently in America for some ten months. His triumphs in Europe had been easily matched in the USA and his presence had ensured that the group of American musicians still retained the ‘Hylton sound’, something he would have to recapture on his return to British music making.
Jack Hylton’s first project upon his return to England from America on July 7th 1936 was to have a long holiday. Exactly one month later he undertook a broadcasting engagement for the BBC. However, Hylton had not yet reformed his band, so hired in several old Hyltonites, some top session musicians and a newly discovered vocal group, The Swingtette, who he had brought over from America.
The British stage debut for The Swingtette came on August 12th, 1936 with Mrs Jack Hylton and Her Orchestra at the Paramount Theatre in London. At the same time, Jack was recording his ensemble of old and new members, using arrangements by Dutchman Melle Virsma. The session was notable as being the last to feature vocalist Pat O’Malley who, following his success in the USA with Hylton, was to pursue a career there.
The band made several more recordings during 1936, with Jack refining his sound and making changes. On January 11th, 1937, the band embarked on a European tour, where they would travel through Berlin, Prague and Vienna before settling into the Scala Theatre in Berlin for a month long run. There they were to break box office records, regularly playing to over three thousand people per performance. Nazi leaders such as Herman Goering and Dr. Goebbels saw concerts on the tour. The same Nazi authorities were responsible for making sure there were no Jews in the band.
Jack and ‘the boys’ returned to England, via Holland on March 22nd, 1937 and just a week later was opening in a London Palladium show, Swing Is In The Air. By this time, the Hylton band was so successful that a Palladium show based around the band was the norm, rather than the exceptional event it had once been. This show featured singer Gloria Day, accordionist Joe Rossi, Hammond organ player Robin Richmond and Roy Smeck on guitar. The show ran successfully until June 26th, after which the band made another of their rare BBC broadcasts and spent the rest of 1937 playing various dates around Britain.
In January 1938, the band embarked on what would prove to be their sixteenth and final European tour. The band set sail for Holland on January 26th, with a twenty-piece band and seven featured vocalists, including newcomer June Malo.
"I was singing in a club in London and [Hylton] brought in Val Parnell one night and heard me singing and...asked me if I would like to join the band. Of course, I was very delighted and excited, but I said, ‘well of course I’m under contract here and I don’t know whether I can’. But being Jack...he was able, within twenty four hours, he’d got another girl to take over my contract and in my hand was an airline ticket to Berlin and I was due to fly two days later to open with the band at the Scala Theatre, which I did and it was the most exciting experience because I’d never heard anything like it before...Then I realised as the tabs opened and Jack started his signature tune Listen To The Band it was the people stamping their feet, in applause and I’ve never heard anything like it and it’s an experience I’ll never forget."
The tour took the band through Holland and into Germany for a second month long residency at the Scala Theatre (as mentioned above). Again, the band broke the box office records. On the return journey, they played briefly in Paris before returning to England in early March.
Typically, there was little time to rest. On March 14th, they set out on another tour of Britain, notable for a two-week stay at the Birmingham Hippodrome. By May, the band were back in London rehearsing for a new show, Happy Returns, at the Adelphi Theatre. The show ran from May 19th until July 2nd, but following this, they immediately began rehearsals for the next show, Cavalcado.
By this stage, Hylton was spending more of his time as an impresario. He sent out a nine-piece orchestra under Billy Ternent, touring a show entitled Band Waggon and in April 1939, Jack put an eleven-piece orchestra together under the baton of violinist and ex-Hylton employee Maurice Loban. This band was to perform with singer Diane Clare in a Sunday afternoon broadcast for both Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy. The band featured Jack Raine on trumpet, Johnny Raitz on tenor saxophone and Freddie Bretherton on piano, all of whom were ex-members of various Hylton’s bands.
In July 1939, the band fronted by Hylton himself appeared at the Winter Gardens in Eastbourne, as a fourteen piece ensemble and by August they had embarked on the filming for their second feature film, Band Waggon. The film starred Arthur Askey (whom Jack had helped to ‘discover’ several years previously), Richard Murdoch and Hylton singer Bruce Trent, with songs composed by Noel Gay and Harry Parr Davies. The big production number of the film was written by Annette Mills, entitled Boomps-A-Daisy.
By late 1939, Europe was at war and many of Jack’s old marching style songs from the early 1930’s were re-issued by Decca. Jack also began to broadcast more regularly on the BBC. In September, the band was featured in Band of the Week on the BBC, appearing twice daily for five days. In October, Hylton was beginning to spend less time in his bandleader role – for two radio broadcasts of dance music, Billy Ternent conducted, while Jack took over for the concert music later during the same week. Meanwhile, on November 27th, Freddie Bretherton replaced Billy Ternent for the continuing tour of Band Waggon. On December 20th, Jack conducted for another BBC broadcast, while Ternent took his place for the last week of the year for another set of Band Of The Week performances.
The war by now was beginning to take its toll on the dance bands, with essential members being called up for service. Fellow bandleader Ambrose suggested that a few musicians from each band should be exempt, to form a morale boosting National Dance Orchestra to entertain the troops. Hylton openly retorted in an article published in Melody Maker.
"The entertainment and dance band business is very important and essential, but winning the war comes first. Four of my boys have already been called up and I need hardly add that I made no effort to get them exempted. As all of us can and will do, I am carrying on with the boys I have left and not doing too badly either I hope."
In February 1940, Hylton and his band broadcast yet another series of Band Of The Week for the BBC, starting on February 11th, while Hylton was continuing his entrepreneurial activities, by buying the show ITMA, and putting it on at the Birmingham Hippodrome. The show featured Hylton’s old colleague Tommy Handley, and was a pointer to the way Hylton’s career would soon develop as an impresario.
On March 6th, 1940, the band went into the recording studio for what would prove to be the last time, cutting four sides all of which featured vocalist Sam Browne. The following month, they completed a previously postponed date at the Paris Opera House, which was given a forty-minute BBC broadcast slot. Just a week later, the band returned to there for their last overseas performance, for yet another BBC broadcast.
By the end of April, seven of Hylton’s key band members had been called up for war service. This fact combined one suspects with his now wide-ranging career, led Jack to disband his orchestra, rather than lowering his standards by using lesser musicians. The final concert took place at the Drury Lane Theatre, in London, on April 30th and the BBC broadcast the entire show. In a dance band career of nearly twenty years, Hylton had led one of the greatest show bands in the world, out-selling every other band in Europe and breaking all previous records for record sales and box office takings. He shrewdly bowed out at the very pinnacle of his career, in the heyday of the dance band era. Within a few years, most of the other big bands and dance bands were struggling with the financial pressures brought on by the end of the war.
Hylton’s career continued to flourish in other fields, fields in which he was already involved. Meanwhile, most of the current members reformed in Bristol under the direction of Billy Ternent for the BBC, as The Dance Orchestra. For a time, this band was controlled by the Hylton office, and would later become The Billy Ternent Orchestra, which began recording for Decca in 1941.
" ‘I’ll be an impresario, Pat ...I’ll put on shows and things.’ And put on shows and things is exactly what he did, though I think at the time he first told me of his ambitions, he had not the faintest idea, how or when he would do it."
Hylton’s career continued to flourish following the dismantling of his orchestra shortly after the outbreak of World War Two. However, his impresario skills had been working in the background for many years – he had worked on his own shows, hiring all types of entertainers, singers, dancers and comedians as well as musicians. Almost as soon as Hylton had officially disbanded his orchestra, he had begun his future career. The London Philharmonic had embarked upon an opera tour in Cardiff on October 1st, 1939, but their two previous festivals, which had gone very badly, had put their finances under severe strain. Jack, as ever knowing what the public wanted, took on the financial responsibility for the whole orchestra, suggested an ever changing repertoire of the most well known popular tunes and sent them out to play the provincial theatres and music halls, beginning on August 11th 1940 at the Glasgow Empire. The tour was conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent and Basil Cameron and opened up a whole new audience for the orchestra. Despite burned out, bombed theatres, lack of accommodation, the blackout and irregular railway timetables, the tour was an enormous success.
Hylton followed this with production duties on Peter Pan, then left for the United States, where he was for several months, to broadcast twelve programmes (as bandleader) to the American Forces. Upon his return, in 1941, Jack began producing the famous Crazy Gang shows. The Crazy Gang, the epitome of British humour in the 1930’s, had split due to personal differences, but Hylton saw an opening for a new show re-uniting all the original members (including Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen). Together they created the longest running theatrical company in London and were associated with Hylton for some twenty years, becoming almost a national institution.
For the rest of the decade, Hylton began to dominate theatre in London. He put on numerous shows, such as Lady Behave (1941), The Merry Widow (1943), Salute to Victory (1945), Can Can (1946), Romany Love (1947). In 1948, during auditions for another show, Hylton sat through 4,000 hopefuls looking for a part as a chorister. He decided upon one girl in particular – an unknown called Audrey Hepburn. The following year, he arranged a touring contract for the Stanley Black Orchestra, arranged a tour for Benjamino Gigli and sent out a touring version of The Love Racket to Australia, featuring another of his discoveries – Arthur Askey. The Royal Command Performance of November 1950 was dominated by acts managed by Jack Hylton, but all were surpassed when the grand finale featured Jack himself fronting his reformed band for one last performance. It shows Hylton’s eye for talent and the quality of the musicians who had passed through his band that eight were by now bandleaders in their own right. On that occasion, King George VI congratulated Jack, saying, “You have produced a large number of stars, they have done very well.”
1951 saw Jack put on two major American shows in London, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (with bandleader Lew Stone as musical director) and George Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess. 1951 was also the year that Hylton was honoured with his appointment as a freeman of the State of Israel, on April 15th.
Each year, Hylton put on more shows – 1952 saw another Royal Command Performance; 1953 was so successful that the Variety Club of Great Britain named Jack ‘Star Showman’ for his productions. 1955 saw a Royal Command Performance, five shows running in London, a Royal Variety Performance in Blackpool (featuring amongst others Alma Cogan, Morecambe and Wise, George Formby, Geraldo and his orchestra and the BBC Northern Variety Orchestra) and also Jack’s appointment by Associated-Rediffusion, a fledgling ITV company, to work in the Light Entertainment department. This was swiftly followed by the signing up of Billy Ternent as Musical Director for the whole company. During his five years in television, Hylton still continued to produce major West End shows; Oh My Papa (1957), Kismet (1957), School (1958), Simply Heavenly (1958), When In Rome (1959) and Young In Heart (1959).
"How a man who is chiefly remembered as a band leader and theatre impresario became involved with commercial television is a fascinating story...Many big names in show business were to regret their involvement with Jack Hylton Television Productions."
On July 15th, 1955, newspapers reported the appointment of Hylton as Advisor of Light Entertainment, for Associated-Rediffusion (A-R). It was not uncommon for a new company such as this to employ a high profile figure – Sir John Barbirolli had already been appointed as Music Advisor. Hylton subsequently registered Jack Hylton Television Productions Ltd., with himself as chairman, a typically shrewd move.
His contract initially required 1½ hours of broadcast time per week and this seemed to be the perfect opportunity for him to promote his shows and his artists. He thought it would build new stars for the stage whilst exploiting established stars on his roster. Unfortunately, his simplistic approach of pointing a camera at a stage show and hoping it would work as television fell far short of the expectations of the viewing public. For example, Hylton put on a performance of Love And Kisses (the follow-up to The Love Match), with Arthur Askey in a starring role. This was recorded in front of an invited audience in October 1955; four cameras were set up in the theatre and the show was performed once, recorded concurrently by all the cameras. The various angles were edited together and the show was chopped into five segments for the television shows. No concessions were made for television at all and the five segments were rather arbitrarily cut, giving a disjointed show, which made little sense in five parts and made for awkward viewing.
Some shows were successful with the public, but most critics looked unfavourably on almost everything coming from Jack Hylton Television Productions. Certainly, the output was not to the standard that A-R required. Hylton made some changes and improvements and learned to move away from the original idea of simply pointing a camera at the stage, but many still saw him aiming towards too lowbrow an audience.
"Jack Hylton has very strong and personal ideas about what the television audience wants. He sees us...as a typical Monday night audience at the Theatre Royal, Shuddersford...It is, of course, a profound misjudgement...The television audience, spoiled and capricious, has nothing in common with it, except eyes and ears."
Those involved with the project at this time, of course, saw things slightly differently. Steve Race, at the time working as Light Music Advisor for A-R worked closely with Hylton and described the times as ‘great days’ . Indeed, the viewing figures from the late 1950’s suggest that Jack Hylton Television Productions was a great success, with many of their programmes regularly making the Top Ten TAM and Neilsen TV Ratings chart. Alfred Marks Time, The Dickie Henderson Half-Hour, Friday Night With The Crazy Gang, and The Robert Dhery Show were successful in their first outings, but many were let down by poor scripts in a later series. Many celebrities (Elsie and Doris Waters, Eric Barker, Cyril Fletcher, Alfred Marks) had jeopardised their careers; appearing in shows which were poorly scripted and cheaply produced. These shows were not only received very badly by both the critics and the management of A-R, but also by the artists appearing in them, some of whom apologised on air for the quality of programming . The press, especially attacked most of the Hylton output and this may have proved too much for both Jack Hylton Television Productions and for A-R.
Hylton handed in his notice in a memo to the General Manager of A-R, Captain Brownrigg, on September 23rd, 1959. During his time in television, Jack Hylton recorded some two hundred and ninety five shows, utilising well over nine thousand entertainers. The final ‘Jack Hylton Presents’ logo (see Figure 3) appeared on April 13th, 1960, following several weeks of repeats of some of his better shows. Hylton’s idea of bringing the variety stage into the home was a good one, but he did not have the ability to translate this successfully to the small screen. This part of his career can be seen as a vital piece of television history and of variety theatre history from the first half of the Twentieth Century.
"Above all, there seems to have been a lack of imagination on the part of the Hylton organisation, an inability to think of new and exciting ideas for light entertainment. Instead of relying on Hylton’s considerable theatrical contacts and expertise, the company should really have been thinking in purely televisual terms. On the odd occasion when this happened the results were encouraging... but all too often, attempts to re-create the atmosphere of a club or stage review simply didn’t work."
Once Hylton realised that television was not to be one of his greatest successes he left and continued with his theatrical output as he had done since the early 1940’s. Early in 1960, he suffered a minor heart attack, which led him to slow down a great deal, on the advice of doctors. The last few years of his life are therefore a much quieter period. Despite slowing down, he still managed to run his organisation and continue to have success and is said to have “owned or controlled fifteen theatres in London’s West End”. At the height of his powers, Hylton employed somewhere between five hundred , eight hundred and 1,200 people – this figure is most likely to be nearer eight hundred, through all the various posts involved in creating so many television and theatre productions. His later successes as an impresario included Salad Days, the Julian Slade musical, for which he is well remembered, and King Kong, the first African jazz opera, as well as a large-scale production of Camelot, which began in 1964 and ran for 518 performances . Equally well remembered was the occasion on April 9th, 1963 when, aged 70, Jack married former Australian beauty queen Beverley Prowse, 41 years his junior. This is discussed in detail elsewhere.
However, on January 26th 1965, complaining of chest and stomach pains, Hylton was admitted to the London Clinic. He died there three days later, on January 29th, at 3.45pm, from a heart attack. Hylton’s wild spending habits and generosity left his estate with £242,288 gross, despite the many millions which he earned during his illustrious career. With duty of £83,484, this left £151,160 to be distributed many ways, with the first £30,000 reserved for his wife Beverley. As Hylton said to his son during his latter years, “I won’t leave you much, but we’ll have a good laugh spending it while I’m here!”
Following his death, tributes were received from all areas of show business; the greatest of these was manifest in a theatrical extravaganza which came together on May 28th, 1965 – The Stars Shine For Jack. The show was performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the sight of Jack’s last theatre success, Camelot and was broadcast live on ATV. The show included a re-formed Crazy Gang, the cast of Camelot and other West End shows, Russ Conway, Arthur Askey, Shirley Bassey and Dickie Henderson as well as video tributes from Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Sophie Tucker and Jack Benny. The proceeds from the show went into the Jack Hylton Memorial Fund, which gave £35,000 to Lancaster University to build the Jack Hylton Music Rooms in his honour. The rooms still stand today and are used extensively by the university music department. A large picture of Hylton smiling hangs in the foyer of the rooms.
Even up to the time of his death, Hylton was considering his next move. While on a trip to America shortly before his death (when he had officially retired), Jack spent a great deal on new projects, which he apparently became very excited about. He bought the rights to Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand (Bernard Delfont eventually bought the rights and put the show on, through a deal with Arnold Goodman), Barefoot In the Park by Neil Simon (also later produced by someone else) and Nobody Loves An Albatross (it is not known what became of this).
Jack Hylton certainly lived life to the full and is reported to have said many times: “Think champagne – and you’ll be champagne. Think in terms of beer and a couple of quid a week and you’ll end up with nothing”. He became one of Britain’s greatest show business successes. He said shortly before his death: “I’d have it all over again... the same lot with the same errors and the same successes.”