What follows is a potted biography of Jack Hylton, originally conceived as the synopsis of my book. Elsewhere on the site is my more detailed biography, which is lifted from my MPhil studies in the late 1990s. It's been considerably superceded by my book, which is available to buy in the shop. I urge you to do that (of course I do!) as the detailed biography here has quite a few errors, which were amended when I began my more extensive research in 2014. Below that is a handy timeline.
The story of Jack Hylton is that of one of the Great Britons. A classic rags to riches tale of the son of a mill worker who ended his days as a wealthy, well regarded, well loved theatrical impresario, dividing his time between his sold out theatres in London’s West End and his villa in the south of France.
This would seem like a good yarn, but in between there was the small matter of the most successful dance band in Britain, a band which recorded literally thousands of songs, toured Europe extensively and brought fame and fortune not only to it’s leader but to many of it’s sidemen, who became famous in their own right. ‘Jack Hylton And His Orchestra’ broke free of the hotels and cabaret of most of the bands of the 1920’s and 1930’s and took his amazingly successful band to the theatres, concert halls and opera houses which had previously been reserved for the classical orchestras of the day. It was only when the outbreak of World War II was about to force a compromise to the highest of standards (seven key members were called up on the same day) that he decided to disband and look elsewhere for his success.
But success at that level doesn’t happen overnight and this tale is preceded by the fascinating story of a boy from Bolton in the 1890’s, from the humblest of beginnings, his father working in a mill by day, and visiting the local pub by night. Jack tagged along and soon found out what it felt like for an audience to applaud his performance as he sang with the local pianist. He loved it. He went to the seaside to work in a Pierrot Troupe and from there travelled to the bright lights of London to work as a pianist. When his band made their first record (this being the birth of recorded music) he made sure his name was on it. It didn’t make him much money, but it set him on the road to massive fame and fortune.
Skip forward through the thousands of records, concerts, radio performances, and millions of miles travelled; Jack Hylton sets out to become the leading theatre producer in the West End, and manages it. He is in control of the top theatres and discovering some of the biggest names in show business for the subsequent forty years – Morecambe & Wise, Shirley Bassey – they ought to be big enough names to understand his ability for spotting talent.
By the 1950’s Hylton was to spread his wings still further and was at the forefront of yet another development in technology – independent television. Almost single handed he used his skills and experience to create light entertainment on ITV almost as we know it today, becoming a massive influence on the lives and careers of countless TV stars of the 50’s and 60’s.
Hylton died in the 1960s, a happy and successful man.
So, there’s the story. But there’s so much more to this story than simply a man who became successful in the entertainment industry. Hylton married a fellow bandleader in 1913, but the relationship was doomed from the start. He remained married yet estranged to Ennis Parkes until her death. Meanwhile, he began countless affairs with the most beautiful women who crossed his path and despite his ‘unconventional’ looks he never failed to have a gorgeous starlet on his arm. He had three children with two different women, and appeared to have settled down with one of them, though this hid the bigger picture of a womaniser of the highest order, with a voracious appetite for sex, which continued well into his old age. In fact there were so many ‘Mrs. Hyltons’ around it was hard to keep track of who the current favourite was. He courted film stars, stage stars, and anyone else around who took his fancy. He was generous, gregarious and clearly a joy to be around, whilst working exhaustive twenty hour days relentlessly until the next show opened to great acclaim.
And he didn’t slow down as he got older; quite the opposite. He was 70 years old when he married his second wife, who was a staggering 41 years his junior. Until her death a few years ago she doted on her first husband and revelled in the youth and exuberance which he had displayed until his death.
But whilst Hylton was fearsome as an impresario and deal maker, both in the theatre and in TV – a written contract meant nothing if he wanted to work with someone badly enough – he was also generous to a fault and always first to help out those around him despite his punishing schedule. Hospital bills, holidays, cars, nothing was too much for this most charming of gentlemen.
There’s so much detail to fill in: he received the ‘Officer de L’Instruction Publique’ and the ‘Legion D’Honnuer’ from the French government, he worked with Igor Stravinsky and played a dance band version of one of his works, he brought Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins to the UK, he took a band to the USA, in spite of union strikes, he starred in films with the band, he was awarded the Franz Lehar medal, was made a Freeman of the State of Israel, he survived a serious car crash in the late 20’s which would see him sporting a scar on his face for the rest of his life, he was a director of TWW Television, he partied with royalty and almost fifty years after his death is still cited as someone who many in TV and theatre “owe it all to”.
So that’s the story. A man who was born in the 1890’s in industrial Bolton, who discovered a love for performing, learnt to play the piano, moved to London to pursue a career in the pop music of the day, served in World War 1 as an entertainment officer, developed one of the most successful bands in popular music history, disbanded it at it’s zenith and then became one of the most successful theatrical producers of his or any other generation, as well as dabbling in ITV. He did all this whilst conducting the most outrageous and exciting private lives, which would put most modern celebrities to shame.
This is an astonishing, fascinating story of love and life, and one which has never been told in full before.
1892 John Greenhalgh Hilton born to George and Mary Hilton in Great Lever, Bolton on July 2nd. George at this time worked in a cotton mill, Mary (formerly Greenhalgh) was a schoolteacher.
1899 John was known as Jack and by now had received his first piano lessons through the local Clarion Club.
1901 George was now running a pub, and Jack would regularly accompany his father who sang; Jack himself would later sing, too.
1905 Jack had his first professional engagement in Rhyll as part of a Pierrot troupe (see Photo Section). He worked hard in Rhyll and learned his trade. He also changed his surname to the more showy Hylton.
1909 Jack was now a seasoned performer. He took a job as musical director of a touring pantomime company, despite only being 17. He earned 45 shillings a week.
1913 Various jobs came up - he returned to the Pierrots and worked steadily for the pantomime company. At this time he met his first wife Ennis Parkes (who would later run a band of her own, put together by her then estranged husband).
1914 Hylton works as organist at the Alexandra theatre in Camden Town
1915 Hylton works as relief pianist for a band based in the 400 Club in Old Bond Street. the club soon closes down after the outbreak of war and Hylton joins the 20th Hussars as musical director of the entertainment division.
1918 Jack teams up with Tommy Handley after working on a touring version of "Shanghai" together. They work as a double act, with modest success.
1920 Having parted company with Handley, and after spending a summer selling sheet music in Blackpool, Jack begins working for the Queen's Dance Orchestra in London. While trying to recreate the music of Paul Whiteman's band, Hylton transcribes some music. He is refused extra payment so has 'Directed by Jack Hylton' on every record. This would prove his career masterstroke.
1921 Hylton is forced out of the Queen's but returns just a few weeks later for a huge fee under the name Jack Hylton & His Orchestra. At the beginning of 1923, he begins an epic recording career under that banner.
1925 The band grew in size and stature, moving to better paid, higher profile jobs at the Piccadilly, the the Kit-Kat Club and to the Alhambra, where they stayed for a record 36 weeks. it was becoming clear to other bandleaders that Hylton was the one to follow.
1926 Hylton became inundated with offers, so much so that he put bands in other venues with his name attached. By now, he was also adding strings to his regular line-up. Later in the year the band played their first Royal Command Performance at the Alhambra, and also played at the Royal Albert Hall. Hylton now did not play the piano, but conducted.
1927 Hylton involved in a serious car crash, hospitalised for four weeks. He would sport a scar on his left cheek for the rest of his life. Despite this, the band continue to work, and head out on their first of 16 continental tours.
1929 The band go from strength to strength. Keys players leave, but Jack has an eye for future stars and continues to recruit. Despite their punishing schedule, the band play little radio and are given long peak time slots when possible, which are listened to by millions. This year the band are asked to play in America, but US Musicians Union rejects the plans. They stay. In one legendary year, the band give 700 performances and travel 63,000 miles. Their records sell at one every seven minutes, totalling 3,180,000 for the year.
1930 Jack and the band are now so popular in Europe that Hylton is awarded the 'Officer de L'Instruction Publique' by the French Government.
1931 The band meet Igor Stravinsky who asks them to play an excerpt from one of his works, "Mavra". They are the first band to play a non-classical concert in the Paris Opera House this year, and play the Stravinsky work there. It would never be played again. This year, Hylton ends his long-standing recording contract with HMV and moves to the fledgling Decca label. He was, incidentally a major Decca shareholder.
1932 More continental tours, more awards. Hylton is given the 'Legion D'Honneur' by the French Government. They also broadcast to America, another first for the band.
1933 Hylton arranges for Duke Ellington and his band to travel to Britain and tour Europe. An insight to what Hylton would spend his time doing after he finished bandleading.
1935 The band star in their own film, "She Shall Have Music". Later in the year, Jack disbands his orchestra and travels to America for ten months, where he leads a band of American musicians. Again, he is inundated with offers of work, and stays much longer than was originally planned.
1936 Jack reforms his band, with a more modern sound, obviously influenced by his time in the USA. They are as popular as ever.
1938 The band play their final European tour. They return to star in their second film vehicle, "Band Waggon". By now Hylton is at the height of his success.
1940 The band enter the recording studio for the final time. By April, 7 key members are called up for war duty together. Hylton takes the shock decision to disband permanently. His new career began with the promotion of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who were in financial difficulty. Hylton guided them to two succesful concert tours, and ensured their longevity.
1941 Hylton begins his second succesful career, as theatrical producer and entrepreneur. For the next decade he dominates London theatres. He reformed teh Crazy Gang and they began a 20 year association with Hylton.
1948 Jack has a string of theatre successes. In 1948 he discovers, amongst 4,000 other hopefuls, a young Shirley Bassey. Shows include "The Merry Widow", "Salute To Victory", "Kiss Me Kate", "Kismet", "Salad Days", "When In Rome", etc, etc.
1950 Hylton reforms his band one last time, for the Royal Command Performance. He resists the temptation to reform on a permanent basis, despite many requests.
1955 Jack begins working for the new independent TV network, Associated-Rediffusion, as Advisor of Light Entertainment. He uses many of his discoveries from stage and promotes them as TV stars. Many of his programmes are commercially succesful, but critically slated. Certainly the standard was not generally high.
1959 While juggling both TV and stage, Hylton stays a success, but resigns from ITV this year after some 259 shows.
1960 At the age of 68, Hylton begins to slow down, but only slightly.
1963 Hylton begins work on his final stage show, the grand "Camelot". Also in this year, aged 70, he marries 29 year old ex-Australian beauty queen Beverley Prowse. They remain married until his death.
1965 On January 26th, Hylton goes into hospital complaining of chest pains. 3 days later, he dies from a heart attack. his wild spending habits left his estate with just £151,160 after duty. Tributes flooded in. A memorial concert was staged - "The Stars Shine For Jack" and with the proceeds, a University Music Department is built and named in his honour, at Lancaster, close to his birthplace.