Len Goodman takes a step back in time to the heyday of British dance bands, a golden age of music in the years between the wars that laid the foundations for 20th-century pop.
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In the years between the wars,
a musical revolution was under way
that would change the sound of Britain for ever.
It marked the rise of British dance bands
and the birth of modern pop music.
It was the golden age of dance bands
when band leaders were kings and millions of us danced our socks off.
It was the sound of my parents' generation
when the parlour became the place to party!
It was a time of celebrity and money, of radio and records,
when we absorbed black American jazz and gave it a unique British twist.
But it was also a time of conflict,
of a love-hate relationship with America
that sent the BBC into a spin.
So what was all the fuss about?
And what made Britain go dance band crazy?
And why, within two decades,
did our love affair with British dance bands begin to fall flat?
The heyday of dance band music may have been more than 80 years ago
but, as I'm discovering,
it seems the dance band craze never really went away.
The Shellac Sisters play their 78s loud and scratchy.
Tonight's '30s party is at the Rivoli Ballroom in South London.
If I'm dreaming, don't wake me up.
It's like something from a '30s musical. I love it.
I love to see the ladies dressed up and the guys in their suits.
And the thing is, I always thought it was about the dancing,
about foxtrots and quicksteps
but, no, as much as that, it's about the music. It is truly...wonderful.
# We had to get something new
# A dance to do up here in Harlem
# So someone started truckin' Yowser! #
What is it about this type of music and dressing up?
What is it about it that you like?
Well, you just can't not hear the music and start moving, you know.
You can't help... Every step you take makes you want to smile
and the more steps you take, the bigger your smile gets.
It's the energy, the fact that as a generation,
we don't have parlour dancing. It's nonexistent.
And do you like the fact that they use original 78s
and you get a bit of scratching going on?
Yeah, yeah. It adds to the atmosphere.
I love the clothes. The clothes are lovely.
They are. They're proper clothes, right?
Exactly yeah, stylish, fashionable.
What is this? Worsted?
12 ounce worsted? Look at it.
Impeccable. And, madam, may I say, elegance personified.
With the bob hair cut. Oh, shut up!
Our first flirtation with dance band music
came not long after the end of the Great War.
After four years of desperate survival,
a wall of sound was heading across the Atlantic.
And one band summed up the new optimistic mood.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band was a five-piece from New Orleans.
They billed themselves as the Creators of Jazz
and, in 1919, they came to London,
where music hall was still the dominant form of entertainment.
These guys play - simultaneously - clarinet, cornet, trombone...
all playing melodies together.
It sounded like an enormous row, they had a drum kit with them.
The shock this caused was probably similar to punk rock in 1977.
Well, I guess music has always developed
and the next style always shocked the Establishment.
Yeah, it shocked the Establishment,
but a lot of people were ready for this style. It was the modern age.
With their radical new sound,
the Original Dixieland Jazz Band were the talk of the town.
"Right, that's what we need to do, this is where we need to go."
And the dance bands really grew out of that.
It was the birth of a new musical era
that would be the soundtrack to British life for the next 20 years.
Across the land,
British musicians started to soak up those Stateside sound waves
and decided, "We can do that too."
As the bands tuned up,
a new wave of British musical talent began to emerge.
And band leaders such as Bert Ambrose, Jack Hylton and Ray Noble
would become household names.
BAND PLAYS: Midnight The Stars And You
Doesn't that sound fantastic?
# Midnight, brought us sweet romance
# I'll know for my whole life through
# I'll be remembering, dear
# Whatever else I do
# Midnight, with the stars and you. #
I was brought up listening to that type of music,
because you listened to what your dad plays when you're a kid.
And my dad was always in the front room putting the old gramophone on,
playing all this type of music.
And that's why I think I've always loved it.
When people listened to this music, it was the latest thing.
It was modern, you know, it was everything that was the future.
Now, we hear things like Midnight And The Stars And You,
can anything be any more achingly nostalgic
than something like that?
But it wasn't at the time.
No. But that's music and I hope it always continues to develop and grow.
In early 1920s' London,
it was the high-end restaurants and hotels like the Savoy
that were among the first to cash in on the dance band explosion.
# Don't forget, dinner at eight... #
The days of swanky restaurants and hotels
hosting the finest bands in the land may be gone,
but you can still see the places
where those wonderful orchestras played
and the diners danced the night away.
# ..Don't forget Dinner at eight... #
Ray Pallett runs a magazine devoted to the music of the old dance bands
and he knows all about their old stomping grounds.
Oh, Ray...this...this is fantastic.
It is splendid, isn't it, really?
As soon as you walk in, you get the feeling this is where it all went on.
Where it all happened, yes.
The ballroom at the Savoy. The stage over there.
So, what would be going on here on a typical, say, Saturday night?
The band would be up there.
It would be the Savoy Havana Band or the Savoy Hotel Orpheans,
depending on what year it was, and who was on.
They'd be playing up there
and you'd get the society people dancing around in here.
There'd be like a cabaret style.
Tables and chairs around the edge and the dance floor there.
The band would be squashed up on the stage.
The dance floor wouldn't be huge -
people danced very closely together then.
That was one of the attractions.
I suppose, in those days,
there'd have been the foxtrots and the waltzes.
It was the foxtrot that started the whole thing off.
That was popularised by Vernon and Irene Castle
and everyone wanted to dance the foxtrot.
And that really brought the explosion of dance bands.
There were dance bands all over the country,
but the big dance bands, the main ones, were in the London hotels.
The Savoy. The Mayfair. The Hotel Cecil. Places like that.
# Because I still get a thrill thinking of you
# I recall that it ended too soon
# I can't believe you're gone
# Memories linger on
# Cos I still get a thrill thinking of you. #
One of the first stars to emerge from the fledgling dance band scene
was East Ender Bert Ambrose.
With his top flight orchestra,
he became a fixture in the West End, playing for high society audiences.
What Bert Ambrose managed to do was something truly magical.
He was able to pull together
the best musicians and the best writers that were available.
However, he knew the best were in America.
Ambrose had played in the States and absorbed what he'd heard.
In London, he'd played at the very best places -
the Embassy Club and the Cafe de Paris -
and set the tone that many would follow.
# I'm going to get you
# I'm going to get you... #
Sheila, tell me about Ambrose.
What was it about his band
that made all the musicians want to be in his band?
First and foremost, because he paid more money than anyone else did.
But he knew exactly what he wanted from his band
and insisted on getting it.
And it was a very, very good band.
He was the top band in the country.
All royalty, all the aristocracy
went to hear - not to hear - to dance to Ambrose.
And, of course, Edward used to take in Wallis Simpson, didn't he?
Billy Amstell, who was in Ambrose's band - saxophone player - he said,
"He was a naughty boy, you know, he used to look down her dress."
"How do I know?" he said, "Because I was watching!"
With British toes tapping, subtle differences started to emerge
between the American and the home-grown sound.
Well, Derek, can you give me an example
of the way the Americans would play a tune
and the way the British would back in the '20s and '30s?
We've chosen the tune Cryin' For The Carolines.
It's one of those songs of a homesick guy
who's moved to the city for work.
He's longing for the countryside again -
the birds, the green, the pines and so on.
He's crying for the Carolines.
We're going to begin with an American-style version of this.
BEGINS TO PLAY
That's quite punchy, isn't it? It's got a little staccato-ey flavour.
That's right. I think it's the force with which Kyle's hitting that reed.
It's quite a tough reed, is it, you've got in there?
It's actually not a hard reed but it's a very American set-up.
And it has what's called an American-cut reed on it.
That would be more advanced than the British style of reed?
Yes, there was a lot of evolution going on with saxophone mouthpieces,
particularly in the '30s,
and things changing
in the way that players approached their equipment
and craftsmen coming in and actually saying,
"Hey, you can have a mouthpiece
"that is not the one that comes in the box with the saxophone."
OK, so you'll want to change your mouthpiece for this one?
Yes, I'm going to put on - again, this is a modern mouthpiece -
but it's more similar
to what I think the players started from in the '20s.
So it'll give us a different kind of sound. We'll see what you think.
I think also, I'm going to play it at a different tempo.
Right. We're going to do a version that Ambrose might have approved of.
So, is this fast enough?
Yeah. That's smoother, isn't it?
It's got a smoothness about it. The other one was more punchy.
Yes, but this has a kind of bounce.
A sort of dance-y bounce about it.
It's a bit like the audiences
on Strictly Come Dancing and the American Dancing With The Stars.
You know, the Americans are much more gregarious and standing ovations
and giving it all that.
Whereas the British, they're a bit more reserved.
You think this is a bit tight-laced? But rhythmic all the same.
And perhaps a bit sophisticated?
Oh, yes, it's got class!
Yeah. Oh, certainly has.
Would you say that the American style is a little hotter
and the British style a little sweeter, a little bit more smooth?
I think so. The British style has to suit the luxury hotels,
high society and so on.
Above all, it's what the British public wanted to hear.
And the British public is different from the American public.
And the British public loved
bouncey, cheerful, tuneful music.
That's what they wanted.
And the bands provided it, in spades.
British music might have been sweeter on the ear, but was it cutting edge?
There were two styles of music, essentially,
in the '20s through into the '30s.
And they were called hot and sweet, kind of like peppers.
So sweet music's quite sentimental,
it kept quite strictly to the melody.
Musicians didn't go off and do their own thing anywhere.
Hot music was what we think of as jazz in that era.
It was improvisatory,
the arrangements would leave plenty of space
for the trumpet player to just do something exciting.
Just take the melody and run with it,
or two or three musicians to do that simultaneously.
But for some, these hot new sounds were just a bit too racey.
I think one of the biggest worries, after the First World War,
was Americanisation of British taste.
The look of American cars, the rowdiness of American music.
The sober British values were being lost in this storm of vulgarity
from the other side of the Atlantic.
There's this sort of divide in the inter-war period
between an intelligentsia very often
who are concerned about Americanised dance music
and Americanised popular culture,
and the vast amount of the public who love it.
There's a racial element for some individuals
who are concerned that the purity of the British race
is being challenged by this music
which has its roots in Africa and in black America.
The well-known bit! There were worries by some institutions
and some theatres that this was vulgar, noisy, rowdy,
the patrons would not like it.
But then there were other places - cafes and nightclubs -
that would give work to those musicians.
But one place where all musicians wanted to be heard,
was on the newly-formed BBC,
which launched its first radio service in 1922.
The BBC's boss, John Reith, held a tight grip on the broadcaster,
guiding it with his own strong moral code.
But he knew that dance music
would play a part in the future of the service
and it was soon included in the programme of entertainment.
Right across the West End, the BBC were setting up their microphones
and warning the patrons there's going to be some noise.
And, of course, there was some complaints,
but all over Britain,
millions of people listening on the wireless had no complaints at all.
In the heart of the West End,
the cream of the British dance bands played this area -
Piccadilly, Leicester Square, the Strand, Regent Street.
This is where you came if you wanted to go out,
a night out dancing to the top bands.
But when wireless came on in the late 1920s,
the bands broadcast nationally
and they became famous throughout the nation,
and the band leaders became stars.
They were the pop stars of the day, driving around in Rolls-Royces.
It's extraordinary to imagine the impact of these bands
and the boldness of the mighty BBC in saying,
"We're going to have bands on every night of the week, except Sunday."
Sir John Reith wouldn't have dance bands on Sunday.
Sir John Reith didn't like dance bands at all,
but he recognised from his entertainment producers
that this was the sound of the day.
You would change your meal times to sit down and listen to the wireless.
You'd switch the wireless on
and you'd wait for quite some time for it to warm up.
It took time for the valves to heat up
and for the sound to come through to listen to the magic of the music.
Sunday Night at 10 with me, Clare Teal.
And tonight we celebrate the Big 18 Studio Band
and the bands that inspired them, such as...
Today, there's still an audience for dance band music on the BBC,
fronted by jazz singer Clare Teal.
We can't even begin to think how massive the radio would have been.
Suddenly, to be able to listen to music every day on the radio,
it suddenly made it accessible to everyone, rich or poor.
And I think that's the great thing about music - it's a real leveller.
This was the first time that these guys became like music gods,
because so many people could see them.
They could see them in magazines and they could hear them on the radio
and they could go out and buy their records.
But nobody cared about the singers, or really about the bands early on,
it was all about the band leaders, and they were the kings.
But, of course, in order to have a big band work,
it's all about the arrangements, it's all about the players,
it's all about the singers, it's about the tempo.
Well, you know you can't dance to things that are in the wrong tempo.
But, no, a magical time.
Yeah, and they had such style, didn't they? The band leaders in their...
Yeah, their tails...
A lot of them, people like Roy Fox who wore his, you know, white tails.
And you look at the photos and Jack Hylton always had his boys
dressed beautifully in Savile Row suits and many different outfits.
Some of the band leaders would make their guys pay for their own suits.
They'd have to buy a new suit every year, which is a bit harsh, I think.
But, yeah, white Rolls Royces crop up a lot.
And obviously this music just went crazy.
One of my favourite songs that Jack Hylton did
is a kind of novelty number called Me And Jane In A Plane.
I know the song...
# Me and Jane in a plane Flying over the clouds... #
-And in 1927, the boys were up at Blackpool Tower
and as a publicity stunt, they flew a plane over Blackpool
and threw sheet music of the song
over to the bewildered holiday-makers below.
-You wouldn't be allowed to do that these days.
-Probably not, yeah.
# Me and Jane in a plane
# Soaring up to the clouds
# Me and Jane in a plane
# Far away from the crowds
# In my two seater What could be sweeter?
# I'll have St Peter step inside and bless the bride... #
It's just a short hop from Blackpool to Lancaster University.
This is Jack Hylton Junior,
the son of perhaps Britain's most successful dance band leader.
The university is home to an enormous archive
of his father's papers, photos and music.
I think it is remarkable.
It is a unique record of the popular music of its period.
Hylton sold 3.2 million records in 1929,
he managed, over his life, to entertain so many people.
Pete Faint is a professional musician
who studied Jack Hylton's work at Lancaster
and he was astonished at the depth of the university's collection.
What we've got here
is an extraordinarily vast archive of music.
So each of these folders contains
individually hand-written parts for the entire band.
There's something in the region of 4,000 sets of parts,
so tens of thousands of hand-written pieces of music.
You can listen to the record,
but to understand the process of orchestration, you know,
this is the most valuable resource.
For 19 years,
he was probably consistently the biggest attraction in this country.
And in Europe.
And, eventually, pretty big in America, too.
At one stage, Jack Hylton was shifting seven records a minute.
And with the fortune, came the fame.
Now, Jack, your dad...what I can't believe is how popular they were
and what megastars these band leaders become.
Oh, yes, if you walked outside the house and somebody spotted you...
You didn't get mobbed in those days,
but what was amazing was everybody knew your face,
even though you were on the radio or only in concert halls.
I mean they were, if you like, the Beatles or the Stones of their day.
# She was a good girl and I can never understand
# Why did she fall for the leader of the band? #
Jack Hylton was certainly a busy man with recording sessions
and a touring schedule that would make your eyes water.
1929 was the famous year.
They did over 700 concerts,
travelled 63,000 miles
and sold 3.2 million records.
And what sort of money was your dad on?
In 1931, the Empire Ballroom, Leicester Square,
offered £40,000 a week to employ the band.
£40,000 a week?
And that was turned down.
So they offered Jack Hylton himself
£10,000 a week to come in three nights and conduct their house band.
And I guess this was when the average wage was £3 or £4 a week?
When £10,000 was a lot of money.
# We're in the money
# Come on, my honey
# Let's spend it, lend it, send it rolling along... #
Jack was a clever businessman as well as a brilliant showman.
And when this Lancashire lad had money, he knew what to do with it.
He earned plenty of money, but he spent plenty of money as well.
-You know, he enjoyed himself.
-Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
But he said to me, "I may not leave you much,
"but you really will enjoy getting rid of it with me."
As their fortunes grew, the band leaders indulged expensive tastes.
Billy Cotton had a passion for fast cars.
Others preferred fast animals.
'You all know Roy Fox as one of the most popular and best-known
'dance band leaders on the air.
'Well, here he is and, sad to relate, he's gone to the dogs.'
And when they toured the Continent, some preferred the casinos.
Now, Ambrose was a great gambler.
In Biarritz, he lost £28,000 in one night.
And we're talking about the '30s.
And they didn't have enough money to pay the band,
so the singer had to come back to London,
to get some money to pay the band.
While the bands made and lost a mint, over at the BBC,
there was nervousness about their money-making techniques.
And it gave Auntie the heebie-jeebies.
# I'm going to sit write down and write myself a letter... #
Right, well, here we are, Len,
welcome to the BBC's Written Archives Centre.
# I'm going to write words oh, so sweet
# They're going to knock me off my feet... #
I can't believe how huge it is.
-It's surprising, isn't it?
-Yeah, I know. That's right.
-You've got written correspondence about dance bands?
-We have, yes.
We've got dance band material going back to the '20s
and throughout the whole dance band era,
showing how the BBC responded
to the desire to have dance band music put on the radio.
It's amazing that every paper has been kept.
It's like the British Library.
It's a bit like that, isn't it?
Well, here's a file on dance music and dance bands, going back to 1926.
And it contains certain of the department's policy documents
-on such things as song plugging. That was a big...
Yes, from 1929.
"In order to eliminate this practice as far as possible,
"the following arrangements will come into force.
"The announcer's microphone is to be removed from each dance band
"and only the balance microphone used."
So, in other words, the poor old band leader couldn't plug anything.
He couldn't say, "Well, here we go
"with my latest record, ladies and gentlemen. Blah, blah, blah."
No, he was effectively gagged.
The BBC were incredibly strict
and they were very aware of their role in the promotion of dance music
and I think it terrified them.
# When you gotta sing You gotta sing... #
There had always been song plugging
and once radio began, the record companies realised that,
if Ambrose played the latest song
in his hour-and-a-half on Saturday night on the BBC,
people would then rush out and buy that record, in their droves.
So song announcements were not allowed any more
and they instructed singers
not to sing the title of the song in the chorus,
so it was very difficult to know what the song was called
and therefore very difficult to go to the record shop the next day
and say, "Can I buy this song, please?"
And predictably - uproar.
People across the country were completely furious
and a few months later, the BBC just had to retract.
The BBC was prepared to stop at nothing to prevent song plugging.
In 1929, they even banned singing.
This way, no-one would get a plug and the instrumental music
could be enjoyed by those who simply wanted to dance.
"On no account will singing be allowed during the broadcast.
"This quite definitely affects adversely the broadcast."
So, it was just pure music, there was no singing.
Yes, I think the idea was people used to roll up their carpets
and dance to the radio. That's what it was all about.
And the popularity of the records,
or the music as it was published, were very much secondary.
How different to nowadays, because it's all about the vocals.
And in those days, it was all about the band and the music.
# Roll up the carpet
# Push back the chairs
# Get some music on the radio... #
The BBC's attempt to stifle singing was short lived,
which was music to the ears
of those working hard in recording studios across the land.
78s were made in their millions
and the record industry boomed.
# Boom! Why did my heart go boom... #
The sound of the dance bands was everywhere.
For £6 10 shillings, you could buy a gramophone,
or even hire one from shops on the high street,
and the home entertainment industry took off.
There was also changes in recording techniques
which meant the bands sounded better than ever.
'We will just take a peep into the recording studio
'where Jack Hylton and his band are rehearsing.'
In the mid-'20s, new electrical microphones gave a much clearer sound
but recording still required an inventive approach.
If you look at some of those photographs
of early studio recordings, it looks very odd to us.
Everybody's crammed in together to get the sound concentrated
so the microphone can pick them up.
You don't set them out like you would a normal orchestra,
widely spaced from each other.
There would be one or, at the most, two microphones.
And what the engineers were doing - which was very subtle -
was placing all these musicians in relation to the main microphone.
# I get blue when I hear the wheels of the choo choo... #
Everything else would be relationships to the microphone.
Which sometimes involved sending the trumpets out onto the fire escape.
In some of the studios, they even ended up
having a small platform on wheels with ropes attached to it
where some of the studio workers
could pull sections of the orchestra away to alter the balance
and then push them back when it was their solo.
And, of course, one take only.
You couldn't go back and cut it together as you could now.
There'd be no remixing. There's no role for a producer here.
You know, this is it, it's live.
But once they'd got it, there it was.
It's being carved out on the shellac as they do it.
And then that's the master and you distribute it. It's so simple.
And, again, the feeling you get from the records of this era
is that everyone involved in it is having a whale of a good time.
But the hottest tunes weren't coming from here.
They were coming from across the pond.
It was time for band leaders like Roy Fox to take centre stage.
They called him the Whispering Cornettist,
he was an American who'd made London his home.
And he was very much in demand.
The hotels and restaurants wanted Yanks in the band,
and British audiences wanted to see them.
With the growing influence of Duke Ellington
and the sounds of the Cotton Club,
it seemed that America was the real artistic powerhouse
and, before long, it was British musicians who were feeling the heat.
The Musicians Union here started arguing
that jobs were being taken away from British musicians
because so many American musicians were being used
as session musicians in recordings
and they started putting limits
on the number of American musicians who could play in Britain.
The American Musicians Union
basically created the same rule in the mid-'30s as well.
So that cross-fertilisation stopped happening.
Even without the direct American influence,
the British dance band scene continued to prosper.
Away from the mainstream,
a few bands were already heading in some surprising directions
and the British public were happy to follow.
Oi! Excuse me, I'm trying to find out
what people like in the way of entertainment.
Now, you must have your favourite. What is it - a jazz band?
No. I don't go much for jazz bands. I like something with a tune in it.
As Britain, in one sense, becomes isolationist in music,
in that you're relying more and more
on players who are within the United Kingdom,
they kind of reach out in the themes of the music.
You do get Hawaiian bands...
you get Gaucho tango bands.
Then you get a massive variety of different types of specialist bands.
Ukulele bands. Banjo bands.
Accordion bands. Primo Scala and his Accordion Band. Primo Scala.
Of course it sounds exotic. His name was Harry Bidgood.
'National Programme from London.
'Now you're going to hear the first performance
'of the new BBC Dance Orchestra directed by Henry Hall.'
# It's just the time for dancing
# Tomorrow is today... #
Over at the BBC,
the Corporation had its own take on what the British sound should be.
The in-house band was the BBC Dance Orchestra
and, by 1932, it was led by Henry Hall.
Bespectacled and mild mannered,
Hall had a background in the Salvation Army.
He might have been the BBC's chosen one,
but some rivals thought it all sounded a bit safe.
You're hearing the signature tune of the BBC Dance Orchestra.
The tune is called It's Just The Time For Dancing.
The critics may have been a bit sniffy, but the public loved it.
'And so to song. A light song, a bright song, the right song
'for that most entertaining of ether experts, Gerry Fitzgerald.'
And as Britain lapped up the dance band sound,
a new star began to emerge.
# So rare
# You're like the fragrance of flowers fair... #
Stepping out of the shadows was the vocalist,
with a new intimate style that became known as crooning.
# ..With the morning dew... #
But it was all made possible by another technical innovation -
Hello, control room. This is Transmission Studio No 3.
How's this for quality? One, two, three, four...
When broadcasting in this country started,
they used a microphone called a Peel-Conner,
which was designed to be built into a telephone.
Now, this is a Sterling microphone of a similar era.
-The quality when you speak into it
is particularly appalling.
It is not really any good for music.
And this is the sort of quality you would have heard...
during the first few years of broadcasting.
In fact, the quality you would have heard in the home
would have been worse than that
because the domestic receiver was also not of very good quality.
But by the 1930s, microphones were much more sensitive.
The singer no longer had to project to be heard
and, for some, stardom beckoned.
And the biggest star of all
was a musician whose swarthy good looks and velvet voice
made him the nation's favourite.
Al Bowlly was the closest the British ever got
to competing with American crooners like Bing Crosby.
Al had the golden tone that every band leader wanted.
And he soon became the poster boy for the dance band generation.
Bowlly started off playing banjo and guitar in the bands.
I mean, you didn't have a specific vocalist,
the vocalist would be somebody in the band
who was sort of brave enough to stand in front with a megaphone
and sort of belt out a verse.
'Listeners will remember
'Roy Fox's famous broadcasting band in the Monseigneur London,
'with Lew Stone and Al Bowlly, who played and sang.'
He's often called one of the first pop stars
because he was one of the first people
to actually have his name on the record.
Before that, it would just be, "With vocal refrain."
# Learn to croon
# You'll eliminate each rival soon... #
Bowlly was the first one to
actually have his name on there as a vocalist in his own right.
# Learn to croon... #
One of the things about Bowlly,
he definitely did have that, sort of, sex appeal.
When Al Bowlly started to sing,
it was Al Bowlly that they looked at, not the dance band leader.
Folks, Pathe have got me at last.
Now, where's my piano player?
Monia! Come on. Sit up. Go on, get playing.
# I don't need your photograph
# To keep by my bed... #
If you listen to Bowlly, he hardly ever hits a straight note, at all.
He always has that slight slide
so, even if it's the very thought of you,
it's sort of the very thought of yo-ou and you've got that very...
which makes it... It's like sort of satin sheets.
# ..The very thought of you
# And I forget to do
# The little ordinary things...
# That everyone ought to do
# I'm living in a kind of daydream
# And I'm happy as a king... #
I mean his voice, it's like dripping honey, it really is.
# Why to me, that's everything... #
And such a distinctive voice.
So it's very slidey, so very slidey
comes from just behind the teeth.
# ..You'll never know how slow the moments go
# Till I'm near to you...
# I see your face in every flower
# Your eyes in stars above
# It's just the thought of you
# The very thought of you my love. #
He's got a very, if I may say so, strange voice.
It was a very unique voice.
His father was Greek, his mother was Lebanese,
they met on the way to Australia,
he was brought up in South Africa, professed to be British,
but spoke with this sort of pseudo-American accent.
And it's not only his technique with the microphone,
but it's that sort of unique tone to the voice as well that just...
That's why he's my favourite.
-He's your favourite as well?
-Yes. He's my absolute favourite.
# Come to me, my melancholy baby
# Just cuddle up and don't be blue...
# All your fears are foolish fancy maybes
-# And you know, honey I'm in love with you...
-Can I have a go?
-Oh, please do.
# Come to me, my melancholy baby
# Cuddle up and don't be blue... #
-How was it?
Does it take you back? Did you think Bowlly's in the hall?
# Every cloud must have its silver lining... #
With any of the really successful crooners, it was about the subtlety.
Knowing that you had a microphone in front of you,
you weren't bellowing at people.
You had, for the first time, a sensitivity,
so people could approach lyrics and tell a story.
# Kiss away each tear... #
People used to say whenever Al sang,
you thought he was singing directly to you.
# Melancholy too... #
Thank you very much.
It seemed Britain was going crooning crazy, but not everyone liked it.
The BBC found the idea of crooning horrifying.
I think they probably thought it was a bit too sexy,
it was going to entice wrong feelings in their listeners.
So, throughout the mid-'30s, there are newspaper articles
asking what's the BBC going to do about crooning?
The press had an absolute field day.
You know, they love to stoke up these controversies
and this is the Daily Despatch and it says here,
"Please, Sir John, suppress this nightly wailing,"
and it goes on down here,
"Practically every radio critic throughout the country
"has expressed his personal abhorrence to crooning.
"What has been the effect on the BBC? Absolutely none."
# How could we be wrong...? #
Once again the BBC was having issues with vocalists.
As well as worries about crooning,
there were now complaints about hot new jazz sounds from black America.
The Director General, Sir John Reith, found his in-tray filling up.
"I've been having one or two complaints
"about hot jazz and crooning,
"have you not altered the policy about this in some way?"
One of his lieutenants wrote back that,
although he realised that crooning was very popular,
this is what he wrote...
"We are all to a degree in sympathy with what the Daily Dispatch says.
"But I do not think we need to take the criticisms too seriously."
But when it came to letting hot jazz loose on the airwaves,
music inspired by the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong,
well, that was simply going too far.
"I can assure you there is no sympathy
"with what I again term the negroid type of music."
I ask you!
Hot jazz was just too spicy for some at the BBC.
The Corporation felt the need for a broader approach.
They preferred the sound of Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra
and either straightforward, sentimental songs or novelty numbers.
# My kid's a crooner
# Though he's only two
# He sings Boo-boo-boo-boo... #
Hot jazz might have been off the menu,
but the BBC continued to get itself in a pickle over crooning.
By 1936, Auntie Beeb found herself
torn between the popularity of crooning
and the personal taste of some of those in charge.
# ..To stop my kid from crooning Boo-boo-boo-boo... #
This memo is fascinating.
It shows the battle that the BBC bosses had with crooners.
If you read this, you won't believe it.
It says, "I can see no reason why crooning,
"which is a particularly odious form of singing,
"should not be obliterated straightaway."
Basically, they thought that singing spoilt the tune
and they didn't want it in there. Incredible.
As I see it, all that was happening was that the singers were singing
with a directness and with a sensitivity
that they hadn't been allowed to before
because they'd been having to belt it out.
At Broadcasting House, the BBC decided
that strict quotas would sort out crooning once and for all.
The battle lines were drawn. It was war!
The BBC decided that they'd only have a song with vocals every third tune.
But the crafty band leaders,
they made those into a medley which went on and on.
# I'm gonna wash my hands of you... #
The BBC continued to try to restrict and regulate
the amount of vocal numbers.
The publishers and band leaders were appalled.
# ..And I'm gonna wash my hands, babe, of you... #
They demanded a swift about turn
and accused the BBC of trying to put them out of business.
Eventually, the BBC defused the row by running separate music programmes,
with and without vocals.
It sounds ridiculous,
but it was coming out of an atmosphere that radio
and the BBC as led by John Reith,
was really for edification, it wasn't for entertainment.
Dance music was held to be edifying and entertaining,
but the moment it became purely entertaining,
things needed to be done to clamp it down.
Away from the row with the BBC,
the dance band industry continued to grow.
The Melody Maker in 1930 estimated
that there were 12,500 to 20,000 dance bands in Britain alone,
made up partly of semi-pro
but many professional musicians in those bands.
So, yes, a big industry. A great appetite for dancing.
# Now you may think our job is fun
# To play sweet tunes when the day is done
# A dance band's life must be a happy lot... #
On any Saturday night, in Britain in the 1930s,
there'd be about 100,000 people playing in dance bands,
which is huge numbers.
# ..Every night I go to bed
# Music's going around my head
# I'm counting crotchets in my sleep
# One two three four One two three four... #
Obviously a small elite
would be full-time professional dance band musicians.
The vast majority, though, are semi-professionals -
people who have a full-time day job,
but play maybe on Saturdays or two or three other nights of the week.
Learnt to play a brass instrument in a brass band,
perhaps learnt to play in the Forces.
Excited by these new possibilities that they'd play in dance bands.
# ..Counting crotchets in my sleep. #
As the bands' profiles increased, they toured the country constantly.
And no-one did more miles than Jack Hylton.
Jack wasn't content with huge success in Britain.
The band leader took his boys across the Channel
and became famous in every corner of the Continent.
Just one look at Jack Hylton's passport
is enough to make you travel sick.
Let's just have a look. 1930.
So this is full, full of stamps from all over Europe.
And there's countless trips.
Sweden. Denmark. Holland. France. Germany. Italy.
Spain. Yes, huge.
Paris, Prague and Vienna all rocked to the Jack Hylton sound. In 1938,
Hylton's Band did a month's residency at the Scala Theatre in Berlin.
The Nazis never discovered that some of the musicians were Jewish.
To Hylton's surprise,
one night the audience included, unannounced, Goebbels and Goering.
Yeah, well, he came in
and there was a swastika hanging at the back of the stage
which he knew nothing about.
Everybody was marching around Berlin saying, "Heil Hitler!"
And every time they looked directly at any of the band members and said,
"Heil Hitler," they used to say, "Heil Hylton!"
# Sweetheart goodbye, Auf Wiedersehen,
# Auf Wiedersehen, my dear... #
The Germans may have loved the British sound,
but with the outbreak of war,
the dance band scene was about to change, for ever.
In an attempt to keep morale high,
musicians were recruited into the Central Band of the Royal Air Force.
Many stepped straight from classical orchestras,
others from big time West End bands.
Out of this came The Squadronaires - one of the best bands of the 1940s.
'No 1 Balloon Centre RAF, turn on a dance at their camp.
'Audience and orchestra is 100% Air Force.
'The band leader is Corporal George Beaumont,
'once well-known to London's Prince of Wales theatre-goers.
'Now meet the boys of the band.
'Paul Fenoulet was one of Carroll Gibbons' boys
'before he wore uniform.
'Rhythm merchant Jack Dobbs was in Oscar Rabin's outfit,
'now he's nursemaid to a barrage balloon.'
Inevitably, the Second World War really did for the dance bands.
A lot of the musicians were called up.
Little things like shellac that was used to make records
was also used to make armaments.
If it's a choice between armaments and records in 1940,
you're going to choose armaments.
# When that man is dead and gone
# When that man is dead and gone... #
As London took the full force of the Blitz, Britain's top crooner
lay in bed in his little flat here in Jermyn Street in central London.
The blast from a German bomb blew his bedroom door on top of him,
killing him instantly.
It was Al Bowlly. But in the chaos of war, few people noticed his passing.
He may have been crooning's shining light,
but Al Bowlly's final resting place was this mass grave
for victims of the Blitz at Hanwell Cemetery in West London.
In many ways though, it was a symbolic moment.
It was more than the death of Al Bowlly,
it was the beginning of the end for British dance band music.
Al, goodnight, sweetheart.
# The echo of a song you used to sing
# When hearts were young
# And everything
# Was one long summer's day... #
They had style, elegance, sophistication.
It was wonderful, wonderful music and it was British music.
It had a particular feel to it and we should cherish it and enjoy it
and it should be celebrated, I think.
The trouble is that people look at it through the lens of modern jazz
or swing music and think,
"Oh, it's just not very good jazz or not very good swing music."
But it's none of those things, it's brilliant in itself.
It's great music.
This bringing together of the whole nation,
to have an interest in this music, hadn't happened before
and I don't think it's happened since in the same way.
People talk about the Golden Age of the British dance bands, but it was.
It was exactly that.
It's very easy to just see it as old people's music, nostalgia.
Actually, if we think of it as a continuum, I think it really laid
the blueprint for everything that happened in mid-20th century pop.
That idea of taking what black musicians were doing,
what African-American musicians were doing - that started in the '20s.
You know, the roots of that are in the dance bands.
And that's what the Rolling Stones did.
Absolutely. Absolutely. It's what Bill Haley and Elvis did.
The dust of the war finally settled on a new world order.
Things had moved on
and a new generation wanted to listen to something different.
The bands struggled on, but it was never the same again.
# Tonight I mustn't think of her
# No more memories
# Swing out
# Tonight I must forget
# Music, maestro, please. #
If you think modern pop music began in the '50s, well, think again.
It came from the '20s and '30s, from those fantastic characters -
Bert Ambrose, Al Bowlly.
They were the foundation of the pop music scene that we have today.
Our love affair with British dance bands was short, but oh so sweet.
The music and the dance were a match made in heaven.
And I understand why my parents found it so appealing.
It was a golden era.
It was a time when Britain found its dancing shoes
and British musicians found their musical feet.
I just wish I'd have been there.
# Swing out
# Tonight I must forget
# Music, maestro, please. #
Len Goodman takes a step back in time to the heyday of British dance bands, a golden age of music that laid the foundations for 20th-century pop. In the years between the wars, band leaders such as Bert Ambrose and Jack Hylton were household names and the country danced its socks off. It was a time of radio and records, when Britain absorbed black American music and gave it a unique twist. Many of the bands played in the posh society hotels of London's West End. Some were making big money and enjoying the high life. They were also keen to broadcast to the nation via the new BBC. Len discovers that 'Auntie' had a tricky relationship with the bands - though they formed a key part of the corporation's entertainment output, during the 1920s and 1930s there were concerns about the influence of American culture, song-plugging and commercialisation.
Crooning was also developed as a new style of singing, thanks in part to the development of better microphones. But this new 'intimate' form of singing did not impress everyone at the corporation. Despite the BBC's concerns the vocalists continued to enjoy huge success and fame, as did the bands. Len follows the story of vocalist Al Bowlly, a man of huge talent who attracted great public adoration. Al was killed in London's blitz and buried in a mass grave - a sad and symbolic moment in the history of dance bands. Len discovers how we went dance band crazy and asks why, within just two decades, our love affair with this music began to fall flat.