Discussions with Dave Burns, grandson of Dan Donovan

this page first published by John Wright, 9 July 2001
last update 9 July 2012vintage@r2ok.co.uk

The british-dance-bands yahoo group is priveleged to be joined by Dave Burns who has given us a fascinating insight into the life of his grandfather Dan Donovan, British dance band vocalist of the 1930's.

Our e-mail conversations during Feb-Mar 2000 are compiled together below:

DAVE BURNS: Dan Donovan was my maternal grandfather. It's very nice to see that Dan's recordings are still enjoyed, he'd be really pleased. I guess you must have a copy of Music Hath Charms on video where Dan sings a few of the numbers and is on camera for the bulk of one of them.

PETER WALLACE: Yes, Dan Donovan is one of my favourite singers and it's a great shame that he is rather neglected these days. I do have a copy of Music Hath Charms, and Dan's voice is featured very well. A good reliable vocalist with a fine voice. Have you any memories of your grandfather that you can share with us?

DAVE BURNS: There are plenty of memories of Dan with us Peter, he lived with us virtually until he died and was always like a father to me. He would talk about his days with Henry Hall and others but Dan was quite an unassuming man and I think we were quite grown up before we realised that Dan had been as well known as he was. I think in Dan's eyes singing was just how he made his living and he made no more of it than that.

PETER WALLACE: Did he ever talk about his dance band days with you?

DAVE BURNS: If you asked him Dan would talk about various characters he had met or was still in contact with, the tours he did, the recording methods, that sort of thing. He was very friendly with Burt Gillis and Kitty Masters and corresponded with the latter until he died. He talked about Flanagan and Allen and obviously had a very good relationship with both. I remember seeing a smashing letter from Mr Flanagan congratulating Dan on the birth of my Mother! and it was clear that they were good buddies.

PETER WALLACE: Did Dan have any favourite recordings?

DAVE BURNS: Assuming you mean favourite recordings of his own work I remember him being pleased with his rendition of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Easter Parade, I know they are standards anyway but he was particularly pleased with them. As a youngster I always loved The Broken Record and used to get him to sing that to me. It must be said that Dan could still sing until the end, he could always sing beautifully if asked to. Stars Over Devon is one of my favourites of his now.

PETER WALLACE: What happened to Dan during and after the war? Did he retire from the music business?

DAVE BURNS: When the war was in full swing my Mother was a very small child and having lost one child I believe Dan and his wife Becky decided to come back to Wales to be away from everything going on in London. Initially he became a licensee and stayed in Cardiff, his hometown. He didn't really retire from the music business for quite a few years after the war. During the late forties and early fifties he made a number of broadcasts and continued to play concerts here. He had his own show on Radio Wales called "When Day Is Done" which was broadcast weekly, he was also a regular in a variety show, also produced by Radio Wales, called "Welsh Rarebit" which ran for quite a while I believe.
He also spent a number of years organising concerts and shows for the main theatre here in Cardiff, I suppose realistically Dan gradually drifted away from show business in the sixties.
I can remember one morning in the seventies when Dan had been asked by Radio Wales to go in to the studio and sing live for them for a particular broadcast, remembering that he was well in to his seventies then he wasn't one hundred per cent sure whether he should do it or not, anyway he did and we gathered around the radio, crossing everything imaginable, to listen to him. He did a grand job and it was a real thrill to hear him at that age still able to deliver a song so beautifully.
Hope that goes some way to answering your questions Peter, anything else you might want to know?

PETER WALLACE: Talking about Dan's recordings with Henry Hall, I have many favourites. "Hands Across The Table" is a particular favourite and the it's a top class arrangement and performance by the BBC Dance Orchestra too. "The Glory Of Love" is another special favourite. I have never heard a bad performance by Dan and so if I had to list my favourites, the list would be lengthy indeed.
One recording which really intrigues me is Dan's rendition of "Moon Over Miami". Several other bands recorded it but it's Dan's pronunciation of Miami which is of note. Whilst other vocalists sang the name Miami in the English way, Dan used the Spanish pronunciation singing "Me-ami" instead of the English "My-ami".

DAVE BURNS: I haven't heard "The Glory Of Love" so there's a track already that I'll have to look out for. I don't know why Dan would choose to pronounce Miami as he did, although funnily enough one of my Mum's most vivid memories of her childhood is of her Mum, Becky, playing the piano at home and Dan going over his lyrics.Apparently her Mum would spend hours with Dan going over his pronunciation and phrasing so perhaps her input is evident there.I'll mention it to my Mother.

PETER WALLACE: What you say about Dan's modesty is something I had already heard. It was suggested to me that had Dan promoted himself more he could have been a much bigger star in his own right. In any case he was Henry Hall's principal singer from September 1934 till the Spring of 1937 and was one of the best known voices on radio - no mean achievement. And of course was with Debroy Somers for many years as well.
I'm pleased to know that Dan kept interested in singing for so long. What was his own taste in music? His likes and dislikes?

DAVE BURNS: Dan always liked the popular vocalists, he was pretty keen on Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Al Jolson, he never really took to the rock music of the seventies and would moan about the way the singers sang when watching Top of the Pops with us.If the singer had clear diction then Dan was happy. He also used to say that when he was recording of course everyone played together, in the same room at the same time, and that in more recent years with studio techniques as they became anyone could be made to sound good - he was right too! He never really rated Sinatra funnily enough (I do!) and Dan couldn't really see why he was so popular.

BARRY McCANNA: Dave, I hadn't realised, until I looked in the discographies, that as well as being a singer your grandfather also played baritone saxophone, and is so credited on one of my Henry Hall LPs.

DAVE BURNS: Dan played sax on quite a few of the songs over the years I believe, certainly during the broadcasts.That part of the family were pretty musical really, Dan's brother Jim played the violin and Becky, Dan's wife had her own all girl band, she was the pianist. Dan couldn't actually read music, Becky could.
If anyone has a comprehensive list of recordings they have of Dan, either with Henry Hall or Debroy Somers I'd love to hear from them!

BARRY McCANNA: The place to look for lists of Dan Donovan recordings is British Dance Bands on Record 1911 to 1945 by Brian Rust/Sandu Forbes. There are a large number of entries for Dan, including a recording session in March 1938 fronting his own band (shown as at the Lansdowne Restaurant). The four sides recorded came out on two 78s, HMV BD-5352 and BD-5372. One was reissued as part of a World Record Club box set.

DAVE BURNS: Do you have the publisher details, date etc ?

All the details (ISBN etc) of the Rust/Forbes dance band discography book are on the book page of my website. Amazon have had copies in the past but it's very rare now. Your best bet is to borrow a copy via your local city library on inter-library loan, only costs about 1.50.

BARRY McCANNA: I'm posting details of Dan Donovan's recording career so that Dave knows what to look for and even if he doesn't find everything, at least he has a "record" of his grandfather's achievements. I need to keep the information to a manageable scale otherwise it will never get done :-)), but if Dave wants any supplementary info I know somebody out there will supply it.

DAVE BURNS: Barry, thanks for that, any other information you have I'd be glad to receive. You'll be interested to know that there was an article in the Cardiff evening paper 14/03/00 about Dan Donovan. Basically it was very nice and was saying that while making Bassey a Dame, and Tom Jones getting a Brit award this week the author was calling for some recognition of Dan as an entertainer of as high a stature but of a bygone time. The author pointed out that it is Dan's centenary next year and suggested marking the wall of the house where Dan was born, I assume he means one of those blue circle things. I'm going to write to the guy to thank him for his interest but if you have the urge to drop him a line agreeing with him - that would be nice!!

PETER WALLACE: If you can find out who we should write to in order to press for a blue plaque or whatever, let me know.

DAVE BURNS: The article was published in the South Wales Echo 14/3/00, author was Dan O'Neill. The article doesn't really tell you much about Dan's career, but I thought you might be interested in it.

"Let me take you by the hand, and lead you through the streets of Grangetown, to North Clive Street, where, almost a century ago, was born a babe. Well, according to local lore, when this infant bawled he did so in perfect pitch, hitting the high notes like Charlotte Church, especially when teething. Naturally, he joined the choir of St Patricks Church and a musical society, as well, piping away in The Pirates of Penzance, melodious in the Mikado, tunefully trilling in Trial By Jury and 'Inevitable voice from the back of hall': "Alliteration is the last refuge of the illiterate".
Anyway, the babe, when grown to manhood, put together a band. He broadcast from Cox's Cafe in Queen Street and the name Dan Donovan became, as they say, one to conjure with in musical circles. In no time at all he was a star, singing with the big-bands - in the twenties and thirties that was where the action was - and pulling down fifty quid a week with the biggest band of all - Henry Hall's. This was at a time when a large gin and tonic cost 10d and you could get a big new car for 150.00. A decent weeks wage was maybe 2.50.
Dan made around 8000 broadcasts and hundreds of records and when he went solo raked in 300 a week, a fortune then.
I remembered this while watching Tom Jones, and thought why don't we honour Dan Donovan next year, to celebrate his centenary? Perhaps a plaque on the Grangetown wall? To show he's not forgotten, Why not? Ivor got one."

(end of extract)

PETER WALLACE: I would be happy to put in my bit to support a blue plaque. I'm sure some other members would do the same. Of course Dan is probably not as well known as a solo artist as he was as a band singer, but his contribution was considerable. Whenever the BBC recalls the early days of broadcasting, Henry Hall's "Radio Times" gets an airing - Dan singing of course!!!
Dave, do you know anything about Dan's bandleading career? He directed a band at least for a short period in 1938 and cut four sides. Dan used "Danny Boy" as his signature tune, according to Chris Hayes' fine publication on signature tunes, and recorded it with his Lansdowne Restaurant Orchestra under the title "'Tis I Myself". Did Dan mention this song to you, Dave? Why would a Welshman choose such an Irish song as his theme song? According to Chris, who knew Dan and his brother Jim well, Dan took up residence at the Lansdowne Restaurant (opposite Brian Lawrance's Orchestra??) in January 1938 and stayed for a year.

DAVE BURNS: Possibly a question I'll mention to my Mother to get the best answer, I always thought Dan used "When Day Is Done" but I must be wrong! There was quite a lot of Irish blood in Dan's family so that could be the reason. I know that Dan sang with a bit of an Irish lilt on times, which was intentional, although his speaking accent was pretty non- descript, certainly not particularly Welsh and definitely not Irish! Perhaps it was just the obvious connection with his name. One New Years Eve, probably late sixties, Dan was at a big family party and brought the whole thing to an emotional end when asked to sing "Danny Boy", it was the ultimate version (according to his daughter!).

PETER WALLACE: Of the four recordings Dan made as a bandleader one title She's The Daughter Of The Old Grey Mare was reissued on the World Records box set of British Dance Bands back in the seventies.

DAVE BURNS: "She's The Daughter Of The Old Grey Mare" appears on another album too, I can't recall the details now. I've got the recording and I don't own any box sets which include Dan so it must have been re-issued on another album too.
After the query about signature tunes I spoke to my Mum and she agreed that certainly in latter years Dan's signature tune would have been "When Day Is Done", and possibly much, much earlier in his career "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling", but not "Danny Boy", I don't want to be correcting experts or anything but I think my Mum would know!!

PETER WALLACE: Well, Chris Hayes, the writer of Signature Tunes was a Melody Maker journalist in the 1930s, and for another 3 or 4 decades after, and his source for "Danny Boy" seems to have been Dan's brother Jim. Possibly Dan only used it during his short period as a bandleader. I don't know how old your mother would have been in the late 1930s (don't tell!) but maybe she was rather too young to have had much contact with her father's career?

DAVE BURNS: Well yes, Uncle Jim would have known as he was there, possibly he was talking about a specific period in Dan's career as you say. Mum would have been more than "just a twinkle" in Dan's eye (but not much) at the end of the 30s and wouldn't have the same knowledge as Jim for sure. I know "When Day Is Done" was from broadcasts that he made after leaving Henry Hall but my knowledge of Dan's work isn't what it should be, anything I can find out from you kind people here is all being filed away and I am very grateful for!! I'm enjoying the list by the way, even though a lot of the names mentioned are new to me.

JOHN WRIGHT: Dave, I am fortunate to have the Memory Lane magazine No 55 from 1982 in which Chris Hayes wrote an article about Dan Donovan who he had just met again for the first time since about 1941. You may have seen this article, if not we can get a copy to you easily. I'd like to pick up on something that is mentioned, maybe you know about.
Dan had talked about his number one fan, a lady named Peggy Fenn, who corresponded with him very regularly and maintained a very full scrap book of articles, cuttings etc. At some point she sent this scrapbook to Dan and he certainly still had it in 1981/1982. It had a green embroidery cover with Dan's name in red. Dave, did you ever see this scrapbook and does the family still have it? It sounds like it would have contained a lot of information that you are seeking.

DAVE BURNS: I know the scrapbook you mean. My Mum has it, it's pretty full of press cuttings and photographs, but there isn't really the sort of information I'm picking up from the odd mail from this group.

JOHN WRIGHT: My website's film database lists several films from the 1930's that Dan Donovan appeared in. We've already talked about 'Music Hath Charms' and to save you ploughing through my website the other films are The Voice Of Britain (1935), Let's Make A Night Of It (1937), Music Hall (1934), Music Hall Parade (1939).
The films feature many songs but we don't know which songs are sung by Dan, in fact I can't confirm right now if any of the films still exist, they might do but not in a restored state. You can make enquiries at the British Film Institute. If they have any of the films they might not make copies for you but you can go and watch them there in private for a small fee.

reproduced from the files of the British dance bands yahoogroup with the permission of Peter Wallace

File uploaded at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/british-dance-bands/ by John Wright 20/3/00.

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