Henry Hall, bandleader from 1920's - 1950's (b. 2 May 1898, d. 28 Oct 1989)
this page first published by John Wright, 20 Sept 2002
last updated 27 September email@example.com
Henry Hall is now recognised as one of the important figures during the dance band era in Britain from the 1920's to 1950's. After years of being ignored by record collectors Henry Hall's recordings with his BBC Dance Orchestra are now being recognised for the quality that they are, and Henry's work on radio and TV shows is also now being recognised as visionary. Thankfully Henry wrote his autobiography in 1955 giving us many details and great insight into how his career developed and how he reacted to events and changing musical tastes during those decades. A band that had to broadcast at 5.00pm had to cater for everyone and the reputation as a novlety band playing children's songs did stick with Henry and his BBC Orchestra, and this wasn't helped by having a signature song like Here's To the Next Time. Today, with several CD re-issues available, collectors have had the opportunity to listen to a broad range of Henry's work with the BBC, and come to appreciate the talent of the numerous music arrangers and excellent vocalists employed during those short 5 years, 1932-37.
As a child Henry Hall was encouraged to play the trumpet and also received piano lessons. He played in Salvation Army bands and such was his musical ability he also wrote marches for the Salvation Army. In December 1916 he was recruited into the Royal Field Artillery and was fortunate to see many music hall acts during a stay in Brighton. He took up playing a barrack-room instrument, the concertina, but it was only when he was arrested for playing piano in the officers' mess (when he should not) that his musical abilities were noticed. This was one of those fortunate little incidents in Henry's life which had major effects, for the grilling by the Captain led to a transfer to the Cadet School where Henry could play piano to his heart's content, play in the band and write arrangements for revues.
After WWI Henry Hall sought out a career in music and performed playing concertina, trumpet and piano in London and Salisbury until April 1920. He formed the Variety Three (with two violin players) and toured the North, meeting George Black for the first time, but by the end of the year the act was abandoned. Cinema piano jobs followed but Henry wanted something much more satisfying. Not afraid of hard work Henry improved his piano playing by taking lessons at the Guildhall School Of Music.
In December 1922 Henry heard that a dance band in Manchester needed a relief pianist. He took the job, never having played in a dance band! Very soon another one of those little fortunate events secured Henry's future. The band was supporting a dance show on New Year's Eve, with Arthur Towle, Managing Director, in the audience. The dancer needed to change dress between numbers and it was just realised that there was going to be an embarrassing minute of silence.... Henry sitting at the piano heard a whispered 'Play something - quick!'. His recent lessons at the Guild Hall of Music flashed before him and he launched into Chopin's 'Butterfly' study, the lights turned on to the young pianist, he stole the show. Mr Towle was heard to say something to the effect of 'Keep that boy!'.
Henry was soon established as the permanent pianist, quickly gained an understanding of the popular dance rhythms and was soon leader of the Trafford Band at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, one of the LMS Railways chain of hotels. He also led the 'straight' Winter Garden Orchestra. As band leader Henry continued to play piano in the six-piece Trafford Band. During a trip to Devon young Henry met and got engaged to Margery in the space of 4 days, and they married in January 1924.
At this time the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland was being built and Henry was involved in buying the pianos for the new hotel and planning for the dance band entertainment. Meanwhile Henry was appointed Musical Director at the Adelphi, Liverpool, and Arthur Towle became controller of LMS Hotels. Then came one of Henry's real brainwaves, he thought that radio broadcasts would be a good way to advertise the Gleneagles Hotel so he was given permission to augment the Trafford Band, move it to Gleneagles, and form a new band for the Midland in Manchester.
The Gleneagles opening night and the first outside broadcast ever in Scotland took place on June 4, 1924. With only one microphone the broadcast must have sounded very primitive but the management were delighted and more broadcasts followed.
After the season ended the the seven man Gleneagles band moved to the Adelphi, Liverpool, and it was here that Henry was approached by the Columbia record company. After an aborted session at the Adelphi satisfactory takes were eventually cut at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, in November 1924 leading to:
Columbia 3558 Any Old Time / The Kilties Courtship
A further session in January 1925 meant that they had a further six satisfactory titles to issue:
Columbia 3586 Dear One / Adoring You
Columbia 3587 Mad ('Cause You Treat Me This Way) /
It's A Man Every Time, It's A Man
Columbia 3588 Georgia Lullaby / My Best Girl
All the records were issued as Gleneagles Hotel Dance Band. Leslie Holmes, who had sung on two of the records, was also the drummer.
Summer 1925 saw the band return to Gleneagles and resume broadcasting. Records were issued in summer 1925 and summer 1926 and, still made at Manchester, were credited as Gleneagles Hotel Dance Band under the direction of Henry R. Hall. For winter seasons the band returned to the Adelphi, Liverpool, and Sunday concerts began at the Winter Gardens, Manchester.
At this time Henry began to publish compositions including A Musical Comedy Switch and Come Ye Back To Bonnie Scotland. By 1929 the Gleneagles band consisted of piano (Henry Reed), drums (A Haydock), string bass (Theo farrar), and three saxes (Burton Gillis, Eddie Cromar, Cyril Wookey).
By 1931 Henry was running 32 bands in the LMS organisation and he was now making records for the new Decca label. Recorded at the Trafford Restaurant, Midland Hotel, the first Decca records were:
Decca F2248 Cobblestones / Like You
Decca F2257 Half-Caste Woman / It's A Great Life If You Don't Weaken
featuring Bobby Sanders vocals on the first three listed, and now it was Henry Hall and his Gleneagles Dance Band. Listen to the closing bars of Cobblestones.
Several more records followed, then in May 1931 Henry took some of the band to London and with other musicians recorded a 12" 78 of A Musical Comedy Switch at the Conway Hall. That same month Ray Noble, with the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra at the HMV studios, also recorded Henry's A Musical Comedy Switch (HMV B.3875).
In the first week of 1932 Henry Hall received a telegram asking him to meet Gerald Cock at the BBC Savoy Hill on January 9th. At this meeting Henry was invited to lead a new BBC Dance Orchestra when Jack Payne left, the new appointment. Henry accepted, a contract was signed that evening, and Arthur Towle was informed. It has never been fully explained who first suggested Henry Hall for the BBC job, and the appointment received a mixed response as many better known bandleaders had seemingly been over-looked. Many critics did not expect much from the relatively unknown Henry Hall.
Henry completed his Decca recording contract in January, Orlando took over the LMS bands. When he had finished his business in Manchester Henry arrived back in London on February 1st, with six weeks to prepare for his first broadcast which would coincide with the official opening of the new Broadcasting House in Portland Place.
The New BBC Dance Orchestra had thirteen players, including Cyril Stapleton, Joe Hitchenor, Phil Green, Burton Gillis, Eddie Cromar and, an unusual feature, an oboe player, Richard Matthews (just 16 years old!). Henry's band made it's first broadcast (from the new unfinished Broadcasting House, studio 8A) on 15 March 1932 at 8.00-8.30pm, and it received a mixed response from listeners. There had been a big publicity build-up to the broadcast and the band were hard put to live up to the expectations, especially the fact that they were following the very popular show band that Jack Payne had created. Knowledge of Henry's Salvation Army background didn't help the opinion of some critics.
Henry's band was new, inexperienced in broadcasting and needed time to develop. Among the changes made, the band went to Savoy Hill for subsequent broadcasts but within two months they were back at Broadcasting House and eventually were able to settle down in studio 3A. For the music Henry experimented with arrangers including Tony Lowry, Douglas Brownsmith and the American Van Phillips. Features were introduced into broadcasts including a Children's Spot with songs like Rusty and Dusty, and Teddy Bears' Picnic. Vocalists featured included Val Rosing. Here he is singing in his gentle vibrato style Help Yourself To Happiness. Val Rosing also sang Here's To The Next Time, written by Henry, which became the band's signature tune; I'm not sure Henry revealed so at the time but the tune was one of his Salvation Army marches, Sunshine March. If any of the press knew that I expect they really tore into Henry over it. After a period of five weeks Henry Hall decided to make more changes for the Winter 1932 broadcasts and introduced vocalists Les Allen, Phyllis Robins, and drummer Len Bermon began to sing novelty numbers. Here is Les Allen singing in his very charming manner Ah! But Is It Love?
You can hear several Henry Hall BBC DO recordings from this early period on my podcasts, check the playlists at http://www.r2ok.co.uk/playlists.htm
The BBC Dance Orchestra appeared at the Radio Exhibition, Olympia, in 1933 - much to Henry Hall's surprise the public were delighted to actually see the band! Here is a song from late 1933, sung by the lovely Phyllis Robins, I'm Hitching My Wagon To You.
Henry made his first US trip, in September 1933, to learn as much as he could about how US bands performed and presented themselves. He met Ben Bernie, Vincent Lopez, Buddy Rogers, Wayne King, Glen Gray and also Rudy Vallee, Fred Waring, Irving Mills, George Gershwin and Max Dreyfus. Of course the Americans had not heard of Henry Hall, but when he was introduced as leader of the BBC Dance Orchestra they took notice and all came to recognise him as a man of talent and vision.
Returning to England, Henry was full of ideas but rather than copy anything he had seen in US he worked on creating innovations of his own. Fred Astaire was currently appearing in London's West End and Henry had another brainwave - he invited Fred Astaire to sing during a broadcast. With composer Cole Porter looking on Fred sang Night And Day with the BBC Dance Orchestra. This broadcast received a very favourable response. Next came the idea to broadcast a 'C.B.Cochran presents' programme featuring Mr Cochran and some of the stars from his shows.
From this little idea was developed the concept of Guest Night the first of which was broadcast on 17 March 1934 featuring Flanagan & Allen, Elsie & Doris Waters, Anona Winn and June. The second Guest Night featured Ronald Frankau, Doris Hare, Leslie Sarony and Layton & Johnstone. Guest Night programmes became very popular. The Radio Times did not publish who would be on the show, it was always a surprise. The stars of Britain continued to appear including Florence Desmond, Tommy Handley, Stanley Holloway, Jack Buchanan, Jessie Matthews as well as international stars like Larry Adler, Tallulah Bankhead, Belle Baker, Mills Brothers and Richard Tauber. To maintain a regular good show Guest Night became fortnightly.
Henry Hall's immense talent, hard work and brilliant ideas led to more successes. On May 8th 1934 the band appeared at it's first Command Performance (Royal Family in the audience). The band played Savage Serenade, Lullaby Of Blue sung by Les Allen, and Sweethearts Of Yesterday. At this time Henry Hall was writing orchestral selections and published his greatest song success It's Time To Say Goodnight. The BBC Dance Orchestra recording featured a Ben Frankel arrangement and Les Allen vocals. The song also had a Ray Noble/Al Bowlly recording and became a favourite last dance tune.
From July 30th 1934 began the first music hall appearance, at the London Palladium, by the BBC Dance Orchestra. They appeared twice nightly for a week. That summer vocalist Kitty Masters had joined the band and gained great success with her recording of Little Man You've Had A Busy Day, which was to become the highlight of the band's second Palladium show.
While Henry Hall was on a second trip to US, during the Autumn of 1934, the BBC Dance Orchestra continued to broadcast, and was announced as 'the BBC Dance Orchestra directed by Henry Hall' even though he wasn't there. The press made a story out of it so on the first night back Henry Hall came on the air and said 'This IS Henry Hall speaking!'. He continued to do this for a few days and it stuck, and he continued to introduce himself this way for the rest of his career.
Soon after returning to England, Henry and the band were back at Radiolympia. A lacquer/metal disc exists from one of these Radiolympia performances, it captured the introductory medley and the tune Memphis By Morning. You can listen to clips from the Radiolympia 1934.
In 1934 the Radio Times circulation was close to 5 million, and to boost the magazine Henry Hall wrote the song Radio Times. A recording was made in October, sung by Dan Donovan, and the music was published as a supplement to the Christmas edition of the magazine. That Christmas the Radio Times did reach 5 million homes and the song was performed during broadcasts. Although the recording had been made it was withdrawn after complaints from the Newspaper Proprietors Association.
In 1935 Henry Hall achieved more, he became a film star! The film Music Hath Charms starred Henry Hall, Gertrude Lawrence,and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. There is a very interesting scene where Henry Hall is seen playing piano and is then joined by Burton Gillis on clarinet, then one by one the band join in and the scene ends with a rousing finale (but what was the music?).
By now Dan Donovan was the main vocalist in the band, and George Elrick was often used for novelty numbers. Early successes recorded by Dan Donovan include Hands Across the Table, I Get A Kick Out Of You, Chasing Shadows, Music Hath Charms, and at least one comedy item The Broken Record, while George Elrick entertained the public with The Music Goes 'Round And 'Round, There's A Song They Sing At A Sing Song In Sing Sing, I'm Nuts On Screwy Music and other fine recordings like Got A Brand New Suit and Life Begins When You're In Love.
In 1936 Henry Hall was asked by Cunard to conduct a band on the maiden voyage of The Queen Mary, due to sail on May 27th. As part of the publicity Henry wrote a special song for the trip Somewhere At Sea, and it was recorded on May 6th, sung by Dan Donovan. The band on the voyage was led by Eddie Carroll, conducted by Henry. Broadcasts were made from the ship and guests included Larry Adler and Frances Day, who sang Somewhere At Sea. See more images of the Queen Mary.
On August 4th 1936 a half-hour Guest Night programme featured the music of Johnny Mercer with Mercer himself singing his own compositions. A recording of the complete programme, also featuring Dan Donovan and others, still exists and was issued on CD. In fact recordings of several broadcasts exist, see Peter Wallace's listing of Henry Hall Broadcasts. In the same year the BBC Dance Orchestra were involved in the early Baird system TV recordings.
Come 1937, the fifth year of Henry Hall's BBC Dance Orchestra, an anniversary programme was planned, named Hall-Marks. They chose 33 tunes by British composers that the BBC DO had helped make successful by featuring them in broadcasts These included Underneath The Arches, These Foolish Things, Goodnight Vienna, Red Sails In The Sunset. By 1937 the list of music arrangers employed by the BBC was impressive. As well as Stan Bowsher, Phil Cardew and Burton Gillis the BBC was employing American Benny Carter and other British arrangers included Jimmy Lally, Sid Phillips, Paul Fenhoulet and Ben Frankel. With so many arrangers the BBC Dance Orchestra could offer a great variation in their music which was essential since they often broadcast nine times a week.
You can hear several Henry Hall recordings from this period on my podcasts, check the playlists at http://www.r2ok.co.uk/playlists.htm
At this time Henry began to look back at his five years and could see changes taking place and wondered what the future at the BBC might hold. His band no longer had the regular 5.15-6.00pm spot. More and more bands were broadcasting - as well as the regulars Ambrose, Roy Fox, Carroll Gibbons, there were now Billy Cotton, Nat Gonella, Brian Lawrance, Joe Loss, Oscar Rabin and many others. Henry thought that the BBC DO might be heading for redundancy so on that 5th anniversary March 15th Henry Hall informed Sir John Reith that he wanted to go. Henry's resignation was accepted and a date of September 25th was agreed as the end. It was also agreed that there would not be a new BBC Dance Orchestra, and Henry Hall would be given the entire music library of the BBC DO amounting to some 5000 orchestrations. Henry could also continue to present Guest Night. For the last six weeks the band was referred to as Henry Hall & his orchestra.
A farewell broadcast for the band was planned for September 25th, consisting of a programme of over 30 of their favourite tunes, a short programme of records of Henry's favourite Guest Night artistes, and an appearance by Gracie Fields who, while singing You've Got To Smile When You say Goodbye, welcomed Henry to the music halls.
On quitting the BBC Henry Hall received several offers of work for himself and his band. He accepted the offer from George Black and the band became a touring band. The first few weeks saw Henry Hall and his orchestra in Birmingham, Blackpool, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, then on to London and the Holborn Empire and Finsbury Park Empire. The reception was enthusiastic wherever they went, Henry Hall was a star! Recordings were made for the Columbia label at several of the venues and Henry was now using several vocalists including Bob Mallin, Leslie Douglas, Anita Riddell, Molly Morelle and Bernard Hunter.
In February 1939 the band spent a month at the Scala, Berlin, where tunes performed included St Louis Blues and The Lambeth Walk. When war broke out the band had a spell at the Colston, Bristol. The BBC variety department had moved to Bristol so Henry was able to continue weekly Guest Night programmes from Bristol beginning in December 1939. The band resumed touring including, below, Finsbury Park Empire in 1940 which featured a very young Dickie Henderson and his sisters. While touring Henry was allowed to broadcast Guest Night from the theatres with live audiences.
For most of 1941 Henry's band toured the Odeon Theatres in smaller towns. Throughout the war years the band entertained troops and appeared at ENSA shows. Guest Night broadcasts also continued though it was replaced for a few months in 1943 with Henry Hall's Rhythm Entertainment intended primarily for forces overseas with the emphasis on swing music. Jazz instumentalists featured included Sid Phillips, Carl Barriteau, George Shearing, Ted Heath, Nat Gonella, Harry Parry and many others. Vocalists included Betty Driver, Eva Benyon, Lee Sheridan (later Dick James). After D-Day a continental tour was organised to Ostend, Brussels, Paris. After V-E Day the tours around Britain resumed, and Guest Night, but Henry had lost most of his original band and the dance band scene was changing.
In May 1947, after a Guest Night featuring Dolores Gray, Henry decided to leave the music halls but by the end of the year he was persuaded to plan and put together a show at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool. Henry booked the comedian Ted Ray and the show, Something In The Air opened June 12th 1948.
Henry also broadcast Guest Night from the Jubilee Hall, Blackpool also featuring Ted Ray. In November 1948 both Henry and Ted Ray appeared in the Command Performance. In the next season Henry booked Donald Peers, Billy Russell and a new young comedian Norman Wisdom for a new show entitled Buttons And Bows (1949). Soon Donald Peers had his own radio show and he became extremely popular with a great many fanatical followers. When Peers took ill near the end of the season Henry booked George Formby for a few shows but eventually took the 'top of the bill' himself and booked Lizbeth Webb.
Guest Night continued and got a new lease of life with regular appearances by comedian Max Miller and other guests included Noel Coward, George Formby, Gracie Fields. Shows continued including Fun And Finery, Right Monkey and London Melody (on ice) which featured Norman Wisdom! That must have been a laugh!
With the rise of television came the idea for a programme, similar to Guest Night, where Henry could sit at the piano and recall his favourite personalities, friends, tunes and stories from his thirty-odd year career. The show was called Face the Music. Henry last appeared as a bandleader in 1969 and the following year his service to music was recognised by the award of the OBE. Henry retired to Eastbourne, where he died in 1989 aged 91.
Go to his web page to learn more and hear more of Dan Donovan.
You can join the very active discussion group and talk about Henry Hall and other bands:
or check out the group site first at http://www.yahoogroups.com/group/british-dance-bands/
return to the