jabw_vintage/report no. 22

Let Us Tell You About.....

Billy Thorburn, 1900-1971. British pianist and dance band leader

this page first published by John Wright, 3 Feb 2002
last update 18 August 2012vintage@r2ok.co.uk

I have been contacted by the family of Billy Thorburn, in particular Billy's grandson Bruce Stanford. Billy's record collection has been preserved and I am assisting the family with the task of cataloguing the discs. Researching Billy's career has been most rewarding and I feel his story deserves a wider public.

Billy Thorburn formed one of Britain's most successful bands of the late 1930's, but it was more than a band. The unique combination of a dance band, Billy's virtuosic piano style and a pipe-organ could have been too much for one recording act but on the contrary, under the direction of Billy Thorburn, it proved to be very popular with the British public who bought thousands of records by The Organ, the Dance Band & Me and his touring band Billy Thorburn & His Music. Billy Thorburn's music was never 'hot' in a jazz sense, in fact it seldom swung in the manner of the contemporary swing music that most bands were emulating in the late 1930's. His music was straight, almost strict tempo, impeccably played. Recording engineers of the time must have seen it as a great challenge to skillfully record a pipe organ, a dance band, Billy's piano solos and a vocalist at one session. These records are a remarkable achievement. The short musical excerpts on this webpage don't fully reveal how effortlessly the musical arrangements blended the instruments and vocals. Those recordings I have heard give everyone a fair share, the balance is perfect, and the Parlophone surfaces are usually very clean certainly up to 1939. As dance band music in general receives new interest from the public of the 21st century, more re-issues of Billy Thorburn's music are now essential to illustrate the fact the the dance band scene wasn't all jazz and star vocalists.
The contribution of Billy Thorburn to the whole dance band era also needs acknowledgement. He was there from the start, played in top bands, played with the famous, accompanied the stars, developed an astonishing piano technique, directed successful bands, probably plays piano on over 600 recordings, it's a story that needs telling.

The son of a church verger, Billy Thorburn began playing the church organ at a very early age, and aged nine became the church organist at the Holy Trinity, North Kensington. He maintained this position for 11 years and during WW1 Billy worked with the Royal Flying Corps. After the war Billy was regularly playing piano including a spell with a band at the Regent Palace Hotel. Billy is quoted as saying that he worked with Jack Hylton during 1922-23. He's not listed as attending any of Queen's Orchestra recording sessions but could have worked for Hylton at that time. In 1923 Billy married Ivy.

In 1923 Billy began broadcasting as Uncle Jazz for a children's hour programme from the BBC's new wireless station 2LO, based at Savoy Hill. I'm not sure on the timing but maybe this impressed Debroy Somers who appointed Billy as second pianist with the Savoy Orpheans at London's classy Savoy Hotel playing alongside first pianist Frank Herbin. At this time Billy apparently wasn't involved in any recording sessions, in fact the earliest records listed as involving Billy Thorburn were with a small group from the Orpheans in August 1924, labelled as The Finney Tribe, on two Regal records G-8247 and G-8248. The 'band' consisted of Vernon Ferry (tp), Herb Finney and Al Starita (asax), Pete Mandell (bj) and Billy Thorburn (p). Apparently these recordings are quite 'hot' and are listed in Brian Rust's discography of Jazz Records.

Sometime during the Autumn of 1925 Billy Thorburn began to attend Savoy Orpheans' recording sessions at the HMV studios in Hayes, with new first pianist Carroll Gibbons, but it's far from clear in Brian Rust's discography which recordings actually feature Billy. That Billy Thorburn was a member of the Orpheans at this time is confirmed by his presence in photographs. He was certainly with the band when they toured theatres in Dec 1924 - Jan 1925. Billy took part in a publicity stunt for the Orpheans when he played piano with selected members of the band at 10,000 ft over Croydon airport. The result was broadcast by the BBC as part of their 3rd birthday celebrations.

In the summer of 1925 the celebrated American composer George Gershwin visited Britain. A measure of the respect that Billy Thorburn held at that time is seen by the fact that he was chosen to play a piano duet with Gershwin in a performance of Rhapsody In Blue. As far as I know this performance was not recorded. Late in 1926 Billy published a small booklet The Secret Of Dance Playing, price 2/6d.

By 1927 the Savoy Orpheans were led by pianist Carroll Gibbons and were regarded as the top band in London. The band continued to attend regular recording sessions at HMV but according to Brian Rust the second piano player at the sessions was Frank Herbin. Some of the band, under the name The Sylvians had begun making recordings and, from Feb-Apr 1927, when Carroll Gibbons was absent, Ramon Newton led The Sylvians and Billy Thorburn was the pianist. Billy was also with The Sylvians when they were playing at the Berkley Hotel from Feb 1927.

After Billy Thorburn left the Orpheans he worked with Jay Wilbur's studio band who began making records for the Dominion label in October 1928. Billy's association with Wilbur's studio bands continued till 1933, also appearing on the small Eclipse records and the Imperial label, though Pat Dodd was often the pianist at sessions. Billy's presence won't be confined to just the records by Jay Wilbur's Orchestra (and it's multitude of pseudonyms), Billy will also be found on recordings accompanying singers and comediennes who recorded with Dominion, Imperial and Eclipse in the early 1930's, including Elsie Carlisle, Ann Suter, Tommy Handley, Charles Penrose, Phil Arnold, George Formby. I think Billy can be identified on records where he employs his arpeggio flourishes, for example on Elsie Carlisle's recording of Go Home And Tell Your Mother

In Feb 1931 the Melody Maker reported that Billy joined Jerry Hoey at the Piccadilly Hotel (Brian Rust lists Cecil Norman on Hoey recordings). Later Billy joined Sydney Kyte's band at the Piccadilly Hotel, attending several recording sessions (for Regal) Oct 1931 - June 1932. The vocals often featured the popular trio The Three Ginx - Ivor Robinson, Jack Joy and Eric Hanley. Jack also played piano and Eric the drums. Mike Thomas informs us that, according to Rhythm, Billy Thorburn joined Jack Payne's band some time June 1932. The Rust/Forbes discography suggests that Billy was already attending recording sessions as second pianist as far back as Feb 1932 but there is no aural evidence for this. Billy seems to have had some earlier involvement with the Payne band as he composed (with Billy-Scott Coomber) two tunes recorded only by the Jack Payne's bands. Rhythmatitis was recorded back in Oct 1931, and Hot Coffee in Dec 1931 though not issued (one copy does exist). The first record Jack Payne recorded on the Imperial label (March 1932) was a shortened version of Hot Coffee. In Sept 1933 Billy became Payne's first pianist when Bob Busby departed.

In Feb 1935 Billy Thorburn left the Jack Payne band and by the summer of 1936 his own band was playing at Bournemouth's Royal Bath Hotel. By October he began recording for the Parlophone label billed as Billy Thorburn and his Music, employing vocalists Ken Crossley and Helen Raymond.

The big break came in Dec 1936, Jack Hylton had to cancel a broadcast and the organist Reginald Foort was tasked with getting another band together in time for the broadcast. Billy and some of his band made themselves available and a short 'programme of rhythmic music' was put together featuring Billy's band and the organ of Reginald Foort. The programme proved very popular, an idea was conceived, and very soon in 1937 a regular programme of The Organ, The Dance Band & Me began. By April 1938 Parlophone was issuing records under the same name and apparently the identity of the band and the organ were not revealed until November. The records featured the organist H. Robinson Cleaver playing an 8-unit Compton pipe organ that was especially installed at Abbey Road studios. This was the start of Billy's long and successful rhythmic combination which would cut almost 300 recordings over the next 15 years.

For a few months in 1939 Billy made some recordings without the organ. Each four-song recording session would produce two titles as The Organ, The Dance Band & Me, and two for Billy Thorburn and his Music. Before WWII vocalists included Helen Raymond, Terry Devon, George Barclay and Eddie Guray. Young Terry Devon was a Carroll Levis Discovery and joined Billy's band at just 15 years of age. She stayed with Billy until she was old enough to enlist with ENSA.

George BarclayHere are excerpts from Billy Thorburn and his Music, Heaven Can Wait recorded 31 March 1939. The beautiful muted trumpet in the introduction is played by George Kenneth (real name George Mullaney).

Heaven Can Wait, Billy and the band introduce the song
Heaven Can Wait, George Barclay sings
Heaven Can Wait, Billy Thorburn's solo

And here are excerpts of The Organ, The Dance Band & Me, The Same Old Lovers Lane recorded 2 July 1940

The Same Old Lovers Lane, The Organ, The Dance Band ....
The Same Old Lovers Lane ..... and Billy Thorburn at the piano
The Same Old Lovers Lane, and George Barclay is accompanied by the organ

In his Memory Lane article (1991) Frank Wappatt accurately describes Billy Thorburn's piano style as an instantly recognisable "rippling right hand, two or three octave arpeggios, sometimes at break neck speed, while the left hand pounded out four to the bar, firm, rhythmic patterns".

In August 1939 a special recording for Parlophone was made during a visit to Butlin's Holiday Camp, Clacton, compered by Norman C. Bradford though Billy also speaks on the records (Parlophone F1531, F1532). These were medleys of Butlin's Camp Songs like (inevitably!) Hi-De-Hi, Knees Up Mother Brown, Goodnight Campers etc.

The band toured as Billy Thorburn and his Music and was very popular, but though the public welcomed them when they were on tour they would always be asked 'where's the organ?'. Billy couldn't take a pipe organ with him, in fact he didn't own one. There was a spell when he took a new Hammond organ with the band but it wasn't like the pipe organ and the Hammond idea flopped. Billy also toured as a solo pianist, transporting his grand piano fitted with mirrors so the audience could see his lightning speed hands playing on the keys.

From the early days the band included George Kenneth (t), Stan Osborne (as, pac), Phil Trix (as), Leon Mack (cl), Arthur Watkins (g, cello), Les Street (sb), Alec Clark (d) but from the start of WWII, when the band became exclusively The Organ, the Dance Band & Me, the personnel was never constant and even H. Robinson Cleaver was not always the organist. Of note is the fact that Freddy Gardner (as, cl) appeared on Billy's records for a while from April 1944. Other vocalists who worked with Billy during WWII included Chick Henderson (three titles), Alan Kane, Harry Kaye, Helen Clare, Julie Dawn and Wally Windsor - that was the name Billy gave to Bob Dale!

I expect by the 1950's Billy's style was regarded as old-fashioned or corny but Billy would be reluctant to change and called it a day when the time came. The Organ, the Dance Band & Me finally disbanded in 1953. Billy continued for a while to make records with his Strict Tempo Music before retiring from show business. In 1961 he and Ivy ran the Green Dragon pub in Barnet, Herts until Billy died in 1971.

Re-issues of Billy Thorburn and his Music, and The Organ, The Dance Band & Me, have been rare in the last twenty years. In 1998 Empress (RAJCD843) issued a complete 23-track CD of The Organ, The Dance Band & Me (titled 'Don't Sweetheart Me'). Several websites are still selling copies of this CD. Also BMG (Australia) issued a CD in 1996. 'This England' still have a cassette (DB36) in their catalogue and John Bream may still have copies of his cassette produced in 1998. There was also an EMI Retrospect series LP back in 1986.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Billy Thorburn's grandson, Bruce Stanford, who approached me for information about Billy, after getting the nod from Doug Hamilton, so thanks to Doug also. I've known something about Billy for many years but was grateful to confirm facts and find out new information from Frank Wappatt's article in Memory Lane (1991), This England's Book Of British Dance Bands, Rust/Forbes British Dance Bands On Record and Mike Thomas's amendments listing in Talking Machine Review. Most of the photos are scanned from these publications too.
And a special thanks to Roy Oakshott for permission to include the sound excerpts from BBC's copies of Heaven Can Wait and The Same Old Lovers Lane

You can join the very active discussion groups and talk about Billy Thorburn and other dance bands and jazz bands of the 1920s-1950s:

The Facebook group: Golden Age of British Dance Bands

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