Rolling down to Rio

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Between the ages of 7 and 11 I often saw my father take the stage in a packed and smoky concert hall. It was a once-a-week performance. Sometimes I watched from the wings as he took command of the spotlight. Applause subsided into hush. The pianist rippled an intro and Father drew deep, hauling his baritone from his belly and delivering each word bright and clear.

He always started with a rollick and had the crowd by the lapels as he launched into one of his favourites: ‘When the Sergeant-Major’s on Parade’. Then he changed the pace to something lyrical before cantering through ‘Old Father Thames’. As far as I remember he was never a microphone man and his thrilling ‘Holy City’ came close to rattling the beer glasses at the back. After another sweet number he fired on all cylinders with ‘The Floral Dance’ and exited in a storm of cheers.

This was in the late 1940s and early ’50s. No one sings like that now; and there are no smoky concert halls.

Father’s style was foursquare and manly, a chip off the old Edwardian balladeer. Slight portliness added gravitas. And he was jovial. He performed at regimental dinners and concerts, entertained patients in hospital and once sang to inmates at a prison. He also poured himself into Regency breeches and donned a powdered wig, but that was a spectacle before my time.

It was because everyone said he sounded like the great Peter Dawson that, more than thirty years ago, I bought a second-hand copy of Dawson’s autobiography and some of the numerous recordings he made.

The book is called Fifty Years of Song; and, indeed, Dawson sang into his seventies. He bestrode the gramophone age, recording more than 3,000 songs and selling millions of copies. He landed in London from his native Adelaide in 1903. He was 21 and had little money but possessed a remarkable voice and a top hat and tails. In this rig he arrived at the door of the baritone Sir Charles Santley who became his teacher

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About the contributor

Trevor Fishlock is a writer who was once an angelic choirboy.

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