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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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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 and mentor. From four years of classical study with Santley and others he emerged as a bass-baritone with a mastery of two octaves and of the oratorios Elijah, Messiah and The Creation. Newly married and pressed to earn a living, Dawson entered the rough-and-tumble of London commercial music. His wife rounded up a few pennies for his bus fare to a studio where in 1904 he made his first recording, on a wax cylinder. He sang into a recording horn while an Edison Bell engineer disconcertingly pushed and pulled his shoulder, rocking him backward and forward for voice balance. A tedious aspect of cylinder recording was that a master yielded few copies. Dawson had to make many masters, singing six hours a day over five days, lubricating his throat with lunchtime beer. But his pay of £75 bought a bed and wardrobe he and his wife badly needed. Later he became adept at controlling his voice balance, rocking in and out of the recording horn while a studio hand pranced around him clacking coconut shells for a horsey effect. In a business ever-hungry for hits he and other singers resorted to piracy. They took miniature cylinder recorders into music halls to record new songs while shorthand writers scribbled the words. Magpies in human form, they were soon ready to record. It was an ingenious and shady use of new technology, and copyright legislation stopped it all. As a rising recording star, Dawson, for one, was grateful for his multiplying streams of royalties. Like others, Dawson sang under pseudonyms to boost his earnings. When HMV asked him ‘Can you sing Scottish?’ he used the name of Hector Grant to sing the songs of the Scottish music-hall star Harry Lauder. Then he wrote a bunch of heathery songs and created a subsidiary career as a tartan balladeer. Disguised in kilt and wig Hector Grant played the Glasgow Coliseum for twelve weeks and no one knew he was Peter Dawson. Dawson said that immaculate diction underpinned his success. ‘Gramophone recording’, he added, ‘taught me more about correcting my enunciation than any teacher.’ Although a concert singer, highly regarded as a performer of Handel, Schubert, Wagner and Tchaikovsky, he did not commit himself to opera. ‘It struck me’, he said, ‘as too much work for too little pay.’ He got into trouble while appearing in Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden in 1909 for playing poker in the wings while waiting to perform. Scooping his winnings into a bag he went out to sing but dropped the bag. The coins rolled all over the stage. His immense repertoire reflected the tastes of the age: ‘The Bandolero’, ‘Yeomen of England’, ‘Boys of the Old Brigade’, ‘Drake’s Drum’, ‘Rolling down to Rio’, ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘The Road to Mandalay’, ‘Glorious Devon’, ‘The Mountains of Mourne’, ‘Roses of Picardy’, ‘I Am a Friar of Orders Grey’. In 1911 Katie Moss witnessed the traditional Furry Dance in Helston and boarded the train home full of excitement. Over the next hours she set down the scene in a song, ‘The Floral Dance’. Peter Dawson recorded it the following year and, although some local grumps didn’t like its reference to a ‘quaint old Cornish town’, he made the song a signature tune. He himself was similarly inspired on a train journey. Reading Rudyard Kipling’s marching poem ‘Boots’ on a train to Margate he found himself creating a tune for it. When he reached his hotel he demanded the use of a piano while the music still bubbled. He wrote it under his composer-alias of J. P. McCall and sang it at Sir Henry Wood’s promenade concert in 1928. There was acclaim from everyone, except Sir Henry. ‘Don’t ever sing rubbish like that again,’ he growled. ‘Sing songs that uplift ’em. Brahms or Schubert.’ Dawson stood his ground and Sir Henry recanted. ‘Boots’ became a Dawson special; and Kipling told him he liked it. In the 1920s Dawson sang on 2LO, forerunner of the BBC, and he performed frequently for the BBC into the 1950s. He starred at the London Palladium. He also lent his name to advertising. He promoted cigarettes – ‘No throat irritation’ – and declared that ‘Horlicks and I are old friends.’ He made his last record in 1959 and died in Sydney in 1961 aged 79. My father modelled his performances on Dawson’s genial style and repertoire. When his military service ended he was a regimental sergeant-major casting around for a post-war job. Someone remembered his singing and organizational flair and he became manager of a south coast holiday camp, responsible for entertaining thousands who arrived with their ration books from the blitzed streets of London and the Midlands. They had shared the same experience, had been in uniform, and were looking for playtime in austerity. Father rolled out the barrel and ran the sports days, the bathing-beauty show, the swimming races, the knobbly-knees and ugly-face contests, the fancy-dress show, the pub outing, tombola and tomfoolery. Radio and music-hall comedians and singers and magicians came to play. There was endless music and dancing, reveille and the camp song, and the vamp of a Naafi piano. In a way, the hokey-cokey was what it was all about. As the despot of fun, Father produced the highly popular home-made campers’ concert, every act enthusiastically applauded, and he himself a star turn. But things changed, he started another career, the Dawson years ended, ‘The Floral Dance’ faded. Package holidays and rock ’n roll were on the way.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 38 © Trevor Fishlock 2013


About the contributor

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

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