Cascade of Stars
To co-incide with the release of a new CD, David Ades paints a profile of one of the greatest names in British Light Music
George Melachrino conducted one of the finest British Light Orchestras in the years immediately following World War 2. Thanks to the Long Playing record, his fame spread throughout the world, especially in North America where his albums sold millions of copies.
He was born George Miltiades Melachrino in London in 1909. At the age of four he was being taught by his stepfather on a miniature violin, and was only thirteen when he made his first public appearance as a solo violinist. Three years later he enrolled at the Trinity College of Music, winning particular praise for his work with strings. He proceeded to master all the instruments of the orchestra, with the exception of the piano and harp. In addition he had a pleasant singing voice, and broadcast from the BBC Studios at Savoy Hill when only eighteen.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Melachrino discovered that his talents were well suited to the demands of the British dance bands which flourished during his youth. In numerous broadcasts and recordings he performed on clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone, violin, viola and as a most competent vocalist. While still in his teens, as early as 1926 he was recording with Geoffrey Gelder and his Kettner’s Five, and in the following years he was employed by Ambrose, Harry Hudson, Jack Jackson, Van Phillips, Rudy Starita, Jay Wilbur, Marius B. Winter and Carroll Gibbons and his Savoy Hotel Orpheans. Gibbons made him one of his ‘star’ vocalists, and his duets with Anne Lenner were especially popular. Examples of his work with this fine ensemble can be heard on Vocalion CDEA6047.
By 1938 he was getting star billing for his BBC broadcasts, and in 1939 he was leader of the dance orchestra at London’s Café de Paris.
World War 2 interrupted Melachrino’s career, although it helped to steer him in a different direction, musically speaking. Following a brief spell in the military police, a back injury resulted in him being drafted back into broadcasting, in special shows for the troops overseas. He became Musical Director of the Army Radio Unit, and toured with the ‘Stars In Battledress’. Melachrino formed a 50-piece ‘Orchestra In Khaki’, employing the finest professional musicians serving in the forces. He relished in the artistic freedom he enjoyed, which permitted him to perform a wide variety of music. In 1944 Regimental Sergeant Major George Melachrino (note that the British Army didn’t consider that their top musician should be a commissioned officer!) became conductor of the British Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, working alongside Major Glenn Miller and Captain Robert Farnon, who fronted the US and Canadian bands.
There is an intriguing story about how the wartime Melachrino style evolved. His senior at the War Office, Eric Maschwitz (of A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square fame), said he wanted to hear Pennsylvania Polka played by an orchestra of 80. So Melachrino’s AEF band numbered 80 musicians, making its conductor the first to introduce sweet, sentimental mood music by the use of masses of strings.
Each of the three AEF bands developed its own special style, building up a large following with the civilian population at home, as well as with the troops who were the main target audience. The British band gained a tremendous reputation, and Melachrino himself sang with all three service bands. His own composition First Rhapsody opened and closed each programme, when the British band started broadcasting to Europe. Originally a serious work for orchestra lasting seven and a half minutes, First Rhapsody was written in 1936. For the purpose of his signature tune, Melachrino adapted the principal theme, and reconstructed the work making it shorter and more popular in character. It was arranged in various forms, notably for solo piano and piano and orchestra. The British film "House of Darkness" was the story of how First Rhapsody came to be written. (Melachrino’s 12" 78 version of First Rhapsody was included in the EMI collection ‘Memories of the Light Programme’).
When the war was over, Melachrino’s AEF band formed the backbone of the magnificent orchestra that was to achieve world-wide fame for almost 20 years. The accent was now on strings, and it was in string orchestration that George excelled. Such was his popularity that he appeared in the 1948 Royal Variety performance.
The Melachrino Organisation grew into one of Britain’s most important musical empires, which included several orchestras and ensembles.
Today it is his recordings which serve to remind us of his exceptional talent. His post-war orchestra made around 100 78rpm records, and he was responsible for more than 50 LPs. For his repertoire he drew upon many of the popular standards and light classics of the day, often made instantly recognisable through his regular BBC radio broadcasts. Many of his records featured his own arrangements and compositions, and he was also in demand from the stage and the cinema, scoring over a dozen feature films. He was a gifted composer, and contributed a number of works for EMI’s short-lived Recorded Music Library, which provided themes and background music for films, radio and television world-wide.
Melachrino was married three times. His first wife and two sons aged 12 and 15 were killed by a flying bomb during the war. Afterwards he devoted much of his time to helping sick children. His second marriage was dissolved (we presume that it is this wife and daughter which appear in the Kolynos advertisement). In 1961 he had a son by his third wife, former ballet dancer Noreen Lee.
Sadly George Melachrino fell asleep in his bath and drowned at his London home in Gordon Place, Kensington on 18 June 1965, at the tragically early age of 56. On hearing the news, prophetically his publisher John Wallington said: "George’s death is a great loss to me personally, and to the world of Light Music. I am sure that his music will go on being played as long as Light Music is played." Sydney Grace, head of variety in the Grade Organisation said: "I admired him immensely, both for his talent and his bright way of life. George was a wonderful host. He was, I think, the instigator of the big orchestra with the tumbling strings, which he did during the war."
Perhaps such a sweeping statement requires some qualification. In the 1930s the likes of Louis Levy in Britain, and Andre Kostelanetz in the USA, were fronting orchestras where the strings were an important feature within the entire orchestra. But Melachrino was fortunate (during his Army years) in being able to call upon vast numbers of strings, with no worries about the cost, which became the dominant feature. Massive sales during the early years of the LP era still permitted light orchestras to use large numbers of string players (as well as Melachrino, one immediately thinks of Mantovani) but gradually modern recording techniques allowed the same effects to be achieved with fewer players.
When considering the choice of music for this CD, I was anxious to avoid too many duplications. Naturally the numbers had to be different from the existing Vocalion CD "Begin the Beguine", and all the tracks must out of copyright, which in Britain means at least 50 years old. Back in 1993 I made a similar compilation for EMI, but that CD was quickly deleted so I have felt justified in selecting works such as Winter Sunshine and Starlight Roof Waltz which ought to be available once again. To compensate, you’ll notice that there are some very rare numbers, which should appeal to ‘serious’ fans of the maestro.
Therefore this collection concentrates exclusively on George Melachrino’s recordings during the first five years of his post-war contract with HMV. It may be of interest to recall the recording techniques which were still in use at the time. In 1993 his producer, Walter J. Ridley, remembered many enjoyable hours working in EMI’s No. 1 Studio at Abbey Road. "During the first months of our association recording was still done on wax; a rather precarious business it was, too. The tiniest speck of dust on the surface of the wax (known as the biscuit) forced the recording to a halt, which all too frequently it did. The wax, over an inch thick and kept in a cabinet at a constant temperature, was placed on a turntable controlled by a pulley suspended from the ceiling, and a large weight kept it turning evenly as the weight descended." By 1950 tape recording had taken over, which permitted the luxury of editing, making the lives of both performers and technicians slightly less stressful.
The labels of the 78s used to describe George Melachrino either as "The Melachrino Orchestra conducted by George Melachrino" or "The Melachrino Strings conducted by George Melachrino". The first issued 78s were by the strings on B9515 (included on Vocalion CDEA6014), but the CD begins with the first 78 by the full orchestra - his own composition Winter Sunshine which was released in 1947. We can safely assume that Melachrino also arranged his own number, but unfortunately it is not possible to be so precise about all the music on this CD. With so many commitments, it would be unreasonable to expect that the maestro would find enough hours in the day to be able to score everything performed by his orchestra. Indeed he used other talented arrangers, notably his ‘right-hand-man’ William Hill-Bowen, who later made many fine recordings in his own name.
Arthur Wilkinson was another of Melachrino’s favoured arrangers, and in accordance with the custom at that time he and Hill-Bowen would be expected to reflect the style of the boss. Occasionally the 78 labels do mention the arranger, but for the rest we have to use our ears and trust to luck. Of course, an added complication is that most famous conductors were not averse to making slight (and sometimes big!) alterations to scores provided by others, wishing to stamp their own ‘trademarks’ on what they performed. It would be surprising if Melachrino resisted such a temptation.
The Kurt Weill classic September Song receives a tender treatment from the strings, probably by Melachrino himself. There is no doubt that Melachrino was responsible for scoring Robert Farnon’s My Song Of Spring (which also acquired unrecorded lyrics by Patricia Nash). Both conductors were enjoying star status as the 1950s dawned, and as a measure of their friendship and mutual respect, they each agreed to arrange and perform a well-known work by the other. Farnon orchestrated Winter Sunshine which he distinguished with an almost syncopated movement for its middle theme; the result was performed in several broadcasts. Melachrino did Farnon the honour of actually recording his My Song Of Spring, although this was probably a shrewd decision, because the song became popular following its introduction in the ice spectacular "London Melody" at the Empress Hall early in 1951. Later Farnon was to record it himself, in a different setting, as Sophistication Waltz (recently reissued on Vocalion CDLK4112).
There is a selection which is as surprising as it is delightful. In 1950 Walt Disney released his animated film "Cinderella", which may have lacked some of the charm of his earlier features but nonetheless contained many enjoyable moments and some good music. In fact Disney films usually had quite good songs; in their original settings they may have seemed fairly ordinary, but clever arrangers could often work minor miracles with them. Messrs Mack David, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston created a score with at least three big numbers, and it inspired George Melachrino (surely it must be his arrangement) to weave a ‘Fantasy’ which retells the familiar story using the songs as they appeared. (Many years before, Eric Coates had done something similar with his Cinderella Phantasy, first performed in 1929). The astonishing thing is that this Melachrino ‘Fantasy’ should ever have been recorded at all - especially on two sides of a 78! Children would hate this arrangement - it bears no resemblance to the film at all. Adults would assume (incorrectly) that the music was aimed at children, and not bother to even listen to it. Hopefully 50 years later such prejudices can be pushed aside, because Melachrino has given us almost seven minutes of pure magic. The opening songs - Cinderella and A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes - set the scene where poor downtrodden Cinderella is abused by her stepsisters, but still manages to indulge in daydreams. Then there is the pending Royal Ball, and the realisation that Cinderella won’t be going. Fortuitously the Fairy Godmother appears and sets Cinderella up in clothes (with the assistance of the mice) - The Work Song. Still there is time for hope - O Sing Sweet Nightingale - and Fairy Godmother conjures up transport (with the help of assorted creatures) - Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo - which succeeds in getting the heroine to the palace. She dances to the strains of So This Is Love, but the Fairy Godmother’s warning about watching the clock is cleverly underscored with the darting woodwind reminding us of the time-sensitive magic spell in Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo. The chimes of midnight bring the ball to an abrupt ending, but like all good fairy stories everything comes right in the end, to the strains of a reprise of A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes.
Among the other rare items is a work by a gentle man who has been unfairly neglected in recent decades. Reginald King (1904-1991) was a prolific composer and broadcaster, who became part of the furniture at Swan and Edgar’s restaurant in London’s West End, where his small orchestra performed Monday to Friday from the 1920s to the 1940s. William Hill-Bowen takes the piano solo in one of King’s more serious works Theme from ‘Runnymede Rhapsody’.
Hollywood musicals went through a vogue where a ballet sequence was inserted into the plot with the star dancers (usually Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly) performing a gangster routine. This probably inspired William Hill-Bowen to compose a ballet based on The Legend Of Frankie And Johnnie. The titles of the movements give plenty of clues as to the plot: Street Scene, Bedroom Scene, The Bar-room, Nelly Bly’s Dance, Shooting Scene, Death Of Johnnie. The resultant mini-concerto is an entertaining piece which fully deserves to be resurrected.
Melachrino’s work in films often involved movies which were ... to put it politely ... not exactly big hits. "Dark Secret" remains just that for most of us today, but the Theme Waltz is a charming melody which can be enjoyed in its own right, without having to sit through the film!
George Melachrino left a fine legacy of recordings which today’s music lovers are now starting to appreciate anew. His music always bore a hallmark of quality, and he proved that it is not necessary to resort to cheap gimmicks in order to be able to sell records. It was tragic that he was taken from us while at the peak of his popularity, at a time when he must still have had much to offer. We can only be grateful that, for almost 20 years his orchestral output was prolific, and there are many examples of his work patiently waiting to be rediscovered by his appreciative admirers, old and new.
GEORGE MELACHRINO AND HIS ORCHESTRA AND STRINGS*
"Cascade of Stars"
1. WINTER SUNSHINE (George Melachrino) 2. SEPTEMBER SONG* (Kurt Weil) 3. MY SONG OF SPRING (Robert Farnon) 4. ZINGARA (Chaminade, arr. Arthur Wilkinson) 5. MIDNIGHT IN MAYFAIR* (Newell Chase) 6. CINDERELLA - FILM FANTASY (David, Hoffman, Livingston) 7. CASCADE OF STARS* (Osna Maderna) 8. AUTUMN LEAVES* (Joseph Kosma) 9. SILVER LINING FANTASY 10. IF YOU GO (Michael Emer) 11. DANSE MEXICAINE (Arthur Wilkinson)
12. THEME FROM ‘RUNNYMEDE RHAPSODY’ (Reginald King) 13. STARLIGHT ROOF WALTZ (George Melachrino)
14. ANTE EL ESCORIAL (Ernesto Lecuona) 15. VIOLINS IN THE NIGHT* (George Melachrino) 16. THE LEGEND OF FRANKIE AND JOHNNIE (William Hill-Bowen) 17. THEME WALTZ - FROM FILM ‘DARK SECRET’* (George Melachrino)
18. WORDS AND MUSIC - SELECTION (Richard Rodgers)
VOCALION CDEA 6060