Memories of Lita Roza

THE older we grow, the more doors close on our past. Only the joy of nostalgia enables us to reflect on our yesteryears, facilitated by music, films and photographs at which we clutch like proverbial straws.

THE older we grow, the more doors close on our past. Only the joy of nostalgia enables us to reflect on our yesteryears, facilitated by music, films and photographs at which we clutch like proverbial straws.

My teenage phase sprang back to mind recently when I read an obituary of star vocalist Lita Roza, one of the three singers forever linked in my memory - and that of many of my generation - with the magnificent Ted Heath and his Music, the British swing big band that mounted the first serious challenge to the American giants of this genre whose names were “household” to fans on both sides of the Atlantic.

The vaunted orchestra played in Royal Variety Command Performances and was the first British band to cross to the United States to perform when a long-standing Musicians Union embargo was lifted.

I was whisked back, figuratively speaking, to that postwar era of stringent austerity relieved by the vibrancy of the “Saturday Night at the Palais” escapism espoused by the teens and twenties. For those not dedicated to spending their Saturday nights at Gorleston Rollerdrome circling the floor on eight wheels in motion, or the pub, the local palais was the Floral Hall (today's Ocean Room).

But seldom did the joint jump, if you will pardon the Americanism.

That was because blind organist Eddie Gates and his orchestra, long resident at the venue run by Great Yarmouth Borough Council, played music that was both easy on the ear and perfectly suited to dancing but never swung to get us youngsters in the mood for which we craved.

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I cannot recall seeing any of the major touring big bands playing at a public dance in the borough, their only appearances being at privately organised functions like those of the Erie Resistor Social Club that did hire the top names.

We all made sure we were pals with an Erie employee so we could be in the Floral Hall to listen to big-band jazz and revel in the atmosphere. Otherwise, we had to find our way to Lowestoft Palais, or the Samson and Hercules in Norwich, if we wanted to see and hear the likes of Ted Heath, Vic Lewis, Teddy Foster, the Kirchens, Johnny Dankworth's big band, Eric Delaney...

And in those days when very few folk had cars, and last buses left at 10.30pm, it was the Floral Hall or nothing. And when you got home on a Saturday night, it was near obligatory to switch on the wireless to hear Jack Jackson introducing names from the US new to us lovers of popular music - artistes like Guy Mitchell with French horns and chorus in those distinctive Mitch Miller arrangements, Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray, Jo Stafford, Doris Day...

All became stars on this side of the Atlantic too.

Listening to Ted Heath and his Music raised the hair on the back of my neck and sent shivers down my spine, so intense was my pleasure. I went to their dances whenever possible, probably joining the crowd gathered at the front of the stage, but preferred their concerts.

Three times I managed to secure seats for their famous Sunday Night Swing Sessions at the London Palladium, and was in the audience at the 89th that was recorded live and issued on 78rpm discs with one track on either side. On another Sunday night visit to London, I bravely risked the threat of razor-slashing gangs allegedly prolific thereabouts to attend a Heath concert at The Trocadero, Elephant and Castle.

For me the zenith of every Heath show was the drum solos showcasing Ronnie Verrell. How I would love to have swapped places with him and occupied his stool for Skin Deep or Rhapsody for Drums!

The programmes had quieter moments when Ted Heath's talented trio of vocalists - Lita Roza, Dickie Valentine and Dennis Lotis - stepped to the microphone to sing the popular melodies of the day.

Lita Roza died last month, aged 82; Dickie Valentine, who had a string of hits, died at 41 in 1971 in a car crash, after he had left the band to go solo; Dennis Lotis lives in retirement in Wells in north Norfolk, and I last saw him in a pre-season show at the Wellington Pier here perhaps two decades ago, singing Frank Sinatra songs in the company of comedian Ken Goodwin (Bing Crosby) and Al Jolson impersonator Steve Ace.

Back in the mid-Fifties, my joy was unconfined when Ted Heath and his Music came to the Regal (ABC/Cannon or whatever) topping a weekly variety bill, giving two performances a night for six days. I was a junior reporter at that time but managed to persuade my guv'nor to review the opening show although he well knew that my coverage would be adulatory rather than restrained and critical...

If memory is a-right, all that top trio of singers had left to pursue solo careers by the time the Yarmouth week-long gig took place there, and the vocalists might well have included Bobby Britton and Peter Lowe, brother of Dennis Lotis.

I have one outstanding recollection of that opening night at the Regal: as the curtains parted with the Heath signature tune playing and the band was revealed on stage, the audience was startled to see that the personnel were not in their familiar dinner jackets, white tuxedos or shiny suits but were wearing white, long-sleeved V-neck cricket sweaters. There was no time to ponder over it because the band was immediately into its regular opening number, Opus One.

Finally, I sign off with a puzzle I cannot solve.

In the mid-Fifties I reported on a budding composer from a village near Yarmouth, possibly in the Fleggs, who had written a song for Lita Roza, both of them hoping it would be as successful as Allentown Jail that she released in 1951. I was sure his first name was Warwick, and the tune was the dramatic-sounding Man in the Raincoat.

An internet search confirms that Man in the Raincoat - to which there are umpteen cyberspace references - was written by Warwick Webster but I could trace no personal details about him.

Warwick Webster - where are you now? Still in Norfolk, perhaps? Or has my memory faltered badly about penning that report?

For the record, Lita Roza's version never stood a prayer against the 1955 worldwide hits recorded by Priscilla Wright and Marion Marlowe, names unknown to me.

Her biggest UK seller, that put her at the top of the new-fangled Hit Parade, was How Much is that Doggie in the Window?, a version of Patti Page's stateside winner. Legend has it that Lita Roza hated the song, but agreed to sing it in the recording studio... and thereafter refused to peform it again despite its popularity and her fans' pleas.