The years of the big band

THE song is ended, but the melody lingers apt opening line from a once-popular foxtrot to introduce our return to the theme of the big-band era when, in those austere postwar years, my generation was enlivened by the up-tempo likes of Ted Heath and his Music, Joe Loss and Vic Lewis.

THE song is ended, but the melody lingers apt opening line from a once-popular foxtrot to introduce our return to the theme of the big-band era when, in those austere postwar years, my generation was enlivened by the up-tempo likes of Ted Heath and his Music, Joe Loss and Vic Lewis.

Three more readers have passed me their memories of the swinging late-Forties and Fifties, a decade before the Sixties hi-jacked the term to describe morals rather than music. Two of those correspondents were involved in that big-band boom, one as a participant, the other recording it (with a camera, not in a sound studio).

From Northgate Street in Great Yarmouth came a letter from Lilian Bulmer telling me: “I read with great interest your page in the Mercury on the Ted Heath Band, especially singer Lita Roza who died recently, aged 82. I am also 82, and was a singer in the 1950s with the big bands around Leeds.

“Mecca Locarno, of Leeds, held many contests for singers. I entered a contest, together with the late Frankie Vaughan and also Marion Ryan, who went on to sing with Ray Ellington. The finals of the contest were on Saturday night. I chose to sing Allentown Jail which was very popular at the time.

“To my amazement, I won! The prize was £10, quite a lot of money in those days. Also, I was offered a week's engagement with the resident band, Harry Grey, which led to being permanent vocalist.”

Mrs Bulmer (nee Browne) recalls: “My mother was widowed at 38 and left with five kids, and that prize paid for our house to be decorated!”

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Althouth the big bands petered out, she continued to be busy, singing with a four-piece in the Leeds area in cabaret and nightclubs.

She had served for three years from 1946 as a staff car driver in the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force), based in Hampshire, and took part in entertainment on the base, including playing principal boy in the pantomime Dick Whittington, for which the pianist was Cpl Bruce Johnson - today an 80-year-old nationally-loved celebrity and host of Strictly Come Dancing on BBC Television under his stage name of Bruce Forsyth.

Also, the pair and colleagues regularly drove an RAF lorry filled with chairs to village halls to entertain local residents.

After her uniformed service, she became busy as a singer in and around Leeds, highlighted by that competition success. At one time there was a possibility of an audition to tour with the popular Eric Winstone Band, but it never materialised.

Off the bandstand, she married “a great pianist”, Joe, who led his own orchestra, and they had a son, Richard, who now lives in Yorkshire. But her husband died.

Forty years ago, Mrs Bulmer decided to move from Leeds to Yarmouth where she ran a small family guest house on Walpole Road.

“I'm still a great follower of big bands, and recently went to see the Pete Cator Band's tribute to (legendary American drummer and bandleader) Buddy Rich at the Hippodrome. During the interval I met Jack Parnell (another top drummer, with Ted Heath in the late 1940s), having seen his band many times in Yorkshire.

“I think the Hippodrome is doing a find job in putting on these big bands, also the classical orchestras. I hope to see more of them.”

Mrs Bulmer remains active in retirement. She is a member of the Yarmouth Guild of Artists and Craftsmen, which included a big-band photograph in her profile published in its newsletter, the local branch of the Royal Air Forces Association, and U3A (University of the Third Age), and is currently taking a computer course.

The photograph helping to illustrate today's column showing the Ted Heath Orchestra's trio of talented singers signing a record was snapped by Mercury reader Gerry Pagano, of Westerley Way, Caister, during the seven years he worked for the Suffolk-based East Anglian Daily Times as a staff photographer in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

As a keen fan, he took his Ted Heath 78rpm record with him on his assignment to photograph the band at Felixtowe (either the Pier or Spa Pavilion), hoping to strike lucky while he was close to the musicians and singers. The three vocalists were happy to oblige and sign the disc - but he cannot recall six decades and more later what songs were actually on it.

Tony, now 84, and his late brother, Gerry, were both press photographers during their careers, and Gerry once took a highly-praised picture for the long-gone News Chronicle national newspaper of Louis Armstrong in his dressing room during a London concert.

Tony used to do regular freelance work for the Yarmouth Mercury (today one of the Archant Group's publications, like the East Anglian Daily Times) at the behest of Wilfred Bunting, the editor. However, those assignments dried up in 1948 when the late Les Gould became the Mercury staff phorographer after being demobbed from the RAF, serving this newspaper plus the Eastern Daily Press and Eastern Evening News at Yarmouth until his retirement in 1982.

Mr Pagano also did weddings and “other odds and ends” before successfully applying for an EADT staff job.

Taking a record for the Heath vocalists to sign was no gimmick just to secure a photograph, for he has been a lifelong music lover and for a few years ran a record shop in King Street. Country music and jazz were his preferences, and in the late Sixties and early Seventies he went to the US home of “country” several times with the British Country Music Association, attending the Grand Old Opry and seeing Nashville and its aural delights.

“The other day I was clearing my loft out because I was having a new gas boiler installed when I came across various reminders of the past, including an old autograph book that had been signed for me by several country music artistes not so well known today, but there were three special ones there: Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, and Gene Autry.

In his younger days Tony was also a keen cyclist and still has three of his old racing machines.

The third big-band fan to get in touch was Mrs Jean Bean (nee Carrier), of Sun Lane, Bradwell, who brought me another of the shots illustrating today's column - that with her favourite Dickie Valentine's autograph scrawled on the top, above the Heath band with those three star singers in the forefront. She managed to get him to sign her picture when the Heath ensemble played in the town.

All these years later, she cannot recall how she came by the photograph to take it for signing, but thinks she might well have bought it from a stall at the dance selling keepsakes for fans.



STRICTLY LINE DANCING? Television show host Bruce Forsyth marches along the Wellington Pier at Great Yarmouth with the cast of the 1961 summer show in which he starred. During his service in the RAF, he played the piano while Lilian Bulmer sang.



MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS: Yarmouth resident Lilian Bulmer, a talented big-band singer as a young woman.


AMONG MY SOUVENIRS: crooner Dickie Valentine autographed this picture for Jean Bean when Ted Heath and His Music played in the town.


TONY'S TREASURE: press photographer Tony Pagano snapped Heath's star vocalists - Lita Roza, Dickie Valentine and Dennis Lotis - signing his copy of one of their records.


AND NOW, A SONG FROM LILIAN...the Yorkshire-based Ken Popplewell Orchestra, with Lilian Bulmer waiting to go to the microphone.


VAUGHAN VANQUISHED: when singing hopeful Frankie Abelsohn entered a talent contest in Leeds postwar, he was beaten by winner Lilian Bulmer. The picture, taken when he was one of Britain's favourite stars under the surname of Vaughan, caught him on stage at Caister at a holiday centre in the 1970s. He died in 1999.


SHAPING UP: Marion Ryan, who died nine years ago, was the singer with the Ray Ellington Quartet. When she was trying to get a foot on the showbiz ladder, Lilian Bulmer beat her in a talent competition.