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Radio Interview

George Barclay - Vocalist

An amateur talent contest at a local ballroom in his hometown Aberdeen brought eventual fame as a leading dance-band vocalist for persistent job-hunter George Barclay. Leaving school at 14, he worked as a butcher's boy, a machinist in a yarn mill, a petrol pump attendant and a milk delivery boy for a farmer, occasionally helping to milk the cows!

Born in Aberdeen on the 27th December 1911, son of a stonemason, with one brother and 3 sisters, there was a musical strain in his family, because his father was a lover of the classics and his brother, Alec, a postman, who served during the war with the Gordon Highlanders, was a flautist. George cannot play a musical instrument although he can, as he jokingly describes it, "fiddle about on a guitar". While employed on the farm, he started singing a bit at concerts, and did some cine-variety as a semi-pro singer, gaining sufficient confidence to enter for the talent contest at the Palais de Dance in Aberdeen when he was 19 years of age in 1931. The audience applause, intended to indicate the winner, was not exactly deafening when he did his act, but resident bandleader Arthur Mouncey convinced the manager that George was easily the best singer, so he won the contest and was given a regular spot with the band, led on trumpet by Arthur, who ultimately became a top sideman and sessioneer.

When Arthur moved to another ballroom, George stayed on with his successor, pianist Archie Alexander, a great discoverer of talent in the music business who also worked with Aberdeen Trumpeter Bobby Pratt., with many rising stars passing through his band, including most notably, Nat Gonella. Archie gave plenty of newcomers their big breaks, but signed them to inflexible long-term contracts at meagre money, which tied them to him exclusively when greater opportunities  came along. George found himself precisely in this position on more than one occasion while working for Archie. When the band first came to London, George entered a talent contest at the Streatham Locarno, won it and was offered a contract by the owners of the ballroom, Mecca, but Archie would not release him. After about a year with Archie, he was asked to broadcast for Charlie Kunz but almost lost the chance because Archie wanted an excessive fee for George's services. Ironically, Kunz later prevented him from broadcasting for Joe Loss! Nevertheless, George is grateful to Archie, who brought him to London, enabling him to widen his scope. Archie went from the Palais de Dance, Aberdeen, to the Grand Hotel, Cliftonville for the summer season of 1934, followed by a spot in the West End at Prince's Golden Brasserie in Piccadilly. 1934 was a momentous year for George, because he was given a solo recording contract by HMV, who -described him as the "Shy Singer"! The reason for the tag was his retiring nature and his lack of conversation. He didn't talk much because few people could understand his broad Doric accent! His first titles on Regal Zonophone were Bing Crosby's hit song "May I?" coupled with "Good Night Lovely Little Lady" (2345), accompanied by a band collected by Archie Alexander who, to his credit, had arranged the original audition for George. The record sold quite well but his popularity soared when Percy Brooks, Editor of The Melody Maker, gave him a favourable review in a weekly music column which he contributed to in the Daily Herald.

Charlie Kunz was unbelievably shy and nervous, surprised by his own success. He was amicable and easy-going, but could be short-tempered if anything displeased him. He dreaded appearing before a large audience and when he did has first one-night-stand with his band at a dance hall in Bradford while still employed at Casani's Club, he was so overwhelmed at the response of the fans that he rapidly downed several brandies on returning with George to their hotel

Music publishers began to besiege George, pursuing him to sing their songs, and one of them sent along a number he didn't care for but was persuaded to record. His reluctance could have been a costly mistake because the song was "The Isle Of Capri" and it provided him with a beat-seller! The crucial need now was to get some broadcasts and he was puzzling how to do so when he chanced to go and see Jimmy Phillips, Orchestral Manager at the Peter Maurice Music Co., who told him that Charlie Kunz wanted a singer. He went to see Charlie, who was at Casani's Club and broadcasting once a week in the afternoon at 4.15 from the BBC studios. He did one broadcast for Charlie but heard no more and was not altogether surprised because Harry Bentley was the vocalist with the band and was very competent and popular. After waiting a while, George approached Charlie rather tentatively to see if he might want him again and was told to his consternation: "I'd have you but not at the price asked by Archie Alexander"! That seemed to knock everything on the head but George didn't give up hoping, and one day he met Charlie at the Casani Club and was excitedly told "I've been looking everywhere for you. got a broadcast tonight and Harry Bentley is ill. Can you deputise for him?" George then had to bustle around the publishers searching for suitable songs and learning them in a few hours! Pleased with his singing on the broadcast, Charlie asked George to record with his band on Stemo and he began with "It Was Sweet Of You" coupled with "If 1 Had A Million Dollars" (1552), recorded in November 1934.) 

George BarclayGeorge's joy was quickly exploded by a bombshell from HMV who immediately cancelled his solo contract because he had recorded for Charlie on a rival label. He had been just about to feature a song in which he had great faith for a second hit: ”I saw Stars". He saw them alright but they certainly didn't sparkle! George believes that he made 4 solo records, eight titles for HMV before that ill-fated intervention. However, he need not have worried because he began broadcasting and recording regularly with Charlie, although still contract to Archie Alexander and appearing with his band at Cliftonville, followed in March 1936 by Prince's Golden Brassarie and the summer season of 1935 at the Nineteenth Hole (a golfing club in Weymouth). More trouble arose when, Charlie took his band to Douglas, Isle of Man, for three weeks during the summer and wanted George to go with them. Archie wouldn't allow him to do so, causing ill-feeling between Charlie and George for a time, but fortunately Charlie got over it and gave him some more broadcasts. Eventually, George finished his two-years contract with Archie and at just about  this time Charlie Kunz went on tour as solo pianist, so George joined Mantovani at the San Marco Restaurant, thanks to a tip-off and an introduction from Monty's publicist Felix Mendelsaohn. George broadcast and recorded for Monty and went on a country-wide tour which attracted enormous crowds.   He also recorded with an excellent sweet music band formed by brilliant guitarist George Elliott, which included E.G. Pogson (sax, clt), Cecil Norman (pno) and Bill Mulraney (tmb) - the only names George can now recall.

Mantovani was shrewd and demanding, a pompous perfectionist who couldn't abide the failings of others. His chief arranger accordionist Ronnie Binge, "a lovely man extremely erudite", who was responsible for the novelty of the cascading strings, had a great sense of humour and frequently teased Mantovani. One typical occasion happened  hen the stage show had to be reduced in length and Monty was debating how to do it when Ronnie ventured cheekily: "Cut your fiddle solo out"!

George stayed with Mantovani until 1937, when on a visit to the music publishing house of Feldman he was told by their Professional Manager, Percy Hirona, "John Firman wants to see you". It transpired that John was recruiting an all-star orchestra for his bandleader brother, Bert Firman, to take into the Cafe Anglais in September 1937, moving within a couple of months to the luxurious London Casino, playing for dancing opposite Hugo Rignold and his Orchestra, who accompanied the scintillating floor show. When the London Casino closed through banruptcy in January 1939 and the band broke up, George began to freelance.

He broadcast and recorded for Harry Leader, broadcast for Alf Van Straten, Lou Preager and Ronnie Munro, and recorded for Lou Preager and Ronnie Munro, and recorded for Victor Silvester, notably on "Boomps-A-Daisy", which he was taught by ballroom dancer/composer, Anisette Mills. George was called up in 1940 and went into the Rifle Brigade, spending two years training as a rifleman, but doing plenty of camp concerts, which led to his posting to Stars in Battledress, run by George Black Jr, in 1942. He was able to continue to freelance for a while because he was stationed at the Duke of York's Barracks in Chelsea, but soon the show in which he was featured toured the whole of Britain and went overseas to Italy and Africa entertaining the troops. When released from the Army he broadcast and recorded with Billy Thorburn's breezy presentation, The Organ, the Dance Band and Me, which starred organist Robinson Cleaver, singer Terry Devon and, of course, the florid pianistic of keyboard veteran Bill.

In 1948 George toured, broadcast and recorded with Felix Mendelssohn, who had packed up publicity to form his glamorous Hawaiian Serenaders, with its gorgeous hula-hula girls and soft lilting music led by skilled guitarist Harry Brooker.

The band was a great success until the tragic death of the 40-year old Felix after a prolonged illness in 1952.   Guitarist - Ernie Penfold, who had become the deputy director - a duty he shared with George Elliott for broadcasts only, during Felix's illness, took the show band off the road. Harry Brooker (father of Procol Harum's Gary Brooker) went his own way and had his own band in the huge Palace Hotel in Southend, where George guested at week-ends in the winter and every night during the summer season.  Sadly, Harry collapsed and died in the street, shortly after the Southend job ended, when only 40 years of age.

Felix Mendelssohn was a rather eccentric character with an embarrassing speech impediment, who had loads of splendid or ridiculous schemes and an insistence that he was descended from the famous composer. He came from a charming family and was an engaging and amusing personality. Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohn was born at Brondesbury Park in London on September 19, 1911, a great-grandson of the German composer. In a crowded career, he worked as a naval cadet, stockbroker, journalist, advertising agent, publicist, concert organiser, variety agent, film actor and agent in the dance band world.  On leaving the Navy, he became an actor and then opened Club Felix in London, which became the haunt of stage personalities in the early Thirties.  In 1938, after visiting the South Sea islands and seeing how popular the films and music of the region were in the U.S., he realised his ambition to form a Hawaiian band. He said: 'I believe soft music allied to glamour and showmanship is a sure recipe for success.'  With good organisation and appreciating the value of publicity, he popularised Hawaiian music in England during the late 30s and 40s. His band featured many prominent musicians of the time, including George Elliott, and Ernie Penfold well-respected Guitarists.

While singing for Felix, George married Patricia Medlock, whom he had met while he was helping her widowed mother run a pub called the East Arms at Kennington in South London. After their marriage on 20 March 1950 they lived in a big old house with a large jungle of a garden, also in Kensington, where they brought up their two children. Their daughter, Lee, now 34, is a school teacher in North London, and Ian, their 30-year old son, is an insurance broker living in Dulwich, where the family had a flat for several years after leaving Kensington. Pat had by now trained as a dental nurse but gave up this work when she and George were offered the rental of a lockup pub called the Blue Anchor in Fenchurch Street in the heart of the City of London. They both enjoyed their six years behind the bar from 1963-1969, with lots of showbiz friends calling in to see them. When they decided to go for a quieter life they took a flat in South Norwood and Pat worked for a group dental practice in the West End and George became a security officer until his delayed retirement at the beginning of 1983 when he was 71. They now have a cosy little flat amid the bustle of Peckham Rye in South London, where George is recovering from the effects of a alight stroke in December 1985. When I went to see them in March 1986 he was no longer chair-bound and was managing to get down to the local pub, conveniently placed adjacent to their block of flats! Pat had graduated to an executive post as the Administrator of Guy's Dental Hospital.

During his 20-year career as a popular singer George reckons he made about 200 records, which included 4 a month each for Charlie Kunz and Mantovani. Many have been re-issued on albums: three dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn and one each to Charlie Kunz and Mantovani. George was a good-looking young man, slim, medium height, dark haired, with horn-rimmed spectacles. His only fault, according to Pat, was (and still is) his impatience! It helped him, however, after his stroke, when he refused to be treated like an invalid and soon forced himself to regain the use of his affected arm and leg. Brown haired, brown-eyed Pat is small, slender, energetic and optimistic, just the right tonic for her taciturn and somewhat stubborn husband


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Last modified: 01/09/2013