“MY UNCLE WROTE “LADY OF SPAIN”
by Ian Whitcomb
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com
Even today most people know of “Lady Of Spain”, especially in America where it has a rotten reputation. There it's associated with the conformity of the 1950s when kids were forced to wear bow ties and learn accordion. The song was the “Horst Wessell” of the squeeze-box which, in turn, was emblematic of all that was fusty old-fashioned. Rock & Roll came along to liberate the youngsters from their cultural prison.
My uncle, not Spanish in any way, was one of no less than three lyricists who, in 1931, contributed the words that nobody ever seems to get right. In its period, despite initial resistance from jazz-loving bandleaders who didn't care for paso dobles that could double as waltzes, the song became a world-wide smash. I believe the best version, readily available on CD, is Ray Noble's version with a vocal by Al Bowlly. Uncle also had a hand in “Let's All Sing Like The Birdies Sing--Tweet! Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!” which can be heard every day at Disneyland's Enchanted Tiki Room attraction. It's also on the soundtrack of a Woody Allen film, “Radio Days”. And in the Balkans they're partial to “Butterflies In The Rain” and “Fairy On The Clock”. I know these facts because I receive royalty cheques four times a year for these and other works of my uncle, Stanley J. Damerell -- not his real name but only one of many. Typical of his time. And therein lies my tale.
I want to tell you about my uncle -- and his vanished London of smoke, false teeth, and napkin scribbling in pubs. In order to do so you have to hear about my family.....................
When I was at prep school in Sussex during the early 1950s I used to repeat family folklore for the general amusement and also for my safety.
They laughed when I claimed that Colindale was named after Uncle Colin, the “Col” who had spent his war in and around bunkers as a protector of golf courses; and that Uncle Gilbey had been killed in action due to tripping on a small bomb, shape of
ladies hand-mower, while guarding bushes in Richmond Park. They laughed wrongly when someone discovered that my father wasn't an architect (as my mother had instructed me to say) but was in fact a builder's merchant. “Merchant!”, they jeered. “But he did go to Marlborough!” “Merchant! Merchant!”. So I went into an
Uncle Col joke, the one about a constipated gent squatting in a public convenience who, upon hearing another customer enter the adjoining stall and immediately drop a noisy load, exclaims: “Blimey! You're lucky!” "Lucky?”, replies the other. “I haven't even got my trousers down yet!”
Such stories kept hostility in check. But songs, I soon learned, were even more effective: “Lady of Spain, I adore you! Lift up your skirt -- let's explore you!”. They loved me for my comedy songs, excusing me for being no good at games. One summer, at our seaside caravan, my mother let it drop that the clean version of “Lady Of Spain” had been written by an uncle, sort of, called Jack. Now my mother's side of the family had always been well-off (as opposed to my father's father, who'd made and lost millions, and was bankrupt at my birth -- hence my father being reduced to peddling bricks and tiles), and this songwriter Jack was something of an embarrassment. My mother explained that he was, in conversation, a ‘G-clipper”, and that her father's sister, Auntie Irenie, had married beneath her. Little more was said about the man and I went on my way through the rock & roll 50s.
In the 1960s, after my father died just before I became a rock star with a yen for the past, I lived with my mother in Wildcroft Manor, a block of mock-Tudor flats on Putney Heath. Here I spent many evenings in the lounge where she ruled from an armchair, a gin and Dubonnet in one hand, a Players in the other and a loving look that said, “If you won't start something then I will!”. The lounge walls were tobacco-dark and from the solid oak mini-piano next door in the dining room -- long used as a side bar and ever-lined with exotic bottles -- came the comforting smell of ghost cocktails maturing over decades dating back to the good years before the war. Before the war -- when
everything had been better. And I’d missed all the fun. “Never mind, darling”, said my mother. “Have the other half. You know that The Wildcroft Arms is always open”.
Retired as a rock star, I had started work on a book on the history of popular music from ragtime to rock (eventually published by Allen Lane, the Penguin Press as “After The Ball”).
As a result I took to probing my mother, as the cocktails flowed, about Uncle Jack, the family songwriter, the social black sheep.
“Your grandfather tried his best -- invited Jack to Christmas at the Mill House in Thorpeness, But not, of course, to the Shoot. What would he have done with a gun, I ask you? After lunch they'd take a stroll, always starting out side by side -- but always returning miles apart.” Why? “Jack was a bore. And common as muck”. What was his real name? “That's a god one. He wrote as Stanley J. Damerell -- where he got the ‘J” from nobody knows -- but Auntie Irenie married him as plain Jack Stevens. It's rumoured he had another earlier name. Probably one of those three or four letter cockney names, Pig or Figg or something”.
My mother ruminated for a while as she used to do after her second gin & French. Then: “There's mystery surrounding our family”. Like what? “Well, I'm sure we have Jewish blood -- just look at the noses in the old photos and the way no-one can stop you performing”. I grew excited. “Do sit down, darling”. More ruminating. Then: "Alright , I owe Auntie Irenie a visit. You can come along”. Will the songwriter be there? “Dead, you know. Long dead”.
Clapham, genteel but not toffee-nosed, had long been popular as a dwelling place for members of “the profession”, as I’d learned from my music hall researches. My auntie, for some reason now calling herself “Noel”, was happy for the company
(“Hello, duckies -- plenty of room in the stalls!”) making us at home in the vestibule with a wool-cozied pot of tea and a plate of Kunzle cakes set on a silver salver (“Jack liked to refer to it as a ‘silver saliva’"). She seemed to have known everybody in show business (“When there was a show business”) and, seeing my enthusiasm, she pulled out the signed photos of Sophie Tucker.
“Very involved with us Lady Ratlings, you know. And always top of the bill over here. Goodness, she loved to go shopping and come back laden with prezzies! The Royals adored her, as they would”. To prove it she produced an elaborate tasseled and gold-woven programme for a show featuring Sophie Tucker, the great American song delineator and comedienne: The Royal Command
Performance of 1938. Was Uncle Jack performing? “No, dear, he was there in his capacity as King Rat”.
This talk of rats and ratlings intrigued me. But it took some time to get back on track because my mother and auntie now switched subjects, preferring to yarn about relatives: “You haven't heard about Col, then?" “No, ducky”. “Well, we threw him a surprise birthday party and there we were, all waiting behind the front door when he was led in from the golf club. ‘Party!’ we shouted. Would you believe it, he went and had a coronary right then and there!” “The idea! I’ll bet that put a damper on proceedings”. “Well, after the ambulance had gone we did have a little cake”.
Finally, in answer to my King Rat question, auntie located some copies of “The Trap”, 1937. While she and my mother resumed their yarning I examined these little brown publications: “A Quarterly Journal Exclusive To The Grand Order Of Water Rats, founded 1890”. Inside I learned that they were a charitable organization dedicated to “Philanthropy, Conviviality, and Plenty of Auld Lang Syne”. There was a terrific photo of my uncle as King Rat, heavily robed and sashed, installed in his special high chair on the occasion of a “Grand Banquet of the GOWR” held at the Park Lane Hotel, November 7, 1937. Uncle Jack, rather cadaverous of face and stern of demeanor, is accepting, with three fingers crooked in the refined manner, a ciggie from the silver case of the Rats’ guest of honour, Sir Malcolm Campbell, the ace racing car driver. Although facing each other, both men are staring into the distance, while hovering above and between is the “wonder boy” comedian, a man of certain years, "Wee” Georgie Wood”. The caption describes the scene as a “social moment”. I was transfixed: dainty fingers, silver cigarette case, a
midget comedian, and a speed demon. The period encapsulated to perfection.
Auntie Irenie noticed my study. “What a night that was!”. She elaborated by telling me of the standard Water Rat greeting: a synchronized dropping of the dentures by all members who had them (“A right royal clatter, I can tell you!”), followed by the ritual
passing from lap to lap of “Wee” Georgie Wood. “My brother -- your grandfather -- was attending for the first time and, not knowing the ritual, was surprised when suddenly ‘Wee’ Georgie’s head appeared in front of him just as he'd finished his soup.’ I didn't order John The Baptist -- I ordered roast beef!’ “
My grandfather seemed to be a lot funnier than my uncle. But my grandfather never wrote anything down, except cheques. “He was delighted to join Harry Champion later on the hotel steps as they lay in each other's arms singing ‘Boiled Beef And Carrots’. I think that was when he forgave me for running off with Jack”
Now we were on target. How had uncle started as a songwriter? “He'd had a toff act -- top hat and tails, patter and an ending song.” When? “Before the war -- the Great war”. Then? “He did a flapper-and-fool act with a girl called Maisie which we won't discuss if you don't mind. How I met him will be left unsaid. Have another Kunzle?” It was high time to go, as my mother indicated with a sudden shift of her head.
But my auntie must have appreciated my interest in her and her late husband because when we went to leave she presented me with two big thick blue bound collections of Stanley J. Damerell songs. I couldn’t wait to get stuck into them.
At home I removed the bottles and ashtrays from the sideboard mini-piano, opened the lid and propped up the first volume. This was not the collected complete works because the first song I looked for wasn't there -- a vivid number my uncle had helped write for George Formby, the banjo-ukulele strummer and singer of comic songs, who'd been a hero throughout my childhood and even into rock & roll. We all loved him, Beatles and Kinks included. So, proudly, I searched for “John Willie's Jazz Band” but to no avail.
Earlier, as a student at Trinity College Dublin, I’d been an ardent black American blues aficionado -- so much so that I found “John Willie's Jazz Band” to be a refreshing change from all the misery moans of the true blues. Here, in a sly comment on the Americanization of British culture, were a bunch of Lancashire lads who weren't “real darkies” but were “getting on that way” due to all the local dust on their faces. Brilliantly, the chorus exhorts
“baby dear” to “never mind your beer” but instead enjoy “Wiganland” music as opposed to Dixieland. Because: “When a cook-shop we are playing near/ We turn black puddings white with fear”. Good old uncle! Of course, I’d had to learn the song off the record. Now I had the books and it wasn't there -- but there was plenty of other good reading and looking and feeling. I've always relished the feel and the smell of the thick paper of old sheet music. Why I could almost eat the music and then maybe I’d be shot back into the past!
Most of the songs were published as black and white sixpenny copies but every now and then I’d run across a deluxe two shilling edition in colour: “Dance Of The Raindrops”, for example, a “Fox Trot Fantasy” depicted as blue and orange fairies -- some dancing together seductively in sheer clinging silken gowns-- sylphishly 1930s figures, with no breasts -- falling from the gray skies as raindrops -- onto the umbrella of a young sheltering couple sitting on an idyllic hillock with a perfect stile nearby and rolling hills a distant prospect. He is wearing a blue suit and striped tie. She is in a short summer dress. Both are smiling. A very jolly rustic scene. Printed at the bottom, perhaps spoiling the mood, is the publishing company's name: Cecil Lennox Ltd, 134 Charing Cross Road, London.
Now I knew this address to be right in the heart of Britain's Tin Pan Alley, a grimy dark area close to Soho, of huddled Victorian no-nonsense buildings, stern and forbidding. And I imagined my uncle and his fellow workers hunched inside, with tea cups and curling sandwiches and burning fag ends, dreaming up these fox trot fantasies of fairies and raindrops and happy couples in suits and short dresses, dispensing sunshine to the
drab lives of millions in Depression Britain. I saw salesmen in trilby hats and wasp-waisted jackets setting off for the station with bulging briefcases full of song samples to offer at shops all over the grainy isles. Finally, I saw families at little villas fronting the by-pass, standing around the piano as mother tried out “Dance Of The Raindrops”.
In the Great Depression even the makers of escape were
touched by the crisis: some songwriters grew so impecunious that they were forced to pawn their own underwear.
I had noticed that “Raindrops” credited one Erell Reaves as the lyric writer. I kept coming across this Mr. Reaves as I leafed through the volumes, through a flicker of foxtrots, quicksteps, comedy songs in 6/8 time, continentals, football anthems, school songs, as well as “Lady Of Madrid”, and other lovelies of Barcelona, and even Casablanca. Finally, at the very end of the second blue volume, there was “Lady Of Spain” in gorgeous colour and there was Erell Reaves again, together with his composer Tolchard Evans -- both wonderful names.
I put two and two together and guessed that Erell Reaves was an amalgam of the last five letters of Damerell and the last the last six of a certain Robert Hargreaves, whose name had popped up continuously as I’d run through the blue books. As well as that, my mother had made mention of a “Bob ‘Argreaves” as another of my grandfather's reluctantly-invited Christmas guests. The clipped ‘H’ informed me that Mr. Hargreaves was of humble origins just like Uncle Jack/Stanley or whatever his real name was. Of course, our own family respectability was in some doubt, as my mother had indicated when telling me of the Hebraic mystery. “Your grandmother was a Harrison which could have been once a Harris and Harris was a name that Jews used to cover up who they really were”. That's the trouble when you're not Royalty or famous -- you never know who you once were.
There was also a Harry Tilsley listed as a lyric writer on the comedy songs but about this gent I could discover nothing. Perhaps he was also an invented name or a concoction or a pen-name. Perhaps he was Cecil Lennox, the publisher, or was he
Pierre Chaventre, or pretending to be -- the man who helped write such continental fox-trot romances as “That Night In Venice”.
It must have been a crowded office if these writers really did exist what with Stanley and Tolchard and Harry and Bob, plus the Frenchman (What must he have thought of Stanley's “I'm A Froggie”?) and also a Benny Thornton who appears to have taken care of the lyric chores on the slangy American-style numbers,
the ones that spoke of “babes” and “hot dames”.
I was really enjoying getting lost in the big blue books, in the bright colour pictures on the cover of “Cupid On The Cake”, “Soldier On The Shelf” and “Butterflies In The Rain” (These were all composed, I noted, by Sherman Myers, a very New York sounding name, redolent of the real Tin Pan Alley). The fantasies were relieved by comedy songs like “Does A Puff-Puff Go Choo-Choo Or A Choo-Choo Go Puff-Puff?” and “I've Never Wronged An Onion So Why Should It Make Me Cry?”
I wondered what Stanley Baldwin made of these songs. Or Neville Chamberlain. Altogether my uncle and his colleagues covered a great deal of pop song territory, not always with distinction but they kept trying until they had a hit like “Lady Of Spain” or else a nice string of waltz ballads like “If” and "Unless", as featured with utmost success by Gracie Fields -- and then, much later in 1950s America by crooner Eddie Fisher, who also had a #6 smash hit with “Lady Of Spain” in 1952..
Uncle was no Cole Porter or Noel Coward, it's true: in “Lady Of Spain”, for instance, “appealing” is chased by “concealing” and then chased by “revealing”; “If” is a list: “If the world to me bow’d yet humbly I’d plead to you/ If my friends were a crowd I’d turn in my need to you/ If I ruled the Earth what would that be worth -- IF I hadn't the right to you”. Even so the right combination of words and music doesn't have to make sense or be clever so long as it moves you to laughter or tears. In this way my uncle had done his work, keeping the war clouds concealed by floss.
While the lyric writers worked in teams the composers seemed to be loners: the above-mentioned Sherman Myers,
together with the mellifluously-named Montague Ewing and the clashingly-named Tolchard Evans (the exotic joined with the Welsh).
At this stage of my researches I was determined to find out whether any of these English Alleymen were still living. Like their foxtrots they had become fantasies in my mind. So I rang up my contacts in what was left of pop publishing. The majority of the companies had been gobbled up by a conglomerate called EMI and as in my rock star days I’d been an EMI recording artist I had no
trouble getting answers, albeit with puzzlement in the voice. “We're doing a brisk trade in Elton John, you know”.
The old timers were mostly dead -- or “deceased” as the trade put it. Eventually, though, I received word that Tolchard Evans, the composer, was very much alive and living in Willesden. The name of Willesden rang a bell as somewhere I’d been lost in recently, a desolate place of Indian takeaways and laundrettes. Would Mr. Evans see me? I was assured that he'd be tickled pink. You see, said my contact, he feels neglected, he feels native melody makers have been destroyed by the Americans and especially by rock & roll. He hates The Beatles -- except “Yesterday” -- and all the traitors who have collaborated with the Yankee invaders and their weapons of gimmickry. Don't even mention echo chambers. Yes, he'd be tickled pink that a youngster like you would have any interest in an old geezer's melodies. He'll give you lunch, too.
The Evans house in Willesden was in a row but free-standing, made of sturdy gray-mottled brick and far from laundrettes. Laburnum bushes guarded the tiny front garden and once inside the wrought iron gate (“Dun Rovin' But Not Dun For”) I was greeted by a riot of flowers and shrubs. Tolchard Evans himself met me at the second ring of the melodious doorbell (Was it “Lady Of Spain”?). A tall man with big watery eyes and a shock of white hair, leaning sideways, smiling kindly in a brown suit with a cardigan peeping through. "Come inside, lad. I’ll bet it's perishing out there”. We were in early summer but an electric log fire flickered in a regular meter in the front room. At a table
nearby lunch was laid, cruets and sauces and all.
“I can see what you require is a brown ale or even a spirit”. A woman popped her head round an inner door, nodded and disappeared. “He'll get what we've got”, she said from somewhere beyond. “Oh never mind, dearie”, sighed the composer. “We'll go to the club”. He turned to me with his hands on his hips and anticipated merriment playing all round him like the cover of a foxtrot fantasy: “What do you say to some liquid refreshment?" “What I say is -- be home by noon if you want a hot it dinner!” said the disembodied voice from a frighteningly close location. He shot me outside.
“I keep telling her it's ‘lunch’ not ‘dinner’ down here but she's still mired in her Lancashire girlhood”, said Evans as he stood outsider buttoning up his jacket to the very top as he regarded his house and world. “Oh well...” and he gracefully pushed back a lock of hair with lovely long fingers. “That's what I call ‘The Independent Air’”. I rejoindered with: “As in ‘ I walk along the Bois Boulogne with an independent air’” “I'm the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo”, sang Evans. "You certainly know your stuff, my boy!” and he increased his pace.
So impressed was he by my song knowledge that when we reached The British Legion Hall bar he announced loudly so that all could hear: “This lad knows, you know! Have what you please! Name your poison!” I chose a Guinness. Evans pointed to the heavily-medalled, stooping barman: “A pint of Guinness for my friend -- and a triple brandy for me!”. Even as he spoke the barman was sliding a big snifter glass along the bar.
“Songwriting?”, he snorted after we'd settled down in a snug corner. “I tell you, lad, it's been ruddy hard coming up with novelties to rival the Yank attack”. As if to underline the challenge he swilled a deep draft of brandy. “Skin off your nose -- and down the hatch with you!”. After I’d reassured him that I no longer had any truck with rock & roll he agreed to tell me the full story of “Lady Of Spain”:
“ Your uncle and I looked at the market -- it was the end of the flapper age and we'd been flooded with all that awful jizzy
jazz -- so we tried to decide what could be done to.......” He stopped and gimlet-eyed me. “Tell me -- are those your very own teeth or are they dentures?”
Real ... “Amazing -- but I warn you, you may be a youngster now but pretty soon they'll be nothing but trouble. Get ‘em pulled and have yourself measured for dentures. Teeth are nothing but trouble, mark my words. Worse than the old lady”.
What about our Lady of Spain? “Ah yes -- you see, we had to create something different. No use slavishly aping all that darky
stuff set in cottonfields, or else they're necking on the sofa with the curtains closed -- you know, the lugubrious lamentations of a disappointed lover, dreadful dirges. Irving Berlin was the master of the master of that craft.”
“So -- your uncle and I -- we knew him as Fred, by the way -- we had a brain wave: what about a Paso Doble in 9/8 time? A far cry from the Charleston. Hence, ‘Lady Of Spain’. We'd never been there, of course. Brighton’s the farthest point I ever ventured and that was for the races not the pebbles. Nasty things pebbles -- ready for another pint?”
“Didn't take us long to write -- I just repeated the opening phrase in various pitches and with various chords. Fred consulted his rhyming dictionary and Tilsley and Hargreaves got into the act”.
It seems to have required a lot of men to come up with such a simple love lyric. “Search me. They had some sort of arrangement -- in the pub mainly, scribbling on envelopes or lavatory paper. It's not a precise art, you know. Not like real music. Ah, those were the days.......”
He drifted off again, beyond the smoky haze of the Legion Hall. He told me, in a stream, of the glorious days before the Yankee invasion, before ragtime, before the Great War, when Britain boasted a flourishing industry in Light Music -- uniformed bands and evening-attired orchestras, properly trained musicians led by a conductor with a rigid baton, playing on bandstands in parks or by the seaside, performing decent melodies -- intermezzos, descriptive pieces, nature themes, healthy outdoor
music. “Yum, yum!” Music to be enjoyed on the idle slopes of an Edwardian afternoon when the grass smelled sweet as over it wafted operetta tunes by native composers, men who'd attended Oxford or Cambridge, men with good accents and their initials stamped on their napkin rings. “Yes, those were the days--the days before the jizzy jazz and the end of all sense and order. I mean to say, why should I be told to yearn for Tennessee or Alabammy when I've got glorious Devon and luscious Somerset right here on my doorstep?”
Did he sing of these counties? “I’ll say I did! I wrote waltzes in praise of them and Al Bowlly sang my work as only he could -- shedding tears in every quaver”. And did the public buy these waltzes. “No -- they preferred to foxtrot and after that came the juggernaut of Swing. Brrrh!”
Could he fill me in on some of the other composers with whom my uncle wrote? Who was Montague Ewing? And Sherman Myers? Both seemed to specialize in fantasies concerning fairies and raindrops and roses in the wind. Nature men. “Now there's a story -- but, oh lor! It's almost lunch time. Better be heaving home to the old battleaxe if we know what's good for us....”
We had roast beef and two vegetables followed by roly poly pudding and custard. All very nice and sensible. Mrs. Evans kept her own counsel and, I noticed, never called him Tolchard. Maybe it wasn't his real name. As she never called him anything I decided not to enquire. In the middle of pudding I did bring up the subject of the two nature composers again. Tolchard pushed back his plate and flicked his braces so that they snapped. Mrs. Evans made a sharp clicking and left the room.
“My boy -- Montague Ewing and Sherman Myers were one and the same!”
I lowered my spoon in amazement, which pleased the composer enormously. He was clearly an effects man. I commented that this false name business seemed to be rampant in British song writing. Did anybody go by their real name? Tolchard shot me a glowering look.
“Understand, lad, that many of us were ashamed of working
in the popular field when we ought to have been writing serious. Leslie Stuart, the ‘Lily Of Laguna’ man, he was really called Barratt. Worked as a church organist up north. Had to answer to the Bishop, you know. Noel Gay, of ‘Lambeth Walk’ fame, his real name is Armitage. But Montague Ewing truly was Montague Ewing. An old timer. Back in Edwardian days he'd penned a lovely novelty called “The Policeman's Holiday” and he was clerking by day at the time, scribbling tunes on the blotting paper. Almost got the sack. Did his bit in the war, only to return to find the Americans on the rampage” With the jizzy-jazz? “You're catching on. So he put on his thinking cap and decided that if he anointed himself with a Jewish-American moniker he might have a better chance with the punters. And he was right!
‘Fairy On The Clock’, “Cupid On The Cake’......
Not forgetting “Soldier On The Shelf”
“Well done, lad! You're one of us!”
After I returned to Putney Heath and was well into post-6pm cocktails with my mother, I recounted to her in full detail the story of my day with Tolchard Evans. She commented on only one detail:
“ I've heard of a lot of rum things but I never ever heard of an Englishman deciding to pretend to be Jewish! They very idea! It's always the other way round. I mean, that was the case in our family... But Mum's the word, darling. Ready for the other half?”
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com