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



        Boy Choirs, like Shirley Temple and Freddie Bartholomew, are a thing of the past. In times of sweeter taste-- from the late 1930s till the 1950s-- Singing Boys were very popular, their cherubic charm controlled by one man, Robert Mitchell, as imperiously rigid as Billy Bunter’s headmaster.

 Emanating from a Hollywood school and scout troop, the Mitchell Boychoir appeared in 150 feature films: they sang with Astaire & Rogers in “Carefree”’, rendered the Schubert Mass in G for gangster James Cagney in “Angels With Dirty Faces”, accompanied priest Bing Crosby as he sang “Swinging n A Star” in “Going My Way”, played Hitler Youth choristers in “Mission To Moscow”, provided both the Jewish and Catholic choirs in “The Jolson Story”, and aided Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy in numerous westerns. Even in the disco 1970s they could be heard piping up on the soundtrack of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”.

       Around this time, however, work grew slim for pretty boys with sweet voices in an era of bolshie youths and grunted rock. Mitchell channeled his energies into a church gigs that spread way beyond post-modern ecumenicalism: now playing vintage pops like “My Sin” for Religious Scientists, now donning a skull cap and prayer shawl to sing “Eli Eli” at Temple Ahavat Shalom. Sundays found him in an Italian Catholic Parish in Chinatown or taming Filipinos with Episcopal hymns near Koreatown. Godlike, he hovered above religion, the spirit exuding in heavenly harmonies whenever he pressed down the keys or opened his mighty voice to give sect-free praise.

       His boys had not forgotten him, as I discovered recently when I arrived at his digs in order to spend a day hanging out with Mr Boychoir, now a sprightly 93, radiant with X-ray eyes and killer smile. He received me from his bed where he sprawled, immaculate in a dark suit, surrounded by boxes of chocolate peanut clusters:

 “Jehosophat! In the pokey again? What’s the bail, you naughty child?”. Mitchell put down his speaker phone to explain that this superannuated ex-chorister, now in his fifties, had a beautiful vibrato as a child but suffered from chest-tones developed from shouting “Read all about it!” as he sold newspapers on the streets. No sooner had Bob dealt with the jailbird than another call came in, blasting out of his speaker: “What’s the difference between a symphony orchestra and a philharmonic?”, demanded a cracked voice. “He used to render ‘Home On The Range’ so beatifically”, said Bob, as sotto voce as he could, “But we caught him purloining our arrangements one day, leaving cotton candy stains”. Nevertheless, Bob gave him his musical definition.

I had never seen Bob in anything but dark vestments.  Was this his style, his fashion statement? “No, no, no! When I was a youth I wore clothes of many colours, with rings and bracelets that clanged and clashed!” He explained that early on he’d wished he’d been a girl because he liked boys; his terrified mother had taken him to a priest who pronounced this to be merely a “tendency” and when with boys he should look straight into their eyes, never traveling south. However, he loved to dress up to the nines and on October 20, 1926, at age 14, while strolling after school in plus-fours, wasp-waisted jacket, topped off with twirling silver cane and dangling fob watch, he heard a passing mother tell her little girl: “Now there’s a shining example of a pansy”. From then on he wore black.

He took my arm for our trip to his office, his sunny disposition erasing the grimness of a Hollywood neighbourhood characterized by high steel fences with spikes. Past ethnic businesses and graffiti walls we raced, with me dragged behind the long body that leaned steeply forwards cleaving acrid air. “You see, if I don’t move fast I fall down”.

The office walls are decorated with framed and signed pictures:” To Bob and the best choir in the world-- Bing Crosby”; “The grandest group of boys I have ever known—Hopalong Cassidy”. Ex-choirboys, some divorced, others in penury, flitted in and out, as Bob, enthroned on a theatre organ seat, told me how he came to fame as the music director at St Brendan’s church in Los Angeles during the early 1930s.

The choir had been featured on a local radio station owned by a racketeer who needed a little piety to offset jazz and shadiness. Elsie, the programme director, spotted a sure thing and propositioned the Corwin brothers (born Cohen), vaudeville producers. “What you got we don’t need”, they chorused. “But”, shouted Elsie, “They sing Hebrew and then launch into hot swing stuff!”. 

The boys shared a bill with stripper Sally Rand, the notorious fan dancer. Fortunately for the show she added extra fans. Casting directors caught the act and the boys were soon up on the silver screen. The church connection had to be dropped due to complaints that this was exploitation. So Bob started a school, realizing the ideal of an all-male choir. “ Americans had been too busy cutting down trees and killing Indians, so they let the women do the choir duties”.

Bob ran a tight ship, exercising the rod when necessary. In the morning they studied the three Rs, in the afternoon they sang everything from spirituals to swing; later in the day they marched singing to the park in full regalia as Boy Scouts; some boarded and were kept healthy with lashings of cod liver oil. Bob, a conservatory-trained musician, found his best students were the ones from broken homes because they had no place else to go while the rich kids were always off on vacations. Through the years he trained 600 boys; 50 are now in heaven.  Today’s society has no reason for sweet boys but, says Bob, “Like candles, there’s something romantic and spiritual when these rough, uncouth little creatures make beautiful music—they become angels”.

Noon found us at Mass in downtown Los Angeles, at the aircraft hanger Catholic cathedral, Our Lady Of The Angels. Bob, on my arm, dashed us up to a low-slung metallic Christ and, wresting himself free, kissed the limbs passionately in the manner of the mostly Latino worshippers in front of us. During the hymns his voice was heard above all others. Next we popped into a nearby synagogue where Bob chatted in fluent Yiddish with the rabbi. Then it was time for dinner and I joined him in his assisted-living digs, run by cheerful Filipino women who specialize in spicy curries. Bob rules the roost of this otherwise female establishment, rushing hither and thither, pouring lemonades, exhorting the bewildered old ladies to eat up their vegetables.

Our day ended in Vitello’s Italian Restaurant, Studio City, where Bob has a regular gig entertaining at the piano. I sat him at the piano around 6.45 pm and he never left his bench until closure at 10.30pm; nor did he take food or drink, or go to the lavatory, lucky man. The Opera Room was full of anxious customers, each table bursting, and I was happy for Bob. But it turned out these people were impatient for Bob to stop his own singing—“If I were the sinner and you were the saint”, an early Christian Scientist number—so that they could line up and perform.

And what an awful lot they were! Led by a bearded red-faced man in a check shirt and dirty trousers who slaughtered Jerome Kern and George Gershwin by never hitting one note from the original, the singers included a woman in a wheelchair croaking “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, a fat man who imitated Sinatra until his dangling mobile phone rang so long and loud he was forced to take the call and thus become himself again, a barnyard of ear-piercing sub-operatically belters, and a crone who sat on my knee to croon into my ear every time I dared to return to work on my wilting anti-pasto.

All through this cacophony Bob rode high, never flinching, always smiling, never despairing even as singers thrust their sheet music at him, dictated stage directions, ordered him to improvise while they roamed the room to greet other diners or to take another swig of their gin. Bob played in every key, even vile ones like B, adjusting to the pitch of the clientele, often saving those whose notes had soared too high and had gone into free fall by providing a pianistic parachute followed by a soft landing pad of tonic chords and thudded bass. Did I detect some piano passion as he accompanied a rendition of “Bill”, the Kern & Wodehouse classic? “I love him because he’s…I don’t know……because he’s just my Bill”.

I tackled the matter later as we sat in my car in his driveway around midnight. “My dear boy, I may be gay as a garden party but I approach these songs as purely aesthetic articles. I love them but I don’t take them to heart.”  Pop songs were the “forbidden fruit” denied him by his strict religious mother. What about his boys? There was never any question of their being forbidden fruit, or even fruit. “I loved them and let it go at that”. I believed him to the core.

 Bob is the perfect bachelor schoolmaster, ready to bring out the best in you, an actor in that long and distinguished line of ever-ready pedants, taking the place of fathers long swallowed up by fog, ignorant of the questions you wished you’d asked.


                                  IAN WHITCOMB May, 2006.



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