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Saturday, 2 July 2011

Henry Hall, Bandleader

You may wonder why a record of The Teddy Bears' Picnic (Columbia F.B.2816) features in my collection of vintage sound issued by or pertaining to The Salvation Army? Clue; The performers are Henry Hall and his Orchestra.

Henry Hall, the popular bandleader and radio/television presenter, was born at Peckham, South London, in 1898. His family attended the Salvation Army Corps at Nunhead and Henry was encouraged to play the cornet and also received piano lessons. On leaving school he obtained a position in the Army's Music Editorial Department as an assistant working alongside Major Fred Hawkes and Major Arthur Goldsmith. It was here that his abilities as a composer and arranger were first recognised and encouraged with several of his compositions, including the marches Holly, Nunhead and Our Conquering Army, being published in the Band Journal.

In 1916 he was recruited into the Royal Field Artillery where his musical abilities only became noticed after he was arrested for playing the piano in the officers mess and the subsequent grilling by the Captain led to his being transferred to the Cadet School. Here he was able to play the piano to his hearts content, become a member of the band and write arrangements for revues. On demobilisation Henry returned to the Music Editorial Dept only to find that his position had been taken by a new junior, Eric Ball. Undeterred he sought out a career in music, working as a cinema pianist and playing in a variety of ensembles to finance his studies at the Guildhall School of Music.

In 1922 Henry Hall moved to Manchester having obtained a position as relief pianist in a dance band. He quickly gained an understanding of the popular dance rhythms and was soon leader of the Trafford Band at the Midland Hotel, one of the L.M.S. Railways' chain of hotels. At this time the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland was being built and Henry, who was involved in buying pianos for the new hotel and planning for the dance band entertainment had a real brainwave, he thought that a radio broadcast would be a good way to advertise the hotel. The Gleneagles opening night and the first outside broadcast ever in Scotland took place on June 4th 1924. With only one microphone the broadcast must have sounded very primitive but the management were delighted and more followed. At the end of the season the seven man Gleneagles band moved to the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool and it was here that Henry was offered a recording contract by Columbia. Despite the recordings being made in Manchester and Liverpool the band was known as "The Gleneagles Dance Band".

By 1932 Henry was running 32 bands in the L.M.S. organisation, but it was still something of a surprise when he was invited to lead the BBC Dance Orchestra as many better known bandleaders had seemingly been overlooked. The first broadcast by the new combination in March 1932 received a mixed response from listeners and Henry's Salvation Army background didn't help the opinion of some critics, however things soon settled down and the band established itself in the five-fifteen slot. "This IS Henry Hall speaking" became an institution, with very high musical standards and a fair amount of jazz interspersed with the more traditional type arrangements. The theme, Five-Fifteen, was based on the notes B-B-C whilst the closing refrain Here's to the Next Time, was an adaptation of the trio section from one of Hall's Salvation Army marches Sunshine. Aware that children would be listening. Henry Hall programmed material such as Here comes the Bogey Man and The Teddy Bears' Picnic, but the arrangements and the playing were always good enough to keep the parents happy too.

Such was the popularity of the Dance Orchestra that in 1934 the BBC launched Henry Hall's Guest Night, credited by some as the first chat show, which ran for almost 1000 editions. The Radio Times never published who would be on the show, it was always a surprise. Guest included Flanagan and Allen, and Tommy Handley. 1936 saw Henry Hall being invited by Cunard to form and conduct a band for the maiden voyage of The Queen Mary, broadcasts were made from the ship and onboard guests included the harmonica player Larry Adler. The following year, 1937, Henry reached agreement with Sir John Reith whereby the BBC Dance Orchestra would be disbanded and not replaced, he (Henry Hall) would be given the entire music library and for the last six weeks of their contract the band would be referred to as Henry Hall and his Orchestra. Under this name the band continued to record and toured throughout Great Britain and Europe until it's last performance in 1947.

Henry Hall moved into theatrical management, producing several hit West End shows and also summer spectaculars at Bournemouth and Blackpool. He retired to Eastbourne in 1970, shortly after being awarded the CBE in recognition of his services to music. During retirement he maintained a “loose” Salvation Army connection through family members who served as officers and soldiers.

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