Ambrose - The American Connection

By Steve Rawton



Few British bandleaders achieved significant success in America before the Second World War – Jack Hylton and Ray Noble being two well-known exceptions. Other bandleaders’ attempts to break into the American popular music scene failed when their initial record releases flopped - but a few including Lew Stone, Roy Fox, Harry Roy and Bert Ambrose did enjoy considerable success in the United States. Additionally, the Ambrose Orchestra in the mid-to-late 1930s was one British-based band that almost made it into the ranks of the great swing bands.

Unlike Jack Hylton and Ray Noble, Ambrose achieved popularity in America without actually performing there, his success being due almost entirely to gramophone recordings made in London. Only a couple of films ensured some appreciation of the human element behind the music. America, however, was not exactly uncharted territory for Ambrose, as this extract from a brief biography issued in the early 1930s disclosed:

‘Ambrose – leader of England’s snappiest dance orchestra – is thirty-five and although born in London came to New York while still a youth. After completing his musical studies Ambrose played violin in symphony and theatre orchestras, then formed his own band for ballroom and nightclub engagements that included New York’s Club de Vingt, Palais Royale and Clover Gardens. Ambrose returned to London in 1923 for a residency at the Embassy Club, then switched to the May Fair Hotel in 1927.’

Ambrose

Ambrose, Who led a band through the 1930's and right into the 50's and became a giant of British dance and popular music. Ambrose trained some of Britain's finest musicians of the period including Ted Heath. The Ambrose lead trombonist went on to front Britain's premier swing big band from 1945.

Ambrose, then, spent his formative years in America and at first concentrated on ‘serious’ music. He certainly had a reasonable grasp of musical theory and was known to be interested in ‘modern’ composers like Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartok. So far as his fiddle playing was concerned, Ambrose was professionally competent, but not a virtuoso. When performing a solo with his band he would play the melody ‘straight’ with one of the front line instruments providing a jazzy obbligato in the background. This was quite effective in the early days, but as time went on his solo efforts became somewhat perfunctory, and consequently rare. Although Ambrose’s presence on the bandstand seemed somewhat ‘surplus to requirements’ his influence behind the scenes was pivotal to the band’s success and it is as a first class manager of talent, rather than an indifferent musician, that he deserves to be remembered.

The band that Ambrose formed for the Embassy Club was an octet that included pianist/arranger Max Raiderman. Over the next few years there were considerable personnel changes, including the addition of American jazz trumpeter Henry ‘Hot-Lips’ Levine, and by the time Ambrose opened at the May Fair some notable British musicians were playing with the band, including sax player Joe Crossman. Ambrose also had by this time a brilliant chief arranger Lew Stone, whose influence on the band’s development cannot be overemphasised. The distinctive ‘Ambrose sound’ for which the band became famous in the early 1930s was due principally to Stone’s consummate arranging skills. Another important acquisition was American banjo/guitar player Joe Brannelly who, apart from his duties in the rhythm section, was influential in selecting talent for the band. In 1927/8 ‘Ambrose and his May Fair Orchestra’ made a few records for Brunswick and, more significantly, started broadcasting for the BBC. And it was regular broadcasts that enabled a mass audience in Britain to appreciate what the Ambrose band had to offer. Ambrose’s recording career at this time was still meagre, although throughout 1929 the band made some interesting records for Decca that unfortunately were marred by poor recording technology.

Also in 1929 Ambrose spent some time in New York and among other things reviewed the latest trends in popular music. He was certainly spoilt for choice considering that Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller and Bix Beiderbecke were all performing within a few blocks of each other! So far as most of the better-known American dance bands were concerned, Ambrose would have found little difference between them and his own band. By now the best bands had assimilated some basic jazz innovations such as swung rhythm, twelve-bar blues structures and block-chord harmonisation. Lew Stone understood these things and by scoring for baritone sax under lead alto and trombone under lead trumpet, ensured a distinctive ‘sound’ for the band. Stone also persuaded Ambrose to replace the tuba and banjo with the more ‘modern’ string bass and guitar, and to include a small string section for which he developed an innovative scoring technique.

In the spring of 1930 Ambrose started to record for HMV but it was not until mid-1931 that some of his records began to appear in America. This was the band line-up around that time:

Brass: Sylvester Ahola (trumpet), Dennis Radcliffe (trumpet), Ted Heath (trombone).
Reeds: Joe Crossman (alto/clarinet/baritone), Jack Shields (clarinet/alto), Joe Jeanette (tenor/flute), Johnny Walker (baritone).
Rhythm: Max Bacon (drums/vibraphone), Joe Brannelly (guitar), Dick Escott (bass), Bert Read (piano/arranger).
Violins: Ernie Lewis, (first violin)…+ others.
Vocals: Sam Browne, Ella Logan.
Arrangers: Lew stone, Sid Phillips, Arthur Lally, Ronnie Munro.

Over the next two years, approximately 10% of the Ambrose band’s HMV output was issued in the US on Gramophone, Victor and Bluebird labels. Ambrose’s HMV contract was somewhat restrictive regarding the titles that he could record and he had no control over the American selections. His main rivals at HMV were Jack Hylton (who overshadowed all others), and Ray Noble. Of the forty-eight titles issued in the US the following are some notable examples:
Gramophone. (Vocals by Sam Browne)

Star Dust (instrumental), Blue Again, Out Of Nowhere, Joey The Clown (+ Carlyle Cousins), You’re Blasé, Mona Lisa, Goopy Geer, Open Up Dem Pearly Gates, The Voice In The Old Village Choir (+ organ, choir and boy soprano), Song Of The Harp (+ Harry Chapman on harp).
Victor. (Vocals by Sam Browne)
Close Your Eyes, Got A Date With An Angel, Eleven More Months (2-sides), Tom Thumb’s Drum, I Don’t Want To Go To Bed (+ Max Bacon and Ambrose).
Bluebird. (Vocals by Sam Browne)
Yes, Yes (+ Carlyle Cousins), Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing.

By the time the HMV sessions ended in late 1932 there had been considerable personnel changes in the band, although the instrumental line-up and arranging techniques remained essentially unchanged.

From March 1933 until June 1934 Ambrose recorded for Brunswick where he had to compete with Roy Fox, Lew Stone and (once more) Jack Hylton for inclusion in Brunswick’s American catalogue. Again, roughly 10% of Ambrose’s British output was issued in the United States. The following were the most successful, all with a vocal by Sam Browne:-

Butterflies In The Rain, Bom-Ba-Diddy-Bom-Bom (+ Ambrose), Down The Old Ox Road, Love Locked Out, We’ll All Go Riding On A Rainbow, On A Steamer Coming Over, Unless, Play To Me Gipsy, Hand In Hand, Experiment, The Show Is Over, My Hat’s On The Side Of My Head.

Ambrose certainly didn’t take America by storm in the early 1930s and in the popularity stakes came way behind Jack Hylton and Ray Noble, and just about equal to Lew Stone and Roy Fox. However, things started to improve after Ambrose engaged Music Corporation of America (MCA) to handle his interests in the United States. Early in 1934 Ambrose (without the band) spent some time in New York and Los Angeles. Apart from the usual tour of nightspots he met with MCA to discuss possible future activities in the US, including a two-month summer residency at the Cocoanut Grove, and a series of sponsored radio shows for the CBC network. In exchange, Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club band was to visit Britain. After negotiations involving the (British) Musicians Union (MU) and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) an exchange was authorised. Cab Calloway did eventually bring his band to Britain, but for some reason Ambrose did not take-up his option. A pity, because band exchanges soon became exceptionally difficult to arrange, a situation that lasted until the mid 1950s.

In the autumn of 1934 Ambrose signed a recording contract with Decca, a British company that had recently established a branch in the United States. Although Decca’s British chief, Edward Lewis, was nominally in charge of both enterprises, in practice the American side of the business was almost entirely controlled by its resident head, Jack Kapp. His main concern was to attract and retain leading American talent and to maximise Decca’s record sales in the US. However, a select number of Decca’s British recording artistes were included in the American catalogue in the early years. British bandleaders, apart from Ambrose, who benefited included: Roy Fox, Lew Stone and Harry Roy. The first American bands to record with Decca were the Dorsey Brothers, Guy Lombardo and Ted Lewis - later came Bob Crosby, Jimmy Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, the Casa Loma Orchestra, Guy Lombardo, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Les Brown.

Decca’s American venture proved to be an immediate success and went from strength to strength throughout the 1930s. Apart from top-line bands, its solo talent came to include Bing Crosby, Dick Powell, Ella Fitzgerald, the Mills Brothers and the Andrews Sisters. With such a wealth of home-based talent available it is not surprising that the American Decca catalogue came to feature fewer British artistes than Edward Lewis desired. Rather than interfere with Kapp’s policy, he introduced the Anglo-American Series enabling some of Decca’s British output to be distributed in the United States as a separate operation. American radio stations were supplied with complementary copies of all releases from both sources. Decca, like other record companies on both sides of the Atlantic, would initially issue an artiste’s record as a ‘current release’ item. If it did sufficiently well it would be included in the next issue of the record company’s catalogue. All of Ambrose’s American releases made it into the catalogues, and some titles were included for many years! American Decca also pioneered the concept of the record ‘album’ whereby several records would be issued as a box set with title, artwork and sleeve notes. Over the coming years Ambrose would have several albums issued in the United States some of which became very popular. Also we mustn’t forget that by the late-1930s the jukebox had become an important factor in popular entertainment, and Ambrose had several long-running jukebox successes in the United States.

Although American Decca’s success was impressive it should be appreciated that in the mid-1930s total record sales in the US were still much lower than they had been before the onset of the Great Depression. Before 1929 the ‘million seller’ current release hit was not uncommon – in the 1930s it was rare. Radio, however, had remained relatively stable and by the early 1930s about half the households in the US possessed receiving sets. As well as the large network corporations such as Columbia and National, almost eight hundred local radio stations were in operation by the mid-1930s. Local broadcasting had a direct bearing on record sales because when not transmitting broadcasts by one or other of the major networks, playing records rather than featuring more expensive live shows became standard practice – the ‘disc jockey’ had arrived. Another innovation that had appeared by the mid- 1930s was the multi-selector ‘jukebox’. Despite the importance of records it was still sheet music sales that dominated the popular music scene (and would continue to do so until the late 1940s). In 1935, the Lucky Strike cigarette company sponsored a weekly radio show called Your Hit Parade that presented the top popular songs according to sampled radio-plays. The same year a similar venture publicizing, in ‘chart’ form, the twenty most popular record titles also appeared. Although not as sophisticated as the ‘charts’ introduced by music trade weekly Billboard in 1940, this early version did give an indication of the comparative popularity of recording artists. Having mentioned Billboard, the significance of other trade publications such as Variety and Metronome also needs to be appreciated – and, for jazz and swing, the appearance of the publication Down Beat in the mid-1930s was particularly important.

Here’s the Ambrose band line-up for most of 1935:
Trumpets: Max Goldberg, Harry Owen.
Trombones: Lew Davis, Tony Thorpe, Ted Heath.
Reeds: Danny Polo (clarinet/alto./baritone), Joe Jeannette (alto./flute) Billy Amstell (tenor/clarinet), Sid Phillips (baritone/clarinet/arranger).
Rhythm: Bert Read (piano/arranger), Joe Brannelly (guitar), Dick Ball (bass), Max Bacon (drums). Strings: Ernie Lewis: (first violin)…+ others.
Vocals: Sam Browne, Elsie Carlisle, Rhythm Sisters, Rhythm Brothers.
Arrangers: Bert Barnes, Ronnie Munro, Arthur Lally.
Deputy Leader: Reg Pursglove.

Some personnel changes occurred during 1935 – in the spring Bert Barnes replaced Bert Read on piano, in the summer Jack Cooper replaced Sam Browne and Elsie Carlisle, and in the autumn Clifton Ffrench replaced Harry Owen, and a third trumpet (Billy Farrell) was added. Also, because he spent much of the year touring British variety theatres (in addition to recording and broadcasting) Ambrose engaged, on a short-term basis, an American singer called Evelyn Dall. These then were the talents that constituted…‘The finest dance band in the World’ (Jimmy Dorsey), ‘A really great band’ (Artie Shaw), ‘Undoubtedly the best band in Europe’ (Jack Payne), One of the greatest bands of all time’ (Rudy Vallee)…so there!

Of course, Jimmy Dorsey’s tribute is arguable, but notice that he used the term ‘dance band’ - and throughout the 1930s (for better and worse!) dance music was synonymous with popular music. The universal appeal of dance music was really a consequence of the wide range of musical styles that could emanate from a single musical entity – the dance band – and this held even though many people just listened and possibly couldn’t even dance. It was because the Ambrose band achieved such a remarkable degree of authenticity and perfection in each of the several styles that dance music then encompassed, that it was held in such high esteem. There was, of course, a down side; almost the entire output of Tin-Pan Alley consisted of popular songs – music and words. As vocal techniques improved and ‘crooners’ gave way to ‘song stylists’ dance band tempos proved to be too restrictive. And, of course, similar problems arose as jazz styles became more innovative and genuine blues and country music attracted wider audiences. Such things came to be appreciated over time – in 1935 they were not so apparent!

Ambrose’s recording contract with Decca gave him much greater freedom over choice of music to be recorded than he had previously enjoyed. Titles that would normally be regarded as ‘insufficiently commercial’ might now be considered for release. Like (almost) all other recording artists, Ambrose had no say in whether – or when – a title would be released. And Decca, like other record companies, could usually ensure that commercially unsuccessful releases affected the artist more than the company at least in the long run. The greatest problem was the instrumental. Most popular music at the time emanated from Tin-Pan Alley, or stage and film musicals. Generally, the record buying public went for songs rather than mere tunes. In such highly competitive circumstances record companies had little choice but to comply with perceived public demand. However, the sheer size of the American record market meant that minority tastes could be catered for to a greater degree than in Britain and this was beneficial to the Ambrose band. Indeed, before the war Ambrose’s jazz-inspired instrumentals received much greater appreciation in the United States than in Britain.

Early in 1935 American Decca selected a number of Ambrose titles for release in the United States, all having been recorded in London in 1934, and most on current release in Britain. Ambrose, of course, had no say over what would be released in America, but could not have been displeased with the selections for 1935 – they gave him four major hits, and several minor ones! As a reasonable guide to the popularity of individual titles I have taken information used to compile the published record charts. Here, then, are Ambrose’s most popular 1935 titles, with those that made the top twenty underlined and numbered:

Instrumentals: Argentina, Lament For Congo, Dodging A Divorcee, Hors d’Oeuvres [No. 6], Streamline Strut, Caramba, Embassy Stomp [No.18].
Sam Browne: Night And Day, Anything Goes, I Get A Kick Out Of You, London On A Rainy Night [No.20], The Continental, La Cucaracha, Lady Of Madrid (US release only), I’ve Got A Note, I’m On A See-Saw [No.3], She Wore A Little Jacket Of Blue, The Piccolino.
Elsie Carlisle: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Home James, My Kid’s A Crooner.
Donald Stewart: South American Joe.

Clearly then, 1935 was the year that the Ambrose band achieved widespread popularity in America. Much of its success, particularly entry into the record charts, was due to radio – the disc jockey now being pivotal in promoting a band like Ambrose’s that could not broadcast live. The band also enjoyed excellent record reviews in publications such as Variety and Metronome – one commentator called it ‘the band with bite’! The most significant hit was really the jazz-inspired instrumental Hors d’Oeuvres because, at the time, it was unusual for a record without a ‘vocal refrain’ to do so well. Indeed, its very popularity made Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and others whose musical ambitions extended beyond the dance band idiom, pay more attention to the Ambrose band than might otherwise have been the case. Other successes at the time indicated that Hors d’Oeuvres was not just a one-off – for example the two jazz instrumentals Lament For Congo and Embassy Stomp, both arranged by (and the latter composed by) Bert Barnes. Output like this – and more to come – would ensure for the Ambrose band a toe, if not a whole foot, in the door labelled Swing Era.

Early in 1936 Ambrose went to New York at the invitation of MCA to discuss a range of options regarding future activities in the United States. One outcome was an agreement with a major broadcasting network for a series of sponsored half-hour radio shows. Another involved a six-week tour of American east coast cities, commencing with a big concert in New York. As it was by now almost impossible to bring over British musicians, Ambrose was expected to recruit a temporary band in the United States. Although this tour was later announced in various music publications it did not actually take place. It is worth noting that Jack Hylton, Ray Noble and Lew Stone were all successfully fronting American-based bands at this time. Ambrose was well aware of this, and also important changes that had occurred in the American popular music scene since his last visit. Although the "great depression" was by no means over, the "new deal" was beginning to have tangible effects and a degree of optimism was in the air. This coincided with a discernable change in musical tastes - at least by a significant proportion of the market for popular music. The Swing Era had - just about - arrived.

Early in 1936 there were some personnel changes in the Ambrose band. Jazz trumpeter Teddy Foster replaced Max Goldberg, and the trombone section now comprised Les Carew, Eric Breeze and Don Macaffer. Ambrose also strengthened the string section by including a cello, viola and extra violins - and on some recordings one or more of the following can be heard: oboe, celesta, xylophone, timpani, and bongo drums! Ambrose’s arrangers always ensured that this variety of orchestral effects was used subtly and never sounded pretentious. For routine vocals Ambrose now used Jack Cooper or the Rhythm Sisters, and also featured American ‘Blonde Bombshell’ Evelyn Dall who specialised in up-tempo, and occasionally risqué, numbers. No wonder that the Ambrose band could now count among its admirers such luminaries as Benny Carter, Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa. The most successful Ambrose releases in the United States during 1936 were:

Instrumentals: Limehouse Blues, Rhapsody In Blue (2-sides, Bert Barnes, piano solo), B’Wanga, Copenhagen, Wood And Ivory, Hide And Seek, The Night Ride, Creole Lady.
Sam Browne: Body And Soul (+ Ambrose, violin solo).
Jack Cooper: Everything’s In Rhythm With My Heart, Squibs, Rags, There Isn’t Any Limit To My Love, I Can Wiggle My Ears, Swing, The Sunset Trail, I’m In A Dancing Mood [No.16], On Your Toes, Serenade In The Night.
Evelyn Dall: The General’s Fast Asleep, Mrs Worthington, Wotcha Gotcha Trombone For?, Cuban Pete, Lost My Rhythm.
Rhythm Sisters: Memphis Blues.
Rhythm Brothers: Dixieland Band.

By the end of 1936 the Ambrose band had contributed about seventy titles to American Decca’s catalogue – 5% of the total entries. Quite good, considering the wealth of American home-grown talent that was then contracted to Decca. We must however acknowledge that other British-based bands were not doing too badly either. Roy Fox, Harry Roy and especially Lew Stone enjoyed considerable success in the United States and others such as Billy Cotton, Henry Hall, Jack Harris, Charlie Kunz and Jack Jackson were not entirely unknown. And of course Jack Hylton and Ray Noble still towered above all others when it came to a share in the American record market.

By early 1937 more changes had taken place in the band’s line-up – Tommy McQuater had replaced Teddy Foster and Alfie Noakes took over from Clifton Ffrench, Albert Harris had replaced Joe Brannelly (who was now band manager), Jack Simpson had been added on timpani and xylophone, and Sam Browne had replaced Jack Cooper on vocals. Later, Tiny Winters replaced Dick Ball on bass, and Vera Lynn and the Manhattan Trio joined the vocal section. Decca’s release schedule for 1937 allotted the Ambrose band around fifty titles, the most successful being:

Instrumentals: Tarantula, Champagne Cocktail, Hick Stomp, Midnight In Mayfair, Swinganola, Caravan, Twilight In Turkey, Power House, Toy Trumpet, Escapada, Deep Henderson, Cotton Pickers’ Congregation, Swing Patrol, Medley Of Hebrew Dances (US only).
Jack Cooper: We’re Tops On Saturday Night, What Harlem Is To Me.
Evelyn Dall: Organ Grinder’s Swing [19], On The Isle Of Kitchy Mi Boko (+ Roy Smeck, Hawaiian guitar), Swing Is In The Air, Rhythm’s OK in Harlem, Gangway.
Sam Browne: Blue Hawaii (+ Roy Smeck), Harbour Lights, My Lost Love, Moon Or No Moon, Lord And Lady Whooziz (+ Vera Lynn), Hometown, Rock And Roll, When Day Is Done (abridged version, US only).

In 1937 American audiences at last got a chance to see, rather than just hear, the Ambrose band in action. Not, unfortunately, in the flesh but at least on film. Soft Lights And Sweet Music was Ambrose’s first feature-length film and had been released in Britain the previous year. The storyline is little more than an excuse to present a succession of variety acts clearly selected to appeal on both sides of the Atlantic. The Ambrose band swings into action with a couple of instrumentals, and also provides support for Evelyn Dall, Elizabeth Welch, Donald Stewart, Jack Cooper and the Rhythm Brothers. I can find no evidence of any US radio shows featuring the Ambrose band in 1937 other than some short broadcasts each comprising a number of consecutively played Ambrose records. It is known, however, that some Ambrose titles did particularly well on the Jukebox circuit including Organ Grinder’s Swing and Cuban Pete. So far as reviews of Ambrose’s records in the musical press were concerned, Variety and Metronome were fulsome in their praise, and the magazine Down Beat, influential in jazz circles, took great interest in the band’s instrumental output. A front-page headline at the time read: ONE BRITISH BAND GIVES AMERICAN BANDS A RUN FOR THEIR MONEY!

Towards the end of 1937 Max Goldberg returned to the trumpet section in place of Alfie Noakes and Sid Phillips left the sax section to be replaced by Chester Smith as second alto (the baritone sax being dropped from the line-up). Also in late 1937 Ambrose ran into difficulties over the renewal of his Decca recording contract and consequently made no records for about a year. This is why the American releases for 1938 were somewhat sparse. Here are the most popular for that year:

Instrumentals: Message From Mars, Ritual Fire Dance.
Evelyn Dall: It’s the Natural Thing To Do.
Sam Browne: Watching The Stars.
Jack Cooper: OK For Sound, Free, There’s A New World.

After leaving the sax section Sid Phillips spent a few months in America, but returned early in 1938 and rejoined the Ambrose outfit, primarily as chief arranger. According to press reports Sid had been bowled-over by his reception in New York: ‘Everywhere I went people told me how much they thought about the Ambrose band, and many musicians rated it as tops’. Possibly inspired by Sid’s remarks Ambrose briefly, and without publicity, visited New York in the spring of 1938 for discussions with the AFM and others regarding a possible band exchange. Apparently some kind of deal was made allowing the Ambrose band to undertake a limited engagement in America in exchange for Ray Noble’s band coming to Britain. In fact Ray Noble did bring his band to Britain that summer, but for some unknown reason Ambrose did not, once again, take up his option. Also in 1938 another film featuring the band opened in New York. Calling All Stars was really a sequel to the previous film and had the Ambrose band supporting Evelyn Dall, Sam Browne, Elizabeth Welch and Larry Adler.

Towards the end of 1938 Ambrose renewed his Decca recording contract and the full band had now been re-formed. This is its line-up:

Trumpets: Tommy McQuater, Stan Roderick, Archie Craig.
Trombones: George Chisholm, Les Carew.
Reeds: Joe Crossman (clarinet/alto), Joe Jeanette (alto/flute), Billy Amstell (tenor/clarinet).
Rhythm: Bert Read (piano/arranger), Ivor Mairants (guitar), Tiny Winters (bass), Max Bacon (drums), Jimmy Blades (timpani/xylophone).
Strings: Ernie Lewis (first violin), Norman Cole (violin), + others.
Vocals: Denny Dennis, Evelyn Dall, Vera Lynn, Jack Cooper.
Arrangers: Sid Phillips, + others.

By the end of 1938 Ambrose’s total contribution to the American Decca catalogue consisted of 120 titles, about 3% of their complete listings. Given the number of famous US bands by now appearing on the Decca label, it is not surprising that Ambrose was becoming somewhat surplus to requirements. However, a selection of recordings made in 1938/9 (together with some previously unreleased titles) was issued in 1939. These were the most popular:-

Instrumentals: Plain Jane, Early Morning Blues, Ah! Sweet Mystery Of Life, The Wedding Of The Sophisticated Dutch Doll, Man About Town (US only), Hors d’Oeuvres (reissue).
Evelyn Dall: Organ Grinder’s Swing (reissue).
Denny Dennis: South Of The Border [No.8], My Prayer, Mexicali Rose, The Donkey Serenade.
Hear My Song, Music Maestro Please.
Jack Cooper: Empty Saddles,
Sam Browne: The Moon Was Yellow, *Falling Leaves, *Piccadilly, (*K-series 12-inch records).

Also released in 1939 was Ambrose’s third feature-length film – The Playboy (UK title - Kicking The Moon Around). This was much better than previous efforts and was distributed as a main feature movie. Directed by Walter Forde and written by Tom Geraghty and Roland Pertwee, it was well received by reviewers and moviegoers alike. Apart from Ambrose, who played himself, Evelyn Dall, Harry Richman, Florence Desmond and Maureen O’Hara had the main fictional roles with Max Bacon and Les Carew providing comic support. The Ambrose band was in fine form, especially when backing Evelyn Dall who sang the film’s big production number It’s The Rhythm In Me.

By the time Ambrose’s version of South Of The Border made it big in the American record charts war had broken out. Of course the United States was not yet directly involved and for a while it was business as usual. Not so, of course, in Britain! Wartime restrictions meant that Ambrose had to shelve plans for the band’s development (which were definitely in the swing direction) and make the best of what he could get in the way of musicians not subject to call-up. By the summer of 1940 he was leading a twelve-piece band augmented for recording and broadcasting purposes by a substantial string section. This set the pattern for the next five years and despite inevitably frequent personnel changes the Ambrose Orchestra remained one of the best British civilian bands of the early war years. Also in mid-1940, Vera Lynn, by now a singing star in her own right, left the band to pursue a solo career, and Evelyn Dall became too busy with stage, film and troop concert commitments to continue recording with the band. Fortunately, Ambrose had just discovered a young singer, Anne Shelton, whose vocal range encompassed the contrasting styles of both Vera and Evelyn, and she remained his principal vocalist until 1947.

By 1940 Ambrose’s Decca releases in the United States amounted to over two hundred titles, many still in the catalogues. This needs to be emphasised because although there were few new releases during the war, Ambrose’s record sales remained buoyant and his popularity was largely undiminished, as noted by music journalist Leonard Feather reporting to Melody Maker readers from New York in 1940. Here then, are the major titles released between 1940 and 1945:

Instrumentals: Blue Romance, War Dance Of The Wooden Indians, The Penguin, A Burmese Ballet, *Nocturne, *Serenade, *Liebestraum, *Waltz Of The Flowers, (*Arranged by Ambrose),
Oasis, Stage Coach, Pony Express.
Evelyn Dall: Cuban Pete (reissue).
Denny Dennis: Sing A Song Of Sunbeams, That Sly Old Gentleman.
Vera Lynn: I Love You Much Too Much.
Jack Cooper: A Latin From Manhattan, Her Name Was Rosita, Ridin’ Home, Nursie,
So Deep Is The Night, El Rancho Grande, If I Should Fall In Love Again.
Anne Shelton: A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, Stormy Weather (US only), Moonlight In Mexico, Something To Remember You By, The Last Time I Saw Paris, Darling, Taking A Chance On Love, You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, I’ll Walk Alone, San Fernando Valley.

Ambrose also made two live broadcasts to the United States via a BBC/NBC hook-up in November 1944, and American radio stations, particularly in New York, continued to present record shows based on his output throughout the war.

Shortly after the war ended in 1945 Ambrose received another offer from MCA for a United States tour with a band comprising American musicians and featuring Anne Shelton and Evelyn Dall. Ambrose announced that he would take up this offer the following year but, as usual, negotiations broke down before anything could be finalised. In October 1946 he went to New York for a few weeks and made the usual round of theatres and clubs. By this time, as Ambrose must have appreciated, considerable changes had taken place in the popular music scene. The popular singer, rather than the bandleader, now reigned supreme. Moreover, the various music styles that had been encompassed by the dance band’s repertoire now had dedicated fans requiring a degree of authenticity that dance bands, however good, could not really provide. Jazz, country music, Latin American rhythms, blues, and rhythmic light music had by now gone their separate ways, and even dancers wanted strict tempo outfits unencumbered by vocals and instrumental solos.

Despite all this, between the end of the war and the early-1950s the Ambrose Orchestra remained the best-known British band in the United States. At the same time record sales, most of which were re-issues or albums comprising past hits, continued apace. Some new releases appeared between 1945 and 1952, including:

Instrumentals: Swing Low Sweet Clarinet, Dance Of The Potted Puppet, Dardanella, Rose Of Washington Square, Air Raid Shelter, Piano Concerto, Jazz Pizzicato, Jazz Legato.
Vera Lynn: When Your Hair Has Turned To Silver, How Lucky You Are.
Denny Dennis: By Candlelight, The Lonely Shepherd.
Anne Shelton: Tenement Symphony (2-sides), Love Locked Out, Happy And Contented.

In the mid-1950s there was a brief resurgence in Ambrose’s popularity among American big-band fans when MGM issued a number of stylish instrumentals by his London-based recording band. These included: Whistlin’ Willie, Slide Rule, Get Happy, and Marching Through Georgia. Since the mid-1960s many of the LPs (and later CDs) featuring Ambrose’s best output have been issued in the United States…so acknowledging his small, but significant, contribution to American popular music throughout the Golden Age of Dance Bands.

This outstanding and informative article comes from Memory Lane and we are very grateful to Memory Lane for allowing us to co-host the article here.

Jazz; A Musical Passion