The bulk of the material is from a chapter in my book:
ACCOMPANYING FOR WEBSTER
On April 22nd 2013 it will be 56 years since I first started accompanying for Webster Booth in the studio where he and Anne Ziegler taught singing and stagecraft. It sounds like a long time ago but I can remember a great deal of that remarkable period of my life as though it were yesterday. 1963 was certainly one of the happiest years of my life when I had few worries and every day was an exciting carefree adventure. In 1964 my life was touched with sadness and tragedy and was never as perfect as it had been in the shining year that was 1963.
At the beginning of that year, I was just nineteen, with the promise of a happy future ahead of me. I had been learning singing with Anne and Webster for two years and I was planning to do my teaching diplomas in singing, although I was hoping that if I worked hard enough I would not have to depend entirely on teaching to make my living in music.
Webster and Anne at the time I was studying with them.
January 1962. Anne and Webster attend a gathering to meet the All Blacks Rugby team
Me at about the time I was accompanying for Webster.
Not only did Anne teach singing with Webster, but she also acted as studio accompanist, so it was usually Webster who answered the door to new arrivals and made frequent cups of tea for everyone.
Webster, Leslie, or Boo as Anne called him, was always even-tempered, with his cheerful, “Hello dear. Would you like some tea?” when I arrived for my lesson at their eighth floor studio in Polliack’s Corner at the corner of Pritchard and Eloff Streets in the city of Johannesburg.
Of course he was perfectly aware that he had an outstanding voice, but he was devoid of the conceit one might have expected from a legendary tenor. I still have a vision of him in his shirt sleeves, peering through his horn-rimmed bifocals at one score or another, perspiring in the Johannesburg summer heat to which he was unaccustomed. He sight-read songs better than most of us could ever dream of singing them.
Early in 1963 my father heard a recording I had made of myself singing Father of Heav’n from Judas Maccabeus on my recently-acquired reel-to-reel tape recorder. He had passed several disparaging remarks about the quality of my singing and I was feeling extremely despondent. Anne and Webster were kind and sympathetic when I told them what he had said about my voice.
“My family never praised me for my singing either,” Webster growled. “If it had been up to them I would never have become a singer. Bring the recording along next time and let’s see what it’s like.”
They listened in silence the following week – perhaps my father had been right and my singing was awful – but afterwards Anne asked rather sharply as to who my accompanist had been. They were very surprised when I admitted to accompanying myself. Nothing more was said at the time. In the fullness of time I recovered from the hurt my father’s criticism had caused me and I plodded on regardless.
A few weeks later Webster phoned my mother to ask whether I’d like to play for him in the studio for a few weeks in April as Anne was going on a tour round the country with Leslie Green, the broadcaster, best known for his programme on Springbok Radio of Tea With Mr Green, who was a great friend of theirs.
Anne at the first night of The Amorous Prawn with Leslie Green (1961)
I was out when he phoned so I phoned back that evening and spoke to Anne. Naturally, I wanted to do it. What a chance!
“Don’t worry about a thing, Jean,” Anne told me. ’If you can manage into the studio each day, Leslie will give you a lift home in the evenings. He’ll look after you. It will do you good to play for him.”
I was thrilled but apprehensive about the prospect of accompanying for Webster. Playing for the man who had been accompanied by the great Gerald Moore on most of his recordings was rather daunting.
I realise now that they were probably sorry that I had been so hurt by my father’s comments about my singing and wanted to build up my self-confidence again by giving me this chance to help Webster in the studio. I was petrified that I would not live up to their expectations of me. On the other hand, accompanying for Webster for two weeks would be exciting and challenging. When I play Father of Heav’n for one of my young students today, I remember how significant this song was in changing the direction of my life in those heady days so long ago.
As it was only January and I didn’t have to play until April so I decided to improve my sight-reading as much as possible in the following two months. I was working for Grade 7 piano and Grade 8 singing exams and April seemed a lifetime away.
Webster made a list of the students’ current repertoire and lent me some of his own scores so that I could practise the more difficult songs and arias beforehand. On the front page of each score he had listed all his concert dates for the work in question, usually for this or that oratorio. Apart from his variety act with Anne, he had been one of Britain’s greatest oratorio tenors.
In his score of Haydn’s Creation was the following list:
Lawson Memorial Hall, Selkirk 31/3/1937
Drill Hall, Derby Choral Union 6/11/1937
Broadcast, Town Hall, B’ham 9/11/1938
BBC Home 3/12/1952
BBC Third 4/12/52
Albert Hall, Royal Choral 29/4/1953 (Sir Malcolm’s birthday)
When he gave me his oratorio scores for Acis and Galatea and Jephtha, Anne asked, “Won’t you be needing them soon, darling?”
“I’ll never sing them again in this life,” he replied dryly. “Maybe in the next!”
One Friday afternoon in February my mother and I went shopping in Anstey’s, one of the big department stores in the city. We had afternoon tea in the pleasant tearoom where we sat at a table covered with a starched white tablecloth and chose fancy fattening cream cakes from the tiered plate in front of us.
Anstey’s Building. A department store with apartments and a penthouse above the store.
Shortly after arriving home from that agreeable outing, the phone rang. It was Webster.
“Hello, Jeannie. Anne isn’t feeling too well today,” he said. “Would you like to come into the studio tomorrow morning and play for me?”
I felt elated and terrified at the same time.
“You’ll be fine,” he assured me, but I continued to tremble, as though I were about to make my debut at the Festival Hall.
I arrived at the studio in time for the first pupil, Graham. After he had sung some scales to warm his voice, Webster turned his attention to Sylvia by Oley Speaks. Although I was still feeling exceedingly nervous I managed to sight-read the accompaniment without mishap. I even began to enjoy accompanying Graham and listening to what Webster had to say to him about his singing.
But when the lesson was over and Graham had gone, Webster said quite gently, “You were quite petrified, weren’t you?”
I nodded dumbly, blushing at the same time. I wondered whether he was going to tell me I was no good to him and should go home straight away.
“You were fine,” he said reassuringly, making me feel more confident as we started on the next lesson.
Ruth Ormond, my great friend, had her lesson after me that day and was very surprised to see me at the piano instead of Anne. We had fun during her lesson, although I don’t think we did much work.
The last pupil for the morning was a blonde Afrikaans girl called Lucille Ackerman. She was a year older than me and had an exceptional soprano voice. I felt absolutely jealous when he sang proper duets like Only A Rose with her and put his arm round her waist.
Apart from this dull thud, the morning had passed well. Far from writing me off as hopeless, Webster asked me to play for him again on Monday. I hoped that Lucille would not have another lesson that morning!
That afternoon I went with friends to see My Fair Lady at the Empire Theatre in town with the delightful Diane Todd as the eponymous heroine and a largely Australian cast.
I played for Webster again on Monday and enjoyed it, not feeling as uncertain as I had done the first time. Mary Harrison, a glamorous Australian redhead, who was appearing in My Fair Lady was amusing and made the aria from Samson and Delilah sound like a tongue-in-the-cheek comedy act. She told Webster solemnly that she was doing her best to make her voice sound like a ‘cello, as he had suggested to her the week before. She stayed on in South Africa after the run of My Fair Lady ended and had success as an actress here, eventually settling in Durban and marrying. Sadly, she died of cancer some years ago.
A large arrogant tenor, who shall remain nameless, bellowed forth uncompromisingly, taking no advice from Webster. I wondered why he was bothering to have lessons if he was so full of himself that he did not think it necessary to take any direction.
After we finished for the day, Webster assured me that I had no need to worry. The standard of my sight-reading would easily carry me through when I began playing for him officially on 22 April 1963. In hindsight, perhaps this had been a test to see whether I could really fulfil the role as his accompanist. I don’t know what I would have done if I had failed that test and they made an excuse for withdrawing their offer. It was actually quite a let down to go into the studio the following week as a mere pupil once again. Anne told me that my singing had greatly improved since last she had seen me.
“Perhaps I had better leave you alone with Webster more often,” she added jokingly.
I was impatient for April to arrive, and continued working through all Webster’s scores. I also spent much time in a ferment of last minute practice for my forthcoming singing and piano exams: Prepare Thyself Zion from the Christmas Oratorio (Bach), Father of Heav’n from Judas Maccabeus (Handel), Ein Schwan (Grieg) sung by Kirsten Flagstad. and other songs, studies and exercises for my singing exam, and countless scales and pieces for my piano exam. The week of our exam duly arrived and Ruth, Lucille and I sat in the waiting room of the studios of my piano teacher, Sylvia Sullivan, where the Trinity College exams were held at the time.
My dear friend and fellow student Ruth Ormond. The photograph was taken at the end of 1963 before she left for the University of Cape Town. Sadly she died in Cape Town on 1 May 1964 of a cerebral haemorrhage. She had just celebrated her nineteenth birthday during the previous month.
Lucille looked about sixteen, although she was older than me. Anne was wearing a camel -coloured fly-away cape coat and was doing her best to calm us down. Only years later when I was accompanying my own students in exams did I learn that the accompanist has the most harrowing job of the lot, having to play for several nervous pupils at a time.
I was introduced to the examiner, Mr Guy McGrath, who looked too old and benign to have the fate of all the poor candidates in his hands. However, after a nervous start, all went fairly well and the ordeal was finally over, apart from having to worry whether or not I had passed. I had not done well in sight-singing in my first singing exam, but I had worked particularly hard to master the skill: at least I knew I had managed that properly. I thought Ruth sang well, and I’m sure Lucille did also – she always sounded great. The four of us walked up Von Brandis Street with Anne, feeling better and more relaxed now that our ordeal was over.
Ruth and I left Anne outside the studio in Pritchard Street and went off to enjoy a slap-up meal in Anstey’s and have a lengthy post mortem about the exam. We both had frightful complexes about our singing, so much so that others must have wondered why we took lessons in the first place.
“I’d like to put you and Ruth in a bag together,” Webster remarked exasperatedly one day when we were bemoaning our vocal shortcomings.
On Friday, the day before Anne left on her trip with Leslie Green, I went apprehensively up to the studio, wondering whether the results might have arrived. Webster answered the door and said heartily:
“I believe you sang very well on Tuesday, my gel!”
I looked at him intensely and said, “No, it was absolutely awful.”
“How do you think you did?”
“I’ve failed,” I replied with conviction.
He gave a little chuckle and marched back into the studio, leaving me to wait in the kitchen until Lucille finished her lesson. He called me in and handed me my card – 78 per cent (with merit) for Grade 8. I could hardly believe it. Lucille with her brilliant voice had managed only 72 per cent for Grade 5. Ruth had passed Grade 6 with 72 per cent also.
Anne and Webster seemed delighted with my result. For most of that lesson we drank tea and made firm plans for my forthcoming singing diploma. Anne was wearing a black Derby type hat and looked particularly striking. We all got on so well together that day as she wished me good luck with my accompanying and I wished her a happy holiday with Leslie Green. Webster informed me that he would take me home from the studio every day and my parents worked out a map for him to get to Buckingham Avenue in Craighall Park from Juno Street, Kensington.
I still had to do my piano exam. Mr McGrath was very complimentary and told me I would make an excellent teacher and that I had been silly to doubt for a moment that I wouldn’t pass my singing exam. I played well, due perhaps to an exuberance for life with everything to look forward to. I passed the piano exam with 85 percent (honours).
As usual, Webster had taken shilling wagers with me on the outcome of all my exams, so I had to pay several shillings to honour the pleasing outcome of the bets. I was glad that I had managed to complete these exams creditably. Now I could look forward unhindered to two weeks working with Webster.
When I arrived on Monday morning, Webster handed me the keys to the studio.
“These are for you, darling. Come in and practise whenever you like. I hang the keys for Chatsworth in the office.”
It took me some time to work out that Chatsworth was his name for the communal toilet on the eighth floor where the studio was situated.
The ancient electric kettle was soon steaming to boil water for tea. But at that time I was not exactly domesticated.
“You must use two tea bags, dear, otherwise the tea is awful,” he scolded. “Good heavens! Don’t you know that you have to wait until the water boils properly before you pour it into the teapot?”
I had played on a Monday before, so it was good to see Mary Harrison again. The unmentionable tenor told me condescendingly that my sight-reading had improved vastly since February. He had not improved however and continued to do his own thing, unwilling to take any criticism or try out any suggestion Webster made.
On the second day, I met Dudley Holmes for the first time, then aged about twenty-one. He was quite taken aback to see me at the piano instead of Anne. He told me later that he was petrified for he had never sung to another living soul apart from Anne and Webster. I enjoyed playing Without a Song, and various songs from the Bass album for him. Come to the Fair by Easthope Martin sung by Dudley and David Hales. I got to know him quite well over the years, and often spoke to him on the phone in Kimberley, where he lived for many years. He returned to Johannesburg about 10 years ago.
If not in a dream, I certainly was in seventh heaven during those two weeks. I tried to lock the experience in my mind so that I could relive every moment of it at will. I played for a few singers, whom Webster warned I might find amusing, but there were also excellent singers like Doris Bolton, a soprano from the Staffordshire potteries district, whose husband was working in the potteries in Olifantsfontein near Irené, where they lived at the time. She had a beautiful lyrical voice and was singing Richard Strauss’s Serenade in an impossible key. The accompaniment is very fast and florid and my sight-reading of it certainly did not do it or her justice. I remember Mary Harrison and Norma Dennis, Australians in the production of My Fair Lady, Lucille Ackerman of course, Dudley Holmes, Colleen McMenamin, my dear friend Ruth, and many others whom I got to know during my first accompaniment stint.
There was a fairly long break at lunchtime. My mother had told me to go out for lunch to give Webster a chance to put his feet up. For the first few days I trailed through the lunchtime crowds to the library, where I passed the time studying music books in the reference library. It was a long walk from the studio and the time between sessions dragged.
“What do you do at lunchtime?” Webster asked curiously on the third day.
He was horrified when I told him.
“You can’t possibly wander around town and sit in the library for all that time. Bring in some sandwiches and stay in the studio with me.”
I mumbled something about not wanting to disturb him.
“Of course you won’t disturb me.”
So after that I remained in the studio and we ate our packed lunches together. His lunch was always a good deal more exotic than my own, with delicacies purchased from Thrupps, the nearby upmarket grocery shop. After lunch he would put his feet up on the table opposite the studio couch and sleep for half an hour or so.
One lunchtime I went on to the studio veranda where the tame pigeons, always in search of breadcrumbs, were congregated. I viewed the buildings down Eloff Street. I could see the crowns on top of His Majesty’s Theatre in Commissioner Street, three blocks down the road, and the elegant old Carlton Hotel. Outside the OK Bazaars, just across from the studio, three youngsters were playing Kwela music with penny whistle, guitar and an improvised bass constructed from a tea chest. There were coins jangling in the tin at their feet. Business people and elegant ladies from the northern suburbs, on their way to lunch with friends in one of the big city department stores, enjoyed the cheerful music. My toes tapped to its catchy rhythms, but I feared it might be competition for the singers at their lessons.
Looking down Eloff Street from the studio balcony.
I closed the door of the balcony quietly and surveyed the spacious studio with its elegant Chappell grand piano on the far side. On the wall above the couch was a glass panel behind which were dozens of fascinating pictures from the Booths’ days of fame and glory in the UK. My mother had recognised a number of their illustrious friends and colleagues in the photographs when she had taken me to the studio for the first time. I particularly remember one of Anne and Webster in a boat with Douglas Fairbanks Junior when they had starred in Merrie England at Luton Hoo in Coronation year, 1953.
.Merrie England (June 1953) at Luton Hoo with Douglas Fairbanks Junior.
Before the next session started, I would make tea. I had learnt how to make it properly by this time!
I invited Webster to dinner during those two weeks. As we sat in the car in front of my house after he had driven me home one evening, I asked him, rather diffidently, whether he would like to come to dinner one night the following week. To my great surprise, he was delighted at the idea and readily agreed to dine with us the following Tuesday as we finished fairly early at the studio.
The time fairly flew and it seemed as though I had always been playing for him, walking with him to the garage each night, and following him up the narrow steps to where the car was parked.
When he drove me home on Saturday morning he said, “Perhaps we could go out to lunch some time next week. Would you like that, dear?”
I was quite taken aback at the suggestion, but, as always, I was delighted, and said, “Yes, that would be lovely.”
He said he was thinking of taking me to Dawson’s Hotel, where they had lived when they first arrived in Johannesburg and were flat hunting.
“Perhaps we won’t have time to have a really good meal there in such a short time, but we’ll see.”
I spent Sunday without seeing him for the first time all week, but still with the following week ahead to look forward to, not to mention the planned lunch at Dawson’s and the dinner at home.
On Monday we spent a lovely lunchtime, chatting about Webster’s life in the theatre in Britain, the tours of Australia, fabulous ski-ing holidays in Switzerland, nights of triumph at the London Palladium. I got to know him better than ever. He epitomised security, good humour, kindness and complete lack of side, and I thought the world of him.
Tuesday was a red-letter day.
After Dudley’s lesson, Webster announced, “Jean and I are going to blow the family savings today. I’m taking her to Dawson’s.”
Dudley said, “I wish I was coming with you. I have to go back to the office on an apple.”
Webster and I walked round the corner to Dawson’s, which was still one of the top hotels in those days, with only the Carlton and the Langham ahead of it. He seemed oblivious of the curious glances from some of the lunchtime throng as they did double takes when they recognised his famous face. We were ushered into the dining room on the first floor as though we were royalty. The head waiter hovered around Webster and we were shown to the best table at the window.
Dawson’s in 1972. The Edwardian restaurant where we had lunch that day was on the first floor.
Webster was quite at home in this setting after the grand hotels of Europe, the Antipodes and the UK. I, on the other hand, in a bottle-green velvet dress I felt gauche and young in comparison, as indeed I was. He ordered grilled trout and I had a fish dish also. He had a gin beforehand and was disappointed when I refused anything alcoholic. The only time I ever had anything to drink in those days was if my father poured me a thimbleful of sherry for me on special occasions. I was very unsophisticated and innocent in comparison with teenagers today.
During our meal, he told me how he and Anne had lived at Dawson’s for three months on arriving in Johannesburg. Somehow, things had gone wrong and several people in the hotel management, who had theatrical connections, had turned against them. Over coffee, we had petits fours and he insisted I should eat as many as I wanted. I found out later that they were soaked in brandy, so inadvertently I did not go without alcohol that day.
We sauntered back to the studio. There was only one pupil due that afternoon, so Webster fell asleep on the couch, while I sat in a chair a fair distance away reading their autobiography Duet, which he had lent me the week before.
When he woke up, he put on one of the reel-to-reel tapes of his sacred and oratorio recordings: How Lovely are Thy Dwellings (Webster Booth),
I listened entranced and sometimes near to tears. He told me that when Lost Chord was recorded in the Kingsway Hall during the war, the All Clear sounded just as he was singing the last phrase “The Grand Amen”. They had to record it again so that the sirens could not be heard on the recording.
After Winnie, the only pupil for the afternoon, he drove me home to Juno Street in Kensington and stayed to dinner with my parents.
He took a fancy to our dog, Shandy, whom he christened “my girlfriend” and kept her on his knee for the rest of the evening.
My father offered him a whisky, and Webster informed us that it had never done him any harm so far. He teased me because I had refused a drink at lunchtime in Dawson’s. My father looked alarmed at the thought of his innocent teenage daughter drinking alcohol.
Webster talked to my parents about Britain, and all the artistes they had known during the war, like Max Miller and Tommy Handley. He looked so at home in our sitting room, smoking and drinking whisky, with Shandy on his lap.
Shandy – Webster christened her “my girlfriend”.
When he was about to go home and was standing on our balcony which was enclosed with a purple bougainvillaea creeper, my mother said, “Thank you for looking after Jean,” he replied, “I think it’s Jean who’s looking after me.”
Although I can remember that day as though it were yesterday it saddens me to think that Dawson’s is no longer the plush hotel it was then, while Shandy, my mother, father and dear Webster himself are all long dead and gone.
The next few days passed all too quickly and soon Anne was phoning to say she was back from her trip with Leslie Green. She had sent me a card and Webster had pretended to be cross because she had not yet written to him at that juncture.
On the last night, Webster drove me home, and said quite pensively, “I shall miss my Sylvia Pass next week,” referring to the route he took to his home in Craighall Park.
“I have enjoyed having you play for me, darling,” he added.
“So have I,” I replied fervently.
“We’ll see you on Tuesday, dear,” he said.
The following day Ruth phoned to tell me that Webster had raved about me at her lesson, and said how much he had enjoyed having dinner at my home. I phoned Anne to welcome her home and we chatted for an hour about her trip and how they had always dreamed of owning a smallholding in England, but would never be able to afford one now. And so ended the two wonderful weeks. I had enjoyed playing for the pupils, had acquitted myself creditably, and had got to know Webster very well. As time passed I would get to know him even better.
Jean Collen (first published in 2005)
Updated 24 July 2020.
Sylvia, Oley Speaks.