DIARIES continued – SEPTEMBER 1963.

28 September – I meet Anne at Edinburgh Court. She has a soothing effect on me. I
sing well for Guy McG and he drools over her. Questions are all fine, as is the sight- singing. He seems pleased. Anne and I go to Macy’s where she buys a carpet sweeper and she says she was delighted with my singing and thinks I should do very well. She says I am turning out to be another Mabel Fenney! She runs me back to the studio in her
blue Anglia and is a regular love.

Webster comes and says he hears I sang fabulously and do I want to pay his 1/- bet right now!

3 September – Meet Gill Viljoen in town and we go skating. The British champion skater, Daphne Walker is there with two little girls.

Daphne Walker (1946)

We lunch at the SABC with Doreen Taylor. I talk to Arthur (tuba player) and see Edgar Cree, Gerrit Bonn and Thea Mullins’ sister, Wendy (Kim Shippey’s secretary). I go to singing and Webster gives me tea and tells me Anne is feeling a bit miserable and has probably caught a chill. She remarks on my hair style and even he says it looks beautiful. They say the lipstick they gave me looks lovely. Sing Father of Heav’n and do it well. Anne is impressed with my skates! I meet Doreen Craig after her trip to Europe.

6 September – Go into studio. Anne comes in looking too beautiful for words. She tells me about her arthritis which keeps her in constant agony. We decide that everyone has something to worry them.

10 September – Ear tests with Edith Sanders. I learn that Guy McG is the examiner for my Associate diploma. I go to the studio and Anne answers the door as Webster is on the phone with Mum. He comes into the kitchen and gives me a message. When Heather leaves Anne asks me if I should like to help at the theatrical garden party on 5 October with Ruth. They are on the committee – should be fun. Anne says I look more beautiful every week. They emote about all the music history I have to learn for diploma exam.

12 September – Go into studio and work very hard as diploma is looming. Anne arrives looking too lovely for words in a pretty summer dress. We run down The King and I together and she says I’m the only person to whom she can say it because S. Africans would say she was acting big! Linda Walters arrives and I go out and meet Webster on the ground floor. He is very sweet to me. Ah, what a life this is!

13 September – Go into studio. Desmond Wright calls. Lucille and Anne arrive and Webster gives me some tea and complains about the heat. I say if I don’t pass, he knows what I’ll do, and he says if I do, he’ll take the keys away! I do vast amount of scales and Anne tells met to open my mouth wider, and he says, “And a very pretty mouth it is too!”

I phone Ruth at night and we decide to go to the theatrical garden party. There is a disgusting article by Jon Sylvester in the Star about Webster. I phone the Star and complain for I feel really bitter about it!

The Star 13 September 1963. Jon Sylvester – radio critic

14 September – We go to see The Blue Lamp with a lovely Jack Warner of 15 years ago – very similar to studio picture.

16 September – Ruth finishes preliminary exams. I do ear tests with Edith then go up to the studio. Webster is still in one piece after the horrible slating by Jon Silvester in the paper. They tell me all about Mabel Fenney marrying again, Anne’s anaemia, and how well Lucille sang in her exam. He makes tea for us and we make arrangements about lessons next week. We go to the Victoria hotel and dine with Uncle John and Aunt Nellie McKee up from Cape Town. I drink wine!

18 September – Go to studio. Webster phones in the afternoon, calling me Jeannie, and asks me to accompany Selwyn and Dennis at an audition in Ansteys building at the home of Gwen Clark on Saturday. I agree, naturally enough. He tells me about Elijah which he is singing in Pietermaritzburg. I wish him luck and tell him I know he’ll sing beautifully! He says, “Bless you, dear,” when we say goodbye.

19 September – Go to studio and have dozens of phone calls including one from Brian Morris. Linda arrives before Anne and then when she comes, I have to show her the broken window of which she knows nothing. She says she hopes I don’t mind playing for Dennis and Selwyn on Saturday. Anne will probably be early in tomorrow after visit to the doctor.

20 September – Work in studio. When Anne arrives, she tells me she hasn’t got anaemia but still feels horrid. We have tea and she tells me that Webster refused to phone her from Michaelhouse to tell her how he is or to enquire about the blood test she had. She is very hurt. We do scales for the entire lesson. She gives me a lecture on my inferiority complex. I phone Dennis’s mother to arrange to meet them tomorrow. I wash the dishes before I leave. Lucille is doing The Merry Widow in Afrikaans in Kempton Park.

21 September – Accompany Dennis and Selwyn at Gwen Clark’s penthouse in Ansteys. Taubie Kushlik and Ockert Botha are there. The boys sing well. We have a lovely tea after the audition (for Amahl and the Night Visitors) is over. I go up to the studio afterwards and Anne is still there. She makes us coffee and tells me she loathes Gwen Clark and all the pseudo-theatrical types in Johannesburg. She says, “You must think I’m a bitch!” but I agree with her. She says that when they first arrived all the society types were inviting them to the races and other events and were not impressed that they were not rolling in money and had to work for a living. I stay in the studio until 2.00pm. Lucille’s father arrives to talk to Anne about Lucille.

22 September – Phone Ruth who tells me about her exams and how Anne raved about me yesterday during her lesson.

23 September – Ear tests. Edith plays me her pieces and I sing mine to her. Go to the studio and Anne is on the phone talking to Lucille’s father. She tells me she’s sick to death of him. She asks me to make tea and tells me about a visit to the Capri where she had the ghastly experience of seeing Dickie Loader and the Blue Jeans. She says Webster did phone when he arrived at Michaelhouse after all. Webster phones the studio to say he’s home again. I wash the dishes.

24 September – Webster answers door and calls me, “Darling!” He says the trip was fun but tiring when I ask how he is keeping. Heather sings a ghastly wrong note and he says, “See what I mean!” We grimace at each other for ages – lovely! Anne tells me that Lucille just passed her exam. The examiner was not at all impressed with her voice.

27 September – Anne comes and we do the French song and when Webster arrives, he puts everything on tape. He says I shouldn’t take any pills – just a glass of water! Linda W arrives and tells me she thinks I sing most beautifully. Webster jokes with me and then says, “Darling, I wish you all the best of luck.” Ruth phones when I get home and I say I’ll see her at the garden party.

28 September – I meet Anne at Edinburgh Court. She has a soothing effect on me. I sing well for Guy McG and he drools over her. Questions are all fine, as is the sight- singing. He seems pleased. Anne and I go to Macy’s where she buys a carpet sweeper and she says she was delighted with my singing and thinks I should do very well. She says I am turning out to be another Mabel Fenney! She runs me back to the studio in her blue Anglia and is a regular love.

Webster comes and says he hears I sang fabulously and do I want to pay his 1/- bet right now!

29 September – Go to Mrs Sullivan. Margaret arrives in a state after her exam. Mrs S tells me that Webster embarrasses her when he makes her conduct the proceedings for their nursery school record. He told her that they are very proud of me. All the orphans at Nazareth House were allowed to stay up to listen to his programme last week and were very impressed. Listen to Webster’s Great Voices and he plays his Sound an Alarm which is marvellous!

Nursery School sing-along.

29 September – Go to studio to get the sheet music for Rendezvous. Webster answers – still with bad leg. Gertie is there with Anne and they all congratulate me on Grade VII piano exam 85%. Tell them about the record and then depart. I feel sad about Webster in many ways.

30 September – Go to see Kimberley Jim. Despite Jim Reeves being the star of the film it is very poor indeed. Webster has only a tiny part as the innkeeper but plays it well, complete with monocle.

Kimberley Jim with Jim Reeves, Clive Parnell, Arthur Swemmer , Webster and others.

O

WEBSTER BOOTH (1902 – 1984) EARLY DAYS

Christening of Leslie Webster Booth at St James’ Church, Handsworth. The date is 15 April 1912, but I wonder if this is a misprint and that it actually took place in April 1902.
 

WEBSTER BOOTH (1902 – 1984)  – EARLY DAYS

The song on the clyp is:  Sylvia by Oley Speaks.

Extract from SWEETHEARTS OF SONG: A PERSONAL MEMOIR OF ANNE ZIEGLER AND WEBSTER BOOTH (JEAN COLLEN)

EARLY DAYS IN BIRMINGHAM AND LINCOLN

Leslie Webster Booth was born on 21 January 1902 in a three storey home above his father’s ladies hairdressing business at 157 Soho Road, Handsworth, Birmingham. He was the youngest son of Edwin Booth and his wife Sarah (née Webster) in a family of three sons and three daughters. Edwin was a hairdresser, who had served in the Royal Staffordshire Regiment as a Barber Surgeon. Sarah was from Chilvers Coton, Nuneaton, where her parents and later she and her sister, Hannah, had been handloom silk weavers. Her brother, William Thomas Webster was a partner in Foster and Webster, a successful gentlemen’s outfitters with branches throughout the Midlands. Sarah’s brother eventually left the firm, but it continues to this day under the name of Foster Brothers.

Leslie was the youngest of six children and his eldest sister, Doris, (known as Nellie), played as big a part in his upbringing as his mother. All three sisters doted on their young brother, who, from an early age, possessed a singing voice of outstanding quality. The family held musical evenings at home and delighted in their father’s robust rendition of The Veteran’s Song, while his mother and sisters were moved to tears when young Leslie sang the mournful ballad, Valé in his beautiful treble voice.

Webster sang in the choir at St James as a young boy.

At nine years of age Leslie’s voice elevated him from St James’ Church choir in Edwardian Handsworth to the choir stalls of Lincoln Cathedral as a chorister under the direction of Dr George Bennett. Dr Bennett was a fine musician, but a stern taskmaster, who insisted that choristers sang with flat tongues: he was not averse to flattening an errant tongue with his ever-ready broken baton. Just as today’s Cathedral choristers are disciplined hard-working musicians of the highest order, so they were in the first decades of the twentieth century also. Christmas holidays for the choristers commenced only after they had completed the Christmas Eve services to Dr Bennett’s satisfaction.

Lincoln Cathedral. Webster was a chorister there from the age of 9 until his voice broke.

Lincoln was a good training ground for young Leslie Booth. Although he did not make great progress on the piano and thus did not advance to learning the organ, an instrument he longed to play. The Willis organ at Lincoln Cathedral had been opened in 1898, eleven years before Leslie went to Lincoln, and is still considered as one of the finest organs in England. Leslie did, however, learn to sight-read vocal lines with ease. This ability stood him in good stead as a professional singer, especially at recording sessions.

When he went to HMV studios for a recording session he would be given six to eight songs to record at a time. These he would sight-read and record in one or two takes. After the session the songs would soon be forgotten: a different approach to recording from today’s pop singers who seem to spend months recording their new “album”! Years later, people often appeared before him clutching one of his old records, assuring him of their great attachment to the particular song, but he often had no recollection of making it in the first place.

After his voice broke at the age of thirteen, he returned to the family home in Birmingham to study accountancy at Aston Commercial School. He was set for the steady job of accountant like Uncle Jim, his father’s brother, but at fifteen, when his voice had settled, he began his vocal studies as a tenor with Dr Richard Wassall, the musical director at the Midland Institute in Birmingham. Leslie was an avid supporter of West Bromwich Albion football team and was goalie in the Aston Commercial School team. He was a promising enough goalie to be offered a place with the Aston Villa Colts, but this idea did not meet with his headmaster’s approval. Despite his accountancy studies, he secretly dreamed of the more glamorous callings of football and singing. Luckily for the world, singing eventually won.

The headmaster was Edgar Keey, father of his first wife, Winifred.

With his great natural vocal gifts, his striking good looks and winning personality, performing came easily to him. He sang duets with Uncle Jim’s daughter, his cousin Lily Booth, a promising mezzo-soprano, and soon he was also singing at concerts and oratorio performances all over the Midlands and Wales. By this time he was a tall, imposing young man, who realised that appearance and stage presence were nearly as important to a professional singer as an exceptional voice. Although he had perfect diction in song, he felt it necessary to take elocution lessons with the Shakespearian actor Sir Robert Atkins, the founder of the Open Air Theatre at Regents Park, to smooth the Brummy intonation from his speech.

His adult voice was a distinctive lyric tenor, with an exceptionally wide range and a baritonal quality on the lower notes. His diction was clear and lacked the idiosyncratic pronunciation and bleating quality of many of his contemporaries, which marked them as refined English singers, not quite able to compete with their more virile Italian and German counterparts. In my opinion, Heddle Nash and David Lloyd were the only two British tenors of Webster Booth’s generation who had comparable voices.

At twenty-one, Leslie auditioned for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and was immediately accepted after a London audition. Although he had been doing well in accountancy, he abandoned his job with little regret to become a professional singer, making his debut with the company in The Yeomen of the Guard at the Theatre Royal, Brighton on 9 September 1923. He stayed with the company for four years, but made no great advancement from the chorus and small parts. In Duet, his joint autobiography, with Anne Ziegler, he complained that the only way one could advance in the company was to wait to fill “dead men’s shoes”. Despite this observation, he was one of the few singers allowed to record individual songs from the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire without the prior approval of the D’Oyly Carte family.

His recordings of Take a pair of sparkling eyes and A Wand’ring Minstrel under the baton of the gifted conductor Leslie Heward, who died tragically young, remain unsurpassed and are now available on CD. He went with the D’Oyly Carte Company on a memorable and successful tour of Canada. Winifred Lawson, the principal soprano, heard him singing Your Tiny Hand is Frozen from La Bohème at the ship’s concert and was deeply impressed with the beauty of his voice. She was not surprised when he left the company soon after its return to England, to eventually become a deserved success in his own right.

In 1924 he had married Winifred Keey, the daughter of Edgar Keey, his headmaster at Aston Commercial School. Winifred borrowed £100 from a relative, with no intention of repaying it, and used the money to follow Leslie to London against her parents’ wishes, or possibly without their knowledge. They might have approved of the match had Leslie remained a respectable accountant like his elder brother, Norman, but they were against her taking up with a chorus boy in the D’Oyly Carte. Her family would have no more to do with her, annoyed at her, partly because of her defiance of their wishes and partly because she had borrowed such a large sum of money under false pretences from a member of the family. Because they disowned her they never knew that she and Leslie had married or that she gave birth to a son and imagined that she and Leslie were living together in sin.

Winifred and Leslie’s son, Keith was born the year after their marriage on 12 June 1925, and his birth was registered in Birmingham North. Leslie was on tour for fifty weeks of the year and Winifred, left alone with her small son, was estranged from her parents although living in the suburb of Moseley in the same city. After several years she suddenly deserted Leslie and his son. He had suspicions that all was not well at home when he came home from a tour with D’Oyly Carte to find Keith sitting by himself on the doorstep. Winifred had left her small son to his own devices while she went dancing.

Leslie searched for Winifred in every town where he was singing, but despite his desperate attempts to trace her, he never found her, and eventually divorced her in 1931, citing Trevor Davey as co-respondent. Leslie was granted custody of Keith, who never saw his mother again after his sixth birthday.

After the stability of a regular – if small – salary from D’Oyly Carte, he was now a freelance performer with a small son to support and no regular money to his name. In the D’Oyly Carte Company he was known as Leslie W. Booth, but now he adopted his middle name, and became Webster Booth on stage, although his family and close friends continued to call him Leslie for the rest of his life. One of his boyhood nicknames was Jammy and he once signed a photograph “Yours sincerely, Kingy“!

During this precarious period of his life before he achieved fame and stability in the profession, Webster joined Tom Howell’s Opieros, a concert party with a difference, as some of its members sang operatic excerpts while others were comedians and light entertainers found in the usual concert party. Tom Howell was a baritone from Swansea and he and Webster often sang duets together in the shows. For several years Webster toured all over the country with the Opieros during the summer season, performing on piers and in municipal parks. H Baynton-Power was the Opieros’ excellent accompanist.

In winter Webster sang in cabaret at various large Lyons’ restaurants and cafés, at many Masonic concerts and staff dinners, often with the pianist Gladys Vernon as his accompanist. Gladys Vernon was to marry another well-known tenor, Walter Midgeley.

During the winter seasons of 1927 and 1928, he and Tom Howell appeared in Fred Melville pantomimes at Brixton. The first pantomime in 1927 was St George and the Dragon. St George was played by principal boy, Vera Wright, while Webster played King Arthur. 1928’s pantomime at the Brixton Theatre was a freely adapted version of Babes in the Wood. Once again Vera Wright played principal boy, this time in the role of Robin Hood.

Webster made his West End debut as the Duke of Buckingham in Rudolph Friml’s The Three Musketeers at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1930. The leading role of D’Artagnan was taken by Dennis King, an actor and singer Webster greatly admired for his great energy. Other distinguished cast members were Lilian Davies, Marie Ney, Adrienne Brune and Raymond Newell. Unfortunately, Webster could only appear in this show for three months as he had already signed a contract for a Blackpool summer show for Ernest Butcher. Despite Sir Alfred Butt’s best efforts to get him released from this contract, Ernest Butcher would not budge. Webster’s part was taken over by the well-known Yorkshire tenor, Robert Naylor. When Webster set off sadly and reluctantly to fulfill his engagement on the Central Pier, Blackpool, his one consolation was that he could continue singing Queen of My Heart, one of the hits from The Three Musketeers with which he had scored such a success on the West End.

With Lilian Davies in “The Three Musketeers”.

Webster met his second wife, Dorothy Annie Alice Prior (stage name Paddy Prior) in the early nineteen-thirties. He was singing One Alone at a Concert Artistes Association concert and happened to notice her sitting in the audience. Paddy Prior was born in Fulham in 1905, the daughter of Hubert Prior, an ironmonger, and his wife, Annie Jane (née Henderson). Paddy went on the professional stage while still in her teens. She was a light comedienne, dancer, and a soubrette with a charming mezzo-soprano voice and appeared on television in its early days in The Ridgeway Revue with Philip Ridgeway and Hermione Gingold. By the time she met Webster she was a veteran of many concert parties, musicals and pantomimes, and always received good reviews for her work. Despite her talent she had periods of unemployment and placed occasional advertisements in The Stage, such as this one in April 1926, which read as follows:

In 1931 Webster divorced Winifred, citing her affair with Trevor Davey and on 10 October 1932, he married Paddy at Fulham Registry Office, where he had married Winifred Keey in 1924. Around the same time, Winifred married James L. Haig at the Lambeth Registry Office. Webster and Paddy went to Newquay for their honeymoon.

Webster sang for several seasons in Papa Pinder’s Sunshine concert party at the Sunshine Theatre, Shanklin on the Isle of Wight.

In 1933 he and Paddy appeared together for the summer season in The Piccadilly Revels Concert Party at Scarborough. The following year, Webster managed to arrange for Paddy to obtain an engagement with him in the Sunshine show. Appearing on the same bill with them was Arthur Askey, and he and Webster became great friends. After hearing Webster sing To Anthea by J L Hatton at one of the shows, the Askeys decided to name their baby daughter Anthea…

See more in my bookstore at: JEAN COLLEN’S BOOKSTORE

 

Jean Collen

21 June 2016.