"Billy ... who?" my school friends would ask when I
told them what I was currently learning with my piano teacher, or preparing
for a local concert. Billy Mayerl, I would reply, the light music
composer, pianist and entertainer. A bit like Scott Joplin … only more
difficult. "Billy Mayerl, you say ... sorry, I've never heard of him!"
My first piano teacher had been a friend of Billy’s.
He played most, if not all of his music, accompanied singers in his
songs and even conducted his shows locally, often in the presence of
the composer. Most of all, however, he passed on to me his great love,
admiration and enthusiasm for his music. For this I will be eternally
As a young teenager in the early 1970s I was presented
with Marigold, Sweet William, the Four Aces and many more.
Week after week I practised these pieces, and week after week I was
given new ones to play. They were fascinating, beautifully written and
fun to play. However, I seemed to be the only person who had heard of
his music, certainly amongst my peers. "Billy … who?" came
again and again.
This year of 2002 we are celebrating the life and music
of Billy Mayerl, often remembered as the ‘Marigold Man’ or the
‘English Gershwin’. Recognised as the pianist who composed Marigold,
who played nightly on the BBC in the 1920s, who set up his own Billy
Mayerl School for Pianists, and the pianist who gave the UK Premiere
of Rhapsody in Blue.
He became a seminal figure in British music between
classical music and jazz. His influences stem from American Ragtime
and Stride, through the English Pastoral, to French Impressionism. And,
as a performer, he was the popular pianists' god. Head and shoulders
above anyone else.
Billy Mayerl was born on 31st May
1902 in London's Tottenham Court Road, just a 'stone's throw' away from
West End Theatre Land. He was born into a musical family, with both
his father and grandfather being theatre musicians. He quickly took
to the piano and was awarded a scholarship to study at the Trinity
College of Music, just a few streets away, from the age of 9–13
years. Whilst a student he was the soloist in a college performance
of Grieg’s Piano Concerto. No small achievement, by any standards!
Soon after leaving college Mayerl, like Shostakovich,
started work as a pianist for silent movies. London was alive with this
new form of entertainment and he soon became in great demand. Nightly
from 6-11pm he played at many different picture houses throughout the
capital, even selling ice-cream in the interval to earn a little extra.
A brief period followed in Southampton, when he was
appointed resident pianist at the Polygon Hotel. This must have been
a popular hotel for incoming people or stopovers from the cruise liners
as they came into port. Amongst them came famous American bandleader
Bert Ralton, who had come to establish the Savoy Havana Band, at the
Savoy Hotel in London. Arriving with a band but, due to sickness,
no pianist, he heard Billy Mayerl one evening and immediately offered
him the job. Without hesitation Mayerl accepted. This became not only
a route back to London, but the start of the rest of his career.
At the Savoy, Billy Mayerl became an immediate sensation.
The nightly performances for the hotel guests soon became nightly broadcasts
also, as the newly formed BBC were quick to appreciate his popularity.
Almost overnight he had gone from silent movies to national broadcaster,
and an opportunity ‘made in heaven’. Not only was he performing pieces
with the band, but quickly began playing his own solo compositions such
as the ‘Jazz Master’, ‘Sweet William’, the ‘Four Aces’ and ‘Marigold’.
He secured national recognition very quickly, fostering public interest
in ragtime, jazz and syncopated piano-playing.
However, having achieved such fame and notoriety through
the BBC entrée, he decided to leave the Savoy after a three year
stay, to enable his career to develop in several simultaneous directions.
As a composer, he produced over 300 piano pieces and
more than 100 song arrangements with ‘Marigold’ becoming his
most famous of his compositions and everlasting theme tune; "my
bread, my butter … and my jam!" as he put it to Roy Plomley as
his guest on the BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ just a few
months before his death. The piece was inspired by a bowl of flowers,
and follow-ups of a horticultural theme were ‘Mignonette’, ‘Sweet
William’, ‘Jasmine’ and ‘Hollyhock’. On exhausting
flora he turned to fauna with ‘Beetle in a Bottle’, ‘Ladybird
Lullaby’, ‘Preying Mantis’, ‘Wedding of an Ant’, ‘Bats
in the Belfry’. All featured some of the Mayerl trademarks of nimble
triplets, rich harmonies, good tunes and lively rhythms. Such titles
as ‘Jazzaristrix’ and ‘Nimble Fingered Gentleman’ suggest
Mayerl was technically adroit and virtuosic (which he most certainly
was) but also combined the more lasting qualities of shapeliness, memorability
and charm perpetuating the real appeal of the Billy Mayerl sound and
a cohort of admirers and enthusiasts.
In addition to his prodigious composing, he similarly
threw himself into performing, touring the music halls as an entertainer
with his dazzling pianism. Not to mention a small matter of over 5,000
BBC Broadcasts through his career. And the formation of the Billy
Mayerl School of Music, with branches all over the world, and at
its peak having over 30,000 students. The 1920s were truly a whirlwind
of activity and Billy Mayerl could do no wrong.
If that is not enough, Mayerl also became a prolific
composer for the theatre. Particularly in the 1930s his musical comedies
were a feature of the West End and throughout the country. He produced
over 20 shows, and many he either appeared in or was musical director.
These include: ‘Punch Bowl’ (1924), ‘Nippy’ (1930), ‘Over
She Goes’ (1936) and ‘Crazy Days’ (1937).
For orchestra too he excelled, with works such as ‘Pastoral
Sketches’ and ‘Sennen Cove’. For piano and orchestra, the
‘Balearic Episode’ and the ‘Forgotten Forest’. All works
written in a mature English tradition; the ‘Aquarium Suite’ and
the ‘Four Aces’ being earlier syncopated fun pieces. The latter
was arranged by Ray Noble, who, it was said, did for Mayerl
what Ferde Grofé did for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue
ten years earlier.
With hindsight, it would be easy to characterise Mayerl
as nothing more than a novelty ragtimer, a ‘keyboard wizard’ or, dare
I say it, a by-gone ‘pop-idol’! The ‘Marigold Man’! But he was
more. Much more.
His favourite composers were Grieg and Delius.
Stravinsky also, he admired. He was also great friends with George
Gershwin. Many of his works bore these influences, along with Ireland
and Bax, Debussy and Ravel. One of his pieces even
includes excerpts from Reflets dans l’eau, the first of Debussy’s
Images. And the records he chose for ‘Desert Island Discs’ included
works by: Ravel, Anthony Collin’s ‘Vanity Fair’, Stravinsky, Roger Quilter’s
‘A Children’s Overture’, John Ireland, Robert Farnon’s ‘State Occasion’,
Milhaud and Johann Strauss.
His parents had high hopes for their musical son. "They
wanted me to become a highbrow wallah", as he succinctly
put it to Roy Plumley. But, even in college days Billy Mayerl was drawn,
like a magnet, to syncopation and popular music. This causing some difficulties
with his more serious minded professors!
Billy Mayerl grew up in a time when a composer needed
a private income or generous friends. He realised this very early. At
a time also, which produced many styles of composition from the late
romanticism of Elgar, Mahler and Rachmaninov to Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of
Spring’ and Schoenberg’s atonalism; from the Impressionism of Debussy
to the rags of Scott Joplin, songs of Irving Berlin and operettas of
Billy Mayerl appealed to people who found classical
music too serious and jazz too hot! The syncopation craze was an inter-war
phenomenon, but as jazz got more jazzy Mayerl’s music became more classical.
During the war Mayerl and his wife took up residence
at the Grosvenor House Hotel, in Park Lane, as the resident Band
Leader. After the war he joined the BBC Light Music Unit, broadcasting
several times a week. His sales of music and recordings were considerable.
His distinctive musical style placed him in great demand worldwide and
his tours took him to many countries including the U.S.A., South Africa,
Australia and New Zealand, as well as Europe, Scandinavia in particular.