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International Concert Pianist: PHILLIP DYSON

Celebrates the Centenary of BILLY MAYERL 1902-1959

"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 grateful.

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 Franz Lehár.

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.

Referring again to his guest appearance on Desert Island Discs he signed off the programme with "Goodbye chaps and chapesses", so typical of Billy’s engaging style. Billy Mayerl, popular composer and virtuoso, died from a heart attack eleven months later, on 25th March 1959. Phillip Dyson - phillip_dyson@hotmail.com also at www.phillipdyson.com

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