Celebrating Ivor Novello and the Great British Songbook
An interview by Ian Lace with Ross Leadbeater
Ross Leadbeater is an award-winning freelance musical director, pianist and vocal coach with a particular interest in light music and classic popular song. His West End concerts celebrate the memorable music of the Great British Songbook from Gilbert and Sullivan, Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, and Sandy Wilson and Vivian Ellis to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lionel Bart and Leslie Bricusse.
IL: Please tell me a little about your background. When and where you were born? Your musical training and experience?
RL: I was born in Abertillery in the South Wales Valleys in 1983 amidst the sound of male voice choirs, operatic societies, brass bands and my parents' record collection. It was here that my appreciation for 'great songs' began and in all styles of music from opera to musicals, jazz to pop/rock.
My 'big break' came in 2008 when I shot to fame as a member of the nation's favourite choir Only Men Aloud, who won BBC1's Last Choir Standing. Following the TV show, we signed a multi-million pound album deal with Decca Records.
Our first album was awarded a gold disc and our second went straight to Number 1 in the UK Classical Charts, where it remained for three weeks. The album went on to win a Classical BRIT award in 2010. It was an incredible experience.
I now enjoy a career as a musical director, pianist/singer and vocal coach working with some of the country's finest artists and overseeing a huge range of musical projects throughout the UK and internationally in China.
IL: Please tell us about your latest music project - The Great British Songbook.
RL: The Great British Songbook is a celebration of the golden age of British song-writing which, like The Great American Songbook, is a collection of the most important popular songs of the early twentieth century.
It includes many of the influential and enduring songs from the 1920s to the 1960s which were written for the musical theatre and films of the day. This period produced a plethora of great songs written by composers such as Ivor Novello, Noel Coward and Vivian Ellis.
But The Great British Songbook also includes later song-writers including Lionel Bart, Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and pop/rock songwriters like Lennon & McCartney, Freddie Mercury and the best of today's up-and-coming writers. It is a real mixture of timeless classics and some forgotten gems.
IL: When did you first become aware of The Great British Songbook? What appealed to you about it?
RL: I guess I've always been interested in the music of the golden-age. Growing up in the South Wales Valleys meant that the songs of Ivor Novello were always around me. I also remember my father buying me a CD of the tunes of Gilbert and Sullivan when I was14. It was old D'Oyly Carte recordings - I remember listening to them and a joyful feeling ran through me when I first heard the combination of words and music. Flash forward ten years and I am working on professional productions of the operettas and an Off-West End revival of Leslie Bricusse's Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd.
The songs of the songbook are fantastic and really deserve to be celebrated much more today. Some of the songs just need to be re-imagined, re-arranged and presented in a more contemporary way without losing their original style and context. I have produced concerts celebrating the music of Ivor Novello and The Great British Musicals at the iconic London Hippodrome and audiences have responded well so The Great British Songbook project is a natural progression.
IL: Interesting that you mention Gilbert & Sullivan?
RL: Yes, Gilbert and Sullivan is a very important writing partnership. Their fourteen comic operettas were trail-blazers for the development of musical theatre in the twentieth century - not just in Britain, but America too. They enjoyed international success and the tunes are fantastic.
No celebration of The Great British Songbook is complete without a nod to Gilbert & Sullivan. I sometimes start my concerts with a piano transcription of one of their overtures - usually either The Pirates of Penzance or HMS Pinafore.
IL: Are they key to The Great British Songbook?
RL: Yes, but for me, the most interesting composer of The Great British Songbook is the Cardiff-born Ivor Novello - who was one of the most prolific songwriters of his generation.
Novello lies at the heart of my Songbook project - there is a lot of rediscovery work to be done here. His name remains associated with the most respected and prestigious songwriting award in the music industry - yet few people know much about the man and less still of his music.
IL: If you were cast up on a desert island and you had to choose just three songs from The Great British Songbook, what would they be and why?
1. Smile - Charlie Chaplin composed the tune for the 1936 film Modern Times. Lyrics were added later by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. It's a great combination of lyric and melody.
2. A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square - A song that defined an era. It is a beautiful song, written by Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin in 1939.
3. My Life Belongs to you - One of Ivor Novello's most romantic but not very well-known songs. It has a great melody with emotive lyrics.
IL: What type of audience comes to your concerts? The traditional 'grey-haireds'?
RL: So far, the London concerts have included a real mix of ages, perhaps because we have young sexy singers and special guests. We appeal to a traditional concert audience but are attracting young people too as they discover the great British songs.
IL: I feel concerned — as you do — that the traditions of Novello, Coward, Monckton, and Sandy Wilson are preserved. Please comment?
RL: Yes, I agree. We must really celebrate these writers much more. That is the mission of The Great British Songbook - to preserve their musical legacy for future generations through concerts and through workshops and master-classes.
IL: Are you active in any other spheres of music?
RL: Yes. I am a freelance musical director, pianist and vocal coach so I am very lucky to be working on lots of different and varied projects both in the UK and internationally.
IL: What are the future plans for The Great British Songbook and have any of the recording companies expressed an interest in capturing it on disc?
RL: Yes, there are a few conversations happening so watch this space. We have a concert in London in October and one in Cardiff in January ahead of a UK Tour.
Ross Leadbeater's Great British Songbook plays St James Studio, London on 24 October 2015 (Box Office: 0844 264 2140) and Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Dora Stoutzker Hall on 29 January 2016 (Box Office: 029 2039 1391)
For more information, find Ross on Facebook or Twitter @ross_leadbeater or sign up to the newsletter at www.rossleadbeater.com