Obituary: Robin Richmond

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The Independent Culture
THE HISTORY of the organ as a musical entertainment, as opposed to accompanying hymns in church, begins in the late 1920s. The honky-tonk piano which played a soundtrack of sorts to early silent movies was replaced by the great cinema orchestras who played specially composed theme music to the vast epics of D.W. Griffith and his Hollywood contemporaries.

Then came 1927, Al Jolson and the talkies. Hundreds of cinema musicians were sacked as the Vitaphone Orchestra and its ilk added tinny tracks to feature films. But then came the need to fill in those silent pauses in the programme, newsreels for instance and ice-cream intervals. The cinema organist was born. Quarter-hour entertainments were added to the film programmes, thus luring in the customers with an extra added "live" attraction.

Meanwhile the wireless, especially the BBC under Sir John Reith, laced its daily programmes with half-hours of organ interludes, going to town on Sundays with hours of hymns at the church organ. And when the Second World War broke out, almost all the BBC's advertised programmes were cancelled and on came Sandy MacPherson, the BBC staff organist who just about ran the instrument - and himself - into the ground. Fortunately the return to "business as usual" reintroduced popular programming and put the organ back into place as a low-budget slot-filler.

Robin Richmond was not only one of those regularly heard radio organists, he was one of the first swing-timers, concentrating on the latest dance band hits from America and arranging them for his rather special instrument. This was a Hammond Electronic Organ, and Richmond was in fact the first British organist to import such a thing from the States. His instrument, bought in 1934, actually bore the code number "001".

Robin Richmond was born in London in 1912, the son of a doctor. Neither of his parents had any musical talent, but the boy became interested in the organ while at Westminster School. Students were compelled to attend the daily morning service at Westminster Abbey except, Richmond discovered, those who studied the organ. Thus the delighted schoolboy was able to skip religion in favour of further musicianship. Advancing to London University to study law, Richmond failed his exams three times before finally giving up. He decided to turn his hobby into his full-time job.

Richmond's earliest employment, however, was in religion. He became organist at the Lambeth Mission Hall, which gave him a mixture of secular and serious to accompany. The hall showed silent films during the week and held services all day on Sunday. The job did not last for long; the minister sacked him for using drum-style percussion whilst accompanying the hymns.

Richmond now concentrated on popular dance music. His first West End appearance was in the stage revue It's in the Bag (1935) which was so devised that he had two special scenes created around his "organantics", a slang term coined around that time. In 1936 he joined the cast of Radio Pie, a touring revue starring the Two Leslies. This was a Thirties act which conjoined two popular comic singers, Leslie Sarony and Leslie Holmes, a teaming that foreshadowed the Sixties television partnership of the Two Ronnies (Barker and Corbett). This show travelled around the provincial music halls with huge success.

In 1937 Richmond travelled to Holland to play the organ at the Palais de Danse, Scheveningen in support of the famous American black dance band led by Benny Carter. Returning home he made his first radio broadcast in the BBC's popular old time music-hall series Palace of Varieties (1938). This would seem somewhat out of place given Richmond's swinging style, but indicates the artist's overall abilities.

The war began, and Richmond volunteered for the Navy. Rejected for reasons of health, he was appointed organist at the Paramount cinema in Tottenham Court Road. By night he accompanied the black singer Adelaide Hall at the Florida Nightclub, but like several similar West End venues, this was bombed. He remained organist at the Paramount until March 1946, then crossed over to the Gaumont-British cinema circuit travelling around London and its outskirts playing musical interludes between the films.

Richmond's main radio work began during the war, and in time he would clock up more broadcasts than any other organist, even, it is said, Sandy MacPherson. He appeared on the Sunday night spectacular Variety Bandbox, with his own swinging sextet on Music While You Work, and as a solo turn on Navy Mixture. Also he played on the Merchant Navy's equivalent show Shipmates Ashore, which was hostessed by Doris Hare, and filled in the gaps between film extracts on the weekly Picture Parade. He also started a series of his own devising, Organ Grinder's Swing.

Richmond's film career was less spectacular. He played the soundtrack to a documentary short called Animalantics (1940), supplying suitable tunes to fit the cameraman's pictures. These included "Run Rabbit Run" and "Felix Keeps On Walking". He did a little better four years later in Rainbow Round the Corner, a minor musical starring Billy "Uke" Scott, a second-class George Formby whose signature song was, hopefully not prophetically, "I'm Only Singing to One". Richmond played an exciting version of the Russian hit "Black Eyes". Five years later came his final film, the much better but still cut-price Murder at the Windmill (1949). This Val Guest mix-up of murder and melody (plus a revealing fan dance) showed Richmond accompanying the Windmill Girls as they sang about "Two Little Dogs".

The Fifties brought better times. Richmond supported Robert Moreton, known as "The Bumper Fun Book" comedian, in the radio series Bumblethorpe (1951), which was scripted by a newcomer to the profession, Spike Milligan. He followed with a starry variety tour with singer Benny Lee in a musical show nicely entitled Mr Words and Mr Music (1954), and several times his recordings for Polygon made the Hit Parade. These included "Ecstasy" (1952) and "The Creep" (1953), when he was up against such big bandsmen as Ken Macintosh, Jack Parnell, and the American Stan Kenton.

The longest-lasting tribute to Robin Richmond is the radio series The Organist Entertains, which he created in the post-war Forties and which can still be heard on the air every week to this day.

Denis Gifford

Robin Richmond, organist: born London 21 April 1912; died 27 July 1998.