Les Allen: Obituary

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The Independent Online
Children of the Thirties were divided sharply into two listening classes. There were those who listened to Uncle Mac pretending to be Larry the Lamb in the BBC Children's Hour plays of Toytown, and there were those who bounced about to the rhythms of Henry Hall and his New BBC Dance Orchestra, who occasionally made a gesture towards their younger listeners with the musical adventures of Rusty and Dusty Brown, a small boy and his even smaller dog. These two very different programmes clashed exactly, running from a quarter past five to six o'clock, one on the National Programme, the other on Regional, choice being governed by parents who knew how to operate the requisite switches.

I was one of those who was brought up on Henry Hall. And so, instead of Larry the Lamb, Mr Growser and Captain Higgins the Pirate, the names which dominated my developing days were Len Burmon, who sang "Leave the Pretty Girls Alone", Phyllis Robins who wailed that "Me and My Dog are Lost in the Fog", and Les Allen.

It was Les who really hit home to the children of the wireless age when he crooned: "Little man you're crying, I know why you're blue, someone stole your kiddy-car away. Time to go to sleep now, little man you've had a busy day."

Les Allen was not the first of Henry Hall's famous vocalists. But just as Hall replaced the original conductor of the BBC's dance band, Jack Payne, in 1932, so Allen replaced Hall's original male vocalist, Val Rosing, in the October of that year.

It was the Hall organisation that made Allen a national favourite, but in fact he had been singing and playing in British dance bands from as far back as 1924, when he recorded for Columbia with the New Princes Toronto Band a rather un-croonerish number based on the already ancient riddle, "Why does the chicken cross the road?" He made quite a few discs with this band, including a duet with the conductor, Hal Swain, "Paddlin' Madeleine Home". Swain would later form a highly successful band of female saxophonists which he called Hal Swain's Swinging Sisters, who toured the variety theatres to great acclaim.

Leslie Allen was born in London in 1902, and at the age of three emigrated with his family to Toronto, Canada, where he was taught to play both the clarinet and the tenor saxophone. As a boy he showed enough talent to win silver medals from the Young Men's Christian Association, and broadcast frequently on Toronto's first ever radio station. He was scarcely out of his teens when he came back to England with his fellow Canadian Hal Swain, and soon they were providing the dine-and-dance music at the New Princes Restaurant in Piccadilly, adding what was then a still unusual transatlantic tone to the hits of the day.

By 1926 Allen, still primarily an instrumentalist, was playing tenor sax slightly further upmarket at the Park Lane Hotel, under a conductor who called himself Alfredo, in preference to his real name, Alf Gill. Alfredo had a recording contract with a cheap sixpenny label called Edison Bell Winner, and following his vocal debut with "Happy" (May 1927), Allen sang on most of their monthly releases, including such all-time favourites as "My Blue Heaven", "When Day is Done", and a rare duet with the legendary Al Bowlly, "Without a Song".

As was typical of those times, Allen played and recorded with many dance bands of the day. He was one-third of a trio for Harry Bidgood and his Broadcasters, singing "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling", backed up by Eddie Brandt and Phil Arnold (1929). In 1930 he was with Sid Bright, who was the bandleader Geraldo's brother, and his band singing "Little Sunshine".

The year 1931 heard Allen with Tommy Kinsman and his Ciro's Club Band singing "Got a Date with an Angel"; "Lady of Spain I Adore You" with Eddie Grossbart and his Ambassador Club band; and with Jack Leon and his band, "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland".

Nineteen thirty-two was the big year in Allen's life, when instead of being just a bandsman who now and then puts down his instrument and sings a chorus instead of blowing it, he turned into Britain's favourite crooner. His first big hit was the still-sung song "The Sun Has Got His Hat On", recorded with Sydney Lipton and his Grosvenor House Band as a cover to the original version sung by the film star Jack Hulbert.

There followed a session with the first BBC Dance Orchestra and its original leader, Jack Payne; Allen crooned "Auf Wiedersehen My Dear". Finally came the contract with Henry Hall and the regular daily broadcasts from the BBC, plus the companion contract with Columbia Records. His first side, cut on 26 October 1932, was "Tell Me Tonight", and later came such well- remembered favourites as "Love is the Sweetest Thing" and "Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing".

At the end of this two-year contract, Allen chanced his luck as a variety act, and went out on his own in the wake of his biggest hit ever, "Little Man You've Had a Busy Day". His recording featured not only Mrs Allen (they married in 1926), but their own "little man", their son Norman. Allen also formed a double act for a while with another former Henry Hall vocalist, Kitty Masters, as the "radio sweethearts". Later came his own musical combination, the Les Allen Melody Four, and finally a male voice singing group, Les Allen and his Canadian Bachelors.

Allen also had a shot at films, singing the theme tune of a 1931 melodrama, The Rosary, featuring Margot Grahame and Elizabeth Allan, and starring in support of comedian Albert Burdon in the now lost Gainsborough musical comedy, Heat Wave (1934). In this his songs included "Felipe", in which he was backed by the Lecuona Cuban Boys.

During the Second World War Allen entertained the crowds of Canadian troops who had come over to help the old country, and eventually returned to Canada in 1947 following his own BBC radio series in which he was billed as "Canada's golden voice of melody".

He came back to England in 1954 for a nostalgic reunion with his old bandleader and mentor, Henry Hall. Once again Les Allen sang their old signing-off song, which they had recorded together back in 1934: "It's Time to Say Goodnight".

Leslie Allen, singer: born London 29 August 1902; married 1926 (one son); died Toronto 25 June 1996.