Obituary: Harry Davis

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The Independent Online
"You have been listening to Oscar Rabin and his Band, with Harry Davis." This well- remembered radio sign-off, heard by BBC listeners from the Thirties to the Sixties, spoken over the signature tune "Dancing Time", was understood by some but bemused many. Who exactly was Harry Davis, and what did he do on the show? He had not been one of the vocalists; perhaps he was the compere? In fact, Davis was the actual conductor of the band; Oscar Rabin sat in the band itself, never speaking but blowing the saxophone.

Variety lovers who saw the band on stage, and dancers who attended the Palais de Danse at Hammersmith, would have known the set-up well. While Oscar Rabin, smiling and chubby, never spoke, Harry Davis was slim, sophisticated and handsome, the ideal frontman for a band.

The partnership began in 1924 when both musicians were out of work. They met and discussed the situation. If they could not find employment in the danceband world, why not form their own? But they had no mon-ey to pay their musicians. So why not, they thought, form a small co-operative band with some of the many other unemployed musicians that gathered daily in hopes around the area known as Tin Pan Alley. The idea was to divide any fees received equally among the band. A small group of five was formed, with Davis on the banjo taking all the vocals. They auditioned for an important impresario of the period, Marius B. Winter, and he booked them for a trial week at the Palace Hotel, Southend. This first engagement was to extend to 18 months.

The band then moved to the Palais de Danse in Hull, where they lasted for two years, now augmented to eight musicians. By the time they returned to London for their first big engagement at the Wimbledon Palais, they numbered nine. Soon they were starring at the much smarter Royal Palace Hotel in Kensington, and finally at the Astoria Dance Salon in Charing Cross Road, following on from the Billy Cotton Band. This engagement would prove their longest yet: they were there for seven years.

Their name at the time they made their first gramophone record in 1931 was Oscar Rabin and his Romany Band. This reflected the craze of the day. In fact the first Rabin record, "Jolly Good Company", with Davis handling the vocals, was rejected and it was not until 26 January 1933 that their actual first record was released. This was "It's Gonna Be You", sung by Davis, and it was made for Sterno, who also released it on the Redwing label under the pseudonym the Romancers, and again on their Four-in-One label. This was an early version of the long-playing record with two tunes on each side. The coupling was Davis singing "Leave the Pretty Girls Alone".

The Thirties were the heyday of cheap records, sixpence a time in Woolworth's, and false names were the game for the low-paid dance bands. Rabin and Davis were no slouches at this odd business; in fact they may hold the world's record for pseudonyms, 34 in all. These ran from the Merry Music Makers to the Rhythm Kings by way of the Sonora Hot Band, and one that gives a clue to their successful expansion, the Twelve Cavaliers.

Davis frequently handled the vocals, especially comedy numbers like "Little Nell". Billed as "a melodrama in rhythm", he shared this one with the comedian Fred Douglas. Davis's many recordings as singer included "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and the comedy hit of 1933, "When He Tried to Kiss Her by the Duck Pond".

By this time Davis's voice alone was no longer enough, and he began to book other singers to boost the band's sound. Sam Browne was the first, followed by Harry Bentley, Dinah Miller, Eve Becke and even that top crooner of the time, billed as "England's answer to Bing Crosby", Al Bowlly. But in 1936, as girl singers boomed in popularity, another new name was added to the Rabin roster. Enter Beryl Davis, Harry's young daughter. She rapidly rose to the front rank of vocalists with hits that included Dorothy Lamour's romantic "Moon of Manakoora" (1938) and another Hollywood hit, "Begin the Beguine" (1939).

The cinema took note of the band's success in 1937. They played "Rural Rhythm" in a Pathe Pictorial short, then returned to the same company two years later to film "Nice People" and the nonsense song "Hold Tight - Foo-de-racky-sacky". Their three numbers in Starlight Serenade (1944), the band's only feature film, were somewhat more sophisticated, including "Frenes" and "Perfidia".

In the Second World War the band's first patriotic records were "The Blackout Stroll" and "Knees Up Mother Brown". In 1940 however they formed a second sound which they called Oscar Rabin and his Strict Tempo band. This was to latch on to the vastly increasing popularity of ballroom dancing, the favourite pastime of the forces on leave. Their dance records went on the Decca label, while their more popular songs remained on Rex until it closed.

The band's first post-war hit was "Let Him Go Let Him Tarry", which the young Jean Simmons sang in The Way to the Stars (1945), the Michael Redgrave/ John Mills Air Force epic. The bands now moved to Parlophone, where they would achieve some of their biggest sellers. Titles included "Hamp's Boogie", "Washington Whirlygig" and their own version of Glenn Miller's popular signature tune "Moonlight Serenade".

Davis and Rabin, christened by envious musicians "The Gold Dust Twins", remained partners and friends until the end of the big band era and beyond; until in fact they were parted by Rabin's death in 1958. Davis, still slim and handsome, retired to America where his daughter Beryl was still singing.

Harry Davis, bandleader and singer: born Liverpool 10 August 1901; married; died Los Angeles 15 December 1996.

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