Alf Pearson: Singer who moved successfully from music hall and variety to radio and television
Monday 10 September 2012
The brothers Bob and Alf Pearson were one of the most popular music hall acts of the 1930s and 1940s and, after the war, they found national fame as part of Ted Ray's radio series, Ray's a Laugh. They would introduce themselves with the words, "We bring you melodies from out of the sky, my brother and I" and would harmonise popular songs to Bob's piano accompaniment.
Bob and Alf Pearson's father was a plasterer and their mother, Emily Smiles, was a popular entertainer in the Sunderland area. Bob was born in High Barnes, Sunderland in 1907 and his brother Alf followed in 1910. "Our mother was a well-known singer in the north," said Alf, "She knew a lot of religious songs, particularly ones that came from American evangelists in the 19th century. My favourite of all our records is 'Saved By Grace'. [sings] 'And I shall see him face to face, And tell the story, saved by grace.' We learnt that from mother. She had as good a voice as Dame Clara Butt. That is where we got our musical talent from."
Alf had his first professional engagement in 1924 as part of the stage show preceding the showing of the western The Covered Wagon, and he sang with a church group, the Blue Boys, which Bob later joined, too. "Bob was training to be a classical pianist and he said that he would help us out," Alf told me in 2005, "After three or four concerts, he said, 'Alf, this is hopeless. I can't play classical pieces on the pianos in church halls. They have lace fronts and candlesticks on them, half the ivories are missing and the pedals don't work.' He said, 'We'll cut out your songs and my piano solo and we will sing a couple of duets together. Because it's a church concert party, we will finish with Negro spirituals like "I Got a Robe", "Tis You O Lawdy" and "Standing in the Need of Prayer".' That's what we did and so we had an act before we came to London. Whenever the Blue Boys was advertised, the place was full."
In 1928 the family moved to London, where the brothers sang at music halls and won a contract with Columbia. As the duo Layton and Johnstone were already on Columbia, the brothers were asked to join an associate company, Regal-Zonophone, instead. Their production manager played them a record by two Americans and asked them to copy it. They said it was too simple for their tastes: it was singing in thirds all the time. "That is the way that people like it," said the recording manager, "I can sell thousands of records if you sing like that." Bob and Alf said they were sorry, but they didn't sing like that and walked out.
Recording for a variety of labels, the brothers made an impact with "Ro, Ro, Rollin' Along", "Great Day" and "When You're Smiling". They worked with Sir Harry Lauder and Gracie Fields and toured with both Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. They were the first duo to appear on TV, although as Alf said, "There were only about 400 sets in the country and the picture was the size of a cigarette card."
Their fee was one guinea for a song, but they were heard by millions on their regular spot every Saturday night on a radio show from the Mayfair Hotel. During the war, the duo formed a concert troupe for ENSA and toured army bases. Then, in the Christmas of 1947, as Pearson recalled, "We were at the Empire, Glasgow and we got a plain postcard and it said, 'When they asked me who I wanted on my show, I said, 'Bob and Alf.' Cheers, Ted.'"
Bob performed as a variety of characters. Alf recalled: "Ted would say, 'Why, it's a little girl, what's your name?' and Bob would say, 'Jennifer' and there would be a comedy routine." The brothers toured on the strength of Ray's a Laugh and had dolls made that they would give to girls called Jennifer. "Bob used to say, 'Now if there are any little girls called Jennifer, we would like them to come up on the stage.' We thought we might get half a dozen a night but some nights there were 40 kids getting up. They weren't Jennifers at all and I remember one mother shouting out, 'Stop crying, Clara, and get up on that stage.' It became impossible in the end."
Thy toured in a stage show for another radio success, Take It From Here, and had some of the biggest-selling records for Parlophone, sometimes working with a young George Martin. Their singles included "Red Roses For a Blue Lady", "Careless Hands" and a song for the Coronation, "In a Golden Coach". The work dried up with the advent of rock'*'roll but during the 1970s they became involved in music hall revivals. In 1985 they appeared on Highway with Harry Secombe.
Shortly after, Bob died. "That's one of the longest partnerships there has ever been and we never had a wrong word," Alf said. "We never had a row. We kept to ourselves and if anything went wrong in the theatre, we didn't shove our oar in. We would leave it to the stage manager to sort it out." In 1947 the brothers had been initiated into the Grand Old Order of Water Rats. Alf became King Rat in 1997.
Alfred Vernon Pearson, singer: born High Barnes, Sunderland 15 June 1910; died London 7 July 2012.
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