Joan Regan: Singer who had hits in the 1950s and became the toast of the London Palladium


Always looking glamorous and with golden hair and blue eyes, Joan Regan was one of the foremost entertainers of the 1950s. She had many hit records, starred in revues at the London Palladium and had her own television series. Her big hits were often with uplifting songs such as "May You Always" and "Happy Anniversary". "I always like to sing songs with a positive message," she told me at her home in Orpington in 2001, and her positive attitude to life had enabled her to cope with the many problems she encountered.

Joan Regan was born Siobhan Bethel in Romford in 1928. She had rheumatic fever as a child which left her with a damaged mitral valve, although this did not cause problems until she was in her seventies. During the war, her father fell from a train, thinking he had arrived at a platform. The accident cost him his arm but he was determined not to let it bother him and he would roll his cigarettes with one hand.

Regan's brothers were in the navy and they befriended a paratrooper from Phoenix, Dick Howell. "He was very nice," recalled Regan, "and we fell in love, more or less by correspondence." Regan was married on her 18th birthday in January 1946 and they settled in Burbank, California. They had two sons and a daughter, but the daughter died as a baby.

Howell had been married before and when their relationship ran into trouble, Regan, a Catholic, was able to have their marriage dissolved. She returned to the UK with her sons and had a part-time job working on accounts for her brother-in-law, a fruit retailer in Covent Garden. She became friendly with his bank manager who discovered that she could sing well. He asked her to make a private recording, which he would play to one of his clients. As a result, she was signed to the Delfont Organisation and she passed an audition to replace Lita Roza, who was leaving Ted Heath's band. However, Regan felt that she could not commit to a long touring schedule.

When Regan signed with Decca as a solo artist in 1953, the label appreciated her melodic voice but thought it was too derivative of another of their artists, Vera Lynn. "They felt that I had to get away from ballads," said Regan, "They found me an uptempo song called 'Ricochet' and I sang it in a higher key. There was no way I could sound like Vera Lynn on that. Jack Jackson went crazy for it on BBC and when I did some television appearances, I found out, just by good fortune, that I was photogenic and could sing as though I was performing for just one viewer."

With her big records, "Ricochet", "Someone Else's Roses" and "If I Give My Heart To You", Regan was soon starring on variety shows around the country. Her first pianist was Trevor Stanford, who became Russ Conway. On an early tour she was hit by the safety curtain but continued her schedule with a fractured wrist. The public warmed to her and loved her five-year-old son Russ singing with her on her Top 20 hit "Open Up Your Heart".

Regan would close her shows with the religious ballad "In The Beginning", but in 1955 she recorded another, "Croce Di Oro" [Cross Of Gold], which was banned by the BBC. The Head of Religious Broadcasting disliked the song because "religion is sentimentalised in the name of one aspect of human love." When the music publisher complained, the Director of Sound Broadcasting said the BBC "should not encourage such sloppy songs."

In July 1957 Regan married Harry Claff, the box office manager for the London Palladium. Regan received hate mail when the Daily Herald announced that they would be having a baby in February. She successfully sued them for libel and their daughter Donna was born in April 1958.

The hits continued with "May You Always" and "Happy Anniversary" – in which Harry was the mystery voice on the record – and "Papa Loves Mama", which was made with two-year-old Donna. She was billed as "England's answer to Dinah Shore" when she performed at St Regis Hotel in New York: "Salvador Dali had an apartment in the hotel and he had seen the photographs of me in the lobby. He said, 'You come to my apartment tonight and we will have a party.' I said, 'I can't come to your room because I know of your reputation,' and smiled. Later, the lift attendant said to me, 'Nobody says no to Dali' and I said, 'Well, now you've met somebody who has.'"

In 1963 Harry rang Joan from a police station when she was rehearsing a live TV show with Maurice Chevalier. He had been arrested for embezzlement from the London Palladium and Joan had no idea how she did that TV show that day. He was imprisoned for five years and she commented, "Harry had paid the penalty for what he did and right to the end, he maintained that he had only borrowed the money from the Palladium and was going to pay it back. I still cared for him but we did get divorced."

Regan thought it best to leave the country for a while and she found a new audience in Australia. In 1968 she married a doctor, Martin Cowan, and in 1980 they settled in Florida. In 1984 she slipped in the shower, banged her head and had a brain haemorrhage. "I couldn't speak and I was paralysed down one side and I didn't even recognise my children. It took two years for my memory to come back and to be able to sing again. I think it was my determination that got me through. My dear friend Russ Conway was in touch all the time and in 1984, he billed me as the Surprise Guest Star for a show he was doing in Eastbourne. I was very apprehensive but when I walked on the stage, the reaction from the audience was enormous. Russ called it the magic show."

Regan lost her third husband and her final years were spent in the UK. She sometimes sang with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, appeared in Warner holiday centres, and made a new album, Remember I Love You. Russ Conway died in 2000 and she fondly remembered him. "People used to talk about us but we were like brother and sister. I recorded one of his songs, 'Love Like Ours', and he wrote it about us. He says, 'A love like ours is more precious than gold', and it was."

Siobhan Bethel (Joan Regan), singer: born Romford, Essex 19 January 1928: married three times (two sons, two daughters): died London 12 September 2013.

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