Tony Osborne: Composer and arranger who worked with Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and Eartha Kitt
Tuesday 03 March 2009
Tony Osborne was devoted to making music. He was a talented trumpeter and pianist but he made his mark as a gifted arranger on many successful singles and albums during the 1950s and '60s. He was a consummate professional able to cope with prima donna antics from the likes of Shirley Bassey, Eartha Kitt and Dorothy Squires. "There's no problem," he remarked. "You just talk back to them in the same language."
Tony Osborne was born Edward Osborne near Cambridge in June 1922. He became the junior accordion champion of East Anglia and then, when only 14, played with Josephine's Gypsy Orchestra. He had the same name as his father and grandfather but he tired of being called "Little Teddy". When he joined the RAF in 1942, he asked everyone to call him "Tony". He served in Cairo and the Middle East and played the trumpet on social occasions. He developed his technique and was a fine player by the end of the war.
Osborne looked for work as a professional musician. "I really wanted to be a pianist but most bands only have one pianist, one drummer and one bass player," Osborne told me in 2003, "However, they usually had a few trumpet players so there was more work playing trumpet."
Osborne's first job was a trumpeter and relief pianist with Cyril Stapleton, and then with Frank Weir, Carroll Gibbons and Ambrose. He played in the BBC Orchestra for the comedy successes, The Goon Show and Take It From Here. He found himself in demand for arrangements and told me, "I could write four arrangements in a day if I was prepared to sit up all night."
Soon Osborne was working for the major companies of the day, notably with EMI, and he formed his own band, the Brass Hats, for weekly appearances on the BBC TV teenage show, Six-Five Special. When that was superseded by Juke Box Jury in 1959, Osborne wrote and recorded the theme song, "Juke Box Fury", under the name of Ozzie Warlock and the Wizards. When Osborne fell out with the show's producer, Russell Turner, Turner replaced his tune with John Barry's "Hit And Miss", which began Barry's run of success.
In 1957, Osborne wrote the arrangement for Gracie Fields' hit recording of "Around The World", which was produced by Norman Newell. "The engineer thought that there was some problem with the microphones," said Osborne, "as we kept hearing this click on Gracie's mic. We changed it over and it was still there. Eventually, we realised it was Gracie's false teeth. Norman said, 'Would you mind telling her?' I said, 'No, I just write the music and conduct. You're the producer: you do the hard stuff.' Fortunately, her husband Boris was there and he had a chat with him. Just before we started another take, I noticed that Gracie had opened her handbag and slipped something inside. We got a perfect take and it was a Top 10 single."
In 1960, the American star Connie Francis recorded in England and Osborne wrote and conducted the arrangement for her million-selling "Mama", which was sung in Italian. "I never thought of that as a hit single," said Osborne, "but Pete Murray got behind it and everybody loved it." Among his arrangements were "Sisters" for the Beverley Sisters, "Out Of Town" for Max Bygraves, "Love Is" for Alma Cogan, "Little Donkey" for Nina and Frederik, and "Say It With Flowers" with Dorothy Squires and Russ Conway.
Osborne often worked with Shirley Bassey, writing songs for her ("Gone" and "You") and arranging her very dramatic hit single, "I (Who Have Nothing)" in 1963. "I wrote that in 5/4 which enabled us to put a big tympani beat in it. Shirley wouldn't have known if it was 5/4 or 10/4 but it didn't matter as she was somebody who could feel an arrangement and knew when to come in."
In 1964, Osborne conducted Bassey's appearance at Carnegie Hall and could not resist being the opening act as a Liberace-styled pianist. "I was honoured to work in Carnegie Hall with Shirley and she really wowed them. I also worked with Eartha Kitt and I was surprised that they were so friendly with each other. You would expect femme fatales to be at each other's throats!" Osborne was to make the albums, The Romantic Eartha and Love For Sale (both 1984) with Kitt.
Osborne found time for family life as he married Joan Mason from Lancashire in 1948 and they had two children, Gary and Jan. Gary became a successful lyricist, writing The War Of The Worlds with Jeff Wayne and "Blue Eyes" with Elton John. Osborne gave Gary his start by writing with him for the pop film, Everyday's A Holiday (1965) starring John Leyton and Freddie and the Dreamers. As an arranger, Osborne had considerable help from his brother-in-law Bob Adams, a saxophonist, who would often book musicians for him.
Around the late 1950s, Osborne began recording under his own name, favouring place names for his instrumental titles – the best known are "The Lights Of Lisbon", "The Man From Marseilles", "The Windows Of Paris", which became the theme music for the BBC drivetime programme, Roundabout and was recorded by Bing Crosby, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and "The Man From Madrid", a Top 50 entry in 1961. He also had a chart hit with "The Shepherd's Song" in 1973. "There was a simple reason for all those place names," said Osborne, "I thought somebody might be making a documentary about Spain or somewhere and the music would get recycled."
In 1969, Osborne conducted Judy Garland's final concerts, which took place in Scandinavia. "She had health problems but as soon as the opening bars of the music started, they all went. She did a perfect show every time" Osborne became friendly with the opening act, Johnnie Ray. When he and Ray were at the bar, Osborne said, "I drink to that," and Ray replied, "Tony, you'd drink to a car crash."
During Mantovani and Melachrino's popularity in the mid-50s, Osborne had made an album as Melavano. In the early 70s, he became Lazlo Tabor for the album Gypsy Romance with a 60- piece orchestra. The arranger, Sordo Gomez, was also Osborne. "I didn't want to confuse the public as my name was associated with other things and it was a very, very good record because we had great musicians on it. Eric Robinson, the conductor, had a BBC programme and not knowing it was me, said, 'There's no doubt that was made in Hungary as we can't make records like that over here.' His orchestra burst out laughing because half of them, including the fiddle players, had been on the record. He never forgave me for making him look foolish."
A very sociable person, Osborne enjoyed a life of wine, women and song, and, unsurprisingly, his marriage broke up in the late '60s. When he started playing on cruise ships, he met and then married Faye Morgan, who designed sporting and theatrical costumes. They settled in Sydney and he led a tour with six surviving members of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. After Faye's early death in 1997, he chose to remain there. He spent the remaining years of his life listening to music and enjoying a residency as the pianist at the Sydney Yacht Club. "I still keep in touch with my old friends," he remarked, "They phone up to see if I'm still alive." Sadly, not any more.
Edward Benjamin Osborne (Tony Osborne), composer and musician: born Cambridge 29 June 1922: married 1948 Joan Mason (one son, one daughter), secondly Faye Morgan (deceased); died Sydney 1 March 2009.
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