William Davies

Organist and composer

William Arthur Davies, pianist, organist and composer: born Bolton, Lancashire 26 June 1921; married 1943 Eileen Watts (three daughters; marriage dissolved 1988), 1991 Felicity White; died Hastings, East Sussex 2 March 2006.

One of the star performers of the BBC Radio Light Programme, William Davies was for many years a household name. As pianist, organist, composer, arranger and conductor, he was without equal in the range and versatility of his work.

After he left the BBC in 1964, he continued to be a regular broadcaster: Music Box, Friday Night is Music Night, The Organist Entertains and his own series Just William, where he composed for and conducted his own orchestra, were some of the many programmes he was involved with over the years.

By the 1970s the heyday of light music had passed, and the BBC's Radio 2 was not simply a renaming of the Light Programme, but a change of style and content. Even musicians of Davies's calibre were beginning to find the going quite tough, and his versatility became a necessity. He composed scores for Alistair Cooke's 1972 TV series America, and for Alan Bennett's Sunset Across the Bay (1975); took part in recordings and performances with stars like Gracie Fields and Vera Lynn; worked for BBC Wales, Harlech TV and Southern TV; undertook score reading for Boosey and Hawkes; and until 1995 was a church organist in London.

Davies was born in 1921 in Bolton, Lancashire, where his parents both worked in cotton mills and sang in the local Methodist chapel choir, but it was his uncle Harold who started giving him piano lessons. Although he made rapid progress on the instrument, won prizes at music festivals, and had the ability while still at school to transpose the music he played into any key, he was apprenticed to a bookbinder in 1935 at the age of 14. None the less his musical studies continued and he gained his ARCM diploma in 1938.

When the family moved to Birmingham, Davies started work in the office at ICI's Witton factory, but on Sundays he was organist at Lozells Picture House in Aston. In 1941 he joined the RAF and was posted to Weston-super-Mare where he made his first broadcasts for the BBC as accompanist and standby pianist for the interludes. Nineteen forty-four saw him posted to Ceylon, where he stayed until demobbed in 1946, doing more ad hoc broadcasting for South-East Asia Command and All India Radio.

On returning home, he took the job of organist at the Gaumont Theatre, Wolverhampton, and in 1947 transferred to the Gaumont, Finchley, in north London. He joined the Jack Hylton organisation in 1953 as organist, conductor and musical director, while maintaining his by now very busy freelance career.

In 1956 he joined the BBC's London Studio Players, where his extraordinary ability to improvise material to the split second made him an indispensable part of the team. I recall going to a recording session of his many years later when he was in his seventies, and a young BBC producer was getting his first taste of Bill Davies's working methods. "OK, Bill, we've got two minutes 25 seconds to fill with your last number: do you want to work something out?" "No, just turn the light on." Davies waited until the clock's second hand was at the top, then started to create his piece. There was a quick glance up as the hand swept past the minute mark, and another after two minutes, by which time he had taken the music to a splendid climax, and was now winding down to the finish.

He gave organ recitals both in the UK and abroad, and these could either be on instruments in a great church or rescued from a defunct cinema: in 1990 he gave the inaugural concert on the newly refurbished theatre organ at the Potsdam Film Museum. It was perhaps for his many concerts and recordings on the theatre organ that he is now best remembered, certainly for the mastery of his playing, but equally for his anecdote-laden introductions.

Stephen Varcoe

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