Obituary: Cavan O'Connor

The lilting-voiced singer of Irish songs Cavan O'Connor spent virtually his whole life on the stage. Handsome, with an attractive tenor voice, in the Twenties and Thirties he won all hearts as he made his entrance dressed in a white suit with crumpled white slouch hat to match. He strolled on and off, performing popular songs in which he had the audience chorusing with him, always ending with such sentimental numbers of the day as "When I Leave the World Behind" and "In the Still of the Night". But the songs for which he was best known were "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" and his signature, "I'm Only a Strolling Vagabond".

Clarence Patrick O'Connor, as he was christened by his parents, left Ireland for England in 1899, shortly after he was born, when the family settled in Nottingham. His Irish father died a few years later and his English mother, in straitened circumstances and with a child to support, found little Clarrie odd jobs at an early age before the First World War. He was wounded in the war at the age of 16 while serving in the Royal Horse Artillery. Demobbed, he got work wherever he could as a busker and pub singer; despite his untrained voice he made quite a mark at working men's clubs, supplementing his mother's income.

While still a youngster he developed a typically light voice with a strong Irish lilt. He came down to London from Nottingham in his late teens with the professional stage in his sights. He took bookings wherever he could find them - and a "singing Irishman" in those days was welcome on any bill, which would include such distinctive national types as Talbot O'Farrell, the Scots Will Fyffe and "Our Hebrew Friend" Julian Rose.

Young Clarence did more than play variety and was set on singing straight in his spare time. He knocked on the door of the head of the Royal Academy of Music, Sir Hugh Allan, and he, impressed by O'Connor's voice and personality, gave him the chance to study musical theory, an asset that enabled the ex-busker to make more serious stage appearances, and to drop his original stage name, Clarence Patrick, for that of Cavan O'Connor.

He was at the Old Vic as a singing "super" in the early Twenties and recorded his first solo song for the BBC in the old Savoy Hill days of 1925. He was offered engagements at Covent Garden and courses of learning to sing in international seasons as a chorus boy in Italian and German.

This varied existence led to work with Sir Nigel Playfair at the popular Lyric The- atre, Hammersmith, when he showed his true versatility by playing small roles and understudying in such operas as The Duenna (1924), The Beggar's Opera (1925) and A.P. Herbert's Riverside Nights (1926). Assorted singing roles followed when he appeared in Viennese operetta at the old Gaiety Theatre in the West End.

An association with Hugo Rignold gave him work as a regular soloist with such musical combinations as Fred Hartley's Quintet, where the various members included such talents of the day as George Mela- chrino, Chappie d'Amato and Alfredo Campoli.

It was when Eric Maschwitz, then the BBC's Head of Variety (radio), christened Cavan "The Vagabond Lover" in the 1930s that O'Connor's career as a singing variety, radio and recording star really took off, and bookers with musical managers lined up for the Irishman who was fast becoming a household name. From the mid-Twenties to the mid-Thirties he made hundreds of records.

By this time his bill-matter (the description of the artist) was "only a strolling vagabond" and "the vagabond lover". Under such names he made many radio appearances on Monday Night At Eight and The Irish Half-Hour, and in 1935 he started to sing on a weekly programme, The Vagabond Lover.

From then on he topped the bill in variety halls, to which he returned more or less permanently after the Second World War. He played Australia and South Africa, and home in the Sixties and Seventies became for some while a memory as he toured Britain with the "old times" stars assembled by Don Ross in Thanks for the Memory.

He also formed the Avonmore Trio, in which his wife Rita, under the stage name of Rita Tate (she was a niece of the celebrated singer Maggie Teyte), played the piano as accompanist for him and one of his three sons the guitar. (Another son, Garry O'Connor, is a well- known literary biographer.) When the old Hackney Empire reopened a few years ago, Cavan O'Connor headed the bill with his wife.

During the Eighties, when he was making only the occasional stage appearance, I invited him to appear in Old Stages, the BBC radio series I had written with the late Brian Haines, which ran for a number of years. Here he ran the gamut of popular music emotions and there was plenty of sentiment in the voice still, although his endearing personality, complemented on stage by scenic effects such as a backdrop of poppies, fields and haystacks, could not be seen.

He may not have been one of the giants like Vesta Tilley, Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno or even George Robey, Albert Chevalier, or Little Titch, but Cavan O'Connor made his mark, and will be remembered by all who loved the halls, variety and its attendant arts.

Clarence Patrick ("Cavan") O'Connor, singer: born 1 July 1899; married 1929 Rita Odoli-Teyte (three sons); died London 11 January 1997.

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