HARRY LESTER, the radio and stage 'hill-billy' whose comedy band, 'The Hayseeds', cheered up England during the blacked-out Forties, has died just five days before his 98th birthday. He died on Independence Day, appropriate for a man born in Texas and who achieved his great success in the UK, steadfastly retaining his US citizenship.
Lester was born in 1895 and named after his birthplace, the Harold Hotel, Fort Worth. His father John was a travelling showman in the lower echelons of entertainment, performing in tent shows, medicine shows, town hall shows, and anywhere a rickety stage could be erected. As an infant Harry was incorporated into the family act, soon to be joined by his younger brother Burton. The boys learnt every kind of act, from close harmony singing to acrobatics and wire-walking, and between them the trio could play virtually every musical instrument.
By 1908 the brothers were starring in their aerial act at the San Antonio State Fair, by 1910 they were working the riverboats along the Mississippi, and by 1914 were touring theatres in Australia and South Africa. They arrived in England in 1915, made their debut at the Victoria Palace on 20 December, and never went home again. The family quartet (including Mrs Lester) called themselves the Four Aerial Lesters in 1916, then combined their musicianship with the trapeze as 'The Band Upside-Down' in 1917, and when the jazz craze boomed they fell back on their own memories of Southern music and became 'The Frisco Five'. Whether the fifth was another brother or an imported musician is unrecorded.
Changing the act to whatever was the then craze became a Harry Lester trademark. The act expanded and soon the Lesters were sending out their own package shows, such as Shot to the Moon, a science-fiction extravaganza, Hollywood Follies and Film- Faces, both reflecting the public's growing preference for films over variety, and perhaps his most extraordinary effort, Lester's Midget Circus. This featured 40 midgets, 15 ponies and an elephant, and was such a hit that it played the Blackpool Tower for four years, to 1929.
It was the craze for country-western music that really made Harry Lester a top-liner. It was known as 'Hilly- Billy' music in the Thirties, and every singing star from Bing Crosby down had to feature cowboy numbers in their repertoires. Once again Lester fell back on his early days in Texas and environs, and a new Wild West revue was born starring Harry Lester and his Hayseeds. Although such popular hits as 'Roll Along Covered Wagon' and 'Old Faithful (We Roam the Range Together)' were obvious segments of the show, it was their comedy numbers that made the Hayseeds such a success: 'I Like Mountain Music' and 'They're Tough, Mighty Tough, in the West' come easily to mind.
The Hayseeds proved to be Lester's greatest success, raising him from a touring revue star to a regular on radio and records, climaxing with the first post-war Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in November 1946. The Hayseeds ran, twanging the Jews'-harp and scratching the washboard, from 1938 virtually to Lester's retirement in 1957. For the record, the Hayseeds, unbilled by proper names, were Goofus the yodelling nitwit, Pee-Wee Pete, Cicero, Wheezy, The Kid, Guppy, Knuckle and Zeke. Or as Lester put it at the start of every show, 'Yes, folks, it's your Country Cousins come to town]'