Obituary: Harry Lester

Harold Worth Lester, variety performer: born Fort Worth, Texas 9 July 1895; died Birmingham 4 July 1993.

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]'

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments