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)

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

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor