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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific