Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Obituary: Johnny Johnston

His first huge success was `Rael-Brook Toplin, the shirts you don't iron'

Denis Gifford
Thursday 11 June 1998 23:02 BST

"HALF AN hour of laughter beckons - every minute packed with seconds!": Johnny Johnston's compositions ranged from the fondly remembered signature tune of 1948's brand new comedy series Take It From Here to "the perfect singing jingle" as somebody once described "A million housewives every day pick up a can of beans and say - `Beanz Meanz Heinz!' ". The "King of the Jingles" was little known by name to the listening and viewing public, but lauded within the commercial radio and television industry.

Johnston was born John Reine in 1919, but little has been published about his early life. A tall man (6ft 2in) he served as an army major during the Second World War, afterwards forming Michael Reine Music with his partner, Mickey Michaels. He composed a number of well- remembered songs including "Don't Ringa Da Bell" and "The Wedding of Lilli Marlene" for the 1953 film of the same title, starring Liza Daniely.

By the mid-Forties, Johnston was regularly employed by BBC Radio's light music department both as a singer and an arranger. His first big break came in 1948 when the producer Charles Maxwell asked him to form a close- harmony vocal quartet for his new comedy half-hour due to make its debut on 12 March. With the obvious choice of a friend, Alan Dean, plus two girl singers, Terry Devon and Irene King, the foursome got the new show off to a bright start with "Don't Go Away When You Can Take It From Here". It made a swinging introduction to the new comedy team of "Professor" Jimmy Edwards, "Master" Dick Bentley and the Australian funny girl Joy Nichols. The series ran all the way to 1959, by which time Joy Nichols had been replaced by June Whitfield, and the Keynotes themselves had changed personnel more than once.

Terry Devon left to marry the bandleader Tito Burns, and was replaced by Cliff Adams. Then he joined the Stargazers, a similar group, and was replaced by Pearl Carr, who would in turn marry the singer Teddy Johnson and form a double act with him.

The Keynotes made their first recording in April 1948, less than a month after their first broadcast. They were the back-up group to the veteran crooner Sam Browne on his Decca recording of "Heartbreaker", which became a huge hit with its cheery, driving beat. The Keynotes would remain with Decca for eight years, usually backing such top of the pops singers as Denny Dennis ("I'd Give a Million Tomorrows"), Anne Shelton ("Put Your Shoes On, Lucy"), Joy Nichols ("Dreamer's Holiday"), Joan Regan ("This Old House"), Dickie Valentine ("Cleo and Me-o"), and Dave King, the comic turned crooner ("Memories are Made of This"). They even recorded with the Johnston Brothers, which must have been tricky as Johnny Johnston not only formed but led that group, too.

The Johnston Brothers were originally Johnston, Alan Dean and Denny Vaughan and from 1949 they too were recording for Decca. Their first disc, the theme tune from the Hollywood movie A Portrait of Jennie, was the start of a parade of hits: "That Lucky Old Sun", "Tennessee Waltz", "Blowing Wild". Soon, they too were backing major singing stars. They supported Reggie Goff ("Sparrow in the Treetop"), Lita Roza ("Seven Lonely Days"), Suzi Miller ("Bimbo") and Lorrae Desmond ("I Can't Tell a Waltz from a Tango").

Clearly a glutton for work, Johnston now formed a third group, an all- male outfit called the King's Men, and they backed Pearl Carr in "Be My Life's Companion" (1952). The Keynotes made their first public appearance at Feldman's Swing Club in May 1948, and made their first film appearance shortly after in Melody in the Dark, a minor musical starring the rubber- necked comedian, Ben Wrigley, impressionists Carl Carlisle and Maisie Weldon, with Alan Dean singing solo. Hardly ever off the radio, they were regulars on Band Parade and Melody Time, singing along with Geraldo and his Orchestra. In 1959 came a second comedy series, Gala Night at the Rhubarb Room, starring a young Petula Clark with Roy Plomley on loan from his famous desert island as master of ceremonies.

Johnston made his first contact with commercial entertainment when the Keynotes sang on a Radio Luxembourg Boxing Day Special in 1948, followed later by a 26-week run supporting none other than Gracie Fields in The Wisk Half Hour. Bernard Braden, the Canadian comedian, compered, while they sang to the music of Billy Ternent and his Band. The ex-BBC man John Watt, no less, produced on behalf of Lever Brothers Soap.

By 1950, the Keynotes' composition changed again when Alan Dean left to go solo, and was replaced by Harry "Miss" King, an ex-trombonist from Geraldo's band. Joyce Frazer, who had replaced Pearl Carr, was in turn replaced by a bright young Scots lassie, Jean Campbell. Despite these many changes, the Keynotes were voted the country's top vocal group several times, but destiny in the form of rock 'n' roll would shortly cause their collapse. Meanwhile, however, they had made a handful of successful television appearances, from singing with Patricia Dare in Lady Luck to guesting on the ex-bandleader Jack Payne's series Off the Record.

The opening of commercial television in Britain in 1956 brought a total change of life to Johnston. Honing in on the brand new market of advertising jingles, in the first year he composed, arranged and produced 30-second singalongs for Kleenex Tissues, New Zealand Butter, Stork Margarine and "Rael-Brook Toplin, the shirts you don't iron", his first huge success which contained no other words than those of the company's slogan.

Within two years, he had established himself as Johnny Johnston Jingles Ltd, and from his own studio, Cine-Tele Sound, had written and recorded over 500 commercials. By the time he retired, his record totalled some 4,500 jingles, including one famous first, the first ever colour commercial. It featured Birdseye Frozen Peas and Johnston wrote the music. It went out at five past ten on the morning of 15 November 1969.

If one were to pick one jingle to stand as an undying tribute to the man's talent, how about this one which was such a hit it was published as a popular song;

Keep going well, keep going Shell

You can be sure of Shell.

Perhaps the fact that it was sung for Shell by none other than Bing Crosby may have helped.

John Reine (Johnny Johnston), composer and singer: born 1919; died London 10 June 1998.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in