Steve Voce
Monday 28 August 1995 23:02

"I try to forget the mike," Alan Dell said. "It's just something that's there." Most times in his broadcasts Dell sounded as if he had swallowed the mike, for his technique was to get as close to it as possible and then to speak quietly, giving his voice a resonance that would not be there when he spoke normally.

Dell was the best kind of disc jockey, managing to impart individuality into his presentation without imposing personality or humour. He was not a noisy or fatuous broadcaster and Sounds Easy, one of his most popular programmes, was titled as much for his smooth presentation as for the implied promise that the listener would be subjected to nothing which would strain his brain.

The son of a newspaper editor, he started his long career in broadcasting in his native South Africa when he worked for the South African Broadcasting Corporation in its record library during the late 1940s. He first broadcast as an announcer on Springbok Radio from its launch in 1950. One of the earliest programmes he presented there featured the Hungarian-born singer Eve Boswell, who preceded him to London in 1949.

In 1953 Dell returned via London from a trip to Los Angeles where he had gone to study the remarkable recording techniques of Capitol Records, then producing some of the best sound quality in the world. Dell found the London of 1953 in the thrall of the forthcoming Coronation and persuaded the South African Radio Corporation to let him help cover the occasion.

In the meantime, Eve Boswell had a hit record in England with the South African song "Sugarbush". Someone at the BBC asked Dell to write a four- part programme for her. As Dell had worked in South Africa as news-reader, script-writer, announcer and technician, he was well placed to take advantage of such opportunities. One of his first jobs was to introduce the Ted Heath band, then one of the best British dance bands, in one of Heath's radio series.

From 1955 Dell began presenting reviews of new releases for the BBC. In 1959, although his link with jazz was tenuous, he presented Jazz Club for a time and in 1962 helped with the sound at Frank Sinatra's Festival Hall concerts and in the subsequent recording sessions.

"Middle of the road" was where Dell lived. The music he liked was the music a large part of the general public wanted, too. He preferred polish to inspiration and most of the bands he liked best for his long- running (from 1969) The Big Band Era series were the smooth and often bland ones of the predominantly white part of the Swing Era. Whereas Humphrey Lyttelton, in the adjacent spot to Dell's on Radio 2 for the last quarter of a century, regards Duke Ellington as the Holy Grail, for Dell it was Glenn Miller. Dell never pretended to be a jazz fan, although much of his music came from the fringes of jazz, and he sometimes unbent sufficiently to play one of Count Basie's records.

Another of Dell's long- running series, The Dance Band Days, preceded The Big Band Era in Radio 2's Monday-evening schedules and concentrated on recordings by British dance bands, bringing a huge audience of listeners who wanted their nostalgia buds tickling. When the BBC realised that the potential audience of those over 40, particularly since they were living longer, was much larger than the younger one for rock music, Dell became an element in their attempt to capture it. As recording techniques became more sophisticated, he built a studio at his home in Kent where he had the equipment to record programmes without leaving home.

Dell worked also in record production and helped to assemble some highly popular collections of tracks by Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole. He became in demand as a compere for concerts and in 1983 won a Grammy Award for his work on the contemporary re-issue of the Tommy Dorsey-Frank Sinatra sessions of the 1940s.

The BBC celebrated Dell's 40 years with them in a special programme on Radio 2. His prestige in the industry was perhaps epitomised by his reply to a lowly representative of a record company who asked him to lunch. "I'll give you a ring when I'm hungry," he said.

Steve Voce

Alan Creighton Mandell (Alan Dell), broadcaster: born Cape Town 8 March 1924; married (two sons, one daughter), died Westerham, Kent 18 August 1995.

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