Posts Tagged ‘music’

Marc Blitzstein, Roland Hayes and the ‘Negro Chorus’ at the Royal Albert Hall in 1943

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Black American soldier and girlfriend at the Bouillabaisse Club in Old Compton Street, 1943

According to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, the cabinet meeting at Great George Street on 13th October 1942 was very disappointing:

Everyone spoke at once while PM read papers. Discussion was on a low level.

In fact the only contribution Churchill made during the whole meeting was to look up, after Viscount Cranborne, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had pointed out that one of his black Colonial Office staff had been excluded from a certain restaurant at the request of white American troops, and say:

That’s all right: if he takes his banjo with him they’ll think he’s one of the band.

Maybe not Churchill’s finest hour. The cabinet, with or without Churchill fully concentrating, agreed that it was important to respect how the US Army treated its black troops (they were completely segregated) and that it would be less problematic for all-concerned by concluding that:

It was desirable that the people of this country should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured American troops.

The war cabinet room at Great George Street. Protected by a five foot layer of solid concrete known as ‘the slab’. Now part of the Churchill War Rooms.

Less than a year later on September 28th 1943 the Daily Express, who had recently been running a pretty strong anti-segregation and anti-colour bar campaign, put on a show at the Royal Albert Hall that was for and on behalf of the visiting ‘coloured American troops’.

At the beginning of the evening and to the sound of rolling drums a single file of two hundred black soldiers from a segregated division of the American Air Forces’ Engineers marched onto the stage of the Royal Albert Hall on the evening of September 28th 1943. The nervous soldiers were joined on stage by Roland Hayes the renowned black lyric-tenor who had travelled to England specifically for the occasion.

Roland Hayes and the ‘Negro Chorus’ were at the prestigious venue for the debut of an orchestral work called ‘Morning Freedom’. The piece of music was described as a ‘tone poem’ set to traditional ‘negro spirituals and songs’ by its composer – the controversial communist and, as far as the mores of the day allowed, the pretty-well openly gay Corporal Marc Blitzstein.

The dapper Roland Hayes performing at the Royal Albert Hall, 28th September 1943

Corporal Marc Blitzstein the gay, communist American composer.

The two-hundred strong ‘negro chorus’ at the Royal Albert Hall.

The black serviceman choir was originally put together by Private McDaniel from Kansas City as a quartet to sing spirituals and hymns they would have sung at church back home. Slowly the singing group grew to the two hundred men that made up the chorus Blitzstein used for the Albert Hall concert. Private McDaniel explained to Life magazine about the soldiers’ love of spirituals:

Christianity means a lot to us dark boys. A man that can sing a good spiritual can always find his way into another boy’s heart.

members of the audience at the Albert Hall watching Blitzstein’s Morning Freedom

Roland Hayes, a son of two former slaves, was well known to British audiences of the time , although unlike his contemporary Paul Robeson, almost completely forgotten in Britain now. He had first came to London twenty three years ago. Hayes, born in Georgia, had been finding it next to impossible to find prestigious engagements in his homeland and decided to travel to Britain to further his career.

Incredibly within a year of arriving in London he was asked to give a private performance to George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace on St Georges Day 1921. When Hayes arrived at the Palace, it was said that King George told his attendants: “There will be no formalities today. I shall meet Mr. Hayes man to man.” The royal recital immediately gave Hayes international prestige and he toured Britain and Europe to great success.

Roland Hayes painted by Glyn Philpott, 1923

Hugo Weisgall conducting American tenor Roland Hayes and the London Symphony Orchestra

The (Manchester) Guardian wrote of him:

The only really good tenor who has come along lately is the Negro Roland Hayes. His voice is genuine, pure warm and rich, and his artistic instincts are of the finest.

When Hayes visited Berlin in September 1923 he found the appreciation slightly harder to come by. Time magazine that year wrote:

To Germans, black men are “colonials”; they encountered them in the French line during the War; more recently, in the Ruhr. Learning that a member of this unpopular race was to appear publicly in their midst, Berliners were indignant. Protests were made to the American Ambassador against the “impertinence” of permitting a Negro to be heard on the concert stage, against the lèst majesté of offering musically scrupulous Berlin the tunes of the Georgia cotton-pickers.

Not entirely surprisingly, when Hayes appeared on stage, the audience started booing and hissing almost immediately. Hearing the noise the apprehensive singer suddenly decided to change his rehearsed programme and started the evening singing Schubert’s Du Bist Die Ruh. It was a German favourite and the crowd quietened almost immediately but by the end of the song, the audience, throwing their prejudice aside, were on their feet cheering and applauding the black American singer.

Roland Hayes at the Royal Albert Hall, 1943

Exactly twenty years later the British had started to bomb Berlin seemingly on a nightly basis in the hope of breaking the city’s morale. The tide in the war had changed and American soldiers were arriving in Britain in greater and greater numbers, including approximately 130,000 segregated black Americans. In 1943 the entire indigenous black population of Britain was around only a tenth of that number.

I am fully conscious that a difficult social problem might be created if there were a substantial number of sex relations between white women and coloured troops and the procreation of half-caste children.” Herbert Morrison (the Home Secretary) in a memorandum for the cabinet, 1942.

The arrival of the black American troops caused disquiet in both the US and UK governments ostensibly because of the fear of racial mixing and miscegenation. Sir Percy James Grigg, the Secretary of State for War, advised in a circular that he intended to be sent to all senior officers in the British Army:

It is necessary for British men and women…to take account of the attitude of white American citizens. British soldiers and auxiliaries should try to understand the American attitude to the relationships of white and coloured people and that difficult problems do arise when people of different races live together.

Sir PJ, as he was known, betrayed a rather hideously ignorant and patronising attitude to black Americans in his circular. ‘Mutual esteem’ indeed.

Tom Driberg, then an Independent M.P., asked the Prime Minister in Parliament to “make friendly representations to the American military authorities asking them to instruct their men that the colour bar is not a custom of this country.” Time magazine in the US reported that Driberg’s question ‘peeled the blanket of official silence off a complex and dangerous problem’. The magazine quoted eyewitness stories such as:

A pub keeper, indignant at American whites’ behavior toward Negroes, put up a sign on his bar door:

For the use of the British and of colored Americans only.

Three Negroes on a bus leaped to their feet when a white officer boarded it. Said the girl conductor, tartly:

Sit down. This is my bus and this is England.

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill thought Driberg’s question was unfortunate and

…that without any action on my part the points of view of all concerned will be mutually understood and respected.

‘Understood’ and ‘respected’ weren’t probably the first words that came to mind for a lot of people when the US military issued an horrific memorandum of advice, albeit hurriedly withdrawn, for its commanders:

Colored soldiers are akin to well-meaning but irresponsible children. Generally they cannot be trusted to tell the truth or to act on their own initiative except in certain individual cases. The colored individual likes to ‘doll up’, strut, brag and show off. He likes to be distinctive and stand out from the others.

At a cabinet meeting it was agreed that the UK should not object to the Americans segregating their troops, but they must not expect the UK authorities to assist them with this policy. “It should be made clear to the US that there should be no restrictions on the use of canteens, cinemas, pubs and theatres by ‘coloured’ troops”.

Black American GI dancing at the Bouillabaise club in Soho, 1943

“The morale of British troops is likely to be upset by rumours that their wives and daughters are being debauched by American coloured troops”. Herbert Morrison, reporting to the cabinet, 1942.

“There are some white women in this country who feel that American coloured troops are particularly attractive and who run after them, that is a difficulty which will not be cured by keeping American coloured troops out of canteens or clubs at all”. Memorandum from Viscount Simon, Lord Chancellor, 1942.

“For a white woman to go about in the company of a Negro American is likely to lead controversy and ill-feeling, it may also be misunderstood by the Negro troops themselves”. Memorandum from Stafford Cripps, the Lord Privy Seal, 1942.

In reality this just wasn’t the case, for instance in 1944 American world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis was in Britain on a morale boosting tour. He decided to watch a film but when he entered the cinema, he was told by the manager that there was a special section in the cinema which was reserved for black troops. Louis recalled:

Shit! This wasn’t America, this was England. The theatre manager knew who I was and apologized all over the place. Said he had instructions from the Army. So I called my friend Lieutenant General John Lee and told them they had no business messing up another country’s customs with American Jim Crow.

Marc Blitzstein, determined to do his bit in the fight against fascism, joined the US 8th Army Air Force after the USSR entered the war. Stationed in London he was also the music director of the American Broadcasting Station (eventually to become ABC) and continued to compose.

Before the war he had written a musical that had made his name – The Cradle Will Rock. The show was about striking steel-workers and produced by the young Orson Welles (the success of the productions inspired him to start the Mercury Theatre).

Marc Blitzstein with Leonard Bernstein at the piano in 1943

Now Blitzstein was in London he became incensed about the blatant oppression and segregation of the second-class soldiers that made up the so-called ‘colored units’. Black soldiers, whatever their rank, were always seen as subservient to white officers. The segregation of the black soldiers inspired the composer to write Morning Freedom and he dedicated it to their struggle.

The ‘Negro Chorus’ performing ‘Morning Freedom’.

Roland Hayes

At the Royal Albert Hall Morning Freedom was performed for the first time. McDaniel’s chorus was accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergeant Hugo Weisgall. The choir with the help of Roland Hayes also sang Blitzstein-arranged spirituals such as Go Down Moses and In the Sweet By and By. They also sang Ballad for Americans a political song made famous by Paul Robeson.

At the end of the concert the audience of over five thousand stood up and ‘enthusiastically acclaimed’ the performance. The Evening Standard wrote:

The most remarkable ceremony I have ever attended in that famous meeting place. The audience was in ecstasy…it was impossible to believe that the chorus had not sung together before in public

The Times was equally as effusive:

without parallel in the long and varied sequence of events that have taken place within its encircling walls.

Marc Blitzstein carried on composing after the war but in terms of commercial and popular success it was Blitzstein’s 1954 adaptation and translation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera that made the greatest impact. Incidentally, due presumably to the lack of threepenny bits in America, Blitzstein had toyed with calling the musical ‘The Two-Bit Opera’ or the ‘Shoestring Opera’.

The production, featuring Weill’s widow Lotte Lenya recreating her original role, albeit this time in English, enjoyed one of the longest runs in New York’s theatre history. By the end of the decade Blitzstein’s version of Mack the Knife became a huge hit for several singers including, of course, Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

In 1958, Blitzstein appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities where he admitted his membership of the Communist Party although he had left in 1949. However he refused to name names or co-operated any further.

In January 1964, holidaying in Martinique, and after a session of heavy drinking, Blitzstein picked up three Portuguese sailors. Pretending to initially respond to his sexual advances they eventually robbed him, beat him and stripped him of all his clothes. The injuries didn’t seem serious at first but he died the next day of internal bleeding on January 22nd 1964.

American serviceman were paid up to five times the amount their British equivalent earned.

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981. It at last integrated the military and ensured the equality of treatment and opportunity for black soldiers. It also made it illegal in military law to make a racist remark. Unsurprisingly the American army dragged its feet and the proper desegregation of the military was not complete for several years and in fact persisted during the Korean War. The last all-black unit in the US Army wasn’t disbanded until 1954.

American public information film called ‘Know Your Ally – Britain’. Apparently the island is as crowded as a sardine tin.

Nat ‘King’ Cole – In the Sweet By and By

Roland Hayes – Du Bist die Ruh

Paul Robeson – Ballad for Americans

Roland Hayes – He Never Said a Mumberlin’ Word


Islington, Elton John and Long John Baldry

Friday, November 14th, 2008
“It’s absurd, you don’t really love her. You’re just a damned fool!”

In a basement flat on the corner of Liverpool Road and Furlong Road in Islington, the freshly monikered Elton John (to his friends and even himself it was still Reg) lived with his writing partner Bernie Taupin and his fiancé Linda Woodrow. On the 7th June 1968 Elton had written to an old school friend writing “Just a few lines to let you know I am getting married on 22nd June at Uxbridge Registary (sic) offices … Well if you think it’s a bit sudden you’re right. Seeing as we were living together we thought as well get married. Nothing much happening record-wise because I’ve got problems with my record company at the moment. Reg.”.

Only a week or so before Elton wrote the invite, Bernie and Linda were both having a an afternoon nap in their Furlong Road flat. Linda recalled ‘I came out of my room and Bernie came out of his, both thinking we’d heard a noise. We went into the kitchen, and there was Elton lying with his head in the the gas oven.’

Bernie quickly pulled Elton away from the oven fearing the worst but soon noticed that the gas was only turned to ‘low’ and the kitchen window was wide open. Elton had even thoughtfully placed a cushion in the oven to make his suicide attempt slightly more comfortable and in the end Linda merely remarked that it was just a waste of good gas.

Although the suicide attempt hardly seemed wholehearted it was nevertheless a cry of help from a man who was getting more and more confused and upset about his life. He was actually in a deep depression about his career, the failure of his first single and the continued false dawns and disappointments trying to sell his and Bernie’s songs. He was also coming to terms about his sexuality although up to then it didn’t really occur to anyone not least himself that he was anything but heterosexual. The lack of interest in women was just seen as a symptom of his shyness.

Towards the end of 1967 Dwight announced to the surprised members of Bluesology, a band led by the tall 6ft 7 inch singer Long John Baldry and for which he played keyboards, that he had ‘pulled a bird’. Bluesology had played at a nightclub called Fiesta in Sheffield and watching the band was a very short man who called himself The Mighty Atom, a DJ at the local Locarno ballroom, accompanied by a skinny blonde girl called Linda. The Mighty Atom apparently drove around town in a white E-Type Jaguar with wooden risers on the pedals and they must have made an odd couple as Linda was just shy of six feet.

Linda and Reg quickly found a lot in common and she travelled around with him for the last few dates of the Bluesology tour. At the end of the tour, just before Christmas 1967, Reg announced that he was leaving the band. Although Elton had been getting more and more frustrated about not being able to sing, it hadn’t helped that Baldry had just got to number one with the syrupy ballad ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’ – when he sang the hit a backing track was used and the rest of the band had to stand around doing nothing but looking suitably morose. Before Reg parted company he asked politely if he could borrow parts of Elton Dean, the saxophonist, and Long John Baldry’s names to re-name himself Elton John.

Linda and Elton found a basement flat in Furlong Road and Bernie Taupin soon moved in with them in the spare room. Linda was heiress to the Epicure Pickle company could live off a comfortable trust fund. Philip Norman, Elton’s biographer wrote that Elton had begun his affair with Linda “in the spirit of a non-swimmer, plunging headlong with eyes shut and fingers pinching nose, hoping that, if he went straight in at the deep end, everything would somehow sort itself out”.

Elton's first photo-shoot in 1968

Elton's first photo-shoot in 1968

It of course didn’t and in June 1968, three weeks before the proposed wedding, Elton was having a drink with Long John (who was to be Best Man) and Bernie at the Bag O’ Nails club in Kingsly Street where they both tried to dissuade him from the marrying Linda. Bernie remembered that Baldry, by then an unrepentant’out’ gay man, went on at Elton all evening – ‘It’s absurd, you don’t love really love her, you’re just being a damned fool…’. Almost certainly Baldry pointed out a few things about Elton’s sexuality that he might not been entirely aware of. Although Elton has since written “I cannot believe I never realised that he was gay. I mean, I didn’t realise I was gay at that time, but looking back on it now, John couldn’t have been any more gay if he tried”.

Long John Baldry on Top Of The Pops 1968



Long John Baldry, although to his many fans after the success of ‘Heartaches’ wouldn’t have had a clue, was as flamboyantly ‘out’ to his friends as it was possible to be in 1968. Which possibly shows Elton’s innocence at the time but it has to be noted that homosexuality had only been legal in the UK for less than a year. Baldry had become rich (for a short time) from the number one hit and was leading a very hedonistic life in 1968, often attending the non-stop party at the home of Oliver composer Lionel Bart, who shared his interest in young men – the age of consent for gay men at the time was, of course, twenty-one.

Baldry’s sister Margaret does not go into detail, but does reveal that “some of them were very young. John was blackmailed on a couple of occasions. I used to meet a lot of these young guys who were way beyond their years, and they were clearly out to get his money.”

Baldry at the hairdresser John Stephen in Carnaby Street 1968

Baldry at the hairdresser John Stephen in Carnaby Street 1968

By the time the Bag O’ Nails closed Baldry, Elton and Bernie were joined by PJ Proby and also Cindy Birdsong from The Supremes, all acting as celebrity agony aunts and telling him that it was wrong to marry Linda.

PJ Proby

At four in the morning, and drunk, Bernie and Elton trudged back to Furlong Road. Elton was determined to finish the relationship and that night he did just that. ‘All hell broke loose’ according to Bernie with Linda pretending that she was pregnant and that she would commit suicide in the hope that Elton would change his mind. All to no avail.

In the morning Elton called his mother and in a few hours a van drew up outside the Furlong Road flat driven by his stepfather Derf Farebrother. In less than an hour Elton, Bernie and their respective record collections made the journey back to Elton’s family home at 30a Frome Court, Northwood Hills. Bernie and Elton were still sharing bunk beds at his old family home eighteen months later. Elton by then a huge star.

Long John Baldry, immortalised as Sugar Bear in Elton’s song ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ never repeated the success of ‘Let The Heartaches Begin’. However he will always be remembered as instrumental in the birth of British blues and a link between black American blues and British rock. Other than Elton John he played with Mick Jagger before the Rolling Stones existed, went to school with Charlie Watts where they started a Jazz and Blues appreciation society and he famously found an 18 year old Rod Stewart singing a version of John Lee Hooker’s Dimples on the platform at Twickenham station.

Brian Auger and Trinity with LJB and Rod Stewart 1965

LJB 1973
After recording a relatively successful album in 1971 called ‘Take It Easy’, a side each produced by the now very famous Elton and Rod Stewart, Baldry moved to Canada in 1978 where he recorded sporadically including a record called ‘Out’ which could either have been about his sexuality or that he had recently been released after being institutionalised due to mental health problems. He died of a severe chest infection in 2005. It was always difficult for Baldry to accept that he was more well-known for who he knew and who had played in his bands than for his music.

Linda Woodrow (now Hannon) lives in America and seemingly still bitter about Elton John and the, it has to be said, slightly misogynistic and one-sided ‘Someone Saved My Life’. Making up for not marrying Elton in 1968 she has since married four times.

The Mighty Atom has now sensibly reverted back to his real name Chris Crossley and is now an artist in Brincliffe, Sheffield.

The Mighty Atom today

Reg's erstwhile fiance Linda Woodrow in 2007

Linda Woodrow and The Mighty Atom today

Two messages, received on 5th December 2008, from Linda Woodrow or Hannon as she is today.
I am very curious as to where you got all the information about me. Some of it is correct and some is not. You need to find out the truth before you go printing things about me.

Linda Hannon

There are many stories about Reg putting his head in the gas oven. In most of them I was to blame, however Reg was going through a very frustrating time with his music. He was then recording at the Dick James studio. I used to sit there many evenings while he played his music. At that time he was only earning approx. 100 pounds a week or less, it is true that I did take care of both him and Bernie financially. I didn’t realize at the time that he was bi-sexual. I think he used to fantasize after John Baldry. Reg had been out with both John and Bernie when they came home very drunk and Reg informed me that he was leaving. It was definitely John who told him not to get married. I cared very much for Reg and had really hoped for a future with him. At that time I never imagined that he would become such a huge star.

Someone Saved My Life Tonight – Elton John
Don’t Try And Lay Down No Boogie Woogie – Long John Baldry
It Ain’t Easy – Long John Baldry
Empty Sky – Elton John
Dimples – John Lee Hooker