Written by Terry Brown
Harry Bidgood is probably best known for his numerous recordings with his ‘Broadcasters’, on the 8” Broadcast label. But he had a long career in the recording industry both before and after this particular incarnation – most notably as another of his many recording personas, accordion band leader, Primo Scala.
Before we look in more detail at his life and work, there is one area of difficulty to discuss, that of Harry’s origins.
Harry’s father was, Thomas Bidgood (1858-1925), professor of music and composer of the march, ‘Sons of the Brave’. Although, Rhythm magazine, mentioned this in a brief 1933 article, interestingly, Harry himself, in the very few interviews he gave to the music press over the years, never made mention of his father.
This reticence was probably due to the fact that not only was Harry born illegitimate, but also that his father Thomas, drifted into alcoholism and depression and took his own life.
New research has now fleshed out a somewhat complicated childhood for Harry and is detailed here for the first time.
The 1901 UK census shows Thomas Bidgood resident in West Ham, London, with a son, 17 year old Albert Thomas Bidgood and wife Emily (Moore), whom he married in 1879. However the 1911 census shows Thomas with a completely different family; he was now living in Tottenham, with a Rosetta Ann Bidgood recorded as his wife and two new sons, 14 year old, Walter Thomas Bidgood and 12 year old Henry James (Harry) Bidgood, with no sign of son Albert or wife Emily.
The 1901 census entry for Rosetta throws further confusion into the mix as Rosetta is shown living as Rosetta Barnard, with Walter and Henry (Harry) both listed with this new surname, and yet another son, 10 year old Alan Barnard.
It has now been established that, Walter, Henry (Harry), and Alan were all illegitimate children of Thomas Bidgood and Rosetta Ann Casseleden, (her single surname). So although, Thomas appears with his real wife, Emily on the 1901 census and not on Rosetta’s entry, by then he had in fact left Emily and was living with Rosetta and his three illegitimate children as the Barnard family.
It’s not known why Thomas and Rosetta adopted the surname Barnard, but Harry’s birth was recorded under this surname and was given as 28 August 1898, (and confirmed as this in later documents). There is a further complication to this conundrum, inasmuch that Rosetta herself had married in 1887 at the age of just 17 to an Alfred Charles Butler.
Indeed, the name of Rosetta’s first son, Alan (born 1890), was actually registered as Alan Charles Butler after Rosetta’s then husband. It was only in 1919, when Alan Butler changed his name by deed poll to Alan Bernard, that he revealed that his father was not Albert Butler, but Thomas Bidgood. By the time of the 1911 census, Alan had become estranged from his father, but went on to have a successful career as a composer/conductor and founder of, The London Chamber Orchestra.
At the same time, Thomas and Rosetta, with sons, Walter and Henry, (or Harry as I’ll call him now), were no longer the Barnard’s, but were all living together under Thomas’s real name, as the Bidgood family.
Thomas and Rosetta of course never married – they couldn’t. Thomas did not divorce his wife Emily, and Rosetta, as far as can be ascertained, did not divorce her husband Alfred Butler. (When Thomas died on 1 March 1925, it was his wife, Emily who was granted probate – not Rosetta).
The family situation seems to have settled down by the 1911 census, and Harry had a comfortable and reasonably well off upbringing in West Ham. There were further knocks down the road. Sadly, Harry’s brother, Walter was killed during WW1 but Thomas and Rosetta had another son, Harry’s third brother, Warwick, who was born on 27 March 1914. (Warwick became an important part of Harry’s later activities both as an accordionist in Harry’s various bands, and as Harry’s band manager).
All of that said, it was certainly Thomas Bidgood who supported and encouraged Harry into a musical career, which seemed inevitable considering his father’s background. Thomas, Harry’s father, was born on 7 October 1858 in Woolwich, South London and studied the violin at the London Academy of Music. As a boy, he attended concerts given by the band of the Royal Artillery, and as a result of which, he studied various wind instruments. He joined the band of the 9th Kent Artillery Volunteers and later, he became bandmaster of the Beckton Band of the Gas, Light and Coke Company, where he was employed, and later still, he served as the bandmaster of several other bands in East London.
Apart from his most famous march, Sons of the Brave, Thomas Bidgood also composed, Knight Errant (1901), The Lads in Navy Blue, Merry Soldier, and Silent Heroes (1909), The British Legion and A Call to Arms, (1912), My Old Kentucky Home, On to Victory and Vimy Ridge (1921), as well as a wide range of orchestral works, including the intermezzo Honoraria and A Motor Ride.
The formal arrival of Thomas Bidgood at Rosetta’s household was good news indeed for Harry who got an excellent start in life by being sent to the Haberdashers Aske’s Boys School at its Hatcham site in South London. Aske’s was and is a prestigious public school and its clear Thomas had high hopes for Harry. He went on to attend Raine’s Foundation School in Bethnal Green, East London from May 1908 to July 1912.
Harry was already drawn to music and before he left Raine’s he wrote what was to become the school song. (Other former Raine’s pupils include, saxophonist and club owner, Ronnie Scott and guitarist Ivor Mairants, who worked and recorded with most of the great British dance bands of the 30’s and 40’s).
With the encouragement of Thomas, Harry obtained an, ‘exhibition’, or scholarship to East London College, (now Queen Mary’s College, part of London University), to study music where he became highly proficient in piano, composition and arrangement.
Despite his essentially classical training, Harry had his eye firmly fixed on popular music, and whilst studying, he would make a few shillings playing piano, sometimes organ, (usually as relief or deputy), for the numerous silent picture cinemas in the East End of London. On occasions he did pub and club work and eventually in 1910 made his stage debut at the Canterbury Music Hall, Westminster, London as a boy pianist and later became the regular organist at the Coliseum Cinema in Haringey, North London. By 1913, Harry had managed to work up a variety act called, ‘Musical Voices’, whereby Harry sat at a piano on stage, as his partner, (usually Warwick, his brother), roamed the audience, asking them to whisper a request to be played.
Using similar techniques to mind reading acts assisted by a hidden microphone, Harry would always identify and play the correct tune.
Harry’s ability to play literally hundreds of popular and not so popular tunes from memory had been honed whilst playing for silent films.
By the time Harry left college in 1915, any thoughts of a move into show business were put on hold as he had little choice other than to do what was expected of many thousands of young men of his age at the time, to enlist. Harry served three years with the East Sussex Regiment, during which he attempted to learn the bagpipes, as these were the only musical instruments played by the regimental band.
He was demobilised in 1918. Harry, determined to pick up where he left off and make a career in music and after several false starts, including a spell as resident pianist at the Old Vic Theatre, found his first stable job, as the teens turned to the twenties, in London playing piano with David de Groot’s Orchestra at the Piccadilly Hotel.
David de Groot, a naturalised Dutch man led a string ensemble based in the Grill room at the Piccadilly Hotel from 1909 to 1928. In the early twenties it consisted of a piano, four violins, a viola, two cellos and two basses and played during lunch/dinner in both the Grill room and the Louis XVI restaurant as background rather than music to dance to.
De Groot, with the Piccadilly Orchestra, or as a trio and in various other combinations, recorded some 200 sides of light music and waltzes from 1915 to 1930 for HMV.
With Harry now settled and making a good living with de Groot, he married Edna Woods on 28 September 1921, and went on to have four sons.
As time went by Harry became clearly more interested in the popular music styles of the day, and eventually an opportunity arrived for him to demonstrate that interest. Following the refurbishment of the main ballroom at the Piccadilly, (which re-opened for dancing on 6 October 1922), de Groot was asked to put together a group for dancing, to be known as the Piccadilly Hotel Dance Band. The band even recorded for HMV, on 22 March 1923. Just one side was issued, Lolla, (B1595), an original composition and arrangement by Harry himself, on which, of course he plays piano. (Harry put pen to music paper infrequently; other compositions of his include Nothing But You, co-written with Bruce Sievier and recorded by Harry on 14 November 1928 and A Heart To Let, recorded by Jeffries’ Band in April 1926).
But Harry’s fore into popular music did not last long, as the Piccadilly Hotel management decided to disband the Piccadilly Hotel Dance Band shortly after it formed and bring in name bands to play in the ballroom.
Harry and de Groot returned to providing string based background music in the restaurant and Grill. One of the first name bands to arrive was Emlyn Thomas’s London Band from the Hippodrome, who went into the Piccadilly in October 1923. Thomas’s London Band was joined by Jack Hylton’s Band later in November 1923, and was probably part of Hylton’s overall band operations at the time.
Meanwhile Harry remained on the daily grind with de Groot’s salon group, and no doubt keeping an eye out for the main chance. The London Band and Hylton stayed on at the Piccadilly into January 1924. The Hotel then announced it would be bringing over American violinist Alex Hyde from New York to form a band. Hyde arrived with two confreres, reed men Don Parker and Eddie Grosso on 25 January 1924. Once they’d arrived, Hyde put together a new band by recruiting local talent including Harry, who at last escaped the clutches of de Groot.
Hyde’s Band consisted of Howard McFarlane, Frank Kendall (trumpets), Bill Mundy (trombone), Eddie Grosso, Don Parker, Jesse Fuller (clarinet/saxes), Alex Hyde (Leader/violin), Harry Bidgood (piano), Jack Simmons (banjo), Sammy Samethini (tuba), and Eric Little (drums).
With Hyde’s band in place, the London Band was out but Hylton stayed on with Hyde, particularly as the Piccadilly had introduced a cabaret, ‘Dolly’s Revels’ at the time and needed him. An advertisement for the opening night on 8 February 1924, shows Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar as headliners, with dancers Santry and Norton, Bobby Blythe and 8 Dolly Girls, with Alex Hyde and Jack Hylton’s Bands for dancing and de Groot in the restaurant and Grill room.
Meanwhile, more change was afoot, when Alex Hyde was offered work in Germany in late May 1924. Not all of Hyde’s men wanted to go but he got together a number of again mostly British musicians to form, Alex Hyde’s New York Orchestra to travel to Berlin.
The unit made six recordings for the Vox label in September 1924, and although Rust/Forbes shows Harry Bidgood on piano for these German sides, he wasn’t. Either Ray Allen or Wally O’Neill played, (or both, where two pianos are heard). Harry in fact never went to Germany. Neither, (again contradicting Rust/Forbes), did Alex Hyde’s American born reed man, Don Parker.
In fact during May 1924, Don Parker got the remnants of Hyde’s former band together, including Harry, to form Don Parker & his Band for the Piccadilly, which played opposite Jack Hylton for the rest of the year.
Although Harry was no doubt happy to play for Parker, he remained on the lookout for opportunities to use his arranging and organisational skills within the music business. Fortunately, good news was on the way for Harry as, in early 1925, he successfully applied for the post of Light Music Director for the Vocalion Record Company.
The original Aeolian- Vocalion Company was the gramophone manufacturing arm of the Aeolian Company, an American firm which operated worldwide and in the UK during the 1920’s it manufactured and issued its own record labels, principally, Vocalion and ACO, as well as pressing, (at its Hayes, Middlesex premises), and providing matrices, for a number of other directly or indirectly linked labels including, Coliseum, Scala, Citizen, Ludgate, Meloto, Guardsman, and Beltona.
From the start of its UK recording operation in 1920, the majority of Aeolian- Vocalion’s dance music sides were and would be of US origin.
There were exceptions, including Archibald Joyce’s Dance Orchestra, the Vocalion Dance Orchestra, led by Debroy Somers and Reg. Batten’s Savoy Havana Band who recorded under the pseudonym, the Savoy Harmonists. By late 1922 the majority of Aeolian- Vocalion’s dance music sides moved to its ACO label. The take up of UK bands continued with The London Band, in 1923, Victor Vorzanger and his Broadway Band and Leslie Jeffries Rialto Orchestra in 1924, amongst others. Then a new company, The Vocalion Gramophone Co. Ltd., set up in early 1925, severed the ties with its American parent, Aeolian, buying out the premises, plant and labels of the original company and it was they who recruited Harry as Light Music Director.
Light music in this context referred to the range of light vocal, comedy, and popular instrumental material as well as dance band music produced by the company. Harry’s classical training and long period with de Groot as well as his forays into popular dance music undoubtedly helped him secure this important post.
Vocalion had always pitched itself at the posher end of the record market with prices to match. Its Vocalion 10” sides were 3 shillings each and 10” ACO sides, 2/6d, (the same as HMV’s plum label).
Unsurprisingly its main outlet was Selfridges Store on Oxford Street in London. By the time Harry arrived at Vocalion, Victor Vortzanger had gone, (although he would make a brief return in 1927), and Leslie Jeffries was about to.
Mike Thomas has suggested Harry probably organised many of the later Jeffries sessions before his departure from Vocalion and probably played piano on them.
Harry’s role at Vocalion would be pretty demanding. As Light Music Director he had staff to assist him, but Harry was ultimately responsible for advising on appropriate material to record, setting up and directing/conducting sessions, obtaining arrangements, (or producing them himself), approving musicians and ensuring all the contractual and financial paperwork involved were dealt with appropriately for both the Vocalion and ACO labels.
Vocalion would keep Harry very busy indeed from 1925 to 1932. On the dance music side, Vocalion still relied heavily on US matrices, but Harry acquired Geoffrey Goodheart and his Orchestra in February 1925, (who’s band had appeared at the Piccadilly Hotel opposite Hylton and Parker), to be followed in November by his former Piccadilly Hotel employer, Don Parker & his Band. Harry himself had also got a sufficient pool of able dance band musicians together to form a studio band under his own name on Vocalion’s, ACO label.
The range of players Harry had available reads like a who’s who of the 20’s music scene, with many top side men, future band leaders, arrangers and established players, populating his studio band. Some names that should be familiar include, Ted Heath, Jimmy Wornell, Paul Fenoulhet, Cyril Ramon Newton, Nat Star, Wag Abbey and Stan Greening. The last three named musicians had been, were, or would become studio based dance music directors in their own right for other companies.
Harry organised upwards of four dance band recording sessions a month for Vocalion, sometimes producing up to 10 sides in a single day.
Many of these sides were also issued under pseudonym on a number of Vocalion’s affiliated labels, including, Beltona, Guardsman and Coliseum.
Aside from these, Harry regularly recorded anonymous dance band sides for Vocalion’s 6” label, The Little Marvel, (sold in Woolworth stores), as well as accompaniments for other Vocalion talent, with his organisational and managerial role squeezed in between.
Although 1925 had proved an excellent year for Harry’s career, generally, Harry had one piece of sad personal news to deal with, when his father, Thomas died on 1 March 1925. Unfortunately Thomas’s alcoholism and depression had caught up with him and he committed suicide. The coroner noted the cause of death as, ‘gas poisoning suicide whilst of unsound mind’.
Meanwhile, back at Vocalion, at its Annual General Meeting on 1 July 1926, Vocalion announced a somewhat meagre net profit of £14,701 and announced it had formed an association with the Marconi company, which, ‘had carried out experiments’, on a new process of electrical recording. Vocalion felt, ‘it was not too optimistic to say, that shortly they would be in a position to place on the market a record which would prove a great advancement upon anything hitherto known in this type of reproduction’.
Part of this innovation involved the way the pitch of the recording groove was cut and permitted the equivalent playing time of a 10” disc to be pressed onto a smaller size, (and cheaper to produce), 8” record.
This was a surprise move by the company, which as mentioned earlier had concentrated on high end output and its move into a low cost, high volume, popular market came as a surprise to its rivals.
There had been mini discs knocking around since the mid-twenties, with the Crystalate company the main producer, providing labels such as the 5 ½” or 6”, Marspen disc for Marks & Spencer stores and the similarly sized Mimosa, (later the 7” Victory) for F. W. Woolworths.
As already mentioned, Vocalion itself had been producing its 6” Little Marvel disc for some years, but such mini discs tended to be seen as a novelty product or something for the kiddies.
Vocalion’s Broadcast label, with its, ‘10” equivalent playing time on an 8” disc’, advertising slogan, at just 1/3d, was an attempt to get mini discs taken more seriously and undercut the established 10” market. So, in April 1927 Vocalion introduced the new 8” Broadcast label with its new Marconi electrical recording process in a blaze of publicity.
Not only was it cheaper than all its 10” rivals, but to the annoyance of the competition, Vocalion broadened Broadcasts’ sales potential by wholesaling them to bike shops, newsstands, chemists and other general retailers, (at 8 shillings a dozen), rather than just music and or radio/gramophone shops.
With the introduction of Broadcast, Harry’s main studio group became, Harry Bidgood and his Broadcasters on the label. This was followed by the use of a myriad of other names, (Harry issued sides under 18 or more pseudonyms), creating what appeared to be a well populated catalogue. (Broadcast sides were also pressed on the ‘Unison’ label which were sold exclusively through Co-op stores).
As the sales of the Broadcast label began to pick up, Vocalion began to withdraw its 10” records, sales of which were falling. The Guardsman label was the last to go in late 1927.
The studio based dance band world at this time remained a tight knit group of highly capable musicians many of whom, were regularly shared between different recording companies.
Throughout 1926/7 many of Harry’s players were also session men for British Homophone, for their Homochord and Sterno labels, and for Columbia Records, on their Regal label, etc. These other companies were of course technically rivals to Vocalion. Similarly, despite his busy schedule Harry also moonlighted as the regular pianist and sometimes arranger on Homophone’s dance band output.
Nat Star, one of Bidgood’s regular reed men became British Homophone’s dance music director in 1928 and he and Bidgood continued to share musicians and appear on each other’s sessions’ right through to early 1930. Nat Star also worked with studio bands put together by another of Harry’s regular’s Stan Greening, again for various companies into 1931.
Harry used a range of vocalist’s for his sides including, Sam Browne, Cavan O’Connor, John Thorne, Bobby Sanders, Tom Barratt, and occasionally women such as Olive Groves.
Although Vocalion had studios at No. 2, Duncan Avenue, Grays Inn Road, London, Harry also used other nearby venues including the Stoll Picture Theatre in Holborn, (particularly when an organ was required), King Georges Hall in Bloomsbury and Madame Tussaud’s Cinema on the Marylebone Road. Harry had an excellent understanding of his market and produced bright, rhythmic dance music with what we would consider now to have a typical 1920’s sound. His sides contained the occasional solo(s), but generally Harry steered clear of jazz. Even the presence of the great trumpeter Sylvester Ahola at a session on 6 September 1929, failed to produce any noticeable jazz influence.
Harry has just one dance side noted in Rust’s Jazz and Blues Records, Me Too, recorded in August 1926 and issued on ACO as by Harry Bidgood’s Orchestra. Interestingly, although dance music dominated his recorded output, very occasionally Harry just sat down at a piano and played.
In January 1927 he recorded four piano duets with Sam Bogan, which are of sufficient interest to appear in Rust’s Jazz & Ragtime Records, they are, Crazy Quilt/Black Bottom, (ACO G16144) and Crying for the Moon/Tampeekoe, (ACO G16174). By the way, Bogan was Harry’s regular pianist on the majority of his Vocalion dance band issues. More generally, the lack of jazz influenced sides made by Harry is not particularly surprising. Harry had to rely on good sight reading musicians, as his job was to turn out product, quickly and cheaply, for a market which had little interest in jazz. That said, Harry did the bulk of his own arrangements, (sometimes during rehearsals!), which are always highly listenable and rhythmic and invariably of better quality than the publisher’s stock arrangements on which many of them were based.
Harry did get out of the studio on occasions. He led a contingent of his recording band, including Ted Heath at the Ritz Hotel during 1927 and Melody Maker reported he would be going into Ciro’s Club on the 1 October 1927 under the recommendation of the previous incumbent Debroy Somers, who was going on tour. Harry was named as leader. The line-up for the band was given as Cyril Ramon Newton, violin, Fred Gilmore, tenor sax., Harry Bidgood, piano, George Gibson, 1st sax., Ernie Abbe, trumpet, Barney Singleton, bass, Leonard Sheville, banjo, and Victor Sterling, drums, all musicians from Harry’s Studio band roster.
The following month’s Melody Maker issued a groveling apology for naming Harry Bidgood as leader, it should have said Cyril Ramon Newton. This apology was clearly prompted by a complaint from Newton. With his busy schedule, it’s probable that Harry dipped in and out as far as live performances at Ciro’s were concerned. Ciro’s Club Dance Band recorded for Broadcast later in 1928, although Mike Thomas suggests that the band was in fact Debroy Somer’s main unit. The last session made by this band at Broadcast which doesn’t have the, ‘conducted by its famous director’ appellation on the label, seems to consist of Harry’s usual side men, rather than Somers’ musicians. Harry in fact probably directed all these sessions.
Broadcast as a label rarely attracted top stars, but its non-dance band issues, many of which have a Bidgood group in accompaniment feature a range of well-regarded and popular performers, from radio and the variety stage. Comedy came from the likes of, Sandy Powell, Bobbie Comber, Charlie Higgins and Jack Morrison, and popular vocals from such as Sam Browne, (masquerading as Billy Marlow), Cyril Ramon Newton, Billy Desmond, (a pseudonym for John Thorne), Bob and Alf Pearson and Mabel Marks.
Although it took time for the Broadcast label to really take off, ( Vocalion recorded a net loss in 1927 of £1,300), Vocalion stuck to its guns and announced a much improved net profit of £66,900 for the year to March 1928.
Vocalion began to expand its dance band activities on Broadcast to include a number of bigger name bands and Bertini, Hal Swain, and Percival Mackey began to appear on Broadcast.
There was also the brief return of Victor Vorzanger’s Famous Dance Band for 4 sides in October 1927 and the Original Havana Band (late of the Savoy Hotel after their dismissal by manager William de Mornys at the end of 1927) under Cyril Ramon Newton who issued 30 or so sides between September 1928 and April 1929.
At the beginning of 1928, Vocalion issued 80,000 shares at 10 shillings each to finance a decision to re-enter the 10” record market. At the May 1928 Annual General Meeting, Vocalion, apart from confirming that the introduction of the Broadcast label had turned the company back into profit, announced that, ‘as the result of the continual request by its distributors’, a, ‘10” record which will play the usual 12” time’, would be produced.
This record, ‘will retail at 2 shillings and it is believed will provide an equal value to the most expensive records on the market’.
Shortly afterwards, a blue and gold 10” Broadcast 12 label was introduced, again using the Marconi recording system. The blue and gold label was used for light orchestral and classical sides, as well as show tune and film selections, and for this purpose Harry became Harry Bidgood and his Symphonic Dance Band.
Vocalion was riding high and announced increased net profits of £81,800 for the year ending March 1929. In the autumn of 1929 an orange and gold 10” Broadcast 12, ‘Super Dance’ label was introduced which stuck wholly to dance band sides.
As usual the majority of dance music sides produced were from Harry’s studio group where he became Al Benny’s Broadway Boys, The Manhattan Merrymakers, and many others. Again Harry recruited a few name bands onto the orange and gold label including, Percival Mackey’s Dominion Theatre Orchestra, and Marius B. Winter and xylophonist Teddy Brown’s Bands.
Meanwhile Harry was as busy as ever producing scores of sides to his usual high standard. As to Harry’s arranging ideas, the March 1930 Melody Maker relates a nice little story about Harry as follows, ‘When Harry Bidgood, Lord High Panjandrum of the Vocalion Gramophone Company’s dance music, was confronted with the latest ‘doll’ number, The Punch and Judy Show, he turned over in his mind how he could introduce some novelty into the record of it. Now it happens that Harry, although short in inches, is long in brains, and he recalled some of his walks with his kiddies on the Thames towpath, where on occasional Sundays, Punch and Judy shows were wont to entertain the juvenile and adult promenader’s. Forthwith Harry combed London for a Punch and Judy man, eventually found one after a great deal of searching and skillfully blended the patter, squeaks and squawks into the orchestration’.
In July 1930 Vocalion put a brave face on falling profits of £44,576 to March 1930 and commented on the extreme trading difficulties it was encountering. It announced substantial losses on its overseas operations and no dividend was paid to shareholders. Vocalion had something of a coup in late 1930 by managing to obtain the services, at considerable expense of, ‘The Last of the Red Hot Mamas’, Sophie Tucker. She was here appearing in the Winter Gardens show, ‘Follow A Star’ and following the issue of a number of sides recorded in the theatre with Sydney Baynes directing the pit band in October 1930, she went on to record other sides over the next months into 1931.
Although Tucker’s long time pianist Ted Shapiro was involved with the arrangements, Harry provided the players and no doubt made a contribution to the overall sound, the result of which are some of her best recordings.
By 1930 record sales across the piece were generally poor and heading for 1931 getting even poorer. As an illustration the Gramophone Company, owners of HMV and Zonophone, and Columbia, who together supplied more than 50% of gramophone record issues, had made a combined profit of £1.42 million in 1930. In 1931 this had dropped to just £160,000. With the record buying public very thin on the ground many labels including, Metropole, Piccadilly, World Echo and Dominion disappeared almost overnight.
The budget label market was hoped to be somewhat more resilient, but even Vocalion suffered in the market place and announced profits to March 1931 of just £22,065. Vocalion increased the size of its original Broadcast label records from 8” to 9”, and introduced a new red and gold label, ‘Broadcast Super 12’, to amalgamate its previous two ‘12’ labels and continued to fight its corner. The new ‘Broadcast Super 12’ label obtained the services of Jack Harris’s Grosvenor House Band, moved Marius Winter across from, ‘Super Dance’ and we heard a new studio band, The Blue Mountaineers, formed from the majority of Ambrose’s sidemen, presumably moonlighting.
More generally, Harry continued with his various pseudonyms on the label, using such top vocalists as, Billy Scott-Coomber, Les Allen and Dan Donovan, as well as provided backings for the likes of Betty Bolton, The Three Ginx, Tom Burke, and Sam Browne, (as Billy Marlow again).
Harry also produced some very enjoyable piano duets on the label, with Sidney Jerome. Harry himself did a bit of moonlighting at this time, on Warner Brunswick’s Panachord label in the autumn of 1931, on which he became Buddy Lewis and his Orchestra. Over his years with Vocalion, Harry’s output of dance band sides had been prodigious, (and continued to be so), but in September 1931 he made another of his rare solo outings, a two part medley named, Haunting Tunes of Today, accompanied by sax and trumpet. It’s well worth seeking out as it really shows what a great pianist Harry was, (Broadcast 743 (9”)).
Meanwhile as October 1932 beckoned Vocalion moved its recording studio to a former girl’s school at, 53, Norland Square, Holland Park in London with its previous premises at Duncan Avenue abandoned. Into the New Year, Vocalion was still struggling under the weight of boardroom comings and goings, massive UK and Foreign losses, as well as a mountain of debt.
Eventually it bowed to the inevitable and in April 1932 it was taken over by the Crystalate Gramophone Manufacturing Company, based in Tunbridge in Kent.
Crystalate were a pioneering record company with a large scale contract pressing operation as well as a range of own labels, including the Imperial & Popular labels and as already mentioned a range of mini discs. They also had links with various American Companies, particularly the American Recording Company, ARC, (which it part owned) and they issued a large number of US made sides, especially on the Imperial label.
Crystalate had its own incumbent Music Director, Jay Wilbur who knew Harry well and was perfectly happy for Harry to continue producing dance sides for the company. As such, Harry’s activities continued much as usual, with two or three dance music sessions a month, the usual range of pseudonyms, and other accompaniments as required. But big changes lay ahead. On 19 December 1932, Harry made his last 9” Broadcast label sides, and moved to a new label which Crystalate had decided to introduce. ‘Broadcast 4 Tune’, was another narrow pitched groove record which contained two full length dance numbers on each side. Harry’s studio dance band made its last sides for this label, which was withdrawn at the end of 1933, (as indeed was the Imperial label).
Fortunately, Harry had been developing another string to his bow following Crystalate’s take-over, that of piano-accordion bands. This was an astute move on Harry’s part. Accordion bands were only just becoming to become popular at this time, but somehow, Harry saw the potential of a studio based outfit. Similarly, as Jay Wilbur had in effect filled Harry’s shoes, as music director at Crystalate, he could now devote his attentions fully to his new interest.
In April 1931, Crystalate had issued its new 8” Eclipse label for F. W. Woolworth’s, (replacing the Victory label), and in March 1932, Harry joined the label with his new studio based accordion group, appearing as Don Porto’s Accordion Band or Don Porto’s Novelty Accordion Band, on the label. Harry also appeared as Roma’s Accordion Band on Crystalate’s main 10” Imperial label from April 1932. As with his dance band sides, Harry drew on a pool of accordionists over the years, many of them highly rated including, Red Manus, Tommy Nicol, Bill Bowness, Emilio, Reg Hogarth, Syd Hellier, Gerald Crossman, Peter Wise, and Harry’s brother, Warwick Bidgood. Some of these players found themselves working with Harry right into the 1950’s.
Harry’s Eclipse sides, as Don Porto, sold very well, many individual issues selling in excess of 30,000 copies. Meanwhile Harry had formed a quartet to perform in some of the earliest experimental BBC television transmissions. Harry Bidgood’s first, (John Logie) Baird process television transmission, took place on 31 October 1932.
‘For Old Times Sake’, featured songs by Ina Souez, Tom Leamore, Ralph Coram, Ann Maitland and a chorus, and was shown between 11.00 pm and 11.30 pm as were most of these experimental broadcasts. For this and the subsequent programmes, Harry wrote all the arrangements used.
Harry’s second television broadcast on 24 December 1932, was an abridged version of the pantomime, Dick Whittington. It featured Ann Maitland, Betty Astell and Fred Douglas. A further half dozen or so broadcasts were made during 1933, including on 16 August, a revue, ‘Looking at London by Television’, in which Harry backed, Marjorie Gordon, John Roarke, the Paramount Victoria Girls and Billy Milton. Harry’s last 1933 Baird broadcast was a revue, ‘Rokoko’, shown on 6 September. Harry’s full band also appeared in other BBC radio shows at this time, including, ‘Variety’, and the 10.30pm dance band slot. (Harry made two further Baird broadcasts in March and July 1934).
Mention has already been made of Harry’s arranging abilities and the September 1933 edition of Rhythm magazine noted, ‘Harry Bidgood makes the most astonishing arrangements, many of which are used by Jack Payne’. Harry’s arrangements had also been used by Percival Mackey, Nat Star and others and Harry had produced stock band arrangements for publishers, Campbell Connelly, Peter Morris and others during the early thirties.
Back at the coal-face, during September, Crystalate began to withdraw its Imperial label and in the same month, its replacement, Rex, ‘The King of Records’, was launched.
It was on this label that Harry adopted his most famous nom de disque, Primo Scala & his Accordion Band. Harry obtained the name by using the first name of boxer, Primo Carnera and the last name of, Emilio Scala, an ice cream vendor who received huge publicity when he won the Irish Sweepstake.
The Rex label was sold at one shilling mainly through Marks and Spencer. Clearly not wanting the public to know that the exotic sounding band leader Primo Scala was none other than Harry Bidgood, Rex advertising material always showed a photo of a rather louche looking gaucho type, as Primo Scala. This continued on Rex record supplements right up to the war years, when probably everyone knew that Primo Scala = Harry Bidgood, and that the man in the photo looked nothing like Harry. But that’s publicity for you.
Harry’s first Primo Scala, Rex issue, was somewhat untypical of his output, with, The Blue Danube coupled with selections from The Merry Widow & Chocolate Soldier (Rex 8027). However, Harry’s second Rex issue (8044), a, Selection of Popular Hits Parts 1 & 2, was more typical and such selections, (later renamed as Six Hits of the Day), reached 54 editions up to November 1942.
Harry was kept very busy as Primo Scala and Don Porto, often recording two versions of the same number, one for issue on Rex and one for Eclipse.
From February 1934, Harry did some more moonlighting, this time as Bobby Brown & his Accordion Band on the Edison Bell Winner label.
Eventually in September 1935, Crystalate withdrew its Eclipse label and replaced it with the 9” Crown label, (again selling at sixpence in Woolworth’s). For the Crown label, Harry became Rossini’s Accordion Band and his first Rossini issue was another two part, Popular Hits Medley, (Crown 8). The high standards established by Harry continued in this new guise and once again he had the choice of the best vocalists in town to sing on his issues, including, Sam Browne, Sam Costa, Donald Peers, Helen Raymond and Vera Lynn. Although always busy with studio work, in June 1935, Harry made his first venture into commercial radio with his dance band providing backing for, ‘Hall’s Wine Concert’, a comedy series with Bobbie Comber and Reginald Purdell which ran on Luxembourg weekly to September 1935.
Commercial radio programmes were recorded in London, usually in batches over the course of several days and this was something Harry could accommodate between his demanding Crystalate recording schedule. Harry also led an instrumental band at the BBC, with appearances during the first half of the 30’s, in such as, ‘Variety’, ‘Sandy Powell’s Road Show’, ‘Dance Music’, and ‘One Band to Another’, in which Harry’s Rhythmic Serenaders were contrasted with his Accordion Band.
Meanwhile, whilst Harry’s Primo Scala and Rossini records were selling in large quantities on the Rex and Crown labels, Harry did more commercial radio work. From 31 July 1936, Harry provided the musical backing with his, ‘Buccaneers’, on a show originally entitled simply, ‘Billy Costello’, on Radio Luxembourg. Its star, Billy Costello, had been the original voice of cartoon character, Popeye the Sailorman, and the show was sponsored by of all things, Ex-Lax chocolate. Costello sang and did his Popeye jokes, usually with a guest star. At the end of September, Costello left the show and Harry took it over, with the billing, ‘The makers of ex-lax present, Harry Bidgood’s Buccaneers’.
Guests on Harry’s show included, Douglas Byng and for a longer period, cross talk comedians, Clapham and Dwyer in shows prefixed, ‘A Spot of Bother’. The Mills Brothers from the US were also guests on the show, whilst they were on tour here. The weekly series ran on to January 1937. Whilst on Luxembourg, Harry was also a regular BBC presence. Indeed from November 1935 to March 1936, Harry led and arranged for the BBC Review and Variety Orchestras, with appearances in editions of, ‘Review’, and ‘Songs from the Shows’. In addition through 1936 into 1937 he was also heard with his dance band, in editions of, ‘Meet Mickey Mouse’, ‘Music Hall’, ‘London Pie’, ‘Ocean Times’ and ‘Empire Variety’, amongst other BBC programmes.
At the start of 1937, Crystalate had begun to reorganise itself to concentrate on its non-recording core businesses and dramatically, it decided to quit the recording business entirely. On 1 March 1937, Decca bought out Crystalate’s record business for £150,000 cash and £50,000 in Decca shares. Fortunately this had little effect on Harry, for although shortly after the take-over, Decca withdrew the Crown label, it retained Rex, on which Harry carried on happily as Primo Scala into the war years. Harry also began to record for the main Decca label, initially for his first Decca sides made on 28 October 1937, under yet another pseudonym as Carlos Santana’s Accordion Band, before reverting to Primo Scala for all his Rex, and Decca issues, (and later its, ‘Music While You Work’ wartime label).
As to his record output at this time, the majority of Harry’s Primo Scala’s sides over 1938, continued much as before with medleys of film and shows, the usual ‘Six Hits of the Day’ series, and the like.
In July 1938, Harry took over from John Firman as music director for George Formby’s Feen-A-Mint sponsored Sunday morning Radio Luxembourg programme, simply called, ‘George Formby’, and he held this post until the end of the year. Formby liked Harry’s work and when Formby was put under contract at Ealing films he recruited Harry as his MD.
Starting with Come On George! (1939), Harry went on to arrange the scores for George’s last three Ealing films, Let George Do It (1940), Spare A Copper, (1941) and Turned Out Nice Again (1941). By now, Harry’s Primo Scala Band was also broadcasting regularly for the BBC and became very popular indeed, making nearly 150 broadcasts between 1941 and 1949. Harry also appeared with his Dance Band on other occasions as in, ‘Make and Mend’, a BBC magazine programme aimed at the Royal Navy.
Harry followed George Formby from Ealing to Columbia British Productions and there he became the company’s Music Director. Apart from working on George Formby’s last seven films, South American George (1941), Much Too Shy (1942), Get Cracking (1943), He Snoops To Conquer (1944), Bell Bottom George (1944), I Didn’t Do It (1945), and George In Civvy Street (1946), Harry was also MD on Vera Lynn’s three British Columbia films, Rhythm Serenade (1943), We’ll Meet Again (1943) and One Exciting Night (1944). Mention should also be made of Butcher’s Film Productions, For You Alone (1945) with Lesley Brook and Jimmy Hanley, for which Harry arranged the orchestra score and in which he is seen conducting The London Symphony Orchestra!
Harry also accompanied Formby on some of his later Decca issues including, Auntie Maggies Remedy/Come Hither With Your Zither (Decca F 9356 rec. 22/1/1950), Leaning On A Lampost/ When I’m Cleaning Windows, (Decca F 9444 rec. 22/1/1950). Indeed quite apart from his dance and accordion band work, from the late thirties through the war years and beyond, Harry as Harry Bidgood had been kept busy arranging the music and providing accompaniments for a range of Decca artists, including, US visitors, The Peter’s Sisters backed by Harry Bidgood’s Rhythm Boys in late 1938, and over the war years he accompanied, amongst others, Flanagan and Allen, Issy Bonn, Sonny King, Reg. Dixon, Anne Shelton, and Donald Peers.
Up to the end of war, Harry’s Primo Scala incarnation had remained, with a few exceptions, a broadcasting and recording outfit. But in July 1945 with the war out of the way, impresario Val Parnell, booked Harry to headline a variety package to tour the Moss Empire and General Theatre circuits, starting with a week at the Huddersfield Palace on 2nd.
Harry’s tour moved onto the Grand Theatre, Derby, and Bristol Hippodrome in August, the Palace, Plymouth in September, and in November, the Empire Theatre, Hartlepool, amongst other venues. The tour was a sell-out and in the following four years to 1949, Harry averaged around six months of touring each year, which only added to his general popularity.
By this time, (the late 1940’s), Harry had moved successfully onto Decca’s London label, set up as an outlet for its UK product in the American market. Harry’s sides under the Primo Scala name, tended even more towards nostalgia and old favourites, which in the austerity years following the war were extremely popular, and sold very well in America. Primo Scala’s version of ‘Underneath the Arches’ issued on the London label in early August 1948, was in the top five UK sellers list, and reached number 6 in the US Billboard chart, where it stayed for 16 weeks.
Harry had made extensive use of the Keynotes vocal group for his Decca and later Rex, ‘Hits of the Day’, sides and he continued to use them on the London label. The Keynotes had been formed by vocalist/accordionist Alan Dean in the mid-forties and they became firm favourites on the ‘Take It From Here’ radio series, originally starring Australian’s, Joy Nicholls and Dick Bentley, with Jimmy Edwards. One interesting recording Harry made in May 1949 under his own name was issued on both the Decca and London labels. It was an accompaniment for a xylophone and bell solo by veteran recording artist Billy Whitlock. Whitlock who was born in 1875 started his recording career on cylinders at the turn of the century and this was to be his last recording session. (He died in 1951). At this time, Harry also began to issue sides as by Primo Scala’s Banjo and Accordion Band, where the standard accordion line up was augmented with banjo’s, which again added to the band’s popularity. Primo Scala remained a top touring attraction for half of 1949, as he would, no doubt have been in 1950. But Harry decided against touring as his health was becoming a concern, although he was still mighty busy on radio and record.
On 4 November 1950, Harry as Primo Scala took part in the accordion bands, ‘Accordion Day’ organised by Toralf Tollefsen President of the National Accordion Organisation of Great Britain at Caxton and Central Halls in Westminster. This, a celebration of accordions event, brought together the cream of accordion bands and accordionists at the time and performers included Ivor Benyon, Gerald Crossman, Jimmy Shand and of course Primo Scala. This in fact was to be one of the last few, live performances Harry was able to give over the ensuing years. Harry’s health was not particularly good at the time and on medical advice he decided to make live appearances only exceptionally, although he remained busy recording and broadcasting. Overall, Primo Scala’s Accordion Band, and/or Banjo and Accordion Band, from late 1938 to the end of 1952 issued nearly 250 sides for Decca, London and Rex, (the Rex label was withdrawn in 1949).
Some of Harry’s last London label sides were issued on the new 45rpm format. The live Primo Scala Band made a brief come-back appearance at the 1952, ‘Accordion Day’ and then returned to studio performing, although there was one more key live appearance made in November 1953. The Accordion Times reported that Harry as Primo Scala had appeared at a charity event held at Streatham Hill Theatre, topping the bill before an audience of 3000, on the last Sunday in that month. Harry, ‘forthwith expressed his intention to get his full band back, ‘on the green’, (a reference to Streatham Green), for Sunday concerts as soon as possible’. The line-up included, Harry’s brother Warwick Bidgood, Reg Hogarth, Emilio, Griff Lewis and Brian Dexter, with Harry himself on piano, with drums, electric guitar and string bass. The promise made was not to be fulfilled and following this appearance Harry rarely performed live on stage again.
Harry’s Primo Scala made one Long Playing record for Decca, ‘Banjo Band Favourites’, which also featured the Keynotes. In 1953 Harry left Decca and moved over to one of the first independent record labels, Polygon. Polygon was set up in 1949 by Petula Clark’s father, Leslie Clark and Alan A. Freeman, principally as an outlet for Petula Clark’s recordings. Clark and Freeman were looking to increase the label’s profile, (and profits), in the market place by signing seasoned, well liked performers, who could generate volume sales.
Harry’s Primo Scala seemed a perfect choice for this. Apart from Harry’s Primo Scala sides, Polygon also used Harry for non-accordion sides, under the pseudonym, Don Carlos and his Orchestra. Sales were good, but the constant and demanding workload was now beginning to take its toll on Harry and he began to suffer unexplained stomach pains. Despite this, Harry remained as hard at work as ever, particularly on radio. By 1955, Harry had made an incredible, 296, ‘Music While You Work’, shows alone, since his first appearance on 2 January 1941.
Harry’s records also remained in demand and at the end of 1955, he left, Polygon to sign with F. W. Woolworth’s, Embassy label, issuing a dozen or so sides over the year. From 10 October 1956, Harry returned to commercial radio in ‘Bright and Breezy’, ‘a jolly sing-song series’, on Radio Luxembourg sponsored by Horace Batchelor’s Infra-Draw, (football pools), Method.
Harry refused to slow down, despite his failing health and bouts of extreme fatigue. Many of Harry’s ‘Music While You Work’ sessions, (which at the time were usually live), were directed by deputies, including Ernest Penfold, as Harry was continually in and out of hospital, with what had been finally diagnosed as inoperable stomach cancer.
Harry sadly passed away on 15 November 1957 aged just 59 years of age.
Probate documents show that Harry’s estate was valued at just £4,311, 7s and 6d. It can certainly be said that over the whole of his forty year career, Harry was one of the busiest and hardest working musicians you’re ever likely to encounter. It can also be said that his vast recorded output from the twenties to the fifties had and has consistently popular appeal. Harry’s understanding and huge success in his part of the record market, was second to none. Fortunately we have Harry’s records to entertain us and be you an accordion or dance band fan, (or both!), Harry Bidgood always delivers.
Selection of ‘Harry Bidgood’s Broadcasters’ recordings:
TAGS: Popular, 78rpm, 1920s, Dance Band, Orchestra, Band, Harry Bidgood, Terry Brown