Felix Mendelssohn – From Hype to Hawaii




Written by Terry Brown

Felix Mendelssohn was a bright determined young man on the make who brought escapist entertainment that conjured up blue seas and skies and a hint of Hawaiian exoticism to a worn torn Britain.

Before turning to music, Felix had been a highly successful publicist/ agent who was past master at, what was known in the trade as, ‘an angle’. His father described him as, ‘a kidder’; someone who was used to adding a little embellishment, here and there for effect. Felix’s own lifetime assertion that he was a direct descendant of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the great German classical composer was itself an invention, which on occasions Felix shamelessly exploited. Readers of many national newspapers on 5th and 6th of August 1937, were confronted by a half page advertisement, with Felix’s full face under the banner headline, ‘Health Drama of Mr Felix Mendelssohn – Famous Composer’s Versatile Descendant Saved from Nervous Breakdown by Yeast-Vite’. In the accompanying article, Felix explained how he was brought back from the brink, following a ‘nervous breakdown’, by the efficacy of said medicine. As they say, he certainly knew how to tell ‘em.

Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohn, was born on 19 September 1911, in Brondesbury Park, London. His mother, who was apparently star struck, was related to Richard Warner, a theatrical agent, and it was she who gave Felix his name, saying later that she hoped that some of the great composer’s genius would rub off on her son.

Felix was educated at the City of London School and sang in the same choir as Ernest Lough, of Oh! For the Wings of a Dove, fame. His father Martin Mendelssohn, was a stock broker, and although Felix’s brother Ronald slipped comfortably into the family business, Felix found broking not to his taste at all and so at the age of 15 he become a naval cadet.

After a spell on the high seas, during which according to Felix, ‘he travelled 30,000 miles’, he drifted into the entertainment world, first working as a stage manager in theatre then touring the UK in rep and later as a bit part player in silent films and a ‘dress’ extra in early talking films.

Felix calculated he had appeared in more than 50 films over the late twenties into the thirties. Indeed it was here that Felix began to identify the power and money making potential of publicity and some of his first clients were film stars who boosted the box office take by being encouraged by Felix to make personal appearance tours. At the start of the 30’s Felix became assistant manager at the Carlton Dance Hall near Tottenham Court Road in London, where on occasions he showed off his dancing prowess by undertaking exhibitions of dancing with Jessie Matthews sister, Carrie. It was at the Carlton that Felix met up with bandleader Harry Roy. Having decided by then to expand his publicity operations, Harry Roy became Mendelssohn’s first major band leading client and remained so for much of his career. By 1933 Felix had moved into promotion and publicity on a full time basis and listed, Harry Roy, Charlie Kunz, Lew Stone, Sid Lipton, Maurice Winnick, Hal Swain and Mantovani amongst his band leading clientele. Some of Felix’s earliest publicity activities involved adverts, which linked stars to popular products such as, Shredded Wheat. Another key aspect of Felix’s work was of course the written word and Felix remained a prolific show business journalist for the popular and trade press, supplying stories by the yard to music publications, such as Rhythm and Melody Maker and particularly the commercial radio listing magazine, Radio Pictorial for which Felix was appointed dance music correspondent in January 1934.

Felix loved to organize publicity events and as far as he was concerned the bigger the better. One of his larger extravaganza’s was the, ‘First annual All England Dance Band Championship and All-London Crooning Contest’, held on 9 March 1934, at London’s Royal Agricultural Halls.

The lineup of dance band leaders was spectacular to say the least, with Jack Hylton, Harry Roy, Carroll Gibbons, Ray Noble, Mantovani, Charlie Kunz, George Scott Wood, Arthur Salisbury, and Percival Mackey all appearing, although mostly without their bands. Other stars who appeared included, Maurice Elwin, Elsie Carlisle, Sam Browne, Leslie Sarony and Leslie Holmes. Mendelssohn even managed to rope in Cab Calloway, then visiting the UK, to present the prizes.

From the start of 1935, Felix became one of the bigger providers of talent to Universal Productions and several other programme makers for the rapidly expanding commercial radio outlets of Radio Luxembourg and Normandy. He sought out and booked, ‘guest stars’ for various commercial radio shows, as well as providing ‘session’ musicians, usually working anonymously, or if a known band, under a pseudonym. Such programming was always recorded in London on records, and sent over to Luxembourg/Normany for actual broadcast.

Known Band leaders were particularly reluctant to perform as themselves, but as the BBC’s fixed fees became smaller and smaller, the lure of commercial radio, with its much better financial rewards became irresistible. With Felix’s encouragement Carroll Gibbons, (whom he represented), became one of the first ‘name’ band leaders to openly appear on commercial radio making his debut, with his, ‘Boyfriends’, 1 group with singer Ann Lenner on 7 February 1935.

Gibbon’s never looked back.

Gibbon’s success over the next few years with many popular series on Luxembourg/Normandy encouraged others on Felix’s books to do the same and Mantovani, Geraldo and of course Harry Roy all followed suit.

All in all Felix’s undoubted success as a publicist in all forms of popular media made him much sought after and during 1935 he had added Geraldo, Joe Loss, Arthur Tracy, Hildergarde, Adelaide Hall, Albert Sandler and music publisher’s Peter Maurice and Lawrence Wright, amongst others to his books.

Speaking of Harry Roy, in an interesting article Felix wrote for Harry Roy’s Fan Club magazine, ‘Roy Rag’, in October 1936, he gave a flavour of some of his publicity activities. After his opening words, ‘For the third year in succession I have been privileged to tour with Harry Roy and his Band, for whom I act as Publicity Agent’, Felix referred to some of the appearances he had arranged for Harry, (all of course in addition to and in advance of his stage performances).

In Liverpool there were three visits to gramophone shops to give autographs, ‘on each occasion he was mobbed’. In Glasgow, he arranged early morning press interviews, and a visit to the Scottish Radio Exhibition, where Harry made a speech, ‘on behalf of the hospitals’, (with two 73 minute shows to follow the same evening). Still in Glasgow, the band gave a special performance at the Royal Samaritan Hospital for Women, Harry judged a beauty parade then went on to sign autographs at a Rangers/Dundee football match, before presenting the winner of Strang’s Football Pools with his cheque, at the Glasgow Empire the same evening. On to Edinburgh with more press interviews, another hospital visit, ‘distributing toys to all the crippled children’, and attending Edinburgh Dog Show. Felix concluded by saying he would tell us all about the next leg of the tour in Birmingham and Cardiff, in the next issue. No doubt with more of the same.

Aside his publicity persona, Felix supposedly opened a night club in the mid-thirties, the ‘Club Felix’, for his show business friends. But his brother Ronald, in correspondence with journalist Chris Hayes held at the National Jazz Archive, reported he’d never seen it or been invited to it, and doubted if it ever existed. However he did confirm that Felix have a financial interest in the ‘Glow Worm Club’, ‘somewhere near Selfridges’. Always a popular figure in Tin Pan Alley, Felix also occasionally lent his talents to song writing producing, A Photograph of You, in 1936, amongst other minor hits. By 1937 Felix was publicist and agent for a host of stars, and a ‘big cheese’, in commercial radio, but he wanted something more, something he could call his own.

Melody Maker reported as far back as 1933, that Felix had an interest in forming an orchestra and finally in the spring of 1937, Felix took the plunge. That said, at this time, Felix never became a full time band leader in the accepted sense. Although by May he had a recording and broadcasting orchestra and a recording contract with Decca, for the first two years, publicity and agency work remained his priority. Felix did occasional ‘gig’ work, on a ‘pick-up’ basis, with a core of established players, but otherwise the orchestra did not really exist outside the radio and recording studio. In any event he made his first four recordings on 28 May 1937, on one of which, Sweet Leilani (⦿F6428), can be heard an acoustic steel guitar, a sound that would certainly figure again in Felix’s career. Felix issued another ten or so sides in sessions at Decca in July, October and November 1937, two with vocals provided by himself. Aside from his recording work, Felix concentrated on promoting his stars on commercial radio and organizing star studded charity events like the All Star Concert at the Palladium in aid of rebuilding the School for the Blind in Swiss Cottage, held on 8 December 1937. In the same month Felix’s orchestra became more of a reality when he was contracted with Universal Programs to provide a dance band for commercial radio session work and to appear, under his own name, in a new 15 minute weekly show for the Nestle Company on Radio Luxembourg.

Starting at 9.15am on Sunday 12 December, ‘Fifteen Minutes of Variety at the Café au Lait’, (repeated 4.00pm Tuesdays), the programme featured Felix and his Orchestra with resident vocalist George Barclay and a guest star each week. The first, Judy Shirley, was followed by Lionel Falkman, Helen Clare, and Elsie Carlisle, and the show was quite popular. The Felix Mendelssohn Orchestra was also seen, (although Felix wasn’t), for the first time on screen, backing crooner, Gerry Fitzgerald singing, So Rare and The Greatest Mistake of My Life in a Pathe newsreel issued on 30 December. Meanwhile Felix remained busy as a publicist and his weekly show went from strength to strength well into the following year. On a more personal note, on 3 April 1938, Felix, ever the publicist, announced at a midnight party his engagement to a beauty salon owner, Miss Angela Inez Diego, and even arranged to be photographed with her for Radio Pictorial. Although Felix said they intended to marry in 1939, they didn’t.

On 24 April 1938, Nestle re-vamped its 9.15am show to become, ‘On Board the Top Hat Express’, to advertise its, ‘Top Hat’ chocolates. Felix led the Top Hat Express Orchestra, retained George Barclay and recruited Paula Green to become his regular vocalist’s, again with a guest star each week.

He also recorded 25 sides of quality dance music from May to July, using George Barclay, Paula Green and for one session, Al Bowlly as vocalists. Also in June 1938, the Melody Maker reported that Felix’s idea for a Crooner’s Corner radio series, (to give solo exposure to popular band vocalist’s), had been opposed by the Dance Band Director’s Association because, Mendelssohn, ‘was not a bona fide band leader’. Despite that, (or maybe because of that), the BBC went ahead with a variation organized by Felix, a ‘Crooners Bee’, competition broadcast on 10 June 1938.

A vocal ‘contest’ with compere Eddie Pola and Felix & his Orchestra, it featured female vocalists, Helen Raymond, Marjorie Stedeford, Pat Hyde, Bettie Bucknelle, Diana Miller and Paula Green, pitched against Al Bowlly, Hugh French, Sam Costa, Robert Ashley, Jack Plant and Jack Lorimer. Al Bowlly and Diana Miller were deemed winners. On 29 August 1938, Pathe issued another short of Felix with his Orchestra, this time playing, I Double Dare You, with his new vocalist Paula Green doing the singing honors.

Into the autumn of 1938, Felix continued broadcasting on commercial radio, made more recordings with his orchestra and even appeared on the BBC’s National Service on 12 September 1938. He still clung to his ‘Crooners Bee’idea and got Decca to record a ‘Singers on Parade’ variation, recorded on 10 October 1938, (issued in December). Amongst the vocalists were, Sam Costa, Helen Clare, Marjorie Stedeford, Dinah Miller, Jack Plant, Dan Donovan and Al Bowlly. At the end of November 1938, Felix made his last, ‘Top Hat Express’ programme, and disbanded. As the year came to an end, apart from his publicity day job Felix organized yet another, ‘Crooning Bee’, broadcast for the BBC on 26 December, this time the girls were, Alice Mann, Helen McKay, Pat Taylor and Ann Trevor, and the boys, Len Berman, Jack Cooper, Gene Crowley and Hughie Diamond.

In February 1939, Felix decided to give up the publicity side of his operations completely and formed a joint theatrical agency with Harry Roy’s brother Sid. Many of his previous clients came on board and at the outset the operation did well. The agency didn’t stop Felix’s ‘competition’ activities and in April he organised a live Crooner’s Corner show at the Hammersmith Palais and there was a further ‘Crooning Bee’ on BBC radio on 30 June 1939, featuring, Adelaide Hall, Ann Lenner, Dorothy Carless and Gwen Jones versus Garry Gowan, George Barclay, Alan Kane and Pat O’Regan. Then in July he linked up with the Daily Mirror newspaper who began a, ‘Youth Takes a Bow’, promotion to find the stars of tomorrow. Crooners were invited to apply to Felix who would either audition them at his London office or invite them to sing on his, ‘Crooners Tour’, which he hoped to get off the ground, ‘shortly’.

Felix picked a Jean Howard of Maida Vale on 8 July as his first likely crooning contender and later in the month organized further auditions in Blackpool. The competition had been dropped by the end of the month and nothing more was heard of Miss Howard. As the year progressed Felix was clearly looking around for something new to inspire him and devote his boundless energies to and went off at a considerable tangent to look at the possibilities around Hawaiian music as a new direction for him.

He told the Melody Maker that he had been impressed by the popularity of South Sea Island type films and the success of artists like, Andy Iona, Sol Hoopi, Lani McIntire and Roy Smeck in the States. (Incidentally he never visited Hawaii or indeed any other South Sea Island, despite what he might have said). He was convinced the novelty of a Hawaiian act would be a money spinner, something different which he hoped would catch the public’s imagination. He found his opportunity to explore the entertainment potential of Hawaiian music, when he took over the management of French-Canadian steel guitarist, Roland Peachy’s six piece band at the Florida Club in London, in October 1939. Prior to this, Peachy had been very successful at the London Palladium, as part of the Crazy Gang show, ‘These Foolish Things’. With the promise of recordings and a hastily arranged Pathe film short appearance, (issued 27 November 1939), Peachy went along with Felix, although he was not particularly pleased when Felix re-named his group, Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders.

Felix fixed up a recording contract with Parlophone and the first Serenader’s sides were cut on 8 November 1939, with Peachy on steel guitar. They issued a dozen sides, (some of which are also highly rated for the acoustic guitar work of Fred Day), before Felix moved to Columbia Records in March 1940. Felix remained a Columbia artist till September 1951, by which a total of some 180 sides had been issued, many of which were big sellers. George Barclay was Felix’s initial vocalist with Barry Gray, Kealoha Life, Alan Kane, Louisa Moe and Archie Coates, amongst others appearing later. The Serenaders first radio outing took place on 15 January 1940 and they continued to be popular radio performers with scores of appearances over the 1940’s. The Serenaders were of course very much a live band and were at Madam Tussaud’s from February 1940, then in cine-variety at the Regal Cinema, Marble Arch. The band took some time out in August 1940 to record the soundtrack of a cinema short, ‘This Island Paradise’. Made by Anglo American, a reviewer noted that, Roland Peachy was, ‘well to the fore’.

From the start of December 1940 to February 1941, the band went in opposite Ken Johnson at the Cafe de Paris. At the Café, the band consisting of Harry Brooker, (piano), Roland Peachy, (steel/electric guitar), Jean Sasson, (Spanish guitar), Leonard Patey, (violin/ accordion), and Frank Davis, (bass), played, ‘Lunch and tea dance music’.

Roland Peachy left the Serenaders in March 1941 to form a new group, Roland Peachey, (he added the extra ‘e’), and his Royal Hawaiians, and went on to record for Decca. At around this time, Felix decided to do his duty and joined the Infantry Cavalry Regiment. Although not exactly taxing and mostly involving guard duty, it did make residencies more problematic and technically, the Serenaders performances had to fit around Mendelssohn’s availability; although there were some slightly barbed comments made in a number of Melody Maker articles, suggesting the army did not exactly get too much in the way of Mendelssohn’s bookings. From mid-1941, the Serenaders, hit the road, (mostly with, but sometimes without Felix), as a top variety turn and for virtually the rest of their existence they toured extensively with enormous success. At the beginning, Mendelssohn had few genuine Hawaiian performers involved. Many of his first records used the likes of session men, Ivor Mairants, Wally Chapman, Albert Harris and George Elliott on both plectrum and steel guitar’s and although the Hawaiian sounding Kealoha Life joined in February 1941, (playing steel guitar and vocals), he was actually Alfred Randell born in London. But as Felix began to expand the size of his operation to create a colourful stage show, he would feature dancers, singers and musicians from Samoa, Hawaii, the Philippines and Tahiti. Authentic Hawaiians, The Pulu Moe Trio, (Pulu Moe, Louisa Moe, Kaili Sugondo) recorded with the band in December 1941 and joined the Serenaders in stage performances from November 1942, where they performed a sort of traditional Hawaiian cabaret, usually with Kealoha Life, within the main show.

Interviewed in the Derby Evening Telegraph on 24 June 1943, Louisa Moe explained how touring the UK had acclimatized her to UK weather and that the band had bookings for several years ahead. Steel guitarist Harry Brooker, (who had originally played with Roland Peachy at the Florida Club), recorded with the Serenaders, from June 1942, before joining full time in 1943. He left in September 1946, to be replaced on steel guitar by Belfast newcomer, Sammy Mitchell who had signed with the Serenaders earlier in April. He proved a worthy replacement for Brooker with the lineup at this time consisting of Ronald Bradley (sax/ piano/arranger), Jimmy McCormack (trumpet), Roger Smith (Electra- vox guitar), Desmond Leyshon (Hawaiian/Spanish guitars), Sammy Mitchell (Steel guitar), Kealoha Life (Hawaiian/Spanish guitars), Fred Day (Hawaiian/Spanish guitars), Louisa Reyes (ukelele/dancer/vocals), Pulu Moe (Hawaiian guitar), Cynthia Read (guitar/dancer), Helen Davis (vocals/dancer) and Roy Edwards (vocals).

The Serenaders remained a top variety attraction, and continued to tour extensively into the early 1950’s. The Serenaders made numerous wartime radio appearances in such series as, ‘Song of the Islands’, and ‘Hawaii Calling’ and remained popular on screen. They made more than a dozen Pathe short films during the 1940’s, and guested in Norman Evans’ 1944 Mancunian Film production, ‘Demobbed’.

It has to be said that part of the appeal of the stage show were the dozen or so scantily clad young women who graced the Serenader’s Act. Many of these were in fact British, and included Phyllis Woolford, and former band vocalist Helen McKay, all wearing suitably toned body makeup. Others were recruited from Millie Jackson’s Dance School.

1945 was a year of almost continual touring with the Serenaders much in demand. The following is typical of regional press reviews which clearly outline the appeal of the Hawaiians at this time. It comes from the Western daily Press for 12 November 1945.

‘Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders were featured at the Bristol Hippodrome, last night in Charles H. Lockier’s, ‘pop’ concert series. Introduced over here in the first instance as a novelty, the strains of the Hawaiian music has caught the public imagination. The lifting, haunting arrangements last night were a refreshing change from many of the big ‘swing’ orchestras. An integral part of the orchestra was the Pulu Moe Trio supported by vocal numbers from many of versatile members of the orchestra’.

In 1946 the Melody Maker gave coverage to a new battle front for Felix, who was one of the first to recognise that television was going to become a mass entertainment medium and realising that the Serenaders could provide the sort of colourful exotic entertainment post war Britain was craving for, he was determined to get their first. But in the summer of 1946, the major theatre circuits considered television an upstart rival that needed to be firmly put in its place. Stoll Moss Theatres warned Felix that if he did any television he would be banned from the Stoll Moss circuit. A similar threat surfaced from the General Theatre Chain. But Felix ignored these threats and he and the Serenaders appeared on BBC television on 12 July 1946. The Serenaders were promptly banned from both circuits for a year. This made life extremely difficult for Felix but he still found places to perform including the Chelsea Arts Ball at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1946, and smaller independent variety theaters.

Felix continued to defy the majors and made a further half dozen television appearances, but by April 1947 Felix bowed to the continued pressure and agreed to stay off the box. Felix was back on the boards for the General Theatre Chain from May 1947, in effect losing his fight.

Felix told Melody Maker on 19 April 1947,

‘Whilst I would have like to continue the fight, I could hardly have expected to carry on what for the past ten months has proved to be a lone battle. I had hoped that the profession would back me up but such has not proved to be the case. It is not an easy job to keep an expensive band like mine working consistently under these conditions, (I carry in all a company of 30), and although I am booked solidly for the rest of the year, I have to look to the future’.

By then Felix’s finances had become somewhat precarious, with the theatre ban severely depleting his funds, and the tax man on his back.

Radio work also began to suffer over the balance of the 1940’s, although Felix and company guested on occasions in such as, ‘Workers Playtime’, ‘Variety Bandbox’, ‘Music Hall’, and ‘Music for the Housewife’. In September 1948, steel guitarist, Harry Brooker, who had formed his own band for a period, returned to the Serenaders and from that date shared steel guitar duties with Sammy Mitchell. Unfortunately in December 1948, Felix suffered another blow, when key performer, Kealoha Life, (Alfred Randell), decided to leave. The Serenaders as ever, bounced back, but more trouble was on the way. On 11 January 1950, the Daily Express reported the following,

‘Band leader Felix Mendelssohn; who is playing at The Hague, said last night that he and the girls and 15 men of his Hawaiian Serenaders have not enough money to pay their hotel bills and their fares home. They went to Holland 11 days. ‘I accepted a contract for 65 per cent, of the takings for a two-week engagement’, said Mr. Mendelssohn, on the telephone- ‘We found we had been given only one days advertising, and houses were poor. Dutch people don’t seem to have the money for variety; tax deductions from my percentage of the takings accounted for £1,200, I can get no money from England’. The engagement ends on Saturday. On Monday he is to give a show to British troops at the Hook of Holland, staging port for B.A.O.M. leave men. ‘In return the Army were, going to give us a free passage’, he said, ‘that offer was withdrawn tonight on instructions from London. Now, the War Office have offered a reduced fare—£93 for the 27 of us. They will have to take my lOU until I get to London’.

Felix and company arrived at Liverpool Street Station the next day and were finally paid. Felix vowed never to go abroad again without a guarantee of earnings. There were other problems too, in the summer of 1950, the Lord’s Day Observance Society managed to get the Serenaders banned from appearing in costume at Colwyn Bay and Rhyl, and the year before Felix had to abandon a tour of Ireland because of complaints about the costumes worn by his female dancers.

Sadly Felix could not contain his financial problems any longer and in July 1950, with assets of £1040.00 and liabilities of £5934.00, Felix was declared bankrupt.

What few people knew at the time was that Felix was also suffering the first effects of Hodgkin’s disease and in September 1950, Felix was told to give up touring on medical grounds. The Serenaders continued as best they could, with singer Maurice Ash deputizing for Felix and trumpeter Bram Rooney leading the band musically. But bookings began to fall, as theatre managers wanted Felix fronting the band. Following a period in hospital, Felix re-joined the Serenaders in early 1951. They can be seen performing in the film, ‘Penny Points to Paradise’, whilst appearing in Brighton. The sequence reveals a paired down presentation, with little of the glamour and spectacle seen in earlier years, with Felix looking frail and tired.

Mendelssohn recorded in March 1951 and for the very last time on 7 September 1951, (of four titles made, only one was ever issued, (in 1963). After a short Scottish tour the band finally came off the road. Cynthia Read, one of Felix’s Hawaiian singer/dancers, who had joined the Serenaders in March 1945, recalled that she couldn’t remember the bands final appearance, but that afterwards, ‘We travelled by coach, had two drivers, and dropped every member of the band to their homes all over the country. It took two days. Rather sad, really’.

By then Felix was seriously ill in Charing Cross Hospital. Following further surgery, he died on 4 February 1952 at just 40 years of age. A great showman in every sense, Mendelssohn will be remembered for providing much needed colourful escapist entertainment during the deep dark days of war and its aftermath.

It’s a pity he died so young, as with his undoubted chutzpah and clear understanding of the potential of television light entertainment, he would have been a natural, as they say.

NOTES:

1 See, The Discographer Magazine; Volume 2, Number 1 – August 2014; Page 13 – Gibbons discography

KEY: ⦿ 78rpm

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