Webster Booth / Anne Ziegler

Written By Jean Campbell Collen

My long association with Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth began over fifty years ago on the 8 December 1960, when I went for an audition with Anne at their School of Singing and Stagecraft on the eighth floor of Polliacks Corner, 169 Pritchard Street, Johannesburg. I had recently finished writing matriculation examinations at Jeppe High School for Girls and was 17 years of age. Webster Booth was in Port Elizabeth on that day for he was away in Port Elizabeth singing at the Port Elizabeth Oratorio Festival under the direction of Robert Selley.

Anne and Webster were middle-aged in the same age group as my parents, their top-flight stage career in Britain behind them and I was far too young to have seen them at the height of their fame. I knew Anne and Webster as singing teachers for several years, but at the beginning of 1963 they asked if I would like to act as Webster’s studio accompanist when Anne, who was accompanist as well as teacher, had other commitments. I did my Associate and Licentiate singing diplomas under their guidance and we remained close friends until their deaths. Webster died on 21 June 1984, 29 years ago, while Anne lived on in the little bungalow in Penrhyn Bay, Llandudno, North Wales until her death on 13 October 2003 at the age of 93.

Leslie Webster Booth was born on 21 January 1902 at 157 Soho Road, Handsworth, north of Birmingham. As a child he possessed a voice of outstanding quality, and at nine years of age, his voice elevated him from the local suburban Church choir in Edwardian Birmingham to the choir stalls of Lincoln Cathedral until his voice broke at the age of 13. He was destined to be an accountant, but after some singing lessons with Dr Richard Wassall at the Midland Institute, Birmingham, he auditioned for D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1923 and made his professional singing debut in the chorus under the name of Leslie W. Booth. He left the company in 1927 and became a freelance performer, adopting the stage name of Webster Booth.

Irené Frances Eastwood (Anne Ziegler) was born on 22 June 1910 in Sefton Park, Liverpool. After she left Belvedere School at the age of 16, she studied singing with John Tobin and sang in a number of local events. It was only when her father lost his money in 1934 when his shares in the cotton market collapsed that she found it necessary to earn a living on the stage. She was attractive and had a pleasant light soprano voice. Her professional debut was in a show called By Appointment, starring Maggie Teyte.

Webster was keen to make records, but his audition with Edison Bell was unsuccessful – he was told that his voice “would not record!” He made a test recording for Joe Batten at Columbia, but there was a delay in the outcome of his audition as Batten was taken ill. Bass baritone Peter Dawson heard his voice and liked it so much that he took Webster to HMV to introduce him there in 1929.

Webster was contracted to HMV for over twenty years and recorded nearly a thousand solos, duets, trios and quartets His recordings covered a wide spectrum of musical works: ballads, show songs, lieder, opera and oratorio – all, except one, sung in English, as was the custom in those days. Until the end of 1937 most of his recordings were of light songs, but from 1938 he began recording operatic and oratorio arias.

His lighter recordings included gems from musicals and films, with singers like Helen Hill, Olive Gilbert, Stuart Robertson, South African soprano Garda Hall, Sam Costa and Nora Savage. He was also an unacknowledged singer in the HMV Light Opera Company, along with singers such as George Baker, Essie Ackland and Alice Moxon.

He was the with vocal refrain on records featuring Carlos Santana’s Accordion Band (alias Harry Bidgood) on the Regal Zonophone label, and on an HMV medley of Chappell Ballads with Jack Hylton’s Band. He made many recordings with Ray Noble and the HMV house band, the New Mayfair Orchestra. He recorded songs with Fred Hartley’s Quintet, where his name was included on the record label, and made many broadcasts with the quintet or sextet, depending on the number of musicians involved. Even when he was quite famous he formed part of a distinguished male chorus, which included George Baker, for a series of songs with Peter Dawson. Among these anonymous male chorus recordings are Waltzing Matilda, Waiata Poi and Stanford’s Sea Songs.

He told me that when he went to a recording session, he was presented with the music to be recorded during that session. If he did not know the songs already, he would sight read them through and make the recordings immediately, usually getting everything right in four or five takes. No wonder that twenty or thirty years later he did not always remember having made some of these recordings in the first place!

Webster told me the story of a particular recording session with Gerald Moore. They had one more song to record before the session ended, Phil. the Fluter’s Ball. Gerald Moore suggested that they should see how fast he could play the accompaniment and how fast Webster could sing the song with clear diction. This presented no problem for Webster who had spent four years performing Gilbert and Sullivan with D’Oyly Carte.

Shortly after Anne met Webster when they were making a film of The Faust Fantasy (1934/1935) with Webster playing Faust and Anne, Marguerite, she made a test recording for HMV. She sang The Waltz Song from Merrie England by Edward German as her test piece. Unfortunately the company showed no interest in recording her voice until she and Webster began singing duets together after Webster’s divorce from his second wife, soubrette Paddy Prior. Anne was the first to admit that her light soprano voice was not in the same class as Webster’s and that many people thought she had “dragged him down to her level” when they began singing duets together and went on the Variety circuit as a double act in 1940.

During the 1930s, critics in Gramophone magazine often lamented that Webster was not singing more serious works. In the April edition in 1937, a critic remarked: “Gradually Webster Booth is finding his rightful place as a member of the solo quartet in our concert halls, when the choral masterpieces are given. Only the other day a severe critic of English singing singled out Mr Booth as one of the very few elect. On records he (or is it his public?) remains content with trifles.”

Perhaps HMV took this comment to heart, for the following year Webster began recording more serious music, He made recordings with other distinguished singers of the day in operatic ensembles such as the quartet from Rigoletto, with Noelle Edie, Arnold Matters and Edith Coates, and the trio from Faust with Joan Cross and Norman Walker. He sang duets with soprano Joan Cross and baritone Denis Noble from La Bohème, the Miserere from Il Trovatore with Joan Cross, and the duet from Madame Butterfly with Joan Hammond. He recorded a number of duets with Dennis Noble including the brilliant extended scene in Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

His recordings of the late 1930s and 1940s encompassed oratorio, opera and ballads. The more serious works were under the baton of Malcolm Sargent, Lawrance Collingwood, Basil Cameron or Warwick Braithwaite, with the Hallé, the Liverpool Philharmonic or the Royal Philharmonic Orchestras. His recordings with piano accompaniment were nearly always with the eminent accompanist Gerald Moore.

At the beginning of the Second World War, he recorded The Lost Chord at the Kingsway Hall in London, accompanied by organist Herbert Dawson. As they were reaching the end of the song, the All Clear siren sounded, so they had to redo the recording to cut out the sound of the All Clear. There had been no air raids at that early stage of the war, so presumably the sirens were being given a trial run. The blitz was yet to come and would destroy Webster’s favourite concert hall, the Queen’s Hall.

His oratorio recordings are particularly fine. The solos in Handel’s Samson, from the moving recitative and aria O loss of sight and Total Eclipse, to the fiery Why Does the God of Israel Sleep? with its unrelenting Handelian runs, demonstrate how easily he could change from one mood to another, always singing with flawless technique and clear diction.

He and Anne began recording duets together in 1939. Their first record was If You Were the Only Girl in the World with A Paradise for Two on the other side. In 1940 they went on the Variety circuit as a double act although Webster still found time for more serious performances and solo concert appearances. Sadly, by this time critics in Gramophone had given up pleading with him to devote his outstanding voice entirely to

more serious work. Ironically, he told me that singing oratorio was what had given him the most satisfaction in his career, but unfortunately he is usually remembered today as one part of a duettist act rather than as one of the finest British tenors of his generation.

Anne and Webster were at the height of their fame during the war. They made many duet recordings, frequently sang duets on the radio, starred in several musicals on the West End, and made guest appearances in films, finally taking starring roles as actors and singers in the film The Laughing Lady (music by Hans May) in 1946.

Although they were still both in good voice in 1951 their recording contract with HMV was cancelled in 1951. The post-war generation seemed to prefer American entertainers like Danny Kaye and Judy Garland or more robust British acts fresh from the tough training ground of forces entertainment. They made a few recordings for Decca in 1952, but by the middle of that year their recording career in the UK had come to an end.

Anne and Webster were a wonderful couple, completely without side, who were kindness itself to me. As I have a large collection of their recordings, I have tried to keep their voices alive by my activities on the Internet.

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