Alfredo – From Vagabond to Gipsy




Written by Terry Brown

Alfred Gill Sr (born in Illinois of German lineage), and his wife Isabella, (born in New Jersey of French lineage), ran a general provision operation from a horse drawn cart on the streets of New Jersey, USA, at the turn of the century. In time Gill built up a successful wholesale operation and became a leading light in Newark’s, Fruit and Produce Association. Little did Gill Sr., know that his sixth child, Alfred Gill Jr., born on 18 July 1892 in Newark, New Jersey, would take to the violin at the age of three to become, Alfredo, The Vagabond Violinist. Later, as simply Alfredo, Gill would spend virtually the rest of his life in the UK where he is primarily known for his high quality dance band recordings, made mainly for the Edison Bell Winner and Radio labels during the twenties. During the thirties, Alfredo completed re-invented both himself and his music as a string and accordion Gipsy Orchestra. Alfred Gill Jr was an undoubted child prodigy and after a period of some four years tuition with the great New York violin teacher, Professor Ehrke, young, Gill Jr., made one of his earliest public appearances playing violin with The Haydn Orchestra of New Jersey in 1903. He eventually joined a classical quartette and toured US concert and vaudeville halls for several years. At some point, when in his teens, he came up with the idea of a solo act as, Alfredo – The Vagabond Violinist. The act was clearly based on a very similar performer, Rinaldo – The Vagabond Violinis’, who was one of a number of such, ‘tramp’, violinists, performing in vaudeville on the US East Coast in the early 1900’s. Gill clearly didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a classical player and his new incarnation would presumably allow him to perform a greater range of music than would otherwise have been the case. One of his earliest solo appearances in his new incarnation was at Newark’s Procter’s Theatre in August 1907, where for a year or two he became a well-regarded regular. Alfredo’s act proved extremely popular and his bookings and reputation began to build, with reviews to match. Variety reviewed Alfredo at a performance at New York’s Hammerstein Theatre in September 1911, thus,

With all due respect to Charles Lorraine and Rinaldo and all the other boys who handle a fiddle and the bow, Alfredo is in their class. Although Alfredo garbs himself in the manner of Rinaldo, it does not affect his playing. He could fiddle just as well in evening clothes and no doubt look much better. Alfredo, does not fake his technique and expression being superb. He opens with, Dat Italian Love, but shows more talent with his Hungarian Waltz. After he has played, The Mocking Bird with variations, he follows with a medley in which Rag predominates’. Following his appearance at Keith’s Lowell Theatre in New Jersey, the Lowell Sun newspaper, for 6 February 1912, reported, ‘Alfredo’, dressed as an, ‘Italian vagabond’, ‘was a big hit playing everything from ragtime to classics and one doesn’t have to be a musician to admire the exquisite tone he gets from his violin and he throws his soul into his work’.

The Lowell Sun kept track of his act, and over the next year or so, Alfredo became a much-in-demand headliner, to the extent that he was booked for a variety tour of the UK, starting in London. Alfredo made his London debut at the Empire, Leicester Square on 2 June 1913, with the following week at the Victoria Palace.

He then began to tour the UK starting in July at the Hippodrome, Preston, and onto the Moss Empire circuit, then headed for the continent and the Cine Palast Zoo, in Berlin, (in Cinevaudeville) and later, the Wintergarten, also in Berlin. In early September he played in Hamburg, returning to the UK later in the month to re-join, the Moss Empire Theatre circuit, starting the Empire, Chatham, completing his tour in November, when he returned to New York. Just after his return the following announcement appeared in Variety, ‘Alfredo sails 13th December (1913) on the Olympic for a three year tour of the world, engagements being included in Europe, Australia and South Africa’. Alfredo began his world tour in the UK, at the Empire, Burnley later in December, moving on to the Coliseum, in London from January 1914.

Alfredo remained touring the UK until October 1914, incidentally keeping his US fans informed of his activities by placing a weekly advert in Variety, reporting where he was appearing. In that month he announced he was off to Australia to tour on the Rickards Theatre circuit starting in late November 1914 at the Tivoli Theatre in Melbourne. Alfredo’s act got rave reviews in the Australian press and an early reviewer of his Melbourne appearance wrote,

‘Alfredo the famous vagabond violinist is another of the great artists to appear. Alfredo began his career as Alfred Gill. He is scarcely more than a boy, being only 23 years, but he has spent nearly the whole of his time studying violin. His skill cannot be measured by his age. There is nothing I should like better than to play classical music, it would be easy work for me. But unless you want to starve you have to give the public what it wants. That’s why I’m playing ragtime vaudeville, instead of following my original plan only to do high class concert work”.

Other theatres Alfredo appeared in whilst in Australia, included, the Opera House, Melbourne, the Royal Princess’s Theater, Bendigo, The Empire, Brisbane, the Tivoli, Sydney, the New Tivoli Theatre, Adelaide, and others. Alfredo’s Aussie tour was undoubtedly a great success and he returned to New York, leaving Sydney on 23 October 1915. After a brief break back in New York, he set sail once more on 13 December 1915, and headed back to London, with an opening appearance at the Palace Theater, from 16 January 1916. During his touring, Alfredo had one of his few song writing efforts, The Alfredo Rag, published by Bert Feldman. The sheet music cover shows Alfredo in his vagabond violinist costume.

Alfredo continued touring in the UK until 2 June 1916, when he sailed for South Africa after being contracted by the L.V.T.A. (Lake Victoria Tourism Association), to tour there. Alfredo’s draft First World War registration card, (dated 24 September 1917), noted he was ‘temporarily at Cape Town’, in South Africa, and quoted his employer as, ‘the African Theatres Trust’. Alfredo continued his life on the road, leaving South Africa for Paris, in July 1918, (to headline at the Casino), and returning to London in August.

At this point in time, Alfredo decided to go into a double act with an accordionist, who billed himself as Dipinto, but this didn’t last as in September Alfredo was performing as a single again at the Palladium and from 18th, at the Alhambra in Paris. This pattern of touring continued well into 1919, with scores of performances around the UK, a re-appearance at the Coliseum in London in November 1919, and then on into the early twenties touring France and Germany.

Needless to say after nearly 15 years on the road, Alfredo, was probably looking for a more settled existence and shortly after completing yet another run at the Coliseum in October 1922, followed by further shows in the provinces to December 1922, he was apparently invited to join Jack Hylton’s Orchestra.

According to Rust/Forbes, Alfredo made his first recording with Hylton for HMV on 20 December 1922. Rust/Forbes also shows Alfredo’s presence on Hylton’s subsequent HMV recordings, averaging two sessions a month for the whole of 1923. Well, Alfredo was still undertaking variety work throughout the year and couldn’t have been in London for every session, as many recording dates clash with his variety appearances. Similarly, Rust/Forbes shows Alfredo’s presence on Hylton sessions from January 1924 to April 1925. Again, Alfredo may have been involved in some of the 1924 sessions, but The Stage newspaper, reported the presence of Alfredo & his Band, who had been installed for a three month contract, at the Grafton Galleries beginning January 1924. On 5 March 1924, The Era noted:

‘At the Grafton Galleries, Alfredo the vagabond violinist of the halls, has been presenting his own band for a three month season, (which started in January). It is not Alfredo’s intention to forsake his single act, but it is quite possible that he will accept offers to present his latest combination on the halls at an early date before he dons the ragged clothes again’. The Era also confirmed Alfredo’s move to the New Prince’s Restaurant as follows, ‘On Monday evening, (7 April 1924), Alfredo & his Band opened at Prince’s Restaurant in Piccadilly, following a most successful three month season at the Grafton Galleries, which concluded last Saturday night, (5 April 1924)’.

On the basis of the foregoing, although Alfredo may have been present on some of the early 1924 Hylton sessions, once he’d formed his own band and moved full time into Prince’s it is most unlikely that he did so for the balance of 1924, or indeed any period in 1925. Alfredo’s arrival at Prince’s was somewhat complicated by the fact that earlier on Monday 10 March 1924, Prince’s had installed what was to become The New Prince’s Toronto Band, following a rushed audition on the Sunday. The Toronto Orchestra, as it was originally known had travelled from Toronto to appear at Rector’s Club in Tottenham Court Road, London. En-Route, to their dismay, the band discovered that the Club had lost its license and had ceased to trade. Happily, by the time they got to London via Liverpool, one of the Directors of Rector’s, Sam Laschiver, (who had been responsible for bringing the band over), had got them the Prince’s Restaurant audition. The Canadian contingent at Prince’s, re-titled, the New Prince’s Toronto Band were led by saxophonist, Hal Swain, with Alfie Noakes, (trumpet), Les Allen, (saxophone), Bill Hall, (trombone),  Frank Walsh, (piano), Ron Garrison, (tuba), Dave Caplan, (banjo), and Ken Kenny, (drums).

Alfredo’s arrival a few weeks later, was solely down to the restaurant moving to a two band policy. Canadian trumpeter, Alfred ‘Alfie’ Noakes, (who had come over with the Toronto Orchestra), recalled this arrangement in recorded reminiscences made in the 1980’s,

The two bands divided the five hour nightly playing time which was from nine until two in the morning. There was also a twice nightly cabaret at half past nine and again at midnight, lasting for about an hour. The two bands took it in turns to accompany this and also to play the daily tea-danse from four until six. Everyone had Sunday off”.

The cabaret referred to was known as, ‘Prince’s Frivolities’. The full line-up of Alfredo’s unit at this time is not known, but it included, Alfredo, (leader/violin), Arthur Wilson, (trumpet), (who, according to The Era joined on 28 May 1924), Laurie Day, (piano), Bert Bown, (saxophone), Harold Evans, (bass/sousaphone) and Charles Harris, (drums). Alfredo and Swain got on very well together as did the boys. On the 23 April 1924, The Era reported,

‘Alfredo with his Orchestra is now at the Prince’s Restaurant, where he is a very popular feature. Alfredo has had many requests for the band for the halls, and he may decide to accept some engagements later in the year, but is unable to do so at present owing to existing arrangements’.

As to recording work, the Toronto Band got in first with a contract with Columbia Records, making their recording debut on 10 November 1924. Alfredo had to wait till the following year before he got a chance to record. Meanwhile, true to his word, Alfredo took the plunge onto the variety stage, finishing at Prince’s on Saturday 9 August to start the following week in variety, at the Hippodrome, Manchester.

A reviewer in The Stage noted,

Alfredo the violinist and his band, gave selections of jazz music effectively, which is enthusiastically received’.

Alfredo moved on to the Palace, Leicester, back to Manchester then the Wood Green, Empire, and finally the Alhambra, Leicester Square, returning to Prince’s on 15 September 1924. Alfredo seemed to enjoy being back on the boards and at the start of November he sailed to Belfast to perform at the Belfast Hippodrome. The Norther Whig & Belfast News reported,

‘The Hippodrome bill this week is of a particular attractive nature. There is as the star turn, Alfredo & his Jazz Band from Prince’s in London. The wizard of the violin has collected around him a most entertaining company. The musical items of Alfredo himself are quite a feature of the turn, but in addition the melodies of his company under his own baton are really delightful. Added to these are dances by Mademoiselle Terpsichore, who appears in Eastern dress with a great deal of acceptability’.

The dancer referred to became part of Alfredo’s company, she was featured in the, ‘Prince’s Frivolities’ cabaret, and she toured with Alfredo a number of times, later in his career. He may have first met her earlier, whilst in Australia with his violin act, as she had been performing there on the same theatre circuit, but as to why she began touring with Alfredo, and for many subsequent years, who knows?

Alfredo remained on the boards, (on the Moss Empire circuit), well into 1925, and whilst back in Belfast, Alfredo made his first BBC radio broadcast on 17 March 1925, relayed from the Ulster Hall. 1925, continued to be dominated by variety appearances, including both Alfredo and the Toronto Band appearing together in a version of the Prince’s Restaurant cabaret over the summer months. Another first for Alfredo was to sign with the Edison Bell Company. Alfredo made his first recordings on the Winner label sometime in June 1925, Wanderlust/Sunset (EBW 4243). Alfredo eventually finished this particular tour at the Sheffield Empire at the end of October, returning to Prince’s at the start of November 1925. Which just happened to coincide with an agreement between Prince’s and the BBC to permit broadcasting from the restaurant. Both Alfredo and the Toronto Band were heard together for the first time on radio on 2LO at 10.30pm on 10 November 1925. But for the balance of the month, Alfredo made a few more choice variety performances, before returning to Prince’s at the beginning of December, to again start joint BBC broadcasts with the Toronto Band across the month.

It was at this time that Alfredo received an offer to join the company of a musical comedy brought over from America, which was to be put on at the Gaiety Theatre in London. ‘The Blue Kitten’, had a book and lyrics by Otto Harbach and music by Rudolph Friml, (and others), with W. H. Berry, Estelle Brody, Roy Royston and Bobby Howes in the cast. The title of the piece referred to the name of a Parisian club, where the action was based.

Scene three of the production presented the club’s cabaret, and the producers required a live band on stage to back the performers, and to this end Alfredo was recruited. The show opened on 23 December 1925, to popular acclaim, with Alfredo’s contribution particularly appreciated. On 17 March, The Era reported that, surprise, surprise, Mademoiselle Terpsichore, Alfredo’s dancing muse, had joined the cast. The show was due to move to the Shaftesbury Theatre in April but for various reasons this couldn’t happen, and it closed on 10 April 1926. Incidentally it was the Prince’s Restaurant two band policy that permitted Alfredo to, ‘double’, as it was known. As Hal Swain’s Toronto Band were on the stand at Prince’s till 11.30, Alfredo could perform in, ‘The Blue Kitten’, and get back from the Gaiety to take over at Prince’s until 2.00am. During the run of, ‘The Blue Kitten’, Alfredo still managed to undertake his weekly joint broadcast for the BBC, and yet again began to fit in his own variety work, when he could, including a week at the Stratford Empire, (with Mademoiselle Terpsichore), starting 24th May. Alfredo’s appearances on record during 1925 had amounted to just four sessions, which, (with now less touring outside London), he managed to increase to about one a month for the first half of 1926.

The demands on Alfredo increased as on 22 May 1926, Prince’s Restaurant opened its, Palm Beach resort on Tagg’s Island in the River Thames, near Hampton Court. The complex, which included a hotel, palm court, ballroom and sand covered beach, (complete with palm trees), had originally been built in 1913 for music hall impresario, Fred Karno.

With afternoon and evening dancing and a Sunday cabaret at Palm Beach, Melody Maker for July 1926, reported, Prince’s would now be operating four bands, three of which would be alternating between Prince’s Restaurant and the Palm Beach resort. The bands would be the New Princes Toronto Band (which was being led by Alfie Noakes at the time, because Hal Swain had been on a trip to Toronto), Alfredo’s Band, The Miami Band led by Arthur Fottrella, and, (as Hal Swain was now back from Toronto), a newly formed outfit, Hal Swain and his Canadians. The logistics of the overall operation must have been a nightmare. Both Alfredo and the Toronto band were doing regular variety work, both were playing for dancing and cabaret at all times of the day and night at Prince’s and at times the Palm Beach, both were recording and broadcasting, it does make you wonder when anyone got any sleep!

Mentioning touring, Prince’s Restaurant was one of the few well known dance venues that were happy for its contracted band(s), to tour. The Savoy and many other hotels and restaurants in London preferred to keep a tight rein on their bands and musicians, prompting a lot of moon-lighting and pseudonymous presences on gramophone records. As long as, ‘Prince’s Restaurant’, appeared in the billing of both Alfredo and the Toronto Band, the powers that be remained content. On the 16 August 1926, Alfredo started a week of variety at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, when tragedy struck. Toronto Band Trumpeter, Alfie Noakes, told what happened in his reminiscences mentioned earlier thus,

Alfredo and his Band were playing a week at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. Arthur Wilson, the band’s trumpet player, had arranged to do an early morning recording session in London with another band. His car, an open 30-98 Vauxhall, was very powerful and fast and so he drove down from Manchester to London overnight. He did the session and was on his way back for the evening show when, in the district of Homes Chapel, a truck started to pull out of a side turning in front of him. Arthur was going pretty fast and couldn’t stop, nor could he make it through the gap to the road edge. His car turned over twice in the ditch and was a total wreck. Arthur was taken to a nearby hospital badly injured. He was there for a considerable time and though he made a temporary recovery, he later suffered a relapse which resulted in his death. (Arthur Wilson died in December 1926, not from his original injuries but because he unfortunately contracted typhoid fever whilst recovering). Alfredo, on being informed of this disaster, talked it over with the boys in the band, as a result of which he phoned me at New Princes and asked me if I could come up at once to Manchester and take over the trumpet chair for the rest of the week.  After a few days of the twice nightly stage show Alfredo asked me if I would be prepared to join the band on a permanent basis. After careful thought I decided to give up my leadership of the New Princes Toronto Orchestra and accept Alfredo’s offer’.

And so Alfie Noakes joined Alfredo. One upshot of this was that shortly after banjoist, Dave Caplan took over leadership of the Toronto Band from Noakes, he accepted an offer for the band to travel to and perform in Germany, leaving, Alfredo, Hal Swain and the Miami Band to continue working at Prince’s and the Palm Beach resort.

Towards the end of August, Alfredo embarked on his next major theatrical event after accepting an offer to join the company of another imported US musical comedy, ‘Sunny’,  by Otto Harbach & Oscar Hammerstein, with music by Jerome Kern. With a stellar cast, including, Jack Buchanan, Elsie Randolph, Claude Hulbert, and Binnie Hale, as, ‘Sunny’. After rehearsal, the show opened in try-out, at the Palace, Manchester on 21 September 1926, to great acclaim. The show opened in London at the Hippodrome, Leicester Square on 7 October.

The Era noted,

‘Alfredo’s Prince’s Band put in some well applauded work between acts as well as in the ship scene’. Again, Alfie Noakes in his reminiscences recalled, ‘In 1926 we were featured in the popular musical comedy ‘Sunny’ at the London Hippodrome. Now known of course, as, The Talk of the Town, which starred Jack Buchanan, Elsie Randolph, Binnie Hale and Claude Hulbert. We did nine shows a week for nine months. The evening show finished at eleven and we were back at the New Princes by half-past, working right through until two in the morning! Alfredo had a recording contract with the Edison Bell Company and we made many titles for the old Winner label. I can’t remember many of the titles now, but we recorded most of the top show tunes and, of course, also the ordinary popular hits of the day. The Edison Bell studios were located off the Old Kent Road past a pub called the Lord Nelson, I recall. The man in charge there at that time was Harry Hudson. We recorded all the numbers from ‘Sunny’ naturally. The title song Sunny was sung by Binnie Hale in the show; Jack Buchanan sang, Who? and it was Elsie Randolph who made Two Little Bluebirds such a success.

The popularity of Alfredo at this time was considerable, ‘Sunny’ was a big hit at the Hippodrome, both New Prince’s and the Palm Beach were doing a roaring trade, he and Hal Swain, were still jointly broadcasting at least once a week from Prince’s, and his Winner recordings remained big sellers. When the producers of, ‘Sunny’, decided to put a touring version of the show together to run alongside the Hippodrome production, they turned to Alfredo to supply the band to join the touring company. The touring show, opened on 13 December 1926 at the Alhambra in Glasgow, and featured Alfredo’s Sunny Band which was led by Billy Gerhardi.

An accomplished violinist, Gerhardi had arrived in the UK in 1919, with, the Original Ragpickers band at the Hammersmith Palais. After working at Rector’s Club, he joined Jack Hylton’s organisation playing at the Metropole Hotel and Blanchard’s. He joined Alfredo in 1924, playing in a relief band at Prince’s and the Palm Beach as well as deputising as leader for Alfredo on occasions. The Sunny band included Gerhardi, (leader/violin), Arthur Fottrella, (trumpet), Geoff. Neely, (saxophone), Jake Hands, (piano), Ronnie McKinlay, (trombone) and Harold Dillman, (drums).

This was the start of what was to become, in effect, Alfredo’s Band Agency. With Alfredo & his No.1 Band working at Prince’s, the Palm Beach, and the Hippodrome; and his Sunny Band touring, in March, Alfredo was then contracted to supply the music for the new, Park Lane Hotel, which would open for dancing on 21 March 1927. The March, Melody Maker reported that Alfredo would be supplying two bands, an eleven piece and seven piece set up. In the end, one band was appointed, led by pianist, Wilbert E. Blincoe, ‘who’, according to April’s Melody Maker, ‘leads in Alfredo’s absence when he is at Prince’s where, as is well known, he has what may be termed his Number 1 band’. Aside, Blincoe, the band consisted of Al Saxon, L. Posta and Will Dannan, (reeds), Hector Sutherland and George Chappell, (trumpets), W. Morley, (trombone), Cyril Gaida, (banjo), R. Lensen, (bass), and Louis Stevenson, (drums). (Incidentally, British born Wilbert, sometimes Wilbur Blincoe was primarily a publisher’s arranger and occasional composer, who also led, The Empire Band at the Holborn Restaurant in 1925 – he was not, as asserted by Rust/Forbes, Jay Wilbur).  As 1927 progressed, Alfredo continued to create his own ‘brand’, and his appearance on sheet music from this period began to reflect this with many stating, ‘featured with enormous success by Alfredo and his Bands’, (note the plural). I should also add, that like many other top bands, apart from his, ‘public’, activities, Alfredo was also in demand for highly paid, private and society events, which he would fit in as and where, usually requiring a deputy to lead for him at Prince’s.

In early March 1927, The Era reported that Les Allen would replace Bert Bown in Alfredo’s Band on tenor saxophone. Allen who came over with the original Toronto Band, and went on to become a popular crooner as well as saxophonist. The final curtain on the London production of, ‘Sunny’ fell on Saturday 16 July 1927, after nine months, and although Alfredo was back full time at Prince’s, he also opened at the Holborn Empire for the week, (with Terpsichore still in tow), had his Park Lane Hotel Band still in place, and his, Sunny Band, was still on the road in the touring version of, ‘Sunny’. After the summer, Alfredo returned to the variety stage as before with his No. 1 band, appearing at Prince’s in the late evening, and, (for example in September), performing at the Metropolitan, Finsbury Park, and New Cross Empires for a week of matinees and evenings.

But from August, things got slightly more complicated. Alfredo began to bill himself on radio, as Alfredo & his Original Band, at New Prince’s Restaurant. The principle reason to identify his, ‘original band’, in this way, was that, Alfredo had put together yet another touring unit. Billing was the key. If you saw, ‘Alfredo and his New Prince’s Band’ or Alfredo and his Band, on billing matter, you would actually get to see Alfredo, whereas, if the billing read, ‘Alfredo’s Band/Orchestra, from the London Hippodrome’, (sometimes Palladium), or similar, this would usually be his new unit, led on violin by Jack Leonardi. Jack Leonardi who was well known for his work as a cinema orchestra MD on the Granada Cinema circuit, had joined Alfredo in 1926, and like Billy Gerhardi, had deputized for Alfredo in his absences as well as leading pick-up and ad-hoc units for Alfredo’s various extra-curricular activities.

Leonardi’s unit was principally formed for a new touring production, ‘The Dancing Grenadiers’, which featured, Joe Young, Rona Ray, the Delfont Boys and of course the ubiquitous, Mademoiselle Terpsichore. It opened at the Nottingham Empire on 2 February 1928, and toured continually to eventually close in September.  Mademoiselle Terpsichore then moved from, ‘The Dancing Grenadiers’, to join the touring company of, ‘Sunny’. Otherwise 1928 repeated much the same pattern as the previous year for Alfredo. ‘Sunny’ continued to run throughout the year with Alfredo’s Sunny Band, he and his No. 1 Band continued to split its time between Prince’s and the Palm Beach with continued BBC broadcasts. In March, Alfredo began to appear on Edison Bell’s new 8 inch Radio disc, as well as on the Winner and the Electron labels. Speaking of Alfredo’s recordings, particular sides of interest to collectors who like their music, ‘hot’, include, Keep Smiling At Trouble/Paddlin’ Madelin’ Home on EBW 4322, That Girl Over There/Because You Could Have Had Me Once on EBW 4490, Do The Black Bottom With Me on EBW 4670, Lila on EBR 890, Virginia on EBR 925, Sweetheart Of All My Dreams/Deep Night on EBR 976 and Turn On The Heat on EBR 1299.

But, there were some changes to the usual routine. Hal Swain left Prince’s in late March 1928, to form a new band for the Café Royal, and Alfredo and Swain made their last BBC joint broadcast on 2 April 1928. Swain intended to recruit a new band on his departure, so left his existing unit at Prince’s under bass player, John Whittaker, (one of the Toronto Bands original members), playing opposite Alfredo for a period. Alfredo broadcast alone from the restaurant for a short time, and then decided to replace, Swains old unit, with a new band, which would be known as the New Prince’s Orchestra, which again would be led by John Whittaker. The other musicians who joined this unit were, Jack Warner (trumpet), Cecil Smith (trombone), Peter Rush (reeds), Dan Downey (reeds), Bob Stainforth (piano), Cyril Gaida (banjo/guitar), Bill Airey-Smith (drums), and Whittaker (bass).

At Prince’s it was billed as, the New Prince’s Orchestra, and this outfit joined Alfredo for joint broadcasting on the BBC, (as he had done with Hal Swain), usually averaging at least three broadcasts a month, throughout the year. According to Rust/Forbes, this unit also recorded as, Alfredo’s Band at five Edison Bell sessions, between March and August 1928, before Alfredo’s ‘Original’ or No. 1 Band resumed recording at the next session in October 1928. In reality it is impossible to be completely accurate about who played on Alfredo’s sessions, not just because he had several bands operating at the same time but also because the bands operating at Prince’s tended to pool their players for recording purposes anyway, a similar approach used by the Savoy Hotel bands who also operated as a collective when it came to the recording studios. Alfredo himself, decided to take a leave of absence from performing in variety, and apart from a few charity events and theatrical balls, remained resolutely at New Prince’s, throughout 1928. One saving grace was the sale of the New Prince’s, Palm Beach complex In May 1928 – which at least saved Alfredo having to operate at two sites for the balance of the year. From October 1928, advertising material placed Alfredo amongst the top rank of dance band leaders, alongside, Jack Payne, Jack Hylton and Debroy Somers.

In November, Alfredo was given star billing on the front of that month’s Melody Maker, to which he contributed an article headed, ‘Prison, Park and Pew, Some Jazz Reminiscences by Alfredo’. Alfredo recalled some of the odder places he had performed – hence the title, and offered a stout defence of ‘modern rhythmic music, or jazz’, as he described it.

1929 opened with Alfredo still incumbent at Prince’s, with ‘Sunny’, still on the road, recording sessions and the usual weekly broadcasts, albeit from April without the New Prince’s Orchestra, which Prince’s withdrew, temporarily. Alfredo, however, unlike the previous year, did get out and about a bit, including appearances at the Holborn Empire in February; Birmingham, Southend Hippodrome and the Alhambra in May. Following his Alhambra appearance, The Era reported that, ‘Alfredo & his New Prince’s Band will be commencing a three month provincial tour starting at Portsmouth Hippodrome on 13 May 1929’. In fact Alfredo had joined, producer Charles Henry to take a new review on the road, entitled, ‘The Merry Whirl’. This originally appeared at the Palladium earlier in the year, featuring Sidney Firman’s Band. Henry and Alfredo put a touring version together initially to tour the General Theatre Circuit.

Billing included the wording, ‘Not a Review, Not a Variety Bill, Just That Something Different – 50 Artists including, Alfredo (Himself) with his New Prince’s Band’. Note the inclusion of the word, ‘Himself’, just so that punters knew they would actually be seeing Alfredo with the conductor’s baton. The show was split into two parts, with the first half presenting each artist in their own acts, in the usual variety show format, and then, ‘Merry Whirl’, filled the second half, with Alfredo’s band and all the performers on stage in a kind of ‘mash-up’ of singing and dancing.

(Incidentally, by this time, Alfredo’s dancing friend, Mademoiselle Terpsichore had parted company with Alfredo and was doing a single supported by a pianist). As to, ‘The Merry Whirl’, an early review in The Era, commented,

‘Alfredo and his Band, perform in both parts of the entertainment and they have much pleasant material to offer, but probably their version of, Singing in the Rain, with its novel lighting effects was the most applauded. A very clever solo saxophonist is in their ranks, (Claude Cavalotti), and Alfredo gives little snatches of violin playing that show his talent. Nor can one forget Alfredo’s Young Ladies, who make a smart and vivacious chorus in their own neat dances. Some splendid performances make this a consistently excellent show which will do well on tour’.

Claude Cavalotti had joined Alfredo’s band organization sometime in 1925. He had worked at Pritchard’s with leader, Fred Spreadbury, and together they had formed the, Coney Island Band which appeared at the Empress Rooms, the Regent Palace Hotel and Lyons Corner House in the Strand. He was to become, Alfredo’s, manager and fixer, and a long serving and loyal support to Alfredo well into the 1940’s.

Meanwhile during, ‘The Merry Whirl’, tour, the reference to the New Prince’s Restaurant came and went, depending on where Alfredo was appearing. Sometimes he was billed simply as Alfredo & his Band. But Alfredo, remained on good terms with Prince’s and in July, he returned briefly to New Prince’s and made a couple of broadcasts from the restaurant, before hitting the road again. Alfredo and the show toured continually till the end of the year, by which time he’d decided to leave, New Prince’s for good. During that period, he virtually disappeared from radio, although he still managed to squeeze in 7 recording sessions at Edison Bell, between May and December 1929. But the show must go on, and Alfredo literally spent the first half of 1930 on the road, starting on the Moss Empires Northern Circuit with a week at the Empire, West Hartlepool from 6th January 1930. Taking in Sunderland, Blackburn, Manchester, South Shields and elsewhere to the end of February, then after a week at the Shepherds Bush Empire, the tour continued in Ireland starting with a week at the Hippodrome, Dublin. Over April and May he was back on the Northern Circuit, and in June he again headed south, to Penge, Portsmouth, Hanley and the like. The show was put to bed at the end of June 1930, (after almost 18 months on the road), whilst Alfredo took a well-earned break from performing and for the first time since 1922 he went off to see his parents in the US. He boarded the Aquitania in Southampton, and arrived in New York on 4 July 1930. He returned to London in late July and immediately set about putting a new variety, ‘Road Show’, (later titled, ‘The Big Ensemble’), together, starring two recent arrivals from South Africa, singer/comedians, brothers, Max and Harry Nesbit.

The new show hit the road, from 11 August with a week at The Palace, Plymouth, followed by the Bristol Hippodrome. A reviewer wrote,

‘Variety in its best clothes returned to the Hippodrome this week, and well filled houses gave it a mighty welcome. Alfredo, the master of rhythm and his boys give a splendid selection of jazz music brilliantly played. Alfredo’s music is like his conducting, exhilarating and melodies like Moaning, Sunny-Side of the Street and Happy Feet, were all splendidly performed. Every member of his band is an expert at the instrument he plays, and Claude Cavalotti’s remarkable handling of the saxophone gained him a well-earned encore. Outstanding too were Fred Fox’s dancing and the singing of Bert Bown. The dancing and comedy turn of Max and Harry Nesbit was also enthusiastically received’.

As with his previous shows, a pattern of weekly appearances continued through the balance of 1930. During the tour, Alfredo managed to take a couple of opportunities whilst performing in London at The Empire, Stratford and The Empire New Cross to make what became his last recordings for Edison Bell in October and November 1930, respectively. Incidentally, his last sides included vocals by Al Bowlly and Les Allen. In mid-December, the Nesbit brothers left the show, which was revamped to become, ‘Hello, Alfredo’, with an opening at the Leeds, Empire on 22 December 1930. The new show, included black face US star, Billy Elliott and a young comedian getting his first big break, Jimmy Jewell, (later of Jewell and Warris fame) and for the first performances, The Three Eddies.

‘Hello, Alfredo’, continued the rounds of variety theatres for the first quarter of 1931, with a guest appearance from 23 March 1931 at the National Trades Exhibition in Leeds. He also broadcast from the exhibition, (twice), his first radio broadcasts for nearly two years. By June, Alfredo began performing as a single act, with his band alone, usually for a week at each venue, but in August he unexpectedly laid off the band, (subsequently dis-banding), and took a complete break from the stage and performing. He was still seen around town, including giving a first class performance at a meeting of the Vaudeville Golfing Society, completing a round of 69, at the Brent Valley Golf Course. More importantly, Alfredo had decided to musically return to his roots as a violinist.     

In an article in Melody Maker he set out his new thinking. According to Alfredo, he had become convinced,

‘that the end of jazz was near except for a few celebrated bands (so he had) decided to form an orchestra that would give the same sweetness and the same range as classical music (and) provide something additional, movement and colour’.

It’s clear this would also give him an opportunity to show off his prowess with the violin. To this end he went to Paris over the summer to pursue a French gypsy group he had heard of and after a great deal of persuasion and cost,  Sprinzceana’s 19 Tziganes, as they were called, appeared with Alfredo for the first time at the Palladium on 5 October 1931.

Alfredo described his trials and tribulations with this group of scallywags, (none of whom spoke English or read music), rather amusingly in Melody Maker.

…being genuine gypsy musicians, they know each number by its key. Sometimes I have to play a bar or two of a piece before they realise what I want and follow me’.

He eventually disbanded this particular gypsy incarnation, bar four of them, added a number of UK based musicians, (including saxophonist Claude Cavalotti, from his original band), and evolved into Alfredo and his Vagabonds. The revised band made their first appearance at the Victoria Palace in November 1931. By the time they next played the Palladium in February 1932 they had become, Alfredo and his Gypsy Vagabonds, (sometimes just Vagabonds), and subsequently, Alfredo and his Gypsy’s, (although on occasions he reverted to the previous title). The band can be seen and heard in its full glory playing; You Will Remember Vienna, in Pathetone Weekly No. 91 issued in December 1931, and viewable at the Pathe website.

Alfredo’s Gypsy’s became a very popular attraction and toured extensively throughout the UK and the continent, during the 1930’s. As much of the detail of Alfredo’s touring activities matches and mirrors that of the 1920’s, (already described earlier), I’ll avoid needless repetition as to where and when he toured and concentrate on some of the more important aspects of Alfredo’s career up to WW2. One new arena for Alfredo in his new incarnation was his presence in cine-variety as it was known. Although long established in America, the idea of variety performers playing in cinema’s between films and in intervals was fairly new in the UK, and Alfredo was one of the first to embrace it fully. So across the decade, apart from the Empires and Hippodromes, one could also see Alfredo at the local cinema. An early reviewer of Alfredo’s new enterprise saw them at the Chelsea Palace, in January 1932 and wrote,

‘Alfredo and his Vagabonds, who head the programme this week, must certainly take a place of their own amongst stage instrumental combinations. Their act is presented in a most enjoyable mountain scene, and the varied costumes of the players make up a fine colourful picture. In addition there is a capital swing and rhythm in the majority of pieces presented which has a most refreshing quality. Alfredo, of course is head of affairs as conductor in general, and finds time for some of his artistic solo violin playing while the vocalist of the company is one of the best of the kind’.

The vocalist was Helen Breem. Later in the month, Alfredo was interviewed by a reporter from the Nottingham Evening Post, whilst at the Empire Theatre there.

He told the reporter,

‘Dozens of people have told me I have made a bad mistake in giving up all my connections to dance bands and blazing the trail of trying something that has never been done in this form before. I am certain that the public are tiring of jazz. Syncopated music is all very well, but we are beginning to get it for breakfast, dinner, tea and supper. This means that people don’t want to come to music halls and hear yet another dance band. They are beginning to plead for something more melodious without that eternal rhythm. That is why they are begging to appreciate good music. I realized that, but also knew it was important to give it in the right setting and atmosphere. Few ordinary people would go to Queen’s Hall and listen to classical music for a couple of hours without stifling a yawn. Yet I can present the same music with my Vagabond Orchestra and arouse enthusiasm in any audience’.

And so, as in the 1920’s, Alfredo’s Vagabonds, would spend the thirties, touring. On 31 May 1932, whilst at the Dominion in London, Alfredo returned to broadcasting. That said, across the thirties altogether, Alfredo, made only a score or so appearances on BBC radio to the end of the decade. Just to pick up on a few of his many appearances in the early thirties, in July 1932 Alfredo was at the New Victoria Cinema, in August in non-stop review at the Prince of Wales Theatre, in November back at the New Victoria, in January 1933 at the Dominion and later that year at the Hammersmith Gaumont cinema. This pattern continued for the entire existence of the band. Indeed Alfredo became something of a fixture at the New Victoria Cinema where he performed regularly for many years.

Alfredo took an early interest in sponsored performances, appearing at the Home Lover’s Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in March 1933 and the following year; the Bristol Radio Exibition in September 1935; the Modern Home and Building Exhibition in Plymouth in April 1936; and at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia annually from 1933 to the end of the decade. Indeed, Alfredo was televised live from the Radio Olympia Exhibition on 26th and 30th of August 1938.

Alfredo also made further television appearances during 1939. He also made a second Pathetone film appearance in an item issued 19 March 1934. Alfredo and his Gypsy’s also appeared in, and provided music for, British International Picture’s 1934 version of the operetta, ‘The Maid of the Mountains’, with Harry Welchman and Betty Stockfield. Alfredo continued cine-variety and touring throughout 1935 and 1936 when he moved into commercial radio. He broadcast regularly on Radio Luxemburg for Huntley and Palmer’s Biscuits, and others, and also made money from product endorsement, including Shredded Wheat; ‘I have never tried a breakfast food which has given me so much satisfaction’, he said in one such advertisement.

Similarly, during the mid-thirties, Alfredo made advertising records on the flexible Durium label with his,’ Novelty Band’, for the likes of  Everyman’s Points Pool and  Woodward’s Gripe Water. Alfredo returned to the US just twice during the whole of his ensuing career in the summers of 1935 and 1936. Entertainment listings throughout the late 30’s continue to show Alfredo’s Gypsy’s in constant demand, performing weekly throughout the whole of the UK. Alfredo also recorded for HMV in the B 8000 series, issuing some 30 sides from 1933 and 1937.

During 1938, Alfredo made more commercial radio appearances including a season of, ‘Radio Normandy Calling’, a Macleans sponsored programme. At the start of WW2 Alfredo began yet another tour, but as he began to lose some of his key players to the call-up, he decided to call it a day and announced his retirement from the business. However, this didn’t last too long, as Melody Maker for 16 October 1941 reported that,

‘The Phoenix Theatre has persuaded Alfredo out of retirement, where his band takes a leading part in the production, ‘Flying Colours’. Alfredo has now been on the road for the last seven weeks since he made his quite dramatic return to the musical fold, coming back from virtual retirement in response from bookers’ requests’.

Mind you, Alfredo had to do something he had never done before, hire mostly female accordionists, and his band contained a majority of female performers from then on. Touring continued in, ‘Flying Colours’, with Alfredo billing himself now, as, Alfredo and his Russian Gipsy Orchestra into 1943, as part of a new, road-show entitled, ‘The Novelty Box’, and he continued in other road shows till the end of the war. By then weight problems and other health concerns, (Alfredo was known for his love of Cuban cigar’s which he smoked constantly), were beginning to catch up and as the 1940’s progressed he began to cut down live performing. In 1949, he managed seasons in Birmingham and Belfast, but it was clear that Alfredo was moving to retirement and later in the year he disbanded. In 1950/51, Alfredo did some work as a single on various variety bills, but by 1953, had completely withdrawn from live performing. By the late 1950’s, he had settled down to a comfortable retirement at his flat in Shaftesbury Avenue. His sister-in-law recalled him as a kind, generous man, with a passion for gambling, particularly greyhound racing. He eventually succumbed to a heart attack on 5 February 1966, aged 74. His wife, Winifred Gill, nee Bell, who Alfredo married in 1950, died in 1981.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply