Written by Terry Brown
Terry Brown is a very well respected researcher, discographer, author and authority on the history of early dance bands and the performers of the big band era. He has written many articles and discographies for the Discographer.
Cyril Ramon Newton
The Voice of the 1920’s
A Two Part Biography
(Part 1 of 2)
KEY: ⦾ 78rpm Acoustic/⦿ 78rpm Electric
Without question Cyril Ramon Newton’s vocal style is the very sound of the twenties. A powerful rich baritone with perfect diction conjure up white tie and tails, the Savoy Hotel, flappers, and everything bright and breezy about the 1920’s.
Cyril’s vocal abilities have somewhat side-lined his considerable musical talents, not only as a very accomplished violinist with a flair for syncopation, but also the fact that he led The Savoy Havana Band, The Savoy Orpheans and The Sylvians for the Savoy Hotel Group, for long periods during the 1920’s.
Talking about the early days of his dance band career in a much later Radio Pictorial interview, he said,
‘Even as far back as 1923 we had completely broken away from the din and noise of the early jazz bands. We employed straight melodic choruses against a compelling rhythmic background of piano, banjo, bass and drum. Hot music was unknown, special arrangements were few, but we improvised quickly on the simple scores, introducing such sounds as the horse-neigh, (via the trombone), the wah-wah, and the doo-wacka-doo, with good effect. For melodic purposes we relied mainly on saxophone solos shadowed by violin obligato. As a young violinist, I had acquired the knack of spontaneous obligato by mastering the rudimentary harmony which enables musicians to play around the melody without catty effects’.
That said, Newton’s early career started in a completely different direction, one that took him to Canada, but let’s start at the beginning.
Cyril was born on 9 March 1892 in Great Malvern in Worcestershire.
His birth certificate names him simply as Cyril Newton, the Ramon was added in later life seemingly for effect. Apparently his wavy hair and good looks were sometimes assumed to indicate Spanish ancestry and as a young man, Newton was happy to run with this. In fact there is no evidence to support any claim of Spanish ancestry. Cyril’s father Walter F. Newton was born in Salisbury, and was a Professor of Music who taught at Malvern College, as well as directing the choristers at Salisbury Cathedral. Newton himself in his teens went to an agricultural college, although he spent some of his leisure time learning violin with his father. Later, Cyril commented,
‘Dad, would have had a fit if he knew I played Jazz. He was very much a classicist and my sister Amy and I were both trained in the classical idiom’.
Meanwhile, Cyril’s Brother, Haydn had gone off to Canada and was running a cattle ranch in Edmonton, Alberta, and in 1909, Cyril was packed off to join him, ostensibly to learn the farming business. However, according to Cyril himself,
‘This did not satisfy my adventurous disposition’ and he left the ranch and spent almost two years jobbing around working in Lumber camps, spending several months with a road construction crew, ‘sometimes wielding a pick’, and joining a surveying expedition through the Peace River country of North West Alberta, ‘in temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees below zero’.
But by 1911, Cyril had, ‘ultimately decided to make my living at music’, and had become, a full time violinist. One of his first jobs was working in a small cinema in Wetaskiwin in Alberta and a little later he was doing pit work at the Ideal Theatre in Amsterdam, New York. In 1912 he was at The World of Motion Theatre, (a silent cinema), in Fort Edward in Nova Scotia where, ‘it was stipulated that the resident violinist should also light the fires and sweep the floor’; (Cyril resigned from this job).
Similar work followed over the next few years although as recalled by Cyril,
‘…when, as often happened, the projector broke down, I popped out of the pit and lulled the impatient audiences with a song’.
By way of these mechanical problems, Cyril became what was known as an ‘illustrated song singer’, vocalising to a succession of illustrated slides projected onto the screen, often accompanying himself on ukulele at which he had also become more than proficient. This work gave him a regular income and after a considerable spell at the Rex cinema in Lethbridge, Alberta, doing just that, in October 1913, he moved his base to Edmonton, Alberta, from which he continued to travel, ‘the de-luxe cinemas of Canada’.
The 1916 census for Alberta shows Cyril as a boarder at 334, 17th Street, Macleod, just outside Edmonton. The head of the household was an Englishman, Thomas Powell, a Supreme Court Official. His wife, daughter and a maid were also resident. Newton gives his occupations as musician and teacher. Cyril continued working in cinemas including the Happy Hour Cinema in Lake Placid, New York, which according to the Lake Placid News he joined in February 1917. But better things were to come, and later in the year, Cyril got his first important job as violinist with Sam Lanin’s Orchestra, then at the Terrace Garden Dance Palace on 58th street, New York, near Lexington Avenue.
The band also did seasons at New York’s famous, Roseland Ballroom. Cyril recalled,
‘Sam (Lanin), was a great fellow to work with and I played fiddle with the band and sang the choruses’.
Meanwhile, Cyril managed to find himself a wife and got married on 30 December 1917 to one Florence Austin Deckers and set up home, with his uncle, Wilfred Rudyard in the Queens District of New York.
By the 1920 census their first child, also named Cyril, had been born, and more importantly had formed his first band which was now resident at the prestigious, Vernon Castle School of Dancing in New York. Whilst at the school, Cyril had his first song published, I Want a Girl Like Peggy O’Neil, written with Al Milne and Gene Silver, and published in the UK by Chappell’s.
Cyril’s song writing talents surfaced infrequently over later years, but when he did produce songs they usually did quite well.
Although things were going well on a professional front, Cyril revealed later that his marriage at the time was not a happy one, and when an opportunity arose which would take him back to the UK, he took it.
A scout for William de Morny’s, (Musical Director for the Savoy Hotel Group), saw Cyril at the Vernon Castle School of Dancing, and recommended him to de Morny’s, who was, ‘looking for an elegant leader’, to form a new band for the Savoy Hotel, back in London.
Cyril willingly accepted the chance to get away from it all, particularly as £75.00 per week was on offer. Cyril left New York alone, (to begin with), coming over on the S.S.Olympic and arriving on 26 March 1921 at Southampton, (his wife and son joined him six months later, following a partial reconciliation).
On arriving at the Savoy, Cyril was tasked with organising a new 9 piece outfit to be called the Savoy Hotel Orchestra, (later Dance Band), to replace the previous incumbents, the Savoy Quartet.
(The quartet had also operated as the Savoy Dance Orchestra, augmented with two saxes and a violin). As Cyril’s new band bedded down at the Savoy, later in the year, de Morny’s decided he wanted a, ‘show band’, to play opposite and do, ‘concerts and broadcast’s’. The solution appeared in the shape of Albert Lewis Ralton or Bert Ralton as he was usually known, and his New York Havana Band, (So named, because the band had been appearing at a club in Havana, Cuba).
In July 1921, Ralton was on holiday in the UK, with a few members of his band and he was recruited by de Mornys to form what would become the Savoy Havana Band. Although Cyril continued to lead the Savoy Dance Band, (as it had become), for a short period, he then joined the New York Havana Band, as violinist/vocalist, with the band making its live debut at the Hotel on 27 September 1921.
The initial line up, (at least for recording purposes), consisted of, Francis McCabe (drums), Vic King (banjo), John Firman (piano), Bert Ralton (Leader/saxophone), Cyril Ramon Newton (violin/vocals), and Bill Marcus (trombone). Only Firman and Cyril were British amongst this group of Americans.
The London Times newspaper, reporting the re-decoration of the Savoy for ‘Supper Dances’, announced the arrival of the Havana Band, which would play opposite the Savoy Dance Band in the ballroom, with The Columbians based in the Foyer.
The band began recording for the Columbia record label in October 1921, initially as, the New York Havana Band at the Savoy Hotel, and from December 1921 as, the Savoy Havana Band. They also recorded periodically, as the Savoy Harmonists, for the Vocalion Company, from July 1922. Apart from his violin, Cyril also made his vocal recording debut with the Havana Band, singing Conchita, recorded on 28 December 1921, (⦾ Columbia 3090). Over the two years or so of its existence under Bert Ralton, the Savoy Havana Band had a number of comings and goings musician wise, but Cyril remained a constant presence, at least on record.
Unfortunately as far as Cyril’s vocal talents were concerned, he was heard rarely on their recorded output as the vast majority of Havana Band sides on the Columbia label did not have vocal choruses. However both the band and Cyril began to raise their profile when the Savoy’s MD, William de Morny’s persuaded, Sir Oswald Stoll owner of the Coliseum Theatre to book the Havana band for a week’s variety, the first time a dance band had ever played on a theatre stage. They made their debut at the Coliseum Theatre, on 13 March 1922 and were an immediate success, particularly through, ‘the inspired showmanship of Ralton and the pleasant singing of Cyril Newton’.
Cyril remembered Ralton as,
‘a great showman, and we made history by appearing on a revolving stage at the London Coliseum. Ralton wore diamonds in his boots, which sparkled in the limelight and he played his saxophone like a virtuoso. Someone called him the Chrysler of the saxophone’.
Just to show how busy Cyril and company were over this period, the Bath Herald newspaper for March 20, 1922 reported that the band
‘starts work at 10 in the morning, recording for a famous gramophone company. At 2.30 it rushes round to the Coliseum to take its part in the afternoon programme. At 6.30 its work at the Savoy Hotel commences and at 8.15 it is back at the Coliseum, and thence it returns to the Savoy’s ballroom, where it plays as long as the dancing lasts – usually until past midnight’.
The Band went on to perform at the Alhambra for another week starting 17 April 1922, then back to the Coliseum in June, the Alhambra in July, the Coliseum in September, and again to the Alhambra in December.
The London Times newspaper reviewing the band at the Alhambra in July said,
‘The Savoy Havana Band at the Alhambra this week is very popular with all kinds of audiences, and yesterday afternoon its efforts aroused a lethargic audience into a state of unusual enthusiasm. It certainly deserves its popularity, for, in addition to their professional skill, its members possess a kind of collective personality that is almost hypnotic. They play a series of ragtime tunes with such enthusiasm and personality, that, if yesterday’s reception is any criterion, they must usually succeed in sweeping any audience off their feet’.
Mention should be made here of the departure of pianist John Firman from the Havana Band in October 1922, as his replacement was Billy Mayerl, whose career was launched by his joining the band. From 24 January 1923, the Havana Band became even more of a stage band when it became a feature of, ‘Jean Bedini’s Jazzaganza’, (as it was billed), ‘You’d Be Surprised’, a review starring George Robey, which opened at the Royal Opera House with a run to 23 March 1923. (The show moved to the Alhambra in April, but without the Havana Band).
The Havana Band also made its BBC radio debut on the London service, broadcasting from the Savoy between 9.30 and 10.30pm on 13 April 1923, the first time Cyril’s voice was heard over the airwaves as both announcer and vocalist.
Over the following months the band continued successfully with its live presence at the Savoy, broadcasts, and several recording sessions each month at Columbia. But change was in the air. William de Mornys, decided he needed a ‘straight’ outfit to compliment the more, ‘wayward’, (as he saw it), Havana Band at the Savoy. So, in consequence, in the spring of 1923, de Mornys gave carte blanche to the ex-Musical Director of the Vocalion record company, Debroy Somers, to set about creating a new band for the Hotel, specifically aimed at dancers, who in Debroy’s words,
‘did not appreciate noise so much as quiet refined playing, and above all rhythm, and in my view musicianship rather than antics’.
The band he formed was of course The Savoy Orpheans who made their first appearance at the Savoy on 3 October 1923, first broadcast on 11th October, and first recording (for HMV), on 6 November 1923.
The arrival of the Orpheans appears to have upset Ralton, who up to then had been the Savoy’s top banana, and just after their arrival he decided to leave the Savoy to take up the offer of a residence in Australia.
With Ralton’s departure, a new Savoy Havana Band was formed featuring, George Eskdale & Eddie Frizell (trumpets), Bill Marcus (trombone), Frank Deodato & William Wagner (reeds), Billy Mayerl (piano), Dave Wallace (banjo), Jim Bellamy (bass), M. Higley (drums), with Cyril as violinist and vocalist. The outfit was initially led by violinist, Reginald Batten. Although Rust/Forbes shows Batten as leader of the Havana Band consistently over the next few years, this does not appear to be the case, other than perhaps for some recording sessions.
Certainly, from the summer of 1924, Batten is mentioned in the music press as deputy leader of the Orpheans, and song sheets published from this date into and across 1925 show, Ramon Newton as leader of the Havana Band for the majority, if not for the whole, of this period.
(Indeed, a Melody Maker story refers to Cyril as leader of the Havana Band at least until Debroy Somers resigned the Savoy in early 1926 – of which more later). Cyril also became a member of the Orpheans, (at least for recording purposes), from 21 October 1924. (I should point out here that for recordings, members of the various Savoy Bands were somewhat interchangeable, and the live line ups of the Havana and Orpheans did not always coincide with what was heard on record or vice versa). Also in October 1924, The Savoy Havana Band decided to leave the Columbia label and join rival HMV.
Cyril explained, ‘There was fierce competition between them in those days. Columbia were angry and when we left them I was asked to record a number of Strauss Waltzes on 12” records which would go on selling after we had switched to His Master’s Voice. The result was that Columbia continued advertising our waltzes while HMV promoted our new recordings’. (The Havana Band issued two 12” waltz records at this time, Columbia ⦾ 9016/ ⦾ 9028). Indeed, HMV began a publicity campaign spelling out that the Savoy Havana Band were recording exclusively for them.
The Orpheans and to a much lesser extent, Havana Band had provided Cyril with ample opportunities to sing, both on the scores of recordings the band’s made over the next few years, and because for almost four years from October 1923 to late 1927, the BBC were broadcasting the bands in the late evening slot, three times a week. Cyril compered and/or sang for the majority of these broadcasts and his vocal profile zoomed. Additionally Cyril began to appear in another BBC series, ‘Syncopated Songs’, in which he sang popular song titles, accompanied by Billy Mayerl on piano, first broadcast on 26 February 1925, with subsequent shows every few months, during the year.
As a consequence, Cyril’s solo recording work began to burgeon; so before we continue with Cyril’s Savoy activities, let’s have a look at what else he was up to vocally, over this period. Cyril in fact made his first solo vocal recording, By the Shalimar, as early as July 1923, (⦾ Vocalion M1154), followed by a lull till February 1924, when Cyril signed an exclusive solo contract with Columbia Records, starting with Why Should I Weep About One Sweetie/Just Keep on Dancing (⦾ Columbia 3418), followed by another 26 solo sides to September 1925.
Cyril’s other major solo work in 1925, starting 23rd March was for HMV, with, Shanghai/The Only One for Me, (⦾ HMV B1995). A further 18 sides followed to December 1926, usually accompanied by a, ‘Syncopated Quartet’, which consisted of Jimmy Wornel (trumpet), Van Phillips (clarinet/sax), Billy Mayerl (piano) and Dave Thomas (banjo).
One of these issues, I Want a Girl Like Peggy O’Neil/I’ll See You in My Dreams, recorded 24 June 1925, was in fact the first electrically produced 78 rpm issued by HMV.
This article is continued in part two