Jim Davidson – Australia’s Dance Band King

Prepared by Doug Hamilton

James Hutchinson Davidson was born in Sydney on 6 August 1902. By 1922, Jim had become a competent drummer in a band lead by Jimmie Elkins.

He worked in this band for some years until the Elkins band disbanded in late 1928. Soon after, five of the Elkins band members (along with Jim) joined up with pianist Jack Woods at the Ambassadors Restaurant to form a new band.

Davidson became deputy leader under Woods while the band was together for nearly three years at this restaurant. In February 1931 the Ambassadors closed so Jim Davidson and several of the musicians moved to the Oriental Cabaret to perform in Her Majesty’s Arcade. Davidson soon became the leader. The personnel of the band at this stage was: Ray Tarrant – trumpet / Dudley Cantrell – trombone / Frank McLaughlin – alto sax / Gordon Rawlinson – piano / Jim Davidson – drums.

Also during this time at the Oriental, the band was also broadcasting on Radio 2FC in Sydney on a part-time basis.

By August 1932 the band had enlarged to ten pieces and a concert was given at Hillier’s Cafe, this being one of the first actual jazz concerts to be given in Australia. From all contemporary accounts it was a memorable night. One of those present in the audience was the well known band promoter, J.C. Bendrodt, who after hearing the band booked them to perform at the Palais Royal. This was the premier dance hall in Sydney at this time. It was to be a similar sized ten piece band, the same ten piece band that was recording within a month for Regal.

This proved to be one of the most successful seasons at the Palais Royal, attendance being in the thousands even on week nights. One night brought a record crowd of 5,500 people. On Thursday nights, the band broadcast over radio station 2UE.

Following the 2 November 1933 record session the band journeyed to Melbourne and opened at the Palais de Danse at St. Kilda, still working under a contract to J.C.Bendrodt. This led to a successful six month stay at the Southern Palais as a result.

After this successful stint in Melbourne, the band moved back to the Palais Royal in Sydney in April 1934. Within a week of this move the band was again at the Homebush recording studios; with a slight change in the band credits; to recording a number of further sides for the Regal label.

Jim Davidson’s contract with J.C. Bendrodt finished in January 1935, so following this, Davidson took the band to Melbourne where it became the New ABC Dance Band. It was just before this that trombonist Tom Stevenson changed to playing the drums, leaving the leader free to conduct this dance band full-time.

A report in the Melbourne Herald dated 16 March 1936 stated that Davidson had received an offer to take the band to England, but this tour never eventuated.

The band moved once again back to Sydney in April of the same year, ready to start another season at the Palais Royal. And once again the band was recording at the Columbia studios for the Regal label. For a short while during this time Davidson also led a six piece band at Luna Park. Crucially, his big break came when the ABC in Sydney offered him a 26 week contract (later extend to two years) where he commenced broadcasting over 2FC. His popularity soared during this time. Around this time recording with Columbia started again with a new credit on the new style red and gold Regal Zonophone Australian records – featuring ‘Jim Davidson and His ABC Dance Orchestra’.

Davidson was also able to formed a small band from within the ABC Orchestra and began broadcasting and recording with this group. During 1937, the Orchestra also travelled to Orange for the opening of the new ABC radio station – 2CR. Also involved on this initial broadcast from the station was western singer, Tex Morton and the Scottish/Irish singer, Sidney MacEwan, then touring Australia for the ABC.

By late 1937, the band set off on a tour to Brisbane with concerts at various towns in between. Included in the tour were Gladys Moncrieff and Tex Morton. Following this tour a number of changes were made to the band. Three violins added for the first time.

Touring continued during February 1938 where the Orchestra gave concerts at 12 centres – 23 concerts in all – including Melbourne, Hobart, Launceston, Devonport, Adelaide and Sydney. Guests for this tour included Bob Dyer and Horrie Dargie – two important Australian radio stars of the time.

For the continuing radio broadcasts over the two National stations 2FC and 2BL (with inter-state links), Davidson used various combinations from within the orchestra – The Jazz Trio (himself on drums/Keith Atkinson-clarinet Wally Portingale-piano); Tzigane Band; Rhumba Band; and a Swingtette (Norm Litt or Lyn Miller-trumpet/Georg Trevare- trombone/Keith Atkinson-reeds and rhythm).

The June 2, 1938 recording session featured Alice Smith with a vocal on an arrangement by George Trevare of ‘Annie Laurie’, done in the style of Tommy Dorsey’s recording of ‘Marie’ with the band singing band titles along with her vocal.

On January 20, 1939 a two-week stage show at the State Theatre, Sydney began, with a reported payment of 400 pounds per week. It was following this that Jack Carpenter, tenor saxist and vocalist was added to the band making a five piece saxophone section.

In March of the same year, Larry Adler also recorded and broadcasted with the band in Sydney. Newspaper reports also suggest a possible recording session with Tex Morton around this time, yet this is so far unconfirmed. The July 24, 1939 features the Davidson Orchestra recording two 12” novelty songs; the ‘Stokowski’ side is another Trevare arrangement combining several themes from classical music. This was followed by another 12″ disc in September 1939, issued under the name of The Cavaliers, the only record made by Davidson under a pseudonym.

With the outbreak of World War 2, the Orchestra gave many concerts in Sydney, raising funds for the Red Cross and other war charities. At a Sydney Town Hall concert the bill featured Nick Lucas and the Comedy Harmonists and was broadcast over the ABC with the Mills Brothers.

Davidson’s Orchestra also appeared at the Sydney State Theatre during May 1940 for an eight week period. For this show the trumpeter/trombonist Wally Norman was added. The group went on to record at the November 23 session. At the end of this eight weeks the band moved to the Melbourne State Theatre for a four week season starting July 27. In late August of the same year, the Orchestra was again back in Sydney to resume its ABC broadcasts. At this time one of the ABC radio shows was the successful ‘Out of the Bag’ which as well as featuring the band also included Dick Bentley, Joy Nichols and compare Wilfred Thomas.

In December, Jim Davidson was negotiating with the ABC about his new contract which finished on January 13, 1941 and in January he signed for another period, however on May 30, he enlisted in the A.I.F. as lieutenant in the entertainment unit led by Lt. Col. Jim Gerald. The last two sides recorded for Regal Zonophone feature songs written by Jim Gerald, Jim Davidson and Wally Portingale.

In November 1941 the Entertainment group left for the Middle East to entertain Australian troops stationed there. By October 1942 the Unit was back in Sydney, where Jim Gerald was to retire because of ill health. Davidson was promoted to Captain and leader of the unit.

In February 1943 the Unit went to New Guinea to entertain troops on duty there and returned to Brisbane in March 1944. Davidson was promoted to Lt. Col. and from this time until mid 1945 he controlled over 21 companies that toured with dramatic and musical shows throughout the various places where AIF troops were stationed.

By February 1946 the 1st Australian Entertainment Unit was disbanded. Soon after this Davidson joined the Tivoli group of theaters as director of productions for a short period before leading an orchestra at the Cremorne theatre in Brisbane.

In May 1948 while on a world trip the BBC approached Davidson about taking up a position in London, as Assistant Head of Variety (Music), which he subsequently did. This was changed to Assistant Head of Variety (Productions) and finally in 1957 to Assistant Head of Light Entertainment (Sound) a position he then held till his retirement in September 1963.

Jim Davidson Discography can be accessed here.

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