The Girls in the Band

The new girl stood at the edge of the dance floor, nervous in the daytime twilight among the firmly shuttered bars. She wore a blue blouse, a grey skirt, sensible shoes. She had travelled down that day from Bridlington to Caister, near Great Yarmouth, where the Ivy Benson All Girl Orchestra was appearing that the Holiday Centre. Before her audition she was to hear a couple of numbers then spend an hour blowing through a repertoire not familiar from her college studies. Ivy spoke to her in the brisk yet comforting tones of a matron on the first day of term. "Let's have a look at this you lucky girl". The recruit opened her music case to disclose a saxophone like welded and clotted gold doubloons.
"I borrowed the money to buy it from my grandmother."
"Never mind love" Ivy said "You'll soon earn it back".
Ivy Benson is an inspirational figure. She is little and red headed with arms covered in bangles. A see through blouse that causes young men around the holiday camp to look at her with more than a slight interest. She can seldom remain still, either on the bandstand or off it, flicking and twirling to an unheard tempo, occasionally giving a more extravagant backward skip and hop. She is 64-years-old and has been leading her All Girl Orchestra for 35 years. It is a long time to have spent as a novelty, providing jokes for bad comedians, after the Dagenham Girl Pipers. Now at last it seems as if she may become a star.
She was born in Leeds on the November 11 1913. Her father was a musician who had played in both the Leeds Symphony Orchestra and the pit of the Leeds Empire, as well as in a variety act named The Ten Loonies. He put her to learn the piano at the age of three. At the age of nine she won a talent contest organised by Florrie Forde at the Empire, singing "Yes, We Have No Bananas". She learned the clarinet at the British Legion Club. She worked at the Montague Burton Factory and saved half a crown each week to buy her first saxophone. She auditioned and won a place at the Edna Croudfoot's Rhythm Girls. There were numerous all girl bands in those days but little musicianship was expected of them "All you had to do was tootle".

It became her ambition to lead a girl orchestra who could play. Her opportunity came with the war, when depredations among the male bands forced the Mecca Company to give her a residency at the Ritz ballroom in Manchester.For £9 a week, she provided musicians, music, instruments and clothes. It was the beginning of an unbroken struggle against discrimination expressed by poor payment, the contempt of musicians and other bandleaders, even arrangers who provided scores with deliberate mistakes. She has always been her own agent organising bookings, costumes, auditions herself from her own money, even training girl musicians from the very beginning. "I took a girl from a pie factory once, and made her into a bass guitarist."

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There have been numerous casualties. Especially when they were playing in American bases in Germany, the girls were always running away with GI s. That is why a girl band has to be as good as a male band, Ivy says their attention is only ever 50 per cent on the music. One member of her present band has been with her for 15 years, another for 10 years. The rest are very young. The bass guitarist with her T shirt and cloudy yellow hair is only 17.
At the edge of the ballroom sits a German youth, politely predatory, who has followed the vocalist across the continent. "I had one girl - beautiful piano player she was - she said who said I just want to have a word with Skip. I haven't seen her from that day to this." In Germany recently, as befits the age, a girl from the band ran off with a girl.
Ivy has brought her old father to Caister for the summer. They live in a catering flat, provided by the management with their grey poodle. They enjoy the Caister season the Hokey Cokey ...despite Friday nights being a little rough, after the kitchen staff have been paid. Her hobby is learning languages, likes to bet on the horses and, drawn against her will, to the fruit machines in the Neptune ballroom, with permutations that flit mysteriously up and down.
For the first time in 35 years the band has made an LP record. "I've sacrificed two marriages, I've had four major operations and I sometimes ask myself why. For God's sake why do I do it? I'll die penniless but I do care" She gave a sudden skip with her handbag on her arm. "I don't care at all. I don't care a damn."

The Sunday Times - "Atticus" - c1975