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
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."
Times - "Atticus" - c1975