momentarily in the uncompromising beam of the spot-light: this small,
diffident figure in a summery, essentially feminine outfit If you are
close enough, you may catch the staccato Yorkshire. vowels: "One,
two . , one, two, three, four."
And suddenly they're away. Suddenly the whole nightclub stage is illuminated.
A dozen or so girls In shimmering red and white that makes you think
of the Arsenal. And, in front.
standing behind the organ keyboard. is that amiable pioneer women's
- libber of British big band music, Ivy Benson.
Here she is, her act sandwiched between a blue comic and a Barbadian
stripper. It .doesn't noticeably inhibit her. If she blushed a moment
or two in the darkness of the wings at some of those gutter gags about
the male an my, she doesn't show it now.
Her white slender fingers flit across the keyboard. She visably approves
of. a cadence of orchestration behind her; she smiles warmly at the
audience every 16 bars or so.
Minutes before, sipping a gin and bitter lemon, she'd said: "Strippers
don't bother me. In Switzerland we had to follow six of them. And what
about the stag night we did at South Shields? We could could have died
the death. But we were given a standing ovation. It
must have been hard for the strippers after that."She says it with
quiet pride. She has never been a pusher, a seeker of publicity. "I
suppose part of the trouble is that I'm not really a social person.
People used to tell me that if I'd hung around the bars where the producers
go I'd have got more television work. I'm no good at that sort of thing."You
look back at that friendly and rather fragile little woman up on the
stand, feet tapping and shoulders decorously undulating to the rhythm.
Top Twenty numbers deftly mixed with Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman
She has had nearly 500 girls
in the band since she intrepidly
started out in a mans world.
Five of the present band are under 18. Touring with Ivy Benson, four or
five months of the year abroad, can be a strain on adolescent aspira-lions.
Cupid can conflict with the clarinet.
"A few girls stayed only one day. The music frightened them off"
says Ivy. Others remained for ten years. Many left to get married. That
could be very dispiriting, it meant starting from scratch again.
"I like to think I have a close relationship with the girls. Every
Christmas I'm inundated with greetings cards from former members of the
band, from all over the world."
Ivy Benson is her own secretary, agent, publicist and road manager. Apart
from the coach driver, there's seldom a man around. She is pensive and
smiles a wry smile. "Married and divorced twice myself. It's asking
Her first marriage in 1949 lasted for two years. Her second, to an American
Serviceman, lasted for seven.
Now her private life largely revolves around her widower father. She's
taking him with her to Jersey for the summer season. After all, she inherited
her love for music from him. He used to be in the orchestra pit at the
He had plans for her to be a concert pianist. Instead she gradually veered
She learned the clarinet, sax and trombone and found she could swing.
She decided to start a band. She has found it a frustrating life and often
a lonely one. So would she like to marry again?
Ivy Benson is an honest North Country woman. She doesn't ' dodge a straight
question. "I can tell you that if I found the right man, with a sense
of humour and a broad outlook, I'd pack up the band tomorrow."
A brave and revealing admission. Especially when you thumb through her
diary, stacked with professional engagements. I never have to look for
work. Just look at this letter I've received today. Stuttgart, 1974. That's
how the work comes in. Top night clubs, international hotels, British
"I'm very democratic about the jobs. I say to the girls 'Would
you like to go to France or Copenhagen?' The girls
often make up my mind for me".But for someone who was a top radio
name band leader during the war and immediately after, Ivy has never
hit the corresponding high financial notes. "When I came off the
air, I could have earned a fortune." Instead, for three years,
the band went off to entertain the troops abroad, and Ivy Benson made
only £10 a week. "Not that I begrudge it - the soldiers were
our audiences of the future."
What she does begrudge is the unfair advantages male musicians had over
her girls in the early days. She remembers the bandleaders who sent
a petition of protest to the BBC when she was given her first engagement.
"Womens Lib? You can see why I've always been strong in my outlook.
If a male leader wanted a trumpeter, he could usually pick one up from
at least a hundred outfits. Me? Where do I go? I have to provide my
"I have to turn to the brass bands. The girls come to me with a
fair amount of technique and then I begin teaching them the modern idiom.
"Just imagine the frustration oof running an All Girl Band. I take
the newcomer in hand; she's like an investment. I devote time to her
- time I have never really been able to spend on myself.She makes progress...
and then shes off.
"I've felt like packing up many times. I did, infact, break the
band up four times when I had major operations. But music is so much
part of me. It drives me to start again. I feel like a sparrow which
keeps getting it's wing broken".Ivy
Benson is the girl who dared to take on the men 30 years ago. You look
again at that almost fragile figure and decide there must be, after
all, a granite streak.
She may still not
get the TV dates, but she has won her own women's lib battle. The engagements
rolling in for 1974 prove it.....