Bunsen and Burners
(From Anne Blair - Sept 05)
In the 40 years that Ivy Benson had an all-girl band hundreds of girl musicians must have passed through the ranks of saxophonists, trombonists and trumpet players - not to mention dozens of vocalists.
I wasn't there in the halcyon days of radio records and Lyons Corner House, Piccadilly, where during the war years Ivy's band had a great following. Nor was I there during the post war big band boom when Ted Heath was playing his Sunday Sessions at the London Palladium and the Squadronaires had packed away their uniforms to become one of the most popular dance bands of the era.
No, luckily I was there before they built the Motorways! One night stands couldn't possibily be the same if you've got straight lines running up and down the country. One night stands, when Bands play in a different town every night and stay in seedy hotels, are nearly always in winter, because in summer we did summer seasons lasting five or six months.
The Villa Marina in Douglas, Isle of Man, was where I did my stint, playing in all weathers, every afternoon in the gardens. In winter, in the 50's B.C.H. (before central heating) it was cold; especially when sitting on an unheated coach for up to twelve hours. Sheepskin coated and wearing two of everything, rollered hair under tea-cosy hats, we headed north up the A5 (Ivy wore her mink).
And when we arrived at our destination we had to unload the coach. Fog, snow and icy rain didn't deter us.
If there was glamour and temporary fame it was to be found sitting on the stand while crowds of people stopped dancing to gather round to watch and listen. It was all quite heady for a young 20 year old and I began to think we were rather special. That is until we did a One Nighter in a small Lancashire town I'd never heard of. As the coach bumped across a level crossing, gateway to this grimy northern mill town, I said to Jean Smith, the Brummie tenor-sax player "This will be a push-over".
Never had I been so wrong! We were in the "Ladies" putting the finishing touches to our make-up when I heard the supporting band strike up. It wasn't your usual tired six-piece combo of middle aged men making an extra few quid a week at the local hop. It was the big fat sound of a first-rate dance band - I couldn'r get outside quickly enough.
The "Ladies" was on the balcony and as I looked down I couldn't believe that I was looking at a 14 piece band - of course, we were in Brass Band country.
Later I learned that this band had recently wonthe Melody Maker award for the best semi-professional band in the country. Follow that! I really wondered why they had booked our band when their own home-grown band was far better than ours. The answer was, and still is, easy. The Ivy Benson Band was a name band and audiences wanted to see and hear her, just like teenagers go and watch groups today.
I spent nearly eight irresponsible and enjoyable years in the business and it is Ivy I have to thank for giving me my start.