The story of the bad-tempered bandleader, Jack Payne.
A three part feature in which Spencer Leigh tries to understand Jack Payne
From In Tune, Sept to November, 2011
“I don’t know why the BBC uses me so much. I don’t kow-tow to anyone’s silly tastes or to any authority.”
Evening Standard, 8 August 1959
PART 1. BANDLEADER
Back in 1957, there wasn’t much popular music of any sort on the solitary BBC-TV channel and I would watch whatever I could find and, more importantly, whenever my parents would allow. One of the few popular music programmes was Off The Record, hosted by Jack Payne. I was only 12 years old and I sensed that this grumpy old man didn’t like what he was doing.
Over the years, I have wondered if my childhood views had any substance, and now I have inspected his files at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham, checked the archives of several daily newspapers, played his records and read his books, This Is Jack Payne (1932), Signature Tune (1947) and Jack Payne Presents Stars Of Melody (1956) as well as Peggy Cochrane’s memoir, We Said It With Music (1980).
I conclude that what we saw on screen reflected what was happening backstage. Gilbert Harding was the most bad-tempered man on television in the 1950s, but Jack Payne wasn’t far behind. At first Jack Payne’s rudeness came out of an aspiration to run the most successful dance band in the country and then, in the 50s and in his fifties, he was appalled by the new music from America and he became exceptionally and excessively blunt. He was ruthless, prepared to stand up to anyone who got in his way. His behaviour was his way of getting results, and it was only because he was highly competent that it was tolerated.
John Wesley Vivian Payne, known as Jack, was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, on 22 August 1899, the only son of John Edwin and Sarah Vivian Payne. His father managed a warehouse for musical instruments and his mother was a good, amateur singer. His earliest memory was of beating the family dog for stealing the weekly joint, and when 12 years old, he was nearly expelled for knocking out a boy at school.
By that time, he was a proficient pianist and he knew he played better than his teacher. He became competent on several instruments, an important quality for a future band leader. When only 15, Jack Payne was a sergeant in the school corps, an early indication that he liked giving orders!
The young Jack Payne hated heights. Whenever he reached the top of something, he felt an urge to throw himself off. He cured himself in a stunning way through aviation. He took part in the Great War by joining the Royal Flying Corps (which became the RAF) when he was 17, becoming a First Lieutenant the following year. Later, in civilian life, he would fly for recreation.
On demob, he worked on an estate with a view to becoming a farmer, but he sensed that he would never have enough capital to buy his own stock and land. But dancing and dance halls were becoming increasingly popular. He had played in a concert party band for wounded soldiers and he decided to form his own band.
This was the start of the golden age of dance bands with cheerful, charismatic conductors like Ambrose, Jack Hylton, Henry Hall, Roy Fox and Lew Stone. Payne took Paul Whiteman’s band as his model. Payne had little time for jazz, feeling that something more palatable was needed for popular appeal, but he never quite got the hang of being a charming and compelling front man. His second wife, Peggy Cochrane, said that he had a “forced, unnatural smile”, which sums it up.
After various residences in Leamington Spa and Folkestone, Payne joined a London agency for hunt balls and other social occasions. When his band had a snowball fight at a train station while waiting for a connection, they caused seven shillings (35p) worth of damage. Never again: Payne maintained strict control from then on. He liked his own way and he and Doris Pengree, who was eight years older, eloped and married in a registry office after her father, an army colonel, did not approve.
In 1925 Jack Payne heard of a vacancy at the luxurious Hotel Cecil in the Strand as their bandleader, Johnny Birmingham, was too fond of champagne. He took over the 10 piece band for which he was paid an impressive £28 a week. The band had an arduous schedule providing background music for cocktails and dinner as well as dances. On one occasion, the Prince of Wales asked him to repeat Noël Coward’s ‘A Room With A View’. It’s reported that he played it nine times that evening.
The Hotel Cecil Dance Orchestra made their first records for Zonophone – ‘One Stolen Kiss’ and ‘Yes Sir That’s My Baby’ – in 1925 and they appeared on a BBC children’s show on Boxing Day where Payne was introduced as Uncle Jack.
The theatrical agents and impresarios were wary about this new phenomenon, the BBC. They argued that if an act was heard regularly on air, nobody would want to see them on tour – quite the opposite view to today. Excessively cautious, the Moss theatre group ordered its stars not to appear on radio. Jack Payne knew they were wrong and he was the first bandleader to grasp the mutual benefits of performing in theatres and broadcasting.
In 1928, the BBC asked Jack Payne to form a BBC Dance Orchestra, but with an important proviso. The BBC knew about bandleaders receiving money from music publishers for plugging their songs and they did not want this practice extending to the airwaves. Payne assured them that although many band leaders did this, he was totally against the practice: he would only select music on merit.
One of Payne’s acquaintances, the singer Rudy Vallée told him about the rise of broadcasting in America and he predicted a similar success here. He told Payne that the BBC job was a golden opportunity, and so Payne said yes. Jack Payne left Hotel Cecil, taking a few of the musicians with him.
A wise move. Although the Hotel Cecil was among the best hotels in London, but it needed modernisation including hot and cold water in the bedrooms. Shell-Mex, however, wanted the land and made an offer to the shareholders, which was accepted. The hotel closed in 1930 and the site was demolished to make way for the Shell-Mex building, which stands to this day.
Payne formed the 16-piece BBC Dance Orchestra and they made daily broadcasts, always from 5.15 to 6pm, but there would be other sessions too. In 1931 alone, Jack Payne and the BBC Dance Orchestra broadcast over 1,000 different tunes in 650 hours of broadcasting, which included accompanying solo performers. This had necessitated 1,500 hours of rehearsal.
In an interview for Radio Pictorial in 1936, Jack Payne said, “I wanted Jack Payne and his BBC Dance Orchestra to become a real feature on the radio. And then it occurred to me that it might help if I found some definite way of introducing the band to listeners. I hit on the idea which has now become commonplace – the signature tune. The boys thought this was a great idea but the difficulty was to find the right tune. I recalled a tune that I had broadcast many times before, ‘Say It With Music’.” Although Payne is claiming credit for signature tunes, he was introducing an American practice. He also became the first person to introduce his own programme on the BBC.
Irving Berlin’s ‘Say It With Music’ had been written for a New York stage revue in 1921. By using it for a signature tune, Payne was telling listeners that were going to hear something bright and cheerful. In his own words, he wanted to put ‘happiness and sunshine’ on air. The British people certainly needed it as an antidote to the Depression.
The BBC thought one way to ease unemployment was by supporting British music and although Payne’s signature tune was American, the Corporation wanted him to perform British songs. An analysis of his broadcasts in 1931 revealed that the compositions were50% British, 40% American and 10% Continental.
‘Say It With Music’ was arranged by Ray Noble, who wrote ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing’, ‘Good Morning Mr. Sun’ and ‘What More Can I Ask’ for the band. Payne himself was a decent composer writing and recording ‘Blue Pacific Moonlight’, ‘Underneath the Spanish Stars’ and ‘Pagan Serenade’. In the song, ‘Radio Times’, he wrote,
“Radio brings you a million delights,
Wonderful radio nights”
Payne was so popular that there was even a song performed by other dance bands, ‘I’ve Got The Jack Payne Blues’.
One song in Payne’s repertoire, ‘She’s My Slip Of A Girl’, was the winner of a Find A Song competition in Melody Maker in 1930, although there were so many songs around that you wonder why Melody Maker bothered.
Although Payne and his orchestra were working hard for the BBC, they recorded prodigiously for Columbia – over 400 titles in four years! – but Payne was under strict rules as to what he could play on radio. He could not be seen promoting his latest successes. His band was the first to record the standard, ‘Lady Of Spain’ (1931) and like so many of Payne’s songs, he was given it in a bar.
Although Payne was allowed to make stage appearances, the founder of the BBC, Lord Reith, insisted that Payne did no Sunday concerts whilst in their employment. The Sunday schedule was all talks, chamber music and religious services, and it would not look right if a BBC employee was playing dance music on the Sabbath.
In 1931, Jack Hylton had the most popular band in the UK and they were a major touring attraction. When Hylton’s agent raised their fee for the London Palladium, the theatre manager thought it was too high and considered Jack Payne instead. They tried out the BBC Dance Orchestra at the Penge Empire and when that worked well, the Palladium was booked. Like Jack Hylton, Payne knew that the public wanted more than just to see a band playing their instruments and audiences were thrilled when a locomotive appeared to coming towards the stalls with the band members seated on the engine and playing ‘Choo Choo’.
The public loved the band, but not the critics. Edgar Jackson of The Gramophone condescendingly wrote: “Although the professional press criticised the act adversely, it went big with the public; but not, I think, because the act was good. The success seems to have been due to the curiosity of the public to see in person the band they had heard so often from their radio sets.” He concluded that while they did not have Jack Hylton’s polish, you can’t acquire stage presence in a day.
Payne was furious, pointing out that he had been booked for the Palladium before the negotiations with Hylton had broken down and that the reviews had been better than Jackson had indicated. Okay, admitted Payne, there had been a couple of bad reviews but that was for “reasons which are better left unsaid”, the implication being that they, like Edgar Jackson, had allowed prejudice to cloud their opinions.
A couple of months later, Edgar Jackson acknowledged their disagreements and said that their new recordings (‘Pardon Me, Pretty Baby’, ‘When I Dance With My Girl’) were the best of the month’s releases. He added that when it “comes to producing comedy numbers, I hand it to Jack Payne.” Around the same time, Eric Blom in The Gramophone called Payne “the frivolous darling of the musically unlettered.” Maybe but in 1931, Jack Payne was the first to record ‘Twentieth Century Blues’, even before Noèl Coward himself.
Another criticism came from the critic Harvey Grace, who disliked Payne playing any classical tunes: “Why should the dance bands be allowed to lay predatory and profaning paws on great music?” As it happens, even the instigator of the Proms, Sir Henry Wood, praised Jack Payne’s classical adaptations.
In 1931 Jack Payne and the BBC Dance Orchestra appeared at the Palladium in a Royal Variety Performance although Payne was dismayed at having to sing without a microphone, which were in short supply and wanted elsewhere. Still, Payne’s orchestra had the honour of playing the National Anthem.
Payne was doing so well that he and Dorothy built a house in north London to his own design. He built into the contract that the builder could be fined if he didn’t meet deadlines. In the end, the builder had to put 40 men on the job to avoid his penalties!