MAYERL, Billy: Billy Mayerl, Vol. 1

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Original Recordings 1925-1936

One of the finest of British composers of piano music, Billy Mayerl also, for a time, enjoyed unparalleled popularity as a performer. His most famous piece, Marigold, sold in excess of 250,000 copies (sheet music), while several of his other compositions notched up figures which must have been the envy of his colleagues. Yet for all this Mayerl is far from easy to play. Exceedingly well crafted for the piano, his music demands a certain technique to bring it off successfully. Many classical pianists I have met admit to finding the jumps and stretches required of the left hand extremely difficult to execute; it is a case of what my venerable friend Jack Wilson (born 1907), the dedicatee of "Nimble-Fingered Gentleman" (see Volume 2) calls "knowing your distance". And, since by general consensus nobody plays Mayerl better than Mayerl himself, these re-issues of his own recordings are all the more welcome.

William Joseph Mayerl was born on 31st May, 1902, at 53, Tottenham Court Road, London. His father was a violinist and Billy’s first music lessons were in violin. However, he did not take to it at all, later remarking : "I just could not connect brain and instrument." His father then noticed Billy’s greater interest in the family piano and taught him all he could about that instead until, at seven, he began formal study at the Trinity College of Music. His father paid his first term’s fees; the remaining eight years of training were covered by a series of scholarships which Billy entered and won. Billy’s first teacher was Maud Agnes Winter who supervised his first major appearance, playing the Grieg Piano Concerto at the Queen’s Hall, in 1911.

While still a young student, Master Mayerl discovered the joys of playing for silent films. In this capacity he earned himself the princely sum of 7/6d a week (he also sold penny bars of chocolate during intervals at a 1d extra commission per dozen!) and found that playing in the cinema also enabled him to break from the constraints of college study and improvise to his heart’s content. It was at this time that he first tried composing in the ragtime style but, alas, when his harmony teacher, Dr. C.W. Pearce chanced to overhear it, Master Mayerl was threatened with expulsion! Resentful of such narrow-mindedness, Billy declined the College’s invitation of a professorship and, on leaving that establishment at fifteen, began to make a living playing in cinemas and at chic Mayfair parties and it was while guesting as soloist at the Imperial Theatre, St. John’s Hill, Clapham Junction, that he met his future wife, Jill Bernini, the theatre orchestra’s resident pianist.

Mayerl’s first break came in 1922 when he was spotted by Bert Ralton (1900-1927), the American saxophonist who at that time led the Havana Band at the Savoy Hotel. Recognising Billy’s superlative pianistic capacity, Ralton engaged him at once at ?é?ú20 per week (an immediate turn-around in Mayerl’s fortunes which enabled him to marry Jill, the perfect partner of whom he was many years later to write : "my romance still lives and we are sweethearts to this day"). The Savoy Havana were broadcasting pioneers among British bands, making their first broadcast on 13th April, 1923, from the BBC’s Savoy Hill studios. From the outset Mayerl was a featured soloist and his popularity soon led to an invitation to record a series of his own compositions for His Master’s Voice, the first two to be recorded: All-Of-A-Twist and Eskimo Shivers.

Even after 77 years, the sheer sparkle and brio of these performances shines clearly through, as it also does on Jazzaristrix and Virginia Creeper set down at the next session. (Incidentally, the higher-than-usual take numbers on the two earlier sides probably relate more to problems with sound balancing and recording the piano than with Mayerl’s actual playing, for these were most probably the very first piano recordings made in England by the new electrical process).

It was just over a month after making these first solo recordings that Mayerl gave the first British concert performance of Gershwin’s "Rhapsody In Blue" (28th October, 1925) at the Queen’s Hall. Early in 1926 he left the Savoy and began touring the halls, initially as a solo performer and later, for a time, teaming with comedienne Gwen Farrar. He was an enormous success, playing popular tunes of the day in his own inimitable style, a good example of which is the selection from The Desert Song. He was obviously very fond of this selection as, according to my father, he was still broadcasting it well into the 1940s. It was also the last Mayerl disc to be deleted from the Columbia catalogue and it is interesting to note that the introduction he uses in this arrangement (1927) is virtually identical to that he uses for the second of his "Three Dances In Syncopation", Cricket Dance. On radio he would, of course, feature his own compositions, play any requests from the audience (and never once was he caught out) and perform his famous trick of playing two pianos simultaneously. This stood him in good stead and, my father remembers, he also did this on TV in the 1950s.

In 1927 Mayerl wrote and recorded what was to become his most famous piece: Marigold — "My bread, my butter and my jam" — as he put it to Roy Plomley on his Desert Island Discs appearance in 1958. Despite the fact that it is overall the most frequently recorded of all his compositions, few would deny that anyone ever played it as well as Mayerl himself on this record. In particular, we should note his articulation of the grace notes linked with tremolandi in the latter half of the second section. Mayerl makes this sound seamless and easy — yet it most certainly is not, and every other pianist I have ever heard flounders at this point.

From the same year comes the "Puppets Suite", among the best of his earlier works. The demonic attack he brings to Punch outshines all other recorded attempts. In 1928 he published "Three Miniatures In Syncopation" of which the first, Cobweb, was quite a departure from what had previously flowed from his pen, albeit no surprise to anyone aware of his classical background or enjoyment of modern ‘serious’ composers. Jack Wilson was invited to spend a day in Mayerl’s house in the 1930s and recalls nothing other than classical music lying about beside the piano and already in 1928 he had recorded the classically-inspired Sennen Cove with the Columbia house symphony orchestra. Although slightly cut to fit onto one disc this work shows clearly what a fine composer Mayerl was when writing in a more extended form.

Less well known nowadays than his works for piano are his songs, though ironically several of his earliest successes were in that genre (no less a figure than Paul Whiteman had recorded one in 1924). The earliest representation here of the "vocal" Mayerl is a medley he plays based on tunes from Nippy, written for Binnie Hale in 1930. This show ran at the Prince Edward Theatre for 137 performances, which may not sound too impressive by modern standards, but was for its time very creditable indeed. Also from 1930 comes one of his best songs, Indispensable You. Played here by the band of Jack Hylton (1892-1965) with fine vocal by Pat O’Malley, this was Mayerl’s sole contribution to the show Silver Wings (a romantic comedy by Dion Titheradge and Douglas Furber, with music by Jack Waller and Joseph Tunbridge) staged at the Dominion. Mayerl’s song proved the hit of the show. The other Mayerl show here represented
Disc: 1
1 Marigold
2 Golliwog
3 Judy
4 Punch
5 Intro-One Alone-The Riff Song-The Desert Song-It
6 All-Of-A-Twist
7 Eskimo Shivers
8 Intro-Your Sunny Disposition And Mine-Anything-It
9 Cobweb
10 Muffin Man
11 Clockwork
12 Sennen Cove
13 Jazzaristrix
14 Virginia Creeper
15 Limehouse Blues
16 Mignonette
17 English Dance
18 Cricket Dance
19 Harmonica Dance
20 Indispensable You
21 Honky-Tonk
22 Honeysuckle
23 Intro-A Shooting We Will Go-You're The Reason Why-
24 Have A Heart
25 Hollyhock
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