By Robert Walton.
There was a school of thought that believed popular musicians with foreign sounding names had a commercial advantage over common or garden Anglo Saxon ones. Catchy names like Mantovani or Kostelanetz certainly had a ring to them but just because they looked or sounded more distinguished than say the Chacksfields or the Farnons of this world weren’t necessarily a guarantee of classier music. After all, most English born music directors had quite ordinary names, but unlike film stars and entertainers saw no reason to change them. Equally there were many serious composers like Harris and Bennett who didn’t find their names a problem. Nevertheless if you were born with an exotic name or had a nom de plume like Geraldo (Gerald Bright) or Roberto Inglez (Robert Inglis), there’s no doubt it added a touch of class to the image! Mind you, some musicians did exactly the opposite like John Gregori who anglicised his to Johnny Gregory. One English musician who was quite happy to keep his real name was George Melachrino, son of a Greek father and an English mother. Just as well he did because it certainly didn’t do his career any harm. It tripped off the tongue like any good solid homegrown name, and now after all these years seems as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding!
It was my father who introduced me to the music of George Melachrino - well to be exact, the Melachrino Strings. What attracted him was the unfussy style. He was very fond of light classics like Chanson de Matin, Estrellita, La Serenata, Mattinata, Poéme, Serenade (Schubert), Song of Paradise, and especially Bercuese de Jocelyn. Although there have been many different arrangements of these, no one ever improved upon the Melachrino format - unison violins often in their lower register bursting out into a rich tapestry of strings in close harmony. There was nothing corny, Palm Court-ish or syrupy and certainly not gimmicky. I could never understand why Classic FM didn’t feature any of these, especially as they were never over arranged and always faithful to the original. In some ways the Melachrino Strings were the light orchestral answer to the Boyd Neel String Orchestra. However, light classics represented only a part of the Melachrino Strings repertoire. Current songs, novelty instrumentals and the great standards all fitted into the style. In 1947 Melachrino made Masquerade, a lesser-known waltz of 1932 sound like his own composition. He would have been familiar with it from his dance band days. This tailor-made minor miracle written by Maharajah of Magador composer John Jacob Loeb was originally sung by Sam Browne with Ambrose. On the other hand, Melachrino’s own Vision d”Amour could easily have taken its place alongside those authentic classics.
But strings were only a part of Melachrino’s world. The full orchestra of fifty played an even bigger role, not least with those selections of film and show tunes. Again Melachrino cornered the market with those lush Hollywood style interpretations, but the arrangements and indeed recording quality had come a long way since Louis Levy’s Gaumont British Symphony. While the Melachrino Orchestra continued that tradition, no longer were singers part of the package. You either hummed along or sang the words to yourself, if you could remember them! In fact a policy of non-vocals extended into all his recordings, apart from rare occasions when he accompanied artists like the Luton Girls Choir, the Peter Knight Singers or Jean Sablon. You probably got more melodies for your money with a Melachrino medley, because despite the time constraints imposed by the 78rpm format, he cleverly interwove little extras into the kaleidoscope.
Melachrino never compromised his standards by churning out tune after tune. It was the long playing disc that put an end to all that by giving the arranger more freedom to be inventive, so you got better value on each individual song. When George arranged Broadway Melody from “Parade of the Film Hits” I wonder if he gave a thought to the other Broadway in Worcestershire where his mother came from? As well as the Orchestra and Strings, Melachrino had a lesser-known third group called the Masqueraders - a 16-piece light music combination.
Born in London in 1909, George Melachrino was probably the most versatile of all the light orchestral leaders. He was a conductor, arranger, composer, multi-instrumentalist, singer and occasional juggler and knockabout comedian! But these skills weren’t achieved overnight. Even as a youngster he must have been extremely focused, because from the age of four he knew that strings were to be his forte when he became the proud owner of a miniature violin. Apart from the piano and harp, he mastered every instrument of the orchestra. Although Melachrino had been classically trained as a teenager at Trinity, when it came to seeking employment he underwent a complete change of musical direction. It was his first BBC broadcast in 1927 that opened up a whole new world of dance music. His brilliant sight reading and natural ability on saxophones, clarinet, violin and viola made him in great demand for the bands of Jack Jackson, Van Phillips, Jay Wilbur, Harry Hudson (playing alongside Mantovani and Ted Heath), Ambrose and Carroll Gibbons. And being able to sing well was rare for an instrumentalist. By 1939 he had his own dance orchestra at the Café de Paris.
It’s a sad fact of history that wars can often tragically cut short promising careers, but equally they can offer undreamed of opportunities for entertainers and musicians. In WW2 while serving as a military policeman, Melachrino suffered a back injury that proved to be his lucky break. He became musical director of the Army Radio Unit and toured with ‘Stars in Battledress’. This allowed him to work with a 50-piece orchestra. When the British Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces was formed he was the obvious choice for conductor alongside Glenn Miller and Robert Farnon who directed the American and Canadian Bands - the most amazing triumvirate of talent ever assembled in Britain.
Now Melachrino was given an incredible 80 players, virtually a full-sized symphony orchestra, and in retrospect a heaven sent opportunity for his civilian style to be developed. One of his early arrangements was Pennsylvania Polka, a song originally introduced by the Andrews Sisters, whose father was also Greek! Being part of that exciting environment must have been a tremendous learning curve. As well as the usual dance band lineup of saxophones and brass, each orchestra had its own string section, so it must have been an unprecedented opportunity to compare notes. It was during this period that Melachrino acquired a lot of his string ideas, not necessarily from strings, but saxophones. After all, arranger Melachrino being no stranger to playing tenor sax and clarinet, could relate to reeds. He might not have been aware of it but even when he was playing in dance bands he was serving an apprenticeship for string writing. I believe the Melachrino Strings were firmly rooted in the Glenn Miller sound (clarinet, 2 altos and 2 tenors). In string terms that would be something like distributing a 5 note chord between the violins (3 notes), and the violas and cellos one each. And yet Melachrino sounds a million miles away from Miller. Listen to Moonlight Serenade played by the Strings. Even a simple four note close harmony chord (E,G,A,C) has the Melachrino sound written all over it.
A vital element for any successful composer/arranger is a right hand man. Robert Farnon had Bruce Campbell, Nelson Riddle had Gilbert Grau and George Melachrino had William Hill-Bowen. He was a brilliant arranger, composer and pianist and a great asset to the Melachrino Organization. Three well known compositions of his were Paris Promenade and Paris Metro recorded by the Orchestra, and Park Avenue Waltz recorded by the Strings. In Robert Docker’s Legend, William Hill-Bowen showed what a superb soloist he was.
Melachrino might not have been as prolific as Farnon or Torch but nevertheless he wrote some beautiful miniatures, starting at the age of 4 with Up the Mountains, the notation of which resembled a mountain range. Most of them exuded a certain Englishness, just as Coates’s music had. There’s never a dull moment in one of Melachrino’s most interesting instrumentals, the playful Les Jeux living up top its name (Playing) with its teasing time signature changes. Violins in the Night obviously has a lyric because the title fits so perfectly with the opening strain. I half expected to hear George himself singing it with the strings. And talking of vocal numbers, in the hands of arranger Melachrino, Robert Farnon’s My Song of Spring was truly transformed into a Sophistication Waltz! Busybodies was in the Shooting Star mould and the Vaughan Wiliams-like Woodland Revel again reveals Melachrino’s facility for strings. Copper Concerto possibly inspired by Melachrino’s experiences in the military police, contains quotes from If You Want to Know the Time Ask a Policeman, Policeman’s Holiday and his own Winter Sunshine. Starlight Roof Waltz has to be one of the most exhilarating waltzes of all time. In Portrait of a Lady there’s a passing resemblance to Don’t Cry for Me Argentina and one of the most untypical Melachrino tunes was the Danse d’Extase from the film “No Orchids for Miss Blandish”. But the undisputed Melachrino masterpiece is Winter Sunshine with its slightly sinister Slaughter on Tenth Avenue-like opening and its absolutely thrilling build-up to a colossal climax, followed by one of the most peaceful passages in all music.
I first learnt about George Melachrino’s untimely death on June 18 1965 on a newspaper display board outside Earl’s Court tube station in London. It hit me particularly hard because only the day before I had met up with a member of the Melachrino team, a Mr Jones. As well as a fixer for Melachrino recording dates he was also looking for background material for America and asked me to write some. He played several Melachrino tapes but what really impressed me was seeing at first hand George’s original score of I Remember the Cornfields.
If Paul Weston was the pioneer of mood music albums, then Melachrino was the undisputed master on this side of the Atlantic. Of all British light orchestras, Melachrino’s stood alone as the truly “symphonic” aggregation even if it wasn’t quite as modern or light as some of the others. In spite of the mighty Melachrino Orchestra’s international reputation, George Melachrino will be remembered, not for those powerful cinematic images, but something far more subtle and understated - that sublime string sound which he made his own.