by Philip Brady
I always thought Robert Farnon was indestructible. His melodies filled my childhood with wonder and joy. For me he was the latter day Puccini. Listen to the soaring string arrangements on Jack Parnell's "Lovers Love London". Be stirred by rousing marches like Derby Day. My father bought the David Rose record Portrait of a Flirt before I was in long pants. ABC Australia's Maurie Lockie on radio was using Journey into Melody as a theme to "Yours For the Asking" (request show) when I started riding a bike to school.
By the time television began Down Under in 1956, Robert's music was coming thick and fast to introduce every program from the MelbourneOlympic Games to Royal visits in Oz.
By 1958 I was an established broadcaster and TV host myself so I used every opportunity to dress up my shows with a Farnon fanfare or two.
You can just picture my delight when David Ades invited me to interview Robert at an April meeting of our Society in 1993. Imagine the thrill when my silver haired hero strolled into the Bonnington and greeted all of us present with the warmest of smiles and a friendly hand shake. I was in awe. I had a total eclipse of the heart - to quote a Bonnie Tyler song.
My love affair with Robert's music, mini symphonies to me, has endured,nurtured by the recent releases of so much material on Vocalion and other enterprising labels.
That April day so long ago renews my spirit. Robert's anecdotes over dinner, the long chats we enjoyed between drinks, the photo sessions and taped interviews, the video I shot, the maestro was so generous with his time and affection. He made every member feel so special, so important.
The icing on the cake for me was also being in the company of other musical giants that day like Sir Vivian Dunn, Clive Richardson and Ron Goodwin. I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. Thank you David Ades for giving me the keys to the Kingdom!
Our friendship endured. On one of Robert's milestones I recorded a special piece Life Begins At 80. I always phoned him on his birthday and we exchanged Christmas cards every year.
In the words of another celebrated composer, Irving Berlin, the song isended but the melody lingers on.
Goodbye my cherished friend.
by Forrest Patten
When I first heard of the passing of my friend Robert Farnon, I realized that a warm and glowing light had ceased to shine. It's hard to put into words how one feels when losing an individual who has been your musical benchmark... the one that you compare everybody else's work to. I know that there will be many articles and tributes covering Bob's prolific musical output (and deservedly so). My personal memories are laced with humor; and Bob enjoyed laughing.
Over 30 years ago while still in college, I wrote a "fan" letter to Robert Farnon care of Chappell's in London. Thanks to John Parry, he forwarded my letter and, as a result, I received a personal response from the "Guv'nor" himself. He also alerted me to the Robert Farnon Appreciation Society (as it was known then) and I soon received an invitation to join from Secretary David Ades. I have been a member ever since.
In 1980, Bob was asked to be a guest conductor for the Vancouver Symphony Pops Orchestra in British Columbia. On the bill, too was fellow Canadian singer Edmund Hockridge. I decided to travel north from California and attend the concerts and to write a review for JIM. Following the opening night concert, I made my way backstage to Bob's dressing room. I knocked on the door and he answered. I told him I was looking for Harry Rabinowitz. He looked a little puzzled until I introduced myself and he broke into laughter.
Bob had brought his daughter Debby along on the trip so, following the next evening's scheduled concert, I invited them both to Trader Vic's at the Vancouver Bayshore Inn. After several libations, Bob tactfully mentioned that the two of them had not eaten dinner. A little surprised, I told them that I would be more than happy to take them to dinner at Trader Vic's but, as late as it was, Bob wanted something a little less exotic. Driving the two of them back to the Georgia Hotel, we stopped at a little burger joint called Hamburger Mary's. Debby scurried in returning with a couple of burgers and some onion rings. The two of them seemed more than happy. I felt bad though because it wasn't my intention to get them loaded with potent exotic drinks on an empty stomach! Bob and Debby were just too polite to mention that they had not had dinner prior to the concert.
The RFS gatherings at the Bonnington Hotel could also set the stage for some memorable, fun moments. When Nancy and I attended our first London meeting in 1994, we were standing close to the entrance and the sign-in desk. In walks Bob preparing to officially sign the guest book. I took one look at him and blurted out, "My God. They'll let anyone in here!" We both broke into laughter and gave each other a hug. Bob got his revenge, though. At the next meeting we attended in 1996, Bob saw us arrive and cheerfully announced to the group (in which he was talking to), "Please excuse me. I have to go over and talk to my father." Again, more hugs and laughter.
And then, there were the telephone calls. You never knew what kind of a greeting you would get when Bob called. One day at our San Francisco office, Nancy picked up the phone and Bob said, "This is your hot Latin lover from Liverpool." I don't think that Nancy has ever quite recovered from that one. Another time, he'd simply say something like, "This is Bob. I'm calling from Guernsey. You know, where the cows are."
In addition to his wonderful sense of humor, there was also a very deep and soulful side to Robert Farnon. I will always cherish the many personal conversations we had over the years regarding his music and recordings. I remember telling Bob how much I loved his light flute cameo piece "La Casita Mia." He told me that it was one of his favorites as well, but felt that listeners weren't as familiar with it. We also shared a mutual love of Claude Debussy's "Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Faun", specifically the version performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Regarding his two concert works "From The Highlands" and "From The Emerald Isle", Bob confessed that he much preferred the Irish Suite to the Scottish Suite. When Chappell Music asked Bob to write a waltz in the style of Richard Rodgers, he did just that even borrowing the first seven notes of a Rodgers classic. Just compare those first seven notes of "Younger Than Springtime" to those of "Westminster Waltz." Bob had the last laugh, though. He won an Ivor Novello award for "Westminster Waltz", although he'd tell you that he came up with his melody before Richard Rodgers did! Bob also didn't like stress.
I will truly miss our talks. Bob totally understood the current state of the music business and how his compositions (as well as light music in general) were not as much in demand as they once were. This is why a number of his later works took on a more serious "concert hall" approach. Yet he told me how grateful he was to have so many of his earlier recordings available once again on CD. His hope is that future generations will now have the opportunity to hear and to study his music. Bob also told me that he wanted his library of scores to go to the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa.
The last time I spoke to Bob was on the morning of Thursday, April 14. He called just to check in and to tell us of his latest activities. He said he was writing daily and was very excited about the upcoming May 14th premiere of his "Edinburgh" symphony, as well as the recent completion of his concerto for bassoon ("Romancing The Phoenix.") I told Bob that we were off to Canada for our 10th wedding anniversary and wished he could join us for high tea at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. He said he'd love to but didn't think that the nurses at the facility would let him. He sounded very upbeat and encouraged by his physical progress.
How fortunate we are (in the RFS) to have personally known Bob. For those who have never attended a London meeting or have worked with him professionally, you'll know the man by his music.
Bob, you helped to shape my musical life from the very beginning. You taught me to listen to the melody, bass line, and to listen to all of the little extra embellishments in an arrangement. You have provided some of the most pleasurable, memorable and evocative compositions and arrangements of all time. And, most importantly, you shared your personal friendship. We will not forget you.
Thank you, good friend, for sharing God's great gift of music and harmony with all of us.
May the orchestras and conductors of the world perpetuate your musical legacy.
by Jim Palm
It was 1948; I had been listening with the family to a radio programme - one of a series - called SEND FOR SHINER and the signature tune really made me sit up and take notice; I had heard nothing like it before. The bright, bouncy happy-go-lucky theme turned out to be something called Jumping Bean and its composer, one Robert Farnon. Brought up on a gramophone diet of George Formby, Gigli and Marek Weber, I had nonetheless sacrificed three weeks' pocket money a few years earlier by buying Holiday for Strings since this was the direction in which my musical tastes were leading me but here, with Jumping Bean, was something even more scintillating and I liked it. Somehow, the money was found for another purchase and I still have the record.
As the months passed, I began to realise that the work of four men in particular which popped up on the radio very frequently in those days never failed to excite me. Those men were Sidney Torch, Charles Williams, Clive Richardson and Robert Farnon. The last-named, I discovered, was Canadian and had settled in this country after the war. His talent shone like a beacon; everything he wrote seemed to be a winner. And it wasn't just Jumping Bean; I soon became aware of such delights as Portrait of a Flirt;Manhattan Playboy, High Street, Taj Mahal and Ottawa Heights, writing down the titles in a notebook in the hope that, one day, I might be able to obtain them all on records - if I had the money. Far too many of them weren't available anyway and soon I was just one of the many hammering on the door of Chappell’s to no avail!
But it was impossible to watch the old BBC Television Newsreel without being constantly aware of the genius of this young Canadian. I can remember that cavorting Bean being used to accompany the antics of a woman set on demolishing her old house so that the builders could move in to construct a new one. The infectious rolling rhythm of Canadian Caravan followed Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on a visit to that country in October 1951 and as the 1953 Coronation grew nearer State Occasion came into its own. How I longed for someone to release it commercially! There was also, I recall, a television film about the work of missionaries in the Far East which used Bob's Oriental March to great effect. Heard frequently, too, were such gems as Mountain Grandeur, Pictures in the Fire. Journey into Melody, How Beautiful is Night, Tete a Tete and the scintillating All Sports March - the list is endless.
As far as I am concerned, Bob never managed to scale similar heights in his later years and neither, for that matter, did my other three 'heroes'. An era had passed; the world had moved on.
But never mind: he penned more than enough classics in the post-war period to ensure his immortality and his brilliance in the field of what is now called 'production music' cannot be questioned. He has left a remarkable legacy of miniature marvels which will continue to be heard and enjoyed for a great many years to come.
All I can say in the wake of so much wonderful music is: Thank you, Bob, and may you rest in peace.
by Philip L. Scowcroft
The light music of these islands over, say, the past century and a half is a huge corpus of light orchestral pieces, operetta and musical comedy, balladry, music hall and other songs, film and TV music, band music, much music for children and other students and perhaps other things, contributed by many hundreds, even thousands of pens. I myself have compiled notes on some 2300 British born or British domiciled composers of light music and do not suppose for one moment that is the whole story. In any case that figure includes only those active during the 20th century. The 19th century will supply hundreds more.
These two and a half thousand (or more) composers contributed to the magnificent heritage of British light music in a myriad of different styles. To start with Sullivan — and he is not a bad place at which to start — he was, and still is, recognised as a great eclectic, bringing elements of Handel, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Verdi and other major composers plus influences like Victorian hymnody and balladry to create what is a clearly Sullivanesque style. Edward German was, even in 1900, reckoned as Sullivan's natural successor and his idiom is in many ways not dissimilar, but with the influence of the 19th century French music more predominant. Eric Coates's early orchestral works, especially the attractive Miniature Suite of 1911, strikingly resemble Edward German, though Coates soon added other elements, not least the up-tempo dance music of the 1920s, to create a characteristically Coatesian style. Coates was not a man of the theatre but many other great British light music were — Sidney Jones, Lionel Monckton, Haydn Wood, Arthur Wood, Hubert Bath, Alfred Reynolds, even Roger Quitter — and their music, even when purely orchestral or instrumental, has a singable lyricism which is both enjoyable and memorable. Many of them would have acknowledged a debt to German and, through him, Sullivan.
I could go on in this vein for a long time, but it is high time for us to arrive at Robert Farnon who was active on the British light music scene for considerably longer than Sullivan, German, Coates (whom Farnon much admired), the Woods, Reynolds and any of the rest: a total of some sixty years — a remarkable span which few, if any, composers in whatever idiom, can match, and that ignores the work he did pre-war in his native Canada, arranging for radio shows and the Percy Faith Orchestra and, at the opposite end of the contemporary musical spectrum composing a number of 'classical' works which are still capable of delighting us.
So what did Bob Farnon bring to the British light music heritage, which was so long established by the time he came to England in the early to mid-1940s? Some opportunities, like the composition of ballads and music hall ditties which some of his forebears had exploited were outmoded or becoming so, while available work for the theatre was much reduced after 1945 compared with its earlier balmy days. As we have seen, Farnon brought experience as a composer of 'serious' music (even symphonies) and it is perhaps apposite to notice that many light music figures were classically trained and that several of the composers we have mentioned — Sullivan, German, Haydn Wood and Hubert Bath, among them — had had ambitions to be serious musicians. Additionally, Farnon brought experience in popular music, both in Canada and as Conductor of the Canadian Forces Band during the war and a transatlantic brashness soon to be typified in one of his best known movements, Jumping Bean. The word 'brashness' is not intended in a derogatory sense; rather it is an attempt to suggest the exciting breath of fresh air that Farnon brought to British light music.
This 'fresh air' was, it soon became apparent, particularly suited to the provision of 'mood music' (or production music), for the publisher's recorded music libraries with which — and particularly with Chappell’s — Bob Farnon became involved both as composer and conductor. This provision reached a peak in the 1950s but declined gradually thereafter. Many others became involved in it — Sidney Torch, Charles Williams, Ronald Hanmer, Trevor Duncan and dozens of others — but, with all due respect to their very considerable talents, most would agree that RF did that kind of thing better than anyone. One has only to think of A La Claire Fontaine, Portrait of a Flirt, Westminster Waltz, State Occasion and All Sports March - and of course Jumping Bean (to pick six sharply contrasting examples) to make a point.
Another thing Bob did particularly well was writing film music and he once said that the opportunity to write for British films was the main factor in persuading him to stay this side of the Atlantic to make his career in music after the war was over. The Golden Age of British films and film music spans approximately the years 1935-65, when the music was often provided by some of the greats in British classical music — Walton, Vaughan Williams, Bax, Bliss and Alwyn are just five. Farnon again supplied a new dimension, his work being (not unnaturally) more Hollywood-influenced than that of many others writing for the British large screen in mid century. Examples of Farnon's contribution are Spring in Park Lane, Captain Horatio Hornblower and Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. Before long television provided further opportunities and there we can exemplify Colditz, whose march takes its place beside Coates' most famous marches and is surely immortal, and Four Freedoms.
As we all know, light music generally speaking went into a period of decline after the early 1960s but Bob proved to very adaptable and survived what for some others were relatively lean years. Work for films and television helped him to do so, as did his continuing work in providing orchestrations of popular, even pop songs. In this he drew on his unrivalled practical experience of instrumentation (was it Andre Previn who dubbed him the best writer for strings in the business?). He remained active well into his eighties. Not only did he earn the deep respect of his fellow practitioners as composer and director of light or lightish music but, ever urbane, he was on warm, friendly terms with many of them and was in some cases not above giving them practical help when this was required. As just one example of this he completed the Mountbatten Suite, which his great friend Sir Vivian Dunn had begun as a tribute to his friend Lord Louis.
To sum up, my own impression is that Bob Farnon not merely performed brilliantly, whether as conductor, arranger or composer in the field of "light music" — however we define that notoriously difficult expression — for longer than any of his forbears or contemporaries in that field, but that he was arguably more versatile than any of them (I have not yet mentioned his interest in brass band music; many of his most famous pieces were arranged for that medium and the Une Vie de Matelot was adopted as a test piece for the National Championships in 1975). He overcame, triumphantly, difficulties that some of his predecessors had not had in that, for a substantial part of his career he had to contend with relative public apathy and indifference to several of the lighter forms of music. That being so, he will surely have been grateful for the support of the Robert Farnon Society and of other people and institutions who have helped bring about the resurgence of interest in light music during the last years of the 20th Century and the first years of the 21st. In this resurgence we may salute him as both leader and inspiration.
by Pip Wedge
Robert Farnon's loss is hard to accept, but the joy of his many talents will be with me for as long as I live, and forever in the panoply of his glorious music which is there for the world to enjoy. I was fifteen when Robert Farnon's name first impinged on my consciousness. Ever since, I have loved first his music and then the man for so many years.
In London in the autumn of 1944, doodlebugs were still roaring overhead, and soon our days were punctuated with even louder explosions as V2 rockets arrived without warning. The invasion of Europe had been pulled off successfully, but the war was far from over, and for my family, living in Forest Hill S.E. 23 at that time, just about all our entertainment came from the radio.
The presence of so many members of the Allied Forces in Britain during the build-up to D-Day had prompted the formation of the Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme on radio. This utilized the facilities of the BBC, and its programming included performances by both British and Allied performers and orchestras. Captain Robert Farnon came from Canada as the conductor and chief arranger for Canadian Band of the AEF; the Orchestra, and many small groups from the band, could be heard on-air several times a week and these programmes quickly became one of my favourite sources of entertainment.
When Bob stayed on in London after the war, his work as a staff arranger for Geraldo, and arranger for other British bands, kept him out of the public spotlight for a while. Yet, as he started writing and recording 'moodmusic' for Chappell’s, one could not help but be aware of his work, without knowing who had written it, as show after show in radio and television featured Farnon compositions.
The bell rang for me early in 1948, when I was acting with an amateur dramatic repertory company in a play called "Fly Away Peter" (written, coincidentally by one A.P. 'Pip' Dearsley). At each performance, before the curtain went up at the beginning of each act, the stage manager set the mood by playing what I thought was one of the most beautiful pieces of music I'd ever heard (and I still think so, 54 years later). At the end of the first performance, I checked the orange-and white-labelled 78rpm record on the turntable. It was "Portrait of a Flirt", and it was with no surprise that I recognized the composer's name.
As luck would have it, my subsequent move into the music business, first as business manager to Steve Race and later as Assistant Editor of the New Musical Express, led to my running the music department forAssociated-Rediffusion, Britain's first commercial TV station to go on the air. In that capacity, I set up a music and record library, and one of my jobs was helping producers find background and theme music for their programmes. So often it was a Farnon composition that did the job, and I counted myself very lucky to be paid for spending my working hours surrounded by so much wonderful music, which I could play whenever I liked.
As the years moved on, the Farnon name became more and more widely known, through his light music writing and arranging, his conducting, and his scoring of music for several films. In a life filled with music, mine was continually enriched by the distinctive string writing and harmonic and melodic creativity that hallmarked each new work that Bob wrote or arranged.
Teddy Holmes was running Chappell's in the early 1950s, and I have the vaguest of memories of meeting Bob in Teddy's office around that time, but our first real meeting did not happen until many years later. He came to Toronto in 1997, during a visit to Canada for the celebrations to mark his 80th birthday. I had had correspondence and phone conversations with him in the process of working with Glen Woodcock to get Fred Davis's tape of the Canadian AEF Band's Lost Recordings issued on CD, but it was a very special moment indeed when we shook hands in the studios of Manta Sound in the summer of 1997.
Subsequently, as the Canadian rep for the Robert Farnon Society, I've been proud to do what I could to try to get this exceptionally talented Canadian musician the kind of recognition in his native land that has for so long been accorded to him around the world.
Each time I would call or write him with news of another small victory — a radio program here, a newspaper or magazine article there - his gratitude was almost embarrassing. He never ceased to sound genuinely surprised that anyone cared that much about him, and that anyone would devote airtime or newsprint to him and his work.
Bob's talents were unique, and fully deserved the accolades he received over the years from his peers and from the public at large. He will be sadly missed, and so fondly remembered. It must however have been a source of much satisfaction to him, as it is to us, to know that his music will live on as his legacy to the world. Those of us who have been lucky enough to know him as a friend, will have the added joy of remembering the lovely warm man with the irrepressible sense of humour and the heart full of warmth.
Goodnight Bob, old friend. Sleep well. See you in the morning.
by David Mardon
Robert Farnon in the concert hall was, sadly, something I never managed to see in the flesh as far as his own conducting was concerned. I have always regretted that on the only two occasions he conducted our own local BBC orchestra [then the Northern Symphony] was in 1977 at the Cheltenham Festival when I was away on holiday, although I now know several of the players who performed on those occasions and who were very impressed with his style.
Sadly, too, I cannot comment on the Wednesday evenings with Tony Bennett from Talk of the Town, which Thames TV put out earlier in the same decade, as these were denied to Granada and ATV Midland viewers on their initial transmission, although the afternoon repeats some years later were fully networked but I couldn't see these either, having to work in those days!
I first became aware of Robert Farnon's existence when the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra [QHLO] featured on record in the old Home Service music programme on Saturday mornings from 7.15am to 7.50am. There was also round about this time another Saturday morning slot on the Home Service with Bob presenting his favourite records [signature tune Melody Fair] and his reasons for choosing them. I believe my first acquaintance with Sammy Fain's Alice In Wonderland and Gershwin's American In Paris [severely truncated] was through this programme. I can also remember a Light Programme series on Sunday lunchtime with Bob's own orchestra, during which how to do the left- handed shuffle was explained.
Although I can remember numerous radio programmes featuring the QHLO under Sidney Torch and Charles Williams, I can only recall one that Bob conducted. It was on a Saturday afternoon in the early 1950s and consisted of Covent Garden [Eric Coates], September Song [Kurt Weill], Melody Fair and Bob's own arrangement of Daisy Bell, Going for A Ride [Sidney Torch], concluding with a selection from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate.
During my Royal Air Force stint I managed to hear, on 21st January 1953, on the BBC North Regional Home Service from Manchester, the BBC Northern Variety Orchestra [before it became the Northern Dance Orchestra or NDO] conducted by Bob in a programme of his own works. The programme consisted of Proud Canvas, Jumping Bean, Three Impressions, Playtime, When I Grow Too Old To Dream [Romberg arranged Farnon], Peanut Polka, Portrait Of A Flirt, and Alcan Highway. Roger Moffat introduced and wrote the script, entitled "A Canadian in Mayfair", and interviewed Bob before the last two items.
By the time the Mardon family had got round to buying a TV set it was early 1956, by which time Bob's Sunday night series with his own orchestra was well under way. But I did manage to hear the first complete performance of Poodle Parade prior to purchasing the 'Melody Fair' LP later that year — my first new Farnon recording bought. I did get 'Canadian Impressions' before this but it was a second-hand copy.
by Cab Smith
A few years ago I approached a very well-known bandleader and, during the course of our conversation, I proudly told him that I was a member of the Robert Farnon Society.
I was stunned and surprised when he replied: "Who is he?" I then explained to him the usual rundown on Bob. I'll mention no names, but I regret to say that this bandleader has passed on.
But as for Bob, we in the Society look upon him as one of the greatest writers and arrangers of Light Music in the world (of our time). That's why the Appreciation Society was formed in 1956 by Ken and Dot Head, succeeded so well by David and the committee to this present day.
Over the years I have corresponded with Bob many times, and I must say that he always replied without hesitation. I had the great pleasure of meeting him for the first time back in the 1950s at the Society's early recitals at the Bonnington Hotel. He had just returned from Capri (no doubt visiting Gracie Fields!), and I found him most charming.
Then there were the wonderful recording sessions. One evening in August 1972, at the CTS Studios in Bayswater, I had the great pleasure of meeting Tony Bennett, who was in London to record the LP "The Good Things in Life". This was the same studio where 'Ole Blue Eyes' recorded "Great Songs from Great Britain" with Bob back in June 1962.
Also I cannot forget the great times I had with our dear and late friend Don Furnell; what times they were to see and hear a full orchestra under Bob's command! And as for those glorious swinging arrangements including strings ... just great!
I have many happy memories of Bob Farnon. How lucky we have all been to know him. There will never be another quite like him.
by Murray Ginsberg
When I think back over the number of years I've known Bob Farnon - almost sixty - and reminisce on the number of times I've gotten vicarious pleasure from his many successes, it's a shock to realize he is no longer with us. Bob was one of those rare individuals who made all of us who loved him feel good that he was always there, indestructible, within reach. It's a sad fact of life that no one on this planet lives forever, even a hero, and the inevitable must one day happen. But my God, now that he is gone he will be so sorely missed.
What an enormous legacy he left! My first visual encounter with Bob Farnon was in 1936 when I was 13 years old when my aunt took my cousin and myself to a radio broadcast of Percy Faith and his orchestra in Toronto's Baton Auditorium.
It was the first such show we had ever seen and to our young ears the concert was a thrilling experience. Although we were just into our teens with little knowledge of who the top musicians in Toronto were, Percy Faith's name was well known across Canada because of the beautiful music he created. The players, elegant in their tuxedoes, sat on three levels on the stage, the strings on the first level, the saxophones and woodwinds on the second, and the brass on top.
The one hour show was broadcast over the local Canadian Radio Commission (CRC) station which was the forerunner of the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) as it is known today.
Amongst Faith's 40 top calibre musicians were violinists Sam Hershenhorn, Albert Pratz, Hyman Goodman, saxophonists Charley Green, Cliff MacKay, percussionist Harry Nicholson and trumpeters Morris London and 19 year-old Bob Farnon to name a few. For us that concert was an unforgettable experience.
Every morning after school began those of us who had been taking lessons on musical instruments would discuss the broadcasts we'd heard the night before, especially the shows our favourite musicians were on. One show we listened to enthusiastically was the Friday night Pond's Cold Cream Hour with Wally Armour's great band on Toronto's CFRB.
Another was a show conducted by Geoffrey Waddington, (who first began to use Bob in a dance orchestra he led at the Royal York Hotel's Imperial Room in 1933). Whatever show he was on, after some jazz solos, Bob Farnon's name was usually mentioned. It didn't take long before Farnon and a few other Toronto musicians became our heroes. When you were 14 years old and Bob Farnon was 20, he was light years away, beyond the reach of mortal man.
One of the shows we hardly ever heard because we were in school was the 'Happy Gang' which started as a two-week summer replacement in 1937. The Happy Gang went on the air immediately after the 1 pm CBC news, and had a spontaneity to it that made it an instant hit. The performers who made it a Canadian institution were pianist/ leader Bert Pearl, organist Kathleen Stokes, violinist Blaine Mathe, trumpeter Bob Farnon, singer/accordionist Eddie Allen, and a few others. The show included jokes, songs and ditties sung by Pearl and Allen, and instrumental numbers by Stokes, Mathe and Farnon.
The show would begin with three knocks on an imaginary door. Bert Pearl would ask, "Who's there?" and the members would shout, "It's the Happy Gang!" and Bert would reply, "Well, come on in!" and the group would go right into the opening theme, Smiles (". .. There are smiles that make you happy ...There are smiles that make you sad. ..1!). The Happy Gang was so popular (it ran for 22 years) that every Canadian housewife, it seems, intimately knew everything there was to know about the show members. What the housewives didn't know were some of the jokes Farnon and the others sometimes played on the very nervous compère Bert Pearl.
One of the show's features was Joke of the Day, where every day a different member would ask a riddle or tell a joke. One day in 1941 when it was Farnon's turn, Pearl, who always felt the show's spontaneity kept it popular and never wanted to know what the gag was before the show went to air, said "It's time to reach into the Joke Box. Whose turn is it today?"
Bob replied, "It's my turn Bert. Why does the ocean roar?"
"I don't know, Bob," Pearl replied. "Why does the ocean roar?"
"You'd roar too if you had crabs on your bottom!"
Bert Pearl's face immediately drained of blood. He went into deep shock. While he sputtered trying to say something intelligent on the air, everybody in the studio howled with laughter. Then he saw announcer Herb May get on a chair and move the hands of the studio clock back ten minutes. Then he realized it was another trick the Gang (and the producer in the control booth) played on him. Before he had arrived at the studio someone had moved the clock forward ten minutes making him think they only had five minutes to go before the show went on the air. How was the poor guy to know? He had great difficulty getting over that one.
When WWII broke out in 1939, Canada scrambled to get on a war footing which meant conscription of Canada’s young men. While thousands flocked to the recruiting centres, radio was going full blast, turning out every kind of show, many of them geared to the war effort. The Happy Gang was just what the country needed to keep morale high.
Long after Farnon left to join the Royal Canadian Army Show in 1943, the Happy Gang continued to entertain until the early 1960s. But Captain Robert Farnon in his new role began to create magnificent arrangements for a Canadian Army Show stage musical planned to tour the country in 1943. While he was working on the stage show in Toronto, the performers, chosen from the best talent in Canada, were stationed in Montreal where the Army Show had first assembled in December 1942 to do a weekly Sunday night radio show. Those broadcasts featured a male and female star singer, a mixed choir and writers Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster (who, after the war became Canada's reigning comics on radio and television, and ultimately were featured on 57 different occasions on Ed Sullivan's television show from New York). The members of the orchestra were drawn from army bands as well as new recruits who had played in the nation's best bands and symphony orchestras. Some prominent names were saxophonists Brian Farnon (one of the funniest guys we ever met), Lew Lewis, Hank Rosati, trumpeters Denny Farnon, Babe Newman, trombonist Teddy Roderman, pianist Denny Vaughan, violinists Bill Charles, Louis Sherman, Frank Fusco, bassist Peter Sinclair, and others. The orchestra was conducted by Captain Geoffrey Waddington.
The radio broadcasts from Montreal were designed to encourage recruitment, generate patriotism and raise the morale of Canadians from coast to coast while the Broadway- type variety show was being written. In early 1943 the Army Show company moved to Toronto and began rehearsing the stage show in the Victoria Theatre in downtown Toronto. Those rehearsals were a delight because Bob Farnon's ingenuity in his application of heart-stopping harmonies and exquisite orchestration among the woodwinds, strings and brass was too brilliant to believe.
One morning at a rehearsal the librarian distributed parts of a new arrangement of David Rose's Our Love for a ballet dream sequence which was going to be used in the second act. That arrangement was so breathtakingly beautiful because of Bob's symphonic scoring for flutes, clarinets and strings that after the musicians ran through the piece the first time, they all burst into spontaneous applause with cheers and shouts of "Bravo!" And with the wonderful arrangements and compositions that followed during that happy time, we realized Bob Farnon was in a class by himself, head and shoulders above many well-known American and Canadian arrangers. And to add to our amusement, Bob's priceless sense of humour drew many a laugh when he gave the arrangements odd, sometimes naughty titles.
Finally, after weeks of rehearsal, the curtains of the Victoria Theatre opened, audiences flocked to the box office, and the Canadian Army Show became a hit. The show played Toronto for a number of weeks, then went on the road. Since it travelled across Canada playing all the army camps and most cities, the cast and stage crew lived on a train which consisted of four sleeping cars, and ten cars loaded with scenery, music stands, instruments, kleig lights, yards of electrical cable and other equipment.
Whenever the train pulled into a railway sideyard for any length of time, the next morning and every morning, true to army tradition, the cast and crew had to be up and outside, washed, shaved, dressed in cleaned and pressed uniforms, and lined up, ready for inspection. When it was Captain Bob's turn to be Officer of the Day, he would lead the entourage. As army officers on inspection duty often do, a kindly major might stop to speak to one or two privates as they moved along the line. "Are you feeling better, Smith?" or "Have you heard from your mother, Jones?" But Captain Farnon, always with a mischievous twinkle in his eye was often heard to inquire, "Did you know your fly is open, Private Roderman, or are you trying to tell me something?" or "What time did you get out of Celia's bed last night, Private Newman?" Whenever that sort of questioning took place, it was assumed the colonel would speak to Captain Farnon. But we were never sure, except that if the colonel did say something to the good captain, the good captain, frankly didn't give a damn. It was clear to all of us that he had little patience for military intelligence which he considered an oxymoron. We learned early on, that Captain Farnon was always good for a lot of laughs when he was scheduled to be Officer of the Day.
Such was the life we led on the Army Show train. We travelled from coast to coast, indulged in a lot of merriment and saw much beautiful scenery, especially in the Rockies.
After the tour ended the writers and Captain Farnon began preparations for a new show. In November 1943, right in the middle of a rehearsal, Colonel Victor George came on stage, called for silence, and made an announcement. "I have just heard from Ottawa that the show is cancelled. The Army Show will be moving to England as soon as possible where the company will be broken up into five concert parties to entertain Canadian and British troops."
On December 15, 1943, the cast and crew boarded the liner Mauritania along with 10,000 other Allied troops in Halifax harbour, and after crossing the Atlantic on an uneventful zigzag course (to avoid German submarines), tied up in Liverpool on December 21. A waiting train took the Army Show contingent to Aldershot, Hampshire, where we settled down to rehearse our concert parties before taking off to entertain the troops.
Captain Farnon did not accompany us on that trip. He was required to remain in Toronto to organise an orchestra and choir which would eventually take the same trip to England to perform exclusively on the BBC's Armed Forces Network, along with Major Glenn Miller of the U.S. Allied Expeditionary Forces Orchestra, and Sergeant-Major George Melachrino of the British A.E.F. Band.
When Captain Farnon's musicians arrived in England in July 1944, they were first sent to the Army Show headquarters in Farnborough before moving to London. On a sunny Saturday afternoon about 20 musicians burst into our barracks room to greet us. Everybody leaped to their feet to embrace trombonists Floyd Roberts, Ron Hughes, trumpeters Fred Davis, Jimmy Ford, saxophonists Jack Wachter, George Naylor, bassist Howard Barnes, guitarist George Arthur and others whom we hadn't seen since leaving Canada. After Captain Farnon and his orchestra were settled in London, they began to make history on the BBC's Armed Forces Network. On occasion some of us in Unit A were called to perform with Captain Bob's orchestra in London. I remember the many times during rehearsals how we chuckled when a new arrangement was handed out. Ever the joker, Bob's titles would include such risqué pseudonyms as Piccadilly Commando, Lambeth Tart, or Hammersmith Scrubber (which ultimately were recorded under more legitimate titles as Willie the Whistler, Portrait of a Flirt, Peanut Polka and others.
With the end of WWII Bob Farnon's career blossomed so much so, that over the past sixty years he has been held in high esteem by world renowned arrangers, composers, singers and musicians from all walks of life. Almost from the first album release of Bob's prolific record output Andre Previn called Bob "the world's greatest string writer." Rob McConnell of Boss Brass fame and no slouch himself as an arranger, said, "Bob Farnon is the greatest arranger in the world." A Boss Brass album of Christmas music (pop songs and carols) under the Concord label released years ago shows Bob Farnon's unmistakable influence in so many of McConnell's charts, particularly the serene interludes and gentle modulations where he displays the Christmas Peace on Earth motif.
Bob Farnon is the recipient of a number of Ivor Novello awards, several Grammys, and in 1997 he was awarded (finally!) the Order of Canada, which is the centrepiece of the country's national honours system. The Order is a fraternity that recognizes significant achievement in important fields of human endeavour.
In the early 1970s Bob Farnon returned to Canada to conduct the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa. Charles Dojack, a former cellist with the Army Show Orchestra, and a resident of Ottawa, organised an Army Show reunion in honour of Bob Farnon. About 25 veteran entertainers from across Canada attended the event, which included a lavish banquet in one of the Arts Centre's dining salons, and choice seats in the concert hall. After the excellent concert we then attended an after-concert party in the home of one of the orchestra's patrons. His Excellency, Governor-General Edward Schreyer and Mrs. Schreyer were present at the party where both revealed an astonishing knowledge of music and a great interest in Bob's arranging skills.
At about 1:30 am several of us who had had a full day excused ourselves and took a cab back to the Chateau Laurier, the hotel we had booked for the night, where trombonist Floyd Roberts and I shared a room. I had no sooner gotten into bed when the door opened and in walked Floyd, followed by Bob who carried a 40 ouncer of Chivas Regal.
Did anyone get to sleep? Not on your life. Bob, Floyd and I sat up until the wee hours of the morning during which time Bob regaled us with dozens of stories about his career. At 5:30 the great man finally got up to leave, but not before we had killed the 40 ouncer. Robert Farnon will be sorely missed.
by RFS Secretary David Ades
I was still a teenager the first time I met Robert Farnon. It was in 1956 at the Bonnington Hotel in London's Southampton Row, and the Robert Farnon Appreciation Society had recently been formed by Kenneth and Dorothy Head and John Costin. I'm not sure if I plucked up the courage to actually speak to Bob on that first occasion; what I can remember was that I was completely in awe of him.
Here I was in the presence of a man whose music I idolised. I listened to him on the radio, and watched his programmes on television. I owned a few of his records, but in those far off days my meagre earnings wouldn't allow me to purchase them all — especially the LPs which seemed incredibly expensive to a young lad.
For the first time in my life I saw a Chappell 78 bearing those magical words: `Queen's Hall Light Orchestra Conducted by Robert Farnon'. It would be many years before I managed to acquire one for myself.
Through the Society's meetings I gradually came to know Bob, and in 1962 he did me the great honour of allowing me to take over the running of the RFAS from Ken and Dot. In the following years the membership steadily increased, although we were all becoming aware that the public's awareness of Light Music was in decline, due to changing musical trends and tastes. Happily Robert Farnon's career continued to thrive, with his composing, arranging and conducting talents being increasingly in demand from some of the biggest international stars.
I believe that Bob was proud of the RFS. After all, it was his society. Without him it would never have existed. His willing co-operation in our activities enabled us to build up today's large membership, and everything we do is in honour of his life's work.
Although he was undoubtedly one of the great composers of his generation, healways retained the charm and modesty that endeared him to us all. The word ‘approachable’ might have been invented for Robert Farnon — ask any member who has met him at our meetings.
It is perhaps a well-worn phrase to say that we will never see his like again, but in his case it is simply true. Life just won't seem the same without Bob. I still cannot believe that I won't hear that friendly voice at the other end of the telephone any more.
But what I will continue to hear is his wonderful gift for melody. Those happy and sad, triumphant and scenic sounds that he managed to conjure up from notes on a musical manuscript will continue to enrich my life in fond memory of a true friend.
In our moment of sorrow, we must be grateful that he continued to spoil us with so many wonderful new musical creations right up to the end of his long life.