By DENIS O’BRIEN
Alan Dean’s eventful and crowded life would daunt a biographer because it collides so often with Names. It would be difficult to avoid the reflected glare from the gamma rays of the celebrities as they seem to rise into his narrative so often.
It is not that Alan is a name-dropper for effect, simply that he has encountered so many celebrated people in his life that his pleasant personality makes his mention of them seem essential.
He had a somewhat precocious start as an entertainer singing and playing the piano accordion as an 11-year-old in his father’s Bethnal Green pub during World War II. That led to a job with a small jazz group in London’s West End and from there he was offered work as a singer touring with the Oscar Rabin band. By then he had put his accordion aside and was studying orchestration. Two years later, tired of touring, he was back in London and working for bands such as Harry Roy, Stephan Grappelli, Ambrose and Frank Weir.
He met Johnny Johnston and together they answered a request by the BBC to form a vocal group as part of a new radio comedy series, "Take It From Here".
They recruited two female singers and, hey presto, the Keynotes were launched on a long life. Alan left the group after two years. "They were very popular but my work with the group was beginning to interfere with my desire to build on a solo career" he said. In 1949 Alan had been voted Most Popular Male Singer in Great Britain and the accolade was repeated in 1950 and 1951. Alan knew his career was now at a point when he needed to be careful of his next move. The memory of awards such as he had received from Melody Maker faded quickly from the public mind and it was essential he didn’t take the wrong turning.
He had noticed small indications of changing public tastes. The first stirrings of rock’n’roll had occurred in the USA and that was something which needed carefully watching. He recalled talking about his concerns with the pianist George Shearing when both were working with Frank Weir. Soon after that George had left England and had gone to the U.S. where he’d become very successful. And on a subsequent visit to London he advised Alan to consider a similar move: "I’m sure you’ll do well over there. Please come and prove me right." Alan’s manager Harold Davidson was equally in favour of Alan going to America. "There is nothing more I can do for you in England. You are now at the top here. I can’t get you more money, better billing, or the best hotel suite for a week at the Wigan Palace. I’m sure you’ll do very well in the States."
So at the end of 1951 Alan left England accompanied by his wife Muriel, and his publicist Ken Pitt. It would be six years before he returned on a visit but he would never make England his permanent home again.
The pace and pulse of New York was exhilarating. Alan felt energized and ready for work but since music wasn’t international in those days he was totally unknown in the U.S. But out of the blue he was offered a two-weeks engagement in a stylish nightclub in Washington D.C. which was called The Old New Orleans. Reviews of his performance in Washington papers and in the national showbiz paper Variety were amazing.
A few days later General Artists Corporation approached him and told him they wished to sign him up and when he returned to New York they introduced him to the MGM Record Company which offered him a three year contract. His first and second recordings were excellent sellers, especially "Luna Rosa". He then embarked on a long list of engagements throughout the east coast. He played in Pittsburgh, Boston, upstate New York and Washington.
After about six months of touring, Alan was feeling tired and with his wife Muriel went to Miami, Florida for a rest. While there he was looking at a bundle of maps one day and realised the vast expanse of America that was still to be conquered. They decided to buy a house in Miami and use it as a base from which he would now operate.
But in 1959 he received a cable from a television station in Australia — GTV Channel 9 in Melbourne, offering him a three month contract to appear in variety programmes on the station. The offer seemed amazingly generous. The money was good, a round trip air fare was included and Alan found it rather hard to believe. He cabled his acceptance yet remained puzzled as to why they had made the offer.
After arriving he found that he was already known in Australia from his appearances on "Take It From Here". It was still running on the ABC. It was his first visit to Australia and he was very impressed by the professionalism he found at GTV9. "They had a remarkably good five nights a week variety talk show called ‘In Melbourne Tonight’ headed by an exceptionally talented man named Graham Kennedy" he said. "The production standards were very high, the orchestra was conducted by musical director, Arthur Young who I remembered had fronted the Hatchette Swingettes in London." At the end of the three months’ enjoyable engagement Alan spent a few weeks in Sydney with his sister, Peggy and her husband Norman Burns, who was at that time the A and R man for PYE records in Sydney.
He returned to Miami but two years later received another offer from GTV9 Melbourne, and in accepting he mentioned that he was considering settling in Australia. While living in Miami he had begun writing, arranging and producing jingles and radio station promos for the local radio industry. "On my first visit to Australia, I sold a packet of radio promos to Melbourne and Sydney radio stations and I could see great opportunities there."
It would be some years before Alan’s life could be called leisurely. His permanent move to Sydney had opened up opportunities for him to develop his talents for providing radio stations with tapes for promoting programme identification, weather reports and promotional material. He formed a company called Deanote Productions which has proved successful. He also undertook engagements on television for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ‘Bandstand’ a remarkably successful pop show and a number of programmes on Channel 7 where he worked with an accomplished musical director, Tommy Tycho.
Alan Dean has a gentle manner and a warm personality. At the end of a long talk together he told me quietly of a time when he was asked to undertake a singing engagement at short notice. When he arrived at the job the orchestra leader handed him a sheet of music and asked him "Can you read music?" Alan said he could, studied it for a few minutes and then said "I’m right now." The band started playing some rather difficult passages but Alan breezed through the song with no problems. Before he left the job a number of the musicians complimented him. "It’s very rare that singers can read music. Congratulations." Alan related that brief anecdote with a quiet sense of pride.
His first wife, Muriel died some years ago. He was divorced from his second wife, Diana but they are truly great friends. He is now happily married to Maralyn and they live in a comfortable home in Sydney’s leafy north shore, where he has often entertained a number of musical colleagues from his days in London. The combination of his singing career and the work he does for radio stations makes for a busy yet fulfilling life for a contented man of 86 years.
This article first appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ September 2011
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