Peter Yorke

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Peter Yorke conducted one of Britain’s most popular broadcasting orchestras from the 1940s until the 1960s. He was also a gifted composer and he created many stunning arrangements that brought out some fine performances from the top musicians he always employed.


 He was born in London on 4 December 1902, the son of a printer, and he was already an accomplished organist by the age of 16. While still in his teens he was appointed choir-master and organist at a London church, and he completed his education at Trinity College, London. His early musical career found him working as a pianist in a west London orchestra, and his skill as an arranger was so apparent that, within a couple of years, he was providing scores to most of the important bands in London. During 1927-28 he appeared as pianist and arranger on British dance band 78s by Percival Mackey, thereafter with George Fisher (1928), Jay Whidden (1928), Jack Hylton (1929-33), and Henry Hall (1932-33).

With Hylton he eventually found the continuous travelling stressful, so for a while he formed his own orchestra which concentrated on providing broadcasts for European radio stations.

In 1936 he began a fruitful collaboration as chief arranger with Louis Levy, one of the pioneers of music for British films, who employed several talented writers such as Clive Richardson, Charles Williams and Jack Beaver, but seldom gave them any credit on-screen. (Typically Levy never mentions Peter’s contributions once in his 1948 book ‘Music For The Movies’). Yorke’s experience and skills were ideally suited to the big, lush sound conjured up by Louis Levy and his Gaumont-British Orchestra on their many recordings and broadcasts.

Peter Yorke joined the Royal Air Force in 1940, and within six months he was transferred to the Broadcasting Section of the three services. Demobilised in 1946, he returned to composing and arranging, and formed his own large Concert Orchestra, which built upon the symphonic sound he had developed before the war under Louis Levy.

‘Sweet Serenade’, ‘Our Kind of Music’ and ‘The Peter Yorke Melody Hour’ became popular on BBC radio, allowing listeners to enjoy sophisticated versions of popular tunes of the day, alongside some of his own pieces of light music. He was a prolific writer, with his compositions accepted by many publishers including Chappells, Francis Day & Hunter, Bosworth, Harmonic, Conroy, Paxton, Southern and Josef Weinberger.

Peter Yorke’s notable pieces include "Sapphires And Sables", "Melody Of The Stars", "Quiet Countryside", "Caravan Romance", "Carminetta", "Faded Lilac", "Fireflies", "Flyaway Fiddles", "Golden Melody", "Oriental Bazaar", "In My Garden" - suite, "Midnight In Mexico", "Parade Of The Matadors", "Royal Mile", "Highdays And Holidays", "Brandy Snaps", "Miss In Mink", "Lazy Piano", and "Ladies Night".

Another notable Peter Yorke composition is Dawn Fantasy. It is largely forgotten today, but achieved considerable popularity during the era when Warsaw Concerto spawned a glut of similar works which broadcaster Steve Race astutely dubbed ‘the Denham concertos’, because it seemed that most films emanating from that once-prolific British studio had a full-blown piano pseudo-concerto on the soundtrack.

He chose his own Sapphires and Sables as his main theme, although he often also used Melody of the Stars. Possibly his best-known work was Silks and Satins which, for ten years from 1957, was heard on British television several nights each week as the closing theme for the popular soap-opera ‘Emergency Ward 10’.

For his broadcasts and records, the Peter Yorke Concert Orchestra usually comprised between 30 to 40 musicians, and leading the saxes was a talented player called Freddy Gardner. He could reach notes on the saxophone which didn’t exist as far as other players were concerned, and his golden tone can be heard soaring above the strings and brass on many recordings that are highly prized by collectors. It is not fanciful to suggest that I Only Have Eyes For You is one of the top ten orchestral 78s of all time, with a superlative arrangement matched by supreme playing from the entire ensemble – with the added bonus of what can only be described as a virtuoso performance by Gardner at the peak of his charmed career. This was recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road studios on 29 April 1948, just two years before his sudden death from a brain haemorrhage on 26 July 1950 at the early age of 39.

Mention should also be made of the 1940s radio series "ITMA" featuring comedian Tommy Handley, because one of the musical interludes performed by the orchestra under the baton of Charles Shadwell often featured a specially commissioned arrangement of a popular novelty. Peter Yorke was a frequent contributor, and his inventive creations included Humpty Dumpty and Baa Baa Black Sheep.

Peter Yorke died aged 63 on 2 February 1966 when his shows were still a popular part of the Light Programme schedules, and one suspects that people will still enjoy his tuneful music for decades to come.

David Ades (August 2003)

Peter Yorke CDs which deserve to be in your collection:

  • "MELODY OF THE STARS" Living Era CDAJA5501
  • "GLAMOROUS NIGHTS" Vocalion CDEA6005
  • "FREDDY GARDNER" Naxos 8120506 [14 tracks with Peter Yorke]
  • "FREDDY GARDNER" Living Era CDAJA5454 [7 tracks with Peter Yorke]
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