Lou Whiteson

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Tony Clayden Salutes a Familiar Name from BBC Radio

Those who were regular listeners to BBC during the late ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and into the ‘80s will surely remember the name of Lou Whiteson.


Although always known as Lou (sic), the given name on his birth certificate was Lewis Solly. He was born in 1912; the family lived originally at 19 Wentworth Street, Spitalfields, in the heart of London’s Jewish East End. His father was Nathan Weitzen, a tailor who had been born in Galicia (which was a territory east of Austria that straddled the present border between Poland and Ukraine). The family moved to the North London suburb of Stoke Newington, where Lou started school and began fiddle lessons there at the age of 9; he showed considerable promise and was latterly taught by Henry Kenning.

He left school at around the age of 14 and started playing in cinemas (unpaid) for experience. After a year or two, he unsuccessfully tried for a musical scholarship in Russia. The Musicians’ Union stopped the free playing and he began to work regularly in various cinemas in North and East London and also at the Commodore, Hammersmith, where he played under Joseph Muskant.

Once talking pictures came in, Lou, together no doubt with many of his colleagues, suddenly found himself out of a job, and for a while sold light bulbs in the street. He was then told of a job in Kenya playing in a hotel, which he did for about four years; this was followed by a further two years in Johannesburg, during which time he had more lessons. He came back to the UK in 1936 and played in hotel orchestras at Manchester, Gleneagles and others. During his time in Manchester, Fritz Kreisler heard him and told Lou how much he enjoyed his playing.

The outbreak of war saw him joining the Royal Air Force and it was originally intended that he would become an aircraft gunner. However, because he suffered from migraine, he was re- deployed within the RAF’s music organisation, where he booked musicians and played with various RAF house orchestras. After the war he auditioned for the BBC Welsh Orchestra, and I believe he was offered a post, which he did not however take up.

In 1948 Lou was to be found in the London Palladium Pit Orchestra accompanying the famous show by Vivian Ellis, Bless The Bride and by the late ‘40s and early ‘50s he was leading for Sidney Torch’s Metropolitan Orchestra. In 1948 he had joined the music staff of the BBC; this was at a time when, due to union regulations, the BBC was obliged to employ a number of orchestras and these contributed a great deal to the programme schedules. There was established what became known in the BBC as ‘The Unit’; this was a group of musicians who would perform under a number of different names, eg The Southern Serenade Orchestra and The Majestic Orchestra, both of which he would conduct, taking over from Reginald Leopold who left the BBC for a while. Other names which he would play for, but not necessarily conduct, included The London Studio Strings and The London Studio Players, and sometimes he would direct his own Whiteson Orchestra, all of these being, as described above, made up of the same body of musicians.

Over the years, he appeared in a multitude of different programmes – Continental Serenade, Rainbow Room, Music At Teatime, Morning Music etc. He regularly played with musicians such as Billy Mayerl, Edward Rubach and Robert Docker, and also Clive Richardson and Tony Lowry. Some of theContinental Serenade programmes with the Majestic Orchestra were broadcast in what was known as the General Overseas Service of the BBC (which later became the BBC World Service).

1952 saw the beginning of his interest in Latin American music, for which, like his colleague Stanley Black, he became famous. Other programmes in which he appeared either as player or conductor included Cavalcade Of Light Music, Saturday Serenade, Music All The Way , Music Mixture where he worked with Gilbert Vinter, Serenade In The NightMidday Melody Hour, Melody Time, Melody Showcase, Time For Music, Music Of The Sunny South, Music For The Housewife, Fiesta and Lights On.

Lou Whiteson recorded a number of programmes for Rediffusion (probably for their overseas operation) and appeared on several LPs for that company’s record label. His last ‘gig ‘was in 1983 forMusic While You Work, but he was brought out of retirement again in the early ‘90s for a further reprise of the series.

He was also a teacher; he regularly gave lessons at Worth Abbey School in Crawley, Sussex, and in addition taught privately . As can be seen from the above, he had a very long and varied career, and was a mainstay of the BBC Home Service and Light Programme, and latterly Radio 2, for very many years. He died in November 1997.

I must express my gratitude to Madeleine Whiteson, (whom he met when she joined ‘The Unit’!) for kindly making available such a wealth of information about her late husband.

This article first appeared in Journal Into Melody, issue 194 December 2012

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