From the 1920s, until his death on 23 March 1977 at the age of 77, Billy Ternent was a highly respected figure in the British popular music scene.
He was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 10 October 1899, and is reported to have been playing the violin by the age of seven. When only twelve his first job was playing in a trio accompanying the silent films at a North Shields cinema, and four years later he was conducting a cinema orchestra on a circuit owned by the theatrical impresario George Black. Radio didn’t arrive on the scene until Billy was well into his twenties, but he soon became involved in what was to become a major part of his life. His first broadcast was with a sextet from a tea-room in his native Newcastle.
Jack Hylton is supposed to have discovered Billy while playing with the Selma Four in a Newcastle restaurant. He took him to London where Ternent played in Al Starita’s band at the Kit-Kat Club. Hylton may well have been just in time. Like many fellow ‘Geordies’, Billy was fanatical about football, and it is believed that he seriously thought about becoming a professional player. Happily for us he decided that his future was more secure in the music business.
The reference books tell us that Billy’s first commercial recording was playing tenor saxophone in the famous Jack Hylton Orchestra at an HMV session in the Small Queen’s Hall, London, on 21 April 1927. Less than a month later (on 10 May) he was back at the same venue (also for HMV) playing in the Kit-Kat Band directed by Al Starita, with a young Ted Heath on trombone. He continued to record with the Kit-Kat Band until its last sessions in March 1928.
By then Billy Ternent had become a stalwart of the Hylton Orchestra. As well as performing on alto sax, he also did occasional vocals and gradually provided the band with many of its arrangements. Being a multi-instrumentalist, he could be relied upon to step in at short notice to cover as necessary when a musician was missing.
Presumably Ternent found his work with Hylton very satisfying, no doubt enjoying the opportunity to provide countless superb arrangements for one of Britain’s premier dance orchestras. He accompanied Jack Hylton to the USA in 1935, although the American Federation of Musicians would only allow a small number of British players. So the ‘American’ Hylton Orchestra included many local instrumentalists, thus giving Billy the chance to learn at first hand how the American musicians performed. He made a point of seeing as many other bands as he could. The Hal Kemp Band particularly impressed him, and in later years it was said that the Ternent ‘sound’ (little staccato passages, led by four trumpets - also known as ‘triple-tonguing’) was partly influenced by Kemp.
Surprisingly Billy Ternent did not start recording in his own name until February 1938, when ‘Billy Ternent and his Sweet Rhythm Orchestra’ cut just four sides for HMV. Then there was a big gap, until a new contract took his orchestra into the Decca studios in September 1943.
But he was far from idle. Billy remained Hylton’s ‘right-hand-man’ until he formed the third BBC Dance Orchestra, succeeding Henry Hall and Jack Payne. He was appointed shortly after the outbreak of World War 2 in September 1939, and could be heard on the radio almost daily, broadcasting from ‘somewhere in England’ which often meant Bristol or Weston-Super-Mare, in Somerset. For a while the personnel in this band were also available for commercial recordings by the Jack Hylton Band, but (unlike most of his peers) Hylton recognised that it would be difficult to keep up standards with so many star players being conscripted into the Armed Forces, so his last HMV sides were made in March 1940, and Hylton thereafter concentrated on theatre and artists management.
Thanks to his numerous broadcasts, Billy Ternent became a household name. For a while he was musical director of Tommy Handley’s "ITMA" show, but the hectic schedule of wartime eventually took its toll, and Billy resigned from the BBC in March 1944 due to ill health. Stanley Black took over his baton at the BBC Dance Orchestra.
Once recovered, he formed a new 14-piece band and toured successfully throughout the United Kingdom. When Radio Luxembourg resumed commercial broadcasts to Britain in December 1946, Billy Ternent featured in the first programme, sponsored by bookmakers William Hill. He was in demand from West End theatres, and conducted many shows, including visiting American artists (Frank Sinatra called him "the little giant").
Radio was still an important part of his life, and he is particularly remembered for "Variety Bandbox" and the way he helped to launch the successful career of Frankie Howerd. This included several 78s for the Harmony and Columbia labels, which have become comedy classics, some featuring Ternent as the butt of Howerd’s jokes. Routine work involved the band playing summer seasons at major seaside resorts and holiday camps, plus numerous bookings at ballrooms around the country. In 1951 the band accompanied Bob Hope on his UK tour.
By now the Ternent Band was well established, enjoying success with its regular public appearances, broadcasts and recordings. He spent five years, from 1962 to 1967, as musical director at the London Palladium, participating in several Royal Command Performances.
Billy continued to broadcast tasteful programmes of mainly dance music well into the 1970s, although his later years were troubled by recurring bouts of illness. Alan Dell persuaded him to conduct a selection of his arrangements, to rapturous applause, during a "Dance Band Days" concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 12 June 1976, as part of the BBC’s Festival of Light Music. This was to be his last major engagement, although stoically he continued to work until a few weeks before his death in March the following year.
Billy Ternent only ever had one signature tune - "She’s My Lovely". It came from a 1937 revue "Hide and Seek" starring Bobby Howes, and was composed by the prolific Vivian Ellis (also responsible forSpread a Little Happiness, Coronation Scot and the hit show "Bless The Bride"). When he first started using it in 1939, the BBC received complaints because the opening reminded listeners of an air raid warning; that distinctive ascending ensemble arrangement made the Ternent band instantly recognisable at the opening of its hundreds of broadcasts over the years.