During the 1950s and 1960s, Cyril Stapleton was a well-known orchestra leader in Britain and overseas, thanks to his regular BBC broadcasts and his many recordings. He was born on 31 December 1914 at Mapperley, Nottingham, in the east midlands of England. At the age of seven he began learning the violin, and when only 12 he made his first broadcast from 5NG, the local radio station in Nottingham. Thereafter he broadcast regularly from the BBC Studios in Birmingham, then went to Czechoslovakia to study under Sevcik, the famous teacher of the violin.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Cyril’s early professional career found him playing in cinema ‘pit orchestras’ (often only 3 or 4 players!) accompanying silent films. At 17 he won a scholarship to Trinity College of Music in London, and whilst there saw a newspaper report that Henry Hall was forming a Dance Band at the BBC. He passed the audition and started playing with the band, appearing in its first ever broadcast. He also appeared on some of Hall’s early 78s for Columbia, recorded in 1932. However Hall eventually decided that Stapleton was too young for the job, so he returned to Nottingham, where he formed his own band, playing at various local cinemas.
Later he joined the Jack Payne Orchestra, and toured with it extensively in South Africa. He also appeared on some of Payne’s 78s for the Rex label in 1936.
Back in London, Stapleton’s band was engaged at Fisher’s Restaurant, New Bond Street, and at The Casino in Compton Street. His first broadcast with his own band took place in March 1939, and for a short while he played with the Jack Hylton Orchestra, under Billy Ternent. But soon afterwards his musical career had to be put on one side when he enlisted in the Royal Air Force during World War II where he served for five years, initially as an air gunner.
At the various places where he was stationed he organised the music for concerts and shows, and managed to catch the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band on a visit to the USA. During his last year in the RAF he was stationed in Uxbridge where he became a member of the RAF Symphony Orchestra. This rekindled an earlier interest in symphonic music, and back in civilian life he decided to concentrate on this area of music. At one particular time he was a member of three orchestras: the London Symphony, the National Symphony and the Philharmonia Orchestra.
But having to keep playing the same old classical repertoire started to pall, and in 1947 he was back in Fisher’s with his own band. He started late night broadcasting, one of his singers being Dick James, who later achieved fame and fortune as the music publisher for The Beatles.
With added strings in 1948, the Stapleton band attracted a wider audience, helped by appearances on radio shows such as "Hit Parade" and "Golden Slipper".
His fame was assured in 1952, when the BBC Dance Orchestra was changed to the BBC Show Band, and Cyril Stapleton was appointed as its conductor. This was the BBC’s prestige outfit for the playing of popular music, employing the finest musicians and arrangers, and the first programme went out on the Light Programme on 2 October 1952. The band’s signature tune (originally arranged by Robert Farnon) opened to the words: "Just For You ... " Not only did the band attract the top British singers, but American entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole were also happy to appear as guests. Remember that this was a time when radio was still the mass medium for home entertainment, with a suitably generous budget. The Show Band Show was also seen in several BBC Television broadcasts, making Stapleton even more of a household name to the British public. Its importance to the music industry is demonstrated by the fact that at least one London publisher offered Stapleton the exclusive pick of all new songs for several weeks before they were released to other performers.
The cinema also recognised the Band’s appeal, and a second Show Band film in CinemaScope entitled "Just For You" was released to the Odeon Cinema circuits late in 1955. Directed by Michael Carreras, it proved why the Show Band Show was such a big draw on sound radio at that time. Stapleton was featured as violin soloist in The Story of a Starry Night, and he also accompanied Joan Regan on piano.
At the height of the Show Band’s popularity, in November 1955 Cyril Stapleton said: "When the BBC Show Band was formed in 1952 we had no idea it would attain such success as it has during these past three years. We had a lot of criticism at first, both good and bad, and we changed the pattern to please as many people as possible. Many star personalities of today came to us as newcomers to radio, such as Stan Stennett; Bill McGuffie was another, who went on to appear as a great solo performer of the piano, and also run his own big band; a young Tommy Whittle, who also went on to form his own orchestra; and not forgetting the Scots comedian/compere, Rikki Fulton. Variety is the spice of dance music programmes - that has always been my motto, and I sincerely hope that I have succeeded in bringing you dance music with a difference". Another ‘unknown’ who had cause to be thankful to Stapleton was Matt Monro, given his first big chance with the Show Band.
The Show Band was broadcasting three times a week (in various forms) but all this came to an end on 28 June 1957, much to the dismay of its many fans. Despite much criticism, the BBC refused to reverse its decision to ‘kill’ the band. Cyril kept busy touring with his own orchestra, making records and broadcasting, and appearing around the country in theatres and dance halls. This continued until the mid-1960s, when he was appointed an Artists and Repertoire Manager at Pye Records.
In later years, while still an executive with the same company, he was persuaded to return to making his own LPs, and conducted several excellent albums. Towards the end of his life he started to tour again, with a large band, trying to re-create his success with the BBC Show Band. Sadly he died aged only 59 on 25 February 1974, but he has left us with a fine collection of recordings.
Cyril Stapleton was a talented conductor whose musical prowess extended far beyond waving a baton. He had served his apprenticeship in the British music industry long before he achieved his just rewards which, for a while, made him a household name in Britain. Cyril Stapleton is not unique among his peers - there were many arrangers and conductors who came from the same demanding school - but he offered good taste and showmanship that few others have equalled. He deserves to be remembered for his fine achievements.