Tony Osborne was a well known name in Britain during the late 50's, the 60’s and the early 70’s, thanks to his many recordings and appearances on radio and television. He was born Edward Benjamin Osborne near Cambridge on 29 June 1922, and completed his education at St. George’s College.
Tony’s first professional gig was as a 14 year-old accordionist in Josephine's Gypsy Orchestra, having been junior accordion champion of East Anglia. Eventually he escaped from those Gypsies for long enough to form his own band which became popular in the Cambridge area.
During the second World War Tony joined the Royal Air Force in 1942, and spent three years in Cairo and the Middle East. Like many other musically talented conscripts his talents were soon put to good use. His weapon of choice was the trumpet and he played his way through the war helping the likes of 'Monty' and Ralph Reader to entertain our troops to victory ...... At least that's his story!
Upon his discharge from the RAF Tony's first professional jobs were playing trumpet and piano with the bands of Cyril Stapleton and Frank Weir, before moving on to Carroll Gibbons and Ambrose. In those bands he played alongside the likes of George Shearing, Ronnie Scott, Jack Parnell, John Dankworth and Kenny Baker. He had come home from the war with such great technique and 'chops' as a trumpet player that he was often called in to augment the various BBC orchestras on their bigger programmes like 'The Goon Show' and 'Take It From Here' but, realising that he was never going to be the best trumpet player in England while Kenny Baker was alive, Tony began concentrating more on his piano. He became a staff arranger for various top publishing companies and this led to increasing interest from the record companies who soon noticed that he was not only talented but rather handsome as well. Osborne eventually had major deals with Pye, E.M.I and Decca (the big three of their day).
In the late 1950s he was musical director on Britain's first ever pop music television show, the BBC’s legendary 'Six-Five Special'. This naturally led to work with many of the top pop acts of the time, such as Eden Kane, John Leyton, Freddie and the Dreamers and Peter & Gordon.
In 1948 Tony had married lovely Lancashire lass Joan Mason; they produced two children and separated amicably after 20 years. They're a musical family. Son Gary Osborne became a successful songwriter, famous for his collaborations with Elton John (including Blue Eyes & Part Time Love) and Jeff Wayne (The War of the Worlds & Forever Autumn). While Tony's daughter Jan Jones, herself once an excellent singer, was for many years married to Rock drummer Kenney Jones, of The Small Faces, The Faces and The Who. Tony's brother-in-law is Bob Adams, a 'Geraldo' stalwart and top session sax player in London's 50s and 60s. Bob worked closely with Tony, often acting as the 'booker" who ensured the presence on Tony's sessions of such master musicians as Kenny Baker, Ray Davies, Stan Roderick, Kenny Clare, Ronnie Verrell, Roy Willox, Keith Bird, Ike Isacs, Joe Mudelle, and Frank Clark who incidentally turns out to be the virtuoso bassist son of none other than Josephine (she of the Gypsy Orchestra). A great reed man and Tony's closest friend (and biggest fan) for over half a century, Bob Adams went on to become the foremost musical director in the South Africa of the late 60s and 70s.
Tony soon progressed to arranging and conducting sessions for major stars, such as Mel Tormé, Johnny Mathis, Vera Lynn, Connie Francis and Shirley Bassey. In 1964 he conducted for Shirley at her appearances in New York’s Carnegie Hall where he used to open for her with a marvellously flashy Liberace-type piano set.
Of a week he did with Bassey in a big club in Majorca, Tony recalls "Shirley was eight months’ pregnant at the time and I honestly thought she was going to have the baby right there on stage. For her opening number she used to come on, point to the massive bulge in her dress, and sing ‘I shouldhave danced all night’ ... it brought the house down." That gig in Majorca was at a club called Tito’s, where Tony was to play again with the next ‘Diva’ to avail herself of his services on stage... Eartha Kitt.
Meanwhile back in the recording studio Tony’s credits were beginning to read like a Hall of Fame, including: Buddy Greco, Alma Cogan, Larry Adler, Gary Miller, Dakota Staton, Dennis Lotis, Eve Boswell, Hildegard Knef, Joni James, Russ Conway, Millicent Martin, Cleo Laine, Stanley Holloway, Max Miller, Bud Flannigan, Nina and Frederick, Edmund Hockridge, Johnnie Ray and Gracie Fields.
"When we were recording Gracie's last ever hit 'Around the World', producer Norman Newell was bothered by a clicking sound on the vocal track. Eventually we worked out what it was and I was given the unenviable task of asking 'Our Gracie' to take out her false teeth whilst doing her vocals. I'm relieved to say that she was happy to oblige."
Tony always had an easy affinity with female artistes and after his time with Shirley and Eartha, he was asked in 1969 to become Musical Director for Judy Garland. He conducted three fantastic concerts for her in Scandinavia, but tragically a month later the great Diva was dead.
"So much has been said about Judy's troubled life and the booze and drugs which played such a destructive part in it. All I can say is that even at the very end of her career, as depressed and confused as she was, Judy was still the ultimate professional. Before the shows she was distant and, obviously high on uppers, she inhabited a planet of her own. After the shows she seemed lucid but lonely and would often ask me up to her suite to chat for hours about music, until the downers took effect and she could sleep at last. But between the uppers and the downers.... out there on the stage she was magic! .... Alert and alive, as much a part of the orchestra as she was a part of the audience, she never missed a cue and she never hit an unmusical note. To cut a tragic story short ... even at her very last concert Judy Garland was still quite simply The Greatest. It turned out that we were born just 10 days apart and we got on so well that I was really thrilled at the prospect of a long association with Judy. Sadly it was not to be, but those are three concerts that I will never forget".
Tony has had compositions recorded by the likes of Duke Ellington and Shirley Bassey. He’s had four Ivor Novello nominations, winning the Award twice. One of these was for 'Windows of Paris' a catchy number which for many years was the popular signature tune for the BBC drivetime radio show 'Roundabout'. The great Johnny Mercer liked 'Windows’ so much he wrote a lyric for it.
Tony Osborne has also written the music for half a dozen feature films (which his son Gary describes as great music for lousy movies!) Films include 'Every Day's a Holiday', 'The Fiend' and 'The Secret Door'. He also provided the music for dozens of cinema and TV commercials.
He is particularly proud of a special symphonic arrangement he once did for Louis Armstrong to perform at the Albert Hall of his signature tune 'Sleepy Time Down South'. Other Osborne arrangements include 'I Who Have Nothing' (for Shirley Bassey); 'Sisters' (The Beverley Sisters); 'Out of Town' (Max Bygraves); 'Say It With Flowers' (Dorothy Squires); 'When The World Was Young' (Eartha Kitt); and 'Miss You' (Jimmy Young’s last ever hit).
Tony built up a reputation through his instrumental recordings in his own name, but in fact he was more prolific than many people realised, having also made several fine albums as ‘Laszlo Tabor'. It was in the mid-1970s that Decca invited him to record semi-classical albums under that name. The best of these was 'Gypsy Romance', which allowed Tony's exotic orchestrator Sordo Gomez to breathe new life into the fabulous melodies Tony had played all those years ago in Josephine's Gypsy Orchestra (will we never be free of that woman). It should come as no surprise that Sordo Gomez is yet another nom-de-plume for Tony Osborne!
On television, as well as 'Six Five Special' he was associated with the long-running 'Open House', a 2-hour live show every Saturday afternoon on the newly launched BBC-2. He also worked extensively on radio in the UK including a couple of years fronting the band on 'Listen to this space' a comedy show starring Nicholas Parsons and Barry Cryer.
Towards the end of the 1970s Tony started working for several months each year on P&O cruise liners. Initially he fronted a small band which he then reduced to a trio, until finally he entertained on his own at the piano. Always a reluctant disciplinarian, Tony had grown tired of having to keep an eye on the other guys’ amorous and alcoholic adventures on those long cruises. "I loved playing, but hated having to worry whether the drummer would turn up drunk, or the bass player might get it into his head to chat to the Captain's wife!" he recalls. "So I decided to go solo, which gave me just as much pleasure with far less pressure".
On one of those cruises Tony met and fell in love with Faye Morgan, one of Australia's leading designers of sporting and theatrical costumes. They married, settled in Sydney and Tony retired from the showbiz merry-go-round, only to be tempted back on very special occasions.
Thus Tony came out of retirement in the mid-1990s to lead the last ever genuine Glenn Miller Orchestra on a tour of Australia, featuring the six surviving members of the bands led by Miller himself including trumpet players John Best, Steve Lipkins, and Zeke Zarchy, saxmen Hank Freeman and Freddie Guerra and singer Beryl Davis. Aged 74 Tony was the ‘baby’ of the band.
In 1997 Faye died tragically young, leaving Tony heartbroken. Although he was approaching 80, he returned to his first love, music.
Tony Osborne, playing better than ever, can now be found every weekend entertaining at the piano at Sydney's Clontaf Restaurant or the Sydney Yacht Club. The punters know little of their pianist's illustrious background, but what they do know is that he’s the best pianist in town.
"I love playing so much that I’d do it for nothing" says Tony, "but for God's sake don’t ever tell the management I said that".
Tony Osborne died in Australia on 1 March 2009 aged 86.