George Melachrino conducted one of the finest British Light Orchestras in the years immediately following World War 2. Thanks to the Long Playing record, his fame spread throughout the world, especially in North America where his albums sold millions of copies.
He was born George Miltiades Melachrino in Albany Street, London in 1909. His father was a Greek cigarette manufacturer, and his mother came from Broadway in Worcestershire. At the age of four he was being taught by his stepfather on a miniature violin, and was only thirteen when he made his first public appearance as a solo violinist. Three years later he enrolled at the Trinity College of Music, winning particular praise for his work with strings. He proceeded to master all the instruments of the orchestra, with the exception of the piano and harp. In addition he had a pleasant singing voice, and broadcast from the BBC Studios at Savoy Hill when only eighteen.
Like so many of his contemporaries, Melachrino discovered that his talents were well suited to the demands of the British dance bands which flourished during his youth. In numerous broadcasts and recordings he performed on clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone, violin, viola and as a most competent vocalist. While still in his teens, as early as 1926 he was recording with Geoffrey Gelder and his Kettner’s Five, and in the following years he was employed by Ambrose, Harry Hudson, Jack Jackson, Van Phillips, Rudy Starita, Jay Wilbur, Marius B. Winter and Carroll Gibbons and his Savoy Hotel Orpheans. Gibbons made him one of his ‘star’ vocalists, and his duets with Anne Lenner were especially popular. Examples of his work with this fine ensemble can be heard on Vocalion CDEA6047.
By 1938 he was getting star billing for his BBC broadcasts, and in 1939 he was leader of the dance orchestra at London’s Café de Paris.
World War 2 interrupted Melachrino’s career, although it helped to steer him in a different direction, musically speaking. Following a brief spell in the military police, a back injury resulted in him being drafted back into broadcasting, in special shows for the troops overseas. He became Musical Director of the Army Radio Unit, and toured with the ‘Stars In Battledress’. Melachrino formed a 50-piece ‘Orchestra In Khaki’, employing the finest professional musicians serving in the forces. He relished in the artistic freedom he enjoyed, which permitted him to perform a wide variety of music. In 1944 Regimental Sergeant Major George Melachrino (note that the British Army didn’t consider that their top musician should be a commissioned officer!) became conductor of the British Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, working alongside Major Glenn Miller and Captain Robert Farnon, who fronted the US and Canadian bands.
There is an intriguing story about how the wartime Melachrino style evolved. His senior at the War Office, Eric Maschwitz (of A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square fame), said he wanted to hear Pennsylvania Polka played by an orchestra of 80. So Melachrino’s AEF band numbered 80 musicians, making its conductor the first to introduce sweet, sentimental mood music by the use of masses of strings.
Each of the three AEF bands developed its own special style, building up a large following with the civilian population at home, as well as with the troops who were the main target audience. The British band gained a tremendous reputation, and Melachrino himself sang with all three service bands. His own composition First Rhapsody opened and closed each programme, when the British band started broadcasting to Europe. Originally a serious work for orchestra lasting seven and a half minutes, First Rhapsody was written in 1936. For the purpose of his signature tune, Melachrino adapted the principal theme, and reconstructed the work making it shorter and more popular in character. It was arranged in various forms, notably for solo piano and piano and orchestra. The British film "House of Darkness" was the story of how First Rhapsody came to be written. (Melachrino’s 12" 78 version of First Rhapsody was included in the EMI collection ‘Memories of the Light Programme’).
When the war was over, Melachrino’s AEF band formed the backbone of the magnificent orchestra that was to achieve world-wide fame for almost 20 years. The accent was now on strings, and it was in string orchestration that George excelled. Such was his popularity that he appeared in the 1948 Royal Variety performance.
The Melachrino Organisation grew into one of Britain’s most important musical empires, which included several orchestras and ensembles.
Today it is his recordings which serve to remind us of his exceptional talent. His post-war orchestra made around 100 78rpm records, and he was responsible for more than 50 LPs. For his repertoire he drew upon many of the popular standards and light classics of the day, often made instantly recognisable through his regular BBC radio broadcasts. Many of his records featured his own arrangements and compositions, and he was also in demand from the stage and the cinema, scoring over a dozen feature films. He was a gifted composer, and contributed a number of works for EMI’s short-lived Recorded Music Library, which provided themes and background music for films, radio and television world-wide.
Melachrino was married three times. His first wife and two sons aged 12 and 15 were killed by a flying bomb during the war. Afterwards he devoted much of his time to helping sick children. His second marriage was dissolved. In 1961 he had a son by his third wife, former ballet dancer Noreen Lee.
Sadly George Melachrino fell asleep in his bath and drowned at his London home in Gordon Place, Kensington on 18 June 1965, at the tragically early age of 56. On hearing the news, prophetically his publisher John Wallington said: "George’s death is a great loss to me personally, and to the world of Light Music. I am sure that his music will go on being played as long as Light Music is played." Sydney Grace, head of variety in the Grade Organisation said: "I admired him immensely, both for his talent and his bright way of life. George was a wonderful host. He was, I think, the instigator of the big orchestra with the tumbling strings, which he did during the war."
Perhaps such a sweeping statement requires some qualification. In the 1930s the likes of Louis Levy in Britain, and Andre Kostelanetz in the USA, were fronting orchestras where the strings were an important feature within the entire orchestra. But Melachrino was fortunate (during his Army years) in being able to call upon vast numbers of strings, with no worries about the cost, which became the dominant feature. Massive sales during the early years of the LP era still permitted light orchestras to use large numbers of string players (as well as Melachrino, one immediately thinks of Mantovani) but gradually modern recording techniques allowed the same effects to be achieved with fewer players.
George Melachrino left a fine legacy of recordings which today’s music lovers are now starting to appreciate anew. His music always bore a hallmark of quality, and he proved that it is not necessary to resort to cheap gimmicks in order to be able to sell records. It was tragic that he was taken from us while at the peak of his popularity, at a time when he must still have had much to offer. We can only be grateful that, for almost 20 years his orchestral output was prolific, and there are many examples of his work patiently waiting to be rediscovered by his appreciative admirers, old and new.
David Ades (2003)
A selection of some GEORGE MELACHRINO CDs recently released
BEGIN THE BEGUINE Vocalion CDEA6014 MASQUERADE, THE SWAN, THE PINK LADY WALTZ, SERENADE (Schubert), VISION D’AMOUR, OUT OF MY DREAMS, DUSK, BEGIN THE BEGUINE, PORTRAIT OF A LADY, DESTINY, LA GOLONDRINA, THE DONKEY SERENADE, SERENADE (Drigo), MALAGUENA, POEME, ESTRELLITA, EL RELICARIO, THEY DIDN’T BELIEVE ME, INTERMEZZO from CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA, LADY OF SPAIN, MOONLIGHT SERENADE, INDIAN SUMMER, WOODLAND REVEL, AUTUMN, ROMANCE IN E (Rubinstein).
CASCADE OF STARS Vocalion CDEA6060 1. WINTER SUNSHINE (George Melachrino) 2. SEPTEMBER SONG* (Kurt Weil) 3. MY SONG OF SPRING (Robert Farnon) 4. ZINGARA (Chaminade, arr. Arthur Wilkinson) 5. MIDNIGHT IN MAYFAIR* (Newell Chase) 6. CINDERELLA - FILM FANTASY (David, Hoffman, Livingston) 7. CASCADE OF STARS* (Osna Maderna) 8. AUTUMN LEAVES* (Joseph Kosma) 9. SILVER LINING FANTASY 10. IF YOU GO (Michael Emer) 11. DANSE MEXICAINE (Arthur Wilkinson) 12. THEME FROM ‘RUNNYMEDE RHAPSODY’ (Reginald King) 13. STARLIGHT ROOF WALTZ (George Melachrino) 14. ANTE EL ESCORIAL (Ernesto Lecuona) 15. VIOLINS IN THE NIGHT* (George Melachrino) 16. THE LEGEND OF FRANKIE AND JOHNNIE (William Hill-Bowen) 17. THEME WALTZ - FROM FILM ‘DARK SECRET’* (George Melachrino) 18. WORDS AND MUSIC - SELECTION (Richard Rodgers)
GREAT FILM AND SHOW TUNES Sanctuary Living Era CD AJA 5469 The Classic HMV Selections 1 "CALL ME MADAM" (Irving Berlin)
Washington Square Dance; You’re Just In Love; Marrying For Love; The Best Thing For You; They Like Ike; Once Upon A Time Today; It’s A Lovely Day Today; The Ocarina; You’re Just In Love. 2 "KISS ME KATE" (Cole Porter) Another Op’nin’ Another Show; So In Love; Too Darn Hot; Why Can’t You Behave?; Wunderbar; Bianca; Were Thine That Special Face; Always True To You In My Fashion; So In Love. 3 "SHOW BOAT" (Jerome Kern) Cotton Blossom; Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man; Why Do I Love You; Make Believe; Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man; Bill; You Are Love; Make Believe; Ol’ Man River. 4 "CAROUSEL" (Richard Rodgers) Carousel Waltz; If I Loved You; What’s The Use Of Wond’rin’; A Real Nice Clambake; Mister Snow; You’ll Never Walk Alone; June Is Bustin’ Out All Over. 5 "THE DANCING YEARS" (Ivor Novello) Uniform; I Can Give You The Starlight; Wings Of Sleep; My Life Belongs To You; Waltz Of My Heart; Leap Year Waltz. 6 "THREE LITTLE WORDS" (Kalmar, Ruby) I Love You So Much; Nevertheless; Who’s Sorry Now (Kalmar, Ruby, Snyder); Come On Papa; Thinking Of You; So Long! Oo Long; My Sunny Tennessee; All Alone Monday; Three Little Words. 7 "YOU’RE MY EVERYTHING" Varsity Drag (De Sylva, Brown, Henderson); I May Be Wrong (Ruskin, Sullivan); On The Good Ship Lollipop (Clare, Whiting); Ain’t She Sweet Yellen, Ager); You’re My Everything (Dixon, Young, Warren); The Charleston (Mack, Johnson); Would You Like To Take A Walk (Dixon, Rose, Warren); California Here I Come (Jolson, De Sylva, Meyer). 8 COLE PORTER FANTASY (Cole Porter) Just One Of Those Things; What Is This Thing Called Love; You Do Something To Me; Easy To Love; Night And Day; Anything Goes. 9 GERSHWIN FANTASY (George Gershwin) The Man I Love; Fascinating Rhythm; Embraceable You; Lisa; Summertime; Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off; Love Walked In; Rhapsody In Blue; I Got Rhythm. (Chappell, NCB, BIEM)