A Tribute by Mike Carey
When Ronald Binge passed away on September 6, 1979, the tributes to him were led by Vivian Ellis and Sidney Torch, such was the esteem in which the composer and arranger was held. Ronnie, a modest, shy and self-effacing man despite the renown his talents brought him, would have appreciated that because throughout his life the approbation of his peers always meant as much, if not more, to him than those twin impostors, fame and fortune.
From his humble origins, Ronnie matured into a consummate musician, composer and arranger without whom the career of the orchestra leader Mantovani would certainly have been very different. He gave much, not only to the professional world of light music, but always had time to spare for amateur musicians, especially brass bands, and never needed much persuasion to write for them. We shall never know how much more would have come from his talented pen if he had not succumbed to cancer of the liver at the age of only 69. Even then, knowing he had not long to live, Ronnie opted to stay at home with his wife, Vera, rather than languish in hospital, so that he could continue to compose. Only a day or two before his death he wrote a piece for piano and horn especially for the young son of his doctor.
Like many of his contemporaries, such as Sidney Torch and Stanley Black, Ronald Binge owed much to a musical apprenticeship which included a lengthy stint accompanying silent films on piano or organ. In his home town of Derby, where he was born on July 15, 1910, Ronnie organised and played accordion in a number of small orchestras after having, like so many musicians and singers, his first musical experience as a chorister. His church organist, William James Baker, also ran the Derby Conservatoire of Music, and he gave young Ronnie his first, faltering piano lessons. Binge never forgot, and always paid tribute to Baker in later interviews. But it was as a member of the small orchestra at the Cosmo Cinema, an unprepossessing little back street "flea pit" in Derby, where Binge’s musical education really began.
The cinema work was mainly intended to supplement Binge’s income from his day job in the gent’s outfitting department of a town centre store. Ronnie’s father had died from wounds suffered in the First World War and he was now an important bread winner for the family, which included a younger brother and sister. The Cosmo orchestra found themselves playing everything from fox-trots to symphonies and the whole experience at the tender age of 17 was invaluable to Binge. It enabled him to develop sight reading, to explore the complexities of composing and gave him his first insights into orchestration.
Ronnie left Derby in 1932 to join the John Russell Orchestra for a summer season at Great Yarmouth. His colleagues there persuaded him that he was good enough to earn a living in London. He found big city life tough at first, but managed to obtain work with a number of small orchestras like those run by Cecil Mitchell, Don Sesta and Emilio Colombo. Then one day he met an Italian-born violinist who was looking for a new accordionist for his orchestra. Ronnie was engaged, not only as an accordionist but as staff arranger. The orchestra leader was Mantovani and Binge’s first two scores for what was then his Tipica Orchestra -The Moon was Yellow and Hands Across the Table - were recorded in January 1935.
He stayed with Mantovani until the outbreak of war, broadcasting, touring and recording, but whenever possible, staying at home to concentrate on his writing. When war broke out, Ronnie joined the Royal Air Force, composed a piece called Spitfire, helped Sidney Torch to run the RAF station choir in Blackpool and met his wife-to-be Vera Simmons, when she was the invigilator, and he the only entrant, for an examination in German in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
After the war, Ronnie gave up playing in order to concentrate on arranging and composing. Among other things, he orchestrated the score for Noel Coward’s ill-fated "Pacific 1860". Binge’s work was just about the only aspect of it to escape a savaging from the critics.
Importantly, Binge had also rejoined Mantovani after the war. In 1951 his arrangement of Charmainecatapulted the orchestra to world-wide fame, transforming them from just another workaday outfit to one with a sound that was instantly recognisable. It is remarkable to think that that today there are those who, in their ignorance, seek to diminish Ronald Binge’s contribution to Mantovani’s success.
Eventually, Ronnie tired of the chore of producing one arrangement after another in the same format and went his own way, composing film scores and writing two pieces which, seemingly will live for ever. One was Elizabethan Serenade for which he won an Ivor Novello award. It topped the hit parade in Germany and South Africa, had lyrics added in German, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Danish and French; there was even a reggae version! The other was Sailing By which still lulls Britain to sleep every night on Radio 4; there was almost a mass insurrection by BBC listeners when it was temporarily taken off the air in 1993.
In the 1970’s Ronnie relished the opportunity to arrange and direct a series of LP albums for Rediffusion. Two of them, featuring arrangements of his own work and that of other composers, were reissued by Vocalion in 2001. Three more were reissued by Vocalion in 2003. On one Ronnie was able to expand his repertoire to write for the solo guitar of Gerald Tolan. On another he was joined by the famous Wimbledon Girl Singers who added a new dimension to his work with their voices used like an instrumental section on String Song, the signature tune to Ronnie’s old Light Programme show. There’s also the opportunity to hear Elizabethan Serenade under its later guise of Where the Gentle Stream Flows with lyrics by the poet Christopher Hassall. For the third album Ronnie composed several new pieces for the strictly amateur Aldershot brass Ensemble. It also included his Duel for Conductors, which was written at the instigation of the BBC and first performed at the Royal Festival Hall, where the conductors in question were Malcolm Arnold and Harry Mortimer no less.
Ronnie’s widow Vera lives in Bournemouth and she is always delighted to hear from anyone who enjoys his work. She says "some music has the ability to last because it says something to people that transcends its own times. I think much of Ronnie’s music has this timeless quality and I’m very happy to know that a new generation of listeners is hearing it and enjoying it in a new way." Mike Carey
Mike Carey is the author of "Sailing By - The Ronald Binge Story" copies of which are available from him at 5 The Square, Darley Abbey, Derby DE22 1DY (Tel 01332 558792) with reduced prices for RFS members. He also presents a weekly nostalgia shown on BBC Radio Derby which regularly features the light music of Binge, Farnon and others.
The music of Ronald Binge can be heard on the following CDs:
"Summer Rain" / "If You Were The Only Girl In The World" - Vocalion CDLK 4116
"The Aldershot Brass Ensemble" / "The Wimbledon Girl Singers" "The Romantic Guitar of Gerald Tolan" - Vocalion CDLK 4129
"Sailing By" - Music by Ronald Binge 2-CD collection including "Saxophone Concerto", "Saturday Symphony" and many popular works - ASV CD WLZ 245
Mike Carey 2004