19 October, 2011

Matt Monro The Singer's Singer:

The Life and Music of Matt Monro

Biography book review by Tony Webb

“I think he was the greatest singer; even better than Sinatra!” says Ernest Maxin on page 451 of The Singer’s Singer – The Life and Music of Matt Monro and if he’s correct, then this celebration of the melodious bus driver is long overdue. Certainly, his voice lives on through classics such as Born Free and From Russia with Love; yet there are other artists to consider; not least the evergreen Tony Bennett.

Whatever the truth of it, Michele Monro is keen that we should fully appreciate her father’s contribution and so we are presented with an understandable hagiography. The laudations within its pages come like bullets, many of them apparently offered in the wake of the singer’s passing. Aside from these, the author’s style is prosaic and chronological.

We are transported from an impoverished Shoreditch childhood; the death of his father when Terry Parsons (Matt Monro’s original name) was just three years old; the sibling accompanied excursions, to access a dark and scary outside toilet; the handing down of ill fitting clothing; to spells working as a plumber’s mate; electrician; coalman; milkman; bricklayer; kerbstone fitter and factory floor sweeper, to name but a few. It was, however, his early love of music and ability to perform on stage, before small gatherings, that would shape his future.

During years spent in the army, he found himself posted to Hong Kong, where his singing was well received in local talent shows and upon returning to England, famously worked as a bus driver, whilst continuing to hone his vocal skills outside hours. It was then that he was spotted by musician Harry Leader and invited to participate in the making of a record, after which the rise to fame is described in greater detail. We follow his progress from that first session, during which he, perhaps dutifully or forgetfully, wore his driving licence and roundel, through a series of advertising jingles and radio shows and onward to international stardom. It’s an enjoyable journey and there are many tales of his close associations with luminaries such as Don Black and George Martin, with considerable emphasis (particularly where Martin is concerned) on production techniques. Much is made, too, of Monro’s interest in reconnecting with his army buddies, together with his phenomenal and unwavering popularity in the Philippines. He was, we are assured in various ways, a regular working guy with no airs and graces; utterly attached to his roots and with a smile and an autograph for everyone. This is easy to believe and there, of course, lies a question: with his indisputably wonderful voice, might this affable east end lad have gone further still, had he allowed himself to become aloof? It’s surely true that many major stars carry themselves quite differently, whether intentionally or otherwise and that detachment does seem to intensify the interest of their fans. Matt, however, was unusually accessible, so might this commendable connection have, to some extent, worked against him? It’s left for us to decide.

There are some apparent contradictions. Here, for example, was an entertainer with a major love of television, who detested appearing on it. Interesting too was his belief that music should not exist as a vehicle for social comment and change; surprising because he was by no means slow in making a stand against racial prejudice, or supporting those stricken by other forms of injustice.

We are introduced to friends such as Dave Allen and Tony Hancock, together with his idol, Sammy Davis Junior. The anecdotes are amusing rather than hilarious, even though they involve the likes of Morecambe & Wise, with several being of the falling over or flan throwing variety. Claims of Hancock’s alleged sexual advances toward Monro are dealt with fairly and without sensationalism, as is the period prior to the comedian’s death, while there are additional stories concerning Bob Monkhouse, Tommy Cooper and many more.

The book is over long, but does contain a fair number of musical insights. Attention is paid not only to the songs themselves, but to their arrangement, while students of Monro’s legacy may also appreciate its rich analysis of record releases and chart positions.

Personal revelations are few, although the singer’s interest in spiritualism I found surprising and momentarily off-putting. It does, though, appear to have been a genuinely held belief and that being so, who are we to sit in judgement? The account too of his alcoholism, affords no opportunity for scorn. He was, after all, a quiet drinker, sparing his family and the world the usual troubles associated with the condition.

Many of the latter pages are devoted to sustainment of his career during the punk era and with there being little to cause major excitement, readers may more fully share Monro’s satisfaction, when the corner is finally turned.

Considering that the book bears Michele’s name on the cover, the limited personal connection is at times surprising, although the final days of Monro’s life, are described movingly and with affection.

Finally, we are shown a gallery of glowing tributes from the all time greats of show business and their sincerity seems palpable. Sammy Davis Junior describes Monro as one of the best singers he’s ever heard and George Martin proclaims him “the finest singer of ballads I’ve had the good fortune to produce”, while to Frank Sinatra he was “one of the three best male vocalists in the business.”

Their insights confirm that Matt Monro was, indeed, an artist greatly admired by his contemporaries; a ‘singers’ singer’, certainly, and for his ever adoring fans, this book may well be just the ticket!

BELOW IS AN EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK: Matt Monro: The Singer's Singer: The Life and Music of Matt Monro

“The Singing Bus Driver” 

An Anagram of Moron 

Being married with a child was a big responsibility and the long days away from home took their toll on his first marriage forcing him to abandon his life on the road.  He couldn’t afford to stay with the dance band anymore.  He was working five nights a week, driving the tour bus in the day and singing in the evenings. He was expected to pay his own digs, which would regularly mean sharing with three others to cut the bill, but he was only getting twelve pounds a week. On several occasions he slept in the bus having to find the nearest men’s room in the mornings to clean up but even with cut backs it didn’t allow him to send much money home.

His next job stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was compelled to forsake the microphone for a steering wheel. He had met up with Gordon Holland an old schoolmate of his in Hornsey Café. At his suggestion, Terry went over to the London Transport Depot at Manor House and signed up as a driver for Holloway Garage.  Being only five foot six inches tall he had quite a unique way of passing his test at Chiswick.  The driving test was taken in a single Decker bus with a crash gearbox.  He found that once seated he couldn’t reach the clutch pedal.  Each time he had to change gear he had to stand, rather like a jockey urging on his mount.  It was only after they had passed him that he was told he could screw the seat down to accommodate his smaller frame.

Because of the driving test incident Terry gained the nickname of Titch. London Transport hired the aspiring singer and put him on a weekly wage of £9.00. Allocated his bus badge, N46052, he took out the No.27 Highgate – Teddington route and at times, to cover other colleague’s holidays, he also worked the No.14 route from Putney Bridge to Hornsey Rise. Both Terry and his regular conductor Nellie Mitchell had to be up at 4.00am to take the bus out at 5.00am. Driving the bus during the day he sought to establish himself as a band singer in the evenings. He sang at a pub called The Favourite in Hornsey Rise and also filled in with a Saturday night gig with Harry Pitch’s band at the Hornsey Town Hall. They would then pass the hat around for him and there might be a couple of quid in it at the end. The trio finally asked him to do it properly for a fee of 32s 6d a night.  
My brother Chris and I used to frequent the Favourite pub in Hornsey Rise, which was the terminus for the No14 bus. They only had piano and drums but we both used to get up and give a song. We thought we were good. We realised Terry was well known in the pub because whenever he entered, whoever was next to be called to give a song had to wait until Terry had sung. On the first occasion we grumbled about the unfairness of this, but it was explained that Terry only had a limited amount of time because he had to get back in his bus. When we heard him sing, all our objections evaporated. He was so good that we used to make a point of going to the pub just to listen to him. He was a very nice, modest man, a great artiste - no gimmicks, no show, just a wonderful voice and personality. George Skelly 

His given name Terry Parsons and pseudonyms Terry Fitzgerald and Al Jordan had not been particularly lucky for the singer/bus driver but another name change was just around the corner. 

Whilst Terry was working on the buses, bass player Spike Heaty sent a forgotten recording from Green’s Playhouse Glasgow to Winifred Atwell, one of the biggest musical acts of the 1950’s with a series of boogie woogie and ragtime hits. She was also an accomplished rag pianist and Decca Record’s most successful artist.  Terry’s mother, Alice, had received a note from the Decca Recording Company addressed to her son, politely telling him that the record submitted had been unsuccessful. A couple of weeks later she received another letter telling her son that on Winifred Atwell’s recommendation they had re-visited the disc and that they wanted to see him. Strangely it seemed that if Winnie had faith in this young man’s relaxed style perhaps they were wrong.

Impressed by the young singer’s demo Winnie had also sent a cable to the flat asking Terry to come and see her at the London Palladium where she was appearing. Terry arrived at the theatre in time to catch most of the Trinidadian’s act. Her stage persona was of a gentle, rather aristocratic woman who came alive at the piano and her dazzling smile literally lit up the stage. Winnie’s husband and manager, former stage comedian Lew Levisohn, who was vital in shaping her career as a variety star, watched from the wings.

Winnie and Lew made a business out of nurturing new stage and music talent and Terry was next in line. Terry chatted with the couple, the outcome of which was an audition for the young singer at Decca with Dick Rowe, Winnie’s recording manager. The label shared Ms Atwell’s zeal so much they took the practically unheard of step of launching a new singer with an LP and a recording contract. The usual practice would have been a single disc release. Terry left that night with not just a recording contract with Decca but also a management agreement with Lew Levisohn.

On September 17, 1956,Terry Parsons signed a contract with Decca for one year with two one-year options. He was so broke that the record company bought him a navy blue tonic suit and a plaid shirt, which were to be taken out of future royalties. He still used his two shirts and four starched collars which were the only decent clothes he owned. Decca also bought him shoes with ‘lifts’ and an overcoat.

Less than six weeks after signing the new recording contract Terry was booked in the studios to cut his debut album, Blue and Sentimental, with the Malcolm Lockyer Orchestra. Terry, who was still driving his No.27 bus turned up at the studios to record his first professional disc. It was a chilly miserable Sunday and Terry’s temperature was not helped by a grade A attack of nerves. Partly to keep himself warm and partly to have the comfort of familiar things he kept on his heavy blue serge bus driver’s jacket.

It all looked a trifle bizarre. An aggregation of the country’s finest musicians, looking very professional, all the mechanical clutter of a recording studio looking very intimidating… and in the middle of it all, a bus driver wearing his pasteboard roundel indicating that he was licensed to drive a public service vehicle. No wonder the orchestra looked a little startled and wore a ‘now we’ve seen everything’ look. Certainly Terence was a little uneasy upon recognising several top musicians in the business. The Malcolm Lockyer Orchestra warmed up in the recording studio ready to do a long stint in backing an unknown on his first long player.  They ran through the first number “Okay let’s take this one” boomed a voice from the control box. They took it. They played it back. The musicians listened, looked at the not-so-tall singer and after a pause, burst into applause.

Terry Parsons had satisfied the toughest, most cynical, and certainly the most musicianly audience he ever had to face. He sang with a gimmickless freshness as if the lyrics were his own personal thoughts… he phrased it with a maturity that belied his inexperience. From that moment on he was one of them. He loosened his tie, opened his collar, took off his bus driver’s jacket…and that action symbolised Terry’s entry into a new career.

Decca decided he needed a different name for his recording career. It
 was decided on in only a matter of minutes. Matt from Matt White an Australian Fleet Street journalist who worked for the Daily Sketch at the time and had written a centre page spread of adulation about the singing bus driver. Monro was taken from Winnie’s father, Monro Atwell. -  Matt Monro was born.

In later years, Matt’s name was legally changed along with his family, all except for his eldest son Mitchell, who retained his original birth name. But the constant misspelling of his name came to irk him; it was either spelt Munro, Monroe or even Munrowe, sometimes as much as three different ways within the same article.  

It’s easy to remember, it’s an anagram of moron!