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Visiting Americans

Paul Specht - Part 4

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Part Four: Paul Specht and his Orchestra; 1926.

By the beginning of 1926, Specht had expanded his booking agency still further. Variety for January 13th carried an article to the effect that eight Specht bands would be playing in China during the coming year, and also one band in Melbourne, Australia. The article also referred to the visit to England of the Canadian Club Orchestra, and stated they:

“.. .will become the feature Columbia recording orchestra in England replacing the Savoy Orpheans and Havana bands, prior recorders for Columbia.”

Quite apart from the Canadian Club band becoming the “feature Columbia orchestra”, neither of the two Savoy bands mentioned had recorded for that company since late 1924!  

It was about this time the Willis-Vaile Bill was put before the Senate and Congress in America Introduced by Senator Willis and Congressman Vaile, it sought “reprisals against discriminatory entry of American professionals into any foreign country”. This Bill had been agitated for by Specht; following his experience in England in 1924, and was clearly aimed at England rather than any other country. Despite various meetings and discussions the Bill failed to get passed, the State Department taking the view that adequate protection already existed for American professionals through the strict immigration laws in America. It also appears that no other American bandleaders supported Specht in the matter, and this had been duly noted by the State Department. (Click here for document)

(Curiously, the proposed Bill took no account of the restrictions imposed by the American Federation of Musicians against English and foreign bands working in America) 

As mentioned in the previous instalment; Paul Specht brought over his own orchestra in late Spring of 1926. It seems he was determined to try and make a good impression, perhaps in view of his previous experiences in England. With this in mind, he typed a note of instructions to the members of his orchestra, which appears to be so unusual it is worth repeating here:­


Enclosed you will find record check which I will cash for you upon arrival in London, and another record check is on its way from N.Y.

Now, about our venture into England:

U will be a CREDIT to American musical standards

F you always play your best —

F you always dress your best

F you always act your gentlemanly best-­

F you visit the barber regularly, and keep your shoes shined!

Rough house yelling and carrying on will not be tolerated by any English managers nor the English public. You have heard some sad, humiliating stories about the flop other American bands have experienced, so when I offer any suggestions, THINK first and KICK to me personally in private, as I have played in England before and may have some first hand information for our mutual benefit. We will have COMPETITION, so LET’S set a real RECORD that will be hard for others to follow. FIRST IMPRESSIONS are LASTING, so let’s start NOW! AND DON’T KICK UNTIL YOU’RE SURE THAT I HAVEN’T DONE MY DAM BEST TO MAKE THINGS CONGENIAL FOR YOU, and REMEMBER that COURTESY and a little FAVOR now and then will bring it’s reward from others.

THANKS BOYS and don’t forget to have your instruments clean and shined!

Paul L. Specht   April 20, 1926.

Reading the above, one is inclined to wonder what sort of discipline problems were expected, or indeed, what had occurred on previous visits! 

A copy of the original document can be seen here, together with programmes of Ship’s Concerts on the outward and return voyages, in which individual members and the full band took part.  

Paul Specht - Aquitania.jpg (100414 bytes) Paul Specht - Aquitania 2.jpg (118031 bytes) Paul Specht cartoon.jpg (125599 bytes)
Concert on board the Aquitania, April 1926 Concert on board the Aquitania, July 1926 Cartoon of Paul Specht

The band departed from New York on the RMS Aquitania on 13th April 1926. The trumpet player Charlie Spivak discovered he had no passport just before they were due to sail, and (quite literally) had to be left at the dockside! After an uneventful voyage, they arrived at Southampton on 20th April.

The Passenger List (BT26/ 827) shows the following musicians:-

Sylvester Ahola Aged 23     trumpet
Louis Calabrese Aged 28 banjo
John Cressey Aged 23 reeds
Foster Morehouse Aged 23 reeds
John Morris Aged 23 drums & vocals
Michael Philburn Aged 23  trombone
Paul Specht Aged 31 director
Phillip Wall Aged 22  piano
Ernest Warren Aged 18 reeds
William Wolfe Aged 20 tuba

The sharp-eyed will notice the name of William Wolfe, a former member of the Carolina Club Orchestra who visited in 1924. He joined Specht’s own orchestra shortly after that visit. Paul Specht’s wife Dorothy, aged 28, accompanied him on this trip; they gave their address in London as 18, Charing Cross Road. The address of the other members of the band was given as The Royal Palace Hotel, London.

On 23rd April, the orchestra made their first appearance at the Empress Rooms in the Royal Palace Hotel, Kensington, for the benefit of the musical press, and started the following day on an eight-week engagement During this time they alternated evening performances with the resident (British) hotel orchestra, led by Leslie and Cecil Norman, each band playing one set in turn. There were similar arrangements for the afternoon tea-dances, which were very popular at that time. 

It had been intended that after the engagement in London, the Specht Orchestra would play further engagements in Switzerland and Germany. However these did not materialize and the musicians had a few days holiday in London before embarking on 26th June, again on the Aquitania, to return to New York 

According to the Passenger List (BT27/1 138), the following were on board:-

Louis Calabrese Aged 27 
John Ciissey (sic) Aged 23
Foster Morehouse    Aged 23
Johnny Morris Aged 23
Michael Philburn  Aged 23
Ernest Warren        Aged 18
William Wolfe Aged 20

Apart from Paul Specht and his wife, missing from the above list are Sylvester Ahola and Phil Wall, who had decided to fly to Rotterdam and elsewhere in Europe during the holiday period - a brave venture in 1926! After many adventures they arrived in Cherbourg which was the Aquitania’s first port of call after leaving Southampton. They had great difficulty in convincing the port officials that they were members of the Specht band, the others having already embarked.

According to Variety’s issue of June 30th, “Paul Specht returned to London from the Continent this week and probably will sail for New York Saturday. His bandsmen are already on the water, homeward bound. Paul remained behind to attend a conference with the Piccadilly (Hotel) management having to do with arranging for a permanent understanding calling for periodical London engagements over a long term.”

By this time the Musicians’ Union in England were becoming so concerned at Specht’s actions and proposed activities that they wrote to Joseph Weber, the President of the American Federation of Musicians. Their letter, dated June 21st, 1926, read as follows:-

Dear Mr Weber, 

Our Union has been rather concerned with the action of Mr. Paul Specht on his different visits to this country.  
In 1924 we saw a copy of a proposed agreement in which it was stated that one of the objects of the agreement was to set on foot another musicians’ union in England which would seek to facilitate the entry of Paul Specht combinations only. (This was part of the agreement Specht tried to enter into with Jack Hylton, see Part Two). During this present visit l understand he made a statement at a Press dinner, saying that he was a representative of the American Federation of Musicians, but after being pressed upon it, it came out that he was a delegate to the National Convention of the A. F. of M.

Until we get advice from your Federation that he is entitled to open up negotiations on your behalf; we do not intend negotiating with him & we shall be glad for a line at your earliest convenience, letting us know what is the exact position for our future guidance. 

Yours fraternally, 

Wiiliam Batten; Secretary.

The reply from Mr. Weber was indeed prompt.. ..and very much to the point! Dated July 1st, 1926 it is too long to reproduce in full here. However the opening and closing paragraphs, and main points addressed by Weber, were:­

Dear Mr. Batten,

I beg to acknowledge receipt of your interesting communication as well as copies of your correspondence with Mr. Paul Specht

1) Specht does not represent the AFM, and purporting to do so, directly misleads.

2) Specht’s statement to the effect that the AFM Convention voted binding instructions to the National Executive Committee (of the AFM) to investigate and sponsor legislation regarding reciprocal relations with foreign musicians is quite untrue. (Refers to Willis-Vaile Bill)

3) Specht made the same mis-statement to a Congressional Committee, concerning which members of the AFM were incensed at the next AFM Convention.

4) Specht’s statements concerning the number of English musicians employed in the USA are totally inaccurate and take no account of the many who have emigrated there and taken up US citizenship.

5) No one knows anything of the International Society of Artists which Specht refers to, and the million artists who are members exist only in his imagination.

You may give this communication all the publicity you desire.

With best wishes for the continued success of your organisation, I remain,

Fraternally yours,

Jos. N. Weber,
President, American Federation of Musicians

Melody Maker in October 1926 duly reported this correspondence, quoting both letters in full and commenting that it did indeed discredit Specht although they also expressed concern at the clear opposition of both organisations to any reciprocal arrangements for English and American musicians.

In view of the ongoing difficulties over Work Permits, The Kit Cat Club now proposed to Specht that a scheme be set whereby bands could be employed at the Club consisting of equal numbers of British and American musicians. Variety duly reported this proposal, and commented that the Kit Cat would be applying for a Work Permit for Specht alone to visit England, for the purpose of organising such bands. On July 13th,Specht wrote to Sylvester Ahola, concerning a forthcoming engagement in America. it is worth noting here that Specht went on to say:
Business in New York does not look so good but l have two or three wonderful things under consideration and the Kit Cat Club want us definitely November 1st. Maybe some of you would like to go over and play with a mixed American and English band.”

The Kit Cat Club duly applied for Specht’s Permit but it was refused. (Without explanation, which was the normal practice of the Ministry of Labour.)

As he had done two years earlier, Specht started to lobby government officialdom in America to put pressure on the British Government to admit him into England. Variety for August 11th carried a lengthy article on the matter, headed “State Dept Inquiring Into English Permit Refusals", stating that “...the State Department is again endeavouring to intercede for Paul Specht...” Again, no mention was made of opposition by the AFM.

Variety for August 18th commented that Specht had agreed with the Kit Cat Club and the Piccadilly Hotel that he would send over a nucleus of Canadian, Irish and Scottish musicians should Work Permits be refused for himself and American musicians. It also stated “.....Specht holds a contract with the Kit Cat and Piccadilly as general musical director....Specht is to send three units over to the Kit Cat and Piccadilly, originally intending to have the personnel half British and half American.”
(It is perhaps worth pointing out that the Piccadilly Hotel were closely involved with the Kit Cat Club. They were a major shareholder, and had two of their Directors on the Board of the Club.)

Variety for August 26th carried a report that “England Bars Specht Whether On Business Or Pleasure Trip” and stated that the American Embassy in England had been instructed to intercede on Specht’s behalf. However, a brief item on the same page noted the US State Department had written to Specht making it clear that England was within its rights to exclude who they wished. They had apparently also taken the unusual step of making public their correspondence with Specht and others he had appealed to for assistance.

The whole affair rumbled on for another ten days or so. Variety of September 1st. stated “Specht Incensed; Will Get Even On Bands” and spoke of his determination that none of the bands he booked in England would contain any London dance band musicians. However on September 7th, Variety carried a front-page headline “England Admits Bands; Paul Specht Gets Permit To Go To London”. It appears that discussion between the American Embassy and the Ministry of Labour in London had resulted in Specht being allowed to enter the country and organise bands, but not to make personal appearances.

It is rather odd, but despite all these diplomatic manoeuvres, I have been unable to find any evidence to date that Specht actually came here at this time. Be that as it may, by the end of 1926 he had been replaced as Musical Director at the Kit Cat and Piccadilly. This position was now taken up by Jack Hylton, no less, and duly reported in Melody Maker for December, 1926. In view of Specht’s long-time antipathy towards Hylton, it must have been galling indeed! 

At about this time, Jack Hylton and his band also appear to have been offered a booking in America by the B. F. Keith Circuit, a well-known theatre chain. Specht took steps to try and block this visit, but was told by the U. S. State Department he could not do so. In the event Hylton’s visit was cancelled, owing to the inevitable opposition from the AFM.

This is a convenient point at which to pause; the final instalment will cover Specht’s activities relating to England during the late Twenties and through the 1930s.

Click here for the final part: Part Five: Paul Specht; the later years