Dance Band Encyclopaedia
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Full Professional Name: Bert Ambrose
Profession: Bandleader and violinist.
Real Name: Barnett Ambrose, later Benjamin Baruch Ambrose*
Born: Warsaw, Poland (then part of Russia), September 11th, 1896.
On death certificate it gives: Born: London, September 15th 1896*.
Died: Leeds General Infirmary, Leeds, June 11th 1971*.
Signature tune: When Day Is Done
*details from Ambrose's death certificate kindly supplied by Tom Kelly.
There has always been a certain mystery about Ambrose's origins and early life. I had a a nudge from Mark Berresford (while he was doing some research on The Clover Gardens in New York) and with much research by Joe Moore, hopefully things are becoming a little clearer, though we will probably never know everything for definite.
Ambrose and his parents were from Warsaw in Poland (then part of Russia) and emigrated to England, probably in the 1890s, most likey to escape the pogroms of the time with reference to the Jews. Their surname would not have been Ambrose, but this is a typical type of name taken by immigrants at the time.
The 1901 census shows what was believed to be the family as Lewis Berofsky (tailor), Betsy (his wife) and young Barnett, aged 4 living at 17, Varden Street, Mile End. The first problem is that Barnett is shown as being born in Mile End, London. The Barofski family became naturalised British on July 9th, 1903 in Whitechapel. They are shown as Lewis, Rachel, Isaac and Barnett. Barnett is given as 6 years old, which fits with the known birth date for Bert Ambrose. However, This is thought NOT to be Bert Ambrose, as this Barnet Berofsky died in 1919, aged 20, and any similarities are purely coincidental.
The 1911 census found is almost certainly the right one as it shows Lewis Ambrose (dealer in rags), his wife Becky, and son Barnett aged 14, described as "violin musician", living at 43, Yalford Street, Mile End. The census states that their is another child living, but no detail about their name or sex. All are stated as being from Russian Poland.
At the age of 15 Ambrose was taken to America by an aunt (no documentation has been found to confirm this) and soon after he was playing his first professional job on violin for Emil Coleman at Reisenweber's restaurant in New York, later playing in a big band at the Palais Royal, backing the floor show. When the bandleader was taken ill, Ambrose took over the role and did so well, that he was asked to form his own 15-piece band at $50 a week. He was only 20 at the time (presumably this was 1916-17). Unfortunately, he fell out with the boss and moved his band to the Club de Vingt, where he was immensely popular. There are some recordings for Edison by The Club De Vingt Orchestra, but these date to 1921-22 while Ambrose was back in England. Interestingly, these are shown in discographies as being directed by Jack Harris, an american violinist & bandleader who would later be Ambrose's business partner in London.
On his US WWI draft registration (dated June 5, 1918), he gives his name as Bert Ambrose and birth date as September 11, 1896 in Warsaw, Russia. His nearest relative is named as his mother, Becky and she was living at 56, Blaksley Street London. Ambrose gives his employer's name as D. Sherbo, Palais Royal, which may mean the move to the Club de Vingt was slightly later than mentioned above, or that Sherbo, a band fixer, also ran the band at the Club de Vingt, but that The Palais Royal was his main band.
At some point, probably late 1919 or early 1920, Bert Ambrose received a request from the owner of The Embassy Club in London, Albert de Corville, to form a 7-piece band to play there, for £360 a week. This was a huge amount of money at the time and Ambrose obviously decided he could hardly refuse such an offer. On February 13th, 1920 Ambrose arrived back in London and started work at The Embassy Club. Almost immediately, the club was bought by restaurenteur, Luigi, who became a business associate of Ambrose.
Almost exactly two years later Ambrose walked out for a night job at New York's Clover Gardens for $200 a night, working again for Duilio Sherbo. He travelled to New York, arriving there on February 24, 1922. The contract at The Clover Gardens was for 12 months and started in June 1922. Meanwhile, back in London, Luigi was frantic and spent the next few months sending a stream of cables to Ambrose, imploring him to return. In desperation, Luigi enlisted the help of the Prince of Wales who sent the following cable:- "The Embassy needs you. Come back - Edward". There is also a story is that his visit to London was to visit his sick mother. Whatever the truth, Ambrose walked out of the Clover Gardens and arrived in London on December 22nd, 1922 once more holding the baton at The Embassy Club. "The Billboard" reports that The Clover Gardens "installed Joseph Smith's orchestra on December 2nd, replacing Sherbo's orchestra directed by Bert Ambrose". Sherbo brought charges against Smith, but not against Ambrose, surprisingly, so maybe it wasn't Ambrose's choice to leave the Clover Gardens, but the management forced him out?
During this period, in April 1923, Ambrose made his first recordings; 12 sides for Columbia. These recordings are quite scare, nowadays, implying they sold poorly. It is likely that few people had heard of the band; Luigi did not allow broadcasting from the club, so, in comparison to the Savoy Havana Band, who were broadcasting regularly, the band was not such a good recording proposition, and Columbia did not repeat the experiment. To be fair to them, Ambrose's band, based on the recorded evidence, was nothing special. The members of the band at the time have not all been identified yet, but included Arthur Aaronson and Rupert Dixon on alto and tenor saxes respectively; Max Raderman (brother of Lou Raderman, the violinist and Harry Raderman, trombonist, all Americans) on piano; Harry Edelson, banjo, Julius Nussbaum, tuba and American Eddie Gross-Bart on drums. A trumpet and trombone are also audible on the records, probably added for recordings only.
In late July 1923, Ambrose once more travelled to New York for a short vacation, possibly to return with his American-born wife, Kathryn, arriving in London again on September 7th 1923. On January 20, 1924, Ambrose, now known as Benjamin Baruch Ambrose, married Kathryn Brady at Hackney. It is not known when he changed his first names.
Ambrose remained at the Embassy Club until 1927. He had become increasingly frustrated by Luigi's "no broadcasting" rule, and so jumped at the chance of directing the band at the newly-opened May Fair Hotel, which included broadcasting in the contract. Lou Raderman took over the band at the Embassy.
The job at the May Fair brought him almost £500 a week as well as great fame. His band was an Anglo-American one: Americans Henry Levine & Harry Wild (trumpets); Louis Martin (sax), George Posnack (piano), Lee Conna (banjo) and Harry Raderman (drums). The last named was not the famous trombone player, but was related. The Brits were Bill Morley (trombone) Jack Miranda, Joe Crossman (saxes) Sidney Lipton (violin) and Dick Escott (bass). Ambrose stayed at the May Fair Hotel for six years, during which time, the band recorded for Brunswick, HMV, Decca (the hard-to-find M-series) and then Brunswick again. The band gradually developed into the all-star unit people still remember, including (at different times) many star musicians such as Sylvester Ahola and Max Goldberg (trumpets), Ted Heath (trombone) Joe Crossman, Joe Jeannette (the latter was with Ambrose from 1928 until he finally disbanded in the late 1940s), Bert Read (piano), Joe Brannelly (guitar) Dick Escott (bass) and Max Bacon (drums). These were top-notch musicians who could play in many different styles, sight-read and improvise at will. It is not surprising that many were used by some record company's musical directors to form the core of their studio bands. John & Bert Firman (Zonophone) and Jay Wilbur (Dominion and Imperial) being just two examples.
In June 1933, Ambrose, refusing to take a pay cut at the May Fair, returned to the Embassy Club for nearly three years, before setting off on a variety tour of the country in January 1936. Again, America tried to tempt him with a personal salary of £600 a week, but failed and Ambrose returned to the May Fair in September 1936. He bought Ciro's Club in partnership with fellow American violinist and bandleader, Jack Harris, and the two bandleaders played there alternately in 1937. However, they disagreed over who should play when, and the partnership broke up, with Ambrose moving to the Cafe de Paris until war broke out, when he resumed touring. He returned to the May Fair for a short spell, before retiring in August 1940, being fed up with air raids, and resting at a farm in Hertfordshire which he had bought. He continued to record with his orchestra on Decca until 1947, the musicians he used still being the best around.
He gradually returned to "the business" including the Ambrose Octet which toured under Evelyn Dall's direction and also presenting mini-stage shows. He became involved in management, but did return to the West End on a few occasions: Ciro's in 1945, The Nightingale in 1948 and The Cafe de Paris in 1955, when he also made a series of recordings for EMI, attempting to re-create the old sound. He tried to carry on in the face of Rock and Roll, but had to play small clubs with a pick-up band, though he expected the return of the big bands. Just as his money ran out, he got the break he needed when he discovered 16 year old Kathy Kirby singing at the Ilford Palais, and decided to promote her, and her song "Secret Love". They received a lot of embarrassing publicity, when unsavoury stories appeared portraying Ambrose as a kind of "sugar daddy" for the young singer. It must have hurt his pride, but Kathy was a goldmine and he needed the money. He had always been a compulsive gambler, boasting that he spent a million pounds at the tables. Once when in the south of France, he had to wire his London office for money to pay his musicians. The money from Kathy Kirby's stardom would just slip though his hands.
On Saturday, June 11th, 1971, Ambrose collapsed at Yorkshire Television Studios, while Kathy was recording a show, and he died of a haemorrhage that night. It was the end of Kathy's career too, as she never got over his death, nor did she find another mentor. Ambrose's death certificate death shows his place of residence to be 17, Davies Street, Berkeley Square, London and gives his name as "Bert Ambrose otherwise Benjamin Baruch Ambrose".
What about Ambrose the man? Few, if anybody called him "Bert". He was called "Mr. Ambrose" (or "Ammy" by his friends). He has been described as shrewd, quick-witted, fiery-tempered, with a mixture of dignity and offensiveness, and with a sardonic sense of humour. He used to insult the customers outrageously, at the smart venues he played. He taunted his musicians with cruel comments, but was equally quick to praise and when complimented on the excellence of the band, would acknowledge the musicians.
Ambrose's famous theme tune, "When Day Is Done" was first broadcast at the May Fair hotel on October 10th, 1931. The familiar arrangement which is to be heard on the various 12" Decca releases was orchestrated by Ronnie Munro and included, apart from Sam Browne's vocal, solos from Danny Polo on clarinet, and Max Goldberg on trumpet. Ambrose and his Orchestra made many hundreds of records for HMV, Decca and Brunswick. His band his always slick and note-perfect, but there are occasions when the band sounds bored, leading to some records lacking in sparkle and life. These are the exception, however, and there are plenty which are the epitome of top class dance music played by the best musicians money could buy, and they generally knock spots off the competition, especially the American swing bands with their rather uninspired arrangements.
of The Band by Chris Hayes. Additional details of the American jobs
from Mark Berresford.