Dance Band Encyclopaedia
Born: January 27th 1902
Howard Baker led bands for over 56 years and discovered many musicians
and singers who are famous today. They have included musical director
Norrie Paramour, society bandleader Bill Savill, pianist-accompanist Len
Edwards, arranger Stan Bowsher, percussionist Harry Robbins,
Latin-American bandleader Don Carlos and singers Vera Lynn and Dorothy
widespread activities all over the country as a bandleader and band
supplier earned him the deserved title of "The Gig King",
bestowed upon him by the editor of the “Melody Maker” at the time,
Percy Mathieson Brooks. It has stuck right through his career.
Born at Leyton on 27th January, 1902, Howard started his eventful life as a pianist when a child, but had to give it up due to a serious illness. Oddly enough, when fit again, he took up the cornet, inspired by seeing a cornettist on stage at the Stratford Empire! When only a teenager, he joined a little band in his home district. However, being good-looking, cheerful and a smart young man, he was soon being asked to front a band and started doing so with a quartet called the Lyric Orchestra which played all over East London. He was no make-shift trumpeter, because he took lessons from a trumpet teacher who played for Sir Henry Wood and was equally as good as a straight and dance exponent. His fondness for brass instruments led him to form a school for cornet players, with top musicians as teachers. There were plenty of pupils and plenty of work for those who succeeded. There were bands springing up everywhere in those significant days.
formed his first really significant band, which he called The Deiphians,
in 1924 when he was 22 years of age. It was an 8-piece which he led on
trumpet and it boasted the first sousaphone in the country. By now,
Howard was working as a clerk in the local council offices and doing a
gig every night of the week within a radius of 50 miles of London.
Eventually his band activities became so enormous that he had to open an
office with a large staff in Charing Cross Road to cope with the offers
flooding in from all over the U.K. He turned professional in 1935 and
still went on fronting his band on trumpet until 1960.
Delphians grew into a big band and he supplied other bands of various
types and sizes for a variety of work ranging from small private parties
to big public dances. At one time he was operating as many as 22 bands!
By the mid-1930’s he was broadcasting regularly with the Howard Baker
Radio Band and his other outfits included the Deiphians, the Astorians,
the Embassy, the Ambassador, the Regent and the Regal. He did his first
broadcast on 2nd April, 1936 and he began recording for the Hudson
label, original copies of which are quite hard to
find these days. The subsequently made 2 sides for the semi-private
TELEDISK record label, on which he used 17-year-old Vera Lynn, whose introductory
record, which she has always treasured since, was a song called
“It’s Home”. Howard presented her with it when she was featured in
“This Is Your Life”. She sang with his band at many local halls for
about two years andsubsequently went on to nationwide fame with
Joe Loss, Charlie Kunz and Ambrose,
before becoming a well-loved solo performer from the WWII period onwards. She has graciously always given Howard the credit for
discovering and grooming her. Howard was not particularly impressed when
he first heard her, but gave her a try-out. He soon realised her great
potential — but she didn’t appeal to Billy Cotton, who asked Howard
if he could borrow her when his own singer was off sick and sacked her
after two and a half weeks! Vera often tells the story against herself
with unassuming joy.
Howard’s regular jobs were 12 gigs a year at the Albert Hall with a
30-piece band, a necessity in those days when there were no microphones
to fill out the vast auditorium. He played at the famous basement
ballroom, the Astoria, in Charing Cross Road, and at the Hammer-smith
Palais, opposite Lou Preager, both for two and a half years. His many
other resident engagements included the Casino in Liverpool, the Gaiety
in Ayr, the Floral Hall in Southport, the Beach Ballroom in Aberdeen,
and the Oxford Galleries in Newcastle, but his record run was at the
seafront Kursaal at Southend. He reigned there with a big band for 21
years on a virtually perpetual contract which he finally ended at his
own request when he gave up bandleading in 1967
his heyday he formed a band-supplying partnership with Billy Cotton,
quite separate to his own agency in Charing Cross Road, and among their
discoveries was violinist Carl Tauber, who was given the leadership of
the Astorians and eventually became a famous society bandleader as Paul
Adam, notably at clubs like the Astor. Musicians beseiged Howard in
search of work. It was due much to his advice and help that Australian
multi-instrumentalist Abe Walters became a top West End Latin American
bandleader under the more fashionable name of Don Carlos. Bill Savill
started as drummer with Howard and developed into a society favourite
bandleader. Howard put percussionist Harry Robbins on stage for the
first time with his own band and was instrumental in the discovery and
initial presentation of the world-famous Dagenham Girls Pipers.
recruits who achieved distinction in the musical profession included
saxophonist Burton Gillis (Henry Hall), guitarist-banjoist Les Casey
(Billy Cotton) and American violinist Chester Tunis, who for a time led
the Astorians. Singers who enjoyed a lot of success, but never became
widely-known included Gloria Brent, Stella Raymond, Joyce Carlisle and
Gwen Overton. Howard’s younger brother, Arthur Baker, a splendid
drummer, who was also a dancer, singer and comedian, started with the
Delphians and was a star member of Billy Cotton’s Band until his
tragic death at sea during the second world war. Howard came across
Dorothy Squires when he went up to Barry Island, near Cardiff, to play
at an exhibition. She asked for an audition and he booked her for the
week he was there She stayed with him for over two years and did her
first broadcast with his band, leaving to form a partnership with
songwriter and accordion bandleader Billy Reid.
Even at the age of 76, Howard was still lively and fit and running a thriving band agency from his home at Gants Hill, Ilford, Essex. He was still doing an occasional gig, fronting his own band, notably appearing every year at the RAF Battle of Britain Ball at the Grosvenor Hotel.
Information supplied by the late Chris Hayes, journalist with "Melody Maker"