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Roy Fox

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Bandleader, Cornettist.
Denver, Colorado, October 25th 1901
Twickenham, England, 20th March 1982, aged 80
Signature tune:  Whispering

Born in Denver, Colorado, on October 25th 1901, Roy Fox was taken as a child to Hollywood, where he grew up and first began playing as lead trumpet with Abe Lyman’s Band, alongside Gus Arnheim, Miff Mole, Buster Johnson and Gussy Miller. When given a chance at the age of 20 to form his own it was the largest in Hollywood, playing at the Café Royale, right opposite the MGM studio. He moved to other ritzy establishments, including the Cocoanut Grove, until he was appointed an executive of Fox Films, supervising their Musical Production Department, and for some years supplying musicians but not actually leading bands. During this time he worked on some money-spinning movies, including "Sunny Side Up".

Receiving a cable from London inviting him to play at the Café de Paris he came over to do so in September 1930, bringing an American band and staying eight weeks, during which he started recording for Decca, trumpet leading a 10-piece band with vocalist Kenneth Allen. Although the band was reported as rather unexciting, Roy himself created a good impression with his whispering trumpet style and quiet demeanour.He was booked to open at the new luxury Monseigneur Restaurant in Piccadilly on May 27th 1931, with a star-studded -10 piece British band comprising:

Nat Gonella, Sid Buckman (trumpets), Joe Ferrie (trombone), Billy Amstell and Ernest Ritte (alto sax), Harry Berley (tenor sax and viola), Lew Stone (piano, arranger), Don Stuteley (bass), Bill Harty (drums) and Al Bowlly (guitar & vocals).  

The photo (right) shows, left to right, Berley, Amstell, Ritte, Harty (at back), Fox, Bowlly, Stuteley (at back), Stone, Ferrie, Gonella, Buckman.

The brass section had been with Billy Cotton, who was himself resting after illness. I believe Cotton bore Roy no ill-feeling for pinching his star musicians. To be honest, it was their choice and if Roy hadn't offered them the job, it is likely they would have found work elsewhere in any case.

Lew Stone and Bill Harty brought Al Bowlly along to Roy after finding him busking to a theatre queue in the West End! Arriving from South Africa a few years before, he had been with one or two bands (including Fred Elizalde at the Savoy Hotel) and done reasonably well, but had hit upon hard times and was broke. Roy gave him a job and launched him upon his illustrious career as the doyen of dance band singers. After only a few months at the Monseigneur, Roy was stricken with pleurisy and had to leave for the mountain air of Switzerland, staying five months, during which time Lew Stone led the band and built up a formidable reputation with his progressive ideas and his brilliant arrangements.

When Roy came back, in April 1932, it was to an embarrassing state of affairs, as the band (and the Monseigneur management) now looked upon Lew Stone as their leader, so Roy left in October 1932 to form a completely new band - except for trumpet player Sid Buckman - at the Café Anglais. It was, however, by no means a second best product for it included some accomplished musicians, notably Harry Gold (tenor), Jack Nathan (piano), Ivor Mairants (guitar), Maurice Burman (drums) and Eric Tann (trombone), plus Jack Plant (vocals).

Roy moved from the Café Anglais to the Kit Cat in January 1933 with a bigger band which boasted singers Peggy Dell, Jack Plant, Ronnie Genarder and, eventually, Denny Dennis. The band made its stage debut at the Plaza in Haymarket for two weeks commencing April 28th 1933. Roy went back to the Café de Paris in February 1934, reducing his band size to suit the management, and from there he went into variety, touring the country continuously until his health failed again in 1938, necessitating another sojourn in the Alps.

After having a rest for a few months he was told by a friend that a new ballroom, the St Kilda Palais, situated right on the beach at Melbourne, Australia, needed a new band, so he made some enquiries and was offered the job, which carried three broadcasts a week with his own programme, called Roy Fox’s After Dinner Show. He took his vocalist, Pat McCormack, with him and was at St Kilda for nine months, proving a big success, with his health gradually improving in the warm, dry climate. He was invited to renew his contract, but felt that it would be good for listeners to his radio shows to see the band in person, so he decided to go on tour.

It was a devastatingly ill-advised venture, because the weather was terrible, the distances involved were phenomenal and the venues were insignificant. In the end he lost all his money and had to throw in the towel. He managed to pay up all his debts and made up his mind to return to England, by which time war had broken out. Pat McCormack and Roy’s wife at the time, Dorothea, boarded the boat with 30 cases of luggage and Roy went off to watch the Melbourne Cup Race. Afterwards he went along to see the American Consul to thank him for his kindness during his stay in Australia, and was shocked to be told that his passport would have to be withdrawn because he was an American citizen. He could only return to the States.

He was advised to get his luggage, Pat and Dorothea off the boat and was heartbroken because he had lived in England for eight years and desperately wanted to go back. He got a passage on a boat sailing for America with Dorothea and they arrived in Hollywood at Christmas 1939. He at once received an offer to form a band to play at the Rainbow Room, in Radio City, and he booked a singer named Kay Kimber, who had done some films in Hollywood, and was appearing in a musical in New York called Two For The Show. But before he could open the Rainbow Room was closed because it was considered to be vulnerable to air raids, being situated on top of a skyscraper.

Instead, Roy went into the La Martinique, where he broadcast weekly, and from there to a new club called the Rio Bamba, on 57th Street, a swanky place where the floor show included a brash young singer named Frank Sinatra, who deflated Roy’s ego by telling him that he was the worst conductor he had ever worked with! Roy ticked him off and after that they became good friends. Roy left the Rio Bamba to go into the Savoy Plaza Hotel, a smart haunt of high society, just opposite Central Park, and in 1943 he married Kay Kimber. He went to Washington to get his passport back, so that he could return to London to form a band to entertain the troops, having been rejected for military service due to his ill health.

But he was told that all accommodation was reserved for military personnel. On the day that he did finally receive permission to go back to England he had an offer to play a season at the Mount Royal Hotel, in Montreal, fronting a Canadian band, with Kay Kimber as vocalist. It was a three-year contract with nightly coast-to-coast broadcasts, so it was enormously appealing, but he preferred to return to London, so he booked a passage on the Queen Elizabeth and sailed in February 1946, leaving Kay in New York until he fixed a job and could send for her.

He met with a great deal of hostility from some British bandleaders, notably Billy Cotton and Jack Payne who accused him of dodging the war, and threatened to have him black-listed, but John Mills, owner of the Milroy Club, booked him to replace Harry Roy and he went in with a band which included some of his former musicians, notably trumpet-player Sid Buckman and pianist-arranger Jack Nathan. Kay came over within a few weeks and was signed for a big Jack Hylton musical, High Button Shoes, at the London Hippodrome.

When he left the Milroy he went on tour expecting to receive the same response to which he had been accustomed before the war, but when he opened at the East Ham Palace in the winter of 1946 with a 18-piece band there were rows of empty seats. It was the same in most theatres. The weather was bitterly cold, people had perhaps forgotten him, and he was on percentage, so he lost a lot of money. He was said to owe £10,000 income tax for the period just before he went to Switzerland the second time, and he was made bankrupt. Fortunately he was offered a 17-week summer season in 1947 at the Palace Ballroom, Douglas, Isle of Man.

Then he went back on tour, believing he could not flop again, but sadly he did, largely because pop music had put dance bands out of favour. He lost so much money that he had to pack it in and Kay went home to her family in Iowa. Luckily Roy had an offer from Louis Ellman, owner of Dublin’s Theatre Royal, to produce shows and conduct a stage band of Irish musicians. He hoped this would encourage Kay to come back, but it didn’t.

He became friendly with an actress appearing at the neighbouring Abbey Theatre, Eileen O’Donnell, and as Kay threatened to divorce him unless he returned to the States, he let her do so and married Eileen, who presented him with a son, Gary. They came back to London and Roy formed a band of young modernist musicians, including Victor Feldman, Tubby Hayes, Benny Green, Tony Crombie, Lennie Bush and Stan Tracey, to play at some of the venues where he used to be such a favourite. But audiences were looking for something different and he was forced to disband. He became a manager and agent for a few selected artists, but I don’t think it was a very profitable business.

Roy was a great believer in talent contests and ran them all over the country when on tour. His singing discoveries included Peggy Dell, Denny Dennis, Mary Lee, Bobby Joy, Pat McCormack, Barry Gray, Jack O’Hagen, Ella Logan and Betty Bolton. His musicians, over the years, apart from those already named, included Max Goldberg, Jack Jackson, Lew Davis, Benny Frankel, Spike Hughes, Tiny Winters, Eric Tann, George Gibbs, Andy Hodgkiss Don Macaffer, Art Christmas and Andy McDevitt. And, of course, we must not forget the chirpy singing Cubs, who were Les Lambert, Harry Gold and Ivor Mairants.

Roy recorded for Decca from October 1930 to December 1935 and was their musical director for six years. He changed over to HMV in January 1936 and 17 titles taken from his radio recordings during the summer of 1938 were released on a Halcyon LP. There are now album re-issues of his old 78s on HMV, Decca and World Records, reminding us of his soft, sweet, relaxed band, so characteristic of himself and those carefree days before the calamitous war.

A suave, good-looking six footer, Roy was regarded as the best dressed bandleader in the country, always resplendent in tails, reflecting his elegant and dignified personality. Everyone knew his silken voice with its mellifluous accent, which at once identified him as a Californian. His mellow muted trumpet playing in his days as a musician earned him the title of Whispering Cornettist.

He told me why he chose “Whispering” as his signature tune. “One night when I was playing at Hollywood’s Cocoanut Grove, celebrated violinist Jascha Heifetz danced by while I was playing trumpet and remarked to his partner, ‘It sounds like a whisper’. So I decided to use it as a signature tune, especially as the composer, John Schoenberger was a close friend of mine”.

Roy only did one Royal Variety Performance, at the London Palladium, for King George V and Queen Mary in 1933, but he did two other Command shows, one a Royal Film Performance and the other for King Albert of Belgium. For many years Roy had a beautiful house in Highgate, close to his bandleading rival Jack Payne, but in due course he moved to a spacious ground floor flat conveniently next door to the Decca Studios in Chelsea. He was keen on all sports, chiefly horse racing, and was an enthusiastic punter. He enjoyed home life and had a great love of dogs, always having at least one. Every year he bought a new Rolls Royce - those were the days!

Wemyess Craigie, who ran his thriving fan club and was promoted to publicist and then his personal secretary, told me: “He was thoughtful, ever-courteous and generous to a fault, which eventually caused him to go bankrupt. He was deeply concerned about the welfare of his musicians and singers and treated them with kindness and respect. But he was a strict disciplinarian and could be abrupt if people didn’t respond. He had a fetish about punctuality and any-one who arrived late was curtly told not to let it happen again”. The end was miserable for Roy. He had to leave his luxury flat in Chelsea, apparently because he couldn’t go on paying the rent, and his marriage to Eileen O’Donnell, who was also known as Kerrie Marsh and had done some acting on TV, including Emergency Ward 10, ended in 1966, so he was alone. A mutual friend told me that for a time he lived in a shack in the garden of someone who had been close to him, until his old friend and ever-faithful fan, Wemyess Craigie, heard about it and managed to get him into the Variety Artists’ home Brinsworth House, at Twickenham, Middlesex, where he gradually faded away.

I went to see him in 1981 soon after I retired, a journey of four hours each way from my home on the Isle of Wight, and he was unable to talk to me for more than a few minutes. He died on 20th March 1982, aged 80. He had been married three times and his first wife, Dorothea, had been a show girl in the Marx Brothers’ musical, The Cocoanuts on Broadway.

Acknowledgments: Leader of the Band, by Chris Hayes.

Roy Fox
(photo courtesy of Frank Phillips)

Roy Fox and his Band.jpg (95726 bytes)
Roy Fox and his Monseigneur Band

Roy Fox & Mary Lee.jpg (41254 bytes)
Roy Fox and Mary Lee (courtesy Frank Phillips)