When I was a teenager, learning about big band music by listening to it with my friend Louie on his homebrew “hi-fi” (this was pre-stereo), I soon found myself becoming more and more familiar with the star bandleaders and their styles. I got pretty good at telling the difference between the music of Benny and Glenn, or that of the Count and the Duke, but one night Louie put on a new platter and asked what I thought of it.
“Sounds like Glenn Miller”, I answered, but I was already beginning to have second thoughts because Louie was grinning like a hyena. I couldn’t believe it when he told me it was an English band, led by a guy named Ted Heath. I was floored. How in the world could a bunch of stiffs from across the pond sound that good? After all, at that time British musicians weren’t exactly household names in America, and Paul, John, Ringo and George were probably still scuffling around the schoolyards of Liverpool.
But leave it to Louie, who was a talented musician himself, to discover that there was a swing band out there that was putting out pretty good music, even if it didn’t get a lot of attention from the average teenager, who at that time was probably more interested in the emergence of early rock and roll — but that’s another story.
There were other British bandleaders during the golden age of swing music, but Ted Heath was probably the best known and most successful. (Which isn’t always the same thing.) He and his band were very popular in Great Britain, and performed at a high level through the 1940’s, 1950’s, and even into the 1960’s. During that time, his band was one of the few still clinging to the old style big band dance music when most other jazzmen were moving to bebop and modern jazz.
He was a strict disciplinarian and didn’t allow his musicians much in the way of spontaneous improvisation, but some of the solos turned in by the talented members of his band sparkled — even if rehearsed in advance. His biggest hit was probably “Swingin’ Shepherd Blues”, and he had another good seller with “Hot Toddy”. A lot of his success in record sales was earned by issuing albums of music made up of songs that other swing bands had made popular. After his record sales began to climb in the US, he led a British invasion of sorts (predating the one to come later from rock stars) by periodically bringing his band over for tours, one of which even included a concert at Carnegie Hall.
His band was dissolved in 1964 as a result of his faltering health, but its demise was probably was helped along by the changing tastes of music fans. He died in 1969 but left behind a musical legacy that sets him a little apart from many others of the era.
6 thoughts on “Beatles Weren’t First British Musical Invasion”
Another Pre-Beatles British music star to have an American hit was Lonnie Donegan with “Rock Island Line” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour”. And yet another one was Acker Bilk with his “Stranger on the Shore” making Bilk the first British musician ever to put a song in the number one position on the U.S. charts kept by Billboard. All in the pre-Beatle days.
Enjoyed reading your comments, Barry, and it impelled me to look further. You’re right, of course — Lonnie and Acker both preceded the Beatles although I think Ted Heath was touring the US before either.
I confess that I don’t remember Lonnie but according to the Wiki he did have a hit with “Rock Island Line”, and it reached the US top ten in 1956, although there’s not much about whether he actually came to the US himself until later.
Acker reached popularity in the US a little later but still before the Beatles. I used to think he was German (because of the name) but he wasn’t. Ironically, another famous musician of the era, James Last, was German, again seemingly in contrast to his name, but he was born Hans Last.
I’m sure there were other British musicians making their mark in the US even earlier — anyone remember any?
I was a teenager in England in the 50s. In the 60s I emigrated to the US (considered by us Brits to be the home of Rock.n.Roll). Bill Haley, the grandaddy of Rock, was half British – his mother was English from Lancashire. The first real British rocker was Tommy Steele, but I don’t know if he ever was known over here. Lonnie Donegan’s forte was skiffle which influenced a lot of British lads to take form skiffle bands. I don’t remember but I believe that McCartney and Lennon were trying to form a skiffle band at first. Cliff Richard became the next British Rocker. Both Steele and Richard grew up in the greater London area.
Cliff Richard got his big break as a supporting artist when he opened for the UK tour by the American Kalin Twins who were very popular in England.
The music industry was centred in Denmark Street, Soho, London, and they looked down on anything from the provinces. Which is why the Beatles were first turned down by the UK Decca records as they were from Liverpool. In the early 60s there was a big drive by the UK music industry to foster an American exposure for Cliff Richard. In those terms of course he was never anything but a failure. He actually never made the US Billboard top ten until 1976 with the hit “Devil Woman”. I was actually driving my car in Long Beach, Ca, when I heard it played on the radio and was astounded that he had finally made one hit after all those years. Since living in the US, his name had been dropped from my memory. Tommy Steele left Rock and became a star in West End musicals. The music industry based in London in the UK hated the fact their southern English rock stars had been eclipsed by the Northern Bands who became so popular in the US so they built up the Rolling Stones who were from Kent as a counterweight to the northern influence. Although I have to point out (I am a northener) that Mick Jagger’s dad was from Yorkshire.
Good stuff, Barry! Thanks again.
The thing is those acts your talking about did not break the American domination on the charts and on songwriting as the Beatles did. The Beatles wrote seven number one songs that went to number one in the states and 65 songs by British artists hit the top 40 in 1964 in 1963 only three acts hit the top 40. Yes there were other acts before the Beatles to hit the charts but no one had a lasting impact until the Beatles came along. That was just a tip of the what they accomlished they were the first British act to have the top song of the year I Want to Hold Your Hand and the top album of the year Meet The Beatles. They put the MerseyBeat sound on the map they are the act who put British Rock on the map they inspired many folk artists to go to rock like the Byrd’s artists to write their own songs like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to go electric you are talking about the most influential rock act of time here and that just the only 1964.
You’re right of course, George. The Beatles were the biggest thing to hit from Great Britain, no one would dispute that. But my original point was that they weren’t the first British musicians to have some success in America.
Thanks for the comment.