Wednesday, 10 March 2010

They Turned Me On - Part Three: Hubert Gregg

Why, during a period of transition and possibility in my life, I should have been so drawn to a radio show featuring fifty-year-old recordings played by a man already in his mid-sixties I can't fully explain, but Hubert Gregg's Thanks for the Memory was the dominant soundtrack to my reincarnation as a university student in the early 1980s: Old Romantic, as it were.

There may have been an element of musical comfort food. But it also felt like the next stage in the sort-of serious, sort-of systematic musical study which Motherwell Library had been nudging me towards over the last ten years, with a little help from Ken Sykora and others - including, by that stage, Benny Green.

The show overlapped with some of Sykora's choices, but Gregg covered a narrower area in greater detail than the Serendipitous One: Peggy Lee's We-are-Siamese might have been granted houseroom on occasion; felines of the Nashville variety were not. And no mention of the Hillbilly Cat was ever to shake this wireless Eden - not that Gregg, master of the burnished link, would ever have stooped to Sinatra's "cretinous goons" gibe about the music which had sidelined the composers he revered. He wasn't too keen on Sinatra anyway - more Benny Green's sort of thing - noting in a radio profile of Cole Porter that

Cole hated the twistings and additions to his lyrics. Once, at a party, he made this clear when the singer interpreted "I get a kick out of you." Now, for Porter himself to write against the sentiment with such lines as:


was on the sophisticated target. For a singer to express it with the added phrase "You Give Me a Boot" was less acceptable.
You could say that Gregg's presentation was more mannered than Ken Sykora's, but it didn't seem like that in the execution. Even if the programmes were audibly scripted, as opposed to Sykora's air of an informal chat, a similar intimacy was conveyed. In an age of prattle, that careful preparation felt like a courtesy, not a barrier. And so you learnt to accept phrases which would have sounded artificial coming out of any other presenter's mouth, like "No more for a se'enight," when the half hour had sped by yet again, and even grew to relish the inevitability of the pause you could have driven a car through during the middle of his sign-off: "And au revoir ... to you."

Just as it's said that Hutch (a Gregg favourite) had the power to make the audience in a vast variety hall feel as though they were enjoying a recitation in an elegant drawing room, these and other Greggorian turns of phrase had the effect of drawing listeners into a happy band of fellow conspirators who refused to acknowledge the end of a golden age of English and American music which stretched from the twenties to, I suppose, the late forties.

In Greggland, a region of the mind whose denizens undoubtedly included the above trio (Astaire, Porter and Eleanor Powell) Elvis Presley had yet to be invented, and it's even possible - although I'm less sure about this - that 1948's Hurricane Oklahoma had not yet swept through London town, whirling the musicals of Vivian Ellis, with their surreally silly books by A.P. Herbert, into dizzy oblivion; you were given the impression, at any rate, that Gregg prized the wordplay of Lorenz Hart (pictured to the right of Richard Rodgers and Noel Ca'ad) far above the work of Rodgers' later collaborator, always pronouncing "Hammerstein" with what seemed like a mocking Teutonic "sch" - although, in fairness, this may have been an old-fashioned desire for strict accuracy, as with the distinction he made between nightingale-loud Square and choreographer.

In Gregg's domain Vivian Ellis stayed forever in fashion and Hart's uncynically romantic lyric for Have You Met Miss Jones? was the subject of a preservation order, keeping it from degeneration into Sinatra's swingathon. When CDs, those dangerous portents of the digital age, became the norm for nostalgiac reissues, even they were assimilated into Greggland, harmless and homely when rechristened "shaving mirrors".

And you were happy to feel part of this gang, this enchanted place, however temporarily, because Hubert Gregg - songwriter, singer, actor and general man of the theatre - knew whereof he spake, bigtime. If you ever doubted that, a regularly aired excerpt from a broadcast in which Jack Buchanan contrived to meet Gregg by chance then proceeded to sing his song London in the Rain was proof that the pensionable Radio 2 presenter had indeed moved among these giants of a bygone era. He may not have attained their heights, but he had several songs which endured, including Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner (in a broadcast dating from around the millennium he conducts a huge crowd through the song). And the anecodotes which peppered his programmes were tales of actually meeting the greats or seeing them perform, in London or New York - he had starred in the Broadway premiere of Rattigan's French Without Tears in 1937 and "made bee-lines for every Broadway theatre with matinees that didn't coincide with ours."

A book also entitled Thanks for the Memory, drawn from the scripts of two radio series entitled I Call It Style and I Call It Genius ("A personal spotlight on special people in entertainment"), contains Gregg's profiles of heroes such as Porter, Astaire, Hart, Fats Waller, Jolson, and Jack Buchanan (and is the source of the images here). Too long ago to be able to say whether the book is a straightforward transfer of the scripts for those programmes but this account of an unexpected invitation from Jack Buchanan to meet at his office at the Garrick Theatre conveys a sense of Gregg's own highly polished style. One American critic refered to AA Milne's "bland but agile" prose, a description which could equally apply here:
We talked about the pirates whose grappling irons had made scratches on our sleek craft - the year was 1956. We talked of the world as it spun before the falling of graciousness from grace. We took the present-day world apart and couldn't put it back together again, the trouble everyone would be having ... We sipped ... we talked of the New Wave that was dirtying up our nice clean beach and wondered, should we lie down and let it wash over us like Noel Coward in that film The Scoundrel ... or should we stand up and sing, get with it? I reminded Jack of something Noel had said. "Don't try too hard to be with it or you may end up without it." Jack opened another bottle and we sipped again ... "While supplies last, " he said ...
Let's choose to marvel at the sense of a whole era being condensed into the above, passing over any hint of reactionary attitudes which might be less palatable without his lightness of touch (Vivian Ellis mocked the new breed of playwrights as "all low foreheads and high ideals"); better, too, not to think too hard about his permitting Jeffrey Archer to use Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner for his mayoral campaign. Because the essence of what Hubert gave me was the dependable pleasure of a well-turned phrase and - presumably in cahoots with Graham Pass and other producers - a judicious selection of records, intermingling the very best of jazz - the sort of sides whose qualities even non-jazz fans could not deny - plus numerous English musical comedy songs and the sort of acts, like Jack Buchanan, whose talent may not have been immense but who had polished whatever they did possess until it dazzled.

This tracklisting from a deleted tie-in CD (with links to streamed tracks available on spotify), appropriately enough on the Flapper label, offfers a fair representation of the kind of records played:
1. China Stomp - Hampton, Lionel & His Orchestra
2. Transatlantic Lullaby - Layton, Turner
3. There's A Small Hotel - Daniels, Bebe
4. Scatterbrain - Brisson, Carl
5. Thanks For The Memory - Hope, Bob & Shirley Ross
6. Baby Face - Jolson, Al
7. Too Romantic - Dorsey, Tommy Orchestra
8. Wind In The Willows - Hutchinson, Leslie 'Hutch'
9. The Physician - Lawrence, Gertrude
10. You're Driving Me Crazy - Reinhardt, Django & Stephane Grappelli
11. After You've Gone - Venuti, Joe & Eddie Lang
12. Sugarfoot Stomp - Goodman, Benny Orchestra
13. Super Special Picture Of The Year - Yacht Club Jazz Band
14. Let's Put Out The Lights And Go To Sleep - Howes, Bobby
15. Dinah - Crosby, Bing
16. Tea For Two - Tatum, Art
17. One I'm Looking For - Buchanan, Jack
18. I'm Gonna Get Lit Up (When The Lights Go On In London) - Gregg, Hubert
19. Si Tu M'aimes - Sablon, Jean
20. At The Darktown Strutter's Ball - Dorsey, Jimmy Orchestra
21. Jealous Of Me - Waller, Fats
22. Begin The Beguine - Shaw, Artie
23. Princess Is Awakening - Laye, Evelyn
24. Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner - Gregg, Hubert
Note that he makes an appearance or two himself. Gregg may not have been the world's best singer but the ease and charm he exhuded, whether via older recordings or singing for an edition of the show, usually accompanied by Gordon Langford on the piano, made you surrender unconditionally. Maybe the skills of a disc jockey/presenter or whatever are not so far from that of a singer, boiling down to: do you believe in this person and are you happy to spend time in his/her company? And in Hubert Gregg's case, for me the answer, for quite a few years, was an overwhelming yes.

Why then, (and when) did I stop listening? I can't remember.

He accompanied me when, no ifs or maybes, I became a Londoner myself in the summer of 1985. I never had any doubts about the necessity of the move but when, in the very earliest days, I was surprised by a twinge of homesickness, his programme offered a fortuitous moment of what Professor Morris Zapp would term "Goddam pathetic fallacy radio."

One evening, high up on the Northern line, as I looked out the window of my very temporary b & b onto the back gardens stretching into an uncertain future, there issued forth from my transistor (or wireless, as he would have called it) a recording of what may still rank as the worst Eurovision song of all time, compounding the dreariness of the view and my immediate prospects. It had been cobbled together by Gregg himself around 1960 for an audience he clearly had no wish, nor ability, to understand.

But such a piece was atypical, merely offering the reassuring confirmation that even back then Gregg could not have been "with it" if he tried - not that he sounded like he'd tried particularly hard on that occasion, a thought which was reassuring in itself. He belonged, as the Times obituary put it, to
a lost world where the theatre was an occasion for dressing up, chorus lines were 50 strong and actors projected to the back of the stalls without the aid of microphones.
His persistence in the same radio show for over thirty years (there had been an earlier one before that) was presumably because it allowed him the opportunity, after his theatrical drawing power had gone, to continue to preserve a little of that world - and spread the word to others, like me.

He continued broadcasting until near the time of his death in 2004. I rarely dropped in by that point, although there was no dramatic moment of renunciation. It would be tempting to end with PG Wodehouse's words about his stepdaughter Leonora's death and say I had always thought he was immortal, that there would be editions of the show stretching into infinity, so no urgency about tuning in today ... I don't know. Maybe I had simply tired of his particular schtick. But I would dearly love to hear it again now.

Cassettes I made of his shows in the eighties became damaged and unplayable, though I got plenty of use out of them at the time. He introduced me to many wonderful recordings and artists and I shall always be grateful. In addition to the CD above, I remember with particular fondness Farewell Blues by the Benny Goodman All-Stars and Tea for Two by "the Joe Venuti Group" - a superb version which I've never heard elsewhere, in which Venuti plays the verse and opening chorus with remarkable tenderness before matters become heated. It is, quite simply, the loveliest of all versions of that much-essayed tune.

Whispering Jack Smith's Miss Annabelle Lee featured regularly, and it was on Gregg's show that I first heard What a Little Moonlight Can Do, in a version by Jack Hulbert which embraced the silliness of the song rather than the let's-do-what-we-can-with-this-piece-of-mousetrap approach by Billie Holiday and the Wilson gang. Not to mention Little White Room by "Johnny" Mills and Frances Day (so late for performances, according to Hubert, that she was known as "Fanny every other day"), written by Beverley Nichols and currently available on an Avid shaving mirror, is a forgotten gem which, I'm sure, provided the inspiration for Sandy Wilson's Room in Bloomsbury - along with that other room furnished by Noel Ca'ad.

It's not on the CD and I have searched for it in vain, but Gregg seemed particularly fond of a number about a disaffected Country Boy by a Hoagy Carmichael-type singer whose name I have forgotten, although I think Gregg had seen him perform in a New York club in the thirties.

Unlike the "gold in the morning sun" boy, the subject of this song, possibly penned by the singer, hated his carefree life:
You say that it's a pity
You're not back in the city?
Shame on you, country boy!
 Perhaps he yearned, like Gregg himself, for one more "ineffable afternoon" when songs of the quality of Where or When, My Funny Valentine, I Wish I Were in Love Again and The Lady Is a Tramp could be heard in the same show, then lightly skipping the decades for drinks with long-dead Jack Buchanan, "immaculate", as ever, " from pearl-grey trilby to highly polished shoes."

Part On: Ian Whitcomb
Part Two: Ken Sykora
Part Four: Benny Green & Robert Cushman
Part Five: Russell Davies
Part Six: Those Unheard  or There is a Balm in Islington


  1. I never heard Gregg's show - I'm far too young - but I stumbled across your blog while searching for him online. A fascinating post. I'm currently reading the memoirs of his former missus Pat Kirkwood, whom he seems to have cruelly omitted from the aforementioned CD! (They divorced, but he still appeared on her 1994 This is Your Life). For someone who wrote such an iconic song about our capital, it's a bit ironic that he and Pat set up home in Portugal as soon as they sensed their world was being overtaken. I'm most of the way through her book, and in a somewhat out-of-character moment in an otherwise unemotional and matter-of-fact text, she reflects upon the New Wave demolishing the old order cherished by her generation.

  2. Sorry for the second post, but it wouldn't let me continue before! I listened to the clip of Gregg's Someone to Love. Charming enough in a sort of sub-Coward way, and appropriately preceding Mr Buchanan on your site, whom it also put me in mind of. I can only surmise that Greggland has continued on: via Russell Davies, also profiled on your site, the late lamented Sir David Jacobs and Desmond Carrington, whose voice starts to crack with emotion whenever he has to utter the words "rock and roll". For them, there is indeed a world where 'our kind of music' has lived on, like elderly gentlemen who still smoke a pipe and wear a bow tie, and there was no 'new' beyond 1960. Don Black has replaced SDJ, in spite of his lack of stuffy and formal presentational style. And so, for now, that world lives on. Who says nostalgia's not what it used to be? I'd be intrigued to read your comments on any or all of the above presenters. Without the aural evidence, I can only assume that Hubert's presentational delivery was of the same school as these other names.