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: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."
SOME GET A KICK FROM COCAINE ...
I'M SURE THAT IF I TOOK EVEN ONE SNIFF
THAT WOULD BORE ME TERRIFICALLY TOO ...
YET I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU
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 OrchestraNote 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.
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
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 pityPerhaps 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."
You're not back in the city?
Shame on you, country boy!
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