jabw_vintage/report no. 41

Let Us Tell You About.....

Jack Wilson, pianist and band leader

this page first published by John Wright, 28 April 2021
last update 26 July 2021vintage@r2ok.co.uk


Jack Wilson was a very fine syncopated pianist who rose to fame in the 1930s, broadcasting on BBC radio and leading his band The Versatile Five

born 28th September 1907
Bedworth near Coventry

died 12th January 2006

At the age of 14 Jack Wilson worked as a pianist in a local cinema accompanying silent films. Upon leaving school, he worked in the accounts office of the Triumph Motorcycle Company in Coventry. Here he founded a works orchestra, which he conducted. He then founded his own dance band and left Triumph to work at A & F E Hanson, the major chain of music shops in the Midlands, giving piano demonstrations.

Jack successfully auditioned for the BBC in Birmingham and made his first broadcast as a solo pianist on the Midland Regional Programme in February 1930 where he played three pieces by Billy Mayerl: 'Jazz Master', 'Marigold' and 'Rhythmic Chorus Medley'.

In a broadcast in October 1930 Jack was featured pianist with The Midland Studio Orchestra, and played solo his 'Syncopated Pianisms'.

In 1931 Jack Wilson began regular broadcasts with Jack Venables featuring their Syncopated Duets, and in 1932 began regular broadcasts in the BBC's 'Children's Hour' with Jack Beeby (Banjo and Guitar). Other musicians who Jack performed alongside for broadcasts include Frank Copson (saxophone and violin) and Frank Cantell (violin). Later jack teamed up with pianists Jack Hill and Basil Hempseed, broadcasting as The Three Knaves.

In 1933 Jack joined the Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra which was under the direction of Charles Shadwell and was broadcasting regularly on BBC radio. The weekly radio broadcasts became immensely popular, and opened with a fast, four-bar piano break from Jack, followed by the orchestra's signature tune, ‘I Want to Be Happy’.

As well as broadcasting with the orchestra Jack attended the orchestra's first recording session at the Coventry Hippodrome on Wednesday 17th May 1933.

On that day Jack Wilson recorded a piano work with orchestral accompaniment, 'The Knave of Diamonds'. The recording was not issued commercially (but Jack was able to keep the original test disc and it survived to allow inclusion on a CD in 1999).

Later in November 1935 the orchestra recorded medleys of popular tunes. In one of those medleys Jack Wilson plays an excellent piano solo:

Click this title to listen to 'Happy - Selection' (both sides): "Happy Selection"

The story of the first recording session is described in the Coventry Herald of 19th May report

The story of the second recording session is described in the Coventry Herald of 15th November report

At this time the Hippodrome Theatre was located adjacent to Swanswell Gate

the medieval Swanswell Gate can be seen on the right

The Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra, conducted by Charles Shadwell, was now rated one of the finest theatre orchestras in the country and continued to be hired for regular, often weekly, BBC radio broadcasts relayed directly from The Hippodrome Theatre, Coventry.

Sometimes the performances featured singers and instrumental soloists (some of who were local Coventry/Warwickshire musicians), several broadcasts in 1933 featured solo work by Jack Wilson.

In the summer of 1934 Jack was approached by the Decca Record Co. and he recorded Mighty Lak’ A Rose and a medley of tunes. Jack’s virtuosity was astounding on this record which received rave reviews. Later that year, because Hansons had a contract with EMI, Jack’s recordings continued on the Regal Zonophone label for whom he made more than a dozen records during 1934-1936, including duets with Jimmy Leach which started off his career.

Listen to one of Jack Wilson's solo recordings, a very clever medley of three tunes from the Hollywood film Top Hat

Also, in 1934, at the request of the BBC, Jack Wilson formed a small group for broadcasting, which became known as Jack Wilson and his Versatile Five. The versatility of the band lay in the fact that, apart from Jack, they were all multi-instrumentalists, which gave Jack a wide scope for his music arrangements. The Versatile Five were very popular, broadcasting on BBC radio and Radio Luxembourg, and topped the bill at the London Palladium on several occasions.

Listen to this recording by Jack's band with singer George Barclay After All These Years

Jack won the admiration of his idol, composer/pianist Billy Mayerl, who dedicated his "Nimble-Fingered Gentleman" to "my friend Jack Wilson." In turn Jack dedicated a composition called “Billy on the Black and Whites” to his friend.

In 1938 the popularity of Jack Wilson was recognised by music publishers Campbell & Connelly who were selling sheet music with a photo of Jack Wilson.

Also that year, Jack Wilson and his Versatile Five made 12 sides for Parlophone records, and the band topped a countrywide poll for the best light music ensemble.

The personnel of The Versatile Five on broadcasts may have varied but has been listed as: Jan Berenska violin, cello, piano; Jimmy Donovan sax; Fred Adcock, violin, saxes, clarinet and vocals; Billy Porter cello and tenor sax; Norman Thistlewood string bass; and of course Jack Wilson at the piano. Sometimes the band included Cedric Morgan violin, viola and sax, Steve Pallett (alto sax and clarinet), Bernard English (violin), Frank Cantell (violin), Len Roberts (clarinet, tenor saxophone, and violin), Reginald Crick (violin and viola) and Al Rice (piano-accordion). Canadian tenor Jack Ford and soprano Nora Savage also broadcast with the band.

Jan Berenska, (pictured right) who hailed from Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, also led his own light music group which broadcast regularly on BBC radio.

Read a Melody Maker article on Jack Wilson.

Listen to this jazzy recording by Jack's band 12th Street Rag

During World War II, Jack and his Versatile Five mounted an extensive tour of Britain's military outposts. Jack also also teamed with fellow pianist Harry Engleman to host the popular BBC program Workers' Playtime, and together they made a series of 6 records ’On The Dance Floor’ for Rex records. The pair also provided music for some of the 'Children's Hour' broadcasts. After the war they continued their collaboration on a theatre tour. In 1947 Jack and Harry gave a television broadcast from Alexandra Palace.

I am grateful to Robin Cherry for this short air-shot from a 'Children's Hour' programme; he audio gives the cast as Marjorie Westbury, Lester Mudditt and Dorothy Paul. At two pianos were Jack Wilson and Harry Engleman. John Watson has searched the BBC Genome and has identified the programme as that broadcast on Saturday 23 November 1940, 17:20 to 18:00 on BBC Home Service.

Listen to this air-shot from a Children's Hour programme in 1940 Five o`clock Folies 1940

As the country's music tastes changed, Jack dissolved the Versatile Five in 1952. Jack, his wife Thelma and son Tony moved to the Worthing area and set up as a tobacconist and an estate agent. He also performed in Worthing clubs until the mid-1970s. In 1999, the Shellwood Shellac label released the CD “After All These Years”, compiling some of Jack’s solo recordings and Versatile Five recordings spanning from 1933 to 1941. Jack died on 12th January 12, 2006, at the age of 98.

(thanks to Peter Wallace, Guy Rowland and John Watson for the details)

Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra

The Knave of Diamonds - Jack Wilson, piano, with orchestral accompaniment, recorded 17th May 1933, recording not released

Jack Wilson, piano

Decca F5126 released Sept 1934
Mighty Lak’ A Rose;
Musical Comedy Memories (I want to be happy; Lover come back to me; Spread a little happiness)

Regal Zonophone MR1446 released Nov 1934
Modern Medley 1934, No. 1, Pts 1 & 2 (With my eyes wide open I'm dreaming; Isle of Capri; Love in Bloom; I never had a chance; The breeze; Over my shoulder)

Regal Zonophone MR1499 released Dec 1934
Modern Medley 1934, No. 2, Pts 1 & 2 (Smoke gets in your eyes; Heat Wave; Have a little dream on me; Who made little Boy Blue?; Two cigarettes in the dark; Then I'll be tired of you)

Regal Zonophone MR1538 released Jan 1935
Modern Medley, No. 3, Pts 1 & 2 (Stay as sweet as you are; Love is in the air again; June in January; Phantom fingers; Blue sky avenue; Give me a heart to sing to)

Regal Zonophone MR1547 released Feb 1935
Mayerl Melodies, Pts 1 & 2 (Marigold; Canaries Serenade; White Heather; Jazz Master; Jasmine; Nimble-Fingered Gentleman; Ace of Hearts; Hollyhock)

Regal Zonophone MR1661 released May 1935
Samum; Easter Parade; Song of the Trees

Regal Zonophone MR1694 released June 1935
Dizzy Fingers - Dizzy Keys, Pts 1 & 2 (Dizzy Fingers; Sweet Nothings; Flapperette; Kitten on the Keys; Billy on the Blacks and Whites; Holiday)

Regal Zonophone MR1775 released Sept 1935
Big Film Medley, Pts 1 & 2 (ROBERTA - I won't dance; Lovely to look at; SWEET ADELINE - Why was I born; Don’t ever leave me; GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 - Lullaby of Broadway; Words are in my heart; SWEET MUSIC - Sweet Music, Fare thee well Annabelle)

Regal Zonophone MR1825 released Oct 1935
Raindrops Medley (Butterflies in the Rain; Dance of the Raindrops; When I get my girl in the rain) Dancing Dolls Medley (Doll Dance; Wedding of the Painted Doll; Dainty Doll)

Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra

Happy Selection: I Want to be Happy; Happy Days are Here Again; Happy Feet; Back to Those Happy Days; Many Happy Returns of the Day; Spread a Little Happiness; I Want to be Happy (Pianist: Jack Wilson)
issued on Regal Zonophone MR1915 (recorded 12th November 1935)

Jack Wilson, piano

Regal Zonophone MR1910 released Dec 1935
Six Hit Medley No. 4, Pts 1 & 2 (Stars over Devon; For you Madonna; Magic; East of the Sun; Lonely Gondolier; About a quarter to nine

Regal Zonophone MR1944 released Jan 1936 Top Hat Film Selection (Top Hat, White Tie and Tails; Cheek to cheek; No Strings): Big Broadcast of 1936 Film Selection (Why stars come out at night; I wished on the moon: Double Trouble)

Regal Zonophone MR2037 released April 1936
King of Burlesque Medley (I'm shooting high; Lovely Lady; I've got my fingers crossed); Three Hit Medley (You are my lucky star; Bird on the wing; Music goes round and around) with JIMMY LEACH

Regal Zonophone MR2066 released May 1936 Musical Comedy Memories, Pts 1 & 2 (SHOW BOAT – Can’t help lovin’ dat man: NO NO NANETTE - Tea for two; ROSE MARIE - Rose Marie; WHITE HORSE INN - White Horse Inn; Your Eyes; CAT AND THE FIDDLE - She Didn’t Say Yes: BITTER SWEET - I'll see vou again

Regal Zonophone MR2090 released June 1936
Hit Memories Medley, Pts 1 & 2 (Miss Annabelle Lee; Little Japanese Sandman; Chinatown; Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life; Magic Waltz; Merry Widow Waltz) with JIMMY LEACH

Regal Zonophone MR2280 released Jan 1937
Over she goes - Selection, Pts 1 & 2 (I breathe on windows; County Wedding; Speed Cop; The dance goes on; Mine's a hopeless case; Over she goes)

Jack Wilson and his Versatile Five

Parlophone F1022 released Feb 1938
After all these years (vocal George Barclay); Silver sails on monnlit waters

Parlophone F1025 released Feb 1938
City of a million dreams; Viennese Romance

Parlophone F1062 released Apr 1938
A pretty little patchwork quilt (vocal Sam Browne); Too lovely to be true

Parlophone F1063 released Apr 1938
Farewell Hawaii (vocal Sam Browne); Sweet Genevieve

Parlophone F1095 released May 1938
Mad about music Selection; Operette Selection

Parlophone F1127 released June 1938
Merry Mill; Twelfth Street Rag


Rex 9805 released July 1940
On the Dance Floor No. 1, Pts. 1 & 2 (There’s a boy coming home on leave; Moonlight Avenue; You Made Me Care: Am in Am; Let the curtain come down: Over the Rainbow)

Rex 9842 released Oct 1940
On the Dance Floor No. 2, Pts. 1 & 2 (Limehouse Blues; Sheik of Araby; Chinatown My Chinatown; Doll Dance; Lonesome Little Doll; Rag Doll; Wedding of the Painted Doll)

Rex 9861 released Dec 1940
On the Dance Floor No. 3, Pts. 1 & 2 (Quick-steps – Playmates; I've Got My Eyes On You; Turn Your Money In Your Pocket. Fox-trots – Fools Rush In; The Singing Hills; I Can't Love You Anymore)

Rex 9881 released Jan 1941
On the Dance Floor No. 4, Pts. 1 & 2 (Angry; I can't give you anything but love; I'm nobody's baby: Love will find a way; Alice Blue Gown; I'll see you again)

Rex 10081 released Dec 1941
On the Dance Floor No. 5, Pts. 1 & 2 (You forgot to remember; Dancing with tears in ay eyes; In a little Spanish Town; Bye Bye Blues; Blue Skies; The Blue Room)

Rex 10199 released April 1944
On the Dance Floor No. 6, Pts. 1 & 2 (Sweet and Lovely; Auf wiedersehen; Body and Soul; Shine; Miss Annabelle Lee; Happy Feet)


1. Guy Rowland, obituary for Jack Wilson that appeared in The Guardian, 27-02-2006.

2. Guy Rowland notes for Shellwood CD SWCD14.

3. Mike Lorenzini, producer of the Shellwood CD, for permission to create mp3's of tracks and provide links to recordings of Jack Wilson and Jack Wilson and his the Versatile Five.

4. Billy Mayerl Society, articles written by Guy Rowland in issue 11 (2000) and 23 (2006).

5. Patrick Newley, obituary for Jack Wilson that appeared in The Stage 02-02-2006

6. Coventry Evening Telegraph, archives in British National Newspaper.

7. Coventry Herald, archives in British National Newspaper.

8. Peter Wallace for contemporary magazine articles.

9. John Watson for advice, photographs and various information.

10. Robin Cherry for the Children's Hour air-shot.

11. BBC Genome website for broadcast dates and musicians.


1. A tribute webpage to orchestra director Charles Shadwell is in preparation : Charles Shadwell

2. 1930s dance bands and some light orchestral music are the subject of this Facebook group:

Click: The Golden Age of British Dance Bands.

3. You can join these very active Facebook discussion groups and talk about Coventry:

Click: Visit Historic Coventry

Click: The Coventry I Remember

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