jabw_vintage report no. 12

Let us tell you about......

Dan Donovan, popular British singer, with Debroy Somers, Henry Hall in the 1930's

this page first published by John Wright, 30 June 2000
last update 31 Dec 2013

Born 1901 in Grangetown, Cardiff, Dan Donovan's parents were both of Irish descent. Musically, Dan got off to a good start singing with a church choir and music society who performed Gilbert & Sullivan, featuring Dan as a soloist. Dan took up the saxophone, and so serious about it that he travelled to London to be instructed by a top teacher, Ben Davis (brother of Lew Davis). In Cardiff Dan began leading a band at the Celtic Rooms, Cox's Cafe and the Gloucester Palais. He gets a mention in Melody Maker as early as Sept 1928: "Former world boxing champion Jimmy Wilde is proprietor Cardiff's Celtic Palais, where the resident 5-piece band, the Celtic Five, comprises of Carl Grashoff (saxes, bjo), Jimmy Donovan (vln), Pete Coleman (pno, arr), Dave Wolfstein (drs), Dan Donovan (saxes, vcl)".

While on a London trip Dan went to hear the Debroy Somers band playing. Dan asked Somers for an audition and almost on the spot Dan was offered a job. (Note: in a letter to Memory Lane Dan and his brother Jim described a version of the audition story).

Suddenly Dan was a well paid entertainer and he made his first records with Debroy Somers on April 25, 1930, A Ship Without A Sail and Love Is A Dreamer. He was also married that year, to Becky. Dan continued to play baritone sax with the band but will be most remembered for the vocals on about 200 records made between April 1930 and August 1934. Most of the records were dance tunes issued on the superb quality Columbia 10" CB series, but Dan was also featured on many special music selections issued on 12" DX series. Many excellent dance tunes were also recorded on the secondary Regal label, some issued as The Rhythmic Troubadours and on at least one of these even Dan had a pseudonym on the label - Dick Sullivan - on novelty double-track record Regal MR-307, Bathing In The Sunshine and When Your Hair Has Turned To Silver. Memorable recordings on Columbia include You're An Old Smoothie, Lovely Lady, When I Take My Sugar To Tea. Listen to the You're An Old Smoothie.

Although the regular Somers vocalist in the recording studios, Dan often found himself sharing the microphone with Tom Barratt. The Debroy Somers outfit was a show band, touring Britain and also went on a memorable tour of South Africa during Nov '31 - Mar'32. In between tours Somers allowed Dan to do studio work with other bands including Bertini, Charlie Kunz, Oscar Rabin, Nat Star, Jay Wilbur. Dan appeared in the film Music Hall with Debroy Somers band.

In September 1934 Dan Donovan joined Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra, and so began a routine of almost daily radio broadcasts. It was through the radio that Dan became a great favorite and hence another daily routine started - fan mail. Dan developed into a very fine singer, yet continued playing sax in the band, and made around 120 records with Henry Hall. There are many excellent Henry Hall recordings to recommend, particular favorites blessed with Dan's vocals include Hands Aross The Table, Blue Moon, Red Sails In The Sunset, A Fine Romance, Radio Times. Just listen to this excerpt from Dan's wonderful Blue Moon. The record is a real beauty, benefitting from a very fine arrangement by Bert Read. Henry Hall was well known for certain novelty records and Dan performed admirably in songs such as The Broken Record and The Phantom Of A Song.

You can hear several Dan Donovan recordings on my podcasts, check the playlists at http://www.r2ok.co.uk/playlists.htm

Dan always had the greatest respect for his band leaders particularly Debroy Somers and Henry Hall, and although Hall was strict with his musicians Dan found him a very likeable person. According to Chris Hayes, and Dan's grandson Dave Burns, Dan was very modest about his success and abilities as a singer and Dave has said that it was some time before he realised how successful and popular Dan had been during the 1930's. The British Dance Bands discussion group is very fortunate to have Dave Burns as a member, he has given us many insights to the character of Dan Donovan.

A discussion during March 2000 has been assembled in the group files and makes fascinating reading - discussions with Dave Burns

Dan appeared with the BBC Dance Orchestra in the films Music Hath Charms, and also The Voice Of Britain singing Sweetmeat Joe The Candy Man and (possibly) Here's To The Next Time.

When Henry Hall left the BBC in 1937, Dan Donovan and George Elrick left the band and Dan was to become even more successful broadcasting, touring theatres and making solo recordings. Although Welsh, Dan's Irish blood began to feature in his performances which included When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. There were other short movies featuring Dan in the late 1930's including Let's Make A Night Of It where he is seen singing My Irish Song.

In February 1938 Dan began a residency at the Lansdowne House Restaurant with his own eight-piece band. He remained there for several months, cutting four recordings with HMV including Rose Of Tralee and 'Tis I Myself. See this portrait of Dan Donovan.

Dan was performing in Holland as war was just about to be declared and made it safely back to Britain. He then began work in a Crazy Gang show before being posted to the RAF at Skegness where he also had a small band. Later Dan went to Dublin Theatre Royal and broadcast for a few years on Radio Athlone. When Becky became ill they returned to Cardiff and ran public houses, but Dan continued broadcasting including the late night show When Day Is Done.

Dan continued singing until aged 70. He suffered a stroke in 1976, when he was 75, and lived to the age of 85.

Peter Wallace has estimated the total number of recordings made by Dan Donovan to be around 500, see Dan Donovan Discography, and has also collected details of all the surviving Henry Hall radio broadcasts, most of which feature Dan Donovan (up to early 1937).

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: In preparing this web tribute to Dan Donovan I am particulary grateful to his grandson Dave Burns for the fine photograph scans, confirmation of facts, and for his approval to publish the page. I'm particularly indebted to Chris Hayes whose article in Memory Lane No. 55 (1982) supplied many important facts and his Dance Band Diary of 1928 supplied the quote from Melody Maker. Also thanks to Ray Pallett and Dave Burns for permission to publish the letter from Dan's brother Jim. I'm grateful also to Peter Wallace for permission to reproduce files from the yahoo discussion group, and thanks to Peter Wallace and Barry McCanna for their contributions to the group discussions with Dave.

E-mail me if you want to know more about Dan Donovan or another singer who worked with the great British Dance Bands.

You can join the very active discussion groups and talk about Dan Donovan and other artistes who performed with dance bands and jazz bands of the 1920s-1950s:

The Facebook group: Golden Age of British Dance Bands

return to the Personalities page