jabw_vintage/report no. 30

Let Us Tell You About.....

Harry Shalson, British singer and dance band vocalist 1920's

this page first published by John Wright, 6 December 2003 2000
last update 13 February 2011vintage@r2ok.co.uk


John Wright: I am delighted to say that I have been contacted by Vaughan Shalson, son of Harry Shalson who recorded with some of the finest musicians and dance bands in Britain during the 1920's. Vaughan has kindly written a short biography of Harry Shalson, probably never in print before, and has submitted some excellent photographs which are included in this web page.

We are also working on a listing of all Harry Shalson's recordings. Go to Harry Shalson Discography

Vaughan Shalson writes: My father, Harry Shalson, was born in Hackney, London on May 10, 1898 to parents Henry and Mary Ann. He had one younger brother, Len, and a sister, Elsie.
The family had a piano in their home that his mother played, but young Harry showed no particular interest in music, and consequently neither took piano lessons nor had any other formal musical training. Apparently, when he was eight or nine, he started to amuse himself by vamping chords on the piano and picking out simple melodies by ear. His piano technique was entirely self-taught, therefore, as was his style of singing, though over the years he learned both to read and write music.
When he died, he was still receiving royalties from the Performing Rights Society on more than 200 songs that he had written over thirty years earlier while he was in the profession.
Going back to his childhood, his father ran a public house in Hackney, and by his early teens Harry regularly earned pocket money playing piano and singing in the pub on weekends. Somewhere during this time he also acquired a part-time job at a local movie theater accompanying the silent films of the pre-talkies era. Little is known of his early family life or schooling, except that he left home in his late teens when his parents separated.

this photo appeared
on an HMV poster

The earliest information I have of his professional engagements is playing with Clarke’s Hawaiians in Hendon in 1919. From then until 1924 he had engagements in various clubs (including Desti’s, Jade’s, The Riviera, Murray’s and the Portman Rooms among others) as well as a number of the popular Palais de Dance of the day. In 1922 he played with a jazz band called the Manhattan Five and subsequently formed a band of his own that was billed as Harry Shalson’s Novelty Jazz Band. Perhaps his most unusual venture during that period, however, was the formation of The Versatile Three, a singing trio with which he performed in black-face in late 1923.
In the spring of 1924 he was invited to perform at a royal command performance before the King and Queen of Norway and continued playing in Oslo from May through September. He returned to London and resumed the club circuit (Jimmy’s, The Golden Square, the May Fair, the Ambassador’s etc.), both as a solo artist and with a number of bands, such as Van Straten’s Ambassadors Orchestra, Arthur Hetherington’s Piccadilly Players, and Bert Ralton’s Original Havana Band.
The recording phase of his career appears to have begun in 1925 with Columbia Records and Imperial, playing with Bert Ralton’s band and Ronnie Munro and his Dance Orchestra. By 1926, Imperial was billing him as England’s First Whispering Vocalist, (undoubtedly a comparison to Whispering Jack Smith on the other side of the Atlantic) which title later evolved into England’s Whispering Baritone. From there he moved to Brunswick and HMV. Unfortunately, other than a 1928 list of Brunswick releases and a similar 1931 list from HMV, I do not have details of how long he recorded with each company, nor how many recordings he made, although I have been able to compile a list of over 60 titles from various sources.

John Wright note: A good number of Harry Shalson's recordings with HMV, with Carroll Gibbons' studio band and with members of the Ambrose Orchestra, sold very well and are still commonly found at record fairs. they are much sought after by collectors.

You can hear several Harry Shalson recordings from this period on my podcasts, check the playlists at http://www.r2ok.co.uk/playlists.htm

Starting in 1927 Harry began writing, producing and appearing in a number of reviews with titles including, Spice of Life, Paris Life, Midnight Madness, Ladies First, and Whirl of the World. These occupied most of his time (interspersed with occasional club engagements) until 1934. In addition to composing the music for these reviews, he composed a number of popular songs with Jimmy Kennedy, including Tall Timber (1930) and Moon of My Dreams (1931). From a recording standpoint, his most successful compositions appear to have been My Southern Home, which he recorded on Brunswick, and Poor Little Me, Wonderful You, which he recorded on HMV.
Alexander Gleason writes: Harry Shalson briefly flirted with very early talkies in the films Piccadilly Nights (30) and Stepping Stones (31). In Piccadilly Nights he is credited as Musical Director with songs arranged by Maurice Winnick and featuring Shalson's song For you and Me probably sung and danced by stars Billy Rutherford and Elsie Bower (accompanied by the Winnick band). Stepping Stones features three songs co-written by Harry Shalson & Jimmy Kennedy - Naughty Ladies Of the Nineties, Lady Of The Crinoline and Gold-Digging Days plus one by Kennedy alone Visions of Tomorrow. No-one knows who sings or dances which numbers, as the film is so incompetently shot, performers are just unidentifiable (I'm not even sure if the film was ever released). Musical direction was by Alec Alexander (& his Melody Boys band).
In 1934-35 he teamed-up with Eddie Fields, appearing in Variety together and composing songs, such as Live and Let Live. This was followed in 1935 by a weekly series of appearances with Chappie D’Amato which lasted until the end of 1936. I believe these were staged at the Savoy and were broadcast live over BBC radio.
Two other events were to occur that year that would change the direction of Harry’s life. First, he met Esme Smith, whom he would later marry and, second, he was approached by Garland Advertising Service to develop a series of radio ads for Rowntree’s gums and pastilles. The result of the latter was the creation of Sam, the Sweetshop Man and related patter and songs. More importantly, it sparked Harry’s interest in commercial radio and the potential for advertising which led him in such unlikely directions as sports broadcasting from Wembley and forming Curzon Enterprises, Ltd., a company specializing in point-of-sale displays.



Thus began a new phase of Harry Shalson’s life as a businessman. He married my mother, Esme Smith, on December 16, 1939 at Caxton Hall in London. The following year, with the commencement of the blitz, they moved to Maidenhead, some twenty miles west of London, and Harry, a quintessential Londoner, was forced to become a suburban commuter taking the train to Paddington each day. The war years were a difficult time to start a new venture, and Harry supplemented the meager revenues of his fledgling business by composing advertising ditties, such as The Meltonian Theme Song (which he also recorded for the company).
Eventually, however, the war ended, and Esme gave birth to their only child, a son they named Vaughan (me!), on January 10, 1946. Concurrently, roughly mid-way between Maidenhead and London, a novel development was taking shape in the form of one of the country’s first major industrial parks, the Slough Trading Estate. For the next eighteen years, Curzon Enterprises thrived on this conveniently located market, providing point-of-sale displays for products from a broad range of companies including Aspro, Mars, Horlicks and Johnsons.
In 1963, as Harry passed his 65th birthday, he and Esme decided they would like to retire to the south coast of England, and they purchased a home on the seafront in Hove. The house, a regency property dating back to 1828, required substantial modernization and they traveled back and forth each week for more than a year to confer with various contractors on the work.
Meanwhile, Vaughan, who was now eighteen, had been offered a place at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge to study Mechanical Engineering. In September 1964, therefore, their long-time home in Maidenhead was sold; Vaughan was carted off to Cambridge; and Harry and Esme moved into their new home in Hove.
Sadly, less than five months later, on the morning of February 5, 1965, Harry suffered a massive haemorrhagic stroke from which he died later that day.

Vaughan Shalson has kindly submitted an image of the Versatile Three. This group apparently varied in personnel, which is obvious from photos and sheet music. This photo certainly includes Harry Shalson (in black-face). The others are Gus Haston and Tony Tuck, and they appear to be naturally of dark complexion!


in Harry's handwriting

Vaughan Shalson and John Watson have submitted various clippings and sheet music. Go to More about Harry Shalson

We are working on a listing of all Harry Shalson's recordings. Go to Harry Shalson Discography

You can join the very active discussion group and talk about dance bands and jazz bands of the 1920s-1950s:

The Facebook group: Golden Age of British Dance Bands

Any further information on the career of Harry Shalson will be much appreciated. Please e-mail John Wright with any additions, corrections

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KIT KISSON accomp. by Eric Siday-vn, Len Fillis-g, Harry Jacobson-p ~ November 1928 1330- Just Like a Melody From Out of the Sky Metropole 1111 1331-2 Heaven for Two Metropole 1118       KIT KISSON accomp. Harry Jacobson-p ~ December 1928 1431- Where Have You Been All My Life Metropole 1118  KIT KISSON accomp. by Harry Jacobson-p What a Wonderful Wedding That Will Be Metropole 1127  Beautiful Metropole 1127    My Southern Home Metropole 1128    KIT KISSON accomp. by Geoffrey Gelder’s Kettner’s Six Wonderful You, Commonplace Me Metropole 1138    When the Lilacs Bloom Again Metropole 1138   Halfway to Heaven Metropole 1139    Way Down Honeymoon Lane Metropole 1139  Issues not known, Get Out and Get Under the Moon Was it a Dream?