Shirley Evans was born in Birkenhead, Merseyside, the daughter of a Liverpool taxi driver. She travelled the world, playing her accordion, singing and dancing. She gave three Royal Command Performances, including one for Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. |
In 1950 Shirley joined the Al Podesta Accordion Band, then went on to become a solo professional accordionist, singer and dancer. In the 1960s, Shirley was often pictured in the ‘Accordion Times’, advertising Scandalli accordions.
In the 1950s, Shirley’s show business career began in earnest when she was ‘discovered’ by the manager of one of the big music publishing companies in London. She told the story this way: “My favourite number is ‘The Blue Tango’. It really changed my life, and opened the world up for me! In 1952, I was in the Variety/Revue show for the Summer Season, at Butlin's Holiday Camp, Clacton-On-Sea. (David Croft, of ‘Dad’s Army’, 'Hi-Di-Hi’ and 'Are You Being Served?’ directed the show.) I had taken a day trip to London to get some music, specifically ‘The Blue Tango’, from Mills Music Co; Denmark Street, (Tin Pan Alley). Whilst I was in the office, Mr. Cyril Shane (Manager) popped his head out of his office and said, ‘I've seen you somewhere!’ I told him I was in the show in Clacton. To my surprise, he said he had seen me in the show, and thought I was very good! He asked me what I was going to do after the show ended? I said I did not know. With that, he opened an adjacent door, and called in: ‘I want you to help Shirley. I've seen her work and she's very good!’
It was Harry Dawson, a booking agent, who arranged an audition for me with Combined Services Entertainment (CSE). I took another day trip (from Clacton) with my accordion, and auditioned. They liked me! I was asked, ‘Would you like to go to Austria or the Middle East?’ I remember my reply as if it was yesterday! I said, ‘Send me anywhere!’ I was just overwhelmed.
Within a few weeks I was on my way to Austria and Italy, with the Tessie O’Shea Show! to entertain the British Forces overseas. In Vienna we travelled through the Russian Zone, which was quite an experience. In another part of Austria we stayed in a beautiful chalet type hotel. The draw back, was that it was reputed to have been one of Hitler’s favourite places, now in the hands (Thank God) of the British Military!
In the corner of the dining room a trio of musicians played accordion, bass and drums. The musicians were very nice, and when I expressed an interest in the 'catchy’ polka they were playing, they immediately gave me the music of Der Clarinet Mukle, ‘The Clarinet Polka’. I liked it so much, I quickly learned to play it, and included it in my act. Music does have its own language!! This was the beginning of my long association with Combined Services Entertainment.
Since then, I toured the Middle East for CSE with ‘Radio Bandbox Show’. I had my 21st Birthday in the middle of the Sinai Desert. I still have the huge birthday card that was made for me by Captain Stan Cash, (his name is on the poster) from Liverpool. Cpt Cash had made it specially.It was a map of the area we were in, with a little airplane on it and all the places our show went to, and a miniature copy of the poster of our show, and the musical notes of ‘Happy Birthday’ across the centre.
I was billed as the 'Accordion Starlet’. There happened to be many artistes there, in Fayed, at the time of my birthday (Joyce Grenfell, The Ivy Benson Band, Benny Hill, etc). Appearing in our show were Harry Dawson - vocalist, Harry Worth - comedian, Louise Trail - soprano, Alfie Franks - pianist, Val Jelley and Hal Lennon - Australian comedy act. A memorable time!
Then I toured Germany with the John Hanson Show. One of the performances we played for the British Forces, was at a most dreadful place, Dachau. We were all greatly affected. We were travelling with a German Orchestra. Emotions surfaced! I also toured the Far East, with the Denny Willis Show. We toured Japan, including Hiroshima, and we saw the shell of a building that was a monument to the Atom Bomb, that had exploded directly above it. It was the only building shell left standing, at that time of happening.
We went to Hong Kong, and to Singapore (where there were riots) and we travelled through the Malayan Jungle, with armed guards, and on to the stark contrast of Korea. The shows were greatly appreciated. A touch of home!
I toured for CSE with The Alma Cogan Show. Then, the Joan Reagan Show. (The Peter Crawford Trio, was the backing group and also did their act.) Peter was/is an excellent accordionist. Peter eventually went to Australia to live and work. For CSE I toured with The Russ Conway Show and The Lita Rosa Show, travelling through many countries. Malta, Cyprus, Tobruk, the Yemen. We travelled in an armoured car in Aden. In the middle of our show, we heard a loud explosion!!
All of the above happened because I wanted a copy of ‘The Blue Tango’!!”
Shirley Evans has the distinction of appearing with the Beatles in their 1967 film ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. In the film, Shirley is seen on the coach playing sing along numbers ‘Toot Toot Tootsie’, ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’, ‘When The Red, Red Robin’, and the ‘Can, Can’. John Lennon wrote an instrumental number for her called ‘Shirley's Wild Accordion’. She recorded it with backing from George Harrison on guitar, Ringo Starr on drums, Paul McCartney on maracas, and John Lennon was the producer. ‘Shirley's Wild Accordion’ was eventually deleted from the final edit, and to this day the track remains unreleased in the vaults at EMI Studios.
Shirley played the accordion with the Norrie Paramour Orchestra, backing Cliff Richard in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest when he came second with ‘Congratulations’.
In 1972, Shirley was invited to work in America by Donald Hulme, the 1961 CIA World Accordion Champion. They formed a successful double act, ‘Evans and Hulme’, touring the USA, Far East, and Australia, and working on the QE2. The duo made an LP for Liberace’s management who called it ‘The World's Greatest Accordionists’, but in 1976 they both decided to pursue their solo careers.
Shirley has appeared in concerts with such diverse stars as Engelbert Humperdinck, Jose Greco, Victor Borge and Anthony Hopkins. She has appeared in numerous TV commercials worldwide, the most popular one, as ‘Mabel’ in Carling’s Black Label commercials. In Hong Kong, Shirley hosted and wrote her own twice-weekly children's TV show, ‘Auntie Shirley’.
In 1999, Shirley composed 40 minutes of music for Texas Tech. University, for the World Premiere of the ballet ‘Twin Flame’, and received a standing ovation for her music.
For many years Shirley lived in Florida, working as a show business agent. Recently Shirley has written ‘The Beatles and Me – and Shirley’s Wild Accordion’, which is as yet unpublished.
Shirley Evans passed away on July 10th 2010, aged 78. She is survived by her partner of 34 years, Robert Owens, her two sisters June and Valerie and a brother David. Shirley’s niece is the Australian accordionist Elizabeth Jones, now President of the Accordion Society of Australia.
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