The Accordion Bands


Written by: Edmund Whitehouse
Publication: This England

A series recalling the leaders of yesterday's popular music.
The early-1930s saw the introduction of the cinema organ into dozens of newly-built auditoriums all over the country. It quickly became a firm favourite with a public which "went to the flicks" at least once a week, and when a relatively new instrument suddenly gave them an opportunity to experience similar sounds in the dance hall, a new style of music emerged. It soon took over in popularity from the ukulele and its versatility was instantly recognised by one man in particular. Fronting several different groups, including his own conventional dance band, Harry Bidgood, alias Don Porto, Rossini and, above all, Primo Scala (pictured right), became the biggest name among…

House lights dimmed, the audience hushed, and a growing air of expectancy spread all around. Suddenly, a crescendo of sound filtered into the auditorium and a spotlight settled on the orchestra pit. Then, as if by magic, a beaming organist rose majestically and effortlessly into view, thrilling everyone with the all-conquering and powerful sound of the mighty Wurlitzer. Invariably there was a round of applause as the soloist launched forth into his signature tune.

The time was anything between 40 and 65 years ago, and the organist could have been Sidney Torch, Reginald Dixon, Sandy MacPherson, Reginald Foort, Robin Richmond, or a whole host of other famous names. Everyone loved the sound of the cinema organ but only a privileged few ever got to play one. The next best thing, however, was a musical instrument, which caught on in the 1930s, and quickly took over in popularity from the ukulele. It was the piano-accordion and it came in many sizes, allowing everyone with a musical touch to enjoy a personal taste of an organ in miniature. It soon became all the rage and many towns in England vied with each other to produce the best local accordion bands.

By 1933, the "squeeze-box", as it was affectionately known, was making an indelible mark on the dance band scene. With three accordions (sometimes many more), replacing the front-line melody-making instruments, and backed by the usual rhythm section, the overall sound was often as good, if not better than many conventional bands. The new genre was not without its critics, however, and as one wag remarked: "A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordion-but doesn't!"

A number of different names, began to surface on major record labels, but were not always what they seemed. The first was " Don Porto and His Novelty Accordions" who appeared on the 8" Eclipse records sold at Woolworths for sixpence. When these were phased out in favour of the 9" Crown label, a new name emerged-"Rossini's Accordions"-but clearly not formed by the famous classical composer who died in 1868.

Even more up-market was the 10" Rex label which retailed at the princely sum of one shilling, on which the latin-sounding "Primo Scala and His Accordion Band" were the star turn. With such famous vocalists as Vera Lynn, Cavan O'Malley, Sam Costa and Donald Peers, the accordion had arrived.

However, most of the public never realised that all three bands were one and the same! All were directed by Harry Bidgood, a Londoner born in 1898. After starting his musical career as a pianist with the famous De Groot orchestra at the Piccadilly Hotel, he became the recording manager for Vocalion before transferring allegiance in 1932 to a rival firm, Crystalate. Between 1925 and 1937 Harry Bidgood made hundreds of records with his conventional dance band-also using a variety of different names-and made several hundred more with his accordion bands between 1933 and 1944 -- a truly prolific output in a relatively short space of time.

When Don Proto and Rossini disappeared from the recording studio, Bidgood's best-known pseudonym took over and lasted into the early 1950s. "Primo Scala" was a cleverly constructed hybrid, contrived from the forename of Italy's heavyweight boxing champion, Primo Carnera, together with the surname of a man who won the famous Irish Sweepstake, Signor Emilio Scala. It was an exotic-sounding title which perfectly complemented the atmosphere of an accordion band, and to which the public took a shine. Everyone agreed that the bread-and -butter name Harry Bidgood somehow did not have the same ring about it. Indeed, when he died in 1957, Harry was better remembered for his Italian nom-de-plume than his true English name!

There were many other accordion groups playing at the same time, but the only one which seriously rivaled Primo Scala, was the London Piano-Accordion Band, led at different times by Billy Reid, George Scott-Wood, and Eric Winstone. Billy Reid's band invariably teamed up with youthful vocalist Dorothy Squires, who went on to become and international star in her own right. Billy, meanwhile, left to concentrate his attentions more on music publishing and composing.

Multi-talented George Scott-Wood, born in Glasgow in 1903, recorded for the Regal Zonophone label and made several tracks between 1934 and 1940, many with Sam Browne as vocalist, during which time he also busied himself with his own jazz group called the Six Swingers. He also found time to perform with several other groups. Despite his heavy work load, and just like Harry Bidgood, he managed to maintain a high standard of music which the public thoroughly enjoyed-bouncy, catchy, melodic and tuneful-everything which the modern successor to the old concertina was capable of achieving via its bellows and keyboard. George Scottwood died in 1978.

During the war, Eric Winstone (1915-74), was extremely popular as a solo accordionist and also with his swing quartet, where his virtuoso playing was well supported by a string bass, guitar and vibraphone. He later recorded for Regal with the bigger London Piano Accordion Band, before finally switching to his larger-than-life dance orchestra which enjoyed several post-war hits. He retained his smaller accordion ensemble for radio broadcasts, however, especially the ever-popular favourite program, "Music While You Work". His main vocalists were Alan Kane and Julie Dawn.

Although the piano-accordion was actually invented in the 19th century (no less a composer then Tchaikovsky used it in his Suite No.2), its rise to popularity in the 20th century was caused almost entirely by its sudden availability to a mass market. Most 1930s music magazines contained dozens of adverts for the instrument, usually encouraging payment by installment, or the "never never" as it was cynically termed in those days. There was even a magazine called The Accordion Times, which enjoyed a healthy life span before succumbing to new musical trends and fashions.

The most famous brand name was Hohner, which advertised widely and sold thousands of instruments. The company also organised an annual accordion rally at the Central Hall, Westminster, where on one notable occasion no fewer than 40,000 devotees crammed themselves into a space, which would today horrify anyone involved with health and safety. There were no reports of mass riots, however, and everyone clearly enjoyed themselves.

Versatility and volume of sound made the accordion an ideal instrument for both indoor and outdoor concerts, and many famous singers, both sacred and secular, used it to accompany themselves. When placed in a group, however, the options were vast, and accordion bands were extremely popular for all types of dancing.

Although the instrument is still widely used, its heyday has long gone, replaced firstly by the electric guitar, and more recently by synthesisers and electronic and computer gadgetry. Its bigger brother, the cinema organ, has fared much worse and was in grave danger of extinction until a number of enthusiasts dismantled, removed and have since restored, several examples of this magnificent "King of Instruments" from a bygone era.

Novelties they may have seemed, but the best accordion groups were genuine dance bands, capturing the spirit of an age when tastes were simple. Pleasures uncomplicated, and enjoyment easily fulfilled. They provided extra dimensions of sound in a single and highly mobile instrument, sounds perhaps equaled by the piano, but surpassed only by the enormous but very static cinema organ. Small wonder that piano-accordions were so popular.
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