Debroy Somers’ Savoy Medleys

1929 festive sheet music
1929 festive sheet music

Written by Jeannie Swales

It’s hard to imagine that there was a time – and not that long ago in the great scheme of things – when entertainment wasn’t on tap.

Back in the 20s and 30s, radio was the dominant form of home entertainment, and, musically, the ‘big band’ reigned supreme. The huge stars were the American band leaders - Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie - but we had our own fantastic big bands over here, including those led by Ted Heath, Syd Lawrence, Joe Loss, Edmundo Ross and Victor Silvester.

One major star of the period who appears to be largely forgotten these days is Debroy Somers. Charming, suave and handsome, Somers was born in Dublin in 1890 into a musical family: his father was Band Sergeant of the 1st Gloucestershire Regiment, but, although Somers and his three siblings moved regularly with the unit, including a period in Malta, he always considered himself Irish.

He was something of a musical prodigy, playing every instrument in the band and, according to one contemporary, was ‘an absolute master of the oboe, cor anglais, piano, harp, clarinet, saxophone and xylophone’. Somers himself said he ‘played all kinds of musical instruments short of the sackbut and the psaltery’.

Christened William Henry, and known to friends as Bill, Somers adopted the stage name Debroy, possibly influenced by the Afro-American blues musicians who dominated popular music between the wars.

In 1923, Somers founded the Savoy Hotel Orpheans, which he would lead for three years before moving on to become a popular figure on the radio through his one-hour Horlicks-sponsored show on Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy.

In 1929 the festive sheet music you see pictured here, now part of the Scarborough Collections, was published by Keith Prowse and Co. As well as ‘hunting’, ‘community’ and ‘sea songs’ medleys, the music includes a Savoy Christmas medley, parts 1 and 2, and features a gorgeous contemporary illustration.

The oval stamp in the bottom right corner tells us it was bought from Banks & Son, stockists of music and gramophones, at 112 Westborough, a site now occupied by the opticians Vision Express.

If you’d like to hear Debroy Somers and his band performing The Night When Love Was Born, with vocalist Dan Donovan, in 1932, take a look here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5BMeMMzCWU

It’s well worth a listen, if only for the lyrics, which are worthy of PG Wodehouse’s wonderfully soppy Madeline Bassett.

And for an exhaustive account of Debroy Somers’ life and work, visit the Duke of York’s Royal Military School website: http://www.achart.ca/articles/york/somers.htm

A merry Christmas from all at Scarborough Museums Trust!