Various Artists

A Little of What You Fancy: The Golden Age of the Music Hall

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This amazing retrospective pays tribute to the kings and queens of British music hall entertainment, an art form that flourished until it was gradually weakened by cinema and ultimately slain by television. Posterity is fortunate to have any audible evidence at all, as not one of the people featured on this wacky compilation was born in the 20th century. Charles Coborn, who was pushing 75 when he recorded his robustly rummy rendition of "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo," was the eldest of the lot; born in 1852, he didn't shuffle off until 1945, ultimately outliving many of his younger counterparts. The earliest of these rare sides, "The May Day Fireman," was recorded on November 18, 1901 by Dan Leno (1860-1904); an accomplished clog dancer, pantomime and portrayer of "low life" characters. Several of these entertainers relied upon the Cockney dialect; Albert Chevalier (1861-1923) was billed as "The Coster's Laureate" and "The Kipling of the Music Hall"; Gus Elen (1862-1940), originally a busker and blackface minstrel, was known as "The Quaint Comedian." But the real champ in this category was Harry Champion (1865-1942). Born William Henry Crump in a place called Shoreditch, he too specialized in blackface and Cockney. The two selections by Champion included in this collection are phenomenally entertaining; recorded in 1911, "Any Old Iron" represents his early approach while "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am," presented in 1931 with backing by Debroy Somers & His Orchestra, conveys a marvelous sense of the ridiculous that didn't quite make it into the '60s pop hit by Herman's Hermits. As for the women: "A Little of What You Fancy [Does You Good]" was recorded in 1915 by Marie Lloyd (1870-1922), who was openly regarded in her heyday as "A National Institution." Vesta Victoria (1874-1951) was known as "The Queen of Domestic Comedy" and Australia-born Florrie Forde (1876-1940) sounded a bit like Nora Bayes. The female contingent also includes warbling Norah Blaney (1894-1984), renowned male impersonators Vesta Tilley (1864-1952) and Ella Shields (1879-1952), and rotund Lily Morris (1882-1952), remembered as "an hilarious dancing heavyweight." Early 20th century popular entertainment relied heavily upon ethnic stereotyping; in addition to the black-faced white men already mentioned, Eugene Stratton (1861-1918) wore the burnt cork while tap dancing; he was billed as both "The Whistling Coon" and "The Dandy-Colored Coon"; and Albert Whelan (1875-1962) relied upon the Jim Crow tradition in his performance of "The Preacher and the Bear." Every English music hall needed its Scottish comedians to temper the age-old ethnic animosities; Sir Harry Lauder (1870-1950) laughed a lot at himself while Will Fyffe (1885-1947) vowed allegiance to the city of Glasgow. Other entertainers included in this cheerful survey are feisty comedian Little Tich (1867-1928); George Robey (1869-1954) whose masterpiece "Quite Alright!" preserves his excellent imitation of a drowning man; and finally "grotesque character comedians" George Formby Senior (1877-1921) and Billy Merson (1881-1947), composer of songs with titles like "On the Good Ship Yacki-Hickey-Doo-La," whose "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life" was covered by the young Al Jolson.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 3:27
3 2:46
6 3:48
7 4:06
8 1:39
9 3:20
10 2:55
12 2:21
13 2:53
15 2:40
17 4:03
18 2:45
22 3:08
23 2:53
24 4:08
blue highlight denotes track pick