Sidney Torch

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To look at Sidney Torch in photos -- a slightly gaunt yet dignified visage, slicked hair, evening dress, and a cigarette in a holder held elegantly -- he would be taken for an actor in a 1930s (or even…
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To look at Sidney Torch in photos -- a slightly gaunt yet dignified visage, slicked hair, evening dress, and a cigarette in a holder held elegantly -- he would be taken for an actor in a 1930s (or even 1920s) movie. But he was actually a star thrice-over in English popular music, as a conductor/composer of light music, as one of the nation's legendary cinema organists, and as a top recording artist in that field as well. From the 1930s through the 1960s, he was a top record-seller and a renowned pop-culture figure in England.

Sidney Torch was the son of Morris Torchinsky, a Russian trombonist, who shortened and Anglicized the family name after emigrating. Born in London in 1908, he began learning music early, courtesy of his father, and later studied piano at the Blackheath Conservatoire. He entered music as an accompanist to violinist Albert Sandler in the late '20s, and also began earning a living as an organ accompanist for silent films. By 1930, however, British theaters had all converted to sound, and this area of employment ceased to exist. Movie theaters still had organs, however, and the best of them put on elaborate entertainments between showings, and Torch was good enough to get a job as an assistant to the chief organist at the Regal Theatre at Marble Arch, Quentin MacLean (one of the most renowned cinema organists and a major recording artist himself), and succeeded him as chief organist there in 1932. Two years later, he moved to the Regal in Edmonton, and in 1936 he joined the Union Cinema chain as their chief organist, a position that led him to make his first recordings, from the Regal Kingston. In 1937, Torch played the first performance on the Wurlitzer organ at the Gaumont State Theatre in Kilburn, then the largest movie theater organ in the country. He remained busy for the rest of the decade, not only in theater performances but broadcasts and personal appearances, as well as numerous recordings.

The outbreak of the Second World War in late 1939 led to Torch's call-up in 1940 -- he was drafted into the Royal Air Force, and was fortunate enough to be posted near Blackpool, which allowed him to continue to record on the organ at that city's opera house. Although Torch received combat training as an air gunner, wiser heads prevailed as far as his usefulness was concerned, and he was eventually made the conductor of the Royal Air Force Concert Orchestra, rising to the rank of squadron leader (RAF equivalent of major or lieutenant commander) in the process. It was while fulfilling his duties in that capacity that Torch made plans for his return to civilian life -- he was keenly aware that there would be no more than a few good years of work left as a cinema organist, and in preparation for that time, he took up the intense study of orchestration and composition.

Upon the end of the war, he discovered that he had a previously untapped talent in all of those areas -- he began writing for the BBC, as well as conducting and recording his own compositions, and in 1946 he was also signed up as a composer by Chappell Music, which was in the process of building a light orchestral library for use in newsreels, feature films, radio, and, later, television. Torch wrote hundreds of pieces and, in addition to his own name, signed them with the pseudonymous anagram Denis Rycoth. He joined the ranks of such renowned light orchestral conductors as Robert Farnon and Charles Williams, making records with the Queens Hall Light Orchestra and also conducting the New Century Orchestra, and was also a fixture on the release schedules of EMI's Parlophone and Columbia labels.

In the years that it took EMI to belatedly adopt the long-playing record, his 78-rpm sides were compiled on the far side of the Atlantic onto LPs (along with those of other EMI-Columbia artists) issued by their U.S. licensee, Columbia Masterworks. (This biographer, living in New York, first discovered his name and work on a Columbia LP devoted to British film music.) Torch's records, like his broadcasts, were characterized by quick tempos and inventive orchestrations, the highly decorative use of pizzicato strings, and richly textured brass and wind scoring. Much of his work displayed a strangely compelling mix of bold orchestration and soothing melodic content that made it highly memorable and most agreeable to the middle-class, middle-aged radio audiences of postwar Britain, and had Torch been born or based on America's West Coast, he would have been a natural fit in the music department of any of the Hollywood studios.

In 1952, the radio network created the BBC Concert Orchestra, and Torch commenced a two-decade appointment as its conductor. And beginning in 1953, he was also chosen by the BBC to conduct on a new radio series entitled Friday Night Is Music Night, which was still running more than 50 years later. Over this same 20-year period, Torch conducted many hundreds of broadcasts and concerts as part of the BBC's Light Music festivals and other concert events, often from the Royal Festival Hall in London. And as leader of the Sidney Torch Orchestra, he gave Trevor Duncan his first big success as a composer with his recording of Duncan's "High Heels," and turned Eric Coates' "A Song By the Way" into a pop standard and a fixture on the BBC.

Torch retired in 1972 and passed away in 1990.