Ivy Benson

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Accomplished pianist, organist, clarinetist, and saxophonist notable for leading an all-female orchestra.
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b. 1913, Holbeck, Leeds, Yorkshire, England, d. 6 May 1993, Clacton, Essex, England. An accomplished musician on piano, electric organ, clarinet and saxophone, Benson was the leader of a renowned all-female orchestra. Her father played several instruments in ensembles as varied as the Leeds Symphony Orchestra, theatre pit bands, and a comedy outfit, the Ten Loonies. Under his tuition, Ivy played the piano from the age of five, and, by the time she was nine, was performing on BBC Radio’s Children’s Hour, and in local working men’s clubs, where she was billed as ‘Baby Benson’. Her father wanted her to train to become a concert pianist, but she preferred to switch to clarinet, and then alto saxophone. In her teens she won a scholarship to the Leeds College of Art, and then worked in a factory for the men’s tailors, Montague Burton, while playing for dances and socials in her spare time. After spending three years with Edna Croudson’s Rhythm Girls, and touring with Teddy Joyce And The Girl Friends, Benson moved to London in the late 30s, and formed her own small groups. In 1940 she formed the nine-piece, Ivy Benson And Her Rhythm Girl Band, for the all-female revue Meet The Girls, which starred northern comedienne Hylda Baker.

During the years of World War II, Benson fronted bands varying in size from 12 to 23-piece, sometimes augmented by strings. She recruited most of her brass sections with the aid of cornetist and conductor Harry Mortimer. With many of the established male band personnel involved in the war, there was plenty of work available, and Benson played prestige ballrooms and theatres throughout Britain, including a 22-week stint at the London Palladium, on the bill with top acts such as comedians Max Miller and Jimmy James, and the pianist duo, Rawicz And Landauer. In 1943 the band was appointed the BBC Resident Dance Band, a move that provoked expressions of fury and outrage from several band leaders, notably Billy Ternent. Benson’s main supporter throughout her career was Joe Loss. With the influx of American GIs into Britain, the turnover in personnel was frequent. Benson could lose a complete section overnight when her girls left to get married. Over 250 of them are said to have been recruited during the band’s 40-year life. Some joined when they were only 15 years old, and were musically trained by the woman whom one of them called ‘the mother hen looking after her young’, although, by all accounts, they did receive the occasional peck if they did not comply with her signature tune, ‘Lady Be Good’. In 1946, Benson and her Ladies Dance Orchestra were booked for the first post-war broadcasts on BBC Television, but had to pull out after the massive Stoll Theatres Group, fearful of the new medium, threatened to cancel her contracts. She took the band to Berlin on its first overseas tour, with ENSA, shortly after the Allied Forces had liberated the city. One of the high spots was a concert with Joséphine Baker in Bavaria, and, in 1960, Benson was playing the Lido, in Hamburg, when the young Beatles were across the road at the Indra Club.

Benson’s band survived the radical changes in popular music that took place from the 50s onwards, adapting its style, while also leaning firmly on the nostalgic sounds of the war years. When playing her summer seasons to open-air audiences of 6000 on the Isle of Man, Benson would add a sprinkling of light classics and show tunes. With the advent of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975, she changed the name of the band to ‘Ivy Benson And Her Showband’, and fielded the occasional application from naïve male musicians by offering them the job if they could get into a dress, size 10-16! By then, however, the best of times were long gone. Most of the variety theatres were closed, and the dance halls had become discotheques. During its last years, the band played mostly for private functions, and with a touch of class, its final gig was at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1982. Benson continued to perform in summer seasons for a while before retiring to Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, where she was active for the charity Age Concern. She had confounded the critics in the band business who said that her girls ‘couldn’t sound as good as a man’s band’, and outlasted most of them. As an alto saxophonist, she could have held down a place in any band of her era.