b. Victor Marlborough Silvester, 25 February 1900, Wembley, Middlesex, England, d. 14 August 1978, Le Lavandou, France. This important dance orchestra leader in the UK for over 30 years originated ‘strict tempo’ ballroom dancing. The second son of a vicar in Wembley, London, Silvester learned to dance and play the piano as a child. He studied music at the Trinity College of Music and the London College of Music, but ran away from school and joined the British Army just before he reached the age of 15. After some bitter experiences during World War I, including being a member of a firing squad that shot 12 deserters at Boulogne, he was sent home when his real age was discovered. He returned to the Front, and was awarded the Italian Bronze Medal for Valour. After the War, legend has it that he attended that very British institution, a ‘tea dance’ at Harrod’s, the ‘top people’s store’, which revived his interest in the terpsichorean side of life. After further involvement with the army, including a spell at Sandhurst, he decided to devote himself to a career in dancing. For over two years he partnered Phyllis Clarke, and they won the World’s Dancing Championship in 1922.
In the same year, he married beauty queen Dorothy Newton, and opened a dance school (the first of a chain) in London’s Bond Street. Frustrated by the lack of suitable dance records, he formed his first orchestra in 1935, and persuaded EMI Records to allow him to record Al Bryan and George M. Meyer’s ‘You’re Dancing On My Heart’, which sold 17, 000 copies, and became his signature tune. Two years later he made the first of over 6, 500 broadcasts, the most popular of which, the BBCDancing Club series, started in 1941. From 1943-44, influenced by the influx of GIs into the UK, he directed a series of recordings made especially for ‘jive dancing’. The seven-piece group included top musicians such as trombonist George Chisholm, trumpeter Tommy McQuater, pianist Billy Munn (who did most of the arrangements) and multi-instrumentalist E.O. ‘Poggy’ Pogson, who played lead saxophone doubling clarinet, and stayed with Silvester for 26 years. Twenty of those early tracks were released by EMI Records on Victor Silvester’s Jive Band, in 1985. They were a long way from the general public’s conception of the suave, distinctive Silvester sound, prefaced by his introduction: ‘Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow’, which accompanied the dancing in the nation’s ballrooms and on television when the Dancing Club transferred to the small screen in the 50s, and ran for 17 years. By the end of the run Silvester’s failing health meant that his son, Victor Jnr. (b. 1924, d. 1999), was sometimes leading the orchestra; in the 70s he took over full-time direction.
A phenomenon in popular music, Silvester withstood the radical changes in dance music through the years, especially the rock ‘n’ roll 50s and the beat boom of the 60s, and survived with his high standards intact. For worldwide audiences his name was synonymous with the best in ballroom dancing, and his Record Request programme on the BBC World Service reflected this fact. He was awarded an OBE in 1961 for Services To Ballroom Dancing. One of his books, Modern Ballroom Dancing, sold over a million copies and went through 50 editions. He made so many albums that even he found it difficult to remember the precise number. His affection for 30s music was demonstrated on the 16 track The Tuneful Thirties, while, Let’s Dance To Some More Favourite Melodies and Up Up And Away contained material from the 60s and 70s. In 1978 his total record sales were estimated at over 75 million. Early in that year he released a rarity: a collection of old favourites entitled The Song And Dance Men, on which his orchestra accompanied a singer, Max Bygraves. Later in 1978 Victor Silvester died while on holiday in the South of France. His son, Victor Jnr., continued to direct the Orchestra until 1998.