Vivian Ellis

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Composer and lyricist celebrated for his witty and romantic music for revues and musicals from the '20s until the '50s.
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b. 29 October 1903, Hampstead, London, England, d. 19 June 1996, London, England. A highly respected composer, lyricist and author, chiefly celebrated for his fresh, witty and romantic music for revues and musicals in the UK during the period from the 20s through to the 50s. He also wrote the music for several films, including Jack’s The Boy, starring Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge (‘The Flies Crawled Up The Window’), Piccadilly Incident (‘Piccadilly 1944’), Public Nuisance No. 1 (‘Me And My Dog’) and individual pieces such as ‘Coronation Scot’, which became the signature tune of the popular BBC radio series Paul Temple in the 40s, and emerged again in the 80s in a television commercial for British Rail. As an author, he published a number of novels, and a series of humorous books entitled How To Make Your Fortune On The Stock Exchange and How To Enjoy Your Operation, etc. Ellis’ mother was an extremely talented violinist, and his grandmother, Julia Woolf, was the composer of a 1888 comic opera Carina. His early ambition was to be a concert pianist, and he studied the piano with Dame Myra Hess and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, later giving a number of recitals. In his late teens, he developed an interest in light music and did the rounds of London’s music publishers with some of his compositions, eventually getting a job as a reader and demonstrator with Francis, Day & Hunter.

In the early 20s Ellis composed the music for several numbers in revues such as The Curate’s Egg, The Little Revue, and The Punch Bowl, and then, in 1924, wrote most of the songs (with lyrics by Graham John) for the successful Hulbert and Courtneidge revue By The Way. These included ‘Three Little Hairs’, ‘By The Way’, and ‘Nothing Ever Happens To Me’. A year later, June (née Howard-Tripp) sang his ‘Over My Shoulder’ (lyric by Graham John) in Mercenary Mary, and she was one of several artists to perform Ellis and John’s hit ‘Little Boy Blues’ in another Hulbert and Courtneidge revue Clowns In Clover (1927). In the late 20s, Ellis was represented by various compositions in several other West End shows, including Kid Boots, Cochran’s 1926 Revue, My Son John, Merely Molly, Palladium Pleasures, Blue Skies, The Girl Friend, Charlot Revue 1928, Vogue And Vanities, The House That Jack Built, A Yankee At King Arthur’s Court, and Will O’ The Whispers (1928), in which ‘I Never Dreamt’ (words and music by Ellis), was sung by the popular American vocalist, ‘Whispering’ Jack Smith.

In 1929 Vivian Ellis moved on from the revue format and had his first musical comedy hit with Mr. Cinders, which had a book and lyrics by Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman, and additional music by Richard Myers. The show contained one of Ellis’ most enduring numbers, ‘Spread A Little Happiness’, which was performed by Binnie Hale, and several other favourites, including ‘Ev’ry Little Moment’ (Hale and Bobby Howes), and Howes’ comedy high spot, ‘On The Amazon’. Despite initially cool reviews, the show was an enormous success, running for a total of 529 performances. Ellis himself was unable to attend the opening of the show - he was seriously ill in the south of France. On his return to Britain he collaborated with lyricist Desmond Carter for Little Tommy Tucker (‘Let’s Be Sentimental’), and again, for the wistful ‘Wind In The Willows’, which was featured in Cochran’s 1930 Revue and became an extremely popular item in the repertoire of Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson. The show marked the beginning of an association with the impresario Charles B. Cochran that was to prove one of the most important in Ellis’ professional life. In the early 30s Ellis experienced mixed fortunes. Follow A Star was a financial failure despite the presence in the cast of Hulbert, and Sophie Tucker, who sang Ellis and Jack Yellen’s powerful, bluesy ‘If Your Kisses Can’t Hold The Man You Love’, which Tucker later used to close her cabaret act. The Song Of The Drum (‘Within My Heart’), Blue Roses (‘Dancing In My Sleep’, ‘If I Had Three Wishes’, ‘Where Have You Been Hiding?’), and Out Of The Bottle (music by Ellis and Oscar Levant), were disappointing too. Stand Up And Sing, starring Jack Buchanan and Elsie Randolph, was much more successful, and contained numbers by Ellis, Phil Charig and Douglas Furber, such as ‘There’s Always Tomorrow’, ‘It’s Not You’, and ‘Night Time’. By 1934, Ellis was one of the leading figures in the British musical theatre. For the revue Streamline (1934), Cochran teamed him with the author A.P. Herbert, a collaboration that produced ‘Other People’s Babies’ (sung by Norah Howard), among others, which provided a foretaste of their fruitful partnership during the late 40s, and, briefly, in the 50s. In the meantime, Ellis turned once more to Desmond Carter for the lyrics to Jill Darling (1934), a charming musical comedy that starred Frances Day, one of Ellis’ favourite leading ladies, and included ‘Dancing With A Ghost’, ‘Nonny, Nonny, No’, ‘Pardon My English’, ‘Let’s Lay Our Heads Together’, ‘A Flower For You’, and another of the composer’s all-time standards, ‘I’m On A See-Saw’, which was performed in vivacious fashion by Louise Browne and John Mills, who later became a celebrated dramatic actor. ‘I’m On A See-Saw’ was recorded by Fats Waller, in a typically ebullient version, and became successful in America for Ambrose and his orchestra - one of Ellis’ rare transatlantic hits.

In the late 30s, Ellis began to write more of his own lyrics for songs such as ‘Drop In Next Time You’re Passing’ (Going Places), ‘The Trees In Bloomsbury Square’ and ‘London In The Season’ (The Town Talks), and the delightful ‘She’s My Lovely’, sung by Bobby Howes in Hide And Seek (1937), and later adopted by band leader Billy Ternent as his signature tune. In 1938 he had three hit shows running in the West End: The Fleet’s Lit Up (‘Little Miss Go-As-You-Please’, ‘Guess It Must Be The Spring’, ‘How Do You Do, Mr. Right?’, ‘Hide And Seek’), Running Riot (‘Take Your Partners For The Waltz’, ‘When Love Knocks At My Door’, ‘Doing An Irish Jig’), and Under Your Hat, ‘the funniest musical comedy for years’, which ran for a total of 512 performances in London, and included Courtneidge’s hilariously patriotic ‘The Empire Depends On You’, and other numbers such as ‘Together Again’, ‘Keep It Under Your Hat’, ‘and ‘If You Want To Dance’.

While those shows were running in London, Ellis lived for a time in Hollywood, where he wrote film songs for Deanna Durbin. He returned to Britain in the spring of 1939, and subsequently joined the RNVR. He attained the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, and spent most of World War II as a Command Entertainments Officer for ENSA. After his release in 1945, Ellis resumed his collaboration with A.P. Herbert (book and lyrics) in Cochran’s production of a ‘light opera’ entitled Big Ben (1946). Remembered particularly for introducing the 19-year-old Lizbeth Webb to the London stage, the score included ‘Let Us Go Down The River’, ‘London Town’, ‘I Want To See The People Happy’, ‘Love Me Not’, and ‘Who’s The Lady?’, amongst others. One critic wrote that Big Ben lacked distinction, something that could never be said about Ellis and Herbert’s next effort, Bless The Bride (1947), which was probably Ellis’ biggest hit, and the climax of his career. Featuring hit songs such as the ‘gaily traditional French pastiche’, ‘Ma Belle Marguerite’, ‘This Is My Lovely Day’, and ‘I Was Never Kissed Before’, Bless The Bride was essentially a romantic operetta set in Victorian England, and could hardly have been more different to the brash, young American import, Oklahoma!, which opened at a nearby London theatre in the same week. Nevertheless, with Georges Guétary and Webb in the leading roles, Bless The Bride settled into the Adelphi Theatre, and ran for 886 performances. One of the main reasons it closed in 1949 was that Cochran wanted to replace it with Ellis and Herbert’s Tough At The Top, a decision that proved to be an expensive mistake - the new show ran for just over four months.

In the 50s, the US invasion of the British musical theatre that had begun with Oklahoma! in 1947, intensified. In the face of all that Americana, Ellis’ first score of the decade couldn’t have been more parochial. And So To Bed (1951) was a musical adaptation of J.B. Fagan’s renowned play about the Elizabethan diarist, Samuel Pepys, for which Ellis was called upon to compose music in a variety of styles, such as madrigal, jig, and saraband. A rather unconventional choice for the leading role was ‘rubber-faced’ comic actor, Leslie Henson, whose idea the whole thing was, and the score included ‘Gaze Not On The Swans’, ‘Moppety Mo’, ‘Love Me Little, Love Me Long’, ‘Amo, Amas’, and ‘Bartholomew Fair’. The show’s musical director was Mantovani, later renowned for his ‘cascading strings’. And So To Bed had a healthy run of 323 performances, and Ellis followed it, two years later, with a revue, Over The Moon, before renewing his partnership with Herbert for The Water Gipsies (1955). Ellis had written the melody for one song, ‘Little Boat’, in the film version of Herbert’s 1930 novel, set on London’s waterways, and now, over 20 years later, he contributed a complete musical score, which included Dora Bryan’s amusing versions of ‘Why Did You Call Me Lily?’, ‘You Never Know With Men’, ‘I Should Worry, and ‘It Would Cramp My Style’. Her presence ensured the show’s initial success, but when she became pregnant and had to leave, The Water Gipsies folded after a run of 239 performances. It was Ellis’ last major musical production, and he has been quoted as saying that it may have been his best score. Of his other work around that time, his children’s musical, Listen To The Wind (1954), contained several excellent songs, and he continued to contribute to productions such as Half In Earnest, Four To The Bar, Six Of One, Mr Whatnot, and Chaganog (1964).

In 1973 Vivian Ellis received the Ivor Novello Award for outstanding services to British music, and, 10 years later, he was presented with the Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award and became the President of the Performing Rights Society. In 1984, at the age of 80, he received the CBE, and, in the same year, the Vivian Ellis Prize, an annual award for the writers of new musicals, was instituted by the PRS. Bless The Bride was revived at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1987, and Ellis’ first musical comedy hit, Mr. Cinders, also enjoyed London revivals in 1983 and 1993. The latter show was first produced in America in 1988, at the Goodspeed Opera House, and then, in 1992, it finally had its New York premiere at the Mazur Theatre. The show’s hit song, ‘Spread A Little Happiness’, was sung in the 1982 film Brimstone And Treacle, by Sting, the ex-leader of the UK band, Police; it gave him his first solo Top 10 entry. Peter Skellern’s version featured in an 80s television commercial for Lurpak butter. Spread A Little Happiness also became the title of a ‘musical celebration of Vivian Ellis’, devised by the author and critic Sheridan Morley, and presented at London’s King’s Head and Whitehall theatres in 1992. It meant that Ellis, a contemporary of Ivor Novello and Noël Coward, and one of the most important influences in the British musical theatre during the late 20s and 30s, still had his name up in lights more than 50 years later, alongside present incumbents such as Andrew Lloyd Webber. Up until shortly before his death, Ellis was working with Dan Crawford, artistic director of the King’s Head Theatre, on a revival of his 1954 musical, Listen To The Wind. He wrote three new songs and the production opened to excellent notices in December 1996.