Dance Band Encyclopaedia
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Professional Name: Bert Ambrose
Real Name: Benjamin Baruch Ambrose*
Bandleader and violinist.
Born: London, September 15th 1896*.
Died: Leeds General Infirmary, Leeds, June 11th 1971*.
Signature tune: When Day Is Done
*details from Ambrose's death certificate kindly supplied by Tom Kelly.
He was visiting his sick mother in London in 1922 when he was asked by the owner of the Embassy Club, Albert de Corville, to form a 7-piece band to play there, for £360 a week. This was a huge amount of money at the time. Almost immediately, the club was bought by restaurenteur, Luigi, who became a business associate of Ambrose.
During this period, in April 1923, Ambrose made his first recordings; 12 sides for Columbia. These recordings are very hard to find, nowadays, implying they sold poorly. It is likely that few people had heard of the band; Luigi did not allow broadcasting from the club, so, in comparison to the Savoy Havana Band, who were broadcasting regularly, the band was not such a good recording proposition, and Columbia did not repeat the experiment. To be fair to them, Ambrose's band, based on the recorded evidence, was nothing special. The members of the band at the time have not all been identified yet, but included Arthur Aaronson and Rupert Dixon on alto and tenor saxes respectively; Max Raderman (brother of Lou Raderman, the violinist and Harry Raderman, trombonist, all Americans) on piano; Harry Edelson, banjo, Julius Nussbaum, tuba and American Eddie Gross-Bart on drums. A trumpet and trombone are also audible on the records, probably added for recordings only.
The following year, Ambrose walked out for a night job at New York's Clover Gardens for $200 a night. Luigi was frantic and spent the next twelve months sending a stream of cables to Ambrose, imploring him to return. In desperation, Luigi enlisted the help of the Prince of Wales who sent the following cable:- "The Embassy needs you. Come back - Edward". This did the trick and Ambrose returned in 1925, remaining at the club until 1927. He had become increasingly frustrated by Luigi's "no broadcasting" rule, and so jumped at the chance of directing the band at the newly-opened May Fair Hotel, which included broadcasting in the contract.
The job at the May Fair brought him almost £500 a week as well as great fame. His band was an Anglo-American one: Americans Henry Levine & Harry Wild (trumpets); Louis Martin (sax), George Posnack (piano), Lee (or Lew) Conna (banjo) and Harry Raderman (drums). The last named was not the famous trombone player, but was related. The Brits were Bill Morley (trombone) Jack Miranda, Joe Crossman (saxes) Sidney Lipton (violin) and Dick Escott (bass). Ambrose stayed at the May Fair Hotel for six years, during which time, the band recorded for Brunswick, HMV, Decca (the hard-to-find M-series) and then Brunswick again. The band gradually developed into the all-star unit people still remember, including (at different times) many star musicians such as Sylvester Ahola and Max Goldberg (trumpets), Ted Heath (trombone) Joe Crossman, Joe Jeannette (the latter was with Ambrose from 1928 until he finally disbanded in the late 1940s), Bert Read (piano), Joe Brannelly (guitar) Dick Escott (bass) and Max Bacon (drums). These were top-notch musicians who could play in many different styles, sight-read and improvise at will. It is not surprising that many were used by some record company's musical directors to form the core of their studio bands. John & Bert Firman (Zonophone) and Jay Wilbur (Dominion and Imperial) being just two examples.
In June 1933, Ambrose, refusing to take a pay cut at the May Fair, returned to the Embassy Club for nearly three years, before setting off on a variety tour of the country in January 1936. Again, America tried to tempt him with a personal salary of £600 a week, but failed and Ambrose returned to the May Fair in September 1936. He bought Ciro's Club in partnership with fellow American violinist and bandleader, Jack Harris, and the two bandleaders played there alternately in 1937. However, they disagreed over who should play when, and the partnership broke up, with Ambrose moving to the Cafe de Paris until war broke out, when he resumed touring. He returned to the May Fair for a short spell, before retiring in August 1940, being fed up with air raids, and resting at a farm in Hertfordshire which he had bought. He continued to record with his orchestra on Decca until 1947, the musicians he used still being the best around.
He gradually returned to "the business" including the Ambrose Octet which toured under Evelyn Dall's direction and also presenting mini-stage shows. He became involved in management, but did return to the West End on a few occasions: Ciro's in 1945, The Nightingale in 1948 and The Cafe de Paris in 1955, when he also made a series of recordings for EMI, attempting to re-create the old sound. He tried to carry on in the face of Rock and Roll, but had to play small clubs with a pick-up band, though he expected the return of the big bands. Just as his money ran out, he got the break he needed when he discovered 16 year old Kathy Kirby singing at the Ilford Palais, and decided to promote her, and her song "Secret Love". They received a lot of embarrassing publicity, when unsavoury stories appeared portraying Ambrose as a kind of "sugar daddy" for the young singer. It must have hurt his pride, but Kathy was a goldmine and he needed the money. He had always been a compulsive gambler, boasting that he spent a million pounds at the tables. Once when in the south of France, he had to wire his London office for money to pay his musicians. The money from Kathy Kirby's stardom would just slip though his hands.
On Saturday, June 11th, 1971, Ambrose collapsed at Yorkshire Television Studios, while Kathy was recording a show, and he died of a haemorrhage that night. It was the end of Kathy's career too, as she never got over his death, nor did she find another mentor. Ambrose's death certificate death shows his place of residence to be 17, Davies Street, Berkeley Square, London and gives his name as "Bert Ambrose otherwise Benjamin Baruch Ambrose".
What about Ambrose the man? Few, if anybody called him "Bert". He was called "Mr. Ambrose" (or "Ammy" by his friends). He has been described as shrewd, quick-witted, fiery-tempered, with a mixture of dignity and offensiveness, and with a sardonic sense of humour. He used to insult the customers outrageously, at the smart venues he played. He taunted his musicians with cruel comments, but was equally quick to praise and when complimented on the excellence of the band, would acknowledge the musicians.
Ambrose's famous theme tune, "When Day Is Done" was first broadcast at the May Fair hotel on October 10th, 1931. The familiar arrangement which is to be heard on the various 12" Decca releases was orchestrated by Ronnie Munro and included, apart from Sam Browne's vocal, solos from Danny Polo on clarinet, and Max Goldberg on trumpet. Ambrose and his Orchestra made many hundreds of records for HMV, Decca and Brunswick. His band his always slick and note-perfect, but there are occasions when the band sounds bored, leading to some records lacking in sparkle and life. These are the exception, however, and there are plenty which are the epitome of top class dance music played by the best musicians money could buy, and they generally knock spots off the competition, especially the American swing bands with their rather uninspired arrangements.
of The Band by Chris Hayes.