Researched and written by Bruce Wilkinson and Dave Goulding
Donated to the John Rylands Library Special Collections in September 2019, the Ernest Wilson Papers consist of original manuscripts and include the notations for several operas, concertos and numerous big-band dance tunes which span his long music industry career. Wilson is probably best-known for his period performing with and co-writing for the Victor Silvester Orchestra during a time when dancehalls were one of the predominant forms of entertainment. Although he spent most of his life resident in London (where much of the work was) Wilson was extremely proud of his Manchester roots and so it is very fitting that this important musical archive now resides in the heart of the city.
Born Salford in October 1910 he was brought up in Heaton Street, Higher Broughton then an extremely cosmopolitan district of Manchester. Wilson had piano lessons as a child but was largely a self-taught musician, learning to play by ear and using books from the library to develop composition skills. By the age of 15 he was dance-class pianist at Finnigans Ballroom in nearby Cheetham Hill, a venue already steeped in dance history as the place where the Military Two Step was developed by founder James Finnigan and his daughter Ethel.
The BBC Manchester History article below points out how Finnigans connects Wilson with those other great local songwriters Morrissey and Marr; The Headmaster Ritual from The Smiths’ Meat is Murder album not coincidentally containing the lyric:
He does the Military Two Step/ Down the nape of my neck
Moving to London in the depression of the late-1920s when jobs were scarce, Wilson sought employment in the Tin Pan Alley of Soho’s Denmark Street, the base of many British music publishers, looking for engagements with orchestras playing dance music in the capital’s numerous hotels, ballrooms and nightspots. His first work was as pianist with Jan Ralfini & his Band whom you can see in this footage playing with the comedian Tommy Trinder (sadly without Ernest Wilson):
In the early 1930s Wilson played with the Bert Ambrose Blue Lyers at the Dorchester and Embassy hotels, the ‘Famous Ambrose’ reputedly paid a then enormous annual sum of £10,000 for concerts and his orchestra regularly featured on national radio. When Ambrose later moved to the US he was offered huge amounts of money to try to lure him back to the UK due to his band’s drawing power. According to the British Dance Band Discography (which comprehensively lists studio sessions) in 1932 Wilson recorded with band leader Arthur Lally and the Durium Dance Band – the in-house orchestra of Durium Records which cheaply produced quick covers of new dance tunes for a mass audience. He recorded with Sydney Lipton and his Grosvenor House Dance Orchestra in 1942 and he often accompanied violinist Oscar Grasso for engagements at the Tricity Restaurant in The Strand. Wilson also played on three records with swing band The Jackdaws with Miff Ferrie and it might be this kind of jazz engagement which led to him being occasionally credited as Ernest ‘Slim’ Wilson. George Frederick ‘Miff’ Ferrie is better known as a Scottish writer, producer and agent who was rather infamous as Tommy Cooper’s manager – the British Comedy Guide noting that in a Cooper documentary ‘you won’t find anyone with a good word to say about [Ferrie]’.
Wilson played with many of the leading ensembles of the time including Joe Loss, Maurice Winnick and by the late Thirties he was one of two pianists in the well-known Victor Silvester Orchestra. With Silvester he regularly appeared on the wireless and at some of the most prestigious London venues including the Hammersmith Palais and the Astoria and he was in the recording studio on an almost monthly basis where he also contributed his composition skills. According to listings in the Radio Times, alongside numerous broadcasts with the Blue Lyers and Silvester he also appeared regularly accompanying other musicians and singers. A staunch supporter of the Musician’s Union, one presumes that Wilson ensured that all his fellow players were card-carrying members before they could take part in each session. The union campaigned to retain live bands in dancehalls when the use of records began to impinge on their bookings and it also created the Musical Performers Protection Association to guard against the unauthorised reproduction of songs.
Wilson played on up to three radio broadcasts each day during the early days of the Second World War and then served with the RAF stationed at Melksham, Hull and then briefly in Iceland, an allied base later in the conflict. Wilson has numerous co-writing credits with Silvester including El Conquistador, Goodnight Waltz (1949):
One of his best-known songs is the very popular dance tune ‘The Golden Tango’ (1954):
Wilson arranged the Samba Voila Voila later recorded by Edmundo Ross in 1951:
Wilson developed a reputation as one of the best sight-readers in the business with the ability to quickly pick up and interpret a tune – a crucial skill when recordings were often unavailable and bands needed to be up-to-date to compete with the latest songs in a fast-moving genre. One connected sideline was the re-recording of film scores then sold much more cheaply than the original disc. Able to quickly pick up and almost instantaneously interpret a tune just by listening to a soundtrack, Wilson could score the music and get it down on an album within just a few days – a great skill to have in a period long before YouTube made most tunes instantly available.
Although Wilson isn’t mentioned in Silvester’s autobiography, the band leader became increasingly reliant on the pianist’s arrangement skills. Often very busy he sometimes moved between several gigs each day which wasn’t always easy because he didn’t drive. His son Anthony Wilson recalls how, running late due to a delayed bus, his father rushed into the Norbury Hotel, dashed onto the stage and began playing only to be asked who he was by a fellow musician – he was meant to be performing at another venue around the corner.
Alongside dance tunes he composed several light operas, musicals and symphonies including King Charles the First, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and Postings, about the war contribution of Polish fighter pilots. Entering a musical competition to celebrate the coronation, Wilson was invited to play ‘The Queen Elizabeth Waltz’ for the princesses at Buckingham Palace, which you can hear performed by Mantovani and his Orchestra:
Wilson also produced ‘Pink Carnations for My Lady’ about the Queen of Holland. He was part of Silvester’s band until the 1960s when its appearances on the ballroom show Come Dancing increased its fame but Wilson wanted to make his own mark out of the shadow of large orchestras. In an unusual move for that time he created the Silver Dollar label in the early 1960s producing his own music and putting out several popular EPs and albums. Later in the decade Wilson accompanied famous comedians playing summer season shows; they included Arthur Askey, Dicky Henderson, Beryl Reid and the impressionist Mike Yarwood, playing at the upmarket Gleneagles Hotel in the Winter.
Wilson worked as solo pianist and musical arranger for concert violinist and orchestra leader Sidney Sax performing on his weekly BBC radio broadcasts. (Sax is probably best known as co-founder of the National Philharmonic Orchestra.) He also played the piano on cruises, particularly well-received on board Russian liner the Mikhail Lermontov whose captain often asked him to play his own compositions and dine at his table. Always busy, a stroke sadly diminished his ability to play and compose music in the 1980s but Wilson left a legacy of popular dance tunes, many 78s now collector’s items but increasingly uploaded, available and enjoyed on websites and social media groups at a time when ballroom dancing is once again very popular.
With thanks to archivist Jess Smith, Anthony Wilson and the members of Facebook group The Golden Age of British Dance Bands.