Helen Clare, A Century in Song…
“…there are relatively few dance-band crooners who possess what the professors would describe as a ‘real voice’. Pretty Helen Clare, however is one of the very few. Maybe you can detect the ‘quality’ when you hear her on the air with Jack Jackson from the Dorchester.”
Popular Music and Film Song Weekly Dec.1937
Helen Clare was born in Bradford in November 1916 in the middle of the First World War and went on to become a household name of the 1930s, 40s and 50s through her BBC broadcasts, recordings and live tour dates. An illustrious international broadcasting career that has seen Helen span Radio, Gramophone, Television and Theatres all over the country and through a century of change continued into her 102nd year.
1920s Australia, Pantomime, Cinema and Dame Nellie Melba.
Helen’s earliest memories were of Australia, where she was taken at around aged 4. It became clear that young Helen had a rare gift for singing that led to her touring Australian theatres and concert halls, billed as “Little Nellie Harrison-Child Wonder”. This “Child Wonder” was not singing little novelty numbers but grand opera arias including the “Jewell Song” from Faust. Helens voice amazed the public and critics alike and bought her to be publicly praised by Galli-Curci and even Dame Nellie Melba who while marveling at young Helen’s voice, shook her head and said “this voice must be preserved and not be used for years to come“.
1930s Dance Bands, Radio and Television
The family returned to Yorkshire following the Wall Street crash.
Following her debut with her brother Tom Harrison’s dance band in Bradford, she began getting bookings all over the North with references in the Yorkshire Telegraph from as early as 1933. Helen was offered an audition for Eric Maschwitz head of the BBC Variety and was soon broadcasting on the North region. Helen then joined Conri Tait’s Orchestra at the Grand Hotel, Harrogate in the mid 1930s.
By 1936 Helen had joined one of the U.K’s leading bands, Jack Jackson & his Orchestra at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
When Helen took her place with the Jack Jackson Orchestra in 1936 she found herself singing all the hits of the day and through the momentous days of the Abdication, Coronation, Munich crisis and prelude to War of the turbulent late 1930s. A young Danny Kaye befriended Helen while he was appearing in Cabaret at the Hotel.
Hundreds of BBC broadcasts and Commercial radio offers from Luxembourg, Lyon and Normandy followed.
Helen Clare is an early pioneer of television and appeared as early as 1937 in “Cabaret Cartoons” produced by Cecil Madden and introducing the Gershwin hit “ They Can’t Take That Away Fro Me”. Following this Helen appeared on Television with Jack Jackson & his Orchestra until 1939.
Helen Clare made many recordings with Jack Jackson, Jay Wilbur and would go on to record more throughout the 1940s with other leading dance bands.
BBC at War, Variety and Troop Concerts
Just after War was declared Helen received a call from John Watt, head of BBC Variety informing her that the Variety department was evacuating down to Bristol and would Helen prepare at once to join them at once as he was forming a variety company for the BBC.
“It was hard work to begin with, we were just one little company and had to dash from one studio to another but the company was lovely, people you’d worked with for years and we were all together and doing our bit”
Helen worked with a lot of stars of the period including Flanagan and Allen, the Crazy Gang, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, Renee Houston, Tommy Trinder, Leslie A Hutchinson “Hutch and a lot of others.
Helen broadcast with various BBC Salon, Variety and Theatre orchestras and well-known dance bands such as Carroll Gibbons, Billy Thorburn, Henry Hall, Billy Ternent, Jay Wilbur, Van Philips and Harry Leader and on one occasion Jack Hylton.
In fact looking through the Radio Times and BBC Genome online archive it appears Helen was never in fact off air!
The idea that Bristol would be safer in Wartime than London was shattered by a horrific Blitz of air raids that lasted through November 1940 and into 1941.After the BBC Variety Department were bombed out, they evacuated to Bangor in North Wales and were greeted with much curiosity from the locals.
Helen became a freelance singer in 1941 and went on tour around the variety theatres up and down the country and often with BBC pianist Ivor Dennis as her accompanist.Helen gave many troop concerts at Army Bases, Aerodromes, Naval Stations and Factories and at one army base was taken for a trip in a tank!”
Helens lovely soprano covered the Deanna Durbin WW2 hit songs such as “Beneath the lights of home” and “Say a Prayer for the boys over there” In 1943 Helen covered the Wartime hit “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer” which has been reissued many times since the war years.
Around this time Peggy Cochrane asked Helen if she would be interested in broadcasting with Jack Payne. Helen really got an opportunity to sing the ballads that she loved along with the popular songs of the day. Helen broadcast songs such as “I’ll walk beside you” for ENSA which really captured the sentiment and longing magnified so much by the War. One of Helen’s favorite songs was Jerome Kern’s “All the things you are” which she often broadcast on the BBC and in poignantly in April 1945 with the AEF (Allied Expeditionary Force) band.
“When I sang I was part of that song and the songs then spoke of so many sentiments and they tell a story”
The BBC included Helen in a huge array of programs from “Music While You Work” , “Jazz Novelette”, “Composer Cavalcade” and many request programs including “Calling Forces Gibraltar” in which Helen sang two-way requests for the forces and sweethearts. Following this “It’s All Yours” in which Helen again sang requests but also bought children in contact with relatives in the forces on air. On one such broadcast featured a very young Petula Clark.
While travelling back from a troop concert on an overnight train, the train lurched and Helen was thrown against the basin mirror breaking her nose. Helen had an “It’s All Yours” to do with children live from London zoo the next day! When the doctor advised her to keep her nose safe and away from anything, he hadn’t realised she would be sitting on a camel with a child under her arm and a BBC microphone in the other hand. These location broadcasts were pioneering and linked children with relatives in the Forces all over the World, usually their fathers.
Helen lived in London at that time and despite air raids, shortages and the V1 and V2 rocket attacks never missed a broadcast, recording session or concert. Helen spent a good deal of time performing for ENSA and the Over Seas Broadcasts Service. Her voice offered comfort, hope and distraction to so many at home and to servicemen and women around the country.
After the War Helen moved between Variety and Light music with ease. The light music that she had trained for in childhood featuring the music of composers such as Franz Lehar and Operetta, often conducted by George Melachrino or Sydney Torch with various orchestras. Appearances on “Flotsams Follies”, “Variety Bandbox”, “Palace of Varieties” John Watts “Songs From The Shows” and then into the 1950s with the BBC Concert Orchestra on many broadcasts including “Friday Night is Music Night”.
Also more television with “Flotsam’s Follies” in which Tony Hancock made his TV debut.
Helen married the leading Violist of his generation, Frederick Riddle and they had a daughter called Elizabeth who inherited her mothers beautiful singing voice.
After leaving broadcasting and the concert platform Helen gave singing lessons and master classes and appeared often with the Wallington Operatic Society until the age of 90.