THE North East composer of one of the most famous Christmas songs has died aged 88 – just days before the release of a special anniversary recording.
Sunderland-born Eric Boswell wrote Little Donkey in 1959 and had no idea it would become a staple of Christmas, sung at concerts and carol services the world over.
In fact, most of the world had no idea the song – or carol – was by a living composer, believing it to be – as one website declared yesterday – “a traditional Christmas song”.
Eric spent his last months in a nursing home in Riding Mill, Northumberland, and died in Hexham General Hospital on Sunday morning. In more than one interview over the years he expressed minor exasperation at the fame of Little Donkey.
He told The Journal in 1975: “It’s a bit unfortunate that I am always associated with Little Donkey. A lot of the songs I write now are far from religious.”
At that time he was writing humorous songs in the Geordie dialect, such as There’s Mair to Life Than Women and Beor and I’ve Got a Little Whippet.
These were performed at the Geordierama concerts at Newcastle City Hall, of which he was musical director.
Eric’s death comes just before the official release of a new CD of his songs performed by North East opera singer Graeme Danby and his wife Valerie Reid.
The CD, There’s More To Life, features contemporary folk songs such as The Metrocentre and Supermarket Blues – but it also includes an extraordinary duet of Little Donkey sung by Graeme and one-time Lancashire superstar Gracie Fields, who recorded the song in 1959 and died in 1979.
Ken McKenzie, publicising the CD on behalf of Newcastle-based Mawson & Wareham (Music) Ltd, said the CD had been recorded since 2006 with Eric present at all the sessions.
He had given his blessing to the Little Donkey duet before succumbing to a form of dementia.
Ken said: “It was Eric’s son, Ian, who mentioned that it was coming up to the 50th anniversary of Little Donkey and it was Brian (Mawson, director of Mawson & Wareham) who suggested a posthumous duet.
“Eric was not as fit as he had been and we thought this would probably be the last thing that he did.”
Digital technology was deployed at Ken’s studio in Durham and at The Cluny, Newcastle, to weave Graeme’s voice into the original recording.
Eric Boswell and Graeme Danby became friends after meeting in 1994 and released their first CD in 2002.
Yesterday Graeme said: “He was a wonderful fellow but he was also a bit of an enigma.
“He always said his aim in life was to make people smile but he was also incredibly protective of his home life.”
Interviewed at his home near Humshaugh in 2001, he said the success of Little Donkey – also recorded by the Beverley Sisters, Vera Lynn, Nina and Frederick and many others – meant he never had to worry about paying the bills.
He said it was born of his desire to “write a simple song for children to sing” after growing disenchanted with the “awful, discordant stuff” he had been writing in London before returning to his North East roots.
As well as his three sons, Ian, David and Tony, Eric Boswell leaves a lot of songs – and one, in particular, that we will hear a lot in the coming weeks.
He said it was born of his desire to “write a simple song for children to sing”