A show that tells the stories behind wartime songs comes to the North East this week.
LIKE many in the forces Jack O’Hagan from Gosforth, Newcastle, was separated from his sweetheart Betty during the war, but one special song helped them through it.
While Betty was based in Dumfries with the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), Jack could be anywhere in the world singing in the ship’s band The Blue Rockets. But when he sang Goodnight Wherever You Are it was Betty he was thinking of.
The pair married during the war, after hitting it off aged 19 at The Denton Ballroom. They had four children and were together for 57 years, until Betty died 14 years ago.
“Betty used to love that song,” says Jack, now 90. “I don’t play it very often now, just when I’m feeling very sentimental and I’m missing her a lot.”
Born in Felling, Gateshead, Jack was one of 10 children, but he stood out by winning most of the local singing competitions from the age of 12, and became known as “the golden-voiced boy soprano”.
Joining the Navy in 1942, aged 19, Jack performed at every port they stopped in from Gibraltar and South Africa to India and The Philippines. As well as Army and air force dances, he played on the ship’s flight deck and also indulged in a spot of moonlighting at nightclubs and restaurants.
“I was earning so much money that the ship’s captain said I’d have to change my name, as I was under contract to the Navy and any money should go to them,” says Jack, who quickly created the stage name Eddie Lyle, inspired by a bag of sugar!
“I remember singing Whispering Grass in Sydney and getting paid 19 guineas for three minutes’ work. I was earning more than my dad was working a 40-hour week on the railroads. There were 2,000 on the carrier and I think I loaned every one of them money!”
Jack’s shipmates got their money’s worth too. During shore leave in London, they secretly entered him in a singing competition at the local cinema, where he won 30 shillings. “We toured the pubs afterwards and I was left with one penny!,” he laughs.
In times of peril, music was a welcome distraction. Jack remembers fearing for his life when their 22,000- tonne aircraft carrier HMS Unicorn was dive-bombed by German aircraft. They weren’t hit but a near-miss 200 yards away rocked and shook the ship to its core.
“The terrible thing was, if anything like that happened they would batten the hatches and there was no way anyone could get out,” he says.
Jack’s singing, reminiscent of Matt Monroe and Frank Sinatra, also boosted morale among civilians. “In London everyone used the Tube as air raid shelters and wherever I went the lads would say ‘go on Jack sing a couple of songs for us’ which seemed to go down really well,” he remembers.
One night well-known American film star Eddie Cantor, who sang the song Makin’ Whoopee, came onboard the ship and was blown away by the ship’s band.
“He said it was marvellous for the times,” says Jack, who performed for many other famous faces over the years including Stewart Grainger, Carrol Levis and Michael Wilding, who was married to Liz Taylor.
After the war, Jack sang at a revue with Max Wall and at the Milroy Club in London, which was popular with the likes of Ivor Novello and Noel Coward. Although he loved singing ballads like Begin the Beguine and The Song of You, Jack soon started to detest the much requested Night and Day.
He explains: “Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, used to come in and her favourite song was Night and Day. She wanted me to sing it every time she came in, but she did always leave me a bottle of whisky!”
When the war ended offers flooded in for more singing work.
Jack was asked to stay in Australia and offered a day job at the council offices. He was also approached by a newspaperman from the Chicago Times who asked him to sign a contract in America.
However, loyalty to his existing promoter Roy Fox, and worries about dubious mafia connections, led Jack to turn down the offers.
Instead he returned to Newcastle and settled down to married life with Betty, going semi-pro as singer while working at Vickers shipyard.
As well as singing at The Oxford Galleries in Newcastle with Peter Fielding, he sang before the film every Sunday night at Westgate Cinema. He even sang at Newcastle City Hall without a microphone. “My dad went right to the top and said you can hear every word, it’s brilliant,” says Jack.
His biggest UK gig came in 1947 during a 16-week stint at The Palace Ballroom on the Isle of Man, then the biggest ballroom in Europe. It’s since been demolished but TT night, following the famous road race, was legendary.
Although he later lost his voice and become a freelance keyboard teacher instead, Jack is philo- sophical. “I tried hypnosis and even spirit- ualists laying on hands to try and get my voice back, but I think the vocal chords were just stretched too much and of course, nothing worked,” he says. “In the end I just accepted it because I still had music.”
He has no regrets about passing up the American contract either.
“I went as far as I could go in this country,” he says. “But if I’d gone over there I wouldn’t have the family I’ve got today. They care so much. My son calls me every night and says ‘I love you’ dad’. I’ve had too good a life to change anything.”
For those with families who were left at home, things were very different though. Agnes Burns, 99, who was born in Dipton and now lives in Burnopfield, was married to miner Joseph for 25 years. They had nine children and Agnes now has 11 grandchildren, 27 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.
She was in her late 20s when war broke and remembers fondly songs such as Marching to the Front, Packing your Kit Bag and When you Come Marching Home.
Blue Eyes has a particularly special meaning as it was played when her dad came home from the First World War. “I never really went out much during the war because the men were away,” says Agnes. “People went to the local legion clubs or made their own entertainment at home.”
This Thursday a nostalgic family show called Eyes Front comes to the North East, bringing the stories behind the wartime songs to life.
Folk singer and TV personality Isla St Clair will be performing songs spanning the Napoleonic era and the Boer War through to the two World Wars, including popular medleys like White Cliffs of Dover, All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor, The Siegfried Line and Wish Me Luck.
The live performance will be combined with unique film footage and commentary from film-maker Patrick King, showing how songs and music played an important part in people’s daily lives for boosting morale as well as for propaganda.
Isla, who was best-known as co-host on The Generation Game with Larry Grayson in the 1970s, is one of Britain’s foremost traditional folk singers and has performed the show over 80 times in the last two years.
”People aren’t quite sure what to expect but really it’s a presentation show,” she says.
“There are sad bits, poignant bits and joining-in bits. People really like the three-hander and the different dimensions of it.”
Particular favourites for Isla include The Whitsun Dance, about the widows of the First World War and The D-Day Dodgers, which was written by soldiers and is sung to the tune of Lili Marlene.
Performing at The Lamplight Arts Centre in Stanley will have special poignancy for Isla as her mother Vetta won a songwriting competition there at the 1984 folk festival.
“She wrote a wonderful song called Dunkirk about her brother Sandy, a commando who was killed on D-Day but survived Dunkirk,” says Isla whose three uncles died in the Second World War.
“In 2000 I sang it at the National Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in front of the Queen so it will be wonderful to sing it in the place where my mother also performed it.”
Eyes Front is at The Lamplight Arts Centre, Stanley, on July 21, from 2pm. Tickets cost £9 full and £8 concs. Call the Lamplight box office on 01207 218899, or visit www.leisureworks.net. Group booking discounts are available.