Jack Hylton – Boltonian renaissance man

Jack Hylton.
Photo from jackhylton.com website with thanks

When Jack Hylton died on January 29th, 1965, the lights across the West End went dark for five whole days. This, if nothing else, will give you an idea of the enormous impact of this man who in his time had been musician, bandleader, impresario, television pioneer, agent- and so much more.

July 2nd marks the 130th anniversary of Hylton’s birth.

Born in Great Lever, near Bolton, Lancashire on 2nd July 1892, Hylton learned the piano at a young age, to support other performers and to accompany himself whist singing in workers clubs. Working in a musical capacity the with Army during World War One, later he found himself in London where he could pick up work. An accomplished arranger, his style captured the vivacity in sound of the new jazzy imports from America, and his work became highly popular with record-buying audiences.

Ever-ambitious, in 1922, Hylton set up not only his own band, but a number of others too, under the banner of the Jack Hylton Organisation. What distinguished Hylton’s band was that it was larger than audiences had come to expect, with 20 or more players. Combine this with his crisp and toe-tapping arrangements and his dedication to the jazz sound which he evangelically toured across the UK, Hylton was highly-respected and acclaimed as the UK’s King of Jazz , although his music’s popularity extended far beyond the British Isles, into Europe and also the US (where his appearances were curtailed by the Americans Musicians Union).

Hylton’s vivacious arrangements and big band sound were the UK’s closest rivals to the American bands, but the driving quality of his “hot” arrangements and his tender arrangements of the slower, moodier numbers showed an enviable range and versatility of expression that audiences ate up. His success flourished greatly through the 1930s, to the extent that in 1935 he even created a band for his wife to take out on tour – Mrs Jack Hylton and Her Band – who toured the UK extensively and cut over 30 records in 1935 and 1936, capitalising on hubby’s name-draw.

1935 saw Jack’s band headline in a revue, Life Begins at Oxford Circus, at the London Palladium, presented by Jack Hylton himself, and also make their first film, She Shall Have Music, at Twickenham Studios.

With an enviable confidence, ingenuity and unstoppably positive attitude, Hylton was a man who made things happen- a man who truly believed in himself. It’s interesting to note that on a 1942 appearance on the BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs, four of the eight records he chose to take with him to his desert island were his own recordings!

World War Two saw some of his finest players called up for war service, and the band was officially disbanded. With these huge changes, Hylton refocused his energies on developing his role as an impresario, discovering new talent, and overseeing theatre, film and radio productions, as well as becoming a leading agent for established and new stars. He presented stage shows, revues, plays, orchestral concerts, ballets, circuses and every imaginable form of entertainment, bringing to them all his unwavering eye for showmanship and a sense of what the public wanted. His stature in the business was such that his many successful shows came to be known as the biggest hits on London stages, and on subsequent UK tours, for years to come.

Always with an eye to the future, Hylton was aware of the potential of television and at the outset of commercial TV in the UK in 1955, he was engaged as consultant for Light Entertainment to Associated-Rediffusion (A-R), the company which had won the London region weekday franchise. His newly-formed television production company produced a wide range of light entertainment fare exclusively for A-R to fill out their schedule, mostly using stars who were represented by Hylton. The sheer volume of work put together quickly meant that quality was highly variable, and tended towards the lower end of the quality scale, with performers apologising on-screen for issues and gaffes. Material was stretched perilously thin- a stage play was chopped into five half-hour segments and broadcast weekly; some Hylton artistes began appearing with rather more frequency than viewers were expecting or hoping for (according to letters received, stored in the archives). This included the over-exposure of his then-lover, opera singer Rosalina Neri (at the time dubbed “the Italian Marilyn Monroe”), who would pop up and burst into song with alarming frequency on many Hylton productions. The Hylton television output was often derided by critics, but a number of his shows were big ratings winners for A-R, proving that Hylton still knew what the public wanted. The Hylton Organisation’s huge undertaking to provide large amounts of tv product was hugely draining, and he refused to renew his contract in 1959 when invited. The general consensus was that his television work was largely unsuccessful.

Continuing to produce theatre shows right up until his death, his last stage production was CAMELOT in 1965. When Hylton passed away at the end of that January, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, a televised tribute to Hylton, “The Stars Shine for Jack”, which was staged on Sunday 30 May, featuring a long list of artists who Hylton had represented, presented and nurtured, including Arthur Askey, the Crazy Gang, Marlene Dietrich, Dickie Henderson and Shirley Bassey. The proceeds from the show benefitted the Jack Hylton Memorial Fund, which gave £35,000 to Lancaster University to build the Jack Hylton Music Rooms in his honour, which are still used to this day.

As someone who lived life to its fullest, Hylton was not constrained by as many societal rules as others – he had a reputation for having a good time, lavish spending and enjoyed the company of women. He was also a deeply loyal friend – many stories abound about his generosity to those fading from the spotlight – when showfolk faced hardship, Hylton could be relied upon for a helping hand. He was truly one of the old school of theatre makers who never forgot a friendship, unlike many of those who succeeded him.

Any one of his talents would be worth celebrating on their own, but for this unique man who left such a big impression on every area of showbusiness, it feels right to say Thank You- and Happy Birthday- Jack Hylton!

Below is a rare television biography of Hylton from 1967 which I’m sure you’ll enjoy. Thanks to YouTube poster Pete Faint for posting (Pete is also the man behind the Jack Hylton website mentioned below)

Those who want to know more about the amazing career of Jack Hylton would enjoy a trip to the Jack Hylton website, where you’ll find much more information. Find it here

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