Ever heard of Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty, Now I Have To Call Him Father, It Takes An Irish Heart To Sing An Irish Song, or Bless ’Em All?
What about Molly O’Morgan, Irish And Proud Of It, Too!, Hey Ho! Can’t You Hear The Steamer?, Who Were You With Last Night?, or Down Texas Way?
For more than a century now, the British people and their offspring overseas have been singing the songs of Fred Godfrey. Yet, like virtually all the songwriters of the Music Hall and early days of Variety in Britain, and unlike many of his American contemporaries, Godfrey worked in obscurity — a familiar figure to the stars who bought his material but totally unknown to the general public. Indeed, one rarely meets with his name even in the usual histories of the Music Hall. Fans of the great Australian comic singer Billy Williams, “The Man In The Velvet Suit,” know the name as one-half of the composing credits on the hundreds of discs of that early recording star, but nothing else about him. Who, then, was Fred Godfrey?
“Fred Godfrey” is, in fact, the nom de plume of Llewellyn Williams, born at 62 New Oxford Street, Swansea, Wales, on 17 September 1880. His father, Robert Williams, originally came from Holywell, in North Wales. The census and other records indicate that Robert had numerous occupations — “tinman,” “vendor of fancy goods,” “general dealer” — before ending up, sometime in the 1890s, as an auctioneer. He hoped Llewellyn would join him in that profession, as an elder brother, Lewis, had done. Evidently, however, Robert Williams was less than a successful businessman, for in 1892 he appeared before the Swansea Bankruptcy Court:
Like father, like son, apparently, as the competent handling of money was never Fred’s strong suit. In a follow-up appearance by Robert in October 1892, the newspaper reported: “He was examined at length on his trading and the absence of books of account, replying with respect to the latter that he could neither read nor write....The examination was declared closed” (“Swansea Bankruptcy Court,” South Wales Daily News, 29 October 1892, p. 6).
Fred Godfrey’s mother was Maria Jane Knight, daughter of a Thames waterman, born in London and, like Fred’s father, an illiterate, as indicated on Fred’s birth certificate. He liked to claim in later years that his mother had been Irish, the idea no doubt being to lend some authenticity to the considerable number of songs he wrote with Irish themes. Whatever her heritage, however, there is as yet no evidence of an Irish connection. Robert and Maria were married in 1864 in Caernarvon, and their first four sons were born in various towns in North Wales. By the time Llewellyn (Fred) arrived in 1880, the family had moved south to Swansea.
Details of Fred’s life are frustratingly sketchy — little is known even to his living offspring, including this author, his grandson. One can speculate, however, that he must have taken to music at an early age, and it is likely that the family always had a piano in the parlour wherever they moved. A tantalizing clue is offered, however, by a brief report in a local coal-mining valley newspaper to the effect that “Messrs. R. Williams and Son’s auction vans are a huge enjoyment nightly to the younger members of the community. Impromptu concerts, etc., are of nightly occurrence” (Merthyr Times, 4 June 1897, p. 3). Was this a teenaged Llewellyn (Fred) entertaining on the piano to draw in customers?
It is not known whether Fred had any formal musical training, but he certainly knew enough, or learned enough, to be able to write his own music scores, band parts, and arrangements, and he was known for his skill as a pianist. In a 1968 interview, Amy Jennings, the widow of Billy Williams, for whom Fred wrote so many songs in the 1907–14 period, called him a “brilliant pianist...a very clever man,” and recalled that he would come over to Billy’s house in Brixton, London, to play on the baby grand piano there. According to one family story, somehow the great Polish pianist (and later Poland’s prime minister) Ignace Jan Paderewski (1860–1941), while on a personal tour of Britain in 1895 (he played Cardiff in January), heard the then-fourteen-year-old Fred play, and offered to take him on as a pupil. Fred’s father would have none of it, however. Music was not steady work, not a trade likely to bring money into the house.
It is, then, no surprise that Fred removed himself from such a constraining atmosphere at the earliest opportunity. That came in 1901, when, on 1 July, a couple of months shy of his twenty-first birthday, Fred married Bertha Lloyd, the daughter of a railway worker in Treherbert, in the Rhondda Valley. The Lloyds had been sheep farmers in the Vale of Glamorgan. Bertha’s grandfather had owned a farm called “Great Frampton,” just outside Llantwit Major, but upon his death the farm had gone to the eldest son, and Bertha’s father had had to find other employment. Despite their straitened circumstances, some of the Lloyds had literary pretensions. One of Bertha’s cousins was Collie Knox, a well-known Daily Mail journalist of the 1930s and ’40s; another cousin, Ellis Lloyd, was a novelist of Welsh life and, from 1929 to 1931, a Member of Parliament for the constituency of Llandaff and Barry in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour government. Bertha herself was, by all accounts, an unpretentious, no-nonsense type with a typical singsong South Wales accent (unlike Fred, who apparently divested himself of any regionalism).
How Fred and Bertha came to meet is unknown, but it is likely that Fred and his father had been auctioneering in the Treherbert area. The wedding took place in All Saints (Anglican) Church in Treherbert (the church no longer exists), and shortly after, Fred abandoned his father’s auction business and fled with Bertha to London. Except for brief summer holiday visits and the occasional family funeral, Fred made metropolitan London the core of his universe thereafter.
The Early Days in London
Nothing is known of how Fred Godfrey came to write songs for a living. But write them he did — more than 800 in an incredibly prolific career that lasted well into the 1940s. Nothing is known, either, of how or when Llewellyn Williams became “Fred Godfrey.” One suspects that a shorter, less ethnic name worked better on the sheet music. “Fred” was almost certainly borrowed from the name of one of his younger brothers.
Fred’s youngest daughter Peggie (this writer’s mother) thought that his first song was published in 1901, shortly after the move from Wales. She might have been right about the date, although she also believed the title was Blue Eyes, a song that actually dates from 1915. The earliest known Godfrey songs date only from 1906. Somehow, in those first five years in London, he supported himself and his growing family: a daughter, Gladys (possibly named for Fred’s younger sister), was born in 1902 (d. 1991) and a second, Muriel, known to all as “Baba,” followed in 1903 (d. 1964). Perhaps his piano playing kept him employed. Indeed, a 1931 report in a Yorkshire newspaper about Fred’s appearance as pianist accompanying artist Shaun Glenville at a Leeds theatre includes the following curious note: “Formerly a concert party artist, Mr. Godfrey, by the way, was many years ago with Andie Caine’s pierrots at Filey [a Yorkshire seaside town]” (“The Listener,” Yorkshire Evening Post, 6 June 1931, p. 5). Caine’s Pierrots apparently were something of an institution at Filey, with newspaper reports of their doings ranging in time from 1905 up into the 1930s, while a letter by Music Hall historian Christopher Pulling to The Stage (18 February 1954) indicates that, in 1907, the troupe was already in its tenth year.
It is likely that many of Fred Godfrey’s early songs, written before the passage in August 1906 of the Musical Copyright Act, will never be discovered. Some idea of the early days might be gleaned from the following personal advertisement that appeared in The Era on 6 October 1906: “BERNARD, GEO., resumes music halldom Oct. 15. Entire new budget of original numbers by Mr. Fred Godfrey.” As early as November 1907, however, The Era was already referring to Godfrey as “this favourite author-composer” (“Songs, Writers, and Singers,” The Era, 2 November 1907, p. 25). Indeed, he seems to have arrived full-blown on the scene that year, teaming up with lyricist Harry Castling to produce the substantial hits Iíll Tell Tilly On The Telephone, Meet Me Jenny When The Sun Goes Down, and It’s The Only Bit Of English That We’ve Got, which Billy Williams, among others, recorded successfully. With that hit, Billy Williams began to accept an increasing number of songs from Godfrey — so much so that, from 1911 until his untimely death in Brighton in 1915, almost every one of Billy’s large number of recordings was a Williams and Godfrey composition. It was quite an extraordinary blend of talents, and a testament to Godfrey’s skill at crafting songs to suit the singer.
“Williams and Godfrey” was also something of a business partnership. But Godfrey, in common with most Music Hall songwriters, was not much of a businessman. In those days, the custom, at least in Britain — American songwriters enjoyed a rather more developed system of intellectual property rights — was to sell songs outright to a performer or publisher for a few pounds. The writers rarely figured to get much in the way of a cut of the royalties. Godfrey earned quite a bit at times, and certainly enough in the better years to provide a comfortable middle-class existence for his family in the South London borough of Streatham (their address for many years was 6 Streatham Place; alas, the golden arches of a fast-food restaurant now occupy the site). He had to be prolific, however. Typical of the arrangements of the day is the letter opposite, in which Godfrey assigns his rights to Williams to song after song for a few guineas each. Williams, in contrast, would receive, in addition to half of the composing royalties, a hundred pounds or more for each recording session as well as royalties from sheet music and disc and cylinder sales, not to mention hefty performance fees. Billy was, no doubt, worth every penny, but the songwriters didn’t get rich unless they started their own music publishing companies, as did A.J. Mills and Bennett Scott (with Star Music), Lawrence Wright, and Worton David, for example.
Godfrey’s association with Billy Williams was close in the few years before World War One, but by no means exclusive. While keeping Billy well supplied, he was under contract to music publishers Francis, Day & Hunter and later Bert Feldman, and was writing a huge number of songs for other performers, among them some of the biggest stars of the Music Hall, including the Australian Florrie Forde, Mark Sheridan, Dorothy Ward, Shaun Glenville, Ella Retford, and Vesta Victoria.
The Golden Years
The year 1908 saw the birth of Godfrey’s third daughter, Nina (d. 1973), and hits such as Have You Got Another Girl At Home Like Mary?, I Want You To See My Girl (which Charles R. Whittle made a speciality),When They Ask You What Your Name Is (Tell ‘Em It’s Molloy), and two of Billy Williamss most popular numbers, Put A Bit Of Powder On It, Father and We’re All Waiting For A Girl. Despite the many hits that year, Godfrey was frequently broke. The story goes that Fred and a rival had just threepence between them when they decided to toss a coin to see who would sell a song to Vesta Victoria. Fred won. The song he offered her was Now I Have To Call Him Father.
In 1909 came Molly O’Morgan (The Irish-Italian Girl), which both Florrie Forde and, especially, Ella Retford made their own, and There Are Nice Girls Everywhere, a Whit Cunliffe specialty. The year was hardly one of unalloyed joy, however, as Fred’s mother died in Swansea in March, just shy of her 66th birthday. Then, 1910 saw the publication of Come Into The Garden, John, a big hit for Billy Williams, I May Be A Millionaire, which Eugene Stratton sang, and Florrie Forde’s Mother’s Had A Row With Father.
In 1911, the Edwardian era ended and George V became king. That was also the year in which Godfrey’s association with Billy Williams began in earnest, and all of his hit songs that year were hits for Billy, too, including Don’t Go Out With Him Tonight, Here We Are Again, Let’s All Go Mad, Let’s Go Where All The Crowd Goes (which works the new king’s coronation into the lyrics), Wake Up, John Bull!, and Why Can’t We Have The Sea In London?.
Nineteen twelve was notable in Britain for its disasters: the tragedy of the Scott Antarctic expedition at the beginning of the year and the loss of the Titanic in April. For Fred Godfrey, however, the year saw rather happier events: the birth of his fourth daughter, Peggie (d. 2001) and still more hit songs, including, above all, Who Were You With Last Night?, the famous and much-loved Mark Sheridan hit. There were also more successes for the irrepressible Billy Williams, including I Wish It Was Sunday Night, The Kangaroo Hop (which cashed in on the dance crazes of the day; it was reprised in the 1975 Gene Wilder film” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother”), Wait Till I’m As Old As Father, Where Does Daddy Go When He Goes Out?, and I Never Heard Father Laugh So Much Before.
The last of these songs was a follow-up to Billy Williams’s 1910 recording, When Father Papered The Parlour, which was his biggest hit of all. And this seems a good place to mention that Godfrey claimed to have written several huge Music Hall hits for which he received no credit whatsoever. They include She’s A Lassie From Lancashire, published in 1907 and credited to C.W. Murphy, Dan Lipton, and John Neat; My Girl’s A Yorkshire Girl (Ee, By Gum, She’s A Champion), another C.W. Murphy and Dan Lipton song published in 1908; Ship Ahoy! (All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor), also published in 1908 and credited to Godfrey’s frequent songwriting partners A.J. Mills and Bennett Scott; and the afore-mentioned When Father Papered The Parlour, which is credited to R.P. Weston and Fred J. Barnes. These songs were always considered by the family to be Godfrey songs, and Godfrey’s claims to them were repeated in his newspaper obituaries (though, it must be admitted, the titles of Godfrey’s better-known songs were likely supplied to the newspapers by family members themselves). Reproduced here is a postcard that Godfrey gave to his grandson Peter (at an uncertain date but probably sometime in the late 1940s) on which he printed in his own hand the names of some of his big hits, as he remembered them.
In the absence of corroborative evidence, it would be unreasonable to lay claim to these songs on Godfrey’s behalf. It should be noted, however, that a number of the songs Billy Williams recorded and for which Godfrey receives no credit on record labels are known to be Godfrey compositions, as they are included in letters in which Godfrey assigns his rights to them to Williams. In like vein, the Performing Right Society lists a number of unpublished songs from the late 1930s that Godfrey apparently wrote for Max Miller but for which he is uncredited on record labels.
In 1913, Florrie Forde, among others, sang Godfrey’s Dance Your Troubles Away, while another Australian star of the Music Hall, Albert Whelan, had a hit with his Anything To Take Me Home, and Mark Sheridan sang What A Game It Is! Wow! Wow!, a catchphrase of the day. Godfrey’s biggest hit that year was probably Hey Ho! Can’t You Hear The Steamer?. The song had been written for Billy Williams but he declined to record it; other artists made it a success. Williams nevertheless continued recording Godfrey songs at a torrid pace, although few of them are particularly outstanding — among the better ones are I’m Out For The Day Today, Jean Loves All The Jockeys, Oh! Molly McIntyre, and She Is My Best Girl Now. The ragtime craze then was raging in Britain, and Godfrey offered up The Death Of Rag-Time, Good-bye, Rag-time!, Oh, That Ragtime Waltz!, and The Ragtime Wedding, though the titles rather suggest a wish that the fad would go away.
In the last few months of peace, Billy Williams had his last Godfrey-written successes before dying in early 1915 at the age of 37. They included I’ll Have To Ask My Mother If She’ll Let Me, On Her Pic-Pic-Piccolo, When Mother Backed The Winner Of The Derby, and, ironically, There’s Life In The Old Dog Yet. Godfrey’s biggest hits of the year were two of Florrie Forde’s biggest Irish-flavoured hits, It Takes An Irish Heart To Sing An Irish Song and We’re Irish And Proud Of It, Too. G.H. Elliott also sang Godfrey’s You’ve Got Me And I’ve Got You.
The War Years
With the coming of the Great War, Fred Godfrey, in common with many other songwriters, turned his attention to suitable morale boosters. As Gary Giddens notes about a later war: “The home front keeps the assembly lines running, and civilians forgo their own desires to meet military needs. It collects supplies, sustains unbowed morale, and honors those who do the fighting. Entertainment, in this equation, is no mere diversion but a necessity, the oil that keeps the gears turning. And when the rest of the era is dimmed, it lingers on and praises those who were there” (Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star — The War Years, 1940–1946 [New York: Little, Brown, 2018], p. 398).
Pitching in, then, in 1914 alone Godfrey turned out quickly forgotten tunes such as An Entente Cordiale In La Belle France; Good Luck, Little French Soldier Man; It’s The Same Old Tommy And The Same Old Jack!; It’s The Way They Have In The Navy; My Little Red Cross Girl; When An Irishman Goes Fighting; and When I Hear Those Bells Of Brittany. He thus began to develop a reputation as a writer of “war songs” that followed him for the rest of his career and led to a last burst of creativity late in his life, during World War Two.
As the war in France dragged on and spread to the Dardanelles, Godfrey continued to supply the Home Front with sorely needed diversions. One big hit in 1915 was Dorothy Ward’s Blue Eyes, which he wrote with Lawrence Wright (who used the pseudonym “Horatio Nicholls”). Godfrey’s youngest daughter Peggie always maintained the song was written about her — she would have been a blue-eyed three-year-old at the time; she also treasured the memory of Florrie Forde’s gift to her of a doll with real human hair. Also that year, Gertie Gitana sang Godfrey’s Molly McGlory, while G.H. Elliott did his There’s A Little Baby Up In The Moon and Ella Retford had a hit with We’re All North Country Lads And Lasses. More war songs followed as well, the most notable of which were Follow The Sergeant and Save Your Kisses Till The Boys Come Home, but also entertaining the civilians were Little Rosalie, My Pretty Refugee; Mister Sergeant Michael Donoghue; Oh For The Sight Of A Girl; Sergeant Macadoo (another hit for Ella Retford); There’ll Be Nothing But Boys In Khaki By The Seaside; They All Did The Goose-Step Home; and Tommy’s Learning French. This very busy year also saw Godfrey, among others, contribute the music for the George Shurley and Graham Primrose revue Search Me, which played in various theatres around the British Isles, including at the Coliseum, Dublin. A pre-opening note in the Dublin Daily Express (2 August 1915) remarked: “The Coliseum promises lots of catchy melody, long laughs, charming dancing and pretty girls when...‘Search Me’ will be presented tonight and during the week. It is claimed that the show is quite ahead of the average review in all the qualities that matter.”
Then, in 1916, came one of Fred Godfrey’s most famous songs and one of the truly iconic tunes of World War One: Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty. “Blighty,” supposedly a Hindustani word for “home,” came to be used by the British army in India before World War One to refer to Britain. Godfrey’s song helped to spread the use of the word among the civilian population. According to Dorothy Ward, who introduced the song, Godfrey wrote it in her living room in London. It quickly became a huge success, not only in Britain but also with the Tommies in France. As for royalties, however, Godfrey said he got “not very much.”
Blighty was the biggest by far, but there were other war songs in 1916: British Empire troops from Down Under were saluted in Coo-ee! Coo-ee! (The Anzac Boy); I Love My Motherland typically appeared on the flip side of recordings of Blighty but its pompous tone doomed it to a short life; the message of Send The Boys A Little Snapshot (Of The Ones They’ve Left Behind) was clear enough. Florrie Forde told civilians that We’ve Got To Put Up With It Now, while in Pierrot Parade she sang of happier days at the seaside. Godfrey’s songs often reflected the social trends of the day — suffragettes were an object of fun in a number of Billy Williams’s pre-war songs; an example is You’re Some Tram-Conductor Girl, an echo of the burgeoning employment of women on the Home Front. A much-recorded song from the year of the Somme was Some Night, Some Waltz, Some Girl. Also in 1916, Godfrey and Bennett Scott provided the music, with book by A.J. Mills, for the show Three Weeks And A Bit, which opened at the Tottenham Palace, London, in April. The revue was still touring the provinces in late summer, opening at the Empire Palace, South Shields, for example, on 26 August, and at the New Empire, Burnley, in mid-September. That same year, Godfrey was featured, complete with photograph (above, left) in a short article in The Era (29 March 1916):
Instead, on 26 January 1917, the 36-year-old Fred Godfrey was conscripted at last and, like fellow composer Ivor Novello, found himself in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). As a civilian, Godfrey was never what one would have called a responsible type. He was quite useless with money — once, on holiday back in Wales, he was asked to look after a relative’s shop for an hour while the owner slipped out for a bite to eat; the owner returned to discover that Fred had not bothered charging the customers for their purchases. He would also mysteriously disappear for weeks, even months, at a time. Eventually, he would be found in a London pub with a pal (his daughter Peggie related that one such was Talbot O’Farrell, the Yorkshire-born singer of “Irish” songs). When it was suggested that it was high time he went home to Bertha, he would meekly put his hat and coat on and head off as though he were merely half an hour overdue for dinner.
In the RNAS, then, Godfrey was less than the ideal recruit, to put it mildly. His fellow “airmen” — and officers, too — quickly learned that he was the composer of so many of the songs they knew so well, and that his talents lay more with playing piano for the boys than with tugging on the end of an airship mooring line, which apparently is how he was mainly employed. (One of the songs he played for them was a little ditty he’d thought up, then promptly forgot about, called Bless ’Em All.) He was sent to France, but not much farther than Dunkirk. He seems to have been in and out of trouble, though his service record shows only the lightest of punishments. A family story has it that the Duchess of Sutherland, on a visit to the troops, heard him playing and pulled strings to get him released. What is certain is that, very shortly after the RNAS was rolled into the newly formed Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918, someone in authority seems to have decided that Godfrey could make a more useful contribution to the war effort by writing songs to raise civilian morale, and he found himself out of uniform and back in his old London haunts. Bertha apparently was not at all pleased, regarding his release from military service as something akin to cowardice. Indeed, both he and Bertha lost a younger brother during the course of 1918 — Godfrey’s brother Fred, from whom he had borrowed his stage name, was shot down while serving with the 22nd Squadron, RAF, while Bertha’s brother Archie, a private in the North Staffordshire Regiment, was killed in a strafing attack by a German plane — so the subject was a difficult one.
In 1917, while Godfrey was away in the RNAS, Down Texas Way, a song he had written sometime in 1916, was published and became a huge success. Songs about the Old South were then becoming all the rage. So, in 1918 and back on civvy street, Godfrey, alert as usual to prevailing fads in popular music, came up with My Tennessee, Is That You Calling Me?, the first of a number of such efforts in the late teens and early twenties. His handful of other songs in 1918 tended to shy away from war-related themes, with such titles as The Bells Of Tobermory, Roses Red And Roses White, Stop Making Those Eyes At Me, and When We’re Made One, We Two, although, in a more martial vein, Shaun Glenville sang Soldiers Like It.
Popular Music Changes Key
In 1919, the writer of a newspaper article asked Fred Godfrey about the state of popular music:
Nonetheless, in the postwar years, recorded music, the cinema, and radio combined to kill off the Music Halls. Popular music itself was also becoming more sophisticated. In the United States, a new generation — Berlin, Kern, Porter, the Gershwins — was replacing the old Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths. The same process was under way in Britain, and Fred Godfrey found it increasingly difficult to sell songs to publishers and artists who wanted the romanticism of an Ivor Novello or the world-weary cleverness of a Noël Coward. Godfrey was, in any case, pegged by then as a writer of novelties and war ditties. He could write other material: his daughter Peggie recalled many an evening when the family would gather around the piano as Fred played for them his latest songs, often beautiful and thoughtful stuff. “What do you think of this one?” he would usually preface. But the publishers weren’t interested.
Successes now came much less frequently, but songs about an imaginary American Southland were well received: Down in Virginia was a minor hit in 1919, and in 1920 G.H. Elliott sang Mammy’s Mississippi Home. Another success in 1920 was Open Your Heart And Let The Sunshine In, which the great Australian baritone Peter Dawson recorded under the pseudonym Will Strong. But even Godfrey’s own publisher, Feldman’s, admitted the period was infertile for one of its key songwriting assets, noting in an advertisement, of all places: “Fred Godfrey is evidently coming back to something like his old form. Following his ‘Sorry, Florrie,’ which Ella Retford fastened on right away, with gratifying results, he has now produced another winner in ‘Rolling Home In The Morning.’ This one has been taken up by Ella Shields, who is most enthusiastic over her new ‘find’” (“Footlight Flashes,” The Era, 16 May 1923, p. 24).
It was not until 1925, however, that Godfrey clicked again, with This Time Next Year. He also wrote the words for the songs in a show called “Let’s Go,” starring Lee White, one-half of the American Vaudeville team of Lee White and Clay Smith, who owned and operated the Strand Theatre in London and put on their own shows there. In 1926, Godfrey had a hit with I’m Taking That Baby Home, which several bands, including those led by Jack Hylton and Ronnie Munro, recorded. That year, he also began to write a few songs under the pseudonym “Eddie Stamper,” and it was as such that he scored with Way Down Home and While The Sahara Sleeps, both written with Lawrence Wright as “Horatio Nicholls.”
In 1927, Godfrey added a second pseudonym, “Don Grahame,” under which he had a minor hit with Mulligatawny (Where The Soup Comes From), which Clarkson Rose recorded. He began using still another pseudonym, “Edward E. Elton,” in 1928, but his one big hit that year, Janette, written with Lawrence Wright, was credited to him as “Godfrey Williams.” Janette was unusual in that it was a serious ballad, rather than a novelty song. In 1929, Tommy Handley sang Hope, Brothers, Hope, but Godfrey’s most successful song that year undoubtedly was Oh Maggie! What Have You Been Up To?, written under his “Edward E. Elton” pseudonym and recorded by Gracie Fields, Clarkson Rose, Leslie Sarony, and Randolph Sutton, among others.
In 1929, Godfrey and a couple of other British songwriters were contracted to go and write songs in Hollywood, as reported in, for example, the Aberdeen Press and Journal, 12 September 1929 (shown here). The money, at £100 to £200 per week, would have been fabulous (the average working man at the time made no more than £3 per week), but they never went. It’s not known which studio wanted them, but the Depression, along with the sudden collapse in interest in musical pictures in the early 1930s (not revived until the release of films such as 42nd Street in 1933), likely put the kibosh on the deal.
In 1930, Randolph Sutton sang another of Godfrey’s “Elton” compositions, I’ve Got One Arm Round Mary (And The Other Arm Round Her Ma). The following year, Godfrey put on his old services songs hat and had a success with Skin-A-Ma-Link The Sergeant, which both Jack Payne and Albert Whelan recorded. But by then, the musical times had left Godfrey, now in his fifties, behind. As if to underscore the point, Noël Coward’s Oscar-winning 1933 film Cavalcade reprised Godfrey’s Take Me Back To Yorkshire from nearly a quarter-century earlier to evoke the long-dead Edwardian era.
Fred Godfrey the Performer
Like most British songwriters, Fred Godfrey spent his professional career in the shadows so far as the public was concerned. Few of the hundreds of thousands who bought sheet music with his name on it — and in large type, too — would have noticed it as they glanced at the performer’s picture on the cover before opening the songsheet on the piano stand.
Yet songwriters occasionally are persuaded to step out of the wings and take a bow. Indeed, some songwriters have been absolute hams about performing. And here one doesn’t mean people like Harry Lauder, who was known primarily as a performer but who wrote his own material — once uncommon, though standard practice since the 1960s. But composer and brilliant pianist George Gershwin was notorious for insisting on playing his own stuff anywhere and everywhere, to everyone’s great delight. Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer, Noël Coward, and Sammy Fain (“The Crooning Composer”) are other songwriters who sought the public’s attention via stage, screen, and recording studio. Perhaps they wanted a taste of what it was like for themselves, rather than just writing for the stars.
As noted above, there are tantalizing hints that Fred Godfrey spent at least some of his early years as a (presumably) paid pianist, playing before audiences. But his real turn in the spotlight came in 1929, when he was persuaded to team up with Irish tenor Tom E. Finglass to put on a Variety act featuring Godfrey’s hits, with Finglass doing the singing while Godfrey — billed as “The British song writer who is booked for Hollywood” — accompanied on the piano. The audience would join in all the beloved old choruses, and the two ended with Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty, which always brought the house down. The act toured from late 1929 through mid-1930, “topping the bill” in many provincial halls. But Godfrey’s impatience with a life of strict timetables made the act impossible to sustain. In any case, the ongoing demand for evenings reminiscing about the old songs was always going to be limited. Before bringing his performing career to a final end, however, in summer 1931 Godfrey joined Shaun Glenville as his pianist for several appearances in Yorkshire and the Midlands.
The Last Refrain
Beginning in the late 1930s, Godfrey’s old-fashioned comic song style was just what the likes of Elsie and Doris Waters (radio’s “Gert and Daisy”), Max Miller (“The Cheeky Chappie”), and George Formby Jr. were looking for. Miller accepted several Godfrey songs in the years just before the outbreak of World War Two. His 1938 film Everything Happens To Me featured two of them, including the title song; others Miller recorded or used in his stage show. Many of the songs Godfrey provided Miller remained unpublished, according to the Performing Right Society, or were credited only to Miller on record labels.
In April 1937, Fred was involved in a revue called “Song Writers On Parade,” put on by popular composers Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Carr, staged at the Penge Empire, in southeast London. W.J. Bishop, writing for The Era, suggested that, “When the company get together more, and there is more speedy action, this show is going to be a big attraction, for the material is there. As it was, on Monday, until Fred Godfrey was introduced at the last moment—he was not on the programme—there was too little life in the production.....[T]here were some lilting tunes, sung and played by the various composers, such as Jimmy Kennedy, Michael Carr, the Tin Pan Alley Trio (Cox, Box, and Roberts), and by that popular trio, The Three Rhythm Sisters” (“Song Writers’ Parade,” The Era, 15 April 1937. p. 19). As noted in the caption to the picture, above left, the revue was turned into a motion picture starring Vic Oliver, directed by Herbert Smith, and released by the British Lion studio in May 1938, with Fred’s photo accompanying pre-release publicity. A report about the forthcoming film in The Era also mentions Godfrey as one of the parading song writers (R.B. Marriott, “Epic of Tin Pan Alley,” The Era, 14 May 1937, p 17); his actual appearance in the film is currently unknown, however, and the film appears to have been lost.
In a 1938 article in The Stage, here is what entertainer and writer Clarkson Rose had to say about Godfrey:
George Formby — by the late 1930s Britain’s most popular film star — recorded his first Godfrey song, A Lad From Lancashire, in October 1939. That same month, Bertha Godfrey passed away from cancer at the age of 59, and Fred went to live with his eldest daughter, Gladys, in the North London suburb of Pinner — just around the corner from where Reg Dwight, the future star Elton John, would grow up. Fred lived with Gladys in Pinner for the rest of his life.
Formby recorded a second Godfrey song, A Lancashire Romeo, just before Christmas 1939. Then, in November 1940, came Formby’s recording of Bless ’Em All. The full story of that massive hit can be found under the song title. Suffice it to say here that Godfrey’s 1917 composition was a long time percolating, having gradually become, during the interwar years, a kind of unofficial anthem of the RAF, typically sung with scurrilous lyrics as had been the case when Godfrey first wrote it during the earlier war. When it finally appeared in published form in 1940, having been cleaned up by a couple of staff writers at Keith Prowse Music, it was an immediate and enormous success throughout the English-speaking world. Bless ’Em All became one of the most famous and often-sung songs of the war, and is no doubt Godfrey’s biggest hit.
Following on the great success of Bless ’Em All, George Formby decided to record a second version of the song in early 1941, with new lyrics provided by Godfrey. Formby went on to record several other Godfrey songs during the war, one of which, Home Guard Blues, was featured in the 1943 Formby film Get Cracking. After the war, Formby called on Godfrey once more to write special songs for his triumphant 1947 tours of Canada and the Antipodes.
Godfrey appeared as a guest on a couple of broadcasts of Variety Band-Box, one of the most popular radio programs of its time. The first was on the BBC General Forces Programme at 1:00 p.m., Tuesday, 24 July 1945, in a segment entitled “Composer Cavalcade” (the show also included Godfrey pals Florence Oldham and Danny Malone). The second was on the BBC Light Programme at 5:00 p.m., Sunday, 23 September 1945, and again in the “Composer Cavalcade” segment (but with a different roster of guests). Both programs were broadcast from the Queensbury All-Services Club in Soho, London, which catered exclusively to service personnel and where Glenn Miller & His Army Air Force Band had been in residence until the American bandleader’s disappearance over the Channel the previous December. The shows, however, do not seem to have been retained in the BBC Archives now at the British Library.
Godfrey also kept busy writing for other acts, such as the 1945 production shown below by Joe Murgatroyd and Poppett (whose real names were Mark Stone and Josie Bradley, the parents of British musical comedienne and photographer Billie Love).
Godfrey could be generous with his talent, too, as the following story from a Sydney, Australia, newspaper relates:
The Sadler Twins, by the way, went on to have a minor career in Australian Variety in the 1950s and 1960s.
Fred Godfrey died in a Pinner hospital on 22 February 1953 at the age of 72, scribbling new song ideas on odd envelopes to the last. He is buried in Pinner New Cemetery; on his headstone is the inscription “In Loving Memory of Fred Godfrey, ‘Darling Dada’...Gladys, Baba, Nina, Peggie.” On hearing of his death, Music Hall historian W. Macqueen-Pope declared: “Had Fred Godfrey been selling [his hit songs] these days, he would have been a rich man.” In his will, however, Godfrey left all of £202. But, as his obituary in the Yorkshire Post on 23 February 1953 noted, “[h]e was always philosophical about the small return for some of his songs. ‘I mustn’t complain,’ he once said. ‘You see, it was the custom then to sell a song outright. No one troubled about royalties’.”
Fred Godfrey possessed a wry sense of humour and a great talent for giving the public what it wanted to hear. His songs have made generations of the British people sing — what better legacy could a songwriter have than that?