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Lynn, Vera (1917—)

Lynn, Vera (1917—)

English popular singer who became both famous and beloved entertaining English troops during WWII, when she was hailed as the "Sweetheart of the Forces." Name variations: Dame Vera Lynn; Mrs. Harry Lewis; hailed during WWII as Radio's "Sweet Singer of Sweet Songs," "The Wonder Voice of the Air," and "The Sweetheart of the Forces." Born Vera Margaret Welch on March 20, 1917; daughter of Bertram Samuel Welch (a plumber) and Annie Welch (a dressmaker); had one brother Roger (b. 1914); attended Brampton Road School, East Ham; married Harry Lewis, in 1941; children: one daughter, Virginia Lewis (b. 1946).

Awards:

voted most popular singer in Britain in a Daily Express competition (1939); named "Sweetheart of the Forces" (1941); awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE, 1969); made honorary citizen of Winnipeg, Canada (1974); received Music Publishers' Award, Show Business Personality of the Year, Grand Order of Water Rats, Ivor Novello Award, and Dame of the British Empire (all 1975); made honorary citizen of Nashville, Tennessee (1977); Freedom of the City of London (1978); granted honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Newfoundland, Canada, where she established the Lynn Musical Scholarship (1978); was president of the Printers' Charitable Corporation (1980); awarded Commander of the Order of Orange-Nassau (1985); named International Ambassador of Variety Club International (1985); awarded Burma Star (1985); fellow of the University of East London (1990); also had 14 gold records; received seven invitations to give command performances before the British royal family.

Age seven, gave first performance at a workingmen's club (1924); appeared at various clubs on the workingmen's club circuit (1924–28); joined juvenile troupe (1928); opened own dancing school (1932); gave first radio broadcast with Joe Loss Band (1935); joined Charlie Kunz's Casani Club Band (1935); made first recording, anonymously (1935); signed with Crown Records (1935) which was purchased by Decca (1938); joined the Ambrose Orchestra (1937–40); went solo (1940); had own radio program "Sincerely Yours" (1941–47); starred in Applesauce at the London Palladium (1941); became own manager (1941); filmed We'll Meet Again (1942), Rhythm Serenade (1943), and One Exciting Night (1944); entertained British troops in Burma and elsewhere (1944–45); was a regular cast member on Tallulah Bankhead's radio program The Big Show (USA, 1951); appeared at the Flamingo Hotel-Casino, Las Vegas (1951); appeared in London Laughs; was first British singer to top the American Hit parade (1952); appeared on various television programs in America and Britain; toured Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa (1956—); made frequent appearances in Canada and Scandinavia.

A plain girl from dreary East Ham in the seedy East End of London, Vera Lynn is a striking example of how England, though a notoriously class-conscious society, nonetheless can be the land of opportunity for someone from even the humblest background. By age 7, she was a performer; by 20, she was a successful singer; by 25, she was one of the most beloved figures in England, and, by the time she was 50, she had become a veritable British institution, giving command performances for royalty and receiving the highest decorations awarded by her queen and country.

The daughter of Annie Welch , a dressmaker, and Bertram Welch, a Cockney plumber, Vera Lynn was born Vera Margaret Welch on March 20, 1917. As a child, she showed such gifts for singing that a friend of the family, a small time entertainer and tap dancer named Pat Barry, got her a chance to perform at the Midway Club, a workingmen's club in Newington Green, when she was only seven. These clubs, no longer functioning, were of great significance in the working-class neighborhoods from the later decades of the 19th century, designed, as they were, to provide places for rest, relaxation, and wholesome entertainment for working men and their families. Each club had its talent secretary, who served as a sort of booking agent and whose job it was to secure suitable performers for evening and weekend entertainments. Typically, a child performer was expected to sing three songs, usually of the sentimental "daddy's-gone-to-heaven" type, for six shillings and seven pence (then about $1.60), with an additional one and six (then 36 cents) for each encore demanded by the audience. Once little Vera had shown that she was capable of delighting an audience (an audience, one might add, that did not hesitate to assert its displeasure), she became a regular on the workingmen's-club circuit throughout the inner London districts. In the course of her work, she got to know most of the music publishers, then largely located in Denmark Street (the London equivalent of "Tin Pan Alley"), who in those days depended on performers to popularize their songs with people who might subsequently purchase their sheet music or recordings, and for whom a child performer offered as good an avenue for public exposure as any other. In these early years, Annie Welch looked after her daughter's interests while Vera's easy-going and affable father somewhat bemusedly looked on. Having decided that singing was to be her career, she adopted her grandmother's maiden name and began to perform as Vera Lynn.

I happened to be singing the right songs in the right kind of voice to fit the mood of British servicemen during the war.

—Vera Lynn

In 1928, at age 11, Lynn joined an East Ham troupe of local amateurs styled "Madame Harris' Kracker Cabaret Kids," in which she remained for the next four years, still appearing almost entirely in the workingmen's clubs of east and north London, and learning to sew her own costumes. Soon, however, she was getting solo "gigs," as one-night stands were known in England, working various Masonic dinners, cabarets, and charity benefits. Never much of a student, Lynn took the fullest advantage of the lax compulsory education laws in the Britain of her day and dropped out of school at 14, the earliest age that she could. She was, however, anything but ignorant, and, like many British performers of her day and earlier, she knew the professional and social value of dropping her local speech patterns and learning to speak "the king's English." (The days of rock 'n' roll artists speaking proudly in "Liverpuddlian" brogues lay in the future.) That same year, young Vera's voice broke during a bout of laryngitis and turned somewhat deeper, enabling her to appear as a kind of teenage torch singer.

In 1932, at age 15, Lynn opened her own small dance school but continued to sing, first with Howard Baker, who invited her to sing with one of his several "Howard Baker" bands much in demand in the new era of swing and jive, then with Joe Loss, then with Charlie Kunz and his Casani Club Band. Kunz gave Lynn a surprisingly free hand. He let her select her own songs, subject to his approval, and she used her long acquaintance with the music publishers in Denmark Street to obtain the best of the latest material.

In 1935, while still only 18, Lynn cut her first record at a private studio on the Teledisk label, singing "Home" with Howard Baker's band. Although this was never released commercially, she soon made a second recording with the Casani Club Band: Dorothy Fields ' and Jimmy McHugh's now classic "I'm in the Mood for Love." That same year, she began cutting records on a regular basis with the Crown label, anonymously at first but soon under the citation "Vocal by Vera Lynn." In 1938, Crown Records would be purchased by Decca, which would remain Lynn's label for the next 22 years. The year 1935 also saw Lynn's first appearance in a motion picture, as an extra in a crowd scene in A Fire Has Been Arranged, for which she received the handsome sum of £1 per day. Later that year, she appeared as vocalist with the Joe Loss Band in one of a series of film shorts.

Vera Lynn's break as a singer came when, scarcely 20, she was invited to sing with the Ambrose Orchestra, the most popular "big band" in 1937 Britain. Of all the British bandleaders who undertook to replicate the American big-band sound, Bert Ambrose was the most successful, doing both radio and club work, and his band regularly played the best Mayfair venues. Lynn, however, was still unpolished and most decidedly from the "wrong side of the tracks." Though her lack of sophistication in manner and dress had been hidden on radio, and the audiences for the Baker and Kunz bands had not been particularly demanding, Ambrose was reluctant to take her on, even though he wanted a second, British, singer to complement his American find, Evelyn Dall . After some indecision, Ambrose took Lynn on as a sort of back-up to Dall.

Through all the years of one-night stands, there seems to have been little in the way of struggle for Lynn up the rickety ladder to success. Her career developed with a precision that took each rung one at a time, and she attributed all this to astonishing good luck, never vaunting herself as either a singer or an entertainer of any great talent. "I was at the right place at the right time" was her standard explanation for her success. By now, however, it was clear to Lynn that her life was entering a new phase. She was, in fact, growing up and making a successful career out of her singing voice. Her name was appearing in the press as well as on posters, her photograph was printed in The Daily Sketch, and music publishers began to seek her out to sing their songs. She bought a fur coat, then a car, and finally, in 1938, a nine-room house, complete with indoor bath, in which her widowed mother was still living nearly 40 years later. She was also becoming exposed to new experiences. In 1938, she appeared in an hour-long dance-band show in Dublin, her first trip abroad, and made a full tour of the Netherlands with the Ambrose Orchestra. She also appeared on one of the early prewar television programs broadcast live from the Alexandra Palace. That same year, Bert Ambrose reconfigured his large band first as a sextet, then as an octet, playing in variety theaters and music halls at the top of the bill. Vera Lynn appeared with both groups and also sang with the full band when it was occasionally reassembled. She seems to have enjoyed her three years with Ambrose, even though Dall, feeling threatened, resented her, and nothing Vera did seemed to smooth their relations. Eventually, fed up with Dall, Lynn announced that she was quitting the band. To her surprise, Ambrose rushed to London from an engagement in Scotland and offered to double her salary from £20 to £40 (c. $100-$200) per week if she would stay on. For the first time in her career, Lynn came to realize that there was big money to be made through her singing voice. After due consideration, she accepted the offer and remained with Ambrose until 1940. In this way,

through her recordings and her tours, Lynn had become a well-known and quite popular singer in Britain by the time of the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939.

In 1941, Lynn met and married Harry Lewis, a clarinetist and tenor saxophonist, who served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the war and then became her manager. A new phase of her professional life thus began in the winter of 1941–42, when, together with her husband, she became her own producer, arranging all her concerts and other appearances—songs, costumes, lighting—and accepting the financial risks on her own.

Vera Lynn's radio career began early in the war, when, after leaving Ambrose, she appeared on "Ack-Ack, Beer-Beer," a radio series for the men and women of the anti-aircraft and barrage balloon units, but her real contribution came about when the BBC gave her her own program, "Sincerely Yours," in November 1941. A musical request show produced by Howard Thomas, the program brought her some 1,000 letters per week with song requests. On the air, Lynn not only played records but sang songs of her own, including "It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow," "Room 504," "Lovely Weekend," "Wish Me Luck," and, above all, "Yours," "Smilin' Through," "When They Sound the Last All Clear" (her three greatest selling records), "We'll Meet Again" (the most popular song in Britain in 1941), and the American-written favorite "The White Cliffs of Dover." In addition, she transmitted messages from selected soldiers and sailors to their families and vice-versa. Soon, she was visiting hospitals where babies had just been born, offering congratulations from their servicemen fathers, and sending messages to the fathers from their wives at home. Sincerity was Lynn's stock in trade, and she insisted on personally signing each of the thousands of photographs that were sent out with her signature. In time, she was receiving thousands of letters each week and not all of them from military personnel. Until that time, Lynn's greatest rival for popularity in Britain had been the beloved musical-hall entertainer Gracie Fields , but the latter's marriage to an Italian (now Britain's wartime enemy) had damaged her popularity, and she had taken herself to America early in the war. By the time of the entry of the United States into World War II at the end of 1941, Lynn was unchallenged as Britain's most popular singer and—just 22 when the war began and only 27 when it ended—the uncontested "Sweetheart of the Forces." Together with Deanna Durbin , Bing Crosby, and Judy Garland —all three Americans—Lynn was one of the four most popular singers of the war years on both sides of the Atlantic, her records outselling those of her first two rivals in Britain. "I suppose that I'm the girl in the street singing to the man in the street" was Lynn's explanation for her popularity.

In its early days the BBC served as an arbiter and guardian of the taste of the common people—not for nothing was it known as "Auntie BBC"—and carried this so far as to concern itself with the edification and cultural uplift of the British soldier. In February 1942, B.E. Nicholls, controller of programs, while agreeing that there was a need for lighter programming to enable war-stressed citizens to relax and ease their tensions, especially after a day of extended working hours, nonetheless declared that both domestic and military broadcasting should be aimed less at frivolity and more towards cheerful and uplifting themes. To this end, for example, he rejected jazz in favor of "waltzes, marches and cheerful music of every kind." He then set up a committee the purpose of which was to encourage better and more virile lyrics and specifically the "elimination of crooning, sentimental numbers, drivelling words, slush, innuendo and so on." Included in this was a call for the banning of "insincere and over-sentimental performances by women singers." Concern was further expressed by Cecil Graves, then joint director of the BBC, that current songs that were overly sentimental or too cloying in their themes might send the lads off into battle in a demoralized or debilitated state unsuited to the valiant tasks that lay before them. Vera Lynn was caught in the middle of this and actually found herself criticized for the very thing that the soldiers and their families loved the most about her. Fortunately, as always in Britain, the mere emergence of such nonsense produced an immediate reaction and the salubriousness of Lynn's influence was successfully defended.

Though the press remained divided on the issue, even those that did not care for "Sincerely Yours" as a program recognized that the forces certainly did, and that this was what was important in a time of war. Not surprisingly, the difference in attitude was one between generations; the younger generation—the soldiers and their sweethearts—loved Vera Lynn, while the older generation—parents, veterans of the First World War and miscellaneous "Col. Blimps" of the upper class—deplored her as too saccharine. Eventually, Colonel Stafford, defense director of the BBC, admitted: "The British soldier was more likely to be brought to fighting pitch after hearing sentimental songs than by martial music" while the BBC board of governors equivocated, stating simply, "'Sincerely Yours' deplored, popularity noted." While it may have been true that the quality of the lyrics of Vera Lynn's most popular hits, "We'll Meet Again" and "The White Cliffs of Dover," were less than those of "art songs" or German Lieder, there is no question that they touched a chord in the hearts of the British soldier, expressing perfectly what he felt as he went off to do a dirty job on foreign shores far from home and loved ones. Though one member of Parliament might denounce her voice as the "caterwauling of an inebriated cockatoo," to the boys she could do no wrong, and it is probably a fact that her very ordinariness endeared her to the troops. Lynn's picture hung in many an army mess, and her appearances were warmly appreciated by the soldiers whenever and wherever she went to entertain them. To the English "Tommy," Vera Lynn was the "girl down the street" in a way that an American film star of the day could never have been.

By 1942, Lynn's popularity had reached such heights that it was felt that audiences might well respond to her image on the silver screen, and a British company presented her in three films in as many years. In the rather predictably titled We'll Meet Again, released by Columbia (1942), the story was set during the London Blitz, with Lynn as a girl who, while attempting to advance the career of her composer boyfriend, is discovered to have a singing voice and who then becomes a radio star—a sort of "The Vera Lynn Story." Her second film, Rhythm Serenade (1943), displayed her as a factory worker in wartime Britain, who sings in the canteen concerts produced in her plant. Finally, in One Exciting Night (1944), she is a singer involved in a strained and slightly ridiculous kidnapping plot. Lynn was justifiably dissatisfied by these pieces of froth, in which she was obliged to play Vera Lynn under successive pseudonyms. Although she acquitted herself respectably as an actress and her singing appeal transferred nicely to the screen, she was never allowed to get around her own character and truly play a part. Her films were, in effect, little more than another humble contribution to the war effort and, wisely perhaps, she never made another motion picture once the war was over.

But Lynn did more than merely entertain the troops from radio. In 1944, she joined the official British entertainment troupe and decided to go to Burma after learning that this, one of the most dangerous of the war zones, was where entertainers were the least often sent. Thirty years later, she would be given the Burma Star for her efforts. While in Burma, successful attempts were made by her associates to dissuade her from going too close to the front, though their concerns were more for their own safety than hers.

After the war ended in 1945, Lynn, like most Britishers, at last was able to set aside time for personal concerns and, taking leave of her career the following year, gave birth to her only child, a daughter, named Virginia. When she attempted to resume her career 18 months later, there was some question raised in the press as to whether or not she could reclaim her place in British popular music. She could, and did. In February 1947, she was given a six-week radio series on Sunday evenings and, in May, was given another program for eight weeks. In June, when 9,000 veterans of the Burma campaign held a reunion in the Royal Albert Hall, they waited for Lynn to join them after her appearance at the Brixton Variety Theater (where she was playing to standing-room-only audiences), chanting "We want Vera." In May 1948, her recording of "You Can't Be True, Dear" was on the American hit parade and the following year, "Again" achieved the same success.

By 1951, television, which had become widely available for the first time immediately after the war, had begun to make serious inroads into the radio audience, and NBC radio decided to put together a program so spectacular that no American could afford to miss it. The result was "The Big Show," a radio program hosted by Tallulah Bankhead , featuring a full orchestra, a live audience, and a dazzling galaxy of stars of stage and screen. Vera Lynn was engaged as a regular, singing her most popular songs and trading quips with Bankhead and other guests. However, "The Big Show" proved little threat to the challenge of television and went off the air.

Lynn gave some thought to the possibility of remaining in the United States. NBC offered her an attractive four-year contract, and Tutti Camarata, the well-known arranger and conductor, tried to get her to come to work for the Disney Studios. Ultimately, she declined these offers; she did not want to be parted from her family, and a certain feeling of loyalty to her country, played a role. Before returning to Britain, however, she appeared on the famed Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca "Your Show of Shows," and then accepted a two-week engagement at the Flamingo Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas. Returning to England in 1952, Lynn recorded the ballad "Aufwiederseh'n," which became her greatest hit, selling over 12 million copies and making her the first British artist ever to top the American hit parade. She was then given a 16-week contract by Independent Television (ITV) to do a series of live shows. This was followed in 1956 by a two-year contract with BBC television with terms quite extraordinary for the time, allowing her to do other TV and radio shows and to have a separate program as a disk jockey.

In the last half of the 1950s, Lynn kept herself busy both on radio and television. She survived the coming of rock 'n' roll, gradually emerging as a sort of British Doris Day or Rosemary Clooney , not exactly up on the latest singing vogue but with a definite and reliable following of her own. Her status as a national institution, moreover, was guaranteed when on October 14, 1957, BBC television featured her on its adaptation of the successful American program "This Is Your Life."

In 1960, Lynn terminated her recording career with Decca. This was not by choice but because of the increasing difficulty Decca was having in finding suitable songs for her to record. Times had changed, she realized, and, rather than attempt rock 'n' roll, which she knew was wrong for her, she moved to the EMI label where there was a more concerted effort to come up with her kind of songs.

In 1963, Lynn undertook her first trip to New Zealand and Australia. Traveling with Eddie Calvert and a small band for accompaniment, she gave 48 concerts in 40 days, exhausting herself to the point that she collapsed in Sydney toward the end of the tour. In the mid-'60s, she also toured South Africa, appearing not only in Johannesburg but also in such provincial cities as Durban and Pretoria, giving separate concerts for white and black audiences and concluding that the latter were a more exuberant and enthusiastic crowd to perform before. Over the years, she gave regular performances in Scandinavia and made frequent trips to appear in Canada.

As a singer, Lynn was gifted with a strong, natural voice that some critics felt was more appropriate to music hall than to radio. Her approach to singing was based on an unaffected sincerity and was characterized by perfect diction, unexpected in a school drop-out from London's Cockney East End, and by a catch in her throat that became her hallmark. Light-hearted, up-beat and a genuinely pleasant personality, she brought the same warmth and sincerity to all of her appearances on television that she had to those on radio. The "boys," of course, never forgot their old "sweetheart," and wherever she toured she was always feted by service organizations and surrounded by steadily aging but always devoted fans from the war years. One of her last professional appearances was on the 1989 ITV program "Highway," as one of the guests in a production arranged to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, but she was still making occasional public appearances as recently as 1995.

In her no-nonsense and slightly slangy memoirs, Lynn comes across as a forthright, down-to-earth woman, with no affectations and a genuine sense of irony. In her private life, she remained married to the same man and passed up some enticing career opportunities rather than neglect her daughter. Her father, to whom she was devoted, was proud of her accomplishments, and this gave her the greatest satisfaction. Even when working, she did most of her own housework at her home in Regents Park; when not working, she enjoyed needlework, painting, gardening, preserving fruits, swimming, and writing. She was also the author of three books: Vocal Refrain (her autobiography, 1975), We'll Meet Again (co-author, 1989), and Unsung Heroines (1990), a tribute to the role of women in Britain in World War II. A royalist from a royalist family, her sincere patriotism could not encompass an England without its monarchy, and there is no doubt that she was honored to be invited to present herself at command performances. Though Vera Lynn would probably have scoffed at the notion, she represented all that was best in the ordinary English women of her generation.

sources:

Hickens, Tom. What Did You Do in the War, Auntie? The BBC at War, 1939–1945. London, 1995.

Lynn, Vera. Vocal Refrain. London, 1975.

The Music Library Collection, Victoria Library, London.

suggested reading:

Black, Peter. The Biggest Aspidistra in the World: A Personal Celebration of 50 Years of the BBC. London, 1972.

"British Sweetheart," in Newsweek. June 16, 1947, p. 87.

"Straight-faced Kid," in Time. March 16, 1949, p. 76.

Robert Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey

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