THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Ivy Benson (1913-1993)
And her All Girls Band
Leeds girl Ivy Benson topped the bill in the 1930s and 40s as a star jazz saxophonist and leader of a talented, glamorous all girls band, beating off prejudice and competition from the many famous male dance bands of the time. She reached a peak of popularity in the Second World War, when she and her Girls toured the country and broadcast daily on the radio – everybody tuned in then – bringing rhythm and song, some joy and fun, and the promise of happier times, to people at home and the troops overseas.
Ivy was born in 1913 in her grandparents’ pub, the Malt Shovel, in Lowerhead Row (now the Headrow), near the corner with Vicar Lane. Her father Douglas Benson, always known as ‘Digger’, worked originally as a riveter but doubled as a musician, playing trombone in the pit at the Empire theatre in Briggate. He was later to feature in and run his own dance bands in Leeds. When Ivy was six, the family moved to 59 Cemetery Road, Beeston (now with a blue plaque) and she went to the local school, St Luke’s. From the start her father had musical ambitions for her – she had piano lessons from age five, and he taught her the clarinet and the trombone. She was a born performer: when she was nine, she featured in an early Children’s Hour radio programme playing ‘In a Persian Market’, and a year later in 1923 she won a talent contest at the Empire singing the latest hit ‘Yes, we have no bananas!’ Then she acquired a Benny Goodman record and fell in love with jazz. It inspired her to take up the clarinet and later the saxophone – mostly regarded then as for men only!
She won a scholarship to the Leeds College of Art when she left school at 14, but money was short. So she went to work at Montague Burton’s huge factory in Hudson Road, Burmantofts, at 15 shillings a week, which meant she could save up for her first alto sax. She worked all day from 8 till 6, then played at dances most nights from 8 until 2 or 3 am – dancing was all the rage. In the end it was too much and she left the factory. She joined the Leeds-based ‘Rhythm Girls’ band and worked with them and other groups until, at 23, she got a chance to go to London where she found a job in a sleazy night club.
There she was spotted by the bandleader Teddy Joyce, and toured with his band ‘the Girlfriends’ (sometimes back to Leeds) as a featured soloist – ‘the ace saxophonist of Great Britain’. When war began, with many male musicians leaving for the Front, she formed her own all girls band – it took confidence and organisation. The band won an audition for a popular touring revue, ‘Radio Rodeo’ starring Hylda Baker, and then, with the help of the impresario Jack Hylton, was booked into Covent Garden, which had been converted into a ballroom. In 1943 (in spite of protests from male musicians) they got the coveted job of BBC house band, based in Bristol, broadcasting at all hours of the night and day to the troops as well as to home audiences. In 1944 Ivy’s band topped the bill at the London Palladium for 6 months, and at the end of the war was personally invited by Field Marshal Montgomery to fly to Berlin to join the victory celebrations. Tours with ENSA followed all over Western Europe – topping the popularity polls – while at home they starred in shows around the country and at Butlin’s holiday camps.
Ivy and her girls offered a sensational combination of musicianship and glamour. Her girls had to play brilliantly and look like film-stars – and behave themselves too. They worked hard and played hard: she had a constant turnover of band members who left to get married! Recruiting often from Northern brass bands, she gave many women their first chance of an exciting life as professional musicians.
Her own personal life was less successful – her two marriages ended in divorce, without children. She went on fronting her band into the 1970s, but the big band era was over. She lived with her father for many years but after his death in 1977 she retired to Clacton-on-Sea, where she used to entertain holidaymakers by playing the electronic organ. She died in 1993.
Over the years there have been several radio and TV interviews and programmes about her, the latest just a few months ago. And there are still people who remember hearing her and her band, with their signature tune ‘Lady be good’, playing wonderful music which had the power to lift the spirits even in the darkest times.