Max Bygraves, the entertainer, has died at his home in Queensland, Australia, it was announced today.
Max Bygraves, who has died aged 89, was a singer and comedian who became famous for his stage performances, notably in 19 Royal Variety Performances, and went on to lead the market in the kind of foot-tapping nostalgia which characterised his “Singalongamax” recordings.
Millions were charmed by his disarmingly homely delivery of catch-phrases like “I’ve arrived’, “dollar lolly”, and “Big ’Ead’; though to many observers, including most press critics, his repartee often seemed insipid and predictable, and the scale of his enduring appeal remained enigmatic.
The ease with which he combined Danny Kaye’s style of intimate yet polite comic delivery with frequent reference to his own deprived childhood in East London, made his stardom seem universally attainable; the fact that some of his jokes were familiar or mediocre only enhanced this effect. He was, as one critic said, “The boy next door writ large”.
The boy was still a soprano when he made his first appearance at Tony Gerrard’s “Go as you Please” talent contest at the New Cross Empire.
His rendition of “It’s my Mother’s Birthday Today”, given while clutching a half-starved mongrel dog whose level of house-training proved unequal to the more testing demands of live Variety, proved irresistible to the Empire audience.
It was probably the most controversial stage appearance he ever made.
This success led to Sandy Powell impressions, and precocious performances of songs like “Melancholy Baby”.
He later observed that audiences “liked nothing more than a kid singing grown-up words” — a formula he was to invert, to great success, with songs like “You’re a Pink Toothbrush, I’m a Blue Toothbrush”, “I’ll Take the Legs from some Old Table”, and “Gilly-Gilly Ossenfeffer, Katzennelen Bogan-By-The-Sea”.
Walter William Bygraves was born in Rotherhithe in 1922. His father was a professional flyweight boxer, then worked on the Surrey Commercial Docks.
“Wally” was one of six children brought up in a two-bedroom flat. He acquired his stage name during the war as a result of Max Miller impressions performed in RAF reviews.
In his early teens, he supplemented the family income by repairing footwear, and went into the business on his own account during the summer holidays; an early indication of a ruthless business sense not always found in Thespians.
Lionel Bart, for instance, sold him his Oliver score for £350.00. Bygraves re-sold the rights for $250,000, a transaction which made him secure for life, and set Bart on the road to bankruptcy.
Despite the early success at the New Cross Empire, when he left St Joseph’s School, Paradise Street, it was to become a messenger for W.S. Crawford’s advertising agency, running copy up and down Fleet Street.
He spent the war as a fitter in the RAF and in 1945 went to work as a carpenter in East Ham. A chance meeting with a RAF contact — outside the Palladium — secured an appearance in the BBC variety show They’re Out.
Bandleader Jack Payne heard the programme, and this led to a spot in a new show, For the Fun of It, in which he starred with Donald Peers and the young Frankie Howerd.
In 1950, Jack Parnell and Cissie Williams hired him as a replacement for Ted Ray at the Palladium, a role he filled so successfully that he was back in Argyll Street a few weeks later, appearing with Abbott and Costello at the theatre which was to become, for a number of years, his second home.
He gave his first Royal Variety performance in November 1950, and was invited to join radio ventriloquist Peter Brough in Educating Archie, the show which “launched”, among others, Tony Hancock; Max Bygraves’ then scriptwriter, Eric Sykes; and fourteen-year-old Julie Andrews, who was ousted from her singing spot when Bygraves arrived.
When he accepted an invitation to spend a month supporting Judy Garland at the Palladium, she was sufficiently impressed to ask him to appear with her at the Palace, New York, where together they sang “A Couple of Swells”.
Notices were generally good and, in some sections of the British press, ecstatic.
An unlikely protege in both style and character, his act on praise from an equally surprising admirer: Marlene Dietrich.
Bygraves later said that he considered Judy Garland’s act to be “mediocre because of its simplicity”.
He was able, nevertheless, to make the trip to Hollywood for the Judy Garland Show, which led to invitations – also accepted – to meet Clark Gable and James Mason.
During the 50s there were numerous stage appearances in Britain, notably in “Wonderful Time”, and “We’re Having a Ball”, which also starred the Kaye Sisters and Joan Regan.
He took some time off from having a ball to write “You Need Hands”, a song which ran for several months in the Top Twenty.
“Do Re Mi” brought more success in Manchester and London in 1961, though many considered him less suited to the role of self-seeking and unprincipled New Yorker Hubie Cram than was its American interpreter, Phil Silvers.
In another review from the early sixties, Round About Piccadilly, there was a twenty-minute spot with his son Anthony, though their partnership was never quite the success he had hoped.
With the arrival of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Bygraves became, seemingly overnight, part of the Old Guard.
Only two years before the Royal Variety Performance during which he heard John Lennon urge the “expensive seats” to “rattle your jewellry”, he had been appearing in the same event with the Crazy Gang.
His response – to concentrate on television – was typically astute. With writer Spike Mullins, he made Max (1969). His relaxed, cosy style adapted well to the small screen, although still did not convince the serious critics.
At the suggestion of his mother, he recorded in 1972, and LP of songs like “Daisy” and “If You were the only Girl in the World”, with relatively sparse arrangements for two pianos and a chorus.
“Sing Along with Max” was an instant success, and the first of a series of recordings which gave him most of his 29 gold discs. By the time the show “Swingalongamax” was produced in London in 1974, the mood was one of wistful reminiscence.
As the youth culture of the 70s became increasingly unsympathetic to most of Bygraves’ audience, and the Sex Pistols released an irreverent reading of “You Need Hands”, the appeal of such nostalgia only increased.
He continued to appear on television, drawing massive audiences, and in 1983 was awarded the OBE.
By 1987, however, there were fewer listeners prepared to ‘singalongamax’, and his records were banned from ‘peak time’ broadcasts on the Bournemouth Radio station which he partly owned.
He appeared in several films, including Spare the Rod, in 1961.
His novel, The Milkman’s on his Way, concerned a working boy who became the highest-paid pop star in the world.
He saw no essential conflict between literary and musical inspiration, as he explained on the book’s publication in 1977; “Dickens and all those people used to do it, almost the same thing as we do. Only, of course, without the songs.”
His wife Blossom predeceased him. He is survived by his son and two daughters from his marriage and by two other childrens. A 57 year-old woman living in the US last year claimed she was Bygraves’ third illegitimate child.