The story of Jack Hylton is that of one of the Great Britons. A classic rags to riches tale of the son of a mill worker who ended his days as a wealthy, well regarded, well loved theatrical impresario, dividing his time between his sold out theatres in London’s West End and his villa in the south of France.
This would seem like a good yarn, but in between there was the small matter of the most successful dance band in Britain, a band which recorded literally thousands of songs, toured Europe and America extensively and brought fame and fortune not only to it’s leader but to many of it’s sidemen, who became famous in their own right. ‘Jack Hylton And His Orchestra’ broke free of the hotels and cabaret of most of the bands of the 1920’s and 1930’s and took his amazingly successful band to the theatres, concert halls and opera houses, which had previously been reserved for the classical orchestras of the day. It was only when the outbreak of World War II was about to force a compromise to the highest of standards (seven key members were called up on the same day) that he decided to disband and look elsewhere for his success.
But success at that level doesn’t happen overnight and this tale is preceded by the fascinating story of a boy from Bolton in the 1890’s, from the humblest of beginnings, his father working in a mill by day, and visiting the local pub by night. Jack tagged along and soon found out what it felt like for an audience to applaud his performance as he sang with the local pianist. He loved it. He went to the seaside town of Rhyll to work in a Pierrot Troupe and from there travelled to the bright lights of London to work as a pianist. When his band made their first record (this being the birth of recorded music) he made sure his name was on it. The record company offered to pay him for the arrangement as he was the only one who wrote music. He declined in favour of “Jack Hylton and his band” on the label – the first such credit. Even though the Hylton Band ceased to exist more than 70 years ago, it still sells large quantities of records and has a considerable amount of air time. His music accounted for much of the soundtrack to “The Singing Detective”.
Skip forward through the thousands of records, concerts, radio performances, and millions of miles travelled (in 1931 alone the band performed 700 concerts, travelled 63,000 miles and sold 3.2million records); Jack Hylton sets out to become the leading theatre producer in the West End, and manages it. He is in control of the top theatres and discovering some of the biggest names in show business for the subsequent forty years – Morecambe & Wise, Shirley Bassey, The Crazy Gang, Dickie Henderson, Audrey Hepburn – they ought to be big enough names to understand his ability for spotting talent.
By the 1950’s Hylton was to spread his wings still further and was at the forefront of yet another development in technology – independent television. Almost single handedly he used his skills and experience to create light entertainment on ITV as we know it today, becoming a massive influence on the lives and careers of countless TV stars of the 50’s and 60’s. On the first night of Commercial Television, three of the five hours of programmes broadcast were “Jack Hylton Presents”. Nothing if not innovative, one of them was a variety spectacular from an airliner over the Atlantic on its way to and from the USA.
Hylton died in the 1960s, a happy and successful man.
So, there’s the story. But there’s so much more to this story than simply a man who became successful in the entertainment industry. Hylton married a fellow bandleader in the late 1920’s, but the relationship failed quickly. He remained married yet estranged to Ennis Parkes until her death. Meanwhile, he began countless affairs with the most beautiful women who crossed his path and despite his ‘unconventional’ looks he never failed to have a gorgeous starlet on his arm. He had three children with two different women, and appeared to have settled down with one of them, though this hid the bigger picture of a womaniser of the highest order, with a voracious appetite for sex, which continued well into his old age. On the last night of the Crazy Gang, there were eleven “Mrs. Hyltons” in the stalls! He courted film stars, stage stars, and anyone else around who took his fancy. He was generous, gregarious and clearly a joy to be around, whilst working exhaustive twenty hour days relentlessly until the next show opened to great acclaim.
And he didn’t slow down as he got older; quite the opposite. He was 70 years old when he married his second wife, the first official Miss Australia and Miss world entrant who was a staggering 41 years his junior. Until her death a few years ago she doted on her first husband and revelled in the youth and exuberance, which he had displayed until his death.
But whilst Hylton was fearsome as an impresario and deal maker, both in the theatre and in TV – a written contract meant nothing if he wanted to work with someone badly enough – he was also generous to a fault and always first to help out those around him despite his punishing schedule. Hospital bills, holidays, cars, houses, nothing was too much for this most charming of gentlemen.
There’s so much detail to fill in: he received the ‘Officer de L’Instruction Publique’ and the ‘Legion D’Honnuer’ from the French government, he worked with Igor Stravinsky, he brought Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins to the UK, he took a band to the USA and received a ticket tape parade down Broadway. He starred in films with the band, he was awarded the Franz Lehar medal, was made a Freeman of the State of Israel and a Freeman of the City of London and he survived a serious car crash in the late 20’s which would see him sporting a scar on his face for the rest of his life. He was a restaurateur, owned the Theatrical Agency which represented Benjamino Gigli and Maurice Chevalier, he staged the 1947 and 1948 Haringey Festivals, he saved the London Symphony Orchestra from bankruptcy, he oversaw all the entertainment for the Festival of Britain and he appeared in, and staged Royal Variety Performances. He was a director of TWW Television and Associated Rediffusion (ARTV), he partied with royalty and almost fifty years after his death is still cited as someone who many in TV and theatre “owe it all to”.
So that’s the story. A man who was born in the 1890’s in industrial Bolton, who discovered a love for performing, learnt to play the piano, moved to London to pursue a career in the pop music of the day, served in World War 1 as an entertainment officer, developed one of the most successful bands in popular music history, disbanded it at it’s zenith and then became one of the most successful theatrical producers of his or any other generation, as well as dabbling in ITV. He did all this whilst conducting the most outrageous and exciting private lives, which would put most modern celebrities to shame.