Album Review: Strictly Victor Silvester & His Ballroom Orchestra
Strictly Victor Silvester & His Ballroom Orchestra,1935-61 is issued by Retrospective on RTR4400
It only takes a couple of bars of the beautiful You’re Dancing On My Heart
to induce in those of a certain age one of those glorious Proustian flashbacks to youth and innocence, when hope and expectation burned bright. It was the enduring theme tune, heard week after week on the radio, year after year, of the King of strict-tempo Ballroom Dancing, Victor Silvester.
Today, it reminds us perhaps of a more orderly and mannerly world, perhaps a more romantic world where the well-groomed man embraced the woman, elegantly dressed and coiffured, to perform a series of conventional moves to the accompaniment of music. It is tempting to suppose that the current revival of interest in this represents a longing for these qualities and tendencies in young people grown tired of unbridled self-expression, tired indeed of the new social conventions of music and dance, nauseated in fact by a surfeit of jumping up and down on the spot packed like sweaty sardines in stygian sauce.
The man himself, Victor, was World Ballroom Dancing Champion one hundred years ago, in 1922, the very same year he opened a dance academy (the first of a franchise) to teach the discipline that had made him the best - and thirteen years before, of necessity, he formed his own Ballroom Orchestra.
Many of the head-bobbing twanging Sixties’ generation scoffed at the man and his moves ('slow, slow, quick-quick-slow') and his music when the Twist and Limbo, the Mash Potato and Watusi, the Locomotion and Frug, might be performed without tuition by anyone with hips and a lack of self-awareness - and played by any guitar hero with a mastery of three chords. They probably never knew about Victor’s conspicuous bravery in World War One, which he entered as an underage volunteer. Neither perhaps did they know of, or care much about, his assiduous attempts at self-improvement, his studies at Oxford University, his spell at Sandhurst, his piano training at Trinity College, London.
A great innovator in his day, Victor formed his own five-piece orchestra, in 1935, only because in the Age of Swing he could not find dance bands willing or capable of conforming precisely to the beats per minute dictates of strict tempo.
The listening public immediately took to Silvester’s unique sound when they heard it on the Light Programme, liked it well enough for the BBC to retain it virtually unchanged for the next thirty or more years. It came from and unusual front line-up of alto saxophone (Charlie Spinelli, later replaced by Poggy Pogson), solo violin (for many years Oscar Grasso), and two pianos, one on melody and the other tinkling harmoniously in the rhythm section. Silvester's drummer across the decades was Ben Edwards, crucially imposing the strict tempo.
These 26 beautifully restored tracks, a mere scintilla in the dazzle of 6,500 broadcasts on record, offer a flavour of the popular music standards and show tunes that Victor imposed his appealing sound on, beautiful tunes - like Deep Purple, A Sleepy Lagoon, Besame Mucho
- all played for the standard quickstep and foxtrot, the exotic tango or rumba, the romantic waltz or racy jive.
Listening to them today it is easy to see why he achieved unprecedented sales for a British dance band of more than 75 million copies. They make you feel good; they make you want to tap your feet; and yes they make you want to take a spin round the dance floor. And this critic says this - unabashed - as a non-dancer who has spent most of his life as a jazz fan, dedicated to free musical expression and extemporisation. We must give credit where it is due.
Victor Silvester was truly a giant of the genre of his own creation.