The Billy Mayerl Society

Billy Mayerl (1902-1959)

Born in Tottenham Court Road on 31st May 1902, a stone’s throw from London’s West End theatreland, pianist Billy Mayerl won a scholarship to nearby Trinity College while still only a small boy. Before long he publicly performed Grieg’s "Piano Concerto" at the Queen’s Hall and by his early-teens was playing in dance bands and accompanying silent films in a variety of cinemas. Before he reached his majority he became solo pianist with the prestigious Savoy Havana Band at London’s top hotel on the Strand.

Numerous recordings and broadcasts quickly brought Billy’s name to the fore and in 1923 he married his childhood sweetheart, Jill Bernini. Two years later he gave the first British concert performance of Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" and his "lightning fingers" were filmed by a slow-motion camera. Then, in 1926, he launched out into the unknown with a "Correspondence Course in Modern Syncopation" from rented premises in Oxford Street.

By the late-Thirties he had a staff of more than 100, with 117 branches word-wide and a clientele in excess of 30,000 students. It was not to last however and although he tried to revive it after the war, this proved ineffective and the Billy Mayerl School finally closed down in 1957. It was a sad end to a brilliant career and within two more years, the "nimble-fingered gentleman" himself had expired early from a heart condition, probably exacerbated by a punishing schedule of concerts and composition.

Throughout the Twenties, Billy made many appearances in Metropolitan and provincial variety theatres and also contributed songs for a host of London revues. By 1930 he was performing with the Co-Optimists and was ready for full musical scores, the first of which was Nippy, followed by The Millionaire Kid, Sporting Love, Twenty to One, Over She Goes, Crazy Days and Runaway Love, many with horse-racing as the central theme. Although none of the musicals was a spectacular success, each had a healthy run in a large theatre.

Billy was now a household name and performed regularly on both Radio Luxembourg and the BBC. His records sold in their thousands and all around the country budding pianists were wrestling with the intricacies of his vast array of piano compositions, of which the most famous was his unofficial signature tune "Marigold", one of a whole variety of horticultural pieces, gardening being one of his many hobbies.

In 1940 he took part in a Royal Command Performance and led his own band in the popular radio programme "Music While You Work", conceived to encourage wartime factory workers but which outlasted hostilities by 20 years. His first small musical group dated from the Twenties but by the mid-Thirties he was running a 26-piece orchestra to accompany his musicals at the Gaiety and other theatres. His Grosvenor House Orchestra dated from 1941 and he continued band leading into the Fifties.

It was a hectic pace while it lasted and had the war not intervened then it is difficult to surmise where the maestro might have ended up in public affection. He did his bit for the Services but post-war entertainment changed and in 1958 he made what turned out to be his last broadcast when he was chosen by Roy Plomley to appear on "Desert Island Discs". He signed off with his characteristic "Goodbye chaps and chapesses" but this time he really seemed to mean it. It was almost as though he knew the end was near and he died 10 months later at Beaconsfield, on 25th March 1959.

Most people today remember Billy for his eccentric but highly-pleasurable piano pieces which, for the amateur, are difficult to play properly. Even the professional has trouble staying the course but a reappraisal of his music in recent years has given a new generation the chance to enjoy the music which made him such a great pre-war favourite.

Reproduced from ‘This England’ magazine.