Harry Gold (1907-2005) was a stalwart of the British Jazz scene. playing professionally from the mid twenties until the beginning of the 21st century. In the early 1930s he was part of the Roy Fox Orchestra and very much at the centre of the West End high society club and cafe circuit.
Harry Gold in glasses far right
His autobiography is an invaluable record of the Dance Band years, full of humour and insight into a generation of musicians who wanted to play “Hot Jazz” but had to slip it into sets between the strict-tempo and novelty numbers that were the standard fare of the Society orchestras. It also has a certain critical edge as Gold, an Eastender, observed the wealthy clientele who packed the dance-floor.
Many of the places Harry played were regular haunts of Elvira and her friends. In 1930 he was with Vic Filmer’s band at the Melton Club on Kingly Street, Soho. This club ran from 11pm to 7am and was one of the first “All-nighter” sessions in England. Like so many in its wake, it was closed down after a few months by the police. He then moved on to Murray’s Club in Beak Street, Soho.
Murray’s Cabaret Club opened in 1913 and was run for most of its long life by Percival “Pops” Murray” and then his son David. The first manager, and the man who set the tone for fifty years of flirting with scandal, was an American “gangster” called Jack May. May is often credited with introducing morphine and cocaine to the London club scene and although he is unlikely to have been a lone innovator he was for some twenty years one of the main local sources for recreational drugs. He was an associate of Brilliant Chang, the 1920s’ favourite oriental villain, who was part of Mrs.Meyrick’s club empire – though she denied it. May avoided the headlines but was probably the more influential of the two.
May opened a second Murray’s at Maidenhead, which, strange as it seems today, was a place then synonymous with adultery and general hedonism.Cookham, Bray, Maidenhead, Taplow – all those places along the river were weekend haunts for the more adventurous party people – a much repeated witticism from the era ran “Are you married, or do you live in Maidenhead?” (the same line was used, in reference to the Happy Valley crowd, about Kenya,) The emergence of British film studios close to the river increased the glamorous pull of the “Thames Riviera”. I suspect that Elvira’s weekend retreat might have been at Taplow rather than Henley, as stated by Viva King, as there is a cottage let to a Mrs.Barney there in 1931, but both addresses meant a certain “licence”.
Murray’s Cabaret Club at Maidenhead had an underlit glass dancefloor and, as Ernest Dudley reminisced to film historian Matthew Sweet, was a hotbed of drug-dealing. “Cocaine was what people came to Jack May’s club for.It was slipped to you in packets, very quietly, when you coughed up the loot.” Even though this refers to the early 1920s, it is unlikely that the set up had changed much by the end of the decade.
Back in town, Gold was getting used to playing second-fiddle (saxophone, in fact) to the cabaret acts that were the key draw in the night-clubs of the era. The set-up varied little from venue to venue. The band warmed up the guests, played quietly while parties dined – most clubs served food. Then the chorus girls livened things up (Googie Withers started off as a dancer at Murray’s as did future Trade Unionist Honor Blair).
The cabaret usually started at midnight.The headliner at Murray’s was Douglas Byng, whose camp act was considered both racy and sophisticated by many a bright young person.After the cabaret the band catered for dancers only and were able to play a little freer and “hotter”.
Pretty excruciating to my ears but an informative glimpse at a standard, posh night out in the early 1930s.
Harry Gold moved on to the popular Kit-Kat Club, the Monseigneur and the very upmarket Chez Anglais, all favourite night spots of Elvira’s. He also took part in the short-lived craze for out of town “Roadhouses”, playing at the Spider’s Web on the distinctly unglamorous Watford bypass. By now he was with Roy Fox, doing some arranging and singing pop songs of the period as one of the sub-Crosby style “Fox Cubs “trio.
Roy Fox’ Orchestra had a residency at the Cafe De Paris in 1934 – post-trial but unchanged from the place Elvira visited on the night of the shooting. Harry Gold’s thoughts on the establishment are as candid an insight into how the musicians viewed the clientele as we are likely to get.
“”Following a successful season at the Kit-Kat, we left to go to the Cafe De Paris in Leicester Square, a prestigious venue frequented by the highest of high society. It was a real top hat, white tie and tails place. In a way we felt it was a bit of a “leg-up” because it had been a famous West End spot since time immemorial. The dance floor was tiny and very few dancers could be accommodated. Nevertheless, it would be full of couples moving cheek to cheek, not always in tempo but, certainly to those on the dance floor,enjoyable. The Cafe de Paris was not as large as the Kit-Kat, but it was larger than the Cafe Anglais and included a balcony on three sides of the room….
The cabaret was the main attraction, being assembled from the best artistes in the world, recruited from the Continent and America. The band took second place. We were only needed to accompany the acts or play for dancing after the show had ended. It was interesting to watch tables being brought from their hidden store to be placed on the dance floor so more and more customers came to be seated in time for the cabaret. Panic stricken waiters, under the eagle eye of the restaurant manager, rushed back and forth with chairs, tablecloths, glasses and cutlery until there was no space left for dancing. All the activity became even more noticeable when, at the end of the cabaret performance, people began leaving in droves, and once again waiters rushed around removing tables and chairs to make way for the dancing to resume.”
“It was a glamorous lifestyle for the people who went to the Cafe De Paris to enjoy themselves. I loved being inside that glittering world. Who wouldn’t? We musicians came from ordinary backgrounds but our music gave us a way into that society environment.But at the same time I was very conscious of the injustice of it all. There were many people at that time who had nothing. The divide between the haves and have-nots was obvious. There was unemployment everywhere. I watched the rich patrons at the Cafe De Paris and thought about it politically. It reinforced my socialist convictions.”
Which is, of course, why the press and the establishment were so troubled by Elvira’s excesses. She might have made the wider public start to think along the lines of the observant Harry Gold.
Harry enjoyed a long career. As did Murray’s Club,which hit the headlines in the 1960s as the place that employed both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. They were the unwitting triggers to a scandal that heralded a new era but in many ways harked back to, and was dependent upon, the world of privilege that Elvira and her circle took for granted.