by Guy Rowland

With the passing of Bert Firman, who has died at the age of 93, on Friday 9th April 1999, an era has ended, for Bert was the last of the pre-war West End bandleaders. Born Herbert Feuerman in London on 3rd February, 1906, his mother was of Polish stock and his father a professional musician who had settled in Britain from Austria-Hungary in the late l880's. His three elder brothers were also musicians and in what must be regarded as a reversal from the normal procedure of those days, Bert, upon telling his father that he wanted to become a doctor was told quite firmly, "No!, your brothers are musicians, your cousins are musicians, your uncles are musicians, I am a musician - you will be a musician!" and so Bert took up the violin and soon won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music.

Bert's first job was at the age of thirteen, when he joined a quintet playing the entr'acte music at the Playhouse Theatre. He was not paid, it was simply to get him used to the idea of playing in an orchestra, however Bert was quite blase about the lack of recompense for his services as he had quite fallen for the leading lady, Gladys Cooper. As he himself put it, "in the eyes of a thirteen year old, was there ever such beauty ?"

A year later his father negotiated a position for him in the orchestra at the Victoria Hotel, Northumberland Avenue, however Bert hated playing in the orchestra. It was not that the orchestra was particularly bad but he hated the anonymity of being just another rank and file violinist.

Still, after three months his brother John (then pianist with the Savoy Havana Band) arranged an audition for Bert in a suite at the Savoy Hotel in front of Dorothy Dickson, her husband Carl Hyson and Leslie Henson, together with a couple of West End producers and directors. This was for the part of Sascha, a young gypsy violinist in the musical "Sally" which was to be put on at the Winter Garden Theatre, Drury Lane. Bert passed the audition and was the first person to be seen on stage in "Sally" (with a score by Jerome Kern) which opened on the 10th September, 1921, running for 383 performances.

(Click to see extract from the 'Sally' programme).
It was during the run of this show that Bert, at George Grossmith's behest changed his name from Herbert Feuerman to Bert Fireman or Bert Firman for the purpose of billing in lights outside the theatre; Grossmith wanted a name with less letters in it. The rest of the family followed suit, save for Bert's father who, keeping an open mind on the subject answered to Feuerman or Firman, claiming towards the end of his life that he no longer knew who he was anymore!

After "Sally" finished, Bert got a job as the violinist with the Midnight Follies Orchestra at the Metropole hotel. The bandleader there was an American sax player who was inclined to drink heavily. The Metropole was a hotel that enjoyed royal patronage and a box was kept permanently vacant for the use of Edward, Prince of Wales. One evening he arrived early in order to enjoy the dancing before the spectacular midnight cabaret. The band finished "Look For The Silver Lining" and Bert was just turning over the next piece when a voice said "Sascha! What are you doing here?" it was the Prince of Wales with an attractive young lady on his arm. Bert jumped down from the stage. The Prince had seen "Sally" on numerous occasions and they chatted for a couple of minutes. As luck would have it the manager of the Gordon Hotels chain, of which the Metropole was the group's showpiece, happened to witness this and so a week or so later when the bandleader (who was also musical director for the whole chain) having had one drink too many, tripped, fell off the stage and into the dancers. Bert took over the band for the evening and the following day was offered the post of leader permanently and became musical director of the entire chain.
At the age of sixteen Bert was, as he would proudly tell me many years later, the youngest bandleader in the world.

He was soon leading bands at the many private parties given by the Prince of Wales in his home at St. James and in doing so was continuing a family tradition, for Bert's uncle, Moriz Wurm, had been the favourite of Edward VII. On one occasion at the conclusion of one of the Prince's parties (5.00 am!) the Prince said to Bert, "Sascha, how would you like to see Buckingham Palace?" Bert giving a positive response to this, they set off, with several attractive girls in tow. Having gone part way round the palace (and none too quietly at that) a figure suddenly appeared at the top of a staircase, "Who the devil's making all that noise?" and upon catching sight of the Prince "Oh, it's you is it, well do try to be more quiet, I'm trying to sleep!" It was George V in his night-shirt!

In 1924, Bert became musical director for Zonophone Records (a subsidiary of H.M.V.) and in the ensuing five years cut hundreds of sides for them. On the first date, on 15th April 1924, were such luminaries as E.O.Pogson, Cecil Norman and Ted Heath. In 1925 he employed a young American sax player who repeatedly told Bert how his recordings could be improved with suitable vocals. Bert's reply was "Look, what I need from you Rudy is to play that sax. If you have to sing, I reckon you go back to America." A few months later, Rudy Vallee did just that! Bert even occasionally sang himself, commenting that, "fortunately in the files of today's discographers such efforts are now noted as vocalist unknown. One way or another 'with vocal refrain' can cover a multitude of sins!"

Throughout the '20's Bert continued to lead his band from success to success, including a season in variety at the Alhambra, Leicester Square and the Coliseum, whilst still also directing the Midnight Follies and then later, bands at the Devonshire Restaurant and the Carlton Hotel.

In addition, his recordings continued apace, many with the band and some smaller group recordings of which he was particularly proud by an ensemble called The Rhythmic Eight. Actually Bert's records came out under at least twenty-one different names, a ploy designed to give the impression that Zonophone's roster of artists was much bigger than was actually the case! The Rhythmic Eight recordings are noticeable for the punch of the playing and the freedom with which the artists are allowed to play solos; and when they included such musicians as Sylvester Ahola, Chelsea Quealey, Frank Guarente, Arthur Lally, Danny Polo, Max Goldberg and Jack Jackson, one can see why their records are still regarded so highly. In January, l928, Bert made what was, as far as I can ascertain, the first British recording of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," with Carroll Gibbons taking the solo part (anonymously, as he was contracted to a different company!)

Inevitably the mad whirl of late night/ear1y morning dances coupled with daytime recording sessions in the studios at Hayes (and in five years Bert directed 750 sides with his bands alone not to mention numerous light music recordings for Zonophone) took their toll and in 1929 Bert took what was, ostensibly, a month's holiday in New York. Fate stepped in again and he was offered a six month contract to be a guest conductor at N.B.C. He accepted, thus becoming the first British bandleader to broadcast in America. He was then approached by a producer for Warner Brothers to go to Hollywood to arrange and direct music for the large number of silent films that they already had in the can, but which now needed soundtracks in the light of the success of "The Jazz Singer." So Bert spent a good few months in Hollywood

When all this was over and done he returned to London and swiftly organised a band which he took to Les Ambassadeurs in Paris. This band included a young pianist to whom Bert did give the opportunity to sing. His name was Sam Costa. Bert stayed in France for the next few years, alternating between Paris during the season and Monte Carlo in the summer, many distinguished musicians playing for him, including one of the finest British reed players of all time, Freddy Gardner.

Upon returning to London in 1937, Bert took a band into the Cafe Anglais that included Cecil Norman, Cyril Hellier, Harry Gold (still going strong today at 92!) Freddy Gardner and George Barclay. This was something of an experiment as it had no brass section. It was popular with the dancers, but less so with the critics, who were happier a couple of months later when Bert moved to the much bigger London Casino, with a brass section. He also continued to broadcast regularly for the B.B.C. and had several series on Radio Luxembourg (then much coveted-they paid better than the B.B.C.!)

At the outbreak of war, Bert moved to the Cafe de Paris with a band that in addition to the aforementioned included Ivor Mairants and George Melachrino. After a dispute with the management over the times he should play Bert walked out, the only bandleader ever to do so from the Cafe de Paris, then regarded as the top job in London. He then joined up, having met an officer of the South Staffordshire Regiment, he told him he liked the badge and was invited to join! Upon completing his training at Whittington Barracks, Lichfield, Bert went to Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Persia, with 'Stars in Battledress', entertaining troops. After a brief sojourn in England they then went into Europe, becoming the first entertainment party to cross the Rhine (with the 51st division), actually performing in Bremen when it was in the front line and before it had fallen to the allies!

After the war Bert was all set to lead a band in London again, but angered at being asked to audition at the B.B.C. for broadcasts (he had after all been on the air regularly since the '20's), he accepted an offer to lead a band in Paris again. Having successfully launched Chez Victor, he was invited to form a band for the Bagatelle Club. This was to be Bert's musical swansong, but what a way to go out with a band that included Stephane Grappelly and Django Reinhardt within its ranks.

There were two reasons why Bert finally retired from music; firstly he could sense the change in the public's taste and knew that the days of the dance bands were drawing to a close; secondly he had fallen in love and felt that the hours a bandleader has to work were not conducive to a happy married life and so he quit, while he was on top. It was a decision he never regretted as Beatrice remained the love of his life until her sad death just over fifty years later. A mutual friend of theirs offered Bert a different job and as he often said, "I went from the sublime to the ridiculous and worked on the London Metal Exchange." Having made as great a success of that career as he had with music, Bert finally retired in 1976.

He remained justifiably proud of his musical achievements and was pleased that reissues of his records were so well received. That this should be so is really no surprise, for Bert sought, and invariably obtained, the best.

I knew Bert for the last seven years of his life. He was a friendly, courteous gentleman, still with a twinkle in his eye and ever the charmer. It was a great thrill when, having obtained many of the arrangements that he recorded, he encouraged trumpeter Pete March and myself to reform "Bert Firman's Dance Orchestra." So his name will live on with the music that we play; and with at least 758 credited sides to his name, he has ensured his immortality as one of the outstanding bandleaders of all time.

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this page first published by John Wright, 25 Jun 1999
last update 21 Oct 2000vintage@jabw.demon.co.uk