On 4 December 2013 I heard the sad news that Paddy O’Byrne had died the previous night, shortly before his eighty-fourth birthday. People on social media and on radio remembered the man and his broadcasting skills with great affection, just as I do myself.
The Voice of South Africa competition
I first heard of Paddy during the Voice of South Africa competition organised by the SABC in 1961. My parents and I sat in the lounge at 21 Juno Street, Kensington, in front of our large valve radio with the green cat’s eye tuner, listening to the weekly competition with interest. Paddy won that competition, with Michael Todd second, and Dr Tony Venniker in third place. Paddy was Irish, Michael Todd English, and Dr Tony Venniker was South African!
Paddy’s father was a high court judge in Eire and Paddy himself had studied law and was working for an insurance company in the city, but when he won the competition he began his broadcasting career on the English service. Michael Todd became a newsreader with the SABC, while Dr Tony continued practising medicine but made frequent broadcasts in an excellent series called Medical File with fellow medics, Professors Harry Seftel and Peter Cleaton-Jones. Sadly, Dr Tony died of advanced prostate cancer in 1989, and Michael Todd also died many years ago.
Paddy O’Byrne was a fine broadcaster. He had a beautiful speaking voice, a beguiling personality and had a wide musical knowledge. He and his wife, Vicky, who had a charming singing voice, had appeared in a pantomime with the Hungarian/South African singer, Eve Boswell, before coming to South Africa.
Gilbert and Sullivan series presented by Webster Booth - 1962
The first connection between Paddy and Webster Booth began in 1962. Webster was presenting a Gilbert and Sullivan series of programmes when the copyright on Gilbert’s words was lifted. Unfortunately he was taken very ill during that year and spent some time in the fever hospital in Braamfontein with a mysterious virus which gave him myocarditis and threatened his life. He was away from the singing studio and unable to record the Gilbert and Sullivan programmes for some time. It fell to Paddy O’Byrne to read Webster’s scripts for several of these programmes, and he made a very good job of this assignment.
Sunday at Home - 1963
In 1963 Paddy presented a series on the English Service called Sunday at Home. He visited the homes of different celebrities to interview them. On one particular Sunday, Anne and Webster entertained a young Paddy in their home at 121 Buckingham Avenue, Craighall Park. It was a charming, informal interview and I liked it so much that I ordered a tape of it from SABC Enterprises some years later.
To the UK and back to South Africa
I went to the UK in 1966 for several years, and some time later Paddy and his family went to live in Croydon in the UK. During that time Paddy worked at the BBC as a broadcaster on Radio 2. The family returned to South Africa in 1980 when Paddy launched a new radio station, Channel 702, which initially had a licence to broadcast from the South African “homeland” of Bophuthatswana.
Shortly after the launch, Paddy returned to the SABC, succeeding Peter Broomfield and Ken Marshall in a weekday morning programme called Top of the Morning with Paddy O’Byrne. On this programme he chatted to listeners about a variety of topics which interested him, played a wide selection of music and the occasional request from listeners, and also interviewed guests. I particularly remember him interviewing John Robbie, the Irish rugby player, who is a long-established talk show host on what is now called Talk Radio 702, broadcasting from studios in Sandton.
By this time I had been married for ten years and had two children. Anne and Webster returned to the UK in 1978 and, for a time, established a third career on stage and radio. Webster was not in the best of health and his voice was a shadow of what it had once been, so it was very sad that he had to get up on the stage and sing in public.
The only news I had of them in 1983 was a comment from Paddy on his programme to say that he had heard that neither of them was very well and “needed looking after”. I wrote to Paddy asking for further news as I was worried that I had not heard from them for so long. No doubt he thought I was some loony fan for he did not reply to my letter! Later that year I had a letter from Anne telling me that Webster was very ill and was now in a nursing home in North Wales and unlikely to return home. He died on 21 June 1984.
I Bless the Day (De Jongh) and Brian Morris
Paddy O'Byrne continued his regular morning programme on the English Service and I listened to it regularly. One day, he had a request from Brian Morris, a former student of Anne and Webster's. When I was Webster’s studio accompanist I had often played for Brian at his lessons. He had a very good baritone voice, reminiscent of Peter Dawson’s.
Brian asked for Webster’s recording of I Bless the Day by De Jongh.
The SABC in Johannesburg had got rid of its collection of 78rpm records years before, so there were few of Anne and Webster's recordings in the SABC library at that time. I had the recording Brian had requested on a Canadian Rococo LP, and also I Leave My Heart in an English Garden by Harry Parr-Davies, which was on the flipside of the original 78rpm. I wrote to Paddy, offering to lend him my precious recordings so that he could play the song Brian had requested. This time he did get in touch with me. His daughter, Jane, who lived near us, collected the records and Paddy duly played Brian’s request and some other recordings from my LPs over several days.
I was rather worried when Paddy didn’t return my records so eventually I phoned his home. Paddy was out, but I spoke to his wife, Vicky. She was charming and realised that I was concerned about my records and said she would make sure that he returned them very soon.
Paddy called at our home unexpectedly one Saturday morning to return my records and was fascinated by the photographs of Anne and Webster which adorned my music room. I had a duplicate copy of the LP The Golden Age of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth and gave it to him so that he could play a wider selection if listeners requested one of Anne and Webster’s recordings. Because of Brian Morris’s request for I Bless the Day Paddy and his wife, Vicky, became personal friends of Brian and his wife, Denise. Someone contacted me on my blog a few years ago to tell me the sad news that Brian had died.
Paddy was writing articles about music and broadcasting, so after our initial meeting he often phoned me if he needed to verify information about Anne and Webster. He was always charming and friendly, and I enjoyed our chats together.
He continued as a broadcaster with the SABC, and in 1995 he did a combined afternoon programme with Vuyo Mbuli. I think this was the first time Vuyo had done any broadcasting. Sadly he died suddenly a few years ago, still only in his forties. By that time he was a top TV presenter and very popular with the South African public. Their musical taste differed widely, so it was often a case of hearing Thomas Hampson one minute, and Michael Jackson the next!
After Paddy retired from the SABC he joined the community radio station of 1485 Radio Today and was as popular with listeners as ever.
Return to Ireland
He and his family returned to their native Ireland towards the end of the last century. His beloved wife, Vicky, died some time ago, and in June this year Paddy came to South Africa to attend a Requiem Mass for her at the Catholic Church in Rosebank where they had worshipped while living here. He and Peter Lotis were guests on Clare Marshall’s programme Morning Star on 1485 Radio Today, which broadcasts from a beautiful plant nursery in Jan Smuts Avenue. It was good to hear his voice once again, although I could hear that he was not very well.
My sincere condolences to his family and friends. He will be sadly missed, but very fondly remembered by everyone who knew him and enjoyed listening to him on the radio.
Friday, December 06, 2013
Sunday, October 13, 2013
13 October 2013
Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Anne Ziegler in Llandudno, North Wales. In remembrance of a dear friend and great performer I am including one of the loveliest solo recordings she ever made - A Song in the Night by Loughborough.
Anne in early 1960s.
My long association with Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth began nearly fifty years ago on the 8 December 1960, when I went for an audition with Anne at their School of Singing and Stagecraft on the eighth floor of Polliacks Corner, 169 Pritchard Street, Johannesburg. I had recently turned 17 and had finished writing matriculation examinations at Jeppe High School for Girls. Webster Booth was in Port Elizabeth on the day of my audition as he was singing in Messiah at the Port Elizabeth Oratorio Festival under the direction of Robert Selley.
I knew Anne and Webster as singing teachers for several years, but at the beginning of 1963 they asked if I would like to act as Webster’s studio accompanist when Anne, who was accompanist as well as teacher, had other commitments. I did my Associate and Licentiate singing diplomas under their guidance and we remained friends until their deaths. Webster died on 21 June 1984, 26 years ago, while Anne lived on in the little bungalow in Penrhyn Bay, Llandudno, North Wales until her death on 13 October 2003.
I was too young to have seen them performing at the height of their fame in the 1940s. Unless they were doing a radio programme when it was expected that they would reminiscence about their illustrious careers, they were surprisingly modest. Their autobiography Duet was published by Stanley Paul in the United Kingdom in 1951, five years before they immigrated to South Africa. Each wrote alternate chapters, culminating in a final one, written jointly. They lent me a copy and I collected a number of their solo and duet recordings over the years, but it was only after their deaths, when I was writing my book about my association with them, that I found out a great deal more about their achievements and realised how very popular they had been with the British public from the 1930s until they left for South Africa in 1956.
Anne and Bonnie (1990s)
Anne was born in Liverpool and was blessed with a charming light soprano voice and exceptional good looks. She arrived in London to make a career on the stage in 1934 and changed her name from Irené Frances Eastwood to Anne Ziegler when she made her West End debut in the octet of By Appointment with Maggie Teyte as the star. Unfortunately this musical play by Kennedy Russell was not a success and closed after three weeks, but Anne remained in London and managed to earn a rather stressful living singing in various Lyons restaurants and the Cumberland Hotel. By the end of the year she had been selected from two hundred sopranos to sing the part of Marguerite in a colour film, The Faust Fantasy, with Webster Booth in the role of Faust.
She soon became very popular on radio and was principal boy in pantomimes in Liverpool, Edinburgh and Golders Green in the thirties and appeared in the musical, Virginia at the Center Theatre, New York in 1937. In 1940 she and Webster formed a double act on the Variety Circuit in the UK. They presented an essentially romantic and glamorous image in their variety act, but they were also excellent musicians, and created a unique blend of voices.
Although in great demand with their double act, Webster continued to sing in oratorios on the concert platform. He was one of the finest British lyric tenors of the twentieth century, a fact often overlooked by today’s critics, because he could sing lighter music just as well as he sang the more serious tenor repertoire.
I was pleased to discover a number of up-and-coming young singers from the Royal Northern College of Music who won the Webster Booth or Anne Ziegler awards during their studies there. These awards were instituted several years after Webster’s death, thanks to their friend, Jean Buckley who worked hard to raise money for them. Anne was one of the judges at some of the earlier competitions. Unfortunately Webster’s award was discontinued after 2002 due to lack of sponsorship, but Anne’s award is still presented each year, although without sponsorship and donations this award will probably be discontinued soon.
Anne and Webster were a wonderful couple, completely without side, who were kindness itself to me and to many others. They are ever remembered by those who, like me, knew and loved them.