The Memory Lane Story

Remembering a wonderful half-century of nostalgia

By Ray Pallett

 I find it hard to believe that Memory Lane has been in production for 50 years, and that I’ve been closely associated with it for over 45 of those years – well over half my life.

 Memory Lane started in the late sixties, when people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, out of sympathy with the trend in pop music, began harking back to the music of their own youth, which period encompassed the 1920s to the 1940s. Many times, when speaking to someone of that generation, for example my schoolteachers, my college lecturers and my manager at work, I would be told “The bands will be back”, referring to the dance bands, of course.  “The Beatles will be forgotten in ten years!” was another comment frequently heard.

 Of course, the bands never came back and the rock and pop onslaught has continued unabated, sustained by organisations such as the BBC. The latter organisation, which was once happy to broadcast resident dance bands live, and which should be even-handed in its approach, now provides nothing other than pop music on daytime radio in the UK, apart from Radio Three, which covers classical music and some jazz.

 Nevertheless, in the 1960s there was a growing interest in the dance bands and other related genres from the “78 era”, and this interest spurred specialist radio programmes and the formation of bands such as the Temperance Seven (whose recordings of Savoy Orpheans’ arrangements from the 1930s got into the Top Twenty during the early 1960s) and the Pasadena Roof Orchestra. This preference by discerning music lovers for the standards of the past, rather than drugs and anti social behaviour that was part and parcel of the then popular music scene, led to the founding of Memory Lane in 1968.

The next two decades were a heyday for ML, and one article in the magazine ML rightly referred to the phenomenon as the “Nostalgia Boom”.  During that period Decca and EMI began reissuing sections of their back catalogue on wonderful LPs, and were joined by a host of smaller specialist labels as the 50-year copyright limit on recorded works progressively expired. The BBC weighed in with specialist programmes on Radio Two, notably Alan Dell’s  Dance Band Days and Hubert Gregg’s Thanks For The Memory, and most local radio stations had their own vintage programme. On TV, plays by Dennis Potter featuring dance band music did much to cement interest in our kind of music and bring it to the attention of younger people.

 During this time there was a ready supply of magazines eagerly devoured by aficionados of nostalgia. I expect many reading this will remember the Golden Years and Street Singer magazines, the latter eventually changing its name to Nostalgia. These magazine contained articles on dance bands and related material. Golden Years, edited by Reg Bristow, was certainly the leader in the field during the 1970s, but was overtaken by ML in the years that followed. Journal into Melody has only fairly recently ceased publication, but other magazines which had a shorter life span were Dance Band, Square One and Needle Time. There was also Storyville for the jazz fans and several magazines offering sales of 78s, usually by auction. Among these were The Gunn Report, Vintage Jazz Mart (VJM), Vintage Record Mart, Collecta, RSVP and Tetlow’s Vintage Record Guide. I greatly enjoyed receiving these magazines – I would get one or another virtually every other week.

 I’m frequently asked how I first got involved with Memory Lane. The answer lies back in the 1960s, when I was in my early 20s and beginning to lose interest in contemporary pop music. The Beatles, who were my favourite group, had gone weird, and memorable melodies and meaningful lyrics were absent from much of what was on offer. So I revisited something which I recalled as having held some fascination for me, namely 78rpm records of which my parents had quite a few in the house. Listening again, I found that I particularly liked dance bands. The songs of composers like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter offered what I looked for in popular music, an attractive melody and well-crafted lyrics. And on these records there was an un-named singer who caught my attention. I later discovered it was Al Bowlly.

 We had about a hundred or so 78 rpm records and I started to look for more. Junk shops, market stalls and jumble sales (remember those?) seemed to be the way to acquire more records, and I became an avid collector. Then somebody suggested I look at the adverts for record dealers in the Gramophone magazine. Through that publication, I made contact with John Gunn, who lived locally and published the 78 rpm sales magazine mentioned above, The Gunn Report.  Advertised in there was one for Memory Lane, which was especially for dance band and Al Bowlly fans. I wrote off for details and received back a sample copy plus a warm hand-written letter from the editor and founder, Frank Wappat of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

 I immediately took out a subscription to Memory Lane and was delighted when each quarterly issue came through my letter box. These were the days when bandleaders, musicians and singers from the 1930s were still around and many of them were associated with the magazine.  However, it became apparent in due course that the editor was experiencing problems as the magazine became delayed and was irregular in publication. I wrote to Frank and offered to help, which resulted in a meeting in Byker, a suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he was a part-time minister in the Byker Mission Centre. It transpired that he also had a full-time job, ran a band and in addition was starting to broadcast on the local BBC Radio Newcastle. It was clear that something needed to be done if Memory Lane was to be saved.

 The outcome of the meeting was that ML would continue to be edited by Frank, but that I would take over the publishing and distribution role. This worked well for a short while, but it wasn’t long before Frank was again unable to produce the quarterly copy due to pressure of all his other activities. Then out of the blue another subscriber to ML, Colin Brown, who was associated with Decca, rang me and we had a very long talk, the upshot being that Colin and I offered to take over the editorship until Frank could resume. This we did but Frank was never able to continue his role. Colin had a wealth of material in the form of old books and magazines, reprinting from which became a feature of ML at the time.

 Colin was certainly instrumental in saving ML but he and I did not always see eye-to-eye over various matters so Colin bowed out. By now ML was attracting the attention of good writers and contributors and gaining new subscribers at an amazing rate. There was no shortage of quality articles written by such stalwarts as Chris Hayes (who had been a reporter with the Melody Maker since the 1930s), film-editor Peter Tanner, one-time jazz promoter Bert Wilcox and researchers Doug Wilkins, Bob Deal and Chester Mattin among others.

 Memory Lane started to promote its own regular event in London – the now legendary Memory Lane Party Night. It was the brainchild of Bert Wilcox who hosted them all until well into his nineties at various prestige West End venues. The main feature of the evening was a jam session by many of the old performers, including Tiny Winters, Billy Amstell, Billy Munn, George Chisholm, Joe Daniels and Ivor Mairants, with Denny Dennis, Alan Kane, and Mary Lee among those proving the vocals.  Often present were Joe Crossman, Elsie Carlisle and Anne Lenner. Executives from EMI, Decca and the BBC were also regulars.

 Obviously there was some friendly rivalry between all the different magazines mentioned above, but all were part of a “cottage Industry” dedicated to the kind of music we loved. The whole scene, through magazines, LP re-issues and nostalgia on the radio and TV, was riding high. We thought it would never end! But of course the bubble burst. In the 1990s, the CD was taking over from the LP which was then in decline. The record companies were slow in releasing items from old 78s onto the new medium, one of the contributory reasons why the “Nostalgia Boom” started to falter. Although CDs did start to appear containing our kind of music the BBC’s decision to abandon dance bands and related genres proved a grievous blow. Specialist magazines were closing with the result that, as of today, only two survive, namely ML and VJM. Subsequently CD sales started to decline, leaving re-issues largely in the domain of the small labels, like our own Memory Lane Magazine Records, which I founded with Dave Cooper some years ago.

 Despite the doom and gloom, a major achievement is that ML has maintained its quality and size, and I am constantly looking for ways to improve it still further. The stalwarts mentioned above are no longer with us, but new writers and avid researchers have provided contributions that, in my opinion, have made ML more informative, more balanced and more attractive in appearance than ever before.

 And we have recommenced our regular London get-togethers. Of course, there are no old- timers to entertain us but there are many young talented musicians who are happy to perform in the “old fashioned way”. In fact, in terms of attendance, our current events now outsell the old Party Nights.

 This article appears in full with images in Memory Lane issue 200.