Monday, November 25, 2013


I used to have a lot of pen pals in England, and they helped me get into the music of the British dance bands. There were some really excellent vocalists in those British bands that got overshadowed by the singers the likes of Vera Lynn and Anne Shelton. The great singer Anne Lenner was one of those forgotten vocalists that never made a bad recording when she was singing with the bands.

Anne was born Violet Green on December 24, 1912, in Aylestone, Leicester. Anne had five sisters: Florence (who became Judy Shirley), Maidie, Ida, Rosa (who used the stage name Sally Rose), and Ivy (who became Shirley Lenner, and had a successful career in show business, singing with Joe Loss among others). All the sisters followed their father into show business, apart from Maidie who married a property millionaire. Anne also had two brothers, Herbert and Arthur. Herbert died at a young age, and Arthur went on to become a cobbler. Anne married a dance producer by the name of Piddock, whom she met while appearing in a review produced by him. They had one son Jeffrey, who went into show business under the name of Jeffrey Lenner. Jeffery was educated at Bedford School but ran away to join the Ice Follies, which came through town when he was in the 6th Form. Jeffrey found it difficult to obtain work after his return from Australia, where he had hosted his own television programme, and he was never able to emulate the success of his mother.

Anne’s first stage appearance was in a family acting, singing and dancing production, billed as “Tom Lenner and his Chicks”. Later, Anne teamed up with Ida and formed “The Lenner Sisters”. The two sisters performed in Leicester, with concerts at the de Montfort Hotel, singing on stage at the City Cinema, tea dances at the Palais de Danse in Belgrave Gate, and Sundays at Aylestone Boathouse. The Lenner Sisters song and dance act ended when Ida got married and started a double-act with her new husband. Her elder singer Judy paid for Anne to have dancing lessons; so she could understudy Judy in a production showing at the Loughborough Theatre. Anne began performing solo at charity shows, benefits and social clubs. She was soon heard by scouting agents and by 1933 she was offered engagements in London. She appeared at Jack’s Club, and the Cabaret Club, where she had to perform with a megaphone. At another engagement in 1934, at Murray’s Club in Soho’s Beak Street, she was heard by Savoy Hotel bandleader Carroll Gibbons.

Carroll was so impressed with Anne’s voice, that he invited her to record with his group for a Radio Luxembourg broadcast sponsored by Hartley's Jam. The story goes that the session was booked for 9:30am the next morning, but Anne was late for what was her first really big break. Luckily, Carroll was so keen that he booked another session with Anne for later that day. The broadcasts were successful, and Anne was given a three year contract to sing with Carroll at the Savoy Hotel. The Savoy management initially objected to the presence of a female vocalist, but Carroll believed in Anne and he refused to give in. In the event, she stayed with the Carroll Gibbons band for seven years.

Anne spoke very fondly of Carroll Gibbons. In her own words: "To work with, he was the most understanding, gentle and kind person. The boys respected and loved him. He was not only the boss but interested in their private lives and was a friend to all of them. Carroll’s boys all looked good and were very versatile, especially George Melachrino who played oboe, viola and sax and Reg Leopold who played violin, viola and sax. I loved singing with the full orchestra but also enjoyed sessions with The Boyfriends and the sweet trumpet of Bill Shakespeare. Through Carroll’s influence, I enjoyed tremendous respect and kindness from all of them."

Anne left the Savoy Hotel in 1941, to spend more time with her husband. Nevertheless, she kept up her broadcasting and recording dates with the Savoy Orpheans. She also appeared on BBC radio in the weekly series Composer Cavalcade with the BBC Concert orchestra directed by organist Sidney Torch. She shared the singing spots with Denny Dennis, George Melachrino and Sam Costa, all of whom were by now in the armed forces. She was also in demand for ENSA shows and was called upon to sing at official Government functions and performed in front of Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower among others.

After the war she did troop shows in Austria, Germany and Italy; one with her trio which included Spike Milligan on vocals and guitar of whom she later said: "He is a lovely man, so talented. We still keep in touch and I visit him and his wife at their lovely Sussex home." Her overseas work also included Monte Carlo where she had a show at the Casino and in Paris where she sung with Bert Firman. She never sang in the USA although a tour was planned but was halted by the outbreak of the war. Back in the United Kingdom, Anne was singing solo. She could also be found teaming up with Bob Harvey for a double-act entitled "Just The Two Of Us".

Anne noticed that the entertainment world was changing, and decided to retire from show business. Her nephew, John Doyle, believed that her voice had started to fail; which may have been partly due to heavy smoking and the strain placed on her vocal cords by working without microphones during her early career. By now her marriage to Gordon Little was over and she was looking for a new direction. Following a chance meeting with an admirer from the Savoy days, she managed to get a job as a telephonist in the Civil Service working for the security services. She produced the annual Civil Service show on several occasions.

Around the outbreak of World War II, Anne got married for a second time, to up and coming actor Gordon Little, who was in the Navy stationed at Portsmouth. Anne rented a house in Warsash, Hampshire, to be near her husband, who commanded a torpedo boat during the war, with the flotilla moored near Warsash. The couple hosted many parties in their home. Anne and a friend, Eustace Hoey, opened the Ward Room, a club in Curzon Street, London especially for Gordon; so he and his Navy friends had somewhere to go on their visits to London. The marriage didn’t last for long after the war. There were no children, and Anne did not marry again.

After her retirement, Anne lived for many years in Edgware, north London, in an uncomfortable flat opposite Edgware station. She spent a lot of her later years caring for her mother, who died at 102 years of age. Despite her previously glamorous life, Anne never complained about her reduced circumstances in her later years. Anne died at the age of 84, on 4 June 1997, at Barnet Hospital.

Carroll Gibbons’ widow Joan recalls "Anne was a marvellous raconteur, a very quick brain and with a strong sense of humour. She once told me that she would have liked to have been a comedienne. She suffered from failing eyesight towards the end of her life and found it difficult to get around"...

1 comment:

  1. For me, both Anne and Dorothy Carless were the heroines of that musical time and place. And like Good wines, they only seem to improve with the passage of time. A sound and a feeling impossible to recreate nowadays, from an unreachable, yet lovely place.