Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 26 February 2021

Benson, Ivyfree

(1913–1993)
  • Sheila Tracy

Ivy Benson (1913–1993)

by Harry Hammond, 1952 [centre, with her band]

Benson, Ivy (1913–1993), bandleader, was born at the Malt Shovel, 26 Lowerhead Row, Holbeck, Leeds, a public house owned by her grandparents, on 11 November 1913. She was the only daughter and third child of Douglas Rolland Benson (1890–1977), a musician, and his wife, Mary Jane Mead; their first son, Thomas, born in 1911, died of diphtheria in 1914, and Douglas, born in 1912, died of a heart attack following rheumatic fever in 1929.

Ivy, a pupil at St Luke's School, Beeston Hill, Leeds, took piano lessons from the age of five, and at nine she made her first broadcast on the BBC's Children's Hour on 2LO. A year later she won a talent contest at the Leeds Empire singing 'Yes, we have No Bananas' and was presented with a doll's house by the music-hall star Florrie Forde. Her father, known as Digger, a trombonist in the pit orchestra at the Leeds Empire, played several instruments and taught his daughter to play the clarinet. In spite of teaming her up on the piano with a banjo-playing colleague and billing her as Baby Benson, he hoped she would choose a classical career, but on hearing a Benny Goodman record Ivy knew she wanted to play jazz.

On leaving school at fourteen Ivy won a scholarship to Leeds College of Art, but was unable to attend because there was insufficient money to keep her there. After taking a job at the clothing store Montague Burton's for 15s. a week, she saved enough to buy her first alto saxophone. At fifteen she joined Edna Crowdson's Rhythm Girls, and a summer season in Bridlington resulted in a chance meeting with the songwriter and music publisher Reg Connelly, who was to have a big influence on her career, starting with an engagement at a London club where she was heard by Teddy Joyce, the leader of the group Teddy Joyce and the Girlfriends.

In 1937, as a featured soloist with the Girlfriends, Ivy toured in a show entitled Radio Rodeo, and when Teddy Joyce died shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War she formed her own band, auditioning successfully for the revue Meet the Girls (starring Hylda Baker). With the male musicians disappearing into the armed forces, the impresario Jack Hylton booked the Ivy Benson band into Covent Garden, which was converted in 1940 into a ballroom. In 1943, with Hylton's help, the band was given the job of a BBC house band based in Bristol where the girls were visited by Queen Mary and broadcast at all hours of the day and night to the troops overseas. In October of that year Ivy plus the strings and rhythm sections of her twenty-strong line-up made their first records for EMI at their Abbey Road studios, the brass and saxophones being rejected because of poor intonation. Nevertheless, that same year the band was on peak form in a feature film for British National, The Dummy Talks starring Jack Warner and Claude Hulbert, with Ivy playing herself in a speaking role.

In 1944 the Ivy Benson band topped the bill at the London Palladium for six months, and following VE-day in 1945 it was the first group of entertainers to be invited by Field Marshal Montgomery to join the victory celebrations in Berlin. A further accolade was a live broadcast from Hamburg immediately following George VI's speech on Christmas day 1945. The band then embarked on a punishing schedule of tours for the Entertainments National Service Association and was soon top of its ratings. In between overseas tours, it headlined at variety theatres and was resident for summer seasons at Butlin's holiday camps.

It was at Butlin's in Filey that Ivy met Caryll Stafford Clark (b. 1916/17), a theatrical producer and the son of Caryll and Mundy, a double act from the Crazy Gang Show. She and Clark were married at Caxton Hall on 19 October 1949, but the marriage lasted just two years. Ivy married for the second time on 6 September 1957, while the band was resident for one of sixteen summer seasons spent at the Villa Marina on the Isle of Man. When her husband, (Berthold) Brantley (Brant) Callaway (b. 1914), of the US air force, returned to the United States in 1963, Ivy, refusing to leave her elderly parents or her band, was divorced for desertion.

Ivy continued to front her band for another couple of decades, eventually reducing to a ten-piece as big bands lost out in popularity to the guitar-based groups. In 1977 she was the subject of the television programme This is your Life; following this burglars broke into her house in Chiswick, mugging her father, Digger, who as a result of the attack died a few months later. Ivy finally called it a day in 1982, although in 1983 she celebrated her seventieth birthday by re-forming her band for an appearance on the Russell Harty television show. During her retirement in Clacton-on-Sea she entertained the holidaymakers at local hotels by playing the electronic organ.

In 1984 a play based on Ivy Benson's life, The Silver Lady, by Liane Aukin, was staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and in 1988 she was the subject of a BBC television documentary named after her signature tune, 'Lady be Good'. Also in 1988, she was awarded an honorary fellowship by Leeds Polytechnic, formerly the Leeds College of Art, the only honour to be bestowed on one of the most popular stars of the 1940s. She died in the Clacton and District Hospital, Clacton-on-Sea, on 6 May 1993, and was cremated in Clacton-on-Sea on 13 May.

Sources

  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004) [M. Ayres]
  • The Times (8 May 1993)
  • The Stage (3 June 1993)
  • The Independent (10 May 1993)
  • Daily Telegraph (7 May 1993)
  • The Guardian (10 May 1993)
  • Daily Mail (7 May 1993)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.

Archives

Sound

Likenesses

  • H. Hammond, group portrait, photograph, 1952, NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in The Times

Wealth at Death

under £125,000: administration, 17 Dec 1993, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

National Portrait Gallery, London
British Library, National Sound Archive