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The Ivy Benson All Girls Band
The Ivy Benson Story
Who was Ivy Benson?
Hands up who's heard of Ivy Benson. Ah, I see. Well, I’m not surprised. Had it not been for a radio programme I heard recently on the BBC, I wouldn’t know a great deal about her either, but I do remember my mum talking about her.
You see, Ivy was the English leader of a swing band during World War Two - an all-girls band that became incredibly popular despite the prejudices the women had to bear from their male counterparts.
During the war, women worked in factories, drove trucks, flew aeroplane transports and generally took the place of the men who were fighting overseas. Usually, there were no problems but in the case of Ivy and her band, male musicians were appalled.
The result of this is that even today, the women who played such wonderful music during the war and beyond have virtually been forgotten. During the war though, the band was as well-known as Glenn Miller’s.
Her band became the resident house band for the British Broadcasting Company and again, the male musicians hated these women ‘treading on their toes’. In those days, any woman who was a band member was invariably the vocalist. The thought of girls playing ‘masculine’ instruments such as trombones, trumpets and saxophones was unheard of.
But Ivy and her girls entertained the troops and not only in WW2. This brave and groundbreaking musician, who formed her ensemble in 1939, kept her band going for many years and even entertained the troops in Vietnam many years later.
Ivy and romance
Ivy warned married women who auditioned for the band that marriage and performing don’t mix. She was to learn that at first hand.
In the 1930s she was in Bridlington, a Yorkshire seaside town, where she met a man called Reg Connelly. They not only embarked on an affair, Connelly was a music publisher and took her under his wing careerwise.
He even took her to America where she met the big bandleaders of the day. Their affair was conducted discreetly but it was an open secret. Reg was married though and his wife had the extra burden of a handicapped child.
There was no way that he and Ivy could marry.
Her first marriage ended in divorce. She then married an American but refused to live in the States with him as she wouldn't leave her family - and her band, of course.
What is it about female trombone players?
Especially during the war, Ivy had a hard time finding and keeping band members. Her girls were young and attractive.
It was wartime and everyone needed all the fun they could get. Young women being young women, and GIs being GIs, she lost several band members to the States.
But she noticed that it was the slide trombone players who seemed to be more popular with the opposite sex. Why was that?
Well, many years ago when I was a musician’s moll, I conducted a very informal survey into the attractiveness and characteristics of musicians - males ones. (Hey, I was young). It seemed to me that trumpet players have the most sex appeal, bass players have the best sense of humour, drummers are flirts, pianists have those lovely fingers … and so on.
Girls didn’t have a thing to say about male trombone players. But I think I get it.
Men would see the lady trombonist putting the instrument to her mouth, smoothly moving the slide up and down with the most wonderful and exciting results coming from the instrument’s bell…
Sure, trumpet and sax players can blow but the guys liked the trombone players best, it seems.
About Ivy Benson
Ivy was a Yorkshire woman. She was born in Leeds, the daughter of a musician who had high hopes for his daughter’s career.
She was taught many instruments but decided upon the saxophone. Like many Leeds girls, she started work at the local branch of Burton’s Tailors as a machinist.
Sidenote: My dad used the term ‘gone for a Burton’ for anything that had expired. For example, when a goldfish died, it had ‘gone for a Burton’, or a radio wouldn't work because the battery had ‘gone for a Burton’. This, he told me, was because the offices to which missing aircrew and aircraft losses were reported during WW2 were situated above the Burton’s tailoring shop in London.
When she formed her band in 1939, she chose good looking girls but they also had to be excellent musicians. Ivy was rather like the headmistress of a girls’ school, keeping her musicians safe and sound.
But these were young girls and away from home for the first time. They were suddenly independent and earning their own money as they toured the country entertaining wartime audiences.
Ivy didn't like her girls to flirt, drink or to party but it was a losing battle. Some of the girls were under sixteen years old. How exciting it must have been to be an independent woman,out in the world.
But there was also the danger. When they were on stage in large cities and towns, there was the constant threat of air raids. These happened and the band would continue playing until the venue had emptied, make their way to the shelters.
For the girls, it added to the fun and excitement but the whole ensemble could have been wiped out at any time.
In the three decades that Ivy ran her band, she employed over three hundred female musicians. (It is also rumoured that she once employed a man in drag when a girl fell ill and she needed someone at short notice).
Now, I have a treat for you.
Imagine if, in the later part of the twentieth century, the ladies from the band, now getting on quite a bit, decided to get the band together again and play that old wartime music.
I’d love to tell you that it happened - it didn't - but we have the next best thing; a film based on Ivy’s band in which one of the ladies, now a grandmother, decided to seek out her bandmates and put together the act again.
When I tell you that the musician in question is played by the wonderful Judi Dench, (also a Yorkshire woman,incidentally) surrounded by other brilliant stars of today, then you can see why I said that this movie is a treat,
True,it’s only loosely based on Ivy Benson and her band but you’ll love the story because it echoes those days with wonderful humour.
Just to tell you one small story from the film … in the 1940s, the bandleader hadn’t been able to find a suitable female drummer for the band so she recruited a man - who dressed in drag (quite convincingly) to play with the ensemble.
He was a handsome and charming young man and loved traveling with the group of attractive girls - and playing with them.(In more ways than one). After a few weeks with the band, he painted a single red rose on his drum skin.
As time went by, he added another and another and another and …
Without being explicit here, he got the idea from Spitfire pilots. I’m sure you know what I mean.
The film is set in 2000 but has flash backs to the wartime days. See a clip below.Patrick,in drag, tries it on with Elizabeth, the fifteen year old saxophone player during an air raid at the theatre.
Ivy at seventy
In 1983, to celebrate her seventieth birthday, she reformed her band with some of its recent members and performed on television. The lady could still swing. Watch the video.
© 2014 Jackie Jackson