A Biography of the Exceptional Singer Mary Marshall
Mary Marshall Background and Early Years
Mary Hasmall was born in Bolton to a highly musical family.Opera and Classical singing was already part of the family heritage by virtue of Italian and Welsh ancestors. In Edwardian times a grandmother and renowned beauty, had become so popular that a jealous rival waited with the fans outside the stage door and then threw acid into her face. Her grandfather a much respected businessman was very protective and after this incident insisted she gave it up.
Mary was from an era when families would still gather for musical evenings around the piano. From the age of about three it was clear she had an unusually advanced ability. By four she was delighting local Italian ice cream sellers who made her sing songs from the operas in exchange for ice cream! At five, she was singing in school concerts. On one such occasion she was singing ‘Brindisi' from ‘La Traviata' but alas things didn't go quite as smoothly as anticipated. Mary forgot the words and became stuck in a repetitive musical loop, just singing the line over and over until the teacher came to guide her off the stage. Despite the ordeal Mary was put forward for countless local concerts and built up a strong local following who flocked to see the little girl with the beautiful voice.
Mary also joined the Frances Bleasedale school of dancing but this really wasn't an encouraging experience for a little lass instructed to just stand with the big girls where she was expected to just copy and catch-on. However, Frances had heard Mary's singing and taking her to one side, said she would like to recommend her to her sister Jenny.
Training and Early Operatic Accolades and Achievements
Jenny Bleasedale was a retired and renowned Operatic Premier Prima Donna of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and a legendary figure in the North at that time.
Jenny recognised something special in Mary and wanted to cultivate and perfect her talent by training her in the revered Bel Canto technique. Mary did not realise what a high honour she had just been afforded until she casually broke the news to her family that Jenny wanted to train her voice. The room fell silent and jaws dropped until her older brother exclaimed "Jenny Bleasedale -you must be something really special if she wants to take you on!" Under Jenny, Mary's range would increase from a three and a half octave range to four and a half and was to be relentlessly trained and polished to classical perfection.
Jenny knew exactly when she was "ready". Mary, although a grammar school student from a family of high academic achievers, lived only for her singing. Jenny felt that Mary was her star pupil, a natural, so she approached the Carl Rosa Opera Company requesting an audition for Mary as they were appearing in the town. Impressed by Jenny's enthusiasm and Mary's exceptional ability Mary was asked to fill a‘principal' role when a cast member became indisposed. Only as this telephone call was terminating did the representative think to ask Mary's age and upon learning she was only fifteen had to withdraw the offer by explaining that this was a ‘mature' role. This was a deja-vu moment for Mary who had already won the nationwide area heats of the Carol Levis competition only to be disqualified when it was learned she was just 14 (when the required performing age for the programme was 16)
Mary was restless and impatient to prove her worth, so when the next operatic company visited town she auditioned for the Chocolate Soldier and was immediately engaged. With an amateur naivety, Mary enquired what part she would be playing. She was discreetly taken aside and told that the principal male lead had had to wait thirteen months before even achieving a walk-on part! The company directors had great confidence in Mary however and thankfully she moved much more swiftly through the ranks, appearing in ‘Gay Rosalinda' and ‘Die Fledermaus'. She then spoke just two words ("Yes, waltz") but her ‘Adele' character was hailed at understudy rehearsals as phenomenal and dancers in the ‘Corps de Ballet' kept asking Mary to give them Bel Canto lessons in the Orchestra pit. They were thrilled by the results -as professional dancers are not usually proficient in singing technique.
More roles followed for Mary including a leading role in ‘Lilac Time'. She was also an understudy to the principal acting role of ‘Marini' and was called on at 15 minutes notice to fulfill this obligation when the real ‘Marini' forgot the matinee performance and had gone to the cinema instead!
The jump from a demure teenage role to part of Italian ‘vamp' requiring masses of dialogue and loads of heavy accent was shattering for Mary but met with rave reviews. The MD in the orchestra even asked a still shaking Mary after the show if she spoke Italian as her accent was so accurate.
Mary Marshall Today
Break into Professional Showbiz, Columbia Records and Celebrity Colleagues
Despite the plaudits Mary felt that her career progress was still too slow and being so eager to get on, decided that now was the time to further pursue her professional ambitions along different channels.
Just after signing the contract with The Three Shades three part harmony group, she was offered her dream role with her former operatic company, as Kathy in the Student Prince , which she was heartbroken to turn down. Meanwhile it was clear that whatever she had achieved as an amateur now counted for very little in the professional world. When chatting to cast members on the evening of her first professional performance, she was asked what she had done before and so innocently referred to her most recent successful role. She saw a couple of looks being exchanged and a furtive remark being passed behind the back of a hand. Silence fell and when the conversation resumed it was on a totally different subject. Mary wondered what she could possibly have done wrong. An older, fatherly figure in the cast sympathised with her obvious bewilderment and kindly took her to one side later to explain. Mary was a ‘Pro' now and once a pro it was considered taboo to discuss anything you had done as an amateur. The bar had been raised to a vastly higher standard and she would now be expected to start all over again from square one - only this time she would be performing among the best in the country.
Mary having opted to join the girl trio known as the "Three Shades" as a way of getting a stronger foothold into the forefront of the professional door, one of her co Shades, Ella Lightfoot was- as an ex Kordite- already a fully fledged pro harmony singer of some years. Mary felt guilty that she had ‘sold- out' in favour of pop and found it hard to tell her tutor that she was now in a group. However the harmonies were so pure and melodic that on hearing a radio broadcast Jenny was surprisingly philosophical and commented that at least Mary had at least joined a very classy and superior group.
Dozens of successful contracts followed -in fact it wasn't until Mary left the group that she learned that the Shades had been offered a big break at the London Palladium but their manager had -unbelievably-turned down this ultimate opportunity saying he couldn't afford their fare to London! (A less acclaimed girl group at the time called the "Kaye sisters" (whom ironically Mary had once been approached to join),got the contract by default and made their name as a result). Mary broke away from the Shades to resume her solo career.
Due to a misprint in a programme she was billed as Mary Marshall, but after the opening night the write-ups were so good that it seemed to have been a lucky name- so she kept it. Countless successful auditions followed with Mary competing against hundreds each time. The only two unsuccessful auditions were one caused by lateness when Mary discovered a ladder in her stocking and tried to remedy the situation by stopping for an emergency purchase -and secondly when Robert Nesbitt of renowned Pigalle name, a casting director told her he was delighted with her singing but that as Principal Girl she was far "too sexy" for the role in question.
Her publicist was Freddie Ross (later to become ‘Hancock'-wife of Tony). Mary's appearances were attracting a lot of attention. Record promoter Denis Preston the man behind such talents as Cleo Laine and Lonnie Donnegon saw her performing at London's Park Lane Hotel where she was backed by a brilliant Sri Lankan musician and Songwriter Nimal Mendis, (who would later write ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss' for her on the single that followed). Decca was already showing a keen interest in Mary, and now Denis asked her to record a demo disc for Columbia EMI .
At one of her personal appearances at the opening of a record shop in Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street), that day, there was a fresh faced young lad called Cliff Richards (With the ‘s' at the end) who modestly confided that he didn't know why he was there and that he just seemed to have something his producer liked. England was still fervently looking for it's own Elvis and Cliff would soon realise he was deemed the most likely contender.
Mary's studio demo was so successful that the fellow artistes present burst into spontaneous applause and so the pianist played on a second time. She was probably the only female recording artiste to be signed up at that time in the 50's when even many established female stars were having their contracts terminated. This was a male dominated music scene and although Columbia was convinced that Mary was destined for the big time they also advised her to be aware that she would have a great struggle to face until the trend changed again. Her single, a double-A sided disc entitled "My Island Home" and "Kiss Kiss Kiss" excited musical legend and sound technician Joe Meek, who after the recording, raced down from the control room at Columbia, threw his arms around her and exclaimed delightedly "Mary, together we're going to the top!" The single got five star reviews in the Music mags of the day such as The Melody Maker, The Record Mirror, The Stage and The Disc etc (Mary would later realise the prophetic irony of the first track title...) Personal Appearances were regularly organised alongside Cliff Richard, Millicent Martin and Marion Ryan etc.
Tours to countries such as Iceland and Cyprus also followed where she was informed that she was the most popular British female artiste ever to perform there. In the former, Mary even overcame the considerable Anglo- Icelandic tensions caused by the notorious fishing disputes and was subsequently hailed by the English ambassador for her invaluable high profile diplomatic role at this sensitive time. An ice cream was even named after her - "Ice bombe Miss Marshall" (echoing another occasion when she had performed at Scarborough and had a salad sandwich range named after her - Mary Marshall Sandwiches!) Demands for her TV and BBC Radio work in the UK increased. She worked with and met many of her contemporaries, Frankie Vaughan, Matt Monro, Jimmy Young (then singing) Jackie Trent, Charlie Drake, Bernie Winters, Kenneth More, Christopher Lee, etc etc .
Film, T.V. Star Anecdotes
As is usual in the profession, Mary had filled time between contracts doing occasional bit parts in films and ads, eg. she had appeared in a dungeon scene in the horror film "Blood of the Vampire" but the chains and manacles she had to wear were considered too risqué for British 50's audiences so the scene was reserved for the European version! However, film director J.Lee Thompson (Guns of Navarone etc) had seen her brief appearance and considered her to be an exciting new discovery and a natural acting talent. He was desperate for her consider a change of career but Mary did not want to throw away either her years of exceptional training or singing voice. Nevertheless Mary was happy that he had put her forward for a starring role in his film "No Trees in the Street". Thompson was devastated to learn that at the last minute the board of film sponsors had decided that they couldn't take the financial risk of backing an unknown film name.
Mary also appeared as the hat- check girl in the film entitled "Man with the Gun" and as an appreciative air stewardess in a TV ad for Van Heusen shirts. When the Hollywood star Jayne Mansfield visited London to promote the film "South Sea Adventure" at the Globe theatre, it was decided that as an up and coming Columbia recording star it would be good publicity if Mary Marshall dressed in a straw skirt and adorned with a lay of flowers around her neck, presented Miss Mansfield with a bouquet for a London Evening Standard photo on arrival. The photo never appeared. Thanks to the camera angle, Jayne was piqued that her own figure appeared to compare unfavourably with Mary's! A more flattering shot of J.M. was substituted.
Mary was also asked to double for Gina Lollobridgida in the film "Trapeze". (Their measurements were identical) but constant changes by La Lollo to her planned filming schedule meant that Mary could not remain available if also expected to fulfil her own contractual obligations and earn money. Mary also was asked to audition as Maid Marion in the TV series "Robin Hood" but declined. Her singing must always come first.
Mary was enjoying all the precursors to stardom but apart with the fact that male artistes were taking almost sole precedence in matters of publicity, other unforeseen pressures were also slowing down her journey to the top. Almost invariably, the men with the most power to make and break careers were womanisers who frequently attempted to abuse their position. Mary would put them straight "If I can't make it on my talent then I don't want to make it at all" she would tell them and then once she'd left the office, the tears of frustration would flow. Word would soon get back to other dubious characters in management positions "Nah! Nothing doing there!" Show business sometimes isn't a place for ‘nice' girls and as a person with high ideals Mary knew that with so many ‘wolves' to contend with, this situation could go on indefinitely.
All things considered, upon meeting Channel Islands impresario Sydney James who was bowled over by her talent and immediately decided he wanted to be her personal manager, she was persuaded to make a tough decision and so exited London, to the utter astonishment of the music world, and married him having been persuaded into appearing exclusively for his shows thereafter, (other than exclusive shows in the UK). Later Mary would also became his co director and therefore one half of Sydney and Mary James Productions Ltd. A new era had dawned for Mary
Old Tyme Music Hall
Sir Claude Francis Barry Paints Mary's Portrait
During Mary's years in the Channel Islands, the world renowned artist Sir Claude Francis Barry was so impressed with Mary's amazing vocal talents and her natural beauty, that he approached her and asked if she would consider sitting for him so that he could paint a portrait of her. Mary agreed, and the resulting portrait was exhibited at the Paris Salon with great success.
I would like to thank my Sister Hayley for her providing so much of the effort that went into this article. Mary Marshall is our Mother, (now known as Mary Cassaday since remarrying following the death of our Father Sydney James back in 1986). Naturally we are very proud of her talent and only wish we had inherited her beautiful voice and talent ourselves.