Elaine Delmar is as ageless as her performances are timeless, writes Tina May in this first part of a two-part feature. She is a singer/actress/recording artist and international touring musician who “truly defines the word class”, as Humphrey Lyttelton once remarked on BBC radio.
I first saw Elaine sing at the Pizza On the Park in 1985 and have been a fan ever since. As I looked around a spellbound audience, I wondered how she made it look and sound so effortless with her warm-toned voice – so full of expression but also full of subtlety in her delivery. Many years later I would get to know her better, even share the stage, but I remain to this day just as awestruck by her sheer artistry as a singer.
“Music was all around” – growing up in a family with bandleader and trumpeter Leslie ’Jiver’ Hutchinson as a father, Elaine found it a natural step to go out and sing with his dance band at the age of 16. Elaine was clearly a prodigious talent, also studying classical piano and playing at competitive music festivals for 11 years or so. She soon found singing irresistible and her talent was being noticed by, amongst others, the musical director Colin Beaton, who had quite an influence on Elaine’s repertoire and style. In 1952 Elaine won a role in Sam Wannamaker’s production of Finian’s Rainbow (Burton Lane/Yip Harburg) as the Necessity Girl. This was to be her first musical theatre show – many more to follow including Richard Rogers’ No Strings and hit shows Cowardy Custard and Bubbling Brown Sugar in the 1970s.
After her debut in the theatre there followed many band tours all over the UK, and in Germany with the Dominoes (a quartet led by Coleridge Goode and Lauderic Caton), after which she pursued her solo career in earnest. It was quite a busy schedule for Elaine. After her Dad’s death in a tragic road accident on tour (where Elaine was the vocalist in the band), the agent Vic Lewis started looking after her career. It is fair to say that an extraordinary array of musical talent was to accompany her on her exciting musical journey. Pianists like Pat Smythe, who worked with Elaine for 18 years, and was a long time accompanist and friend, together with Colin Purbrook, Mick Pyne, Johnny Spence and later on Brian Dee, who toured and recorded with her for over 20 years. Elaine also sang with the Jack Parnell band and still sings with the BBC Big Band on a regular basis.
Elaine spoke candidly about her early days on the “Cabaret circuit in the working men’s clubs” – where she really learned the profession. This was a tough schedule of around 16 shows a week and, in her words, “You had to learn to rehearse the house band to get the best out of them – so you all sound good. You needed to play to the room and it was sometimes tough – not always great amplification for the singer and not always a foldback system to allow you to hear yourself. This could make you strain occasionally to be heard over the band – something most singers encounter in their careers.”
She added: “The clubs were all very smoky in those days. I hated that.” After an intense week of singing in Jersey, Elaine felt vocal strain and had a brief episode of ‘nodules’ – after which she always warmed up her voice before performing. Luckily there was no lasting damage!
In between working with house bands, Elaine toured with the “crème de la crème” – her own handpicked musicians. There were some legendary tours!
In 1964 Brian Epstein (yes, of Beatles fame) organised a jazz tour of the UK. Elaine Delmar and the Harry South Big Band played opposite the Cannonball Adderley Sextet and the Dick Morrissey band. This was a wonderful experience and she remembered that Cannonball “was like your favourite uncle”. A very happy experience for the young singer, gaining confidence all the while, on the road for six weeks with an extended musical family.
Other memorable concerts were with Stéphane Grappelli in 1975, also with Benny Carter in Belfast in 1982 (singer Earl Okin was there and did a bootleg recording of the gig – the recorder secreted under his bowler hat!). Benny was playing trumpet and tenor – these are great memories with Brian Dee and Dave Green. Other more recent highlights of Elaine’s career are performing with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at the Barbican in 2010 and, even more recently, appearing at The Royal Albert Hall [clip above].
Influences? “Musicians I have worked with mostly. Right from the Svengali-like Colin Beaton… Pat Smythe, Eddie Thompson, Victor Feldman, Duncan Lamont, Tony Coe, Alan Branscombe, Alan Ganley, Brian Dee, Jim Mullen – they’re all there.
“Actually, Abbey Lincoln was so kind to me and we became friends. She was a real supporter of me and my career. She even gave me an early copy of the ‘real book’ – a very generous lady.”
It is fair to say that Elaine Delmar has never stopped working, whether it’s headlining on cruise ships like the QE2 or International Jazz Festivals, Jazz Clubs , recording dates… All this has not gone unnoticed. In 2020 she was awarded The Lifetime Achievement Medal by The Worshipful Company Of Musicians and in 2013 The All Party Parliamentary Awards gave her the Special Award for Jazz.
Her discography boasts albums full of fresh, beautiful, swinging settings of Gershwin, Porter, Alec Wilder, Duncan Lamont et al.
What are her plans now? She has recently been working with Barry Green on new songs with a more contemporary feel and setting. They played together at the Crazy Coqs before lockdown and have plans to record and tour this new project… when possible, of course. One thing is certain – I shall be eagerly buying my ticket as soon as the dates are announced. A performance by Elaine Delmar is not to be missed!
The second part of Tina May’s Elaine Delmar profile will be published on 8 March as part of our International Women’s Day series.