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The BDC Teacher's Committee Hall of Fame
Honouring the work of
Victor Sylvester OBE
Victor Marlborough Silvester OBE (25 February 1900 – 14 August 1978) was an English dancer, author, musician and bandleader from the British dance band era. He was a significant figure in the development of ballroom dance during the first half of the 20th century, and his records sold 75 million copies from the 1930s through to the 1980s
Silvester was born the second son of a vicar in Wembley, Middlesex. He was educated at Ardingly College, St. John's School, Leatherhead and John Lyon School, Harrow, from all of which he absconded. In September 1916 he enlisted in the British Army during the First World War and served as a private in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He lied about his age to the recruiting authorities, stating this as 20 when in fact he was only 16. He took part in the Battle of Arras in April/May 1917, and also was a member of five execution squads, where deserters, some no doubt suffering from shell-shock, were shot.
Once his age was discovered, he was immediately withdrawn from the front and sent back to the military base at Etaples. After two weeks he was transferred to the First British Ambulance Unit For Italy. On 4 September 1917 at Sella di Dol near San Gabriele, while acting as a stretcher bearer to evacuate wounded Italian servicemen during a heavy bombardment by the Austrians and Germans, he was injured in the leg by a shell burst but refused medical treatment until the other wounded had been attended to. For his gallantry on this occasion he was awarded the Italian Bronze Medal of Military Valour in a decree by the Italian Minister of War dated 30 November 1917. In a letter to Silvester's parents dated 20 September 1917, his Commandant in the First British Ambulance Unit, the noted historian G.M. Trevelyan, wrote: "He is certainly one who will be deservedly loved wherever he goes in life, and he is besides made of sterling stuff."
After the war he studied at Worcester College, Oxford for a year. He decided to resume a military career when he was offered a place at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, but he quickly decided it was not for him. He also studied music at Trinity College, London, having already had private piano lessons as a child.
His interests had meanwhile turned to dancing. He was one of the first post-war English dancers to feature the full natural turn in the slow waltz. This innovation was a factor in his winning the first World Ballroom Dancing Championship in 1922 with Phyllis Clarke as his partner. He married Dorothy Newton a few days later.
He competed again in 1924, coming second to Maxwell Stewart – the inventor of the double reverse spin in the waltz – and Barbara Miles. He was a founding member of the Ballroom Committee of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing which codified the theory and practice of Ballroom Dance – now known as the International Style – and published the first book embodying the new standards in 1927. This was Modern Ballroom Dancing, which became a best-seller and has remained in print through many editions, the last issued in 2005.
He went on to open a dancing academy in London, which eventually developed into a chain of 23 dance studios. By the early 1930s his teaching had become famous and he had taught some of the top celebrities of the day, among whom was Estelle Thompson, better known as Merle Oberon. Victor had his own BBC television show through the 1950s, called BBC Dancing Club, and was later the President of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing.
The lack of what he felt were adequate records for dancing led Silvester in 1935 to form his own five-piece band, later enlarged and named Victor Silvester and his Ballroom Orchestra, whose first record, "You're Dancing on My Heart" (by Al Bryan and George M. Meyer), sold 17,000 copies and was to become his signature tune. He insisted his recordings conform precisely to the beats per minute recommended by the ISTD for ballroom dances, a concept termed "strict tempo". In British eyes he became indelibly associated with the catch-phrase "slow, slow, quick-quick-slow" – a rhythm that occurs in the foxtrot and quickstep.
The Silvester band always had a distinctive sound, achieved by an unusual line-up including, as well as the usual rhythm section, alto saxophone (initially Charlie Spinelli and later, for 26 years, Edward Owen "Poggy" Pogson, who had previously played in Jack Payne's and Jack Hylton's bands), a lead solo violin (for many years usually Oscar Grasso), and not one but two pianos, one taking turn in solos and the other maintaining an improvised tinkling continuo in the background throughout every piece, which Silvester called his "lemonade". This piano sound is said to have been created for him by the pianist/ later bandleader and BBC radio star Felix King.
He notes in his autobiography that his first two pianists in 1935 were Gerry Moore for the melody and Felix King for the "lemonade". Later pianists included, at different times, Monia Liter, Charlie Pude, Jack Phillips, Billy Munn, Victor Parker (also accordion), Ernest "Slim" Wilson (who was also Silvester's main arranger, and with whom he co-wrote several pieces), Eddie Macauley and Ronnie Taylor. Silvester's drummer for over four decades was Ben Edwards, crucial for supplying the strict tempo. Sometimes there might be four saxophones altogether, two alto and two tenor, including in latter years Tony Mozr, Percy Waterhouse and Phil Kirby in addition to Pogson, all doubling on clarinet as required. On some recordings, the Ballroom Orchestra was augmented with 15 strings and woodwind, when it became "The Silver Strings". During the war, when Oscar Grasso was in the forces, the classical violinist Alfredo Campoli took his place, using the name "Alfred Campbell" for contractual reasons.
These were first-class players, some of whom (like Liter, Grasso and Pogson) were already noted in jazz or danceband circles before they joined Silvester's band. Unlike most British dance bands of the era, there were no vocals. Silvester usually did not play (he was a violinist), but stood in front of his orchestra in white tie and tails, conducting with a flourish.
He would continue to make music for half a century, mostly covering the popular music standards and show tunes, sometimes (but rarely) swing, trad jazz and in latter years, especially from 1971 when the orchestra continued under his son Victor Silvester Jr, rock and roll, disco and pop. These later attempts to stay "with it" involved the introduction of an electric guitar, but it is mostly the more melodic recordings of the 1940s and 1950s that are now reissued on CD and still sold widely.
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