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The Billy Hall Story

(The CAPS CD entitled "Dance Bands from Canada 1922-1930", that was compiled by Bill Pratt, contains three tracks by the New Princes’ Toronto Band. The trombonist was Billy Hall. The presentation at the November 30, 2003 meeting was given by long-time CAPS member Jack Litchfield and by Chris Hall, who is Billy's grandson and is himself a professional musician. During the talk Jack played five records and Chris projected 98 slides.)

Billy Hall

The Billy Hall story begins 114 years ago in London, England, with a young woman named Alice Jones. She fell in love with Richard Hall and announced that they were going to be married. Her wealthy father forbade the marriage, because Alice was still a teen-ager. When she persevered, her father threatened to cut her off if she married Richard. This was no idle threat in Victorian-era England. Despite the edict, Alice and Richard were wed, and her father carried out his threat to provide no support for the newlyweds.

Alice and Richard subsequently had four children, including Billy, who was born in 1894. Life was very hard for the family. Richard's heavy drinking kept them poor. He died of pneumonia in 1900. Following her husband's death Alice was employed as a charwoman, earning about six shillings per week. She paid a rent of five shillings per week for the two rooms she occupied.

Alice was in desperate straits. She had to support herself and four children on one shilling a week. She could not afford both food and shelter, and was forced into changing her address frequently, skipping out without paying the overdue rent. The situation could not continue forever, and eventually Alice decided to have Billy (aged 8) and his brother Jimmy (aged 6) admitted to Barnardo's, a charitable organization.

The Toronto Orchestra (Charles Aylett photographer),
Toronto, 1924

It must have been an agonizing decision for Alice to make, but she had no option. In August 1903 she applied to have Billy and Jimmy admitted.

Billy began to learn music, playing the cornet. He was asked if he would like to go to Canada to tour with the Barnardo's Musical Boys Band. Billy agreed, and in September 1912 they sailed.

Billy spent the next seven months touring Canada with the band, which consisted of ten young men. Evidently Billy was the senior bandsman, as on the official band photograph he occupied a position of honour at the right hand of the musical instructor.

In November 1912 the band performed four times at Massey Hall, which must have been a great thrill for Billy,still only 17 years old.

The band continued its tour, returning to Toronto during the Christmas holiday and gave six performances. Their final engagement was in May 1913, in Toronto.

Billy found employment in St. Marys, a small town of 4,000 residents situated 150 kilometres west of Toronto. At the Maxwell Factory he was learning the machinist trade, to which he had taken a natural liking. He was making good use of his musical training, showing marked musical ability.

New Princes Toronto Band recording acoustically
(probably for Columbia), 1924/25

In 1915 Billy had nearly completed his training as a machinist and was making shells for the British army. The first World War had been raging for nearly a year, and Billy was eager to join. In July 1915, he enlisted in the 33rd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

The Canadian Corps was engaged in a desperate struggle in the Somme, and on October 5, 1916, Billy's unit was sent to the front. Only a few hours later he was seriously wounded. Billy had seen a friend in an exposed position, and raised his arm to wave him down. At that instant he was hit. A shrapnel ball entered his left side under the heart, passed through his diaphragm, and lodged in his back.

He was in the hospital for three months, followed by two months of physical therapy. A year after his injury he had recovered sufficiently to be back on duty and playing trombone in the military band. In July 1919 he arrived back in Toronto and was discharged from the army. He took a room at the corner of Shuter and Mutual Streets, and joined the musician's union as a trombonist.

Billy lived in Toronto at least a year. During this time he played with dance bands around town, earning his living as a professional musician. In 1920 he moved back to St. Marys, back to his old job as machinist at the Maxwell Factory. He was also quite active in the music field. He usually played saxophone rather than cornet or trombone.

New Princes Toronto Band, 1926
(note the maple leaf and beaver design on the drum).

In between his day work at Maxwell's and his orchestra jobs, Billy made time to court a beautiful St. Marys teen-ager named Frances Martin. Within a few months Billy and Frances were married, in June 1921.

On her wedding day Frances was 18 years old, the same age that Billy's mother had been on her wedding day. There the similarity ended, however, as Frances was marrying a man who was industrious, motivated, respected, and destined for success.

In October 1921, Billy and Frances moved to Toronto, to an apartment on College Street. Billy renewed his membership with the musicians union, and was listed in the directory on trombone and sax. He found a long- term job with a dance band, and played at the Masonic Temple (corner of Yonge and Davenport), and at the Palais Royale at Sunnyside Beach.

Frances was pregnant, so they moved from the apartment to a house on Coxwell Avenue. In April 1923, Frances, aged 20, gave birth to their first child, Manning Hall. He was named after Manning King, a good friend of Billy who played saxophone in the orchestra with Billy. King paid $15 for a highchair. In later years Manning, who never liked his name, used to say "I never saw the highchair, and I've never seen the $15, and I've been stuck with the name ever since."

Late in 1923, Sam Laschiver, the booker for Rector's Club in London, England, came to Canada to select a band to play at the club. He listened to many musicians in Montreal, Ottawa, and Hamilton, and finally decided that the men he wanted were in Toronto. None of the organized dance orchestras he heard suited him, so he asked Hal Swain, a Toronto saxophonist, to front the band and recruit the other musicians. Laschiver gave them the name "The Toronto Orchestra". They were Toronto's best young dance-band and jazz musicians, "mostly youngsters, all as keen as mustard."

New Princes Toronto Band, 1926.

Hal Swain, the leader, could double on cornet. He had been living and playing in Toronto for years, as had Alfie Noakes, cornet, and Les Allen, sax and clarinet who had taken voice lessons for seven years. The other recruits had been living and playing in Toronto for shorter periods - Billy Hall, trombone and sax; Frank Walsh, piano and organ; Dave Caplan, banjo; Ran Garrison, sousaphone, trombone, and sax; and Ken Kenny, drums. Alfie Noakes and Dave Caplan had been playing in the main ballroom of the King Edward Hotel. Alfie Noakes played "real jazz", and must have been the best trumpet player in town.

Hal Swain assembled the band and announced that he had a one-year contract for the band to appear in London. Billy and the other orchestra members agreed, and he and Frances prepared to leave for England.

The band had only one public engagement before they left. On Thursday, February 21, 1924, Hal Swain and his All-Star Orchestra played a dance at the Alexandra Academy in Hamilton. The newspaper ad announced that "This orchestra has been engaged for a year to play in London, England, and this is its only Canadian appearance before sailing next week."

Billy Hall with wife Frances and son Manning, London, 1926

A week later, Billy, Frances, and their son Manning, aged ten months, together with the other members of the Toronto Orchestra, left Toronto by train to board the RMS Montclare which was leaving Saint John, New Brunswick, bound for Liverpool. The orchestra rehearsed during the crossing, and played a ship's concert.

The orchestra had been engaged to play at Rector's Club in London, but when they arrived in Liverpool they learned that the club had closed. Hal Swain and the men decided to proceed, Rector's or no Rector's. The same day they arrived, they played an audition that Sam Laschiver had hastily arranged for them with the New Princes Restaurant in Piccadilly, which was then enjoying the best of success. Before the end of the evening they had a new contract to play at the Restaurant, and there they stayed for two years.

From November 1924 to February 1926 the band recorded in London, and 54 sides were issued in Britain on the Columbia label. On the records the orchestra is named New Princes Toronto Band. Les Allen remembered that the early recordings were acoustical. "We had to stick our heads into the horns, as well as our instruments." Les also remembered that the recording company was constantly changing the appearance of the studio to try to get the best sound. This was mostly accomplished by moving the heavy drapes.

In 1925 the New Princes Toronto Band recorded for companies other than Columbia. Seventeen titles were issued on Regal, Imperial and Currys, (which were ten- inch records), and Oliver, Pigmy, and Mimosa (which were 5%" records). As the orchestra was under contract with Columbia, these records were issued under pseudonyms.

Hal Swain left the orchestra in February 1926, evidently amid some hard feelings, and returned to Toronto for a visit. In March 1926, Dave Caplan, the banjoist, formally took over the band.It then obtained further engagements around London. During the summer of 1926, Caplan obtained a booking for the orchestra in Berlin on the strength of its Columbia records. But this led to a major personnel change. For various reasons most of the original members were not interested in going to Germany. Two of the musicians decided to accompany Caplan, and the band arrived in Berlin in August 1926, billed as Dave Caplan's Toronto-Band from Canada. The rest of the men decided to remain in England. Billy opted to remain in London, as he and Frances were now the parents of two children, their second son David having been born in May 1926. David is Chris Hall's father.

New Princes Toronto Band, 1926.

Billy joined the Piccadilly Revels Band, an orchestra that was assembled by Jack Hylton for the Piccadilly Hotel. It was an eleven-man group under the leadership of Ray Starita. His brother, Rudy Starita, played drums, xylophone, and vibraphone in the band. Billy was with the band from the summer of 1926 until circa September 1927.

In December 1926, the Piccadilly Revels Band began recording, and between then and August 1927, 52 sides were issued in Britain on the Columbia and the Regal labels. Around September 1927 Ray Starita was forced, for economic reasons, to reduce the size of the Piccadilly Revels Band at the Piccadilly Hotel to seven musicians. The brass section and one saxophonist were released. Billy joined Jack Hylton, whose orchestra had achieved a huge commercial success. When a vacancy occurred at the Kit Cat Club, Billy joined Hylton's Kit- Cat Band. Billy was with the Jack Hylton organization for two years, circa July 1926 to June 1928, playing with the Piccadilly Revels Band, Jack Hylton and his Orchestra, and the Kit-Cat Band.

In 1928 Billy obtained a position in Brussels with Compere's New Royal Dance Band, led by Belgian cornetist and trumpeter René Compere. Billy found accommodation for himself and the family in Brussels. In 1929 the band was playing at the Embassy-Club, located in the centre of Brussels. Compere's New Royal Dance Band had eight musicians: René Compere on trumpet and violin, Billy on trombone, two reeds, and four rhythm. The show at the Embassy-Club was a musical variety including singing and dancing. There were three performances a day, tea-time at 5:30 pm, evening at 10:30 pm, and late-night at 1:30 am.

Piccadilly Revels Band, London, 1926/27.

Billy and Frances remained in Brussels for a year, during 1928 and 1929. In 1929 they moved to Germany, where Billy played for a year in Berlin and Hamburg. He played with the Oscar Joost Orchestra, and with the London Sonora Band, which toured the Rhineland in 1930. He was also a member of the Paul Godwin orchestra which played for radio broadcasts and recorded movie sound tracks.

For the year that they were in Germany, they were living in hotels and rooms. Frances was getting fed up with the pillar-to-post routine, never being able to live in a place of their own. She wanted to return to Canada so that Manning would receive a Canadian education. So, in June 1930, Frances and the children sailed from Hamburg, returning to St. Marys to live with her mother. Billy wrote to her every few days, and in one letter he mentioned that he was planning to join her in St. Marys in the near future.

Early in September 1930, Billy had just arrived in Hamburg, playing with one of the orchestras there. On September 16 the Paul Godwin orchestra made its first- ever appearance in Hamburg, opening at the Trocadero. It was a two-week engagement, closing on September 30. This was a wonderful opportunity for Billy to get together with his friends in the Godwin orchestra. On Sunday, September 28, Billy, Paul Godwin, and the other band members took a boat cruise around the harbour of Hamburg. The group posed for photos. In contrast to the others, Billy appeared rather solemn.

René Compére's New Royal Dance Band, Brussels, 1928/29.

On the following day, Monday, September 29, he was taken seriously ill, and was rushed to the Eppendorf General Hospital. He was operated upon the next day. The doctors found that his old war wound had never closed up, and as a consequence an infection had set in. When his fellow members of the orchestra visited him on Saturday he seemed to be recovering, but his condition suddenly turned grave. On Sunday, October 5, Frances received a cable from Hamburg which read, "Bill very ill from operation. Great danger." The next day she received a second cable which read "Bill passed away Sunday 10.30 a.m." For the rest of his life, David, only four years old at the time, would recall his mother screaming when she read the cable.

Billy had died exactly 14 years to the day from the day he had been wounded. At his death he was 35 years old. Frances was a widow at 28.

The St. Marys newspaper published tributes that read:

Billy Hall is still well remembered here by many old friends. He was admired and respected wherever he went. The men with whom he associated in his work were his warm friends. He was a general favorite with his pals and many of [them] will learn of his untimely end with deep regret.