Leon Young (1916 - 1991)
by Adrian Brett

Part Two

Like so many others who had served for the duration of WW2 on demobilisation Leon Young found himself without a job on his return to civilian life. Married, and with a 4-year old son who had been born while he was aboard HMS Hermione, it was paramount that Leon find work and be able to provide for his family, who were still living with his in-laws. At the outset of war Leon had worked as a grocer’s assistant and any return to such menial employment was out of the question now that he was an experienced musician and an arranger of some distinction. His latter months in the RMBS had been busy in making the musical arrangements for the Royal Navy’s extravaganza: ‘Tokyo Express’ which opened at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith and for which Band Cpl. Young was the musical director. This can not have gone unnoticed by those within the music profession in London, many of whom would have attended the show.

Prior to the war Leon’s life and surroundings had been somewhat parochial living firstly in Strood and later in Tonbridge. For many the excitement of war with its inevitable travel to foreign lands broadened the mind and opened up hitherto untapped resources both within and without. Life aboard ship in close proximity to men from all walks of life must surely have increased the personal confidence of the very shy man who was brought up in the strict and ascetic environment of a Salvation Army family. The musical opportunities ashore in Gibraltar and Malta with his dance band were taken whenever possible and slotted in between some heavy action at sea aboard HMS Hermione until its demise on June 16 1942 after being torpedoed by U-boat U205.

Imbued with a new and vital self-confidence the 29 year old Leon Young, who had so recently tasted the attractions of professional music-making in London, forsook his parochial roots and made the decision to try for work in London, a commutable distance from Tonbridge and with a very regular train service to Charing Cross. One of the first major streets you walk along from the station is of course Charing Cross Road which, with Denmark Street (Tin Pan Alley), was the epicentre of British music between 1945-1965. The major music publishers all had their shops and offices in this quite small area of London, a fact that would be known to Leon as he trudged along the road in search of work.

Leon was fortunate in being taken on as a staff arranger by one of the biggest and most successful publishers, Francis, Day and Hunter. This firm had been publishing sheet music from the mid-19c and included many famous titles from the days of Music Hall on its books. There was an appetite for new music and new artists immediately after the war when the public, tired of the deprivations that war had necessarily imposed upon them, wanted some fun and entertainment. Although many homes still possessed a piano in the parlour and would conduct sing-songs on a Saturday night the publishers, who still asked their staff arrangers to produce song-copies and easy piano arrangements, foresaw the larger revenues that could be made from the increase in record production. A publisher who ‘owned’ a song could make money from selling song copies and easy piano arrangements but it was nothing compared to the ‘publisher’s royalty’ which accrued whenever a record was broadcast or the ‘mechanical royalty’ from the sale of the actual disc.

I imagine that part of Leon’s good luck in securing employment with FD&H was as a result of his recent success at the Lyceum, Hammersmith conducting and arranging all of the music, some titles of which may have been ‘on the books’ of this eminent publisher, who would have received ‘public performance royalties’. So Leon did not have to slog away on the boring stuff but made the arrangements of FD&H titles for recordings and BBC broadcasts. The staff arrangers entered the building by a side entrance in Denmark Street like the servants they were, rather like the liveried Joseph Haydn using the tradesmens' entrance at the Esterhazy Palace! The facade and large shop window full of instruments and sheet music was for the general public and above the shop floor were the sumptuous offices of the bosses. Needless to say the staff arrangers were accommodated in tiny rooms on the floor above. Leon had a tiny office with a desk and chair, an old leather chair for visitors and a very old clapped-out upright piano on which to work. In the next room were the copyists, Albert Elms (ex-RMB) and Ted Astley who would both later become arrangers having observed from Leon at very close quarters how it was done………

Occasionally Leon would be summoned below to the bosses offices to meet a new artist or try through a new song written by some hopeful amateur composer, who often provided just a top melody line….and sometimes just sang the song….so Leon had to instantly harmonise and arrange the song into a recognisable and hopefully commercially acceptable form. If the bosses thought that money could be made from the song, however trite, then a contract would be drawn up and duly signed, often without the presence of a lawyer representing the composer and always in favour of the publisher. Leon would be sent back upstairs to work away at the orchestral arrangement for the proposed recording session in one of the many London studios. He was paramount in the early careers of a schoolgirl called Petula Clark and a gregarious young Max Bygraves….and on the subject of trite songs which publisher thought a record about a pink toothbrush meeting a blue toothbrush at the bathroom door could be successful? It was a huge hit for Max Bygraves, FD&H……and arranged by Leon Young!

In 1953 Decca released a 78rpm record of two of Leon’s most famous arrangements Charlie Chaplin’s theme from ‘Limelight’ and on the reverse side, Ebbtide. In 1974 Leon told me the whole story. Decca had signed up Robert Farnon, Stanley Black and Mantovani. Most successful records at that time were solo vocalists both male and female but the public had developed an appetite for the large orchestral arrangements and light compositions from these orchestras. Robert Farnon was a genius and Stanley Black a very accomplished pianist and arranger, who I got to know very well at the BBC. Mantovani had been a fine violinist but made his name through the talent of his arranger, Ronald Binge, whose musical imagination invented the shimmering string sound where by desks entered in a staggered way bar by bar…. and not the usual manner of musicians staggering from bar to bar!! Decca decided that they wanted Frank Chacksfield as an additional artist with an orchestra. Only problem was that he was a mediocre musician so they needed a good arranger. Enter Leon Young. I played regularly for Chacksfield and had noticed a peculiar common factor in all of ‘his’ arrangements. The closing bars always had augmentation in the rhythms so that the time signatures would go from 4 to 3 and to 2/4, with gradually increasing note values. Leon explained to me that all Chacksfield could do was beat in 4 or 3 or 2 but never a rallentando….so it was written into the arrangements so that all he had to do was keep beating the same speed but change the number of beats per bar…the rall was built into the arrangement!

Leon had a phone call at 10pm one evening from Chacksfield who had heard Chaplin’s theme. He demanded a full orchestral arrangement from Leon for the recording session at Decca Studios in West Hampstead booked for 10 am the following day. Leon burned the midnight oil and finished the final bars just in time to get the train to Charing Cross. At the studio were several copyists, pen, ink and MS paper at the ready who worked liked demons to copy the parts. A weak and drooping Leon took the podium and conducted the famous arrangement with its memorable opening swirling and ascending string scale. After a few takes a beaming Chacksfield emerged from the sound booth and calmly announced to the orchestra: ‘Gentlemen, I think I have another hit on my hands!’ Poor Leon was too exhausted to say a word. Chacksfield was just one of many ‘musicians’ whose careers were almost entirely based upon the genuine talents of other less demonstrative personalities.

Arrangers do not normally receive royalties but composers and publishers do. Leon’s career was largely as an accomplished arranger of other composer’s works but often it was his prodigious skills in transforming a simple tune into a sumptuous orchestral arrangement that made a ‘show biz hit’. Occasionally things went much further and the thin line between composer and arranger was crossed, to the detriment of the intelligence and imagination of the arranger, who sat by and watched a far less talented musician accrue vast wealth at his expense.

I can personally vouch for the veracity of the following story as Leon told me himself in the BBC canteen at Maida Vale Studios during a break in recording.

One day Leon was summoned below to the offices of FD&H to hear a tune. It was far from complete just a first phrase but Leon took the tatty few bars of MS upstairs and duly set to work on an arrangement. Unusually this was not a vocal arrangement that had been asked for like the majority of the time. The arrangement AABA was finished with the characteristic Leon Young change from minor to major before the reprise of the A section. Eight tatty bars of a tune without a middle became a worldwide hit reaching No.1 in UK within a week where it stayed for 58 weeks, unprecedented for an instrumental title. Its name? ‘Stranger on the Shore’, played by Acker Bilk but essentially composed by Leon Young. This was one occasion when the mild mannered Leon must have seethed as he watched Acker Bilk become a millionaire while he commuted daily to London from Tonbridge. The record became a hit in the USA too and both Acker and Leon were invited to appear on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ and stayed in the luxurious surroundings of the Algonquin Hotel…the famous hang-out of Dorothy Parker et al. By now litigation had ensued regarding the ownership of the tune which was settled ‘out of ‘court’ but somehow knowing Leon a little I doubt that he would have received anything commensurate with his talent and personal contribution or what it undoubtedly deserved.

Leon was a regular contributor to the long-running BBCTV show ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ as he had known George Mitchell and his singers for many years. Somehow throughout all of this commercial work, some of it quite banal and unrewarding, Leon found time to study for the demanding ARCO diploma followed immediately by the FRCO. These are without doubt the most difficult academic and practical examinations in the field of music. The organ candidate in addition to the difficult academic and musical history papers are examined on the history of English Church Music together with a demanding and contrasting recital…a Bach Prelude and Fugue being de rigeur …and then the candidate is required to perform a long extemporisation on a given theme.

Leon continued to work at FD&H until his retirement in 1981 and started each day with his daily mantra on leaving his home in Tonbridge: ‘I hate music!’ This quiet and unassuming man always treated his fellow musicians with great respect and visited many when they were ill whilst serving on the Members Fund Committee of The Performing Rights Society.

One cold Saturday evening in January 1991 Leon and Grace were returning home with friends having attended a concert given in the RFH by the International Band of the Salvation Army. While waiting on Platform C at Waterloo East….so familiar to ex-RMBs returning to Deal from leave…Leon collapsed and died. His head appropriately full of stirring music praising God, his sudden and unexpected destination was not one usually served by the South Eastern railway.

A true gentleman, immensely talented arranger and a former Royal Marine Bandsman whom we should all remember especially each year that the Dedication Fanfare is sounded.

Adrian Brett (RMB 3730)


Since writing my account of Leon Young I received an email from ex-PDM Lt Col. Graham Hoskins, who politely pointed out that it was his recollection that the title of the Memorial Fanfare was: ‘To Comrades Sleeping’—I had merely copied the title as related by Leon’s son. On checking the original score now held at the RM Museum I am able to confirm that our octogenarian ex-PDM’s memory is both lucid and accurate and my article ought to have been credited: ‘To Comrades Sleeping’.

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