by Art M. Daane
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Eric's success story started when, as a teenager called The Harmonica Kid, he won radio's first talent quest "The Carroll Lewis Show". He stayed with the show until he was called up for the army. When in Dunkirk he was mentioned in dispatches for playing the harmonica on the beaches to keep up the moral of the troops. After the war, his show business career continued when he created a harmonica act named "The Monarchs".
After 33 years with The Monarchs, Eric starred with the record- breaking "Black and White Minstrel Show", spending three years at London’s Victoria Palace and a further seven years on tour. Eric continued his career as a solo artist by joining his former colleagues as one of the shining lights of "The Minstrel Stars", for him this meant more time with his family and the chance to play the kind of music he loves.
Jimmy, who was a bomber pilot in the second world war, was shot down over Germany and spent about three years in a P.O.W. camp, where he managed to get hold of a harmonica from a prison guard in return for a cake of soap and learnt to play it. On his return to England, he made his film debut at Debenham's studios in "A Matter of Life and Death". He had a three-minute spot and played the theme music.
After his departure with The 3 Monarchs he formed his own act "The Musketeers".
Better known as Les Henry, he started playing harmonica in 1928, and got his first chromatic in 1934 after seeing Larry Adler at the local cinema. Les did the movie-soundtrack for "Home from Home" in 1937, and also won the open solo contest in 1938. He had an offer to go on tour with "Brian Michie’s Radio Stars of 1939", which he took and earned 3 pounds and five shillings per week. When another agent offered him 4 pounds and five shillings he took the job and stayed with that show until 1941 when he was called up.
He became a dispatch rider, going through the N-Africa campaign, Italy and Austria. The last six months were spent in Napels with Combined Services Entertainments in the company of Sir Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and many other well-known names in those days, they took out their own shows for the troops in Italy, Greece, Malta, and finishing up at the Berger Theatre in Vienna.
Once out of the services they used to gather in a place called Annie's Café in Windmill Street, it was there that Harry and Spike said to him " We're going to try and do a show on the radio, why don't you join us? You could do your funny voice and play the harmonica". As he had also been approached by two other blokes to form a harmonica trio, he joined them. If he had gone with Harry and Spike his voice would have been used instead of Peter Sellers’ and his harmonica would have been heard instead of Max Geldray. Isn't it a funny world?
Johnny, who played guitar, was in the same P.O.W. camp as Jimmy and together they entertained their fellow prisoners. Johnny became the fourth member of the Monarchs, he didn’t stay with the act longer than about six months, after which he went into his father-in-laws bookmaking business.
Dave had become a professional harmonica player on his birthday, March 16, 1957. He took over from Jimmy in 1961, and stayed with "The Monarchs" for a few years before going solo. In 1968 he teamed up with Pauline, and they have been together for 29 years now and are still working the theatres daily. Real troopers.
Besides Johnny Crow the Monarchs had two more guitarists since Dave left the act. Lonnie Donegan’s guitarist ‘Jimmy Currie’ and ‘Robin Wilson’.
The Monarchs were formed in 1946. Their first show was at Fishers Restaurant in London. They were waiting to go on when suddenly the agent said "what are you going to call yourselves?" Les suddenly called ‘The Monarchs’ the ‘Kings of the Harmonica’. Les must have a way with words because it was him that invented "Harmonically Yours" when signing autographs.
They had no idea of including comedy in their act. They were appearing in a touring revue and just before taking part in the Monarch’s act, Les had to appear in a comedy sketch, dressed as a bearded brigand. It meant a very quick change of costume and one night Les forgot to take off his beard. When he rushed on the stage the audience roared with laughter. In fact, the reaction was so hilarious that the boys decided to include the idea in future. So Les grew a beard and became Cedrick, the comedian in the act.
After Johnny's departure they became The 3 Monarchs.
They toured in more than thirty countries. In a few words Les told me how hectic it was.
"Getting off the plane at Amsterdam Airport, a car was waiting to take us straight to the Studios in Hillegom. In those days the cameras were still on wooden tripods. We walked along a long trestle table where a lady leaned over and dabbed at our faces with a wet sponge, so much for our make-up. We did our act, were taken back to the airport and flew to Belgium. After a very big radio show the next morning it was straight on the plane again, back to the U.K.
All Les can remember of Holland was that there were two TV stations, one catholic and the other protestant, and on the catholic station the dancers were not allowed to show their navels! " Haven't times changed?"
I was lucky to be in Holland at the time and watched the show on television
from the KRO studios in Hilversum, the show was called "Zaterdagavond Akkoorden"
and was broadcsted on 6 May 1961. This was the first time I saw them with David Conway
who had taken over from Jimmy Prestcott, he did a splendid job.
They played 1. "Casa Loma Stomp," 2. a Medley: 1. "Deep in the Heart of Texas," 2. "From this Moment," 3. "Chinatown my Chinatown." and 3. "Barber of Seville."
The entire performance lasted just under 8 minutes.
Like so many of us, Les was a Borrah Minevitch fan too and saw the famous rascals in 1935. After Johnny Puleo had taken over the act from Borrah in 1955, the "Gang" played at the Palladium in the "Harry Secomb Show" where Johhny fell ill and had to be flown home for an operation. The Monarchs were asked to double cross over from the Prince of Wales theatre where they were playing to take Johnny Puleo’s place.
At that time an Italian film producer came over to make a film called "Europe by Night" consisting of some of the best-known variety acts in Europe. He came to The Prince of Wales, liked what he saw and asked "Where can I go to see some other acts?" they took him along to the Palladium where he now saw them falling in for Puleo. After which he said "I've had enough now, take me somewhere nice for dinner" and off they went to the Savoy Hotel where he could admire them once more taking part in the cabaret, all on the same night.
In this way The Monarchs did 79 shows in 17 days. On the way to Monte Carlo they stopped off at Geneva and there, on the way to the casino, Les spotted a poster at a little cinema. It said "Europe de Notte". "That’s the film" he said to his wife Anne. So they stayed overnight and the next day went to see the film, in which The Monarchs played Casa Loma Stomp.
They had some very successful tours in South Africa, their first was with the 13 year old Helen Shapiro. While on tour Hohner presented them with the first extended bass to try.
Their second tour was with Francoise Hardy and their third with the "Follies Spectacular" with Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke. Because of their great success they were asked to do a two week Xmas season in the "Top of the Carlton" in Johannesburg. Les, "It was a hard job, we did about 40 minutes went upstairs to our rooms for a half an hour break and then back again for another 40 minutes of new material". They were invited back for the following year’s Christmas season.
The local scene:
In England they were a great hit, their popularity knew no end. Touring the coast of Britain was a standard pastime. While appearing at the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth for the summer season with Dickie Henderson and the Beverley Sisters, they even had their own weekly series of humorous bits and pieces in the local paper "The Evening Echo". Together with doing radio shows, commercials and movie-shorts they were kept more than busy. The movie-shorts showed up at just about every cinema around the world, and that gave them a lot of publicity and popularity. Besides their act the Monarchs had two other interests, Ice Hockey and Cycle Speedway, in fact they were joint presidents of the Brighton Monarchs and the King standing Monarchs.
They also wrote a regular feature "Between ourselves" about their experiences at different theatres all over the country for the Harmonica News, a monthly magazine of the National Harmonica League of Britain, a much loved item among readers.
As a matter of interest and to show just how popular they were - here are just a few of their appearances with artist I’m sure a lot of you will remember.
In Birmingham’s Hippodrome they appeared with Lonnie Donegan.
At the Coventry Theatre with The Springfields for a seven week season.
In Harold Fielding’s "Music for Millions" at the South Parade Pier in South Sea for a six day stay, twice nightly with the Beverley Sisters, Johnny Stewart, Ossie Morris, Victor Seaforth, Kennie Baker and the South Parade Pier Orchestra under direction of Peter Walker.
At the famous London Palladium with Des O’Connor, The Bachelors and the fabulous Lena Horn.
They were listed for the "Sunday Charity Show" at the Liverpool Empire alongside The Kaye Sisters, Eddie Arnold and Audrey Jeans, Freddy Sales, Michael Holiday, Lita Roza, The Waitons and Lew Black.
When they were booked for "Plaisirs de Paris" at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, they had no idea that the show would still be running by the end of the year, they had to cancel an engagement in Monte Carlo and also had to turn down a most tempting offer to visit The Tropicana in Havana.
Although they were known as a harmonica comedy trio, The Monarchs also played trumpet, bass, drums, piano, guitar and saxophone.
Almost 20 years have passed since their retirement, yet The Monarchs are remembered by a wide band of enthusiasts all over the world.
Les is still entertaining as "Cedric Monarch".
Eric has retired as a florist since a coronary a couple of years ago.
Jimmy Currie is probably around somewhere, and Robin Wilson left for Australia.
Jimmy Prestcott now lives in Spain permanently. David Conway met with him in 2004.
Eric York passed away quite some time ago I was told.
Les "Cedric" Henry died on January 12, 2007, aged 86. He will be sadly missed!
My thoughts go out to his loving wife Anne.
David & Pauline Conway are a very much travelled personable couple who have literally appeared just
about everywhere in the World.
They are equally at home in Theatre, television, cabaret or cruising. Their name pops up simply everywhere having been featured for many years in the famous Black and White Minstrel Show and appearances with Rolf Harris, Lenny Henry, Jim Davidson, Victor Borge, Cliff Richard, Ken Dodd, Morecombe and Wise, Matt Monroe, Bob Monkhouse, Dickie Henderson, Dick Enery, David Nixon, Michael Barrymore, Dusty Springfield, Roy Hudd, the Beverly Sisters, Des O'Connor, and of course Danny La Rue.
They have performed many times on Radio and Television but prefer working to a live audience. David of course one of the famous "Three Monarchs," a top line act [a household name] with many appearances on Televisions Sunday Night at the London Paladium. Pauline was a dancer in London's West End and did appear in a Royal Command Performance. They both feel very lucky to have made a carreer out of their hobbies.
David has published a book "Memoires of a Monarch," a pictorial autobiography of David Conway,
[the Coventry Monarch].
Order from D.C. Productions, 5 St. Laurence Way, Bidford on Avon, B50 4FG, United Kingdom.
Price: BP 15,00 [including P & P]
Overseas buyers: Please contact the office in case of extra postage!
Gordon's Bay, South Africa, January 2008
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