The Sublime Harmonica Virtuoso

Ronald Chesney

by Art M.Daane

Ronald Chesney

It was 1920 when he met the world, it was 1936 when the world met Ronald Chesney.

Let me explain, at the age of twelve he terminated his lessons on the piano, and freed from the grind of five-finger exercises his natural love of music came to the surface, so at the age of fifteen he resumed his studies. It was by chance that he discovered the possibilities of the harmonica and within two years of serious studies he made his first appearance in a major B.B.C.programme called " Palace of Varieties " He also played in " Cine Variety "-short stage shows between films.

In the same year he gave a series on Radio Luxemburg. However, the weekly 1940 B.B.C. series, known by the title " Let's play the mouth-organ " was the most important. Bad health precluded services in the Forces so he did the next best thing-shows for the troops, " Teaching The Allied Forces To Play The Harmonica " and received over 10.000 letters from men stationed inall parts of the world. An article in the Melody Maker of June 8, 1940 stated , under the heading. B.B.C. To start harmonica lessons!

Ronald Chesney, Englands No.1 harmonica player, is to teach listeners to play that instrument in a series of 20-minute airings, produced by Mike (" In Town To-night") Meehan, commencing on Tuesday, June 18,9.15 p.m., on the Forces programme.

Prior to the start of the series Ronald inaugurated a fund to supply instruments to the troops. In The Melody Maker of June 15 he wrote,'what I want is either instruments or the money to buy these for the soldiers sailors andairmen'.

The first lesson in the series was a complete success. Melody Maker June 22wrote, 'the Melody Maker staff are seriously thinking of forming a harmonicaband of their own. To the troops his programmes of instruction and music were alink with home.

In 1943 he began to assemble a classical repertoire and came to the notice of Harold Fielding. Ronald had great faith in the harmonica, but because it is regarded in rather an unorthodox light by the musical public, he had difficulty making people understand that a piece, written by Bach or Debussy, for the violin, can sound equally enchanting on the harmonica.

Ronald played in quite a few "Worker's Playtimes", " Variety Bandbox " and other B.B.C. series, and then toured in " Music for Millions " for Harold Fielding, which culminated in a solo recital at the Royal Albert Hall in 1947 which was a landmark in his harmonica career.

It took place on Saturday,February 1st.1947, He was presented by Harold Fielding and accompanied on the piano by Bernard Crook. They played, The Ritual Fire Dance, Caprice Viennois, Schon Rosmarin, Dance of the Hours, Hejre Kati, Nocturne in E flat, op. 9, No. 2, Estrella and the Overture: Merry Wives of Windsor before interval, and concluded with Variations on a trad. Russian air, Clair de Lune (No.3 from Suite in the Underworld).

He stood with Laurel and Hardy in the London Palladium and did a season at the " Lido " in Paris. Then he played in the radio series " Educating Archie " and devised the " Talking Harmonica " which was also recorded.

Ronald was a man of simple tastes, he spent most of his time in a workshop at home, improving the mechanical aspect of the harmonica to keep pace with his musical progress. He believed the instrument capable of great improvement and considered he had only just begun to discover its vast musical possibilities.

Ronald Chesney became an exeptional artist, outstandingly successful and a star attraction in such varied fields as concert hall, variety, cabaret, radioand recordings. Whether playing works by Chopin, Bach, Debussy, De Falla, Heifetz, Kreisler, Rimsy-Korsakov, Ravel and many other great masters to critical concert audiences, or hitting off with pieces ranging from Gershwin and Cole Porter to solid boogie, Chesney is equally at home.

His powerfull tone-colours and extravagant technique made him firm favourite on all the top air-shows. His recording of " The Flight of the Bumble Bee " sets a standard of virtuosity on the harmonica not equalled in his time.

Abroad he was just as popular as at home. He toured in many parts of the world. After arriving with the " Union Castle " in Cape Town, South Africa on Thursday, 26th April, 1951, he and Mrs.Chesney boarded the " Blue Train " to arrive at the Johannesburg station the next day. Amongst the welcome party were the "Eric Cronholm Philharmonicans" who supplied the music in honour of the distinguished visitor. Ronald joined the band on the spot.

Before leaving for the United States, where he was booked for a concert at Radio City, New York, followed by television and radio broadcasting in various parts of the U.S.A, he recorded 4 tracks for the 78 rpm records with Nico Carstens en sij Boere-orkes on HMV.SA.HS15 and 16. The titles are Nico se Vastrap, Bekfluitje Boogie, Vastrap Keurspel and Wals Keurspel.

Ronald Chesney
Nico Carstens' Band, Ronald in the middle.

Back in Britain Ronald was kept very busy on stage, on the air, recording and even film. In 1956 he composed and played the music for the " Silly Symphony " cartoon for " Ovaltine " Radio and TV appearances in Switzerland, France and other places on the Continent. In between Ronald would find time to visit schools where he would hand-out " Little Ladies " to the children.

He toured Australia and the U.S.A. from May till August '57. While 'downyonder' he recorded " Blues in the Night " and " Down Yonder " HMV.EA.10189.

His very last recording would probably be " Johnny's Talking Harmonica " HMV.GES.5809. Which was recorded in 1960.

Ronald has also been President of the National Harmonica League in Britain for many years.

It was in the 60s that he joined-up with Ronald Wolfe. The end of hisharmonica career was the beginning of a script-writing career, a move he never regretted. Some of their renowned scripts for TV were "The Rag Trade " and " On the Buses " They wrote many scripts for foreign TV stations aswell.

Today " The Two Ronnies " are kept very busy writing. Chesney at the age of seventy-five, and his wife are in good health and enjoy the visits by their children and grand-children. Playing Jazz on the piano for his ownpleasure has taken the place of the harmonica.

Discography:
Rex.9142 September in the Rain; A Sailboat in the Moonlight; It Look Like Rain, The Merry-go-round Broke Down, Let's Call the Whole ThingOoff, Where Are You.
Rex.9241 Damsel in Distress Selection; Variety Show selection.
Rex.9193 On the Avenue Selection; Caravan.
Rex.9294 The Man I Love; Avalon; Whispering; Margie.
Rex.9381 Love Walked In; Lambeth Walk; Sweet as a Song; Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythm.
Rex.9681 A Long Way to Tipperary; Beer Barrel Polka; Madelon; Siegfried Line; Run Rabbit Run; Wish Me Luck.
H.M.V.b.9947 Bewitched; Mona Lisa.
H.M.V.b.9963 Flight of the Bumble Bee; Hora Staccato.
H.M.V.jo.406 The Bandit.
H.M.V.pop.519 Volare; Torre Molinos.
H.M.V.ea.4235 Majorca; Chiqui-Chaqui.
H.M.V.ea.4300 Zambezi; Parakeet Calypso.
H.M.V.ea.4301 By the Fountains of Rome; Almost Paradise.
H.M.V.10300 Delicado; Blacksmith Blues.
H.M.V.10767 Le Grisbi; The High and the Mighty.
H.M.V.10815 Majorca; Song of the Sea.
H.M.V.sab.28 Galop from Masquerade Suite; Fantasy Impromptu.
HMV.SA.HS15. Bekfluitje Boogie, Vastrap Keurspel. [South Africa 1953]
HMV.SA.HS16 Wals Keurspel; Nico se Vastrap. [South Africa 1953]
EMI.ENC.161 Slaughter on 10th Avenue, George Melachrino Moonlight concert.
HMV.EA.10189 Blues in the Night; Down Yonder. [Australia 1960]
HMV.GES.5809 Johnny's Talking Harmonica.

Writer - filmography:
(1990s) (1980s) (1970s) (1960s) (1950s)
1. "Fredrikssons fabrikk" (1990) TV Series (writer)
... aka "Fredrikssons fabrik" (1990) (Sweden)
2. "Take a Letter Mr Jones" (1981) TV Series (writer)
3. "Watch This Space" (1980) TV Series (writer)
4. "Rag Trade, The" (1977) TV Series (writer)
5. "Yes My Dear" (1975) TV Series (writer)
6. "Don't Drink the Water" (1974) TV Series (writer)
7. Holiday on the Buses (1973) (producer)
8. Mutiny On the Buses (1972) (producer)
9. "Romany Jones" (1972) TV Series (creator)
10. On the Buses (1971) (producer)
11. "On the Buses" (1969) TV Series (writer)
12. "Wild, Wild Women" (1969) TV Series (writer)
13. "Sorry I'm Single" (1967) TV Series (writer)
14. I've Gotta Horse (1965) (writer)
... aka Wonderful Day (1965)
15. "Bed-Sit Girl, The" (1965) TV Series
16. "Meet the Wife" (1964) TV Series (creator)
17. "Rag Trade, The" (1961) TV Series (writer)
18. "Educating Archie" (1958) TV Series (writer)
19. Here's Archie 1956 (performer)

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