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Cavan O'Connor

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Biography

b. Clarence Patrick O’Connor, 1 July 1899, Eire, d. 11 January 1997, London, England. An immensely popular singer in the UK from the 30s through to the 60s, with a fine, lilting tenor voice. O’Connor’s family moved to Nottingham, England shortly after he was born and his Irish father died when Cavan was two years old. After leaving school, the youngster worked as a pit boy in the local colliery and a lather boy in a barber’s shop. Eager to play a part in World War I, he was turned down for the Navy because he was too young, so he joined the Army instead, and sailed for France at the end of 1915. After he was demobilized in 1919, he worked in a music showroom, selling instruments and delivering pianos. The shop’s owner heard him singing, and booked him for a concert at a Masonic lodge. The fee was seven shillings and sixpence, but, far more importantly, some of the lodge members took a collection which raised £200, enabling O’Connor to travel to London and audition for Sir Hugh Allan at the Royal College of Music. He was awarded a four-year operatic scholarship, and became what used to be known as ‘a dedicated singer’. While appearing as a member of the chorus in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado at the Old Vic, he was noticed by a recording executive, and subsequently made tests of ‘Take A Pair Of Sparkling Eyes’ and ‘The Wandering Minstrel’ with a full orchestral accompaniment. He was later told that he had the perfect ‘cutting voice’ to suit the wax system used in those days for making records. In the early 20s, O’Connor collaborated with John Logie Baird in a television experiment, and joined Sir Nigel Playfair’s management at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, playing small parts and understudying in productions such as The Beggar’s Opera, The Duenna, and A.P. Herbert and Playfair’s revue, Riverside Nights (1926). Immensely versatile, O’Connor subsequently appeared in a season of opera under Lillian Baylis at the Old Vic, and at the famous Gaiety Theatre, sang with pianist Fred Hartley’s ensembles, and successfully auditioned for the BBC in 1925 at Savoy Hill. Although O’Connor worked constantly, real fame did not arrive until 1935, when songwriter and producer Eric Maschwitz, head of Variety at BBC radio, had an idea for a weekly spot called ‘The Vagabond Lover’. Rather along the lines of Arthur Tracy, who sheltered under the title of ‘The Street Singer’ on American radio, it was to feature an anonymous vocalist, and listeners were invited to speculate as to his identity. One national newspaper offered the prize of a guinea for the best description of the mystery man. The programme was an overnight success, and catapulted the singer into the big time. By the time his identity was revealed, he had become one of Britain’s highest paid radio personalities - second only to Gracie Fields - and he was booked by the Stoll Moss circuit as a star attraction at all the top music halls, where audiences loved his relaxed manner when he strolled on stage singing his theme song, ‘Goodnight (I’m Only A Strolling Vagabond)’, dressed simply in a slouch hat, corduroy trousers and open necked shirt, with a sports jacket slung over his right shoulder. In the late 30s, he was welcomed in the USA and Europe, and during World War II broadcast regularly from Bristol, until the studio was bombed, when he switched to Bangor. He also made numerous appearances on popular radio shows, such as Monday Night At Eight and Jimmy O’Dea’s Irish Half Hour. In 1939, Maschwitz and George Posford wrote ‘The World Is Mine Tonight’ especially for O’Connor. It became one of his specialities, along with ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen’, a song whose tune he first heard on a music box in Bangor, ‘Daybreak’, ‘When I Leave The World Behind’, ‘In The Still Of The Night’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘The Rose Of Tralee’, ‘The Mountains Of Mourne’, and ‘Hear My Song, Violetta’. He brought the latter number back from Berlin, claiming that ‘it had been pinched’ from the opera, La Traviata. Over the years he made more than 800 recordings for numerous labels, with studio orchestras, and various dance bands led by artists such as Bertini, Alfredo, Harry Bidgood, Herman Dareweski, and Geraldo. He used his own name for what he called the standard ballads, and a number of pseudonyms, including Cliff Connelly, Pat O’Brian, Terence O’Neill, Alan O’Sullivan, and Harry Carlton, among several others, for the more ‘commercial’ releases. He also appeared in two films Ourselves Alone (1936) and Honeymoon Hotel (1946). After the war, O’Connor visited South Africa and the Antipodes, but still continued to tour at home until television finally killed off the music halls, and the radical changes in popular music sounded the death knell for most balladeers. He also formed Avonmore Trio, with his wife, Rita Tate, who had been a fellow student at the Royal College of Music, on piano, and son Michael on guitar, His career enjoyed a brief Indian summer when producer Don Ross included him in a series of small nostalgia package shows which played the UK provinces, and his last stage appearance is said to have been in 1985 at the re-opened Hackney Empire in London, where he topped the bill and received a thrilling reception.

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