JACK (DAVID JOHN) LLEWELLYN
1888 - 1961
by David and Nigel Llewellyn
David John Llewellyn was a leading band musician and later music
teacher from the 1920s to the 1960s. Distinguishing himself
initially as a banjoist, he also played the guitar professionally
and played several other instruments. Beginning his career with
the internationally known London Sonora Band, he also played
in other major British bands including the Blackpool Tower Dance
Band and Jack Hylton & His Orchestra.
By the 1950s David John had turned to teaching, and was well
known in the Coventry area as a teacher of banjo and guitar.
David John was the father of the eminent guitarist and session
musician Jack Llewellyn.
David John Llewellyn was born on 19th March 1888 in Liverpool. He was one of five children of Emma Bricklebank and David Llewellyn, an engineer, who abandoned his family. The children were brought up by Emma’s Dutch brother-in-law, William Brown, who moved in with Emma after the death of his wife (Emma’s sister).
David John was known as Jack but is referred to in this essay as David John to minimise confusion with his son John, who was also known as Jack.
David John the musician
He was an outstanding banjoist, said to have been second only to Olly Oakley.
Prior to and immediately after the First World War, David John worked for a haulage contractor or haulage contractors, at first as a clerk and, by the time he enlisted for war service, as a cashier. At the time of his enlistment in 1915 he was employed by George Davies & Son of 2 Strand Road in the Kirkdale district of Liverpool.
His marriage to Ethel
On 16 September 1911, at St Athanasius Church, Walton-on-the-Hill, Liverpool, David John married Ethel Jane McTavish. The marriage was witnessed by David John’s elder brother Alexander Llewellyn and Mary Ellen McTavish.
His children – music in the blood
David John and Ethel had four sons.
The eldest, Oliver, was born in 1912. He went on to become a classical musician and regular broadcaster. David Llewellyn recalls his father telling him that Oliver played the ’cello (or one of the other classical stringed instruments) and was a member of one of the nation’s premier symphony orchestras.
The second son, John, born in 1914, was the renowned guitarist Jack Llewellyn.
David John’s third son, Charles, who was born in 1916, was also a very good guitarist, albeit not in the same league as Jack, and worked semi-professionally as a musician.
After the war, David John and Ethel produced another son, Wilfred, who was born in 1920. Whether Wilfred too inherited his father’s musical talent is not known, as very little information has been discovered about him.
A living relative believes that there was a middle child who died young. This suggests that David John and Ethel had a fifth child, perhaps in the period between 1916 and 1920. It may, however, be that the child who died young was Wilfred, which would explain why so little is known about him.
David John communicated his passion for the fret board to his son Jack at an early age, and this was obviously a source of pride to him. Jack recalled his father returning home from the pub on occasions with friends and waking him up as a small boy to play the banjo for them in his pyjamas.
David John and Ethel moved house frequently in the early years of their marriage. At the time of their marriage in 1911, the couple were living at 46 Sessions Road, Liverpool. The name of the road would turn out to be an appropriate one given the career path followed by their musician son Jack. In 1912 they were living at 126 Salisbury Road (or Street), Liverpool. By 1914 the couple were at 36 Kirkstall Street. When David John enlisted for war service, they were living at 53 Langdale Road, Liverpool. By the time that Charles was born in 1916, their address was 95 Pugin Street. After the war, in 1920, the family home was 79 Berwick Street.
In December 1915 David John volunteered for service with the Grenadier Guards. He served as a private and was awarded the Victory Medal and the British Medal.
The second family
By the late 1920s David John had met a young Tiller Girl, Gladys Foote. The couple did not marry; indeed David John appears to have remained married to, albeit separated from, Ethel. David John and Gladys had two children, Bernard John Foote (born in the first Quarter of 1927) and another son (born in February 1929), who is still alive and is the only survivor of David John’s six children.
The itinerant nature of the band musician’s métier was probably not conducive to settled family life, and David John’s second relationship also broke down in the mid to late 1940s. Gladys went on to marry another man.
As with his first family, David John passed on his musicianship to his later sons. Bernard was taught the Hawaiian guitar and the surviving son the mandolin. The surviving son is a keen musician and went on to play keyboards, saxophone and clarinet.
David John’s musical career, as a player and teacher, began in Blackpool. No details, however, have been discovered of his musical engagements prior to that with The London Sonora Band, which he joined in his mid-thirties. Most, if not all, the work he undertook as a musician up to that point must have been on a part-time basis, since he was working as a cashier until at least 1920.
The London Sonora Band
David John played the banjo for The London Sonora Band. Despite its name, the ensemble was essentially a touring band, and so its membership would not have been restricted to musicians from the London area. The London Sonora Band was established by Bobby Hind in late 1922. It was an immediate success and had the distinction of being the first band to appear on stage when it was chosen to play at the Royal Command Performance in the following year. By virtue of that appearance Hind claimed the honour of having the first jazz band to perform by Royal Command. The ensemble was a show band, mixing musical performances with comedy and other entertainment.
Whether David John was a founding member is not known, but there is evidence of his membership as early as 1924.
Scheveningen, summer 1924
The Band played at the Palais de Danse and the Kurhaus in Scheveningen in July and August of 1924. A review in Het Vaderland describes the Band as “phenomenal” and “close to perfection”. David John seems to have particularly impressed the critic, who goes on to say “The best players we found, apart from the drummer, in the banjo player and the slide trombonist”. He concludes that “Scheveningen and The Hague can be assured that we have one of the most brilliant orchestras of Europe to listen to or to dance to.” More detail of the Scheveningen engagement and the full text of the review can be found in The London Sonora Band and the Vienna Sonora Band.
Paris, September 1924
The band apparently went from Scheveningen straight to Paris to record for Pathé Frères. Four titles, Old Fashioned Love, The Savoy American Medley, Horsey! Keep Your Tail Up and Sweet Henry, are known to have been recorded, though it is likely that many more tracks were cut. The banjo features prominently in the recordings.
Berlin, winter 1924 – 5
After France, the London Sonora Band’s tour proceeded to Germany, giving the ensemble the distinction of being the first British band to tour Germany after the First World War. They spent around eight months in Berlin. The Berlin of the Golden Twenties was an international centre of entertainment and one of the cultural hotspots of Europe, and so this must have been an exciting time in David John’s musical career. The band played the Scala theatre in Berlin, most probably from October to December 1924. The band transferred to the Barberina night club, which they played from January until April 1925. Zack, writing in Der Artist , described the London Sonora Band as one of the outstanding bands in Berlin during this period, though other reviews were dismissive.
The Berlin recordings, 1924 - 5
Between November 1924 and May 1925 the London Sonora Band made over 40 recordings, almost all on the German Favorite label. These are detailed in The London Sonora Band and the Vienna Sonora Band. These records are now exceedingly rare.
The summer of 1925 saw the return of the band to Scheveningen, where it once again alternated between the Palais de Danse and the Kurzaal during July and August. The programme again incorporated acts from a variety of European countries, details of which are given in The London Sonora Band and the Vienna Sonora Band.
The 1925 photograph
A photograph of the band, taken in 1925 and including David John, has been posted on www.mgthomas.co.uk – Dance Band Encyclopædia.
The late twenties
The band most probably split up after Scheveningen. Drummer Jack Humphrey formed his own band, which performed and recorded in Berlin. By 1927 only two of the 1924 line-up, in addition to Hind himself, were still with the band. These two were David John and trombonist Richard Betts.
In the late twenties, the London Sonora Band probably toured the British provinces and the Continent. An advertisement for an appearance in Hamburg has been dated to 1927, and Klaus Schultz notes a visit to Vienna in the late twenties. The band seems to have had a residency at the Palace Hotel in Brighton during 1928. The band performed at the Palais de Danse, Birmingham between autumn 1928 and autumn 1929. During July 1929 they played the Palace Theatre, Hull, and in August of the same year they appeared at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland.
A photograph of the band taken in about 1927, possibly in Leeds, and published in The London Sonora Band and the Vienna Sonora Band includes David John. The earliest known photograph featuring David John with The Blackpool Tower Dance Band dates from 1928. David John must therefore have left the London Sonora Band in 1927 or 1928. (It is also clear from a personnel list for the London Sonora Band’s tour of Germany and Austria in 1930 – 1931 that David John had left the band by early 1930. This is supported by the list of names provided by George Swift, who joined the band in 1929/30. )
David John would, therefore, have been about 40 when he left and, just possibly, tiring of the London Sonora Band’s relentless travel schedule.
Writing for BMG 1924 – 8
David John is believed to have contributed to BMG from 1924 – 1928.
With the Blackpool Tower Dance Band
As indicated above, David John joined the Blackpool Tower Dance Band, under the direction of Bertini, in about 1928.
Although David John’s first instrument, the banjo, remained popular until the Second World War, the guitar gained ground in the 1930s as a band instrument, and known photographs of David John with Bertini show him with the guitar as well as the banjo.
The latest known photograph of David John with the Blackpool Tower Dance Band was taken in 1934, but his surviving son remembers him still working with the Band during the Second World War. By then David John had given up all employment other than being a musician.
Bertini’s Orchestra appeared in some British films, including the 1936 film Dodging the Dole. Presumably David John appeared in the film, but that has not been positively confirmed.
The Blackpool Tower Dance Band has been described as one of the most popular bands of the time, through recordings, in Great Britain.
With Jack Hylton
David John’s surviving son remembers talk of Jack Hylton from his childhood and believes that David John played with Hylton. Jack Hylton & His Orchestra was disbanded in 1940, after which Hylton pursued a career as a theatrical producer and entrepreneur. The most likely period for David John’s work for Hylton would appear to be the 1930s, and it is possible that David John was a member of both Bertini’s and Hylton’s bands in that period.
A dashing figure
Elizabeth Llewellyn, daughter-in-law of David John’s elder brother Thomas, recalls David John cutting a stylish figure when, snappily dressed in a camel coat, he visited Thomas to borrow £5 from him and used part of the money to travel into town by taxi. This was in Liverpool, probably in the late 1940s.
David John played with many bands during the course of his career, and he may well have worked with numerous bands in addition to the three mentioned in this note.
The teaching years in Coventry
By 1954 David John was living in Coventry and teaching banjo and guitar. He placed regular advertisements as a teacher in BMG between 1954 (or possibly earlier) and 1961, in which he gives his address as 182 Albany Road, Earlsdon, Coventry.
What had brought David John to Coventry and when he settled there are not known, but a living relative recalls that the move was work-related. In 1937 Coventry had seen the opening of its New Hippodrome. This venue had one of the largest stages in the country, attracted many of the nation’s top acts for decades and had its own orchestra. It seems possible that David John’s move to Coventry was connected directly or indirectly with that development.
David John was clearly a teacher of some prominence in the area. The photograph of him on the front page of this essay appears in the April 1954 edition of BMG, and the caption describes him as the well-known Coventry player and teacher. His obituary in the same publication similarly describes him as “the well-known Coventry teacher”.
He also appears to have been an inspiring one. One of his pupils recalls “I was taught to play guitar in the late fifties by a guy called Jack Llewellyn, who was then quite old. He did mention that he had played with a lot of bands and he certainly had some beautiful techniques – many lessons deteriorated into me sitting there open-mouthed while he played jazz classic chord sequences to me. Once he played Beethoven on a banjo.”
David John’s love for the banjo seems to have remained with him from his early days as a musician, and the photograph referred to above shows David John cradling that instrument. Nevertheless, the supremacy of the guitar in the music of the 1950s suggests that most of David John’s Coventry pupils will have been students of the guitar. One of them was Bobby Falloon. An article on the modern Hawaiian guitar in the March 1960 edition of BMG carries a picture of a young Falloon with his teacher Jack (i.e. David John) Llewellyn.
In the caption, David John states that Falloon has a bright future and is a fine technician. As a Liverpudlian, David John would have been interested to learn that Falloon went on to play with the Liverpool band Rockin’ Horse.
David John taught with a Hofner Senator, the guitar which he is holding in the photograph. The instrument is now in the possession of a living relative.
The wider musician
That David John played Beethoven to one of his students is indicative of a musician with a broadly based interest in the art. Professionally, he taught the 5-string banjo, the plectrum banjo, the tenor banjo, the modern steel-strung guitar and the classical guitar. As mentioned earlier, he also taught his son Bernard and his surviving son the Hawaiian guitar and the mandolin respectively. A photograph of David John published in BMG is interesting too. In what appears to be a domestic setting, David John is pictured seated at, but with his back to, a piano with a mandolin balanced on top of it. The mandolin is very probably the instrument he left to the surviving son. The piano is presumably David John’s too, which suggests that his mastery over a wide range of fretted instruments extended to the keyboard too.
A family life tinged with sadness
An insight offered by the pupil to whom David John had played Beethoven throws David John’s material circumstances into sharp contrast with his musical prowess. The pupil describes David John as “living on his own in a crummy flat in a poor part of Coventry”. By the Fifties, of course, David John had separated from both Ethel and Gladys. By the time David John himself died, he had lost two of his sons, Wilfred and Oliver.
The final months
At the end of 1960 or the beginning of 1961, David John moved to London to live with his son, Jack. He had been suffering from lung cancer for a long time and no doubt moved so that Jack could look after him during his final days. Jack was in that period living at 44 Waverley Avenue, Wembley. On 30th January 1961, in the Central Middlesex Hospital, David John died from carcinoma of the bronchus. He was 72.
In addition to being a talented practitioner, David John had been a fine teacher. Long after his death, many a guitar will have resonated to his memory at the fingers of one of his pupils – and none more so than the guitar of his early pupil Jack Llewellyn.