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A wonderful career


A wonderful career
John Altman - Remembering Woolf Phillips
The bizarre story

Photo by Baron (used with permission)

Immaculate—that’s the Woolf Phillips Orchestra. Presentation, technique, swing, relaxation, ensemble playing, section work, musical subtleties, dynamics were all immaculate. Of course, the acoustics of Manchester’s Free Trade Hall are perfect for an orchestra of this size. There was a beautifully integrated sound about this 19-piece orchestra. All the boys are soloists in their own right. It’s a pity Mr. Phillips doesn’t bring this group to Manchester more often, for here is one Woolf I wouldn’t keep away from my door. Alan Stevens

Woolf Phillips now lives the life of a gentleman—way way out in the San Fernando Valley where it’s bloody hot. But when Milton Berle and Donald O’Connor play Las Vegas Woolfie always goes to conduct for them—recording work and broadcasting. Howard Lucraft

The Skyrockets, however, became the super pit band of the London Palladium, directed first by Paul Fenhoulet and later by Woolf Phillips. This was the band which, in 1949, accompanied Benny Goodman for his first ever performances in Britain and surprised the maestro by its enormously high standard of efficiency and understanding of the jazz idiom. Three of the regular members were Les Lambert, Reg Sergeant (Drums) and Pat Dodd (Piano). For broadcasts they augmented with Laddy Busby, and Woolf Phillips (Trombones), or any other musician that became available. For instance, they sometimes used George Fierstone on drums, who had been medically rejected for the Services. They dressed him up in a Corporal’s uniform when no one was looking. “You’re damn lucky” they told him, “you’ve got more stripes than anyone!” Tony Harrison

It is very difficult to summarise all of Woolf's wonderful career. It began with his working as an arranger/writer with several music publishers. It continued with his playing trombone and arranging in many British Big Bands.

During WW2, he served as a trombone soloist and conductor with an Army orchestra. Subsequently, he worked with the Ted Heath orchestra before forming his own band for an extended engagement at the famed London Palladium. He has appeared with more artists and stars than we can mention here, including Tony Martin, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Judy Garland, Donald O'Connor, Danny Thomas, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Sammy Davis, Jr, and a host of others. He has conducted Six Royal Command Performances before the Queen and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. In addition to performing on Radio and Television, he has conducted orchestras in all genres of music from Symphonies to Jazz. He is the Artistic and Music Director for the Camarillo Symphony Orchestra. He has even written advertising jingles for radio and TV.

Woolf comes from a musical family of 4 brothers, Ralph, Harry, Sid, and himself. He started studying the piano when he was just 5 or 6 years old. When he was 14, he began to study the trombone under Tony Thorpe, one of the Ambrose Orchestra's trombone trio (the others were Lew Davis and Ted Heath).

As a child, he attended the MileEnd Central Foundation School and became their best Cricketer. (His older brother Sid, would take him to lessons at Aubrey Faulkner's Cricket School and, they both have remained life-long Cricket enthusiasts. In 1934, Woolf played Cricket with Harry Roy, and they became good friends.) When he was only 13, Woolf had his first "professional" job when he, and his brothers Ralph and Harry played in a band for a one-night engagement in the Ballroom at Lord Rothchild's mansion. (Woolf played Tenor Sax.)

It is probably correct to say that Woolf's career started when he worked as a writer/arranger in both the Lawrence Wright and Campbell Connelly Music Publishing companies. After that, at age 16, he got his first orchestral job, as trombonist, with the Teddy Joyce Juvenile band, touring theatres and cinemas throughout England Woolf left Joyce and joined the Ambrose Orchestra, then called the "Ambrose Orchestra conducted by Evelyn Dall". Evelyn, a blond bombshell was fronting the band. Ambrose stayed in the wings and didn't appear on stage. After that particular tour of Moss Empires, he again worked with Ambrose at the Cafe de Paris, just before war broke out, again near the end of the war, and at Ciro's, after war ended.

It should be noted that as a writer/arranger, Woolf invariably conducted at rehearsals, with such people as Joe Loss (1935), Harry Roy (1941-'43) —leading the band through more than one complete broadcast while Harry did the vocals— Ted Heath ('42-'45), Ambrose (1945), and Geraldo ('45-'46). He joined Geraldo as an arranger. Wally Stott, Bob Farnon and Woolf were the band's arrangers. Woolf has written that there was a program called Romance and Rhythm, with a choir and a big orchestra (Geraldo's). One night their guest was to be Irving Berlin.
       "I did a big thing for that, and this particular night they had Irving Berlin as the
       guest, which was marvelous. I started writing on the Monday and by Thursday I couldn't
       see straight! I had done about 268 pages of score with the choir, singers and so on,
       and, at the end of it, Irving Berlin came over to me and he said, "I must Congratulate you
       Sir". He called me Sir - thank you - I was 25!"

In 1936, Woolf joined Joe Loss at the Astoria, on Charing Cross Road. Also in the band were Harry Letham and Joe Cordell (t'bone). Woolf later recalled that he "liked Joe Loss immensely - a very nice man." It was a 'seven-day-a-week' job at the Astoria, and the band played all the time for dancing.

In 1937, Woolf left Joe Loss' Band, and was playing with the Jack Hylton band, along with such men as Les Gilbert, Billy Ternent, Wilbur Hall (who had been with Paul Whiteman's band), Bruce Campbell (t'bone), Jimmie Reynolds (a Canadian, Trumpet), Jack Bentley, Stan Roderick, and Sid Millward (lead alto). Hylton and many of his bandsmen were also avid cricketers. The band was touring all the big theatres, working on the Rinso Radio Revue, and other broadcasts, as well as recording for HMV. While Woolf was with Hylton, the band was seen on the very first Television show from Alexandra Palace.

With the start of WWII, he was called up on November 1st, 1939, and remained with the Services for 6 years. When the Royal Army Medical Corps saw Jack Hylton's name on his papers, they sent him to the band quarters at Church Crookham, - where he was tested on Tommy Dorsey's "Song of India". (The band was under the baton of Bandmaster Harry Johnson, another trombonist.) In 1945, after serving in Africa and the Middle East, he became Musical Director of the Band of the RAMC (As Bandsman -Private- Phillips, W.) for its tour of Holland, Belgium and Germany. In private correspondence, Woolf has recalled that the band excelled as a Concert Orchestra. They built up an excellent show which gave much joy to the troops in the United Kingdom, Middle East, Persia and Iraq Commands, and later in Holland, Belgium and Germany. At one time, they recorded background music for Pathe News, and several times played under the Baton of the famous bandleader George Melachrino; then the Conductor of the Allied Expeditionary Forces British Band.

On leave from the RAMC band, he played with his brother Sid's Quintet at 'Le Suivi', recorded with Sid for Decca ("Darktown Strutter's Ball"), and later was in Sid's band for a concert at Alma Theatre in Luton (where they played Sid's own composition "Amoresque"). In 1942-'43, Harry Roy asked Woolf to do an arrangement of "Brazil", and subsequently Woolf did most of Harry Roy's arrangements (sent on to him from various Military Establishments). Whenever Woolf was home on leave, he would either play with Harry Roy's Band at the Milroy night club, or Le Suivi with his brother Sid's band. Sid was a Corporal before he received his commission as an Intelligence Officer.

In private correspondence, Woolf has recalled that on one particular night, playing with Sid Phillips at Le Suivi, with Leslie "Jiver" Hutchinson on trumpet, York de Sousa on piano, Woolf on trombone, and Max Abrahams on the drums, actor Robert Newton was lying drunk on the stand. They were all in civilian clothes when Air Chief Marshal Sir William Sholto danced by with his escort. The Air Chief asked "Hello Sid, is everything fine?". Sid replied "Yes sir, thank you very much." So, they now knew that Air Chief Sholto Douglas was yet another Sid Phillips fan.

After the war ended, Woolf played with the Ambrose Orchestra at Ciro's, and wrote many of their arrangements. (Ambrose was instrumental in getting Woolf an extended leave from the Army so that he could score for the Ambrose and Ann Shelton radio program.)

From Nov. 1947 to Sept. 1949, Woolf led the famous Skyrockets orchestra on broadcasts and on HMV recordings. In addition, Woolf led his own orchestra at London's Palladium from Nov. 1947 to Sept. 1953. In July 1949, the bill at the Palladium was comprised of the Benny Goodman Sextet, and the Skyrockets Orchestra, directed by Woolf Phillips. The band included alto-saxophonist Johnny Dankworth, and guest trumpeter Kenny Baker. And, during August 19 to Sept. 24, 1949, the original Ink Spots, appeared at the London Palladium, along with the Woolf Phillips' Orch. Also on the Bill were Borah Minevitch's Harmonica Rascals, and others.

From 1952 to 1960, Woolf's own orchestra was part of the glitzy night life of London's West End. From 1953 - '60, he replaced Lew Stone's orchestra at the Pigalle Theatre Restaurant. (Probably the last big band to play resident in a lavish West End nighterie.)

Woolf became quite involved with both the ITV and the BBC, working with such stars as Terry Thomas, Joan Regan, Kay Starr, Vera Lynn, Jack Buchanan, Al Read, Michael Miles, and others. Woolf's own orchestra was featured in the Paris In Piccadilly production; supported Cecily Courtneidge in her show; and also substituted, on many shows, for all BBC staff orchestras during their holidays.

During all this time, Woolf was also scoring music for various Palladium shows, composing various orchestra works, and light pieces such as "Cocktails in Bermuda", and even got a chance to host the daily radio show, "Housewives Choice". He composed the theme music for the English version of the popular TV show What's My Line. It must also be noted that for the London, England production of Cole Porter's 'The Decline and Fall of the Entire World' the musical direction was by Woolf Phillips (the arrangements by were George Bassman).

Woolf is a vice-president of ASMAAC (American Society of Musicians, Arrangers, and Composers). He currently (2002) remains active and resides in Camarillo, CA, USA, where, he leads the Camarillo Symphony Orchestra, - having drilled them to perfection.

This profile was kindly supplied by Murry Pfeffer at Big Bands Database Plus