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Ernest Wilson Papers

Date range: 1932-1984

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Born in 1899 and brought up in Heaton Street, Higher Broughton Ernest Wilson had piano lessons as a child but was largely a self-taught musician, learning to play by ear, using books from the library to develop composition skills. By the age of 15 he was dance class pianist at Manchester’s Finnigans Ballroom in nearby Cheetham Hill. Moving to London in the depression of the 1920s when jobs were scarce Wilson sought employment in the Tin Pan Alley of Soho’s Denmark Street, the base of many British music publishers, looking for engagements with orchestras playing dance music in the capital’s numerous hotels, ballrooms and nightspots. His first work was as pianist with Jan Ralfini and his Band, in the early 1930s Wilson playing with the Bert Ambrose Blue Lyers at the Dorchester and Embassy hotels, the ‘Famous Ambrose’ reputedly paid a then enormous yearly sum of £10,000 for concerts, his orchestra also a regular on national radio.

Wilson also accompanied violinist Oscar Grasso for engagements at the Tricity Restaurant in The Strand and recorded with Arthur Lally, the Durium Dance Band and on three records with swing band The Jackdauz with Miff Ferrie (real name George Frederick Ferrie). Wilson played with many of the leading ensembles of the time including Joe Loss, Maurice Winnick and by the late Thirties he was one of two pianists in the well-known Victor Silvester Orchestra. With Silvester he regularly appeared on the wireless and at some of the most prestigious London venues including the Hammersmith Palais and the Astoria and he was in the recording studio on an almost monthly basis where he also began to contribute his composition skills. According to the Radio Times alongside numerous broadcasts with the Blue Lyers and Silvester he also appeared regularly accompanying other musicians and singers.

Wilson has numerous co-writing credits with Silvester including Goodnight Waltz (1949), Marianne (1949), El Conquistador (1953) and the very popular dance tune The Golden Tango (1954) arranging the Samba Voila Voila recorded by Edmundo Ross in 1951, Wilson later recalling that he composed about 350 dance tunes, mostly tangos. He developed a reputation as the best sight reader in the business with the ability to quickly pick-up and interpret a tune.

Alongside dance tunes he composed several light operas, musicals and symphonies including King Charles the First, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam and Postings, about the war contribution of Polish fighter pilots. He was part of Silvester’s band until the 1960s when its appearances on the ballroom show Come Dancing increased its fame but Wilson wanted to make his own mark out of the shadow of large orchestras. An unusual move for that time he created his own Silver Dollar label in the early 1960s producing his own music and putting out several popular EPs and albums. Later in the 1960s Wilson accompanied famous comedians playing summer season shows including Arthur Askey, Dicky Henderson, Beryl Reid and the impressionist Mike Yarwood, playing at the upmarket Gleneagles Hotel in the winter. Wilson worked as solo pianist and musical arranger for concert violinist and orchestra leader Sidney Sax performing on his weekly BBC radio broadcasts, Sax probably best known as co-founder of the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

The collection includes printed, handwritten and annotated musical manuscripts, photographs, vinyl albums with recordings of Wilson’s work and a few items of correspondence.

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Partly uncatalogued.

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