Featuring William Gordon Masters, later known as Gordon Stretton, born 1887 died 1982
In an earlier Then and Now shot, a young boy was sitting on the edge of Steble Fountain in 1895, barefooted and I had heard that he eventually went on to some fame in the music industry, I have since read more about him, and found a later photograph of him. 13 years after sitting barefoot on the fountain, he was dressed in a fine suit to perform with a Jamaican choir for the annual Colonial Exhibition at the hall, just 100 yards or so from the fountain.
A great rags to riches story.
The forgotten entertainer; He was acclaimed in London, Paris, Buenos Aires and New York, but few people in Liverpool have heard of the city’s first black superstar.
THE little, barefoot boy walked alone along the dockland streets whistling the tunes that came so easily to him, while the big ships sailed into port bringing in strange cargoes and sailors from distant lands.
Down there by the river, was the only place he saw other people with black faces like his, though at the time it was fashionable for certain white entertainers to rub charcoal into their skin and pull on altar-white gloves, before singing the songs of the folk who had worked the plantations in Dixieland.
But the time would come when that boy, raised in abject poverty in a predominantly white area of Liverpool, would see his own name on billboards and hear great jazz bands play his tunes and then, with applause still echoing in the hall, he would share jokes with the man born to be the next King of England.
Respectful people would stand-up when he walked into restaurants in Paris and he was the toast of Buenos Aires
at a time when Argentina’s economy was rolling and the country hosted gatherings of the rich, famous and glamorous. It was there, at a polo meeting, that he saw the Prince of Wales again.
Of course, at the time of their earlier meetings in London, the Prince had been little more than a boy. Later, he would be Edward VIII
, the gadabout king, whose unyielding desire to marry Wallis Simpson led to his abdication.
But back in Liverpool, William Masters
, who performed and composed under the name of Gordon Stretton, was almost forgotten.
Now, with all this talk of the city’s past being celebrated, the time has come to honour this fine entertainer, born in Eldon Place, off Scotland Road
That certainly is the opinion of Jeff Daniels
, who would love nothing better than to see Stretton’s name in lights again in time for the 2008 European Capital of Culture.
This story began in the 1880s when William Gordon
Masters, a Jamaican sailor, was in Liverpool, where he met Ann Jane Williams, an Irish girl who had settled in the city.
The couple fell in love, married and had sons. One was also called William Gordon Masters, born on June 5, 1887. He became the entertainer.
But before speaking of him, Jeff outlines the family’s development.
William had two brothers, James and Henry. Henry married Helen Clements and they had five girls, the fourth of whom was Veronica. She married Clyde Daniels, a seaman who served with the Merchant Navy in World War II.
One of their five sons was Jeff, a chef, who qualified at the catering college in Colquitt Street, Liverpool.
Now he is relaxing in an armchair at his home in the city’s Aigburth district, listening to one of his great uncle’s recordings.
William lost both parents as a child. Anne had cancer and her husband was killed in a steamship accident.
The boy was brought up by one of Ann’s brothers in a musical home.
Although he had attended school and could read and write, William joined the urchins of the streets, a vast cast of children, who danced and sang, shone shoes, looked sweet, strummed instruments, sold trinkets, chalked pictures on pavements, recited poems and did almost anything to earn a few coins tossed in their direction by the grand ladies and gentlemen from "the quality".
It was a hazardous living and, coughing in the shadows, the ragamuffins, often cold and desperately hungry, drifted from pitch to pitch in constant fear of being arrested for begging, a sure entry into the poor-house.
Anyway, William split his time between selling newspapers and entertaining. It was then that his potential was noted and he was drafted into an act called the Five Boys, who toured the local theatres and halls. This was security.
Then came one of those strokes of luck which can change everything. He was sitting in the wings of the Haymarket Theatre, Liverpool, when he was recognised by a performer, who invited him down to sing a song.
William chose the Honeysuckle and the Bee. The audience loved the idea of this little black boy singing the mildly suggestive song. News of the performance spread to William Jackson
, an impresario, who ran a troupe called the Lancashire Lads, which also featured Charlie Chaplin, born two years after William.
With the clog-dancing and singing, the children also played the bones (which in a more sophisticated age would be replaced by the spoons).
By this time, William had mastered a variety of instruments. He toured Britain at least once with the lads, before having a spell with an all-black choir.
Adopting the stage name of Gordon Stretton, he began appearing in music-halls and jazz clubs, such as the Rectors of London and Paris, and the Grafton Galleries, London.
Stretton was successful enough to have his own company of dancers and they all starred in a production of the West End hit Chu Chin Chow.
He played in several jazz bands as a drummer, including that of William "Billy" Dorsey’s from the USA. They had come to Britain to present two shows Dusky Revels and Darktown Jingles. He led the band when Dorsey fell ill, but Stretton continued to work in the music-halls, until 1915 when he enlisted in the Army for World War I.
He was badly wounded at Amiens and in hospital met Molly Smith, an Irish nurse. They married.
Stretton’s brothers also served on the Western Front. James was killed on the Somme. Henry was wounded and had to be invalided out of the Army.
Much of this information would have been lost if Jeff had not searched websites, contacted old jazzmen and read about the showbiz scene of the time.
Despite these successes in music halls and jazz clubs, Stretton was still a black man in a white society. He would, however, find greater success in Paris, where there was a love of jazz and racial barriers were less evident.
There, he met the legendary Josephine Baker, who was starring in La Revue Negre. Stretton performed in her shows and helped with the choreography.
He recorded jazz music for Pathe and featured in shows all over France during the 1920s, crossing the Atlantic to the USA from time to time. In 1921, his Syncopated Jazz Band were recorded in New York
on the Actuelle label playing the Satanic Blues and Lucky Dog Blues. Two years later, another of his bands, the Syncopated Six, released a record of his songs. The Who’s Who of British Jazz notes that Stretton also performed in Brussels. Jeff is not sure exactly when Stretton went to Argentina to become one of the country’s leading jazz musicians, acclaimed for his composing as well as his playing.
"But he did something which I find unbelievable," says Jeff, who is married to Lynn and has five children. "He learned to play numerous musical instruments and to speak French and Spanish as well as English. This was a poor boy from the Scotland Road area.
"Later, he played with the greatest tango artists in Argentina like Carlos Gardel, Manlio Francia and Juan Bautista Guido."
July 1929 is revered in jazz circles as the month when three great orchestras, the Gordon Stretton Symphonic Jazz Band, Suipacha Classical Orchestra and the Tfpica Criolla Juan B Guido, all performed at the Cine Teatro, Buenos Aires.
In Argentina, Stretton also toured extensively. Such was his reputation that he was singing at a show in Buenos Aires shortly before his death in 1982.
But what of his friendship with the playboy Prince Edward, who would be king for a short time and then the Duke of Windsor?
"When he put the dancers on at the Rectors and the Grafton Galleries, the prince was one ofthe customers," says Jeff. "They had known each other before that, maybe from the music-hall days. They had familiar names for each other. Gordon used to call Edward David (his first name) and Edward used to call Gordon his old name of Bill. They were buddies." In tape recorded memoirs, Stretton would later wonder at a poor boy keeping the company of a king.
At a welcoming party before polo match at Jack Nelson’s ranch in Argentina, Stretton was seen wearing Edward’s hat and coat. When asked to explain himself, he replied that he was trying to be the Prince of Wales. "I hope you are doing a better job than I am," replied Edward. When he has gathered more background, Jeff is hoping to write the Gordon Stretton Story. His father met the man when he was on a trip to Argentina with the merchant navy. "Dad could hardly believe it when they met in Buenos Aires and Gordon came with a chauffeur, who took him wherever he wanted to go," says Jeff So far, he has found about 25 of Stretton’s songs.
"The thing is that Gordon Stretton has this great international reputation and he is spoken about with great respect in jazz circles. "But hardly anyone has heard about him in Liverpool, where he was born and brought up.
"I would love to see him recognised here before the 2008 European Capital of Culture. After all he was a Liverpudlian writing his own songs long before the Beatles
Star never forgot his origins
GORDON STRETTON never forgot his origins in Liverpool. The words in The Dancers Are Leaving The Ball Room, which he co-wrote, tell us that he had retained a keen sense of reality, even when he was famous. "At the ball where they dances to the strains of a waltz, there is laughter with tears close behind, there are hearts fit to break though the
words are false, there are smiles that just act as a blind, there is age that is his by the powder and paint, there are silks that much poverty cloaks, there are sights that are sad, there are sights that are quaint, there is pain that oft goes with the jokes… many a smile hides a poor breaking heart when the dancers are leaving the ball, when the dancers are leaving the ball
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Tagged: , Liverpool , Old Liverpool , Then and Now , St George’s Hall , William Gordon Masters , Gordon Stretton , 1907 , Rephotography