IN THE LATE 1970S and first half of the ‘80s, the Shirley Western Showband was a well-loved fixture of Worthing’s entertainment scene. Every Thursday night at the Pavilion and Saturday night at the Assembly Hall they’d bring a dose of glamour and big band panache to the town.
Decades later their leader, Shirley Western, became associated with the community charity Guild Care via her husband, ex-Chelsea/Millwall footballer Roy Dew, and she’s recently been the subject of a film biography by director David Allen. Now 83, and still irrepressible, she takes the Time Machine on a rollercoaster ride through her life’s adventures.
Born in Brixton in January 1936, Shirley Dodds came from showbiz stock. Her grandfather, Alf E Dodds, led the hugely popular Dixie Minstrels troupe in the early years of the century, and her parents were both theatrical performers. She grew up in Glasgow after the family moved there on the outbreak of World War II and by the age of seven had earned her first pay packet (7/6!) for an Irish dancing display as the week-long cinema support for the June Haver musical ‘Irish Eyes Are Smiling’.
At 14 she phoned May Moxon, a successful Scottish choreographer-producer, in search of work. With her Grade 5 ballet certificate and an ability to read music, Shirley was persuasive and, after a tea-time meeting accompanied by her disapproving mum, she was offered the part of a fairy with the admonition, “Don’t tell anyone you’re underage or I’ll be in prison”. She continued as a chorus girl around Scotland until she moved to London to try her luck at 18.
For one of her first jobs she was assigned as opening act at the Granville Theatre in Fulham. When she got there, she found she was the only person who kept her clothes on in a show called Nudes Are News (“Nobody wanted to know about me, they wanted the nude women to come on!”). She soon found work gigging around US Army camps and an agent suggested a name change. Thus, when the rock’n’roll era hit, she was performing as Shirley Western and the Rocking Ravers.
In Britain the popularity of big band dances persisted much longer than pop historians credit. Shirley thrived in this world. She toured as a singer with multiple outfits, including Gracie Cole’s All-Star Girls Orchestra, Don Smith and his Orchestra, Dixieland revivalist Freddy Randall, and, the residents at Brighton’s Regent Ballroom, the Syd Dean Band. In 1958, however, she started working the gig circuit with saxophonist Ken Macintosh and his Orchestra. She was to stay with him for 14 years.
She worked alongside the likes of Lonnie Donegan, Frankie Laine, Eartha Kitt and the pre-rock’n’roll balladeer Johnnie Ray (“He was absolutely a party animal – every night! He was exhausting. At the end of the tour he gave all the boys in the band gold watches. Years later he ended up broke. No wonder. He was so generous.”). She became good friends with Marion Ryan, a ‘50s pop star who gave Shirley the dresses she’d only worn once on Granada TV quiz show ‘Spot the Tune’ (at just over five feet tall Shirley had a similar “pocket rocket” figure – she once acted as a film stand-in for Barbara Windsor). She went on a double-date with Cliff Richard and his girlfriend, her showgirl pal Jackie Irving (who later married Adam Faith). She provided a post-car crash Shirley Bassey with a bottle of brandy and they became lifelong friends. But a particular gig stands out. Ken Mackintosh was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and one Christmas they played the Windsor Castle staff party. Shirley takes up the tale…
“We did the first bit of the show and the Queen and Princess Margaret were standing beside the stage clapping their programmes together and laughing like fans. We came off at the interval and there was a wonderful table of food and drink. When I went to go back on, the Queen Mother was standing in front of the stage entrance. What do I do? Curtsey or push past? She turned round and said hello. I curtseyed. She asked me if I sang and whether I toured a lot. I agreed, yes, I did. ‘Lots of travelling, just like we do,’ she said. I replied, laughing, ‘Yes, but you probably stay in better places.’ All the while Ken Mackintosh was glaring at me as I should have been onstage. The Queen Mother talked about my dress and I told her it was specially made as a lot of mine were quite revealing. ‘What songs do you sing?’ she asked. ‘Would you like me to show you?’ I said and on I went. At the next break she sent her equerry round. He said, ‘The Queen Mother enjoyed your singing and looks forward to seeing you again sometime.’ That was it. I was ribbed terribly by the band ever after: ‘Look out, here she comes, the Queen Mother’s mate’.”
Mackintosh’s orchestra was offered a residency when the Empire Ballroom in Leicester Square was renovated and reopened in March 1963. Finally Shirley could take a break from the endless touring. From this period she especially remembers being turfed out of her dressing room prior to the Carl Allen Awards of 1964 so The Beatles could use it.
“I went down to the theatre to get all stuff my stuff out, rails and rails of dresses.” She recalls, “A voice behind me said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘It’s the bloody Beatles, they’re coming tonight and they’ve got my dressing room.’ ‘Oh we can all fit in,’ said Paul McCartney, ‘Put all those dresses back.’ And we did. Three of The Beatles stayed with me but George Harrison stayed upstairs with the musicians. They were very nice, a good laugh.”
However, Shirley’s routine eventually became gruelling; two shows a day, six days a week, as well as recording for the BBC Light Programme (later Radio 2) on Mondays. Eventually she decided to retire to Worthing, which she did in 1973. Except she didn’t retire at all. But that’s another story and you’ll have to wait for Part 2 next month.