'Banjo George' Baron
'Sometimes a name is mentioned on Sandy Brown Jazz that triggers memories for readers. This is the case for George Baron, remembered to everyone as 'Banjo George'. Since 2016 when we first wrote about George readers have added to these memories.
Adrian Baron Robbins, George's son, tells us: "George was born in Coventry in 1906, and his full name was George James Thornhill Robbins. He took to the name 'Baron' as his stage name from his mother, Leah Baron. He married my mother, Phyllis Josephs some time in 1936, and I was born in 1937. They subsequently divorced. He told me that my grandmother celebrated her eightieth birthday playing banjo in a pub in North Road Brighton. He also told me that he made most of his money playing poker."
Jimmy Thomson wrote: "George Baron played banjo in a group known as Andy's Southern Serenaders (directed by Harry Leader) who made some records for Parlophone in 1935. Apart from being fondly remembered, there does not seem to be much information around about George - does anyone else remember him? I sat in with him and Eggy Ley at Tattie Bogle Club in 60s - see the photo below. Banjo George had a connection with early dance bands, and singer, Lois Lane.
[Ed: There is nothing I can find online about Harry Leader and Andy's Souther Serenaders although articles do suggest that Harry Leader recorded under a number of pseudonyms. If anyone has any further information about the recordings Jimmy Thomson mentions, please let us know.]
In 2016 Mike Walmsley wrote: "The photo of George at the Tatty Bogle brings back many happy memories for me, (incidentally, in the photo above, it is Eggy Ley just on his shoulder with the clarinet or his usual soprano sax), the other gent I do not recognise. I was introduced to the "Tatty" by the late Les Muscutt. We used to go there with our guitars late on a Friday or Saturday night. Anyone could sit in as long as it was acoustic. One of the regulars who taught me a lot about rhythm guitar was Neville Skrimshire. Another was the mystical character Alan Leat, a generous sort of gent who hired some top level players to 'jam' at a pub in Chelsea on a Thursday night, I remember playing there with Lennie Felix and Dave Shepherd at times. Other sitters in that I remember included an Italian gent who taught guitar at Guildhall (?) and my favourite 'trad' guitarist/banjo Tony Pitt. On a good night even the sitters in received a token payment!"
"One must mention "The Moose", with the hook in his nose and the ring on a string that you had to attempt to catch on the hook. I believe the Tatty is still there and you still have to go in the top of Kingly Court and find the door under the fire escape. George was an unforgettable character, very generous, full of enthusiasm and knowledge. He emigrated to Sydney, Australia and in 1976 when I had the good fortune to make a record with Graeme Bell who was visiting Toronto, I asked if he knew of George, (now well into his 80's) and he told me he was playing in a Sydney pub and that they fetched and delivered him by taxi. Those were the days."
"I have many fond memories of George, learning and understanding chord sequences playing with him at "The Tatty Bogle" along with Eggy Ley, Neville Skrimshire and Les Muscutt. Just after I qualified I was a Houseman at St George's Hyde Park Corner and George called on a Saturday morning asking if I was free? As it happened, I was. He asked me to meet him at a tube station in the West End with my guitar. I did so and he said we were going to a house nearby, the occupants of which were at the church, where their daughter was getting married. We arrived before they returned, but George spoke to the man in charge of catering to guarantee a supply of beer and smoked salmon and we sat in a room until returning party noises were heard. George then said: "Start playing some melody" and to my surprise the parents of one of the parties came in greeting George like a long lost friend and requesting various tunes from the '30s - '40s which we played. Out came the fivers and we left several hours later considerably 'better off'. I think my share was the equivalent of 2 months NHS House Officer stipend (we got 1 pound a day then!). Apparently George used to serenade the parents before WW2, and they obviously remembered him. Many times we used to gatecrash parties with George after a night at the Tatty and were always welcomed by people who knew George. Happy days, now long gone, as someone said our kind of music has an audience of senior citizens and their parents."
(Ed: The Tatty Bogle was a private club in a Kingly Court basement. It was opened in 1917 in Frith Street in London's Soho by a group of Scottish officers (A Tatty Bogle /Tattie Bogle is a Scottish name for a Scarecrow). It then moved to Kingly Court and opened as an out-of-hours drinking club. It was used as a bomb shelter during World War II and the wartime membership book contains names such as Burgess, Maclean, Anthony Blunt and Buster Crabbe. In this short video, the late clarinettist and bandleader Dick Laurie and Frances McKevitt, who ran a club night at Tatty Bogle in the 1990s, describes the club as it was (the remainder of the video is of Frances singing a song about someone she met at the club.)
Jimmy Thomson was correct in saying that George worked with early dance bands and singer Lois Lane. Lois wrote to us in 2020 saying: "'I've just discovered your website and thought I'd get in touch. I used to play guitar with George at the Tatty when I was about 16 years old. My Mum and Dad used to come with me and my Dad would sometimes play his 4string Macaferie. I started work in a local Estate Agents as a secretary and in the evening played rhythm guitar at a club in Soho London called ‘The Tatty Bogle’. It was frequented by doctors, lawyers, journalists and, folk and trad-jazz musicians. 'I accompanied a great character called Banjo George, who could play anything from ‘When the Saints go Marching In’ to ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. Jimmie MacGregor (who with Robin Hall recorded ‘Football Crazy), Steve Benbow (well known folk singer) and Tony Pitt (later played in The Alex Welch Band), were my predecessors. Jack Hutton, editor of The Melody Maker brought his trumpet, Paddy Fleming, PR man for Phillips Records, brought his snare drum and many others brought bongo drums, trombones and DJ Ed Stewart once struggled down the basement stairs with his double bass, not forgetting my Dad with his tenor guitar. Quite a jam session!' Lois sent us this picture:
Peter Maguire added in 2016: "During my early days in London I would see George dropping in with banjo at various Soho hangouts. One particular favourite performance space - for George every appearance was a potential performance - was The Gyre and Gimble Coffee House, a basement in Adams Street. This was a well known place for musicians various to meet, perform, and jam in a range of styles. Folk guitarist Davey Graham, Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart, Tommy Steele, Wiz Jones, and many more. George had a well developed sense of his own importance and expected and received rapt attention. He would commence with a tune or two and then having set an atmosphere, would perform his rendition of the rhapsodic movement of George Gershwin's - Rhapsody in Blue. One might tend to disbelieve - the instrument being a banjo - but he produced a sensitive - even plaintive - rendering of this well known melody. Having had his moment and due acclimation he would pack up the banjo and depart off into the night. I did, in fact, try to see on Google if there was any mention of - presumably long since departed - Banjo George. Nothing so far as I could see - George Formby Banjo - displaying endless pages of links and information. Sometimes I do wonder if the sense - London in the Sixties - of living in a village community has its contemporary equivalent."
In 2022 Miles Fenton in Canada added: "'I knew and played with George at the Tatty Bogle many times, me on left handed guitar. Not only did I play left handed but left the strings right handed so I could play others' guitars as well if needed. Still do. I even put George up on my sofa in my digs behind the Strand Palace Hotel, a narrow street where Covent Garden fruit suppliers used to unload crates down a chute from midnight to dawn. George was a very pleasant man, easy to get along with. Great player. He once played the Rhapsody In Blue in my bed-sit and the lady of the night down the hall banged on my door, not to shut him up but to come and listen. Scruffy digs, over an Indian restaurant too, so the smells were mostly delightful. We often played at the Tatty Bogle and he and I played well together although to this day I still don’t read music; it was all by ear in those days if you wanted to casually play around Soho back then. Played mostly at Chiquitos and the Fishmongers Arms in Wood Green, all a very long time ago. Used to play after hours at the A and A coffee bar upstairs somewhere near St. Giles area. This was a late night drop-in for players after their gigs. Julian Bream dropped in occasionally to play a bit of gypsy or standards “just to get his head straight” after a concert.' I well remember the Tatty Bogle as I used to hang out there when not playing. Had many challenges with getting the ring on the moose’s nose hook. I also knew Neville Scrimshire and I played with Diz Disley many times. Did a bit of sketching for Emile Grimshaw on the design of his GSS short scale line of guitars but I gave it all up to become an Industrial Designer which I did until I retired in Canada. I still play piano and guitar every day, keeping the standards alive - mostly keyboard with a slant toward Shearing, Peterson and Bill Evans for inspiration.'
Maureen Connolly sent us this picture of 'Banjo George' saying the picture was taken in around 1957/58, with George playing my husband's (David Snell) Clifford Essex banjo."
Ian Simms wrote to us: "Here's an interesting snippet about Banjo George: he went off to Russia "just to have a look at it" (his words) and came back with a pretty little folk tune. Kenny Ball heard it, George said he could have it if he liked, and Kenny turned it into a No. 1 hit with Midnight In Moscow! Gerard Bielderman in the Netherlands wondered about this:
"Just read the short story of Banjo George about Midnight in Moscow. I strongly doubt if it is true. Kenny Ball recorded the tune in September 1961 but there was already a Trad version on the market (Storyville A45042), played by the Dutch New Orleans Syncopators and recorded on January 4, 1961. I've always thought that Kenny heard it and saw the hit potential." Ian Simms replied: "I had the origins of Kenny Ball's hit told to me by Banjo George himself and there is no reason to doubt him."
[Ed: We looked into this and in fact the origins of the tune go back to the 1950s. You can read more about it here.]
In 2023, Sheila Oxland came across this page and wrote: "I met George in the '70s at the Tatty Bogle. He was brilliant, he also played at a couple of private parties, happy days. My husband and friends also new his Mum and his sister, great jazz players. I know he went to Australia in the late '60s early '70s - he was greatly missed. Loved the irascible old fellow, quite a character."
[Ed: If anyone would like to add more information or memories about Banjo George please let us know].