A show that tells the stories behind wartime songs comes to the North East this week. Karen Wilson hears memories of the entertainment that kept them going in troubled times
LIKE many in the forces Jack O’Hagan from Gosforth, Newcastle, was separated from his sweetheart Betty during the war, but one special song helped them through it.
While Betty was based in Dumfries with the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), Jack could be anywhere in the world singing in the ship’s band The Blue Rockets. But when he sang Goodnight Wherever You Are it was Betty he was thinking of.
The pair married during the war, after hitting it off aged 19 at The Denton Ballroom. They had four children and were together for 57 years, until Betty died 14 years ago.
“Betty used to love that song,” says Jack, now 90. “I don’t play it very often now, just when I’m feeling very sentimental and I’m missing her a lot.”
Born in Felling, Gateshead, Jack was one of 10 children, but he stood out by winning most of the local singing competitions from the age of 12, and became known as “the golden-voiced boy soprano”.
Joining the Navy in 1942, aged 19, Jack performed at every port they stopped in from Gibraltar and South Africa to India and The Philippines. As well as Army and air force dances, he played on the ship’s flight deck and also indulged in a spot of moonlighting at nightclubs and restaurants.
“I was earning so much money that the ship’s captain said I’d have to change my name, as I was under contract to the Navy and any money should go to them,” says Jack, who quickly created the stage name Eddie Lyle, inspired by a bag of sugar!
“I remember singing Whispering Grass in Sydney and getting paid 19 guineas for three minutes’ work. I was earning more than my dad was working a 40-hour week on the railroads. There were 2,000 on the carrier and I think I loaned every one of them money!”
Jack’s shipmates got their money’s worth too. During shore leave in London, they secretly entered him in a singing competition at the local cinema, where he won 30 shillings. “We toured the pubs afterwards and I was left with one penny!,” he laughs.
In times of peril, music was a welcome distraction. Jack remembers fearing for his life when their 22,000- tonne aircraft carrier HMS Unicorn was dive-bombed by German aircraft. They weren’t hit but a near-miss 200 yards away rocked and shook the ship to its core.
“The terrible thing was, if anything like that happened they would batten the hatches and there was no way anyone could get out,” he says.
Jack’s singing, reminiscent of Matt Monroe and Frank Sinatra, also boosted morale among civilians. “In London everyone used the Tube as air raid shelters and wherever I went the lads would say ‘go on Jack sing a couple of songs for us’ which seemed to go down really well,” he remembers.
One night well-known American film star Eddie Cantor, who sang the song Makin’ Whoopee, came onboard the ship and was blown away by the ship’s band.
“He said it was marvellous for the times,” says Jack, who performed for many other famous faces over the years including Stewart Grainger, Carrol Levis and Michael Wilding, who was married to Liz Taylor.
After the war, Jack sang at a revue with Max Wall and at the Milroy Club in London, which was popular with the likes of Ivor Novello and Noel Coward. Although he loved singing ballads like Begin the Beguine and The Song of You, Jack soon started to detest the much requested Night and Day.
He explains: “Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent, used to come in and her favourite song was Night and Day. She wanted me to sing it every time she came in, but she did always leave me a bottle of whisky!”