And the band played on
As the bombs rained down on London during the Second World War, the music kept playing, thanks in no small part to musicians like Kathy Stobart
By Carey Green
The Embassy Club in Old Bond Street was one of the top nightclubs in London during the 1930s and 1940s. Before the Second World War broke out, it was the kind of place that used to keep an empty table permanently set for the Prince of Wales. During the war it became a favourite haunt not only for London's swinging elite but for officers of the massed allied forces, including Clarke Gable and Major Glen Miller and visiting Hollywood film stars and entertainers such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
Between 1943 and 1945, Kathy Stobart was one of the resident saxophonists at the Embassy playing in her first husband, Art Thompson's Big Band. But it was only after some difficulties that Art had persuaded the club to take her on. "They were less worried by my age - I was just 17-years-old - than the fact that I played the saxophone," Kathy explains.
"In those days, pretty women would sing, but they were definitely not taken seriously as jazz musicians. In fact, our singer Lita Roza (who would later become one of Ted Heath's singers) was a beautiful and voluptuous girl, even younger than me, whose femininity was very much on show, not only by way of her plunging necklines."
Eventually a deal was struck: Kathy could join the all-male band on condition that she dressed like them. Art went out and bought her a black tuxedo, white shirt and black tie. As a concession, Kathy was allowed to wear a skirt instead of trousers.
Kathy had come to London in October 1942 from her hometown of South Shields. She had been playing the saxophone since she was 14, touring the country with Don Rico's Ladies Swing Band, when the opportunity of a job at a ballroom in Ealing brought her to the capital at a time when most people were leaving it. "Fortunately, working at the Embassy Club from 11.15pm to 3.50am meant that we missed out on all those long, cold nights sleeping in tube stations," remembers Kathy.
Working in the heart of London's West End during the height of war had its drawbacks of course. The Embassy was one of the few jazz clubs that was built above ground, making it particularly susceptible to air raids. "We soon got used to them though, and carried on playing regardless! My position on stage was in the bow of Art's grand piano and, during particularly heavy bombing, I remember him saying to me 'Right Kath, if it comes too close, when I give the word get under the piano'."
Arriving home at their little flat in Ealing just before dawn, Art and Kathy would watch the buzz bombs landing from their balcony. One night they got home to discover that a bomb had landed just 20 yards from their road. "The force had blasted out all the doors and windows in the street, and I was heart-broken to discover that the cupboard door had blown off in my kitchen and deposited my prized possessions - my tea, sugar, flour and raisin rations - all over the floor."
While all the regulars at the Embassy were friendly to the youngest and only female member of the band, only Art was permitted to fraternise with the customers. "But nearly everyone would shout 'Hi Kath' to me when they arrived. The American officers would tell me jokes but I was so shy I just smiled sweetly back."
Two of the regular lady customers included Mrs Anthony Eden (wife of Winston Churchill's foreign minister who would go on to become Prime Minister) and Lady Mary Mountbatten, Lord Louis' sister. There was always a huge contingent of American and Canadian officers in. "I particularly remember the special wing of Americans who, before America had joined the war, went to Canada and joined the Canadian Air Force. Instead of the usual American brown uniforms, they wore the distinctive Air Force blue but with their own special US stripe."
There were usually several famous fighter pilots and bomber crews in. "Occasionally I used to sing and one particular US crew always asked me to sing a song called 'Shoo Shoo Baby'. They were just waiting to receive their new Dakota and asked me if they could name it the 'Shoo Shoo Baby' and paint a blond-haired lady saxophone player on the side. They sent me a photograph of the plane after they had done it."
Some of the very last people to leave the club were the aircrews and the 'Flare Path Charlies' - the brave men whose job it was to illuminate the way for the bombers. "They always sat in the balcony seats which were up behind the band. Sometimes when they'd had too much to drink, they'd stand on the rail and jump over the band onto the dance floor. The headwaiter called them 'naughty boys' and threatened to ban them, but of course he never did.
"Perhaps the saddest part of working at the Embassy was getting to know some of those boys and then being told that they wouldn't be coming back. Who could blame them for having a bit of fun while they could?"
From her privileged position on stage, Kathy remembers witnessing one of the most amusing spectacles - watching the ladies when a handsome star arrived. Clarke Gable, although a shy man, had the most severe affect of all. "I would watch in amazement as certain women would slowly but surely work themselves nearer to him by changing seats until they were close enough to start a conversation. It was the same with Major Glen Miller, who only ever came in with a male colleague. I can still picture him just before closing time on the night before he disappeared, sitting on stage chatting to Art."
[Note: See Alan Platter article for further on above...]
Other famous regulars included David Niven, along with his first wife, and Rex Harrison, who was then married to the beautiful Austrian actress, Lily Palmer. Entertainers from the United States Organisation (USO), which was responsible for bringing Hollywood stars to Europe to entertain the troops, made up some of the most famous Embassy Club customers: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jerry Calona, Francis Langford, The Andrews Sisters, Dana Andrews and many more.
"Working at the Embassy Club during the war years was without doubt a unique and exciting period in my 70+ year-long career!"