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Alexander Hartog, Tenor & Mantle Presser

April 19, 2010
by the gentle author

Clive Murphy put a small acetate on his turntable on Saturday morning and we settled down together to enjoy the crackly recording of Alexander Hartog singing. He had not heard it since 1978 when Clive’s book edited from interviews with Hartog,”Born to Sing,” was published. At first, we could not even get the record to play because it was such a flimsy piece of plastic, but eventually we used sellotape to fix it in place on the turntable and, once we had experimented with the speed, Hartog’s sonorous tones filled Clive’s kitchen.

Alexander Hartog died in 1983 and when Dobson Books (the original publisher) closed down, all the other recordings of Hartog were lost for ever, making this unique recording especially significant. So you will understand that it was powerful moment for Clive, as well as being the ideal opportunity to remember the remarkable life of this gifted singer. “It’s almost as if he were here,” said Clive, when the disc began to play, recalling the original studio recording session.

Clive Murphy moved to Spitalfields in 1973 to search for subjects for his oral history project, living at first in the former headmaster’s study of St Patrick’s School in Buxton St, and dining at Georgina’s Cafe in Brick Lane. “I ate there regularly and there was this very loud talker, always arguing, always debating. So I invited him immediately to do a book. He was frightfully keen, he’d come down Buxton St almost dancing on his way to the interview.” recalled Clive in delight, uplifted by the rich operatic tones of Hartog singing.

Alexander Hartog earned his living pressing clothes in the garment industry, but his being was focussed upon fulfilling his musical talent as a tenor. In “Born to Sing,” he gives an engaging and candid account of growing up in the Jewish community in the nineteen twenties and of his lifelong pursuit of a singing career.

“The feeling I had – and it didn’t go away throughout my youth – was that the Lane (Petticoat Lane) was a carnival. There was a man who sold ointment to cure corns. He didn’t have any corns himself but he’d put some ointment on the side of his hand and say if you wrapped it in a bandage you could peel off the corns like the skin of an onion in the morning. People bought and nobody came back. Another man sold what he said was extract of Spanish fly – ‘Don’t give it to minors! It’ll make them into men and women before they leave school!’ He had – as a come-on – a strong-man with a heap of rubber expander-sets he was forever threatening to pull but never did. I’ve got an idea they were related!

An old Jamaican woman had a birdcage with a canary in it and hundreds of little printed pink strips. She’d ask what month you were born, then tap her stick on the perch and the bird would pick up a pink slip and that was yours for a penny. I found out that I was going to be married three times and have seven children, I want my money back.

A very plausible Welshman with a good speaking voice did a mind-reading act. He bandaged a girl’s eyes and asked her questions about people he pointed to. He pointed to me and asked me did I want to ask her anything. Very quietly I asked him to ask her would I succeed in my ambition. She said, ‘No,’ and that came true.”

In the nineteen thirties, Alexander Hartog took singing lessons five days a week at the Toynbee Hall in Commercial St with Robert Kent Parker who was both an inspiring teacher and an anti-Semite, yet Hartog adopted a philosophical attitude, taking what he needed from these lessons. Conscripted in World War II, he encountered similar prejudice and was discharged for “lack of moral fibre” but never became cynical or discouraged, and it is his resilience and optimistic nature that make his story such a charismatic read.

“I heard Music Hall choruses, popular songs … I was entranced. It was my first taste of Show Business. It was my first Variety Show. I went every night for a whole week! They used to greet me at the door. ‘Hello! That boy’s here again!’ But I had to pay a penny every time! The next show I saw was the last season of the London Music Hall, Shoreditch. My brother Alan took me. I laughed at Max Miller’s jokes though I was only four!

Tonight was my turn to be on a Variety Bill of some importance. And what an evening it was! My voice was at full blast, and they used to say at the Mile End Old Boys’ you could get up off your seat, walk out of the hall, out of the building, across the road and fifty yards down to the bus stop and still hear me. When they stood up to applaud at the Troxy you knew you’d done something. It never seemed to end. They’d to bring on the pop group to quieten everyone down. A stagehand gave me the thumbs-up. He’d heard me from the flies. He said, ‘I always like to hear from the flies. If they’re good they’re good, and if they’re bad they’re terrible, and you were good, kid!’”

I was fascinated by Alexander Hartog’s eye-witness account of the shabby world of the last days of Music Hall and Variety, seen from the sidelines by an affectionate stage-struck enthusiast – a true amateur (in the complimentary sense of that word). His dream of a musical career granted him a sense of artistic possibility and drew the applause of audiences who appreciated his gift. “I have no regrets because, although I didn’t make a success of it, I enjoyed the company, the excitement and the endeavour. Even the disappointments make life interesting.” concluded Hartog, with endearing candour,” There was always hope and something to keep me going over long and sometimes dreary weeks of work. There was always the pleasure of anticipation.”

Thanks to Clive Murphy, Alexander Hartog’s story exists in print for all to read and his voice lives on in this tantalizingly brief recording – both are touching evocations of a robust and generous spirit. ”Born to Sing” was the epitaph upon Hartog’s tombstone at Rainham and, as a firm believer in reincarnation, ever true to his undaunted nature, he ended his book with the wish, “Better luck the next time around!”

“Born to Sing” Clive Murphy’s oral autobiography of Alexander Hartog can bought at Labour and Wait.

One Response leave one →
  1. Joan permalink
    April 20, 2010

    Thank you, yet again. My dad also sung tenor – weddings and family occasions (big Irish gatherings). His repertoire centred on ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen’ (and other songs made famous by Josef Locke and Count John McCormack) and more religious offerings like ‘Panis Angelicus’. When he died we found the rejection letter he had got from ‘Opportunity Knocks’ declaring that they had too many Irish tenors applying to be on the programme. I think singing was one of those things that greatly helped my dad to get through the ‘long littleness of life’.

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