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Lightning Fingers


Billy Mayerl's compositions and mode of playing the piano are in a style that reached its peak in the twenties and thirties, and has long passed into oblivion, so that when Billy died in 1959 it might well have been thought that that was the end of him. Added to that, light music as a category has almost disappeared, its place being usurped by pop, which currently has reached some sort of nadir, at least so far as the musical content is concerned, it being dominated rather by matters of style and image. Even the musical comedy, once a prime supplier of 'melodies the whole world sang', is now mostly a vehicle for spectacle, and it is rare for a number from one of those currently running to reach the hit parade. For music-lovers who don't want an exclusive diet of Beethoven and Bartok on the one hand or Madonna and Take That on the other, salvation will most likely be found in the huge library of recorded music, and sales in this area demonstrate that there is a sizeable market for music not dominated by the disco-dance scene but where melody takes first place. Indeed, as pop drowns in its own excesses, we may hope that the melodic element will eventually achieve greater prominence in live performance as well. Billy Mayerl was the undisputed king of 'modern syncopation', as he called his own particular style.

His heyday was also the heyday as well, alas, as the swan-song of the acoustic piano, and all his most famous as well as his finest pieces were written for this instrument. As sheet music and recordings, they sold in vast quantities. Of course many others were producing the same sort of thing, but besides being one of the two finest pianists, in the lighter style of his era, he was also far and away the finest composer, so good that Walford Davies, for instance, whose radio talks on classical music were a popular feature of the period, could say that his three favourite composers were 'Bach, Beethoven, and Billy Mayerl'. A few years ago there were only two recordings of his music: at the time of writing there are fourteen C.D.s available, with more promised. It is beginning to appear more frequently in concert programmes. There is a flourishing Billy Mayerl Society, which holds regular meetings and publishes a magazine. This revival of interest is well on its way, and it is to meet it that this book has been produced.

As well as a short biography by John Archer, there is a complete catalogue, the work of the American enthusiast and expert on the Novelty idiom and Billy Mayerl in particular, Alex Hassan. First attempts at a full discography and rollography are the work of John Watson, while comments on the music, designed mainly to assist those unfamiliar with the oeuvre, are the work of the Editor. Finally, Alex Hassan, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the field is unsurpassed (as well as his collection of sheet music) contributes an essay on other notable compositions of the period. This is the first book ever to appear on Billy Mayerl, a fact which is not as strange as it might appear, since it has gradually become clear to us that he was a man who, though he was a public figure throughout the whole of his life, nevertheless contrived, very successfully, to keep his private life private so that personal data are scarce. We know of at least one previous attempt to produce a book on him that has been abandoned in frustration because of this. To us today, however, what is of primary importance is the work he left behind, and thus the larger proportion of this volume is given up to dealing with it. We are all very conscious that this is a first attempt to provide a guide to BM. Research is continuing, and the Editor and contributors would be very pleased to hear from anyone with information or other material to pass on.

In the meantime, we trust that this book will help you to sample the many delights BM has to offer. I would like to close by expressing my grateful thanks to William Davies for writing the Foreword, and to all those who have contributed their time and effort to producing this tribute to Billy: first and foremost those responsible for the various sections, and also Mike Lorenzini for the cover and layout and Kathy Lorenzini for much of the typing.

M. H.

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