1920s, until his death on 23 March 1977 at the age of 77,
Billy Ternent was a highly respected figure in the British
popular music scene.
He was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 10 October 1899, and
is reported to have been playing the violin by the age of
seven. When only twelve his first job was playing in a trio
accompanying the silent films at a North Shields cinema, and
four years later he was conducting a cinema orchestra on a
circuit owned by the theatrical impresario George Black. Radio
didn’t arrive on the scene until Billy was well into his twenties,
but he soon became involved in what was to become a major
part of his life. His first broadcast was with a sextet from
a tea-room in his native Newcastle.
Jack Hylton is supposed to have discovered Billy while playing
with the Selma Four in a Newcastle restaurant. He took him
to London where Ternent played in Al Starita’s band at the
Kit-Kat Club. Hylton may well have been just in time. Like
many fellow ‘Geordies’, Billy was fanatical about football,
and it is believed that he seriously thought about becoming
a professional player. Happily for us he decided that his
future was more secure in the music business.
The reference books tell us that Billy’s first commercial
recording was playing tenor saxophone in the famous Jack Hylton
Orchestra at an HMV session in the Small Queen’s Hall, London,
on 21 April 1927. Less than a month later (on 10 May) he was
back at the same venue (also for HMV) playing in the Kit-Kat
Band directed by Al Starita, with a young Ted Heath on trombone.
He continued to record with the Kit-Kat Band until its last
sessions in March 1928.
By then Billy Ternent had become a stalwart of the Hylton
Orchestra. As well as performing on alto sax, he also did
occasional vocals and gradually provided the band with many
of its arrangements. Being a multi-instrumentalist, he could
be relied upon to step in at short notice to cover as necessary
when a musician was missing.
Presumably Ternent found his work with Hylton very satisfying,
no doubt enjoying the opportunity to provide countless superb
arrangements for one of Britain’s premier dance orchestras.
He accompanied Jack Hylton to the USA in 1935, although the
American Federation of Musicians would only allow a small
number of British players. So the ‘American’ Hylton Orchestra
included many local instrumentalists, thus giving Billy the
chance to learn at first hand how the American musicians performed.
He made a point of seeing as many other bands as he could.
The Hal Kemp Band particularly impressed him, and in later
years it was said that the Ternent ‘sound’ (little staccato
passages, led by four trumpets - also known as ‘triple-tonguing’)
was partly influenced by Kemp.
Surprisingly Billy Ternent did not start recording in his
own name until February 1938, when ‘Billy Ternent and his
Sweet Rhythm Orchestra’ cut just four sides for HMV. Then
there was a big gap, until a new contract took his orchestra
into the Decca studios in September 1943.
But he was far from idle. Billy remained Hylton’s ‘right-hand-man’
until he formed the third BBC Dance Orchestra, succeeding
Henry Hall and Jack Payne. He was appointed shortly after
the outbreak of World War 2 in September 1939, and could be
heard on the radio almost daily, broadcasting from ‘somewhere
in England’ which often meant Bristol or Weston-Super-Mare,
in Somerset. For a while the personnel in this band were also
available for commercial recordings by the Jack Hylton Band,
but (unlike most of his peers) Hylton recognised that it would
be difficult to keep up standards with so many star players
being conscripted into the Armed Forces, so his last HMV sides
were made in March 1940, and Hylton thereafter concentrated
on theatre and artists management.
Thanks to his numerous broadcasts, Billy Ternent became a
household name. For a while he was musical director of Tommy
Handley’s "ITMA" show, but the hectic schedule of
wartime eventually took its toll, and Billy resigned from
the BBC in March 1944 due to ill health. Stanley Black took
over his baton at the BBC Dance Orchestra.
Once recovered, he formed a new 14-piece band and toured
successfully throughout the United Kingdom. When Radio Luxembourg
resumed commercial broadcasts to Britain in December 1946,
Billy Ternent featured in the first programme, sponsored by
bookmakers William Hill. He was in demand from West End theatres,
and conducted many shows, including visiting American artists
(Frank Sinatra called him "the little giant").
Radio was still an important part of his life, and he is
particularly remembered for "Variety Bandbox" and
the way he helped to launch the successful career of Frankie
Howerd. This included several 78s for the Harmony and Columbia
labels, which have become comedy classics, some featuring
Ternent as the butt of Howerd’s jokes. Routine work involved
the band playing summer seasons at major seaside resorts and
holiday camps, plus numerous bookings at ballrooms around
the country. In 1951 the band accompanied Bob Hope on his
By now the Ternent Band was well established, enjoying success
with its regular public appearances, broadcasts and recordings.
He spent five years, from 1962 to 1967, as musical director
at the London Palladium, participating in several Royal Command
Billy continued to broadcast tasteful programmes of mainly
dance music well into the 1970s, although his later years
were troubled by recurring bouts of illness. Alan Dell persuaded
him to conduct a selection of his arrangements, to rapturous
applause, during a "Dance Band Days" concert at
the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 12 June 1976, as part
of the BBC’s Festival of Light Music. This was to be his last
major engagement, although stoically he continued to work
until a few weeks before his death in March the following
Billy Ternent only ever had one signature tune - "She’s
My Lovely". It came from a 1937 revue "Hide and
Seek" starring Bobby Howes, and was composed by the prolific
Vivian Ellis (also responsible for Spread a Little Happiness,
Coronation Scot and the hit show "Bless The Bride").
When he first started using it in 1939, the BBC received complaints
because the opening reminded listeners of an air raid warning;
that distinctive ascending ensemble arrangement made the Ternent
band instantly recognisable at the opening of its hundreds
of broadcasts over the years.