Donald Phillips was born in Dalston, East London, in
He did not have a musical background; his father was
a journeyman tailor. His mother paid for some music lessons,
but although Donald had to leave school early, his love of
music shone through.
He was talent-spotted when, as a boy of 14, he was
heard playing the piano at a pub in Maida Vale by the musical
writer and publisher, Lawrence Wright.
As young Donald's success grew, his sheet music was
proudly displayed in the window of Wright's music publishing
firm in Denmark Street, Soho, centre of the popular music
He joined the Musicians' Union in 1936 and remained
a member for nearly 60 years. During the Second World War,
he served in the RAF and was part of a forces entertainment
team. He later entertained the troops in Cyprus with Harry
An accomplished pianist, he was musical director and
accompanist for the entertainment stars of the 1940s to the
1960s — the Marx Brothers, Beverley Sisters, Dickie Valentine,
Shirley Bassey, Donald Peers, Alan Jones, Dick Emery, Anne
Shelton, Yana, Jill Day, Joan Regan, Anita Harris, Susan Maughan
and, most recently, Ted Rodgers.
He took part in the 1954 royal command performance
before the Queen at the London Palladium. In 1958 he won the
Ivor Novello award for his outstanding contribution to British
popular music with "Melody of the Sea".
In the early 1960s, he composed entries for Ronnie
Carroll and Matt Monroe in the British Eurovision song contest.
In 1963 he won an international music competition organised
by Radio Prague.
His ambition to write a musical was realised in 1977,
when "The Barrier," a love story set in Northern Ireland,
was performed in Holland and recorded by Elaine Paige. But,
partly due to the opening of "Evita" the following year, with
Miss Paige in the title role, the show never reached London.
Donald Phillips retained his courtesy and professionalism
even during his last five years, when he developed Parkinson's
During his long career, mostly out of the limelight,
he was regarded as a true “Tin Pan Alley man”. Among his compositions
were Old Piano Rag, A Live Show is the Best Show, Broken Date,
and To Him We’re All The Same. Two major mini-concertos stand
out: Concerto in Jazz – recorded by several leading orchestras
including Sidney Torch, Mantovani and George Melachrino; and
Skyscraper Fantasy was probably his best-known work, although
its transatlantic style sounded more like the work of an American
composer, than a Londoner. This was also recorded by Mantovani
for Decca, although the Charles Williams version on Columbia
(coupled with the Spellbound Concerto) will have been the
bigger seller. Both of these works have been reissued in recent
years on compact discs.
Donald Phillips’ music was played and sung on both
sides of the Atlantic by artists, bands and orchestras, including
Winifred Atwell, Russ Conway, Lalo Schifrin, Liberace, Billy
Cotton, Sid Phillips (no relation) and Sidney Torch.
He died in 1994 in a Jewish Care Home in Hemel Hempstead.