MBE, distinguished himself in two musical spheres. In his
early years he gained a reputation as a brilliant cinema organist,
but in the second half of his career he switched to composing
and conducting Light Music, with even greater success.
He was born Sidney Torchinsky of Ukranian parents, at 27
Tottenham Court Road in Londonís West End in 1908. His father,
an orchestral trombonist, decided to anglicise the family
name, and it was he who introduced his son to the rudiments
of music. Young Sidney studied piano at the Blackheath Conservatoire,
where he soon displayed evidence of an unusually retentive
memory. As he entered an examination room he discovered, to
his horror, that he had left behind at his home in Maida Vale
all the compulsory music. He had no alternative but to play
from memory, and passed the exam with distinction. He shared
the same professor for piano tuition as Gerald Bright, later
to achieve fame in Britain as the band-leader Geraldo.
Clearly Torch must have been a talented pianist, because
his first professional engagement was as accompanist to the
celebrated violinist Albert Sandler. He then moved into several
cinema orchestras playing for silent films, starting at Stratford
Broadway in East London, but the arrival of the talkies forced
him to consider a musical change of direction. Full orchestras
were no longer needed in cinemas, and even such prestigious
ensembles such as Emanuel Starkey's orchestra at the Regal,
Marble Arch, (in which Torch also played piano) had to go.
But every picture palace of note decided to install an organ
and the Regal was no exception; a Christie was built in 1928
by the famous London firm of Hill, Norman and Beard. At the
time it was the largest theatre organ outside the United States.
Torch became assistant organist to Quentin Maclean at the
Regal, Marble Arch, taking over this famous Christie Organ
(following a short residency by Reginald Foort) full time
from 1932 to 1934. His signature tune became, appropriately,
the popular song "I've Got To Sing a Torch Song" (from the
Hollywood film "Gold Diggers of 1933") to which he added his
own special lyrics. From Marble Arch Torch moved on to the
Regal, Edmonton, leaving in 1936 to join Union Cinemas, opening
many new organs and recording at their flagship theatre, the
Regal Kingston. In 1937 he opened the magnificent Wurlitzer
Organ at the Gaumont State, Kilburn, which was then the largest
cinema organ in England.
Torch was a real 'star' of the cinema organ in those pre-World
War II days. Through his many personal appearances, broadcasts
and commercial recordings he had reached the very top of his
profession. In 1940 he was called into the Royal Air Force,
and initially was stationed near Blackpool, where he continued
to record at the Opera House. He first trained as an air gunner
in the RAF, but was subsequently commissioned and attained
the rank of Squadron Leader. He became conductor of the RAF
Concert Orchestra, which gave him the opportunity to study
more closely the intricacies of orchestral scoring. This experience
was to stand him in good stead when he returned to civilian
life after the war.
Torch realised that the days of the cinema organ as he knew
it were numbered, so he turned to light orchestral composing,
arranging and conducting, where he quickly established himself
through his radio broadcasts and commercial recordings. He
wrote the catchy signature-tune for the famous BBC Radio series
"Much Binding In The Marsh", and also discovered that his
composing talents were ideally suited to the requirements
of the production music (mood music) publishers, that were
rapidly establishing libraries in London. Chappells had already
started recording light music for the use of radio, film,
newsreel and eventually television companies as far back as
1942, drawing mainly upon the talents of Charles Williams,
who conducted the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra on those 78s.
From 1946 onwards Sidney Torch contributed many different
works to the Chappell catalogue, both under his own name and
also as Denis Rycoth (an anagram). He also conducted the Queen's
Hall Light Orchestra on these special recordings, working
alongside Williams, Robert Farnon, Peter Yorke, Wally Stott,
Clive Richardson and many other luminaries of light music
in the post-war years. Francis, Day & Hunter employed Torch
to conduct their New Century Orchestra when their library
was founded in 1947, and he remained with them for two years
until a Musicians' Union ban halted all such work in Britain.
In 1946 the Daily Mail organised a 'British Film Festival'
with well-known actors recreating on stage scenes from some
notable British films of the war years in which they had appeared,
accompanied by Torch conducting a large symphony orchestra
plus some of his own linking music. Although the BBC originated
most of the material it broadcast on the radio in those days,
London musicians were also employed by transcription services
(LangWorth, Muzak etc.) and overseas broadcasting organisations
such as Radio Luxembourg and IBC. Torch was closely associated
with the Harry Alan Towers radio production company which
supplied programmes to Radio Luxembourg and, occasionally,
even to the BBC.
In 1953 the BBC decided that it needed a new programme whose
brief was: "to help people relax after the week's hard work
and put them in the right mood for a happy weekend". With
Sidney Torch's full participation, the formula for "Friday
Night Is Music Night" was devised - with such foresight that
the programme survives to this very day. The BBC Concert Orchestra
had been formed the previous year, and Torch conducted them
for almost twenty years in this series, until his retirement
During this period Torch became one of the most popular
and respected conductors in Britain. His countless broadcasts
included many celebrity concerts, often at London's Royal
Festival Hall as part of the BBC's regular Light Music Festivals.
He had a reputation as something of a martinet, according
to the musicians and singers who performed under his baton.
One described the crackle that emanated from his starched
shirt-cuffs on some of his rapier-like downbeats. Singers
dreaded 'the glare of the Torch' if they failed to please
the maestro. But he was also remembered for various acts of
kindness, seldom made public, but nevertheless appreciated
by some of his musicians who needed temporary financial assistance.
He demanded smartness in dress from his musicians, and always
had in reserve an extra pair of gloves or black socks in case
of need. His music was also often entertaining to watch as
well as hear: his London Transport Suite and Duel/or Drummers
are ideal examples requiring, as they do, such athletic participation
from the percussion section.
Following his retirement Sidney Torch seemed to lose interest
in his previous musical activities. He rarely wanted to talk
about his pre-war stardom as a cinema organist, and similarly
dismissed most attempts to get him to recall his great moments
in light music. In a rare radio interview in 1983 he admitted
that he had been cruel to most of his producers, although
he felt that most of them probably benefited from the experience.
He was appointed MBE in 1985.
He died at his Eastbourne, Sussex home on 16th July 1990
at the age of 82, having been pre-deceased by his wife Elizabeth
Tyson (a former BBC producer) six months earlier. Sidney Torch's
music is still remembered by the many admirers of the cinema
organ and light music. "Friday Night Is Music Night" is still
regarded by many as 'his' programme, and his own compositions
and arrangements are still regularly performed by 'his' BBC
Concert Orchestra. Few musicians could have a better memorial
to their talents.