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Farsley historian launches appeal about pioneer of girl power

The name Ivy Benson might not trip off the tongue immediately but in the 1940s and 1950s –and indeed right up until the 1970s – she was a household name.

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The Leeds-born lass was one of the first entertainers to enter Germany at the end of the Second World War, at the request of Field Marshall Montgomery.

She played at the 1948 Olympic Games, across the Middle East and in Vietnam. She was the darling of national TV and radio and played her last gig in 1980.

Now historian Veronica Lovell, 41, of Farsley, Leeds, is appealing for information about her early life.

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Mrs Lovell said: "I know where she was born, it was at a pub called the Malt Shovel Inn, which is no longer there. I know she lived in Leeds as a young girl but need to find out where. A street name was mentioned when she appeared on This Is Your Life in 1976 – Greenmount or Green Mount Terrace – but this appears to have been a mistake. If anyone out there has any information, I would like to hear from them."

Ivy Benson was born in Holbeck on November 11, 1913. Her father, Douglas Benson, played with the Leeds Symphony Orchestra and the Empire Pit Orchestra.

Ivy had a very musical upbringing.

She learned the piano at three and won a singing contest at the former Empire Theatre aged nine, with a rendition of Yes, We Have No Bananas.

She learned the clarinet and saved half a crown a week while working at Montague Burton's tailoring factory so she could buy her first saxophone.

However, it was during the austere war years she got her big break. She had earlier signed with Edna Croudfoot's Rhythm Girls but in 1941 struck out on her own and formed the Ivy Benson All Girl Orchestra.

Male musicians were in short supply because of the war, so the stage was set. She started out playing London tea shops and soon after won a contract with Mecca Ballrooms. Some 500 girls passed under her baton, performing the be-hop, jitterbug, jive and samba. Such was the drop-out rate, owing to girls marrying GIs, she had to keep six in reserve at any one time.

She once lamented: "What is really awful is they don't last long. The marriage rate is that high. I lost seven in one year to America. Only the other week a girl slipped away from the stage. I thought she was going to the lavatory but she went off with a GI. Nobody's seen her since."

However, that wasn't her only problem. After Jack Hylton secured Benson a radio booking for the BBC in January 1943, jealous male bandleaders held a council of war to plot her downfall.

They went to extraordinary lengths, even getting musical arrangers to deliberately insert wrong notes in the girls' scores. Male bandleaders also sent a petition to the BBC.

But Ivy's popularity won through. She was the darling of the Allied Forces and received over 300 fan letters a week.

Such was her globe-trotting, on May 2, 1949 she was fined 5 by magistrates for staying abroad too long!

The flame-haired bandleader stood just five feet tall and was fluent in French, German and Spanish and spoke some Russian and Italian. Her signature tune was Lady Be Good.

One alluring tale has it that she once charmed her way past Russian guards at Checkpoint Charlie with an impromptu performance of Il Silencio. Another that she and her girls were placed under armed guard in the Sahara, to protect them from the advances of amorous troops.

Her life inspired a film, Last of the Blonde Bombshells.

She once said: "I've sacrificed two marriages, had four major operations, I sometimes ask myself why I do it. I'm sure I'll die penniless. But I don't care."

She died aged 79 in May, 1993 at Clacton-on-Sea, Essex. Her legacy was that she forced men, by the sheer longevity of her career, to take women musicians seriously.

* Contact Mrs Lovell on (0113) 2575616, or email: veronica.lovell @btinternet.com

 
 
 

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