A to Z of Leeds: Ivy Benson - Leeds's own pioneer of 'girl power'

We all know Leeds is a great city, right?

Wednesday, 2nd December 2020, 11:30 am
Ivy Benson pictured with the brass section of her all-female band in 1954. PIC: Getty
Ivy Benson pictured with the brass section of her all-female band in 1954. PIC: Getty

There are many reasons for this bold claim, from the people who've called this place home, to the history of the region, the developments underway and the talent and creativity we see on a daily basis. Here, we go through the alphabet to give you some reasons to be proud.

B IS FOR BENSON, AS IN IVY BENSON

Musician and bandleader Ivy Benson was the pioneer of ‘girl power’. 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.

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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.

She was born at the Malt Shovel Inn, Holbeck on November 11, 1913. Her father, Douglas, played with the Leeds Symphony Orchestra and 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.

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. 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.

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 in Essex.

Read More

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A to Z of Leeds: How Arthur Aaron became a war hero

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Laura Collins