Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Sally Douglas, 1925 - 2000

Today would have been my mother's 80th birthday. She died just four months shy of her 75th birthday, on April 13th, 2000, a bare six months after she had been diagnosed with the early stages of lung cancer during a vacation here in Boston.

Every year on her birthday I like to visit one of the places here in the Boston area that she loved. She and my father would typically stay in a cottage in Ipswich, with a (slight) view of the Ocean. As a Briton, an Islander, my mother loved the Ocean. I grew up with her telling me that you are never more than 50 miles away from the Sea, no matter where you go in Britain. Today we went to Concord, to a place called the Colonial Inn. It's a beautiful old rambling building, some parts Colonial, some Victorian, some of a sadly much more recent vintage. The food is nothing to write home about - though it runs to the kind of "comfort food" that my mother enjoyed: things like pot-roast and "mashed puddies" - but one of her best days in the last months was spent there. She was undergoing rehabilitation after surgery to install a shunt (she had had trouble walking for some time and an MRI showed she suffered from Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus or NPH: they discovered the lung cancer while vetting her for the surgery), and it was really starting to look like the shunt was improving her gate and her ability to get around without falling. We took her from the rehab clinic for an afternoon outing, had lunch and then spent an absolutely delightful time in a lovely sitting room they have there, with a secretary, big comfy armchairs and a sofa, and a roaring fire. Today of course there was no fire, but it was nice to remember that day at that place she enjoyed so much.

My mother was very proud of being a Scot, even though alone of her family she was not born in Scotland but in London, and certainly she had no trace of Scots in her accent. She was proud of her heritage as a "Black Douglas" and that her mother, a Burns, was descended from Robert Burns himself. (No doubt everyone in Scotland with the surname of Burns says so: and I gather from the story of his life that a great many people in Scotland probably are descended from him, though the majority of those definitely would not have Burns as a surname).

My mother had an extraordinary life, and a whole career, all before I was born and even before she met and married my father. The youngest in her family - 10 years younger than the next youngest, her sister Peggy - she managed to steal out of the house in secret one evening to audition for a singing job, at the age of 15. She got the job, but only because she looked older than she was. Once they did learn her age, she was able to keep the job only on condition that her older sister accompany her as a chaperone: something I gather my aunt Peggy was very happy to do.

I'm not sure of all the jobs my mother had during her career. I think that the longest-running one was as one of the singers with Geraldo and his Orchestra - a Big Band ensemble that I have heard described as the "British answer to Glenn Miller". Actually, I know that she also sang on occasion with Glenn Miller as well, performed in many BBC broadcasts and even had a show on the BBC called "Songs for Sally"when she was only 16. And during the war, she was a performer for ENSA (the British equivalent of the USO) and on one occasion was with a group of performers who barely managed to avoid getting caught in the Battle of the Bulge, by only 5 miles. She had engagements at the Palladium, performed with Noel Coward, Petula Clark and many others, and dated Peter Sellers for quite some time - in fact he proposed to her.

Her first husband was Jimmy Young. In his autobiography, a used copy of which I managed to find after she had died, he refers to her as "tall and Junoesque", a very apt description, I think. Especially when she was wearing the cats-eye glasses with edges like cut-out lightning-bolts that she designed and had made for herself.

It is strange to read about one's mother in a book, especially one written by someone who is to you a total stranger. I didn't even find out that my mother had been married before until I was already in college, though I had known about her former singing career from childhood. But some of the stories in Jimmy's autobiography did seem to tally with some of the stories my mother had told me of their time together: stories about their first apartment, and how they met because he was competing with her for a gig. Jimm even includes the fact that my mother was behind the glass in the Studio when he recorded his first #1 hit, and that she was the one who picked the Take that was used. His version of the story makes it clear that she was not the "official" producer (one imagines something of a Yoko Ono situation), but he does seem to credit her with a good professional ear. By his own admission, their marriage ended due to his countless adulteries with various "groupies" over the years. Unfortunately, I don't think my mother got much support from their other show-business friends, whom I gather rather felt that it was "unsporting" of my mother to make such a big deal about it all. Britain is still considerably more sexist than the United States, especially in the older generations, and it was much worse in the 1950s.

She gave up her singing career upon marrying Jimmy Young, I think, since his was so successful and the taste in music had changed from the Big Band Standards she had made her career on. Growing up, I never heard any recordings from her professional career, but she did keep some reel-to-reel tapes through all the years and moves between England, Urbana, and Columbia that she had made at her and Jimmy's apartment in the mid 50s - an attempt perhaps to try her hand at the sorts of songs that were popular at the time. Songs like "Fire Down Below" (where she gives Rita Hayworth more than a run for her money) and "Our Love is Here to Stay", and an incomperable rendition of "If I Ever Fall in Love".

Before she died, these amateur home-made tapes were the only recordings I had ever heard of her voice. It wasn't until later that I discovered that many of her recordings were in fact readily available on CD. Not that she ever got a penny of royalties. Some are still available: Dance Band Years for instance, and Best Sellers. We contacted the BBC and they made us some CDs from their copious archives, including several CDs from her "Songs for Sally" show, and we also got some recordings from the Imperial War Museum from her time with ENSA. It was a shame I hadn't heard all of these professional recordings before she died: it had never occurred to me, growing up, that there would be recordings one could actually buy of her singing.

Jimmy Young went on to a long and lucrative career, with his own Radio programme that seems to have been something like a cross between Casey Kasem and Paul Harvey. A coworker of mine who had recently immigrated from England sent me a tape he had recorded off the air during one of his visits home for Christmas, so I could get the flavor of the show. I gathered he had moved towards the conservative side of the political spectrum, while my mother, if anything, became more and more Socialist as the years went on. I gather that Jimmy Young was made Order of the British Empire some years ago. For all I know, he may have been Knighted by now.

After leaving Jimmy, I guess my mother tried to forget everything about the Show Business world. She met my father through his sister: they both came from what my mother considered to be the thoroughly "provincial" town of Coventry (famous for the ride of the legendary Lady Godiva, and a city that was firebombed almost out of existence: people seem to forget that the bombings of Dresden were in retaliation for the near-destruction of Coventry; my father watched his school burn down during that Blitz). I think she wanted a quiet and conventional life, after her life with Jimmy had fallen apart. My father was getting his PhD in molecular biology at Cambridge; she helped him type his dissertation. After she died, when I flew back to Urbana, Illinois to pack up my mother's things, I came across a beautiful, sad and passionate love letter to him from those days. It is very strange to be able to see one's parents as young and foolish and romantic when they were young.

I don't think my mother expected quite so much conventionality. A cosmopolitan Londoner, she found herself in the midwestern United States during the McCarthy era. My father enjoys telling a story about how she caused a total and stunned silence at a cocktail party on Long Island the night they arrived, by actually uttering during a conversation the phrase "What's wrong with Socialism?"

She never really got over the culture shock of moving to the United States, and never enjoyed living in small town America, even in the University Towns I grew up in - which were in a way oases of intellectual and cultural enlightenment in oceans of Bible Belt conventionality. Certainly she enjoyed visiting me in Boston - which I think reminded her of England more than other parts of the country, and which of course is near the Ocean, as Illinois and Missouri are most emphatically not.

So, here's to my mother. Here's to memories of the good times you had, feeding goslings by the Charles, fussing with Argus, being with people you loved.


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Track with co.mments
At Thu Aug 11, 12:11:00 PM EDT, Blogger B said...

I'm sorry for your loss. I read your blog now on a regular basis. God bless.


Stay safe.

At Sat Sep 17, 02:18:00 AM EDT, Blogger thegeneralx said...

I'm very sorry, but it seems she lead a full and wonderful life. She sounds like she was a remarkable woman.

(I really enjoyed this post)

At Sun Dec 04, 08:19:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your comments about your mother, Sally Douglas, having discovered them by chance. I am interested in dance band/big band music of the 1930s/40s and have some CDs of Geraldo, and others, where she is singing. I think I also have some 78s featuring her. I am from New Jersey but live in the UK now.

There is a magazine called Memory Lane that I subscribe to - it's about nostalgia and the dancebands. The editor, Ray Pallett, may be interested in publishing some of your recollections of your mother. You can contact him at : The website is:

Best wishes,


At Mon May 02, 06:23:00 PM EDT, Blogger mister_tmg said...

Fascinating stuff - just decided to Google Sally and I found your flickr and blog. Yes, some of her tracks have made it to CD - although being over fifty years old, they're out of copyright. Although whether you'd be owed them from the period before the copyright expired is a matter that's a bit unclear: I don't know what EMI's policy is for "featured vocalists", as the CDs would invariably have credited the tracks to the dance band (ie. Geraldo) with "vocal by Sally Douglas", or they may not even have credited that. She was the performer and can be heard though. Who knows, you may be owed royalties by contacting EMI...

Yes, Jimmy Young has now been Knighted and is a Sir. They duetted on the b-side of one of his early 78s, singing a song called "Park on a Sunday", which alas has not been re-issued to my knowledge, so we're unable to hear them together.

At Sun Jul 24, 06:13:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting piece on Sally. Sally had a step brother called Doug who I remember meeting around the late 1970's living in Putney South West London, England with his wife Maureen and daughters Naomi and Hannah. Doug loaned me a couple of early demonstration discs of Sally's to copy which I still have. Sally's broadcast with Glenn Miller's American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces is documented in Ed Polic's discography and Chris Way's 'In the Miller Mood'. What a voice Sally had - epitomised I think in her mid 1940's recording of 'This love of mine' with Geraldo's band.
Phil Farlow

At Sun Sep 28, 05:46:00 PM EDT, Blogger Hdoug88 said...

I've only just come across this blog - I am Sally's niece! My dad was her brother, Alfred John Douglas but everyone called him Doug. I never met Sally (I am the youngest by a long shot of my dad's six kids - I'm 26 and my dad would have been 93 if he were still alive!) but me and my sister grew up listening to Sally singing. I think they may have fallen out, so maybe she never talked about him. But we have her BBC recordings and know all about her. I don't know if this blog is still going so me posting this might be pointless, but I thought I might as well write something seeing as we are technically cousins! Also, Phil Farlow if you read this, my mum says hello!
Hannah Douglas


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