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  • Eric Whitley (1910-1991)

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Description

Eric was born on 20/12/1910 in Wrexham. His family lived in Earl Street in a fairly large house which has since been demolished. His mother was Emma Whitley; one of the daughters of Huw Edward Whitley, a tailor and his wife Emma, néé Caldecott. Eric was a bright boy who passed his 11 plus and attended Grove Park Grammar School. His family were very mistrustful of doctors and he vividly remembered being sent to school with scarlet fever; a scarf tied round his neck to hide the rash.

Eric was a good learner, but music was his overriding passion. He taught himself to play the piano and violin whilst still a boy. By the time he was in his teens he’d discovered that he also had a very good tenor voice and began playing and singing in a local band. The early 1930s were the apex of the jazz age and his light tenor voice suited the music in vogue at the time.

At the age of 16, he’d met Gwen Loftus, a sister of one of his friends. They started to go out with each other and Gwen would carry his violin case into dances so that she didn’t have to pay. On April 21st 1934, they married in St. Giles Parish Church, Wrexham. They had very little money and lived with Gwen’s mother in Maes-y-Dre, Wrexham. They often listened to Henry Hall and his band on the wireless and later that year Eric made a momentous decision. He saved up for a one way ticket to London and walked to the BBC headquarters. He walked in and asked to see Mr. Henry Hall, under the impression that Henry Hall practically lived at the BBC. Astonished to be told he wasn’t there, Eric said he would wait; after all, he had no money and nowhere to go. Eventually, he saw Henry Hall coming into the building and jumped up and asked for an audition. His persistence paid off and he got an audition and was signed up immediately as a singer. The following year, his son Barry was
born at Gwen’s mother’s house in Maes-y-Dre and soon after, Gwen joined Eric in London.

This was the beginning of a career which lasted until the mid- 1980s. Eric learned to play more instruments, including the clarinet, double bass and ukulele and also continued to work as a singer with many of the big dance bands of the day. These included Peter Fielding, Teddy Joyce and Mantovani. Just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Eric was a featured singer in a show by The Crazy Gang at the London Palladium for two years.

The outbreak of war interrupted Eric’s flourishing career and he enlisted in the army. In 1944, he took part in the Normandy Landings and was part of the army which pushed up to Belgium. While in France, Eric continued to play and sing and entertain the troops. He also sang the principal part in Pagliacci at the Opera House in Paris. Eric remained in Brussels for some time towards the end of the war and struck up a friendship with a local family, the DeVriendts; a friendship which survives to this day between Eric’s children and grandchildren and the descendants of the DeVriendt family.

On his return to London after the war, Eric found that he was no longer in demand as a singer, as tastes had changed, largely due to the popularity of the Swing music made popular by American troops posted to Europe. As his star waned, Eric sought work elsewhere and became Entertainments Director for the U. S. Air Force at their base at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. There, he rubbed shoulders with many future stars, including Larry Hagman, Mel Tormé, Jayne Mansfield and Jeanette Scott. Eric continued in this job throughout most of the 1950’s; then in 1960, a chance meeting in London set him on a path which would revive his career.

He was walking down Oxford Street and bumped into an old acquaintance, George Mitchell, who had just revived a Victorian genre of musical entertainment called a Minstrel Show. The show was fronted by a principal bass, baritone and tenor, supported by a chorus of singers and dancers. George Mitchell told Eric that he’d searched everywhere to try and find him to take on the lead tenor role, but hadn’t been able to find him and had found a supremely talented tenor named John Boulter instead. However, the show was so popular that George was putting together a second company to go on tour and offered Eric the tenor lead. So began five years as part of the Minstrel company; touring Australia and New Zealand.

On his return to the U. K. Eric and Gwen decided to return to their roots and went back to live in Wrexham. Eric continued to play and sing in clubs as a freelance entertainer. He also tried his hand at a few different “real” jobs, but none lasted very long. Then, during the 1980s, a very popular T. V. light drama called Pennies from Heaven featured one of Eric’s recordings (mimed by Bob Hoskins) and included it on a soundtrack album released to accompany the series. Soon afterwards, Eric entered negotiations with BBC Radio Wales and became a presenter with his own show, which he named Painting the Clouds. The show played music from the golden era of the big dance bands and Eric was able to talk about many of the characters he knew at that time.

Eric continued to live in Wrexham until his death on 4/8/1991, just a few months before his 81st birthday. His wife Gwen lived on until 2005, when she died at Llangollen Cottage Hospital at the age of 92.

Their son, Barry passed away in 1992, but they are survived by a daughter, seven grandchildren and fifteen great grandchildren, who all remember them with great love and affection.

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