Bert Lee

A Dewsbury Great.  

One of a select group of individuals born, bred or living in Dewsbury who have made their mark on their town and country. The Dewsbury Greats have featured in various exhibitions and publications since they were first researched and published in 1992.

The writer of 'Knees Up Mother Brown' was a Ravensthorpe church organist

photo of Bert Lee with his partner

THE songwriter who inspired a million sing-songs with his famous Knees Up Mother Brown was not a Cockney as most people imagine.  He was in fact a church organist from Ravensthorpe.

Bert Lee — a man who helped the world sing and laugh through one of its darker periods in history, the First World War.  Lee, one of Britain’s most prolific and successful songwriters, was bom in a small terraced house in North Road, Ravensthorpe, in 1880.

He wrote for such famous names as Gertrude Lawrence, Jack Buchanan and Gracie Fields, as well as writing the numbers for some of the most popular musical shows of the century.

He also wrote such popular hits as Joshu-ah, Goodbye-ee, Hello! Hello! Who’s Your Lady Friend? and When Father Papered the Parlour.

The songs of Lee have resounded through music halls and pubs and clubs throughout the world, and the BBC recorded a series of programmes paying tribute to his work and that of his partner, Bob Weston.


IN their heyday, Weston and Lee were hailed as the Gilbert and Sullivan of the music hall. Many of their songs are still remembered and sung today.

Lee, who attended Wheelwright Grammar School, was the son of Mr Tom Lee, a dyer at Brooklyn Mills, Ravensthorpe.

He was apprenticed to a bookseller when he left school then to a firm of piano dealers.  His father was a member of the old Ravensthorpe District Council and his sister, Miss Doris Lee, was a music teacher at Knowle, Mirfield.

Lee started playing the organ at an early age and became organist at Ravensthorpe Methodist Church while still in his teens. He had been regarded as something of a child prodigy.

Ironically, some of the first verses he wrote were full of quips about church wardens and vicars, which he said he wrote to keep from falling asleep during sermons.

When Lee moved to Manchester he took a part-time job as a church organist, but lost it after playing Lily of Laguna as a voluntary.

He was to continue writing songs about church life when he started writing for Ernest Strand, an artist who specialised in characterisations of vicars.


Gilbert and Sullivan of the music halls relied on perspiration, not inspiration ’


IN the early 1930s Lee and Weston were still maintaining their amazing output and were described by the Press at the time as the Gilbert and Sullivan of the music hall.

Asked about their method of working, Lee would say: “We work very harmoniously. Whenever a bit doesn’t ‘go over* I say Bob wrote it and Bob says I did.”

Both men discarded the idea that they were inspired creators.

Lee said: “You can’t rely on inspiration in this business. Ideas? We have to dig for them as a miner digs for gold.”

Weston said: “If we relied on inspiration we would starve. Perspiration, not inspiration, is the only way.”

But one amusing song did come out of the air — A Couple of Dooks — which was a big hit for Gracie Fields.  Someone had bought Weston two fat ducklings for his garden pond and much to his dismay they ate everything in sight.

Humour

Someone asked what he had in his garden that year, and Lee, with his dry Yorkshire humour, quipped:  “Nowt but a couple o’ dooks.”
Lee’s Yorkshire humour was to be the inspiration for a number of hits like Yorkshire Puddin ' and Eee, By Gum, it were a Real Fine Do.

Both were modest, home-loving men. Lee lived in Barnes, where the Oxford and Cambridge boat race was always celebrated with a house party.  He was married twice, but had no children. When asked by a correspondent for a photograph, Lee wrote back: “We have no photographs, but Mr Weston is a fat man with a family, and I’m a fat man without one.”

Towards the end of their careers, their songs were a sideline.  Their main work was writing lyrics for the Clayton ana Waller musicals.

Wrote

They wrote sketches for the Crazy Gang and were involved in musicals like Here Comes the Bride for Evelyn Laye, Mercenary Mary for Will Fyffe, and Give Me a Ring for Flanagan and Allen.
The 1930s brought about their debut in films as scriptwriters. Their first film was in 1930 when they adapted one of the music hall sketches they had written for Wee Georgie Wood.


IN 1914, Bert Lee partnered with Bob Weston, a Londoner. It was a partnership which was to make English-
speaking people laugh all over the world, with songs like My Word You Do Look Queer, and With Her Head
Tucked Underneath Her Arm.

During those years they wrote more than 3,000 songs and contributed sketches* and musical numbers for
more than 70 stage shows and 17 films.

They wrote for the famous stars of the day — Ray Milland, Anna Neagle and Grade Fields — and some of
their more famous musicals included Hit the Deck, Shine on Harvest Moon and The Girlfriend.
Many of their songs and musicals were Broadway successes.
They also wrote music hall sketches for Fred Kamo, Robb Wilton and Wee Georgie Wood.

From the beginning Weston and Lee decided to work office hours. Their motto was “a song a day keeps the taxman away.”.

They were both exempted from military service when the war broke out in 1914, Lee because of rheumatism, and Weston because of poor eyesight and hearing.

Instead they wrote a string of war songs including Brave Old Contemptibles, Private Michael Cassidy, Hush, Hush, Here Comes The Dream Man and In a Land Fit For Heroes.


Inspired

Their greatest hit — Goodbye^e — was inspired by a group of factory girls shouting “goodbye-ee” to a regiment of soldiers marching to Victoria Station.

This became the war’s most popular song and it was written one wet afternoon in a cabin under the pier at Brighton.

Lee, who was described as a “jovial, white-haired Yorkshireman, modest, neat and cheery,” used to say that in their early days they regarded themselves as something like musical plumbers, being called in to fix the dialogue when the show was falling to pieces.

In 1917 Jack Norworth, the American performer, who wrote Shine On Harvest Moon, asked them to write the score of the show that was to open his new theatre in Broadway.
The two men met every morning at Weston’s house in Twickenham and worked through until late afternoon when a whisky apiece would finish the day.

Sometimes Weston would write the tune and Lee the words. Years later Lee said: “Bob has the brains, but I put in the laughs.”


AS the couple were preparing to celebrate their coining of age as a writing team. Bob Weston died of a brain tumour. Things were never the same for Lee after that.

For a time he wrote with Weston’s son, Harry, and they produced the great hit, Knees Up Mother Brown.  Lee was on holiday in Llandudno when the Second World War broke out. He never went back to London but stayed in the little Welsh town to play snooker and write the odd verse.

His wife, Marlie, whom he adored, died in 1944. They had been inseparable and at her funeral Lee told a friend: “I shan't bother with things much longer now.” He died 18 months later and was buried in the Great Orme Cemetry, adjacent to St Tudno’s churchyard.

Inscribed on his gravestone are the words “Bert Lee (songwriter) of Ravensthorpe and London”.

But his memory lives on in every pub and club and on every coach outing in the country when spirits are at their highest and someone starts to sing Knees Up Mother Brown.


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