Sunday, August 13, 2006

Bach Goes to Town

You think Goldie Lookin' Chain are Wales' first musical parodists? Wrong! Back in the Thirties and Forties blind pianist Alec Templeton was wowing American audiences with his jazz skits on classical pieces. His Mr Bach Goes to Town; Mozart Matriculates; Haydn Takes a Ridin'; and Mendelssohn Mows 'em Down were so popular that in a poll conducted in 1939 he was voted the outstanding star in US broadcasting.

Templeton, blind from birth, was born in Cardiff and grew up at Llwyn-yr-Eos, St Fagans. Almost immediately the boy displayed a prodigious talent for music, picking out tunes on the piano at the ripe old age of 2 and composing his own melodies before he was 4. Blessed with perfect pitch and a phenomenal memory he had mastered the styles of Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Chopin and numerous other composers by the time he was 16 - a feat all the more remarkable as he did it by ear rather than through musical training. Subsequently though Templeton studied at the Royal Academy of Music and at the Royal College of Music.

By the early 1930s he was appearing with various symphony orchestras and in 1932 an orchestral suite he'd composed was performed at the Paris Opera House. In order to earn a living he toured Gaumont-British cinemas as a featured artist. To what degree his blindness was exploited for its 'novelty' value during this period is open to conjecture but what is clear is that Templeton excelled in the live arena.

His career really took off in 1935 when he went to America accompanied by his parents who also acted as his management team. Practically an overnight sensation in the States his comical jazz parodies of any composers of any historical period delighted audiences. After successful guest appearances on Bing Crosby's radio programme he was offered his own show. In New York in 1937 he reputedly signed a contract worth £20,000 per year. At the millionaires' club (the Rainbow Room in New York) he took up a residency playing both jazz and classical works which proved highly popular.

With his star very much in the ascendancy Templeton married singer Juliette Vaiani in 1940. The wedding in Los Angeles was something of a showbiz event with a 100 guests from the worlds of music, film and radio attending. The following year he became an American citizen. Templeton never lost his affinity for Wales though and on a concert tour of Britain in 1949 he was delighted to meet up again with his first music teacher, a Mrs Margaret Humphrey of Christchurch Road, Newport.

Alec Templeton died at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1963. He once said that he'd only learned of his blindness as a child, after a visitor let slip the prohibited term in the family home in St Fagans. Until that moment he believed every person lived in darkness and recognized one another by the key and tone of each other's voices.

A posthumous collection of some of his 'jazz satires' entitled Bach Goes to Town was released in 1995.