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Billy Mayerl

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Biography

Billy Mayerl achieved considerable popularity from the 1920s to 1950s through his radio broadcasts and recordings as a bandleader, a pianist noted for his novelty compositions and songs, and through his many theater scores. Mayerl's prodigal talents were recognized early: He was granted a scholarship to Trinity College and performed Grieg's Piano Concerto at Queens Hall when he was only 12. His skill as a silent film accompanist earned him the sobriquet "wonder boy." As his studies advanced, he discovered he was attracted to American popular music. In 1921, while working in a Southampton hotel band, he was asked to join the Savoy Havana Band and he soon became a celebrity. His compositions, small suites, and collections, at this time demonstrate his love of tone poem-like description: Egyptian Suite (1919) and the Six Pianolettes ("Jazz Master", "Eskimo Shivers" [the only tune that Mayerl recorded on a piano roll], "Jazzaristrix", "Jazz Mistress", "Virginia Creeper", "All-of-a-Twist") written in 1925, published by Keith Prowse. These compositions have in common an emphasis on syncopation, unusual accents, delightful melodies, dazzling upbeat atmospheres, and varied textures. Mayerl also created many transcriptions of popular tunes of the day. In 1926, Mayerl left the band to open his School of Syncopation that taught pop piano techniques (stride and ragtime styles mostly), which eventually led to a "Learn How to Play Like Billy" correspondence course, and he also founded a dance band agency. Mayerl recorded many sides for the Vocalian label through 1927 and later worked for HMV, Decca, British Columbia, and others. He also appeared as soloist in the London premiere of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. One of Mayerl's biggest hits was Marigold (1927). Other pieces of this time included Four Piano Exaggerations (1926, including Sleepy Piano), Hollyhock (Syncopated Impression) (1927), Honkytonk (1928), his popular Jasmine (1929), Six Studies in Syncopation (1930 - 1931), and the Four Aces Suite (1933). The Ace of Spades is remarkable for its atonal introduction and bi-tonality (similar to Stravinsky's Petrushka, which Mayerl admired). Many of his compositions were also in the British pastoral style, intimate and contemplative, such as the Pastoral Sketches (1928). Between the wars, Mayerl scored shows for many of the top British music hall stars, including Nippy (1930), Sporting Love (1934), Twenty to One (1935), and Over She Goes (1936). He continued to play vaudeville houses and variety shows and broadcast regularly. His wife, Jill, was also a fine pianist who had her own recording career. Mayerl's Aquarium Suite (Willow Moss, Moorish Idol, Fantail, Whirligig) of 1937 was another colorful and subtle "impression" that was much admired. The following year, his spectacular Railroad Rhythm created another hit. During WWII, his published compositions were considerably fewer, but Mayerl returned to full speed with his beautiful In My Garden series of 12 pieces during 1946 - 1947, his upbeat Postman's Knock (1951), and other delightful pieces through 1959. Mayerl did not incorporate the later riff and freer bebop improvisatory styles in his piano playing, but is still remembered for his melodic creations.
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