Providing a lifetime of support to musicians
Help Musicians celebrates the life and musical career of our oldest beneficiary, Lauretta Boston
In October 2022, our oldest beneficiary Lauretta Boston celebrated her 100th birthday. To recognise such a milestone, a member of the Help Musicians team spent an afternoon learning about her life in music and how the charity have supported her for over thirty years since she retired.
Childhood in Paddington
From the time Lauretta Boston was a small girl growing up in Paddington, she was comfortable playing piano and singing in public. Most seven-year-old children remember their first performance onstage, perhaps at a school talent show for their peers. Lauretta’s was in 1929 at Tottenham Court Road for a children’s charity called Band of Hope: “I played in front of the mayor and sang Wont You Buy My Pretty Flowers.”
Music came naturally to Lauretta and there was nothing she loved to do more than perform songs that told a story. As a result of her talents she received a triple scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, but Lauretta did not enjoy her time there at all.
“I found it too technical and quite rigid. It was a long walk in hot weather to the Royal Academy and by the time I got there I would want to doze off. This was after school bear in mind. The teaching was more theory and I was into playing tunes with a story. I just didn’t bother with it.”
A turning point occurred however when she was between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays. A show arrived at Drury Lane Theatre called ‘The Sun Never Sets’ and Lauretta signed her first professional contract to perform in the show, which she has saved to this day. She remembers spending her 16th birthday on the road, surrounded by professionals who were a few years her senior.
This isn’t to say she was overawed or bowed by the experience; she was just doing what she loved. “I never thought about what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve never been ambitious, I just pottered along. Things cropped up and I did them. The only thing I loved was playing and singing.”
Working through wartime
Lauretta had barely begun her career before the onset of WWII flung the country into a state of uncertainty. She was not out of her teens when she began working for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), established to entertain the armed forces throughout the conflict.
In a time of terrifying nightly air raids, Lauretta said, “we used to joke ENSA stood for ‘each night something awful’. But I travelled all over during the war, each day was a different place.”
“Biggin Hill was air force, Portsmouth and Southampton were navy and then up in Liverpool and Kirby was where factories were based.” Lauretta would perform whilst people worked and then there would also be a stage set up in the canteen so that employees eating their lunch could be entertained.
This was in addition to broadcasts which she participated in throughout the conflict, recorded from historic places like Alexandra Palace and Broadcasting House. “I used to do a lot of broadcasts as well as ENSA — Variety Bandbox and Children’s Hour.”
Today’s generation are used to a variety of modern streaming platforms, so a question about whether her performances were transmitted via radio was given appropriately short shrift. “Of course they were broadcast over radio! What other kind is there?”
Travelling around Europe
After the war Lauretta spent some time travelling around Europe performing for American troops. She also lived in Ireland for a few years with her husband, whom she met when she was 18 and he was studying law. Surely it must have been a help to have a budding lawyer for a husband in terms of contracts and dealing with slippery promoters?
“He knew nothing whatsoever about showbiz. He was very clever but no good with money at all, completely hopeless. Even though he was studying law, he didn’t help me get good contracts; so I was the breadwinner.”
When the couple lived in Ireland, Lauretta’s husband acted as her promoter and upon arriving in a new town, would sound out the local theatres and ballrooms. He would introduce himself, say that he represented a celebrated artist and if the venue were lucky, she might perform on their stage. Lauretta remembers, “he would always find work for me but nothing for himself!”
Lauretta reflects on her time in Europe fondly, particularly touring Norwegian and German cities (with Lord Kitchener in tow) performing for American troops. Yet these months away from home were not without distressing moments as well. In a few situations Lauretta experienced forms of racism; not only invasive questions about where she was from, but hideous insults towards her.
On one occasion when Lauretta stood up to a man who has bullying her female bandmate, a vile racist slur was used against her. Lauretta threw a cup of tea over the individual. “This wretched man was picking a fight with one of the singers. Then he used that word. If I had thought about the tea, I wouldn’t have done it. But I was so shocked.”
This treatment differs from the generally positive memories Lauretta has of growing up as a Black child in 1930s Paddington. “When I was little, I used to be a lot darker than I am now. Everyone was always so nice to me and I was made a fuss of, so it was a shock when someone didn’t like me.”
There were moments however when Lauretta experienced racism in the UK. “I met a nasty American in the cinema at Leicester Square when I was with my husband.” She remembers a South African couple made a racist comment to her when she was travelling on a coach, asking ‘why should we have to travel next to you?’.
“I was confused about receiving comments like that from people who didn’t live here, when this was my home. But those people met their match.”
One of the highlights of Lauretta’s career were the years she performed at Churchill’s nightclub in Mayfair. In the 1950s this was one of the most fashionable nightclubs in London, the kind of place film stars and showbiz people would visit.
Most nightclubs in those days had two bands – a Latin American band and then an ordinary dance band. Lauretta was in the Latin American band, along with bandleader Monty Tyrell and four other musicians. In the time Lauretta worked at Churchill’s, the dance band changed members five times but her group stuck together as a strong unit.
“I would be at Churchill’s every night except Sunday, starting at half ten and finishing at four in the morning. The Latin band would play, then the dance band and after there would be cabaret. We would come back on for a long session. Churchill’s used to have good acts, I met Dusty Springfield through the cabaret set and Danny La Rue used to do a brilliant drag act.”
Contrasting with some of London’s nightclubs today, Churchill’s was packed every night of the week. “It wasn’t like it was dead on a Monday and then busy at the weekend, because it wasn’t that type of person that came in. You never saw people drunk. It was a classy place and there aren’t so many like that now.”
The bar did not stock beer, with most patrons preferring to drink champagne. A flower girl would sell corsages and cigarette girls moved around the floor with boxes of cigars. Individual cigarettes were even wrapped in different coloured paper.
In an establishment like Churchill’s, style was almost as important as the music. Lauretta does not joke when she says that “I could go three weeks with a different evening dress every night.” In her time at the club, she witnessed many different vogues come and go.
“When I started, women would wear evening dresses and long gloves but once Princess Margaret was seen in a short evening dress, everyone started copying that. Women began wearing short cocktail dresses, while men went from wearing tails to evening jackets. They were special times.”
Sadly all good things must come to an end. Churchill’s owners grew old and despite his years of dedication as bandleader, new management forced Monty out of the club. Lauretta was asked to take control of the group but out of respect for Monty declined, telling them, “no chance.”
Monty thought this was a scare tactic and that they wouldn’t actually get rid of him, but Lauretta feared for the worst – she knew the group was finished. “At the end of the final night they said goodbye and good luck to him. Poor man. He really didn’t know. I just said there’s no way I am staying, that was so sneaky. It was a pity because we had been there so many years.”
Lauretta worked at another club between Regent Street and Bond Street for a while after Churchill’s, as well as doing broadcasts but she began to develop throat problems. She began considering what she could do in the long term to support herself. “I thought after that I’ll be a telephonist and do an ordinary job for a bit. I did the training… I was dreadful.”
Fortunately Lauretta demonstrated far greater ability in retail and she successfully managed luggage and handbags shops until retirement. She still remembers one of her very first interviews clearly. “They asked me “have you done this work before?”. I said no, but I’m sure I could. If I can be on a stage on my own in front of a thousand people, I’m sure I could do this.”
A lifetime of support
The piano that Lauretta plays now is one she has owned since she was 55, and the person she bought it from also introduced her to Help Musicians. We have supported Lauretta for over thirty years in a variety of ways, through health issues to keeping the piano tuned so she may continue to play.
“The charity have been very good to me, and I still keep the letters they have written over the years. They’ve always supported me at times like Christmas and also through ill health.”
Lauretta remembers one occasion when she was recovering from time in hospital and “in a bad way”, the charity visited her to help around the house. “Help Musicians would come and visit me to ask if things needed fixing. That was so thoughtful because at that point I really wasn’t very well.”
We continue to support Lauretta financially in her retirement and through her relationship with the charity, Lauretta has been able to meet other musicians over the last few decades. This includes her current regional visitor Richard.
He has been seeing Lauretta for over five years and visits every few months to check in and see how she’s doing. Seeing Richard regularly makes a real difference, as he ensures Lauretta has all the support she needs and really understands her situation.
Lauretta Boston’s life has been full of rich musical moments, from learning the piano sat on her grandmother’s lap to continuing to sing and play at the age of 100. It has been our pleasure to have met and supported Lauretta over the last few decades, and she was just as vibrant as ever when we visited her recently to celebrate her milestone. Her piano was still in tune.