Lost musical masterpieces unearthed

It would have made a great headline on the now-defunct television show Front Page Challenge: "Major Canadian Music Discovery: Lost Recordings Found by Famous Wartime Service Band."

Except they weren’t lost to the show’s host, the late Fred Davis. A member of the trumpet section of the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Force in 1944-45, Davis had the recordings stored among his personal wartime souvenirs. But their existence was unknown even to the band’s conductor, Robert Farnon, then a Canadian Army captain and now, at the age of 80, still one of the country’s greatest composers and arrangers.

So how was this music, believed lost for over 50 years, "discovered" again?

Just before his death in 1996, Davis made a copy of some wartime BBC transcriptions for a friend, former CTV vice president Philip (Pip) Wedge. In turn, Wedge copied them for one of his friends, namely me, to play on Swing Shift and The Big Bands, my radio shows on CJRT-FM in Toronto.

"Your listeners might be interested in hearing these," Wedge said over lunch one day.

When I realized what was on the cassette Wedge had so casually handed or, I was astounded. In over two decades of hosting The Big Bands, no dance orchestra’s music had been more requested by World War II veterans than that of Farnon’s Canadian Band of the AEF — a band ordered into existence by the Supreme Allied Commander himself, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The problem was, none of its music had survived the war.

Or so most everyone thought.

Although Capt. Farnon’s band made hundreds of broadcasts from London to entertain Allied troops after the Normandy invasion in June, 1944, none of the 33-1/3 RPM transcription discs was known to survive, except for one program the BBC refused to release. Ironically, so many BBC transcriptions exist by the Canadian orchestra’s U.S. counterpart, the American Band of the AEF led by Major Glenn Miller, that to this day it remains one of the world’s best-known big bands. And now — at long last — it’s the Canadians’ turn in the limelight.

Driving home following our lunch I put Wedge’s cassette in the car tape player, then pushed "play" with both anticipation and anxiety. I had heard how great this band was all my life. Would it live up to its legend?

The answer was a resounding "yes!"

I quickly decided that all veterans — indeed, all of Canada — deserved to hear this music, not just the Southern Ontario audience of my Saturday night radio broadcasts.

So I produced a CD and cassette of not just the recordings from the Davis collection, but of six more performances by the band only recently discovered by other sources.

There are 18 tunes in all, each digitally restored in a painstaking process to remove the "clicks" and "pops" from the old discs that detracted from the music. Titles include As Time Goes By, Embraceable You, C Jam Blues, Shoo-Shoo Baby and I’m Beginning to See the Light.

Musicians include such legendary Canadian performers as Denny Vaughan on piano, and, of course, Fred Davis, who not only was a great broadcaster but a fine jazz trumpeter. Vocals are by Paul Carpenter and Joanne Dallas. In putting together this project, I discovered most of the information about the Canadian Band of the AEF had also vanished, even from the National Archives in Ottawa. The assistance and support of Robert Farnon in piecing together its story for the detailed booklet that accompanies the CD has been tremendous.

Farnon, born in Toronto in 1917, was a member of CBC Radio’s famed Happy Gang and already the composer of two symphonies before he enlisted in World War II and was shipped overseas as leader of the Canadian Band of the AEF. Back then Canada had no recording, TV or motion picture industries to provide work for a talented young composer, so following the war Farnon stayed on in the U.K.

Rob McConnell, leader of Canada’s Boss Brass, calls Farnon "the greatest arranger in the world." His hundreds of compositions for film, television and records and his arrangements for such legendary performers as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, George Shearing and J.J. Johnson have made Robert Farnon a legend too.

Except, in typically Canadian fashion, in the land of his birth.

He will finally be paid tribute by his homeland in a three-day gala at the Performing Arts Centre in Ottawa on October 30-31 and Nov. 1. The release of Lost Recordings: Capt. Bob Farnon and the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Force has been timed to coincide with both that event and a concerted effort to secure for him the Order of Canada.