Wallace Greenslade: Ladies and gentlemen, with only two men to carry the battleship, an unexpected time lapse has occurred. To fill it, Ray Ellington will spon.
(from 'The Nasty Affair at the Burami Oasis', Series 7 Episode 1, broadcast 4 October 1956)
To my great shame I realise I have missed the birthday of the late great Ray Ellington, erstwhile singer, drummer, bandleader, and regular cameo maker throughout the Goon Show’s decade-long run.
Ellington was born Henry Pitts Brown on 17 March 1916 in London. He had a rather unusual background: his father Harry Pitts Brown was an African American music hall entertainer, while his mother Eva was a Russian Orthodox Jew.
Ray Ellington’s stage name reportedly comes from his love of Duke Ellington, the famous jazz musician, having seen him in the early 1930s.
He started performing as a drummer in the late 1930s and was called up to serve in the Royal Air Force in 1940, where he was a physical training instructor.
Frank Muir, in his autobiography A Kentish Lad, speaks very highly of the physical training instructors he encountered during his time as an RAF photographer, although he does not mention Ellington by name, so it is unlikely their paths crossed.
We were trained by RAF physical training instructors, mostly sergeants, for whom no praise can be adequate. They were physically impressive, of course, tough and indestructible; one felt that if they jumped out of a plane without a chute they would just bounce twice and stroll to the NAAFI for a pint, but they had humour and character as well, and we trainees clung to their strength and reliability as one used to depend on one’s bank manager.
(from A Kentish Lad by Frank Muir, published by Corgi Books, 1998)
The Ray Ellington Quartet was involved with the Goons from the first show in 1951 – and indeed, in one issue of The Stage, the first episode of Crazy People was actually billed as a Ray Ellington's new show.
The group likely got the gig due to producer Peter Eton’s appreciation of jazz. Max Geldray certainly sites Eton as the reason he got involved with the Goons in his autobiography.
Ellington’s distinctive voice soon led to him being given lines on the show, but his African American background ensured that many of his appearances were marred somewhat by racist undertones, or indeed overtones.
That said, it seems apparent that Ellington loved being one of the Goons. He went on to appear in several Goon-related projects such as Oh In Colour in 1970 and Spike Milligan's 1972 series Milligan In. He also enjoyed musical slots on television in the Eric Barker Half Hour, which ran from 1951 to 1952, and Alfred Marks' TV series Alfred Marks Time, which ran from 1959 to 1961, according to IMDB.
‘Europe’s Supreme Musical Ensemble’
Indeed, the success of the Goon Show seemed to find a parallel with the success of the quartet. Just look at how its billing evolved throughout the 1950s:
(Britain's most popular small band advertise a performance in the Burnley Express and News, 9 September 1950)
(The foursome are now renowned throughout the whole of Europe, according to the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 24 January 1952)
(I don't know who Syd Norris is, but he's done them a power of good - global fame is now assured for the group, says this advert from the West Sussex County Times, 27 November 1953)
(The "quartette" have tempered their advertising a little, as per the Penrith Observer, 27 April 1954)
Ray Ellington’s music is still being used long after his death from cancer in 1985. His song ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ (which featured in ‘Shifting Sands’, episode 17 of the seventh series of the Goon Show) was used in a 2018 episode of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel.
Away from performing, Ellington married Anita West in 1956. They split in 1962 with the marriage, unfortunately, becoming strained due to Ellington's touring commitments.
They had two children, including Lance Ellington, famously one of the singers on Strictly Come Dancing.
Radio Times listings for the Goon Show would often be followed by a sentence revealing where the band would be appearing that week. Much like the rest of the cast, the quartet would travel the length and breadth of the country to perform at dance halls, which could be quite a taxing schedule.
However, in a 2008 interview with the Daily Mail, Lance said his father had something of a reputation as a ladies man. The interview quite an interesting one, and while Lance obviously loves his dad, his upbringing doesn't seem to have been the smoothest journey.
Speaking of newspapers, I came across a very odd newspaper clipping from The People newspaper from November 1972. This was not long after The Last Goon Show Of All was broadcast.
I’m not convinced he was being serious – he was a Goon, after all – although I have not studied any later photos to see whether he was wearing crocodile shoes.
The Ray Ellington Quartet’s line-up changed regularly. Ray himself was always on drums and vocals, while Dick Katz was a fixture on the piano – especially as he was Ray's personal manager, according to newspaper clippings. (Saying that, newspaper clippings also call Ray's wife Ann Quest, and claim he's Duke Ellington's cousin.)
Bob Duffy, I believe, was on bass throughout the 1950s, succeeding Coleridge Goode after the first Crazy People broadcast, and there was a succession of talented guitarists that worked with the quartet. Laurie Deniz was the first that I have been able to identify, while Don Fraser, Judd Proctor and Laurence Caton also featured regularly with the group. While Ray was the only singer featured on the Goon Show his live performances often featured singers including Marion Ryan and Susan Maughan.
I’ll leave you with a quartet of videos of the man himself. First, here he is trying not to laugh – and failing – while performing ‘Pink Champagne’ for ‘Scradje’, episode 26 of series six.
In this video from 1975, Ray appears alongside Peter Sellers, Terry Scott and Stella Tanner in an episode of Looks Familiar, hosted by Denis Norden.
I’ve no idea where this comes from, but it’s fun. Listen out for a (literal) shout out for Spike.
This video of ‘The Three Bears’ seems to be from the same source. In any case, it shows Ray to have been a fan of a good costume!
And now, if you'll pardon me, I'm off round the back for the brandy.