'An exceptional comedic talent': Tributes paid to British dance band star Mary Lee for 100th birthday

She was one of Scotland’s brightest stars during the interwar period, performing before Queen Mary and topping Vera Lynn in a Melody Maker poll, only to step back from a glittering musical career to raise her family.

Now tributes have been paid to Mary Lee – the last known surviving vocalist of the British dance band scene’s heyday – as she celebrates her 100th birthday today.

Though the centenarian’s name is less well known nowadays, she is best remembered as a stalwart of Scottish variety theatre and pantomime, where she performed comedic turns alongside her late husband, Jack Milroy.

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But Mary’s first flush of fame came when she was just a young girl, having spotted a newspaper advertisement for a singing competition at Glasgow’s Empire Theatre.

Scottish entertainers Peter Morrison, Jack Milroy and Mary Lee (centre) at the King's theatre in Edinburgh. Picture: Alan Ledgerwood

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At the time, Mary was just 13 and living with her family in a two-room tenement flat in the city’s Kinning Park.

Even then, she was enchanted with music, singing on Saturday nights at her local church hall with the aid of a megaphone.

Unbeknownst to her parents, she skipped school to attend the auditions, performing ‘My Kid’s a Crooner’ before bandleader Roy Fox. It was enough to secure her entry to the final, but the contest was only open to those aged 14 and above.

Johnnie Beattie walks with Mary Lee, widow of Jack Milroy. Picture: Donald MacLeod

Undeterred, Mary lied about her age and went on to win the show.

Her prize was five guineas, but an even greater reward soon followed in the form of a telegram from Fox, asking her to join his orchestra at the Streatham Locarno ballroom in London.

From that first contract, worth £5 a week, Mary went on to perform with some of the most celebrated bandleaders of the 1930s. She would invariably need to stand on a wooden box to reach the microphone, but instantly fell in love with the new world.

“There were about 21 musicians and Roy Fox was immaculately dressed in beautiful tails and playing gorgeous music,” she later recalled. “I thought to myself ‘I’ve died and gone to heaven’.”

Mary Lee and Jack Milroy

Her vocal style, a fusion of jazz and big band styles, was sought after by the likes of Bert Ambrose, Jack Payne, and Harry Roy, while George Shearing, the revered blind jazz pianist, once remarked the Scot had been a lifelong influence on his music.

A July 1937 review in The Scotsman of Roy Fox and his band noted they were the deserving headliners of a variety programme at Glasgow’s Empire Theatre, and singled out Mary’s “delightful” performance, as well as her age.

That same year, she topped Vera Lynn in the Melody Maker’s poll to find the best girl singer of the past 12 months.

Ray Pallett, editor of Memory Lane – a magazine dedicated to the golden era of British dance band music – recalled Mary’s timing and sense of rhythm as “spot-on”.

“When she duets with other singers, notably the band’s regular male singer, the vastly more experienced Denny Dennis, she can hold her own with ease,” he said.

"There have been a number of ‘child singers’, notably girls, who made it to the top – Helen Shapiro, for example. But Mary was the first of them all.

"Like Helen, instantly recognisable, a great jazz feel, but could also handle ballads with ease. She was a great asset to Roy Fox in his stage shows, records and broadcasts and she was regularly at the top of the Melody Maker popularity polls.”

Mary effectively retired from show business in the 1950s to raise her family, although she returned to variety theatre in later years alongside Jack, who died in 2001 at the age of 85.

She went on to host a show on Radio Clyde and was appointed honorary vice-president of the Scottish Music Hall and Variety Theatre Society – an organisation that celebrates and promotes Scotland’’s variety heritage.

Its chair, Derek Green, described the 100-year-old as a “legend in Scottish show business, a true professional, and a woman who is greatly admired by many”.

He pointed out that as well as her “fantastic” ability as a singer, Mary was an “exceptional comedic talent,” blessed with a quick with an ability to “throw a gag” into conversation with ease.

He added: “Mary comes from the golden era of the variety theatre, a time that was very demanding for a performer, with two shows daily, travelling from theatre to theatre, week after week, all over the UK.

“She has a wealth of knowledge and experience, and is so willing to share that with anyone - that is a legacy in itself.”

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