Harry Rabinowitz

Born: March 26th, 1916, Johannesburg (South Africa)
Died: June 23rd, 2016, Lacoste (France)
Nationality: British

Eurovision record
Harry Rabinowitz twice conducted a UK Eurovision entry, in 1964 and 1966; at that time, he was one of the BBC’s staff conductors. In the 1964 contest in Copenhagen, the entry ‘I love the little things’, sung by Matt Monro, came second. Two years later, Rabinowitz led the orchestra in Luxembourg during Kenneth McKellar’s rendition of ‘A man without love’, which was rewarded with a mere ninth position on the scoreboard. Unlike in ’64, this time Rabinowitz had not been the musical director of A Song for Europe, the British preselection.

Conducting in the Petersham Church Studio, London, early 1990s

Harry Rabinowitz, born into a Russian Jewish family in South Africa, completed his secondary education at the Athlone High School in Johannesburg. Subsequently, he studied politics and economics at the University of Witwatersrand. During his student days, he worked as a pianist in various jazz ensembles to make ends meet. In 1942, Rabinowitz joined the South African army as a volunteer, causing him to break off his studies. During the war, he followed some conducting courses. Fairly fast, he got involved in work for the South African Broadcasting Company (SABC) as a musician and, somewhat later, as a conductor. He led an orchestra for the first time in 1945 during the performance of a variety show called ‘Strike a new note’ in Johannesburg. He also experimented with light opera shows.

Having made his first trip to Europe in 1937, he moved to England in 1946 to study composing and conducting at the Guildhall School of Music, London. Although originally intending to return to South Africa after the completion of his studies, after a while, he started working as a pianist and conductor in London. As a result of his extensive working activities, Rabinowitz never finished the Guildhall School courses. Instead, he made his debut for English radio playing the piano in the casting show ‘Variety bandbox’ in 1947. In 1951-1952, he conducted the orchestra for the musical ‘Paint your wagon’ in London.

Conductor of the BBC Revue Orchestra, 1950s

After a trial period of six weeks at the BBC, during which he kept on working full-time in the theatre as well, Rabinowitz was appointed as a conductor at the BBC in 1953. For BBC Radio, he conducted several orchestras, amongst which the BBC Revue Orchestra, for shows such as the popular comedies ‘Hancock’s half hour’, ‘Take it from here’, and the Goon Show.

In 1960, Rabinowitz switched to BBC television, becoming the musical director of the Light Entertainment department. In those years, he was the orchestra conductor for many TV shows, amongst which full-scale musicals (‘Kiss me Kate’, ‘The Mikado’, etc.). He performed in broadcasts with the likes of Petula Clark and Matt Monro. At the same time, he regularly recorded movie scores and did concerts throughout the UK. Meanwhile, he composed music for television programmes as well, amongst which the Charlie Drake Show (1960) and ‘Play your hunch’ (1961).

Musical Director of the Light Entertainment department of BBC Television, 1960s

In 1968, Rabinowitz made another career move, switching to London Weekend TV (a branch of ITV); until 1977, he was this broadcaster’s Head of Music. He worked on numerous variety programmes, amongst which the Rolf Harris Show and the talk show of David Frost, in which he provided the orchestral accompaniment for world-renowned vocalists such as Eartha Kitt and Diana Ross. He also did comedy shows with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and many others.

From 1977 onwards, Harry Rabinowitz has worked as a composer and conductor on a freelance basis. He performed with some of the most respected orchestras in the world, both in the studio and for classical as well as pop concerts. He conducted the London Symphony Orchestra during the studio recording of ‘Les lacs du Connemara’ (1981), a song with a most spectacular arrangement, which went on to become a hugely successful international single for French singer Michel Sardou and one of the most well-known French-language songs of all times. Other artists for whom he wrote arrangements and conducted studio orchestras, include Barbra Streisand (‘Memories’, 1981), Sarah Brightman (‘The songs that got away’, 1989), and Johnny Mathis (‘In a sentimental mood: Mathis sings Ellington’, 1990).

Portrait, +/- 1980

Between 1983 and 1991, he extensively worked as a guest conductor with the Boston Pops Orchestra, on one occasion making a ten-city-tour with this ensemble. Also in the United States, he performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in the Hollywood Bowl. Rabinowitz led the Orchestra of Saint-Luke during a tribute concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1996. Other orchestras with which he performed include the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the United Kingdom Symphony Orchestra (in England), the Metropole Orchestra (in the Netherlands), and the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

Rabinowitz swung the baton during the world premieres of such successful Andrew Lloyd Webbers West End musicals as ‘Cats’ (1981) and ‘Song and dance’ (1982). As a musical director, he worked for many television programmes, including ‘Julia MacKenzie and friends’ (1986), ‘Paul Nicholas and friends’, and ‘New faces’ (both from 1987). Moreover, he performed the same task during the recordings of the music for many a movie picture, amongst which Oscar winners ‘Chariots of fire’ (1981) and ‘The English patient’ (1996) as well as ‘Lord of the flies’ (1990), ‘Howards end’ (1992), ‘La fille de D’Artagnan’ (1994), and ‘Cold mountain’ (2003).

Conducting in the recording studio, +/- 2000

As a composer, Rabinowitz mainly worked for television; he penned the music to a wide range of series and shows, including ‘Love for Lydia’ (1977), ‘The marquise’ (1980), ‘The Agatha Christie hour’ (1982), and ‘Reilly: ace of spies’ (1983). Moreover, he conducted all music to the BBC series ‘I, Claudius’ (1976).

On various occasions, Rabinowitz won prizes for his outstanding qualities as a composer and as a musician in general. In 1984, the Radio and TV Industries Award was conferred upon him for writing the best TV theme of the year. For his services to British music, he was awarded with the BASCA Gold Badge (1985). In 1991, he received the All Music Gold Award, a British award for his ability to work on classical as well as light entertainment repertoire. Nowadays, he lives in Portland Or., however annually moving to Southern France during the summer months. Harry Rabinowitz was honoured by the queen with an MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 1977; later, he was made a Freeman of the City of London.

Harry Rabinowitz in the Eurovision Song Contest
Between 1960 and 1969, no fewer than seven different conductors were involved in leading the orchestra for the various UK Eurovision entries. Of these, only Eric Robinson and Harry Rabinowitz were employed by the BBC; all others were freelance musicians. Rabinowitz comments: “The BBC always provided the artists with one of its staff conductors, Eric Robinson or me. However, sometimes artists worried about themselves and asked if they be allowed to bring along their own maestro. Sandie Shaw was one. She wanted her own musical director, Kenny Woodman. Quite rightly, in cases like this, the BBC always agreed, because it was thought important to put the artists at their ease.”

Rabinowitz made his debut in the world of Eurovision in 1962, when he was the musical director of ‘A song for Europe’, the UK heats. His role in this show was quite limited, however, since all competing entries were conducted by the arrangers of the respective entries: Johnny Keating, Wally Stott, Johnny Spence, Ken Jones, Norrie Paramor, Tony Hatch, Harry Robinson, Ian Fraser, and Charles Blackwell. Northern Ireland’s Ronnie Carroll won the competition and, accompanied by Wally Stott, travelled to Luxembourg with the song ‘Ring-a-ding girl’, which finished in fourth place.

Conducting in the Petersham Church Studio, London, early 1990s

In 1964, Matt Monro, nicknamed ‘the singing bus driver’ and one of England’s most popular crooners, sang six songs in the ‘A song for Europe’, from which a winner was selected by the British public: ‘I love the little things’, composed by Tony Hatch. Harry Rabinowitz was musical director of the show and accompanied Matt Monro to Copenhagen, where the Eurovision Song Contest was held that year. According to Rabinowitz, he and Monro formed a good team: “I always got on very well with Matt. When he broke into the music business as a professional singer, we did many appearances together on BBC television. So Matt never asked for his arranger from the recording studio to accompany him to Copenhagen, because we already knew each other well and had confidence in one another.” In the international festival in Denmark, Matt Monro finished second behind the unstoppable Gigliola Cinquetti from Italy.

Rabinowitz has vivid memories of the live broadcast in Copenhagen: “The conductor of the entry preceding ours got the ending of ‘his’ song completely wrong and he mystified the orchestra musicians. They did not know what he was aiming at and had a bad time. He had already made a bit of a hash of it during the rehearsals and on the night, he did it again. As a result, when I stepped up to conduct our entry, the orchestra was very nervous indeed. I realized that I had to think of a way to ease the musicians’ tension. So while I was being introduced to the audience by the presenter, I turned to the orchestra and to the concertmaster in particular, and I asked quietly, pretending not to be sure about the time signature: ‘Well, by the way, remind me, is this piece in 3/4 or in 4/4?’ Of course, they realized I was not being serious; it was an idiotic question and they laughed their heads off. It put them at their ease and we got a good performance! Another thing that I remember well is that, during the TV show, there was a protest. A man who was dressed as a member of the crew – he wore a brown linen coat which was down to his ankles – jumped onto the stage after one of the songs and pulled a rolled-up banner from his pocket. He opened it and showed it to the camera. It was a message denouncing the Franco regime in Spain. Unfortunately, he showed it to the wrong camera, so the television audience never got to see him.”

Conducting in the recording studio, +/- 2000

The day after the international festival, Harry Rabinowitz found himself with the rest of the British delegation at Copenhagen airport to be flown back to London: “We were all lined up, waiting to get on the plane. Having done a lot of shopping, we got rid of all our baggage which was already on board. Suddenly, an official came down the line and said: ‘Behind there – which was behind me – nobody gets on the aircraft, because there are not enough seats.’ The BBC officials erupted in a great storm of indignation. It turned out that we had been called three times before and had not shown up, as a result of which, in the meantime, our seats had been sold to others. Matt Monro was just behind me in the queue. Although I was officially the last to get on board, I decided to cede my place to Matt, because he had a concert that same night in London. So he joined the plane and I stayed behind with a substantial part of the BBC delegation. There we were, stuck in Copenhagen, with our entire luggage gone. At the expense of the airline, we were allowed to go back to the hotel, spend the night there, and have dinner; the next day, we were promised, we would be put on another flight back to the UK. Originally, we felt a bit down-hearted, but suddenly we realized that we had an open expense account for elegant food and drinks. That night, in the restaurant, we ordered the most expensive dishes and the rarest wines. While we were enjoying ourselves to the full, about half past eleven in the evening, all of a sudden a man from British Airways came in who brought us the message that it had been decided upon to divert a plane from Helsinki to touch down in Copenhagen to take us back to London that same night. Of course, at that stage, we wanted to have nothing of it and told him that there was no need to take all that trouble for us. ‘Forget it!’, we told him. And so we stayed and enjoyed ourselves, eating and drinking to our hearts’ content.”

Two years later, in 1966, Harry Rabinowitz’ services were again called upon, when the UK was represented by Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar. In the UK preselection, for which Malcolm Lockyer had been the musical director, the song ‘A man without love’ was chosen by the British television audience as the most suitable to represent the country in the Eurovision Song Contest, to be held in Luxembourg. Conducted by Rabinowitz, McKellar scored eight points, resulting in a modest ninth position. Just like Matt Monro, Kenneth McKellar was an artist with whom Rabinowitz had done lots of programmes prior to the Eurovision Song Contest. Rabinowitz on this: “McKellar and I had a good working relationship. I suppose that is why he chose me to be his maestro in Luxembourg. He was a very accomplished singer indeed. He could sing stuff that required perfect voice, control, and pitch – light opera and classical songs. He was a good chap to work with and I had the highest respect for him. I thought his Eurovision song, however, was not really strong enough for such a contest. It was too old-fashioned for the time and the voting proved me right.”

Kenneth McKellar and Harry Rabinowitz arriving in Luxembourg, 1966

Kenneth McKellar had been persuaded to perform wearing the kilt. Rabinowitz comments: “It had been a big discussion at the BBC, already under way while we were still in London. Most of the people involved thought it was a good idea, because he was not known so much as a pop singer, but much more as a singer from Scotland. So, they argued, he should keep his identity, to which McKellar did not object. Now, after the contest, an audience appreciation around Europe was held to find out what people thought about the competition. Some weeks later, the collected opinions came in from across the continent. It was the reaction from Yugoslavia which raised some eyebrows at the BBC. There they thought the entry had been okay, but they felt the lady who sang it looked rather butch.”

Back to the contest proper and Rabinowitz’ memories of Luxembourg: “We watched the rehearsals of all other entries with interest. After all, we wanted to know how strong the opposition was going to be. I remember the rehearsal of the Italian entry, which was performed by Domenico Modugno. He turned up with his small accompanying ensemble. When he had played his item with them, it turned out that it exceeded the maximum time of three minutes. The producer came down and told him that, like all other artists, he was subject to the point of time. Modugno exploded in a paroxysm of rage: ‘What are you talking about? I cut my music for nobody!’ Upon that, he signalled to his musicians. They very slowly and gently packed up their instruments, took the sheet music, and put it away. One after the other, in file, they trooped slowly to the exit door of the hall. When they had got there, they realized that nobody was trying to stop them. Then came a moment of utter anti-climax: led by Modugno, they got back onto the stage, and continued the rehearsal of their item! Now all of this took place in total silence: we all sat there in the hall, dumb-founded. We thought that was extraordinarily funny and eventually we could not help breaking into laughter and applause.” In the contest, Modugno’s ‘Dio come ti amo’ (conducted by Angelo Giacomazzi) finished joint-last without a single point.

How does Rabinowitz assess the importance of his two appearances in the Eurovision Song Contest? “To me, it was a job, but it had some distinction to it nevertheless. After all, you travelled to a foreign place which you had never visited before, meeting up with old friends from the continent. Besides, I was always aware that it was a very important moment for the artist who I accompanied, so I did my best. On top of that, there was an orchestra with musicians who did not know you; it was a good test to see if you had the ability to quickly bring it to a standard that is wanted. All in all: quite exciting!”

Conducting in the recording studio, +/- 2000

Other artists on Harry Rabinowitz
During the 1960s, singer Petula Clark did many BBC shows with Harry Rabinowitz as her musical director: “I loved Harry from the first moment I met him. He was funny, charming, and a bit ‘pixilated’. But from the moment he took over the orchestra, he turned into a giant! Musically, I felt totally secure with Harry on the podium. The tempos were always exactly right; there are not many conductors who have this ‘feel’. Rehearsals were fun and the magic moment for us all was Harry’s ‘And it is!’ each time he introduced a new song and led us into the lovely land of music! What joy we had together! I am grateful for all the good times”. (2010)

Rabinowitz conducted the 1964 UK entry ‘I love the little things’, which was composed by Tony Hatch; Hatch worked with Rabinowitz on more occasions: “I have warm memories of Harry Rabinowitz who I met several times whilst he conducted orchestras for the BBC – both for radio and television. He was an excellent musical director; musicians and arrangers respected him. If I was the arranger, he would always make sure that what was being played was to my satisfaction. One great asset for an MD is to be able to hit the right tempo every time, especially under stressful situations such as live shows; he never failed.” (2009)

Ernie Dunstall worked as a pianist, arranger, and musical director for BBC Radio and Television from the early 1970s onwards: “I remember Harry Rabinowitz as a lovely man and a wonderful professional. The great thing about him as a conductor was that he did not do any more gestures than strictly necessary. There has always been a lot of posing about conducting, with big arm waving poses all around. Harry Rabinowitz, on the other hand, did very little, but he did enough. He was known for that among musicians.” (2011)

Links & sources
  • In order to compile this biography, Bas Tukker did an interview with Harry Rabinowitz, December 2009.
  • Elizabeth Sleeman (ed.), ‘The International Who’s Who’, London (Europa Publications) 2004 (68th edition), p. 1372.
  • Peter Korn did a witty interview with Rabinowitz in 2008, which was published in the Portland Tribune (www.portlandtribune.com).
  • Various websites on English light entertainment and broadcasting history, such as www.swalwelluk.co.uk, nfo.net and www.bigbandbuddies.co.uk.
  • The best online source on the UK’s involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest, www.songs4europe.com.
  • Thanks to Petula Clark, Tony Hatch, and Ernie Dunstall for their comments. More information about Clark and Hatch can be found on their respective websites, www.petulaclark.net and www.tonyhatch.com, while Ernie Dunstall has his own biography on this website.
  • All pictures courtesy of Harry Rabinowitz and Mitzi Scott; thanks to them for allowing us to use these photos from their private collection.


Songs conducted
1964: I love the little things
1966: A man without love