Harry Rabinowitz

Born: March 26th, 1916, Johannesburg (South Africa)
Died: June 22nd, 2016, Lacoste (France)
Nationality: British

Eurovision record
Harry Rabinowitz was a staff conductor for BBC Television in the 1960s. In this role, he took part in the Eurovision Song Contest on two occasions. At the 1964 contest in Copenhagen, he led the orchestra for the UK entry, ‘I Love the Little Things’, performed by Matt Monro. Two years later, in Luxembourg, Rabinowitz was the conductor for Kenneth McKellar’s rendition of ‘A Man without Love’.

Harry Rabinowitz as musical director of BBC’s Light Entertainment department – photo taken from the official 1966 Eurovision Song Contest programme

Biography
Harry Rabinowitz was born into a Russian Jewish family in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was the eldest of three brothers. His father, Israel Rabinowitz, was one of many Jews who preferred emigration to living with the virulent antisemitism and recurring pogroms in Czar Nicholas II’s Russian Empire. “My father came from Latvia or Lithuania. He arrived in South Africa in 1912 – and he had come away with a degree in pharmaceutical practice, so he was a trained chemist. When he arrived in the port of Cape Town, he found out he wouldn’t be allowed to practice as a pharmacist. His Russian degree wasn’t recognised in South Africa, so he had to join the army of odd-jobbers who ran cafés, wrapped parcels or whatever. Occasionally, he provided good friends with hair-oil. He knew a jolly good mixture which couldn’t be bought across the country in chemist shops. Some people turn everything they touch into gold – well, he just turned everything to dross. I guess he brought together most money by playing poker though. He was a staggeringly good poker player. Later in life, he often maintained that he had educated me and my brothers through his efforts at the card table.”

“Some people say I was brought up, others say I was dragged up. I grew up in Johannesburg, a city which had been founded just a couple of decades before by miners. When gold was discovered, all the riffraff from across the world flocked to South Africa – and many got immensely rich if gold was found on their properties. Gold was everywhere. In Johannesburg, when they dug a hole in the ground to lay the foundation for the new post office, you could see the specks of gold all over. Many people earned their living working in the gold mines, 600 feet below ground. The rocks were blasted with dynamite, the gold was put in a lift, brought to the surface, bathed in cyanide, and then assembled into ingots. When going into a gold-producing area, you could see these huge gold bars lying around. People you met, would say: “Anything you pick up, you can take away with you.” Of course, they weren’t being serious, because it would take about ten men to take away one of those blocks of solid gold. I grew up in a country which was profoundly materialistic. Religion played a part in my upbringing, but not a large one. My parents were both Jewish, but the faith was something which was just quietly observed. There wasn’t any depth.”

“At the age of nine-and-a-half, I was dragged into music by a neighbour who started showing interest in the piano. Not long after, I decided I wanted to take piano lessons. I had the good fortune to be handed to a teacher who recommended that I learn what those idiot black balls (musical notes – BT) are about and where they are on the piano. I learned through this initial teaching, the very first teaching of my life, that you had to read in order to play. So in later life, when a sheet of music paper was put before me, I could play it – I was never left behind in that respect. It also turned out that I was born with a faculty called absolute pitch. If you drop a spoon, I can tell you what note it is.”

“During my high school years, I was given a decent musical education from people who taught me the piano rather nicely. There was one distinct moment, somewhere in my lower teens, when I played a piano piece at a school concert. There were a couple of hundred young people sitting in the auditorium, while I timidly made my way to the piano and started on a Beethoven piece. Suddenly, there was an attempt at silence – and then there was a total silence from everyone in the hall. At the end, there was the kind of applause you only get from stupefaction. ‘Who is this kid and how did he learn to do all that?’, was the message written all over their faces. At that moment, music got into me to the point where it said: ‘If you do this good, sonny, you will have a good life!’”

Rabinowitz first discovered jazz music in his adolescence, while listening to the radio. “In fact, I had to listen in secret. Radio listeners were required to have a licence in those days. Those fined for listening illegally had their names, addresses, and ages read out on the radio. I didn’t have a licence – and neither did my parents. I knew I would turn up on that list if I was caught. I had to be careful, so I listened to shortwave radio with earphones on. My first exposure to real inventive jazz music was when I heard the record of ‘West End Blues’ by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. After hearing the transmission on the radio, I just had to have it – and so I bought the record, took it into my home and put it on my little wind-up gramophone… but the old man couldn’t stand it. “Take that rubbish out of here immediately,” he said. When I asked why, he answered that it was distasteful to listen to – he referred to it as ‘hooligan music’. More importantly, though, it disturbed his poker school. Being the able poker player that he was, he was teaching the game to others in the next room. “So if you’re going to play that stuff, go sit in your bedroom with a blanket over your head… and keep quiet while it’s on!” So there I was, in my bedroom huddled under a blanket. Yes, I was forced to hide in order to listen to American jazz music, but it was a wonderful time to be learning by listening!”

Young Harry at the piano, Johannesburg

After completing his secondary education at Athlone High School, Johannesburg, Rabinowitz enrolled as a student at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University, reading politics and economics; no doubt the subjects were his father’s choice rather than his own. As a student, he worked several jobs, some less successfully than others. His first occupation was as an assistant jewellery salesman. “I was fired after twenty-four hours. After that, I was a pianist in a big department store in Johannesburg playing sheet music for the customers to see if they’d want to buy the music. There I lasted six weeks. I think the management decided I hadn’t noticeably increased sales. So I got fired there as well. I was doing my best and I was a pretty good pianist at that stage, but maybe I took off a little too fancifully.”

It was not long before Rabinowitz found he could be more successful as a freelance musician. In his student days, he played the piano in jazz ensembles. “I was devoted to the idea of jazz music. I am a ‘hooligan musician’ through and through! I played in a nightclub, I’ve done it all. When I first became a gig player, I was playing with musicians who were close to being total rubbish… but they had a motorcar. The drums could be fitted in the back, so that’s why they got the gig. Now, as I told you, I had been taught to read notes as a child, so each time we were asked to play a tune from sheet music, I could cope with it and they couldn’t. No matter how good or bad the musicians were around me, I could always manage without much of a problem at the piano. Now, this is a bit self-aggrandising, but I don’t mind showing off!”

By 1937, it had started to dawn on Rabinowitz that his future might not lie in economics and politics. Having saved some money, he decided to take a trip to Europe. Travelling alone, he visited Italy, France, and England. “I was going to be really serious about music. I was captivated by the art as a whole now. I had to have a go. Having a go meant going to Europe. South Africa was a secluded country in those days. When you wanted to make contact with anyone abroad, you wrote letters, which went by ship. It took two weeks to ship them from Cape Town to the port of Southampton… or across the Atlantic to New York. When you wanted to buy a 78 record after you’d heard it on the radio, or if you were badly in need of a piece of sheet music, you got it, but two weeks – or sometimes four weeks later. So I was remote.”

“Travelling to Europe was an adventure. I got onto an Italian ship, coming up to the west coast of Africa and into the Mediterranean. By the time I got off the boat, I had learned what food could taste like – greenery salads, decent wine, et cetera. It was an eye-opener, even more so because, frankly, my mother was the worst cook in the southern hemisphere. By the time I got to London, I had the good fortune to hear the opera singer Feodor Chaliapin perform live on stage, the greatest bassist the world has ever known… and the great Rachmaninov playing the piano – yes, I heard Rachmaninov in the flesh! And Jascha Heifetz playing the violin. What an experience it was to stay in London, even if it was for such a short space of time. The Queen’s Hall (London’s main concert hall until it was destroyed by German bombs in the London Blitz in 1941 – BT) on a Sunday afternoon… ah, just wonderful!”

Johannesburg, the backdrop of the first thirty years of Harry Rabinowitz’s life

Back in South Africa, Rabinowitz half-heartedly continued his university studies, while increasingly focusing on his work as a freelance pianist. He also followed private courses in composition and conducting. In 1942, at the age of 26, Rabinowitz joined the South African army as a volunteer, causing him to cut short his studies. “When the war intervened, it changed my way off life – it actually changed everybody’s lives at the time. It became evident that, if I was going to test myself elsewhere, it would have to be after the war. Loads of South African Jews joined the army, which was a volunteer army. The country passed through a lot of political turmoil. Staggeringly, there were lots of Afrikaners (descendants of Dutch settlers – BT), men who were wearing the same uniform as I, who bluntly stated they felt we were on the wrong side. They felt we should be fighting the war with Hitler. To us, that was just unbelievable. It wasn’t pleasant to be in a situation like that, even though we weren’t discriminated against by them. If there was antisemitism, it wasn’t evident. In the SoutAfrican army, the segregation worked in the colour of the skin.”

When asked about the military action he saw in the war, Rabinowitz preferred to stay away from the subject altogether – “Now, we’d better let bygones be bygones, Bas,” I remember him saying. He was, however, more than willing to talk about his work in the Entertainment Unit of the army, where he fulfilled the latter stages of his service.

“By then, I was a corporal. People like me, who were well-intentioned, wanted to find black music talent and train or improve it in any way possible. We’d let them sing or play on whatever instruments we could borrow. The sad part of it was that we had to do most of it in secret. We were never allowed to perform together unless it was in private. We had to do our rehearsals in the evenings in private houses. The police should on no account find out. Any performance or play that we did had to be put on in a front room or a side room of a house, because the government wouldn’t allow those sorts of things to be put together. You know what was even worse? As blacks were not allowed on the streets after 10pm, this white man, who was somewhere in his mid-twenties, had to write a piece of paper stating that James, or whatever his name was, had been given authorisation to be on the streets until 10.30pm. I detested the system that required a white corporal to have to write permission slips for grown men to be out of their homes late in the evening. It was one of the worst things about segregation – in fact, I say worst, but it became much more violent and awful later on (with Apartheid as a state policy being put in place in 1948 – BT).

After leaving the army in 1944, Rabinowitz became involved in working for the South-African Broadcasting Company (SABC) as a musician and, somewhat later, as a conductor too. “Somewhere in 1945, in Johannesburg at the tail end of World War II, I was assigned to play the piano in a radio performance of the variety show ‘Strike a New Note’. We were playing a piece by an English composer called George Black. While there, I realised there was a discrepancy in timing between the stage and the pit. To overcome it, I had to stand up and wave my hands… and I seized a rolled-up newspaper – my first baton – and conducted the stage and the orchestra at the same time. There was no conductor for the show, because the orchestra was rather small, so when I noticed something was going wrong, I stepped in. That was the beginning of my feeling that I could really master difficult situations in music. Although it was never intended as such, this was the start of my conducting career. In the following year, I did some more conducting, experimenting with light opera shows, amongst other things.”

In 1946, Rabinowitz decided that, in order to progress as a musician, he needed to go back to England. “Walking in Eloff Street in Johannesburg, I suddenly heard some magic piece of music. A record shop had a gramophone player out on the pavement. I made a few enquiries and found out that it was British music by a British composer, and British singers and instrumentalists. I went into the shop and came away with the recording of the entire ‘Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings’ by Benjamin Britten, a truly wonderful piece of music. From that day, my mind was made up – I had to go to London. I registered at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to study composing and conducting. When my wife and I arrived in London, the bomb holes were still there. Food, clothing, and heating were rationed. It was tough going. There were lots of people from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa who came to London in that period and just couldn’t bear the burdens of living in these circumstances. Fortunately, my wife was determined to see it through. Our original plan was to go back to South Africa once I had finished my studies.”

The young and aspiring pianist – Johannesburg, 1930s

To make ends meet, Rabinowitz worked as a freelance musician. “In 1947, I made my debut on the BBC Light Programme as a pianist on ‘Variety Bandbox’, a casting show that helped launching the careers of many brilliant entertainers – Peter Sellers is a name that springs to mind. After ‘Variety Bandbox’, some more radio work came along, but this was little more than odd jobs. I also worked as a session player and I had a stint at conducting ice revues, doing Sonia Henie-style performances with a cast of 300 at the Empress Hall. I did this job with some pleasure, because the money was wonderful… but, in a big city like London, if you get a reputation as an ice conductor, you stay an ice conductor. Before people started thinking that this was my main talent, I packed it in and so I was unemployed again.”

By this point, four years after relocating to England, Rabinowitz had started to consider that he might prefer staying after all, if only he could find more satisfactory work in London. “It wasn’t a particularly uplifting time. I was always thinking how I was damn well going to stay, but would I make it? One day, I was walking around in London, unemployed, still studenting. The streets were wet and my shoes were beginning to leak and it was all quite uncomfortable. Well, when weather’s bad in a city like London, there’s only one place to go, and that’s an art gallery. As I was walking in Trafalgar Square, I decided to go into the National Gallery. Walking down the section with Spanish works, I saw Velázquez’s painting ‘The Rokeby Venus’ – and I was captivated. But then, as I stood there, the woman in the painting started talking to me. She said: “You’re having a thin time, aren’t you?” I looked up and down, but there were no other people there, and I replied: “Yes.” Then she said: “Stick at it. You’re going to have some bad patches and it’s not going to be easy to get there, but I assure you that you’ll be alright.” When I tell the story to others, they think it’s absolutely crazy, but her advice stiffened my resolve to see it through and stay in London.”

Not long after, by a stroke of luck, Rabinowitz bumped into fellow countryman Sid James. James, a former army comrade who had been Harry’s best man at his wedding in 1944, was, by this time, enjoying considerable success as an actor in the UK. “I was walking down Piccadilly Circus, and there, crossing Lower Regent Street, was Sid. We hadn’t met for a considerable time, so we greeted one another quite warmly. Sid was dismayed to hear how bad my situation was. He just said: “Go with me.” He took my arm and led me to the offices of Jack Hylton, the impresario and bandleader. Sid said: “Harry will do anything you like; he’ll do it better than any conductor!” He talked and talked for ten or fifteen minutes, telling Hylton how great an asset I would be – and I walked out of there with a contract! Life began again after seventeen minutes! Sid gave me the leg up.”

With Hylton’s help, Rabinowitz landed himself several gigs as a theatre conductor, leading pit orchestras for a string of musical comedy productions in London’s West End. The first was Philip Torre’s ‘Golden City’, aptly set in the South African goldrush of 1886. During 1952-53, Rabinowitz conducted the hugely successful Lerner and Loewe musical ‘Paint Your Wagon’ at Her Majesty’s Theatre; in all, the show ran for a staggering 477 performances. Its star performers were Bobby Howes and his daughter Sally Ann.

Rabinowitz recalls a particularly terrifying moment from one performance of ‘Paint Your Wagon’. “One night, dear Bobby Howes forgot the plot. He was playing a sheriff and his job was to keep the peace in this little American town. He looked at the other actors on stage who were all cowboys, and he just couldn’t remember his next line. Following a seemingly endless silence, he said: “Take him away and hang him!” That was not what he was supposed to be saying at all! He didn’t realise that the actor he ordered to be taken away had a song in the next act. You couldn’t just eliminate him like that! It would have killed the storyline. Meanwhile, I was down in the pit with the score in front of me, thinking: “What do I play?” Fortunately, the other actors got around Bobby and said: “Judge, please give him a second chance!” That’s what you can do in a theatre if the people working with you are able to keep their wits.”

Musical director of ‘Paint Your Wagon’ at London’s West End (December 1952)

As a result of his extensive work in theatre, Rabinowitz never finished his studies at Guildhall. In 1953, in light of his rising reputation as a pit conductor, Rabinowitz was offered a contract as staff conductor at BBC Radio. “Initially, I was given a trial period at the BBC. Meanwhile, I kept on working full-time in the theatre. After six weeks, I was offered the contract. I couldn’t believe my luck. A fixed salary, paid holidays… “Yes, where can I sign? Where’s the contract?” I grabbed it and signed without reading it. To this day, programmes on which I worked are being repeated to the benefit of all who took part: all the actors, all the musicians, all the scriptwriters draw royalties, except moi! I signed the wrong contract! I was paid a flat fee every month. It was only years later I understood the downside of that. At the time, I couldn’t have been happier. After years of insecurity, a minor form of prosperity descended on me.”

Whilst working for BBC Radio, he conducted several orchestras, most notably the BBC Revue Orchestra, working on such popular comedy programmes as ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’, ‘Take It From Here’, and ‘Beyond Our Ken’. For ‘The Goon Show’, he occasionally took over from this famous sketch show’s arranger and musical director, Wally Stott.

Wally had an enormous quality as an arranger,” Rabinowitz comments, “but, oddly enough, if there were pieces that were mildly classical or really classical, he would call me in. Apart from those comedy shows, I did the usual concerts of light music with the Revue Orchestra. I also played the piano in other programmes for the BBC Light Programme; things like ‘Piano Playtime’ and ‘Midday Music Hall’. The majority of work was with orchestras though. Once again, I found out how wonderful it was that my first piano teacher in South Africa had taught me to read music so thoroughly. Generally speaking, among the people that I came to join in the profession, there were some pretty good talents, but very few people could read fast and accurately. I could get through a score much quicker than many others. I reckon I could do a score which would normally take somebody twenty minutes, in about seven and a half minutes. I would work as fast as the devil would allow me to do. All of these programmes were recorded live. At the end of the time allotted to the recording of the show, you put on your jacket, had a beer and went home.”

In addition to his activities for the BBC, Harry Rabinowitz also took on much freelance work during the 1950s and 1960s, composing light music for various stock libraries, such as the Hunter Recorded Music Library and the Standard Music Library. As his contract with the BBC explicitly forbade him to work on the freelance circuit, he usually signed his work using various aliases; arguably his best-known composition, ‘Spending Spree’, recorded by Dolf van der Linden and his Orchestra in 1957, was released under the name of Andy Thurlow. Rabinowitz was later invited by this same Van der Linden to give a guest performance with his Metropole Orchestra, the Dutch public broadcaster’s radio orchestra.

Checking his score at a recording session with the BBC Revue Orchestra

In 1960, Rabinowitz switched to BBC Television, becoming musical director for the Light Entertainment department. In the years that followed, he was conductor for many TV shows, including ‘The Val Doonican Show’, ‘The Rolf Harris Show’, and several full-scale musicals (‘Kiss Me, Kate’ and ‘The Mikado’, among others). He also acted as musical director for television specials with Petula Clark, Kathy Kirby, Cliff Richard, and several other vocalists. As was the case with his work in radio, the majority of this output was recorded live.

“Working live on television was much more demanding though,” Rabinowitz explained. “I aged terribly in those years! In radio, you could always use a system of signals to communicate with others when something didn’t go as planned… but when conducting a live show on television, there were so many different things going on at the same time. I had my headphones on to hear the director giving instructions to his cameramen. Apart from that, you had to constantly look at several screens to see what the singers and dancers were doing on stage. I also had to think of sound effects which were used in addition to the orchestra. By now, we’re talking about four or five strands of information that were coming in – and then, suddenly, disaster strikes. “Camera four has broken down!” At that point, they start redirecting the shots – and then here I am with the orchestra, trying to fit the music to what they are doing on stage. Where were they going next? It could be really terrifying, but I must say the musicians and especially the production staff at the BBC were men with nerves of steel. Many times, we were very close to being in breakdown, but somehow, it got pulled together – and then I could quietly say to the players in the orchestra: “Cut seventeen bars,” and they would do your bidding!”

Aside from his work on live programmes, Rabinowitz regularly recorded scores for drama series and TV films, and performed in orchestral concerts throughout the UK. On top of this, he composed music for TV programmes, including ‘The Charlie Drake Show’ (1960), ‘Play Your Hunch’ (1961), and ‘The Frost Report’ (1966). Rabinowitz had good memories of most television programmes he worked on, but there was one marked exception, ‘The Benny Hill Show’. In the first half of the 1960s, before Hill moved to Independent Television, Rabinowitz intermittently worked with him, serving as musical director for several episodes of Hill’s sketch show.

“That was a trying time! You thought that was all fun and laughter, didn’t you? In reality, Benny Hill was the biggest nuisance television has ever come across. He interfered in all aspects of the production: the scenery and the costumes and the lighting. To his credit, he never interfered with me, because he knew if he interfered with me, I would be off! I preferred going somewhere else where there was a decent production, where everyone involved had the confidence that we could pull it off together – that, if all the mechanicals and cameras worked, we had a damn good product. With Benny Hill, that was never the case. Benny and I didn’t love one another… in fact, we got to hate one another.”

In 1968, Rabinowitz left the BBC, his post as musical director being taken over by Ronnie Hazlehurst, one of his staff arrangers. “I had recommended Ronnie to them,” Rabinowitz comments. “I knew what an excellent professional he was.” Hazlehurst would hold the job for nearly thirty years, retiring in 1997.

Conducting a BBC television show, early 1960s

Meanwhile, Rabinowitz switched to Independent Television. He became the Head of Music at London Weekend Television, one of the ITV network’s franchise holders in the Greater London area as well as the surrounding counties in South East England. His move was a bit of a gamble, as LWT was a completely new broadcaster. Founded and led by TV presenter David Frost, LWT suffered dismal viewing figures in its early years before its eventual success came in the early 1970s.

At LWT, Rabinowitz undertook the same kind of work he had at the BBC, writing orchestrations and conducting the music to drama series, most notably ‘The Adventures of Black Beauty’. He also conducted live shows, such as ‘The Reg Varney Revue’ and ‘Frost on Sunday’, for which he provided orchestral accompaniment for the likes of Eartha Kitt and Diana Ross. During his nine years at Independent Television, Rabinowitz also worked with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Plácido Domingo, Bob Hope, and Victor Borge. In 1976, Rabinowitz conducted the Band of the Life Guards for William Walton’s piece ‘Fanfare’, performed during ITV’s broadcast to mark the opening of the new National Theatre in London. Two years earlier, in 1974, Rabinowitz approached Charles Aznavour to write the theme song for LWT’s drama series ‘Seven Faces of a Woman’.

“By then, Aznavour was a pretty important figure in popular music on the Continent, but he had never had a success in Britain. The production team behind the series came to me and suggested that Aznavour could be a very good composer to provide a theme tune to this type of romantic drama. At their request, I got in touch with him. He sent in a couple of pieces, but these were sort of very close to being total rubbish. I played them over for the staff and they agreed that it wasn’t good enough. They said: “Give him one more chance… and give him a bit more detail.” So I did – and in came the manuscript of a song called ‘She’; and I played it, I adored it, I played it to the management, and we all absolutely loved it!” The single release of ‘She’, arranged by Del Newman, topped the British charts in the summer of 1974, where it remained for four weeks.

Even during his tenure as Head of Music at LWT, Harry Rabinowitz accepted freelance commissions from other television networks on the side. Perhaps most notably, he conducted all music to the BBC drama series ‘I, Claudius’ (1976). In 1977, he took the decision to leave LWT and work solely as a freelancer, but he remained closely involved with television work for the next decade. He composed the themes and soundtracks of various ITV drama series and television films. His theme music for ‘Love for Lydia’ (1977) was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award, while he also wrote the background music to ‘The Marquise’, ‘The Agatha Christie Hour’, ‘The Sign of Four’, and ‘Reilly, Ace of Spies’, all produced in the early 1980s. For his music to ‘Reilly, Ace of Spies’, Rabinowitz was honoured with the Television and Radio Industries Council Celebrity Award for Best Theme Music of the Year in 1983. When interviewed for the radio programme ‘Desert Island Discs’, Rabinowitz identified this melody as his favourite composition.

With Charles Aznavour: London, 1974

“At some point, Independent Television obtained the rights to do a film about the story of a Russian World War I spy named Sidney Reilly (based on a novel by Bruce Lockhart – BT). Reilly had a very strange career and he upset just about everybody he worked with, but he did an enormous amount of good work on behalf of the Allies. The production team at Independent Television were keen to have a soundtrack which sounded Russian – and they thought the theme of a Soviet movie from the 1950s called ‘The Gadfly’ would be just right for our film. It’s a beautiful suite written by the Russian composer Shostakovich, but it needed re-arrangement and they wondered if I was interested to do it. Well, yes of course, with pleasure! This tune and all the rest of the soundtrack were recorded with a wonderful orchestra at the Olympic Studios in London. When thinking of any music I worked on that I’m proud of, I suppose ‘Reilly, Ace of Spies’ is the first one that springs to mind.”

Rabinowitz’s television credits also include his stints performing on stage as musical director for several ITV live entertainment shows, including ‘Julia & Company’ (with Julia McKenzie, 1986), ‘Paul Nicholas and Friends’ (1987), and the 1987 season of the long-running talent show ‘New Faces’.

Meanwhile, away from the television studios, Rabinowitz renewed his acquaintance – after a lapse of almost thirty years – with the world of theatre, accepting commissions to conduct the pit orchestras for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End musicals ‘Cats’ (1981) and ‘Songs and Dance’ (1982). Rabinowitz’s involvement with Lloyd Webber began when he received an urgent telephone call from a member of the production team of ‘Cats’.

“I was gardening when I received that call. The voice on the other end of the line urged me to come down to London immediately. Having arrived at the New London Theatre, I was introduced to Andrew Lloyd Webber as well as the show’s choreographer and director. As it turned out, these three people, all meaning well, had destroyed the will of the man who was due to conduct the show. They hoped I was interested in taking over, which I was. It allowed me to work with some young talent that I hadn’t been involved with before. On the opening night, we had a tumultuous reception from the audience. While the applause was still roaring away, one of the actors came to the front of the stage, calling for quiet by holding his hands up, and said: “We’ve just had a warning from the IRA that there’s a bomb in the house. Would you please clear?” So, naturally, the applause stopped and people ran out into the street. The consequence of all that haste was that the dancers and singers were still in their skimpy stage clothes… until the all clear was sounded, upon which everybody went back into the theatre and started celebrating again. That’s an opening night I will never forget.”

“When having to perform the same show night after night after night, the responsibility of the conductor in that situation becomes greater and greater and greater as the weeks pass. Especially if a production is very successful, as ‘Cats’ was, actors, singers, and dancers start getting cocky about it, because they think they’re all the stars. Personally, I felt the working schedule was gruelling. One night in the New London Theatre, I fell asleep while I was conducting! I woke up ten seconds later, totally refreshed, and I thought to myself: “They’ve managed without me!” By then, we had been performing the show for about three months. In the preceding weeks, I had spoken to the management about ceding my place to another conductor, but then they offered me an extra bucket of money and I decided to stay… but at the point when I found myself unable to stay awake for the entire evening any longer, my mind was made up and I left. I just don’t like doing the same repertoire for so long. For the next production, ‘Songs and Dance’, I signed on for the first six weeks only. Conducting those Lloyd Webber musicals was interesting, but he isn’t the easiest of persons to work with. My relationship with him is one of the most cordial hatred… but he invites me to all of his weddings!”

Conducting a concert with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall (1976)

One thing led to another, and Rabinowitz was also commissioned to record ‘Memory’, the stand-out song from ‘Cats’, with Barbra Streisand. It is fair to say that Rabinowitz did not think back fondly to his one-off involvement with the American diva.

“I had heard about her reputation of not being the easiest of persons, but I didn’t really believe all of that. She turned up at the Olympic Studios in London, where I was waiting with an excellent orchestra. Just before she came in, we were told by one of her acolytes: “As usual, Ms Streisand will enjoy a dish of Chinese food about halfway through the session,” … and I thought: “Who’s kidding who?” But, my God, after one hour and fifteen minutes, when we had just done three takes and we were rattling to find out why she wanted to record it again, waiters came in with trays of food. Ms Streisand went into the control room and had her Chinese meal, leaving me and the whole orchestra waiting while she was having a go with the chopsticks. She was just in a different world! It was obvious that this woman was going to keep absolute control. I wouldn’t have achieved much by crossing swords with her, because if you do that, somebody is going to walk out of the studio – and that’s not what you’re there for. Having said that, the record was a big success! That was one of those occasions again when Harry signed the wrong contract. He just signed for the fee for conducting the session instead of a per disc royalty…”

In the 1980s, Rabinowitz led the orchestra for several more light-entertainment music albums by Phil Woods, Sarah Brightman, Johnny Mathis, and others. In 1981, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the studio recording of ‘Les lacs du Connemara’ (1981), a song with a most spectacular arrangement, which went on to become a huge success on the Continent for French pop singer Michel Sardou.

At the same time, Rabinowitz was rapidly building up a reputation with classical orchestras as an excellent conductor of film music repertoire. His first association with the London Symphony Orchestra was in 1973. He also conducted the early live performances of the popular Classic Rock series. In 1982, he was closely involved with the first season of LSO concerts at the newly opened Barbican Centre, conducting the ‘Night of Knights’ gala concert and one of the open air concerts on the Barbican’s Sculpture Court. Subsequently, Rabinowitz was invited to the United States to conduct two summer series of film music concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl (1983-84).

“On one of these evenings in the Hollywood Bowl, the great John Williams was in the audience. I didn’t know he was there. Afterwards, he came backstage and said: “We’ve got to have you on the Boston Pops!” John had just taken over from Arthur Fiedler, who had previously led the Boston Pops Orchestra for many years. So, the following year, I came over to Boston to meet the orchestra… and we got on like a house on fire! We could do anything together. I could manipulate, translate, traduce… in fact, do anything except rob a bank.”

Harry Rabinowitz was a guest conductor with the Boston Pops Orchestra for seven seasons (1985-92), on one occasion undertaking a ten-city tour across the USA. Working with the Boston Pops was an experience which he remarked was “one of the most rewarding and exhilarating jobs ever.” Other classical orchestras Rabinowitz conducted include the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the United Kingdom Symphony Orchestra, and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. In 1996, in New York’s Carnegie Hall, he led the Orchestra of St. Luke’s for the Ismail Merchant and James Ivory 35th anniversary celebration.

Asked about his experiences of working with classical orchestras, Rabinowitz once explained how important the first five minutes of the first rehearsal are. “There I am, frail little me in front of 85 musicians I’ve never seen before. They don’t know whether I’m any good at my job. You stand up to make an announcement about what the first piece is going to be – and then you start working, and all eyes are on you, because they want to see whether your signals will be clear and if you manage to deliver the information in a relaxed fashion. Those first minutes of the association between a single humble figure like me and these men and women of experience are the essence of the deal. In those five minutes, the musicians find out if they will ever want to look at you again… because if they can get away without looking at you, they will do so. If they think that you don’t know your job, they won’t tell you to your face, but they will let you feel it – and that must be a truly horrible feeling. On the other hand, if you survive those five minutes, you can do anything with them.”

As a conductor, helped by his decades-long experience in radio and television, Rabinowitz had a reputation for not extending rehearsals any longer than strictly necessary. “The spirit that goes with under-rehearsing is amazing,” he once said. “There are passages in each concert that are risky and could go wrong. Shall I rehearse them again? The answer is: no. Because if you leave some difficult sections of work under-rehearsed, the players will respond – because you aren’t wasting their time by rehearsing unnecessarily. The epitaph which I’ve prepared for myself is: “He never wasted his colleagues’ time.” I’m known for the fact that I can get an orchestra on my side quite comfortably. We survive many a battle together, difficult film scores and concert music, because I know that the most important thing in their lives is to finish the rehearsal early! Then, they can go away to buy a new pair of shoes or do other useful things. In almost all the sessions I’ve conducted, the musicians have left smiling. They didn’t go out drooping or bored. I take pleasure in that.”

Since restarting as a freelance musician in the late 1970s, Harry Rabinowitz was a much sought-after conductor of film soundtracks. Apart from his work on films for television, he conducted dozens of scores for the cinema. His first such engagement was in 1978 for the soundtrack of ‘The Greek Tycoon’. Three years later, he conducted Vangelis’ Oscar-winning movie score for ‘Chariots of Fire’. Rabinowitz also wrote the choral arrangement for the Ambrosian Singers’ rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ for this same film.

“About three-quarters of the way through the work on that movie score, David Putnam, the producer, said: “There’s a smell of success here.” I had never heard anybody say that about a film before. I never know while working on a score whether a film is a hit. It’s easier to predict failure… when the storyline is too complicated for the public to understand. In certain instances, it’s difficult to persuade average film viewers of the fact that there is such thing as a movie soundtrack. They’re just sitting there entranced by the acting and fascinated by the underwear of the leading lady… and nothing else matters. They are unaware that there are people who struggled assembling the music and sticking it on a movie. Well, that is very depressing!”

“In the old days, the music was more dominant, and the relation between the music and the images was determined by the images. If the screen showed a hand coming to the doorknob and it was obvious that there was going to be a disaster when the door would open, the music would be threatening, advertising the fact that something threatening is going to happen. Happily, that style of composing, which is called ‘Mickey Mousing’, has been outmoded. It just doesn’t exist anymore. Over the years, film scores have become more sophisticated. So what you get nowadays is serious composition by serious composers. There’s a lot of talent around in the world of movie music – and a lot of money! Sometimes, the money gets in the way of the talent. One day, we were in London about to record an American film. Suddenly, at the recording, there were these strange figures occupying the control room. Who are they? Do they have any function? No, they are the big money men, the high-placed executives from the film studios who have come to London to do some shopping. That’s their contribution to the recording of the music. You can find those guys say something like: “Can I get a taxi to Harrods from here?” That’s just terrible. Come on!”

Conducting a studio session at London’s Petersham Church Studio (c. 1992)

In the 1990s, in spite of his advancing age, Rabinowitz maintained a busy work schedule, recording nine soundtracks in 1991 alone. As a conductor, he was involved in box-office hits such as ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1990), ‘Howards End’ (1992), and ‘La fille de d’Artagnan’ (1994). His most enduring working relationship in film, however, was with director Anthony Minghella and his composer Gabriel Yared. Rabinowitz led the Academy of St Martin in the Fields for Yared’s soundtrack to the Oscar-winning ‘The English Patient’ (1996). In the following years, he also collaborated with them on ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ (1999) and ‘Cold Mountain’ (2003).

Minghella once referred to Rabinowitz as “the UK’s best-kept secret”, and the esteem was mutual: “Minghella was an immensely talented director. When we had rehearsed a piece of music for a given start in the movie, he could give exact specifications on what needed improvement. “That take which lasts 3 minutes and 57 seconds has got a problem at 2 minutes and 31 seconds, because there the music is in the way of the dialogue.” When he was younger, he played in a rock group. This guy really knew his music, because he had studied it quite carefully. I never came across a bigger talent in the world of film. The combination of the images and Gabriel Yared’s music always worked wonderfully well. When I was running through the music of ‘The English Patient’, there were instances when I realised how perfect many of the scenes were. They couldn’t be improved on in any way.”

Given his reputation as a fast worker in the studio, how much film music did Rabinowitz manage to get recorded on average from a three-hour session? “With luck, I can record eight minutes – eight minutes of highly qualified, perfectly recorded music, married to the images – or perhaps ten, but only if all the music has been perfectly orchestrated and the balance is perfect too. On one occasion, when we were recording a segment of Gabriel Yared’s soundtrack for ‘The English Patient’, we sat down in a London studio with 100 string players. If you were a string player and you weren’t working with Harry that day, you were suburban rubbish! In that session, we did between fifteen and twenty minutes of music – and you know what, the Musicians’ Union came down on us like a ton of bricks, claiming we were denying other musicians access to work on the film. To their mind, we were working too fast. They even changed the union rules because of that. Really! With me, it’s a matter of pride. I don’t hang around in the studio.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Rabinowitz had a singularly unproductive session when recording Martin Kiszko’s soundtrack to the BBC documentary ‘Alien Empire’ (1995) with an orchestra in Budapest. “I speak five languages, but Hungarian isn’t one of them, so I had to have an interpreter. I explained to the lady that she needed to explain to the players that the music we were going to work on was a gentle score about bucolic life. Then I stopped, because the longer you take talking to an interpreter, the more time is wasted. She started talking to the orchestra, and I listened while she went on and on. After some time, I was getting irritated. “Can we stop now?”, I asked, but she said: “Hang on a moment,” and then the concertmaster put down his violin and got up with a notebook and a pencil. What’s he doing? I wanted to start the rehearsal for the recording, but the lady explained that he was going round to find out how many people were staying for lunch in the studio canteen! I couldn’t do anything about it.”

“This session in Budapest turned out to be very close to a disaster. The studio equipment was obsolete and the musicians’ ability to sight-read and interpret fast was just gone. At that point, I decided we had to go somewhere else to have the music score ready before the deadline. I called up the management of the production company and told them to make a phone call to see if the Munich Symphonic was available. They were, and there was a studio free as well, so I was able to leave Hungary to its own devices and go over to Munich, where I found the players able, experienced, willing, and appreciative of the fact that rehearsals finished early – they even asked me back to do a concert with them.”

Following a career that spanned well over seventy years, Harry Rabinowitz conducted his final concert with the London Symphony Orchestra in 2010, when he was 94 years old. The occasion was memorable for more than one reason, as American radio journalist Edmund Stone recounted: “During a particularly vigorous upbeat, Harry’s baton broke in two on the music stand, with the top half of his baton flying over his shoulder into the audience. Without missing a beat, Harry continued conducting with what was left of his baton. The other half was caught by an audience member who then passed it along until it reached the front row. With the maestro still conducting, the baton stub was then given to a bass player who passed it, section-by-section, until it reached the concertmaster who waited until the music was over before handing it to Harry. The conductor immediately asked the lead violinist to kneel, and knighted him on the spot.”

In 2001, after separating from his first wife Lorna Anderson, with whom he had three children, Rabinowitz married Mitzi Scott. The couple divided their time between Portland, Oregon, and their second house in Lacoste, southern France. In his adopted home on the USA’s west coast, he rapidly became a much-loved figure on the cultural scene, regularly appearing on local radio and giving occasional lectures. In March 2016, Rabinowitz celebrated his 100th birthday. The key to his longevity, he said, was no white flour, no smoking, eating fish and masses of vegetables and fruit – “and sometimes I go days without any alcohol whatsoever.” Music remained an integral part of his life until the very end: “I cannot bear being diverted from playing the piano each day,” but there was one downside: “One of the things about being a bloody centenarian is that your pitch goes wobbly. I’m no longer the owner of a perfect pitch.” Three months after his centenary birthday, Harry Rabinowitz passed away at his house in France.

For his accomplishments, Rabinowitz received several accolades. 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 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. Harry Rabinowitz was honoured with an MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 1977. Eight years later, he was made a Freeman of the City of London. In his honour, All Classical Portland decided to name their music library posthumously after him in 2018.

Aged 99, interviewed by BBC’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ (2015)

Harry Rabinowitz in the Eurovision Song Contest
Harry Rabinowitz, who was staff conductor at BBC Television from 1960 to 1968, took part in the Eurovision Song Contest as the United Kingdom’s musical director on two occasions, in 1964 and 1966. He was previously involved in the British selection show, ‘A Song for Europe’, in 1962. On that occasion, however, his role as musical director remained rather limited, only conducting the opening and closing sequences as well as the interval act. Possibly, he had to fill in at short notice for Eric Robinson, who had been the conductor of ‘A Song for Europe’ in previous years, since the orchestra conducted by Rabinowitz was credited as the Eric Robinson Orchestra. The twelve participants were each conducted by an arranger chosen by their record company. Northern Ireland’s Ronnie Carroll won the competition and travelled to the international Eurovision final in Luxembourg accompanied by his arranger and music director Wally Stott.

When asked if there was a fixed BBC policy when it came to picking a conductor for the international final of the Eurovision Song Contest, Rabinowitz commented: “As a standard procedure, the BBC provided the artists with one of their conductors, Eric Robinson or myself. However, sometimes artists worried about themselves and asked if they be allowed to bring along their own music director. Sandie Shaw was one. She wanted her own arranger from the studios, Kenny Woodman. Quite rightly, in cases like this, the BBC always agreed, because it was thought important to put the artists at their ease.”

In 1964, the BBC chose Matt Monro, nicknamed ‘the singing bus driver’ and one of England’s most popular crooners, to represent the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest. The year before, Monro had sung ‘From Russia with Love’, the theme song of the eponymous Bond movie. In ‘A Song for Europe’, Monro performed six songs, from which a winner was selected by the British public: ‘I Love the Little Things’, composed by Tony Hatch and arranged by Johnny Scott. Harry Rabinowitz was musical director, and this time, he led the orchestra for the show as a whole, including the six songs vying for the ticket to the international final as well.

After ‘I Love the Little Things’ had been chosen, Rabinowitz was also designated to accompany 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 in Copenhagen, because we already knew each other so well. We trusted one another.”

Matt Monro – detail from Dolf van der Linden’s copy of the official 1964 Eurovision Song Contest programme (with Matt’s dedication and signature for the Netherlands’ conductor)

In the final, with sixteen countries competing, the United Kingdom was drawn eighth, following the song from France, ‘Le chant de Mallory’ by Rachel, conducted by Franck Pourcel. In the rehearsals, the sing-through of all entries was done in the order in which they would be performed in the live broadcast. Taking a keen interest in the other songs in the competition, Rabinowitz attended the other countries’ rehearsals as well.

“In Copenhagen, we watched the opposition during rehearsals, because we wanted to see how strong the opposition would be. The French chap (Pourcel – BT) came on and, while doing the song with the lady, he got the ending completely wrong. He really mystified the orchestra. They had no idea what he was doing. While we watched him doing it, we thought: “Oh dear, that was really badly conducted!” On the night of the concert, in the British delegation, we wondered if he would do it again… and indeed, he got it wrong again! He made a hash of the final bars. Because the orchestra had had a bad time with the ending of the song, they were very nervous indeed when I came on. We were next! I looked at them and I saw there was a lot of tension on those faces. I had to think of a way to ease their tension. While I was being introduced to the audience on camera, I turned to the concertmaster and said in a loud voice: “Well, by the way, remind me, is this piece in 3/4 or in 4/4?” They all laughed their heads off, because it obviously was an idiotic question… but 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.”

In the voting, Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti proved unstoppable, pushing Matt Monro into a rather distant, yet honourable second position on the scoreboard. Then, the British delegation were in pretty high spirits when they were driven to Copenhagen’s airport to be flown back to London the following day.

“We were all lined up, waiting to get on the plane,” recalls Rabinowitz. “As we had 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 hadn’t shown up. 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 to spend the night there and have a dinner. The next day, we were promised, we would be put on another flight back to the UK. Initially, we were feeling a bit down-hearted, but suddenly we realised we had an open expense account for elegant food and drinks! 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, a man from British Airways burst in the door. He brought us the message that a plane had been diverted from Helsinki to touch down in Copenhagen and take us back to London that same night. Of course, at that stage, we wanted to have nothing of it! We told him 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.”

Rabinowitz conducting the orchestra at the 1964 Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen

In 1965, Eric Robinson was back to conduct the UK Eurovision entry; his fifth and, incidentally, last appearance in the international final. Rabinowitz and Robinson were colleagues for many years, but never developed a warm working relationship. When asked about Robinson, Rabinowitz’s tone of voice markedly changed. “Speaking honestly, Eric Robinson was a big nuisance. He was never a staff arranger or conductor at the BBC, but did lots of television on a freelance basis – and I don’t know why he got so much work, because he was a very poor conductor. As a singer, I would never have felt truly at ease with Eric Robinson conducting for me. He had no technique. I remember coming into a studio when he was trying to rehearse with an orchestra on a minute detail, a change of tempo. And they kept on getting it wrong and wrong and wrong… because he kept on getting it wrong and wrong and wrong! “Don’t worry chaps, we’ll get it right!”, he said – really, he didn’t have a clue.”

In 1966, Harry Rabinowitz’s services were again called upon. That year, the BBC decided to send the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar to Eurovision. At the time of the UK preselection, however, Rabinowitz was ill. He was replaced by Malcolm Lockyer, a conductor who principally worked for BBC Radio at the time. In ‘A Song for Europe’, McKellar presented five songs, from which the audience chose ‘A Man without Love’, penned by Peter Callander and Cyril Ornadel. Given musical trends in the 1960s, sending a classically trained singer to a popular music contest was a highly unusual choice, for which the broadcaster’s Head of Light Entertainment, Tom Sloan, was responsible. “Tom Sloan had decided he had had enough of pop singers,” Peter Callander observed, “so he got Kenneth McKellar, who was very popular at the time, as he had his own series. Now Eurovision and Kenneth McKellar just don’t go together, but he didn’t care about that. He wanted a proper singer for a change.”

Since Rabinowitz had recovered in time for the international Eurovision final in Luxembourg, he was the musical director for the BBC’s delegation in the Grand-Duchy. Even though he had been unable to conduct ‘A Song for Europe’, his position as number-one choice conductor for McKellar does not seem to have been in question. Just like Matt Monro, Kenneth McKellar was an artist with whom Rabinowitz had done many programmes prior to the Eurovision Song Contest. “McKellar and I had a good working relationship. I suppose that’s why he chose me to be his musical director 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… a hell of a good musician who produced a lovely sound. Besides, he also was a good chap to work with and I had the highest respect for him.”

The songwriting team behind ‘A Man without Love’, lyricist Peter Callander (left) and composer Cyril Ornadel

As in Denmark two years prior, Rabinowitz took a close interest in the rehearsals of the other entries. Even after all those years, he vividly remembered Italy’s Domenico Modugno. Modugno had been furious with Italian television who had failed to accredit his three-piece accompanying group for the contest. He caused considerable chaos at the first rehearsal, when the orchestra provided by Luxembourg’s broadcaster did not play the arrangement of his song ‘Dio, come ti amo’ to his satisfaction – probably little more than a well-prepared publicity stunt. Consequently, his trio of accompanists was flown in from Milan and, under the guidance of the man originally scheduled to conduct the orchestra for the Italian entry, Angelo Giacomazzi, they provided the musical accompaniment. This makes ‘Dio, come ti amo’ the first Eurovision song in history to be performed without orchestral backing. Judging from Harry Rabinowitz’s recollections, he attended Modugno’s second rehearsal.

“Modugno turned up with his small accompanying ensemble. We were particularly looking forward to hearing his song, because Modugno was an important man. He previously wrote ‘Volare’ and that had been a big, big hit. He might be a threat to us! While he was on stage performing the song with his group, all of us were sitting quietly listening… and he was still performing four and a half minutes later! When they were done, the producer came down and said: “Monsieur Modugno, you know the rules of this contest… there’s a maximum of three minutes per item!” Like all other artists, he was subject to the point of time. Modugno was a very tall man and he rose to his full height: “What is your proposal?” When he was told he had to slice a bit off to comply with Eurovision rules, he exploded in a paroxysm of rage: “What are you talking about? I cut my music for nobody!”

“Then, he gave a signal to his little band of musicians. They very slowly and gently packed up their instruments, took their sheet music, and put it away. One after the other, in file, they trooped slowly to the exit door of the hall, which was at the far end of the theatre – the door gave out onto the street. When they got there, they suddenly realised nobody was trying to stop them. Then came a moment of utter anti-climax: led by Modugno, they walked back onto the stage. Modugno said: “OK, we cut,” and then continued the rehearsal as if nothing had happened! Now all of this took place in total silence; we all sat there in the hall, dumbfounded. We didn’t know what to say, what to think or do! We thought that it was extraordinarily funny though. Eventually, when the rehearsal was over, we could not help breaking into laughter and applause.”

After obviously making a fool of himself in rehearsals, Modugno was in for more disappointment, as he finished last in the voting, not receiving a single point from even one of the international juries.

Kenneth McKellar with Harry Rabinowitz posing for press photographers at Heathrow Airport, prior to their departure to Luxembourg for the 1966 Eurovision Song Contest

The UK delegation had other problems. The biggest question in the minds of the small BBC delegation was whether Kenneth McKellar should be advertising his Scottishness by wearing the kilt. “It had been a big discussion at the BBC, already under way while we were still in London”, Rabinowitz recalled. “Most of the people involved thought it was a good idea, because he was not known so much as a pop artist, but much more as a singer from Scotland. They argued that he should keep his identity. McKellar did not object. He had brought the kilt with him as well as a suit, because even when we came to Luxembourg, the discussion raged on. It was a very sharp debate. In the end, the decision was taken… and he sang in the kilt. Now, the BBC always made a point of finding out how the public reacted to their programmes. After the contest, they held an audience appreciation around Europe to find out what people thought about the competition. Some weeks later, the collected opinions came in from across the continent – and among the nations consulted was Yugoslavia. The opinion collected there was the outstanding one. They thought the entry had been okay, but they felt the lady who sang it was rather butch.”

It is an anecdote that sounds almost too funny to be true… however, Rabinowitz was not the only one who had memories of the event. Songwriter Peter Callander, who was part of the British delegation in Luxembourg, also recalled the story circulating at the offices of the BBC. In the end, in spite of a particularly impressive performance, Kenneth McKellar picked up just eight votes, finishing in a modest ninth position, the worst result for a UK Eurovision entry up to that point. “We got blown as far as the music was concerned,” commented Rabinowitz. “I can’t pretend that there was any talent in the song. I thought it wasn’t really strong enough for such a contest. It was too old-fashioned for the time and the voting proved me right.”

When asked to assess the importance of his two appearances in the Eurovision Song Contest, Rabinowitz commented: “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!”

Kenneth McKellar performing his Eurovision song on stage in Luxembourg, wearing his kilt

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 several 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)

Singer Yvonne Jay has pleasant memories of the opportunity she had to work with Harry Rabinowitz in the 1970s, towards the end of his tenure as Head of Music at LWT: “I was lucky enough to be chosen to feature on a pilot show for Scottish Television. I was flown down to London to meet the director Brian Izzard and the cast. At the rehearsal, we were all handed sheet music... I immediately went into panic mode! I couldn't sightread. I knew the songs I was to be performing, but I remember walking around frantically wondering what I was going to do. I even remember walking into a big pillar in the studio and saying sorry. I approached the musical director whose name was Harry Rabinowitz and I explained my situation. He then asked me if I knew the songs I was to sing for the recording session. When I said yes, he replied: “Then we shall see how well!” Later that afternoon, it was my turn to step up to the microphone in front of the forty-piece orchestra and Harry Rab. I took a deep breath and began to record my vocals. To my surprise, Harry turned around after about eight bars and gave me a wonderful thumbs up and a big smile! Later that day, I was told by some of the orchestra’s musicians he never usually did this. It worked out wonderfully; the pilot was a success and I was engaged to do a series of seven shows for STV. I am so happy to have worked under his direction and I will never forget it and how happy I felt that it worked out for me.” (2016)

Harry Rabinowitz with comedian Terry-Thomas: BBC Studios, mid-1960s

Links & sources
  • In order to compile this biography, several interviews with Harry Rabinowitz were used as sources:
    • First and foremost the interview Bas Tukker did with him for this website in December 2009.
    • An interview by Peter Korn for the Portland Tribune in 2008, which can be found by clicking this link.
    • An interview from 2015 when Harry Rabinowitz was Kirsty Young’s guest on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’, which can be listened to by following this link.
    • A lecture Rabinowitz gave in Portland on the occasion of his 100th birthday in March 2016, which can be watched by clicking this YouTube link.
  • Several obituaries of Harry Rabinowitz, found online in newspapers and on websites provided further relevant details of his career as well as important reference material.
  • The first volume of Gordon Roxburgh’s ‘bible’ of UK’s Eurovision history: “Songs for Europe – The United Kingdom at the Eurovision Song Contest. Volume One: the 1950s and 1960s” (Telos: Prestatyn 2012).
  • Thanks are due to Peter Korn of the Portland Tribune for helping me to get in touch with Harry Rabinowitz; and to Petula Clark, Tony Hatch, Ernie Dunstall, and Yvonne Jay for sharing their memories of working with him.
  • All pictures courtesy of Harry Rabinowitz and Mitzi Scott; thanks to them for allowing us to use these photos from their private collection.
  • Thanks to Lily Beatrice Cooper, Joe Newman-Getzler, Joseph Beaver, and Edwin van Gorp for proofreading the manuscript; and to Edwin van Gorp for putting it online.

  

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