A SUNDERLAND singer who became a household name in the early days of television has died at the age of 102.
Alf Pearson, who was born in High Barnes, but grew up in Ford Estate, joined forces with his brother Bob to form a double act in the 1920s – much to the disappointment of their father.
The builder, who wanted the boys to follow in his footsteps, soon overcame his misgivings – when they started appearing on the bill with stars such as Harry Lauder, Bud Flanagan and G.H. Elliott.
The pair would go on to win worldwide fame as Sunderland’s Sunny Sons – singing in thousands of concerts around the globe and making more than 400 records.
“Alf was a real gent, an entertainer of the old school. I’m really sad to hear of his death,” said Alistair Robinson, the Echo’s former theatre writer and now a lecturer at Sunderland University.
“It was a privilege to get to know him when I was researching my first book on the Empire Theatre. Alf was one of the last links with the golden age of variety.”
Alf, who was born in 1910, took his first steps towards stardom at 14 – when he appeared in a stage prologue for the epic silent film The Covered Wagon at the old King’s Theatre.
The youngster was tasked with singing the tune Oh Susannah in the week-long production, for which he received £6 and 10 shillings – an “astronomical sum” for those days.
“He had been working in a solicitor’s office earning two shillings and sixpence a week before this,” said local historian Carol Robertson, the Echo’s former Wearside Echoes writer.
“But his decision to follow in his mother’s footsteps, rather than his father’s, obviously paid off. She was a singer who performed professionally as Emily Smiles, and was very well known locally.”
Alf continued to hone his singing talents as a member of the St Gabriel’s Church Blue Boys’ Concert Party over the next few years until, in 1927, he teamed up with Bob to sing duets.
The pair performed at amateur shows and parties across the North East, to great acclaim, before winning a competition to record two songs with Columbia Records in 1928.
“So began their illustrious and successful career,” said skiffle musician Chaz McDevitt, who wrote a short biography on the brothers to accompany a CD of their tunes which was released in 2001.
“Bob and Alf were one of the few singing duos to span the decades from the 1920s until the 1980s Their gentle humour and immaculate harmonies made them enormously popular.”
The Pearson family had moved from Sunderland to Surrey just before Alf and Bob won the contest – where the boys were helping out in their father’s firm, plastering new houses.
Fame did not come instantly. Indeed, the brothers continued as plasters by day while singing at evening functions. Eventually, the Hippodrome Greenwich offered them their first break.
“At this time they were advised to go and see Frank Ruebens, manager of Bert Feldman’s Music Publishers, and sing for him. Frank asked them to return the next day,” said Chaz.
“The following day they arrived to find the room packed with photographers. Also present was Jack Hylton, the famous impresario and bandleader.
“As a result of this ‘chance encounter,’ many newspapers carried the story of how Frank had heard two plasterers singing as they worked, and was so struck by their talent he had introduced them to Jack – who was going to sign them up!”
The enormous publicity generated by the Jack Hylton tale prompted the BBC to book Bob and Alf for the hit radio show Saturday Music Hall, where they took to the airwaves in 1929.
At the same time, the pair also volunteered to work with Scottish engineer John Logie Baird on his idea for a new type of entertainment – television.
The brothers are believed to have been the first couple to have their faces on the small screen, for which they were paid the princely sum of two guineas – worth about £99 today.
Alf was later to recall: “There were only about 400 TV sets in the country and the picture was about the size of a cigarette card.”
As the brothers became more and more popular, they opted to give up plastering and turn to showbiz full-time. Tours with Will Hay, Gracie Fields and Stanley Holloway followed.
Soon, the pair were broadcasting each Saturday from the Mayfair Hotel with Ambrose and his Orchestra – while weekdays were spent recording songs such as Try A Little Tenderness.
Other hits for the brothers included Oh Donna Clara, Tears, Walking My Baby Back Home and We Bring You Melody From Out Of The Sky, My Brother And I – their signature tune.
Alf and Bob had become household names by the mid-1930s, drawing the crowds at theatres nationwide and guesting with big bands such as Jack Payne, Jack Hylton and Harry Bidgood.
Even the the Second World War couldn’t stop them performing. After joining the Entertainments National Service Association, they sang to troops across Europe and Africa.
Once hostilities came to an end, the brothers went back to their regular radio broadcasts, taking part in shows such as Ray’s A Laugh, Variety Bandbox and Palace of Varieties.
“The truth is that Bob and Alf would have been heard in virtually every home in the country on the wireless. Listening figures were phenomenal – equal to today’s TV ratings,” said Chaz.
“This popularity prompted Parlophone to sign them, and they had considerable success with songs such as with Red Roses For A Blue Lady, Baby Show and Mariandl, Andl, Andl.”
Indeed, such was the success of the brothers that, in 1947, they were initiated into The Grand Order of Water Rats – a show-business charity limited to just 200 long-serving entertainers.
Bob went on to reach the penultimate office of Prince Rat, while Alf became King Rat in 1997 – joining the ranks of such comedy legends as Les Dawson, Roy Hudd and Danny La Rue.
The late 1940s saw Alf and Bob reach the peak of their careers, with their own TV show broadcast from Lime Grove – Fresh Airs and Places – as well as regular radio spots and a headlining theatre tour.
“They carried on through the 1950s and 60s too, fighting a rearguard action against swiftly-changing musical trends, and their work scheduled remained very heavy,” said Chaz.
“There were ice shows at Ramsgate, Skegness, the Isle of Man and Norwich, as well as pantos, summer seasons and a five-year world tour with The Golden Years of Music Hall.”
But Bob and Alf still found time to pop back to Wearside occasionally too, where their sisters still lived, appearing in pantomime at the Empire in 1969 and with the Music Hall show in 1973.
“We were just kids when we were appearing with some of the old-timers,” recalled Alf during a visit in 1968. “We have spanned the years between Florrie Ford and Sandie Shaw.
“We’ve been very lucky. We have gone on steadily and, when we have been ‘resting,’ its been our own choice. As long as people want to hear us entertain them, that is all there is to it.”
Not only did the pair perform up to three shows a night at the height of their fame, but they also appeared on a host of TV programmes such as A Century of Stars and Top of the Bill.
But, in October 1985, the brothers sang their final medley – as guests of Sir Harry Secombe on his show Highway. Bob died two months later, ending a partnership of 56 years.
“They were the best of pals and the best of partners, always,” said Chaz. “They had a long and happy career, with tremendous moments of success and glory.”
Even the death of Bob couldn’t stop Alf performing. He appeared in the TV show You Rang, M’Lord? in 1988 and released a compilation CD of his hit duets with Bob in 2001.
But on July 7, just three weeks after his 102nd birthday, Alf took his final curtain. A funeral service is to be held in Surrey – where he had been living in a retirement home for entertainers – on July 23.
Comedian Bryan Burdon, who was Prince Rat to Alf’s King Rat in 1997, said: “Alfie was the personification of the professional variety performer. He was always immaculately dressed.
“He was a reminder of an age in the theatre that has altered dramatically. The performances of Bob and Alf were unique, due to the meticulous detail that they put into their act.”
Comedian Don Smoothey added: “Alfie and I were friends from the 1950s. We worked in panto, summer seasons and variety in places as far afield as South Africa and New Zealand.
“He had a wonderful command of language and, although self-taught, was a mine of information – always seasoned with a great deal of humour and a twinkle in his eye.
“Alfie might have been small in stature, but he always stood his ground. I could not have wished for a finer friend. Sleep well dear Alf.”
l The CD My Brother & I: Bob and Alf Pearson is available from Rollercoaster Records at: Rock House, London Road, St Mary’s, Chalford, Gloucestershire, GL6 8PU.