The great luxury item in our house in my childhood was a radiogram, in a finely polished square mahogany cabinet that stood about 4 feet high, and had a lid which lifted to reveal a turntable capable of taking up to 8 records. These were automatically released in turn as the previous one finished, at which point you took them all off, turned them over, and listened to the B-sides.
My parents had a lot of records and naturally, I was warned to be very careful when playing them as they broke or cracked very easily. Dad liked Bing Crosby and my mother’s favourite singer was Monte Rey, so I grew up hearing these singers and their songs over and over again. Bing not only sang but also made films, became very famous, and is still a household name – but hardly anyone today has heard of Monte Rey the singer, as opposed to Monterey the place.
That is really quite surprising, because he had a long and successful career in the 1930’s, 40’s and even 50’s. My mother was thrilled at seeing and hearing him perform live when she was about twenty, and must have had most of his records. A true fan!
In the 1970’s or 80’s, Dad bought a cassette recorder and managed to record most of their old 78’s. A pile of cassettes unearthed in the process of clearing my bedroom ready for the carpet fitters proved to be songs by Bing and Monte. With new batteries the old cassette recorder now works perfectly, so much to my mother’s delight she can listen once again to her heart-throb.
But who was Monte Rey? A Scottish operatic tenor born James Montgomery Fyfe on 5 October 1900, who got into showbiz at the relatively late age of 26. Having been sponsored by the Duchess of Montrose and the film star Jack Buchanan amongst others he decided to take classical singing seriously and left for Italy to study under singing teacher Briano Onielo (who turned out to be an Irishman named Brian O’Neil)!
As Montgomery Fyfe he appeared in many prestigious London venues such as the Albert Hall, the Palladium and the Wigmore Hall. In 1934, the famous bandleader Geraldo was looking for a Spanish tenor in a show called Château de Madrid, and Montgomery was suggested – with a slight change of name. A series of successful radio shows, some with Geraldo, others with Joe Loss, and recordings for transmission by radio Luxembourg, ensured his lasting popularity until he decided to give up professional singing in 1956. At that time, he withdrew to the Isle of Arran, where he lived peacefully and quietly with his wife, making a living collecting dues on the pier at Brodick. His last radio appearance was on Scottish radio on his 80th birthday, when he was still hale and hearty, and still singing. He died in 1982.
His style of singing went out of fashion in the fifties and sixties and his name was forgotten, and yet listening to him as my mother replays her old favourites and relives her youth, I am struck by what a magnificent voice he had. Surely Monte Rey deserves to be ranked with the great tenors of the twentieth century such as John McCormack, Richard Tauber or Mario Lanza. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, either, if his photos tell the truth, and I can’t help wondering what kind of career he would have had if he had been born in the second half of the twentieth century instead of at the beginning. Would he have been competing in “The Voice” or “Britain’s Got Talent”?