Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Davidson, James Hutchinson (Jim) (1902–1982)

by Jeff Brownrigg

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

James Hutchinson (Jim) Davidson (1902-1982), band leader, was born on 6 August 1902 at Balmain, Sydney, second son of Alexander Davidson, a restaurant cook from New Zealand, and his English-born wife Mabel, née Walker. Jim described his father, of Scottish descent, as hard, stern and unsmiling. His maternal grandfather encouraged his interest in music, taking him to hear the American bandmaster John Philip Sousa on his Australian tour of 1911. Davidson took up the cornet, joining his school cadet band and a local church band. After leaving school at 14, he found work with the soap manufacturer Lever Bros Pty Ltd. His days, however, were a means to an end and nights were given over to music. Replacing his cornet with a drum kit, he played in dance band and cinema pit ensembles.

On 8 February 1928 Davidson married Gertrude Madeline Kitching at St Thomas’s Church of England, Rozelle; they were to be divorced in 1935. He had joined Jimmy Elkins’s dance orchestra in the mid-1920s and after it disbanded in 1928 he played at the Ambassadors restaurant until it was destroyed by fire in 1931. Following engagements at the Ginger Jar and a significant concert at Hillier’s Café in August 1932—sometimes described as the first jazz concert in Sydney—Davidson opened the winter season of 1933 at Sydney’s Palais Royal dance hall, which drew crowds of 10,000 a week. Further successful seasons followed in 1934 and 1936. A regular Thursday evening 2UE live radio broadcast from the Royal augmented his audience. The Columbia recording company made sound recordings of his most popular pieces; Davidson claimed that a 78-rpm disc of `Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ and `Forty Second Street’ sold 95,000 copies. He and his orchestra also played a six-month season at the Palais de Danse at St Kilda, Melbourne, in 1933. At a formal `Dress Night’, when patrons were encouraged to dress as elegantly as the musicians, who routinely wore evening dress, Davidson met Marjorie McFarlane, an artist. They were married with Presbyterian forms at Scots Church, Melbourne, on 7 June 1935.

While in Melbourne, having signed a contract with the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Davidson enlarged his orchestra and performed over the national network to all States. Broadcasting from Sydney from 1936, Jim Davidson’s ABC Dance Band, with the trumpeter Jim Gussey, the vocalist Alice Smith and the trombonist and arranger George Trevare, became the most popular in the country. It presented dance programs on Friday and Saturday evenings and played for other ABC shows including `Out of the Bag’ and `A.B.C. Parade’. In 1937-39 the band made three interstate tours, with a variety of artists including Bob Dyer, Tex Morton and Gladys Moncrieff. Davidson was a strict but encouraging leader who inspired great loyalty in his players.

On 30 May 1941 Davidson was appointed an honorary lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force. He produced, directed and led the orchestra in variety shows staged for troops in the Middle East and the South-West Pacific Area. From 1943 he was in charge of the AIF’s concert parties. Rising to temporary lieutenant colonel, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers in October 1947. He applied for the position of director of light entertainment at the ABC but was unsuccessful. Stung by his rejection, he made use of management skills developed in his military command, taking up an offer of work as director of productions for the Tivoli circuit and, soon after, for Harry Wren Enterprises. He managed Australian tours for performers such as Will Mahoney and Evie Hayes and for the British comedian Tommy Trinder.

In 1947 Davidson joined the British Broadcasting Corporation. He arrived in London with his wife the following January. Starting as assistant-head of variety (music), he rapidly advanced to become the second-in-charge of the light entertainment unit. His most important contributions included support for what became the `Goon Show’, which went to air against some resistance on 28 May 1951. Davidson estimated that he had produced 3500 live shows on radio, among them a historic Beatles concert at the Royal Albert Hall in April 1963. He was given a farewell concert there before his retirement in September.

Returning to Australia in 1964, Davidson was disappointed that although Australians remembered his success as a band leader, they were unaware of his achievements in England. He served briefly as a consultant to the ABC but found that old `ghosts’ continued to haunt its corridors. The Davidsons turned to house renovation and gardening, first in Sydney and then in the southern highlands of New South Wales. Survived by his wife, Jim Davidson died on 10 April 1982 at Bowral and was cremated. His memoir, A Showman’s Story (1983), was published posthumously.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Bisset, Black Roots, White Flowers (1979)
  • K. S. Inglis, This Is the ABC (1983)
  • Wireless Weekly, 13 Jan 1939, p 16
  • ABC Weekly, 2 Dec 1939, p 75, 18 Jan 1941, p 7, 6 Jan 1951, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 1946, p 4, 12 Apr 1982, p 2
  • Jazz (Sydney), May-June 1982, p 33
  • Australian Performing Arts Collection (Callaway Centre, University of Western Australia)
  • Jim Davidson papers (National Film and Sound Archive).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jeff Brownrigg, 'Davidson, James Hutchinson (Jim) (1902–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davidson-james-hutchinson-jim-12405/text22301, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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