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Luscombe, Lennard Earl Max (Len) (1893–1957)

by Barclay Wright

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Lennard Earl Max (Len) Luscombe (1893-1957), pianist and piano-roll manufacturer, was born on 19 August 1893 in East Melbourne, son of Max Luscombe (d.1914), a watchmaker from Berlin, and his Victorian-born wife Elsie, née Drake. Living at Fitzroy, Max played the trumpet in theatre orchestras and Elsie taught music. Their son's piano lessons began when he was aged 3. Extremely shy and reserved, Len was dominated by his mother, with whom he lived for most of his life. She was determined that he become a child prodigy. He, however, preferred popular dance music and by 1911 was conductor-violinist and arranger for a Melbourne theatre orchestra.

Fascinated by the new medium of piano-roll recording, about 1916 Luscombe made some of the earliest to be produced in Australia, using brown wrapping-paper carefully cut by hand with a pen-knife. In 1917 he left for the United States of America where he performed, held the post of music director at the Century Theatre, New York, took lessons from the composer T. M. Tobani and visited piano-roll companies, especially that of the Connor family at Chicago.

Back in Melbourne and with the financial support of his mother, Luscombe founded the Anglo-American Player Roll Co. in 1921. It produced piano-rolls under the 'Broadway' label. He imported machines for roll-production (including an electric cutter) from the Acme Machine Co., Newark, New Jersey. In addition to running the company, Luscombe was its sole artist, recording in the quiet of the night. He used names such as 'Dan Rawlins', 'Art Kaplan' and 'Earl Lester' to create the impression of a larger staff of pianists. The Acme company later supplied him with quantities of American masters. Initially these were rather plain and uninteresting, but soon works by the great arrangers of the Q.R.S. Music Co. were sent from America and issued on the Broadway label.

Like those of his rival George Henry Horton, manufacturer of the Mastertouch label in Sydney, Luscombe's rolls provided home-made, mechanically-generated entertainment for thousands of Australian households. From the player-piano's heyday in the late 1920s until the coming of television in the 1950s, countless unskilled but enthusiastic 'players' pumped pianola pedals, while onlookers sang the words printed on the paper roll. A dark, good-looking man, Luscombe was a committed artist, whose work never lost its freshness. Of all the Australian pianola musicians—among them Edith and Laurel Pardey and Lettie Keyes—he made the best transition to recording the new rhythms of popular music after World War II.

At the Unitarian Manse, East Melbourne, on 4 September 1957 Luscombe married Eugenie Victorine, née Dineley; she was a postmistress and a divorcee. He died of cancer on 8 December 1957 and was cremated; his wife and his mother survived him. The Broadway label, plant and library of masters were purchased by Horton's firm. Luscombe's rolls have survived and reveal a remarkable musicianship: his cleverness was that he used few notes. Pianola-roll enthusiasts still search diligently for his arrangements.

Select Bibliography

  • Mastertouch Piano Roll Co, Mastertouch, golden jubilee catalogue (Syd, 1969)
  • W. M. Denham, publisher's note (typescript, copy on ADB file)
  • private information.

Citation details

Barclay Wright, 'Luscombe, Lennard Earl Max (Len) (1893–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/luscombe-lennard-earl-max-len-10873/text19301, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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