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William Garnet (Billy) James (1892–1977)

by Harold Hort

This article was published:

William Garnet (Billy) James (1892-1977), composer, pianist and director of music, was born on 28 August 1892 at Ballarat, Victoria, son of native-born parents Andrew James, compositor, and his wife Louisa, née Chapman, a pianist. In 1909 Billy entered the University Conservatorium of Music, Melbourne (Dip.Mus., 1912), where he was awarded honours for playing the pianoforte. From 1913 he studied in London and in Brussels with Arthur de Greef, a Belgian pianist who had been a pupil of Franz Liszt. Rejected for active service, James worked in London for the British Red Cross Society. Following his public début (during an air raid) with the Queen's Hall Orchestra in 1915, he appeared in promenade concerts under Sir Henry Wood and at the Royal Albert Hall with (Sir) Landon Ronald, as well as in the provinces. James's ballet score, By Candlelight, was played in a concert at the Savoy Theatre in 1916. He also published a number of compositions, including Six Australian Bush Songs which he dedicated to Dame Nellie Melba, and held a contract with the Milan publishing house, Giulio Ricordi & Co. At St Luke's parish church, St Marylebone, London, on 14 September 1921 he married Saffo Buchanan, née Drageva (d.1955), an opera singer from Russia who was known as Saffo 'Arnav'.

Having toured Australasia (1923) with Stella Power, James remained in Melbourne and from 1925 taught piano at the university conservatorium under Professor (Sir) Bernard Heinze. In 1926-28 he again toured extensively, with Toti dal Monte and John Brownlee, before accepting a full-time position with the Australian Broadcasting Co. as director of programmes (largely comprising music from gramophone records and live studio performances) for its radio stations, 3LO and 3AR.

When the company was superseded in 1932, James continued with the new Australian Broadcasting Commission as controller of programmes in Victoria. In 1935 he became its federal controller of music, based in Sydney. Emulating the British Broadcasting Corporation, music constituted more than one-half of the total A.B.C. time on air. James recalled: 'I used to audition artists, engage them, give piano recitals and talks on music myself, and conduct the opera and operetta broadcasts. It was very personal and pleasant'.

Under his guidance, the number of musicians in the A.B.C. orchestras increased. By 1936 there were forty-five in Sydney, thirty-five in Melbourne, seventeen respectively in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, and eleven in Hobart; the orchestras were augmented by casual players for symphony concerts. Enthusiastically supported by the chairman W. J. Cleary, general manager (Sir) Charles Moses and Heinze, James made numerous trips abroad to hear, interview, recommend and engage nearly all the 'Celebrity' artists brought to Australia by the A.B.C. Sir Hamilton Harty came in 1934 as the first of the famous guest conductors and was rapidly followed by other conductors, singers, pianists, violinists, the Budapest String Quartet (1935) and Marcel Dupré, the French organist (1939).

The procession of celebrities ceased during World War II. Their places were filled by Australians. To ensure the same standard, James adjudicated at all competitions held by the A.B.C. throughout the Commonwealth to discover new talent. From 1942 (Sir) Neville Cardus conducted a weekly session of expert musical commentary; his place was taken in 1948 by A. E. Floyd. After the war, air travel made it easier for James to persuade celebrities to visit Australia. By the time he retired in 1957, the nation's musical appreciation had been enriched and transformed, largely 'by his own world-mindedness, his acute distaste for the second rate' and 'his ability to recognise star talent . . . on the way up'.

A modest and retiring man, James was 'short and slim, with a sharply triangular face, and . . . heavy-lidded eyes'. He played golf and tennis, and never willingly missed an important cricket match. In 1960 he was appointed O.B.E. At St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, on 25 June that year he married a widow Caroline Mary Dally-Watkins, née Skewes; they were to be divorced in 1967. He continued writing songs in his retirement. Survived by the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died on 10 March 1977 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. As a composer James is best known for his three books of Australian Christmas carols (words by John Wheeler); he also wrote Sea Shanties (1934), some piano pieces and a one-act operetta, The Golden Girl (1920).

Select Bibliography

  • I. Moresby, Australia Makes Music (Melb, 1948)
  • R. Covell, Australia's Music (Melb, 1967)
  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • Australian Musical News, 31 July 1913, p 195, 1 Mar 1917, p 277, 1 Jan 1918, p 185, 1 Sept 1922, p 926, 1 May 1923, p i, 1 Sept 1924, p 59, 2 Feb 1925, pp 31, 39, 1 Jan 1927, p 21, 1 Apr 1931, p 27
  • Listener In, 17 June 1933, p 13, 14 Oct 1933, p 11
  • ABC Weekly, 3 Feb 1940, p 25, 21 Dec 1946, p 4, 10 July 1954, p 10, 28 Aug 1957, p 4
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 4 Oct 1928, p 19
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July, 27 Aug 1957, 11 June 1960, 11 Mar 1977.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Harold Hort, 'James, William Garnet (Billy) (1892–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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