Dorothy Squires was a Welsh singing legend when Tom Jones was just starting school. CHRIS WHITE looks back at her turbulent life and soaring talent.
Dorothy Squires was one of the biggest British singing stars of the 1940s, a charismatic and electrifying stage performer.
Thanks to a lengthy professional – and personal – partnership with the respected composer and musician Billy Reid, she topped theatre bills throughout Britain and became one of the UK’s biggest record-sellers.
She was born Edna May Squires near Llanelli in South Wales, on March 25, 1915, the daughter of Archie Squires, a steelworker, and his wife Emily.
After leaving school, young Edna May worked behind the counter at the local Woolworth store and then found employment in a tinplate factory.
One of her earliest musical memories was watching and listening to Al Jolson in the first ‘talkie’ movie, The Jazz Singer. It fired the young girl’s determination to become a singer and performer herself.
At the age of 18, Edna moved to London in her pursuit of fame and fortune.
There, she became a regular at the Burlington Gardens Club, which led to her first radio broadcast in 1936 after the noted American pianist Charlie Kunz heard her.
The Composer and The Voice
Several months later Dorothy (as she had re-christened herself) was booked to do a show with the Southampton-born musician Billy Reid who had his own popular accordion band. It was the beginning of a long and successful partnership.
Dorothy made her recording debut with Billy Reid in 1936. It was to be several years, however, before they finally achieved ‘overnight’ success.
The first of many hits that Reid specifically composed for Dorothy was Coming Home, in 1945.
Dorothy performed the song on the hugely popular BBC radio series of the day, Variety Bandbox, and it became a big success with the British record-buying public.
Other hit recordings Reid and Squires introduced were The Gipsy, Safe In My Arms Again, I’ll Close My Eyes, It’s A Pity To Say Goodnight, Danger Ahead, A Tree In The Meadow, Reflections On The Water, and Mother’s Day.
Many of these Billy Reid songs were also became big hits for American performers like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Al Jolson, The Ink Spots, Eddie Fisher, Margaret Whiting and Ella Fitzgerald.
Reid was one of the first British songwriters to achieve such recognition for his songs across the Atlantic, preceding Lennon and McCartney by some two decades.
Dorothy and Billy Reid topped variety shows throughout the country, where they were billed as ‘The Composer and The Voice’. By the end of the 1940s, Dorothy Squires was one of the most popular singers in Britain.
She became a resident star of BBC radio’s popular Variety Bandbox programme, and made her London Palladium debut with Billy Reid in 1946.
In the early 1950s, however, Squires and Reid parted company acrimoniously. The split, which led to several law suits, was followed with one last joint hit record, I’m Walking Behind You.
Marriage and America
Soon afterwards Dorothy was introduced to a young unknown actor called Roger Moore, 12 years her junior, who had been invited along to a party at her home. It was the start of romance and they subsequently married in the United States in 1953.
For much of the decade Dorothy based herself there, initially in New York City and then in Hollywood, tirelessly championing her young husband’s early film and TV career.
Dorothy also had some stage success in Hollywood where she appeared in cabaret at the Moulin Rouge nightclub. One of her most ardent fans was a young Elvis Presley, who attended several of her performances and visited her backstage.
She returned to Britain for occasional variety tours when her supporting casts included such up-and-coming names as Peter Sellers, Larry Grayson, Hylda Baker, Morecambe and Wise, and Bruce Forsyth.
In 1961 Dorothy teamed up with popular pianist Russ Conway to record one of her own songs, Say It With Flowers, which spent ten weeks in the pop charts.
On the strength of this success, Dorothy became the first British performer to play London’s top nightspot, The Talk of the Town.
Heartbreak and comeback
Sadly, however, these personal triumphs were overshadowed by the acrimonious break-up of Dorothy’s marriage to Roger Moore, who had met a young Italian actress Luisa Mattioli.
Dorothy refused Roger a divorce for more than seven years, and the mid-1960s became a bleak period for her.
In 1969, however, she staged an sensational professional comeback, entering the charts with a powerful ballad version of For Once In My Life, which had been a huge hit for Stevie Wonder earlier the same year.
In 1970, she had two more smash hits – Till, followed by a powerful interpretation of the Frank Sinatra hit song, My Way.
Claiming she she was being ignored by TV and radio, Dorothy hired the London Palladium for a comeback concert in December 1970.
Her many critics predicted that the event would be a monumental flop. But within hours of the box office opening, all 2,300 tickets had been sold.
Dorothy arrived on stage to a standing ovation, which was repeated at the end of her two hour-plus performance. She appeared at the Palladium on several more occasions, and in 1974 was booked to headline a variety season there.
She also headlined in concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall and at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. She toured Britain, returning to The Talk of the Town in London, and appearing at the Royal Albert Hall and the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.
The twilight years
In 1982 Dorothy became the first light entertainment artist to perform at London’s new Barbican Concert Hall. She also continued to release occasional recordings, including a typically dramatic version of I Am What I Am from the stage musical Les Cages Aux Folles.
Sadly, however, her personal life had begun to fall apart, and Dorothy became heavily involved with litigation.
Ruinous court costs led to her being declared bankrupt in 1986. She was evicted from her riverside home in Bray, Berkshire, and her possessions were sold at public auction.
She gave her last stage performance on March 17, 1990, at Brighton’s Dome Theatre before returning to her native South Wales to live as a semi-recluse in a house loaned to her by a long-time fan, Esme Coles.
Diagnosed with cancer in 1996, Dorothy displayed her usual resilience face of adversity, but in the early hours of April 14 1998, she died in hospital.
The legend lives on
With plans for a blue plaque unveiling in Llanelli, a book in the pipeline, and a website dedicated to her memory, plus numerous reissues of her many recordings, the Dorothy Squires legend lives on.
Even her ex-husband Roger Moore (who helped pay for her hospital treatment when she was ill) has in recent years paid tribute to her formidable vocal talents, and expressed his regret at the pain he caused her when he walked out on their marriage in 1961.
Shirley Bassey, who recalled being taken by her mother to see Dorothy perform in Cardiff when she herself was just a youngster, has said that Dorothy was one of the finest singing talents ever to come out of Wales.
The late Danny La Rue – who often impersonated Dorothy in his own stage act – said that she was the first of the belting-style female singers, paving the way for performers like Bassey.
Praise indeed from some of the biggest names in British entertainment, and worthy tributes to the considerable (if today rather overlooked) vocal talents of the temperamental, but electrifying, Dorothy Squires.