Saturday, February 2, 2013

"A Garden in the Rain"

By Chet Williamson

The author of the achingly beautiful ballad "A Garden in the Rain," Carroll Gibbons was born and raised in ClintonMA. He gave his first recital at the age of 10 at St. John’s Catholic Church, 80 Union Street

After graduating from Clinton High School, where he was known as “Gibby,” he continued his studies at New England Conservatory of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London.

A page from his Clinton High School Yearbook
He grew up at 65 Forest Street and played in the Clinton High School orchestra. He wrote the class song, and in the yearbook it is written: “To mention Carroll’s ability as a pianist is a bit superfluous. He has gained wide recognition and in the pursuit of the study of music we all a feel his success is ultimate.” 

Gibbons' piano, now in the Clinton Historical Museum
                                       Gibbons’ career as a pianist, songwriter, and composer was mostly spent in England, where he became a darling of British audiences as both a radio personality and bandleader from the 1920s into 1950s.

While still at NEC, Gibbons became fast friends with Rudy Vallee, a fellow classmate studying the saxophone – this was long before the megaphone crooner of “vo-dee-oh-do” brought him international fame. After graduating, the two men formed a band that became a regional sensation, barnstorming the New England scene of the early Jazz Age.  

Young Rudy Vallee

The Savoy Hotel Orpheans

In 1923, both musicians found themselves working at the Savoy Hotel, located just off the Strand, in the Westminster section of Central London. At the time, the establishment employed two working orchestras -- the Havana Band and the Orpheans. Both Gibbons and Vallee worked in each group.

It was a gig that almost wasn’t for Gibbons. As British writer Percy Bickerdyke tells it, Vallee was the musical interest of the hotel not the Clinton-born pianist. 
“In 1924 the Savoy sent banjo player Joe Brannelley back to his  native America to seek out new talent for the hotel’s growing group of orchestras. When Joe discovered the two young musicians he cabled the news back to London, only to receive the reply from the Savoy: ‘Bring Vallee. Not Gibbons.’”

The S.S. Olympic, a sister ship to the Titanic
Evidently there were an ample amount of piano players in old town at the time. But according to Bickerdyke, the telegram arrived too late. And, Brannelley, who purchased tickets for both musicians for passage on the SS Olympic, didn’t have the heart to tell the then 21-year old Gibbons that he was not hired. 

Upon their arrival in England, Vallee became a member of the Savoy Havana Band, while the unemployed Gibbons soon collected a gig playing dinner music at the Berkeley Hotel in Piccadilly. He also began studying with Ambrose Coviello at the Royal Academy of Music. “It was there that [Gibbons] developed his ‘velvet touch,’ which was to thrill music lovers for the next 30 years,” said Bickerdyke.

The Royal Academy of Music
While at the Berkeley, Gibbons also began organizing his own band, and when a spot opened at the Savoy in 1926, the enterprising young pianist was hired. “The clientele at London’s top hotel quickly warmed to the quiet American with that unforgettable slow drawl – the result of speech therapy to cover up a childhood stammer. 

As it turned out, they regarded his slight stutter when talking from the piano as an added attraction.” In addition to his piano work, Gibbons continued to write. As a composer, his best known songs include the standard, “A Garden in the Rain,” most recently covered by Diana Krall.  

Gibbons also penned, “On The Air,” which became his signature song and “I’m Going to Get Lit Up When the Lights Go Up in London,” which became a WWII wartime hit sung by Hubert Gregg. Among Gibbons many instrumental compositions are "Bubbling Over" and "Moonbeam Dance," which were minor hits also throughout the United Kingdom.

In 1928 Gibbons became musical director of the Gramophone Company. He later held that position with both British and Dominion Film Corporation. In 1929, he appeared in the film Splinters, and would later contribute to such British celluloid as Trottle True, Call All Stars, I Live in Grosvenor Square, and Rookery Nook. Carroll also composed music for such London shows as Leslie Henson’s Gaieties, Big Boy, Open Your Eyes, and Sylvia

Gibbons would on occasion return to the United States but England became his home. He did, however, spend a couple of years in Hollywood. From 1930 to 1931, he became a staff composer at MGM Studios. He was hired by fellow pianist, Johnny Green, (author of “Body and Soul”), who was the studios’ director of music.

Gibbons and fellow pianist Johnny Green

Author A.J. Bastarache, in his book Clinton; An Extraordinary Town, wrote: “Perhaps fellow Clintonian Clarence Brown, the leading director of MGM at the time, or Clintonian Al Altman, Vice President at MGM had something to do with the move. In Hollywood, Carroll worked with world famous Harry Warren, Billy Rose and Richard Rogers.” 

Returning to London in 1931, Gibbons was appointed exclusive musical leadership at the hotel and became director of the hotel’s band, the Savoy Orpheans. And, between 1932 and 1954 (the year of Gibbon’s death), the Orpheans made hundreds of recordings, many with singer Anne Lenner. He also recorded with American stars, such as Paul Robeson, who delivered a powerful rendition of Gershwin’s classic, “Summertime.”

Gibbons performing for WWII workers in London

Throughout WWII -- through live performances, film and radio -- Gibbons brought memorable music into the lives of the war-torn British people.

As writer Bickerdyke explains, “Since America was officially neutral for the first two years of the Second World War, Carroll Gibbons could have chosen to return to the USA to live, but he refused. He was actually in America on holiday in September 1939, but when war broke out he immediately scrambled to get back to Britain, which had become his adopted home.”

“By 1940,” wrote Bastarache, “The Savoy had been transformed to include a bomb shelter and Red Cross station. Carroll and his band provided a sliver of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic and desperate time. During the bombing of London, instead of halting the show and seeking shelter, Carroll Gibbons and his band, The Savoy Hotel Orpheans, would play through the air raid sirens, anti-aircraft cannons and exploding bombs -- anything to entertain and encourage the troops and the ‘blitzed’ in attendance.”

Noel Coward
Gibbons aired regular radio broadcasts throughout the bombing. And, as author Bickerdyke recounts, on one occasion a shell exploded so close to the hotel that he and musicians were blown off the stage. “While Carroll groped around looking for his glasses, a famous personality jumped onto the rostrum and began playing piano to cheer everyone up. It was Noel Coward,” he wrote. 

According to Bickerdyke, Gibbons was a great favorite with the Royal Family, who would often be hired to play private functions at Buckingham Palace. One particular date was the silver wedding anniversary of the King and Queen Mother in 1948.

According to Bastarache, Princess Margaret danced in public for the first time to the Savoy Hotel Orpheans and Queen Elizabeth asked Carroll Bibbons and his band to lead at her 1953 Coronation Ball.

“But it was at the Savoy that he endeared himself to the British public,” wrote Bickerdyke, “and a gold-plated plaque is still to be found on one of the hotel's grands, stating simply: ‘Carroll Gibbons played at this piano – 1926-1954.”

After a short illness, Gibbons died in a London nursing home in 1954. He was 51. At the time of his death the British publication, Melody Maker magazine wrote: “His piano playing was tasteful and fascinating, simple enough but unique for his left-hand back-tenth technique. It was no surprise that he possessed great ability at his fingertips, for he was thoroughly trained, showed early promise, and gave his first recital when only ten years of age.”

Of his career in England, author Brian Rust wrote: “All who had been entertained by his music for so long felt they had lost a valued friend – an American who wasn’t the brash, loud-mouthed type that some transatlantic visitors have been, but one who came to entertain, to cheer and sustain his British friends.”

Carroll Gibbons is one of several famous musicians buried in Brookwood Cemetery in SurreyEngland. He rests near the chapel in plot 124. 


“A Garden in the Rain” (1929)

Writers: Carroll Gibbons and James Dyrenforth

Most recently revitalized by Diana Krall, “A Garden in the Rain” was written in 1928 and, oddly enough, first recorded by George Metaxa, a Romanian diplomat, who later became a musical comedian in England

The band that backed this singer? Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans.

This catlike song has had a series of lives in its career. First, in the late 1920s with Metaxa and Gibbons; it was also recorded before the decade was out by Gene Austin, John McCormick and George Olsen. “A Garden in the Rain,” has been recorded virtually every decade since and by a rash of disparate artists from Gene Austin to Perry Como, from the Four Aces to Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.

Dan Hicks
The opening lines are fragrant with more than a whiff of sentiment, yet the melody’s lyricism is undeniable. “T'was just a garden in the rain / Close to a little leafy lane / A touch of color 'neath skies of gray / The raindrops kissed the flowerbeds / The blossoms raised their thirsty heads /  A perfumed thank you / They seemed to say.”

Its construction is a 32-bar song form. The opening “A” section’s harmony sets up this elegant melody beautifully, but the minor bridge alternating from the I-minor to the V-chord before shifting to a similar sequence of I-major to the V-chord is what gives the song its uniqueness and majesty.

Krall’s considerable version was recorded by Impulse and released on her 1997 disc, Love Scenes. Another worthy take is the 1962 Reprise release, Frank Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain.

“A Garden in the Rain” – sung by Frank Sinatra

Clinton celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1999. To mark the occasion a series of events occurred. One such happening was a concert featuring compositions written by composers from the town. Clintonian pianist and composer Allan Mueller organized the show and subsequent recording. The Gibbons songs included on the disc are “A Garden in the Rain,” “Miss Understood,” and “Peace of Mind.” It was produced by the Clinton Historical Society.  


“You’ve Got To Admit” – performed by Carroll Gibbons (from the show Hi Diddle Diddle)


“On the Air” – performed by Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans

“My Cigarette Lady” – performed by Rudy Vallee
Nat Star

“Running Between the Raindrops” – performed by Nat Star

“I’m With You One Hundred Percent – sung  by Frances Day with Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans

Frances Day

Other songs written by Carroll Gibbons includes: “A Most Attractive Bounder,” “The Balloon Tune,” “Big Boy,” “Bubbling Over,” “Don’t You Know I Care,” “Gaiety Gallop,” “Kid from Camden Town,” “I’ll be Getting Along,” “I Think of You,” “I’m Going to Get Lit Up When the Lights Go Up in London,” “It’s Only You,” “It Was Swell While it Lasted,” “Lead Themselves a Dance,” “The Life and Times of a Gaiety Girl,” “Misunderstood,” “Moonbeam Dance,” “My Heart is Taking Lessons,” “My Lips and Your Lips,” “Peace of Mind,” “Peter Pan,”  “Possibly,” “The Ovaltiners Theme Song,” “Summer Rain,” “Sylvia,” “Tomorrow is Another Day,” “Trottie Romance,” “Trottie True Trott,” “We Talk About You Every Night,” “White Wings.” 

James Dyrenforth

Collaborators: Jimmy Campbell, Reginald Connelly, Noel Coward, James Dyrenforth, John Redmond, Billy Rose, Rudy Valle.

Quote: “Treat every night as a first night.”
Reginald Connelly


DOB: January 4, 1903 (Clinton, MA)
DOD: May 10, 1954 (London)

This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome. Also see:


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