Anne Lenner (1912–1997) was a popular English female vocalist, singing with the dance bands of the 1930s. She is most closely associated with Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Orpheans, a band who regularly played at the Savoy Hotel in London; she made many studio recordings with this band. The British bands played a softer version of the swing jazz popular in the USA during the 1930s and 1940s.Read More
Family and home
Anne was born Violet Green on 24 December 1912, in Aylestone, Leicester. Her father was Arthur Green, a variety performer who adopted the stage name of Tom Lenner, and toured with his wife, Florence Wright, Anne’s mother. Anne attended school locally, at King Richard’s Road school.
Anne had five sisters: Florence (who became Judy Shirley), Maidie, Ida, Rosa (who used the stage name Sally Rose), and Ivy (who became Shirley Lenner, and had a successful career in show business, singing with Joe Loss among others). All the sisters followed their father into show business, apart from Maidie who married a property millionaire. Anne also had two brothers, Herbert and Arthur. Herbert died at a young age, and Arthur went on to become a cobbler.
Anne married a dance producer by the name of Piddock, whom she met while appearing in a review produced by him. They had one son Jeffrey, who went into show business under the name of Jeffrey Lenner. Jeffery was educated at Bedford School but ran away to join the Ice Follies, which came through town when he was in the 6th Form. Jeffrey found it difficult to obtain work after his return from Australia, where he had hosted his own television programme, and he was never able to emulate the success of his mother.
Anne attended Brooklands motor racing circuit during the 1930s.
Around the outbreak of World War II, Anne got married for a second time, to up and coming actor Gordon Little, who was in the Navy stationed at Portsmouth. Anne rented a house in Warsash, Hampshire, to be near her husband, who commanded a torpedo boat during the war, with the flotilla moored near Warsash. The couple hosted many parties in their home. Anne and a friend, Eustace Hoey, opened the Ward Room, a club in Curzon Street, London especially for Gordon; so he and his Navy friends had somewhere to go on their visits to London. The marriage didn’t last for long after the war. There were no children, and Anne did not marry again.
After her retirement, Anne lived for many years in Edgware, north London, in an uncomfortable flat opposite Edgware station. She spent a lot of her later years caring for her mother, who died at 102 years of age. Despite her previously glamorous life, Anne never complained about her reduced circumstances in her later years.
Anne died at the age of 84, on 4 June 1997, at Barnet Hospital.
Carroll Gibbons’ widow Joan recalls "Anne was a marvellous raconteur, a very quick brain and with a strong sense of humour. She once told me that she would have liked to have been a comedienne. She suffered from failing eyesight towards the end of her life and found it difficult to get around."
Anne’s first stage appearance was in a family acting, singing and dancing production, billed as “Tom Lenner and his Chicks”. Later, Anne teamed up with Ida and formed “The Lenner Sisters”. The two sisters performed in Leicester, with concerts at the de Montfort Hotel, singing on stage at the City Cinema, tea dances at the Palais de Danse in Belgrave Gate, and Sundays at Aylestone Boathouse. The Lenner Sisters song and dance act ended when Ida got married and started a double-act with her new husband. Her elder singer Judy paid for Anne to have dancing lessons; so she could understudy Judy in a production showing at the Loughborough Theatre.
Anne began performing solo at charity shows, benefits and social clubs. She was soon heard by scouting agents and by 1933 she was offered engagements in London. She appeared at Jack’s Club, and the Cabaret Club, where she had to perform with a megaphone. At another engagement in 1934, at Murray’s Club in Soho’s Beak Street, she was heard by Savoy Hotel bandleader Carroll Gibbons.
Carroll was so impressed with Anne’s voice, that he invited her to record with his group for a Radio Luxembourg broadcast sponsored by Hartley's Jam. The story goes that the session was booked for 9:30am the next morning, but Anne was late for what was her first really big break. Luckily, Carroll was so keen that he booked another session with Anne for later that day. The broadcasts were successful, and Anne was given a three year contract to sing with Carroll at the Savoy Hotel. The Savoy management initially objected to the presence of a female vocalist, but Carroll believed in Anne and he refused to give in. In the event, she stayed with the Carroll Gibbons band for seven years.
Apart from the Hartley’s Jam programme, Anne also appeared with Carroll Gibbons in the “Ovaltineys” where she became known to millions of children as “Auntie Anne”. Anne sang with a gentle “Mayfair” accent, based on received pronunciation, and she didn’t attempt to “project” her voice at the audience. With her soft pure voice she was ideal for the typically English sounding Savoy Orpheans and fitted in very well, becoming extremely popular not only with patrons of the Savoy, but also with the record buying public and the huge radio audiences.
As a successful entertainer, she was part of the glamorous world of the rich and/or famous. Many of her dresses were designed by Colin Becke, whose sister was band vocalist Eve Becke. Anne recalled: "My days were always very full and time flew. I was very lucky to be singing during a period of the best song writers and I think when British dance music was at its best."
Her contract for the Savoy did not prevent her from recording just one song with Joe Loss in 1936 or appearing with Eric Wild and his “Tea-timers” who were regularly on pre-war television from Alexandra Palace. Anne recalled having to wear green lipstick when on the embryonic TV station. In the same year she also contributed to bandleader George Scott-Wood’s record “Fred and Ginger Selection” where she sang “Lovely To Look At” and duetted with Brian Lawrance on “I Won’t Dance”.
Some of the other standards Anne recorded, and especially enjoyed, during the 1930s were “All The Things You Are”, “There’s A Lull In My Life”, “A Foggy Day in London Town”, and “Room 504”. She recorded over 150 titles with Carroll Gibbons, both with the full band and with a smaller contingent which Carroll called his “Boy Friends”. It was with the Boy Friends that Anne made the Hartley’s Jam broadcasts mentioned above. These radio programmes were introduced by Jimmy Dyrenforth who introduced Anne as the "girl friend". Incidentally, Carroll and Dyrenforth co-wrote many of the songs sung by Anne on the Hartley’s shows.
Anne spoke very fondly of Carroll Gibbons. In her own words: "To work with, he was the most understanding, gentle and kind person. The boys respected and loved him. He was not only the boss but interested in their private lives and was a friend to all of them. Carroll’s boys all looked good and were very versatile, especially George Melachrino who played oboe, viola and sax and Reg Leopold who played violin, viola and sax. I loved singing with the full orchestra but also enjoyed sessions with The Boyfriends and the sweet trumpet of Bill Shakespeare. Through Carroll’s influence, I enjoyed tremendous respect and kindness from all of them."
Anne left the Savoy Hotel in 1941, to spend more time with her husband. Nevertheless, she kept up her broadcasting and recording dates with the Savoy Orpheans. She also appeared on BBC radio in the weekly series Composer Cavalcade with the BBC Concert orchestra directed by organist Sidney Torch. She shared the singing spots with Denny Dennis, George Melachrino and Sam Costa, all of whom were by now in the armed forces. She was also in demand for ENSA shows and was called upon to sing at official Government functions and performed in front of Winston Churchill and General Dwight D. Eisenhower among others.
She appeared in the 1940 British comedy film “Garrison Follies” which also included David Tomlinson and Barry Lupino; and on another occasion her singing voice was dubbed for actress Ann Todd.
During the war years, Anne sung with a number of other bands notably Jay Wilbur, Jack White, Louis Levy, and Frank Weir at the Astor club where George Shearing was in the band. She only recorded a handful of songs with these bands. She also recorded just one song with Maurice Winnick; on the other side of the record Al Bowlly took the vocal. Anne also sung on broadcasts with the Stan Atkins’ Band around this time.
After the war she did troop shows in Austria, Germany and Italy; one with her trio which included Spike Milligan on vocals and guitar of whom she later said: "He is a lovely man, so talented. We still keep in touch and I visit him and his wife at their lovely Sussex home." Her overseas work also included Monte Carlo where she had a show at the Casino and in Paris where she sung with Bert Firman. She never sang in the USA although a tour was planned but was halted by the outbreak of the war.
Back in the United Kingdom, Anne was singing solo. She could also be found teaming up with Bob Harvey for a double-act entitled "Just The Two Of Us".
Anne noticed that the entertainment world was changing, and decided to retire from show business. Her nephew, John Doyle, believed that her voice had started to fail; which may have been partly due to heavy smoking and the strain placed on her vocal cords by working without microphones during her early career. By now her marriage to Gordon Little was over and she was looking for a new direction. Following a chance meeting with an admirer from the Savoy days, she managed to get a job as a telephonist in the Civil Service working for the security services. She produced the annual Civil Service show on several occasions.