About Maurice Elwin

About Maurice Elwin


Maurice Elwin (whose real name was Norman MacPhail Blair; 1896-1975) was one of the most prolific British recording artists of the interwar period. His artist output, which has never been successfully enumerated, may be in the order of magnitude of 2,000 record sides 1 — in other words, approaching the number of recordings that Sam Browne made, or almost twice that of Al Bowlly (both of whose careers were longer). Elwin sang with some of the hottest British bands of his day, most notably those directed by Bert and John Firman (such as the Rhythmic Eight) and the Decca studio bands led by Arthur Lally (the Rhythm Maniacs being the most famous). He also recorded with elegant orchestras such as Carroll Gibbons’s Savoy Hotel Orpheans, and he issued records with smaller groups or as a solo artist in great numbers as well. The question arises, then, as to why Elwin does not enjoy an outsize reputation like those of Browne and Bowlly.

Dance band vocalists’ names are very seldom found on record labels: it is typically the bands who are credited. The singer became famous, not just through having a recognizable voice, but also through solo recordings, through radio (or even television) appearances, and by being constantly featured in the press. Maurice Elwin’s name occurs on plenty of record labels, but just as often he used one of more than sixty pseudonyms (as a singer — he had another set of names he used when composing). He appeared on the radio, even being heralded in the BBC’s Radio Times as “the Monarch of the Microphone” — and yet not as often as one might have expected. As to newspapers and magazines, one gets the distinct feeling that Elwin was somewhat shy, or at least not as self-promoting as other artists.

There is another important factor in Elwin’s fame not being comparable to that of other artists. Other crooners impress us with their extroverted vocal personae, which are romantic, boastful, and effusive. Elwin was, by comparison, understated and subtle. His singing and diction were incredibly precise; he was quiet compared to other singers, and if he showed emotion, it was as a modest divergence from his usual tone, not a great one. Elwin was always working to define the overall sound of interwar British popular music, not to stand out as a larger-than-life personality.

Maurice Elwin may have been one of the hardest-working men in British entertainment, for from an early age he did not merely perform music; he was a tireless composer. Again, it is hard to say how many songs he composed or collaborated on, as he used over twenty pseudonyms when publishing music. While he retired from singing in 1936, he continued writing music late into his life.

While he did so much directly to affect the sound of British music, Elwin must also have had an indirect influence that his hard to measure, and that is through his coaching of other singers. He advertised himself as a voice instructor as early as 1918. By the 1930s, he was “voice-doctor to the stars,” and he continued to announce the availability of his services through 1959.


Maurice Elwin was born Norman MacPhail Blair on June 14, 1896 in Uddingston, nine miles southeast of Glasgow, Scotland. His father Donald was a stockbroker’s cashier, and his mother Eliza a music teacher; both parents were both pianists and singers, and several of Norman’s six older siblings would become proficient in music. 2 Elwin seems to have started singing early, performing as early as age six. 3 By the age of nine his “remarkable intelligence and effect” in singing “The Lads in Navy Blue” with two other boys was remarked upon by a local paper. 4 He was educated at Glasgow Academy and, after that, the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he studied under Frederic King and Sir Henry Wood.

When the First World War began, Elwin entered the Officers’ Training Corps and joined the Highland Light Infantry as a Second Lieutenant, 5 It would appear that he was in a reserve battalion that did not see combat, and there is evidence of his having been engaged in some interesting musical activities during the course of the war. On December 2, 1916, he made his first known recording, a Gramophone Company test disc of a setting of Coleridge’s “Eleanore.” The record was not issued. It is interesting that the ledger lists his name as “Maurice Elwin” — this may be the first known instance of the best known pseudonym of Norman MacPhail Blair. 6 He is again called “Maurice Elwin” in newspaper references to musical performances he did in connection with pianist-composer Isador Epstein. 7 By April 1918, Elwin was advertising his services as a singing teacher in Reading, 8 and by mid-year, he had been discharged from the military due to some unspecified malady through which his future wife Zena is said to have nursed him. She had lost her husband in the First World War and had two children, Arthur and Linnie, with whom Elwin clearly became very close. 9 Norman and Zena would marry in 1925.


The period of 1923-1936 was Maurice Elwin’s busiest in terms of publicly visible activity as a singer and composer. 1923 saw Elwin joining Lareine & Co., Ltd., a music publishing firm, at its inception. 10 Snippets of his musical compositions were advertised in The Era. 11 But by late 1925, Elwin had returned to singing publicly and to making records.

1925 is the year of Elwin’s first commercially issued solo recordings, which were, from the beginning, mostly under pseudonyms. By 1926 he was also recording as an anonymous “vocal refrain” singer for dance bands. It is my intention to write about both kinds of records on this website, so I will not do so in much detail here, other than to provide what I hope will be a sufficiently overwhelming list of Elwin’s engagements as a dance band recording artist. It is arranged according to when Elwin made his first recording with each group:

  • Stan Greening’s Dance Orchestra (1926)
  • Victor Sterling and His Band (1926)
  • Ronnie Munro and His Dance Orchestra (1926-1929)
  • Jack Payne and His Hotel Cecil Orchestra (1927)
  • The Piccadilly Revels Band (Ray Starita dir.; 1927)
  • The Debroy Somers Band (1927)
  • Will Hurst’s Band (1927)
  • Nat Star’s bands (1927-1929):
    • Norman Mede’s Dance Orchestra
    • Nat Star and His Dance Orchestra
    • Selwyn’s Dance Orchestra
    • Eugene Brockman’s Dance Orchestra
    • Kemble Howard’s Dance Orchestra
    • Bert Maddison and His Dance Orchestra
  • Bert and John Firman’s bands (1927-1932):
    • Bert Firman’s Dance Orchestra
    • The Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band
    • The Rhythmic Eight
    • The Arcadians Dance Orchestra
    • The London Orchestra
    • The Orpheus Dance Band
    • John Firman and His Band
  • Geoffrey Gelder and His Kettner’s Five (with the Ramblers; 1927)
  • The West End Players (Jack Harris dir.; 1928)
  • Tommy Kinsman and His London Frivolities Band (1928).
  • Harry Bidgood and His Broadcasters (1928)
  • Biffo and His Serenaders (1929)
  • The Metropole Dance Band (1929)
  • Paul Clifford and His Band (1929)
  • Arthur Lally’s bands (1929-1932):
    • Philip Lewis and His Dance Orchestra
    • The Rhythm Maniacs
    • Arthur Lally and the Million-Airs
    • The Savana Players
    • Arthur Lally and His Orchestra
  • Herman Darewski and His Famous Melody Band (1929-1930)
  • Percival Mackey and His Band (1930-1931)
  • The Versatile Four (1930)
  • Ray Starita and His Band (1930-1931)
  • Van Phillips and His Band (1930)
  • Dell’s Casino Dance Band (1930)
  • The Buckingham String Players (Van Phillips dir.; 1930)
  • Scott-Wood and His Band (1931)
  • The River Club Orchestra (1931)
  • Dave Frost and His Café de Paris Band (1931)
  • Henry Hall (1931-1932)
  • Jack Hylton and His Orchestra (1931)
  • Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Hotel Orpheans (1932-1933)
  • Jay Wilbur’s bands (1933-1934):
    • Jay Wilbur and His Band
    • Lew Sylva and His Band
    • The Connecticut Collegians
  • Bertini and the Tower Blackpool Dance Band (1934)

Note that for Nat Star, the Firman brothers, Arthur Lally, and Jay Wilbur, the names of different “bands” are really marketing devices, not genuinely different groups of musicians. It should also be noted that many records were also issued on the Ariel label, which referred to almost all bands by a pseudonym, most commonly “the Ariel Dance Orchestra.” At any rate, we see that Elwin worked with an unusually large number of bands, often simultaneously, recording a truly impressive number of discs.

In addition to recording solo, in duets, or with dance bands, Elwin worked early on with a quartet called the Ramblers on Columbia (on the sister label Regal they were called the Syncopated Four). They recorded, broadcast on 2LO, and performed at Ciro’s, the Alhambra Theatre, the Astoria Cinema, and the Holborn Empire. 12 They even performed during the intermission of “The Girl Friend” at the Palace Theatre, which had 421 performances. 13

Maurice Elwin did not avoid offbeat recording arrangements, it would seem. He recorded several records with yodeler George van Dusen, which I hope to feature on this site in the coming weeks. As far as I can tell, Elwin did not do any yodeling himself.

Elwin appeared on the radio, as can be seen from various mentions by the BBC Radio Times (“the Monarch of the Microphone”), but not, perhaps, as much as other artists of his caliber. Some of his appearances may not have been mentioned as such (it appears that he collaborated frequently with Van Phillips and organist Alex Taylor, 14 and they would have been the ones mentioned in the Radio Times). His records (under various names) would have been played by early DJs such as Christopher Stone. Elwin did appear on television at least twice in 1934 (he is mentioned as “the mystery gramophone voice of many names”). 15 Chris Hayes claims that his voice can be heard in some films, as he was in the practice of “ghosting” for other singers; trying to identify those films, if they survive, should be an interesting task. 16

Elwin’s collaboration with dance bands seems to have diminished and then stopped completely in 1934. He continued to release other kinds of music through late 1936, although increasingly less frequently, at which point he stopped recording entirely. It would appear that Elwin suffered from rheumatism and, much worse still for a singer, “pernicious catarrh,” which, as I understand it, would have made it very difficult for him to sing and might have even caused intermittent deafness. In subsequent years he would develop a way of coping with his illness that he shared with others whose voices had “died.” 17


Maurice Elwin never seems to have stopped instructing students in the production of good, strong singing voices. Even while he was still recording, Elwin took time out to train others and even shared his wisdom with the general public. 18 He saw successful crooning as being partially an understanding of vocal resonances and the microphone, partially a question of breathing, but also a matter of sincerity and psychology. Elwin claimed proficiency at treating the neuroses of his students, and as he transitioned into less recording and more teaching, he advertised himself as a “voice-doctor to the stars,” even using a stethoscope to measure “voice resonance”:

Maurice Elwin with Stethoscope, June 1934
Maurice Elwin uses a stethoscope to measure his student’s vocal resonance (June 1934; from the collection of Terry Brown)
Maurice Elwin, Voice Doctor to the Stars (1937)
Maurice Elwin, Voice Doctor to the Stars (1937; advertisement from the collection of Terry Brown)

Elwin was described in a 1939 England and Wales Register as a “Professor of Singing & Acting” and “Psychological Help to Nerve and Asthmatic Cases.” 19 He continued advertising these services through late 1959, repeating Musical Pictorial’s assessment of him as “THE GREATEST TEACHER OF SINGING OF OUR TIME” (emphasis his). 20

Elwin made occasional radio appearances during this period that must have helped business. In 1939, he appeared on the BBC to DJ some of his old records. 21 After the war, he did a series of broadcasts on Radio Luxembourg as “The Voice of Experience,” offering advice; 22 his sincere, soft voice must have been extremely welcome to the public. He appeared on BBC radio in 1957 to explain how he managed to restore his own voice, and even sang a bit to prove his point. 23

Elwin never stopped composing music, frequently under various pseudonyms. He even collaborated with his stepdaughter Linnie (who worked under the professional name “Wendy Warner”) and his wife Zena. Perhaps his latest great success was the song “At the End of the Day” (1951), which he wrote as Donald O’Keefe for Gracie Fields (although Dorothy Squires’s version was the most commercially successful). 24

Maurice Elwin’s reputation in the music industry continued to be powerful even into the 1960s. As late as 1966 he is mentioned in the press as having used his influence to promote the talent of a previously unknown, inexperienced songwriter. 25 When his wife Zena died in 1968, he is said to have finally retired from his various professions and to have rededicated himself to helping other composers. 26 Maurice Elwin died October 5, 1975 at the age of 79 and was buried in Hampstead Cemetery.


The modern public is most likely to have heard Maurice Elwin’s voice on the Retrieval albums collecting Arthur Lally’s Philip Lewis/Rhythm Maniacs sessions at Decca. Jazz aficionados are quite likely to have heard Elwin accompanying the hot Firman bands. Those who collect old British dance band records and related popular music from the interwar period know his beautiful baritone voice well. But he did not just make an impression on the grooves of shellac records; he lived for art — including for the art of others, and his influence as a composer, as a teacher, and as a sort of occupational psychologist must be present in the music of other singers as well. It is my goal on this website both to take on the challenge of writing about Elwin’s subtle vocals and to try to document his unusual role in making British music what it was and is.

I am deeply indebted to Terry Brown and John Wright for doing a great deal of the research that went into this initial assessment of Maurice Elwin’s life and career. Thanks also to Stephen John Paget, Jean Campbell Collen, Peter Wallace, Henry Parsons, Jonathan David Holmes, and the other members of the Golden Age of British Dance Bands Facebook Group for their contributions.


  1. Hayes, Chris, in collaboration with George Carpenter, “Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part II: The Vocalist Who Made at Least 2,000 Recordings,” Memory Lane 49 (Winter 1980/1981): 33.
  2. Henderson, John, “Norman MacPhail Blair,” Electric Scotland, https://www.electricscotland.com/history/other/blair_norman.htm; see also Chris Hayes, in collaboration with George Carpenter, “Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part One: The Singer-Composer with Sixty Names,” Memory Lane 48 (Autumn 1980): 25.
  3. Hayes, “Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part One,” 25.
  4. Hamilton Herald and Lanarkshire Weekly News, March 7, 1906, 7, British Newspaper Archive.
  5. Hayes, “Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part One,” 25.
  6. Kelly Online Database: A searchable database of recordings made by the Gramophone Company, and its successor corporations during the 78 RPM era; derived from lists assembled by the late Dr. Alan Kelly; edited by Stephen R. Clarke and Roger Tessier; last updated November 21, 2020, https://www.kellydatabase.org/Entry.aspx.
  7. Gloucestershire Echo, September 21, 1917, 1, British Newspaper Archive; The Era, February 13, 1918, 12, British Newspaper Archive. Elwin appeared in a concert again with Epstein in 1919 (Advertisement, “Grand Afternoon Concert,” Reading Observer, April 5, 1919, 2, British Newspaper Archive).
  8. Reading Mercury, April 20, 1918, 1, British Newspaper Archive.
  9. Hayes, “Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part One,” 26 and passim.
  10. Baton [pseud.], “Bandsmen: Here, There & Everywhere with the Melody Makers,” The Era, August 25, 1926, 15, British Newspaper Archive.
  11. E.g., Advertisement, “‘Maurice Elwin’s Ballad Successes,” The Era, July 18, 1923, 1, British Newspaper Archive.
  12. Advertisement, “Bertram D’Arcy,” The Stage, March 10, 1927, 11, British Newspaper Archive.
  13. Contemporary theater program belonging to Terry Brown.
  14. Hayes, “Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part One,” 25.
  15. “Television: By the Baird Process,” Radio Times, November 2, 1934, 438, BBC Genome; “Television: By the Baird Process,” Radio Times, December 7, 1934, 886, BBC Genome.
  16. Hayes, “Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part One,” 25.
  17. Hayes, “Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part One,” 26.
  18. Maurice Elwin, “Some Truths About Microphone Singing,” Rhythm, March 1934, 33-34; Maurice Elwin, “Psychology and Singing,” Rhythm, December 1934.
  19. Ancestry.com.
  20. Maurice Elwin, advertisment, The Stage, November 19, 1959, 23, British Newspaper Archive.
  21. “Maurice Elwin,” Radio Times, May 19, 1939.
  22. Hayes,“Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part II,” 33.
  23. “Woman’s Hour,” Radio Times, November 20, 1957.
  24. Hayes, “Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part One,” 26.
  25. “Matt Monro May Record Housewife’s Song,” Reading Evening Post, December 6, 1966, 2, British Newspaper Archive.
  26. Hayes, “Chris Hayes Remembers Maurice Elwin, Part One,” 27.