Wednesday 20 September 2017

A look at the life of Forces' Sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn as she turns 100

By Francesca Gosling

Some things you probably didn’t know about the legendary singer.

Dame Vera Margaret Lewis Lynn was born in London on March 20 1917, meaning she will celebrate her 100th birthday this coming Monday.

During her early 20s she earned herself the name of the Forces’ Sweetheart after she travelled long distances, often at great personal risk, to entertain troops and provide them with messages of hope.

One momentous visit was to the “Forgotten Fourteenth Army” which was still fighting the bitter Burma campaign after VE Day.

She grew up in East Ham and made her singing debut aged seven at an East End working men’s club. Two years later she joined a juvenile troupe and by 1932, at just 15 years old, she was running her own dancing school.

From 1935 she was singing on radio with the famous Joe Loss band and then in 1937 she started to sing with the no less glamorous Ambrose Orchestra, which played in West End nightclubs like the Cafe Royal and the Mayfair.

She remained with Ambrose until 1940. She was 21 at the outbreak of war and her career was just starting to flower, having already appeared on early, experimental television with Ambrose. In addition, she was doing regular radio broadcasts.

In 1940 she went solo and the following year her life took a dramatic change, including her marriage to Harry Lewis, a clarinet and saxophone player with the Squadronaires. He became her manager and they remained devoted to each other.

She was awarded the title Forces’ Sweetheart – a moniker she still holds today – in 1939 following a Daily Express poll among its readers when the Army went to France at the beginning of the war. The competition included Judy Garland, Dinah Shore and Deanna Durbin who were all from America, which at that time was neutral.

She was awarded a DBE in 1975, having already received an OBE in 1969, Show Business Personality of 1975, the Freedom of the City of London in 1978 and the Variety Club International’s Humanitarian Award in 1985.

In 2016, she said she was “surprised” and “honoured” to be made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to entertainment and charity in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

As well as 14 gold discs she published her autobiography Vocal Refrain in 1975 and a picture book called We’ll Meet Again in 1991.

In 2009 she took legal steps regarding the use of her songs on a CD helping to fund the British National Party and during September of the same year, at the age of 92, she became the oldest living artist to top the UK album chart, knocking The Arctic Monkeys into fourth place.

In August 2014 she was among more than 200 public figures who signed a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to the independence referendum.

To celebrate her 100th birthday, she will release a new album today, March 17, three days before she reaches the milestone.

The record features new re-orchestrated versions of her most beloved music alongside her original vocals.

It is thought the collection will make Dame Vera the first singer to have released a new album as a centenarian.

The album also features a previously unreleased version of Sailing – a surprise find as it was not widely known she had recorded the track.

Dame Vera is joined by a line-up of chart-topping British singers on the album, including Alfie Boe on We’ll Meet Again, Alexander Armstrong on White Cliffs Of Dover and Aled Jones on As Time Goes By.

Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart, which saw the veteran musician become the first British singer to reach the top of the US Official Charts in 1952, also appears on the record.

Dame Vera said: “It’s truly humbling that people still enjoy these songs from so many years ago, reliving the emotions of that time – I was after all just doing my job as a singer – and it’s so wonderful for me to hear my songs again so beautifully presented in a completely new way.”

She will also celebrate her birthday with a charity concert showcasing some of the best of British talent at the London Palladium.

Taking place on March 18, the one-off spectacular will raise funds for her children’s charity and features Armstrong and singers Blake and Hayley Westenra.

She has previously described the prospect of reaching 100 as “an incredible adventure of song, dance, and friendship”.

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