He once approached a famous music coach to ask for guidance, and was told in no uncertain terms that his gift was from God, and any interference from vocal training professionals would only hinder his natural vocal patterns.
– Michele Monro speaking of her father Matt Monro
With a voice as smooth as silk, rich as honey and moving effortlessly from note to note, Terry Parsons – later to change his name to Matt Monro – was one of the greatest crooners of the 20th Century. His nicknames of 'The Singer's Singer' and 'The Cockney Frank Sinatra' demonstrate his affectionate appeal and enduring quality in the somewhat fickle world of showbusiness.
Working Class Roots
Terry was born into a working class family in Shoreditch, London, on 1 December, 1930. He was the fifth child of factory worker Fred and his wife Alice. Fred died when Terry was just a toddler, leaving the family destitute. Mum Alice took cleaning jobs to make ends meet, working as many hours as she could to feed and clothe sons Arthur, Reginald, Harry and Terry, and daughter Alice. Exhaustion took its toll on her health and the children had to be fostered while she recuperated.
Terry left school at 14 and was still trying to find his niche when he was called up for National Service at age 18. The night before he was due to depart the whole family went to a local dance hall and Terry took to the stage. It was the first time his siblings had heard him sing and they couldn't quite believe their ears. His pure baritone voice was in a class of its own, elevating ordinary songs to a higher level. People stopped dancing to listen to the melodies being sung by such a beautifully majestic voice. The family were astonished; they didn't have a musical bone between them and they all agreed Terry's talent was a gift.
On joining the army Terry trained as a tank driver, becoming so proficient he was soon instructing others. It was when he was posted to Hong Kong British Engineers that he was able to demonstrate his talent for singing during his time off. The local radio station held regular talent contests and after Terry won the first prize of cigarettes five times, the station owners reluctantly banned him from entering again. They did, however, give him a slot of his own, called 'Terry Parsons Sings', and he was invited to perform at the Governor's party. Being somewhat of a minor celebrity in Hong Kong Terry was reluctant to return to London, where he was 'a nobody', when he was demobbed in 1953.
Back home Terry met Iris Jordan and with a baby soon on the way, Terry took a job as a long-distance lorry driver and contented himself to whiling away the lonely hours on the road by singing in his cab. Mitchell Terence Parsons1 was born in late 1953 and the new father took a more home-based job driving the Number 27 bus from Highgate to Teddington. Passengers considered themselves lucky to be serenaded between their stops by their jovial driver. Terry and Iris got married in Islington in early 1955. Earning just £12 a week wasn't sufficient to keep a family of three so Terry began touting for night club sessions. Encouraged by his popularity, he released 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams' which had been a US hit in 1940 for Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
Unfortunately in the late 1950s when Terry released an album of covers called Blue and Sentimental, he was up against the likes of a new wave of artists such as Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and Elvis Presley, who were taking the charts by storm. His appeal was to the wrong generation; his clean-cut image was abhorred by the upcoming drainpipe jeans- and bobby sox-wearing teenagers who would jive to rock'n'roll. Terry's big band-crooning-lovesongs sounded like they belonged in another era, and he was going nowhere fast. Unable to concentrate on his family life in the quest for fame, Terry's marriage to Iris broke up and they got divorced. It was during one of the many night club sessions that Terry's voice attracted the attention of the well-known Trinidadian jazz pianist Winifred Atwell (1914 - 83). She was to have a profound influence on Terry's life.
Winifred Atwell loved Terry's voice and she introduced him to her record company Decca. During that first meeting a stage name was devised: Monro was chosen because it was Atwell's father's name, and Matt acknowledged the first reporter (Matt White) who had ever written about Terry. Monro hadn't yet created a niche or fanbase; the people who appreciated him as Terry Parsons had no idea he and Matt Monro were one and the same man!
Around this time Monro met and married Mickie Schuller, who worked in the music industry. Decca released him from his contract and for a while Monro and his family, now expanded to include daughter Michele, lived on wife Mickie's wages. Monro appeared as a vocalist on the BBC's Show Band hosted by Cyril Stapleton, and as a guest star on The Winifred Atwell Show, which also featured Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise before there was a Morecambe and Wise. The TV exposure brought Monro to the attention of advertisers. When the offer of recording a jingle for Camay soap came up, Monro wasn't keen but canny Mickie knew the public exposure would be vast. She was proved correct and more advertising offers rolled in, from toothpaste and cigarettes to milk! Monro was quickly becoming known as 'king of the jingles'. Winifred knew her star was waning and she eventually emigrated to Australia.
Peter Sellers and George Martin
The catchy jingles brought Monro's voice to the attention of producer George Martin, who was searching for a 'British Sinatra'-type voice for Songs For Swinging Sellers, an album he was working on with Peter Sellers – a comedic send-up of Sinatra's 'swing' album Songs For Swingin' Lovers! Monro agreed to record for Sellers to copy his voice, but Sellers thought he was too good to imitate and suggested his inclusion on the album, making up the name 'Fred Flange'. Monro was disappointed to be billed on the record sleeve as 'Fred Flange', but the 'mystery singer' garnered some interest, and Martin realised his potential. Staggered to find out that Monro had no recording contract, he quickly signed him up for his own label Parlophone.
Anyone who sees her, soon forgets the Mona Lisa
It would take I know, a Michelangelo
And he would need the glow of dawn that paints the sky above
To try and paint a portrait of my love
The first collaboration with arranger and conductor Johnnie Spence was 'Portrait of My Love' which spent 16 weeks in the British charts, ending up at number three in December 1960. Monro's version of the highest-placed single of his career still sounds as fresh half a century on.
'Portrait of My Love' was swiftly followed by 'My Kind Of Girl' which spent 12 weeks in the British charts, culminating at number five. Monro's next release was the double-A-sided 'Why Not Now'/'Can This Be Love' which charted for a respectable nine weeks in April/May 1961, but the jazzy follow-up 'Gonna Build A Mountain' barely scraped into the top 50.
In early 1962 Monro released 'Softly As I Leave You' which made the number ten spot and remained in the charts for 18 weeks. The lyrics of this song describe the dying of one half of a long relationship who does not want their partner to see them die. The longevity of this song is testament to the enduring appeal of the singer and the soothing tone of his voice. The track was chosen by the BBC as a 'golden oldie' set to a new video, to be performed on The Golden Oldie Picture Show introduced by DJ Dave Lee Travis. The song 'Softly As I Leave You' is one of the most requested to be played at funerals today; all the more poignant now that Monro is no longer with us.
Softly, I will leave you softly
For my heart would break
If you should wake
And see me go
From Russia with Love
Monro's next hit was the theme tune composed by Lionel Bart, from the James Bond movie of the same name: 'From Russia with Love' – although it barely scraped into the top 20 in the singles charts it still enjoys enduring popularity with the Bond fanbase.
Monro got the news that he had been chosen to represent the United Kingdom in the March 1964 Eurovision Song Contest held in Denmark while Mickie was expecting their second child. Matthew Frederick Monro was born on 21 February, 1964. The Italian entry by Gigliola Cinquetti won the contest, with 'Non Ho L'età'. Monro, singing the only English language song of the night, 'I Love The Little Things' (written by Tony Hatch), finished in a very respectable second place2.
The slow-paced sad love song 'Walk Away' was written by Monro's manager and friend, Don Black OBE: this was the first chart hit of Black's amazing songwriting career. Released during the second half of 1964, 'Walk Away' attained top five success almost as an antidote to the livelier tunes exemplified by its compatriots The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, The Kinks and The Animals, who were also appearing on the same editions of the BBC's chart show Top of the Pops throughout October 1964.
We should have met
Some years ago
For your sake I say
Walk away, just go
The lyrics to 'Walk Away' describe a man who has fallen in love but he's not free to love her, so he begs her to leave, before she throws her life away. It's a heartfelt, poignant song and Monro's voice portrays very vividly the self-sacrifice involved, and the deep regret at having found his true love too late for them to enjoy a relationship.
First With Yesterday
'Yesterday' may be synonymous with The Beatles now, but Matt Monro was the first to record it: it spent 12 weeks in the singles chart of 1965, entering the top ten at its highest position of number eight. Paul McCartney claims he wrote it following a dream in 1964, and it was recorded by The Beatles on 14 June, 1965, with full orchestral backing added by George Martin.
John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were reluctant for the track to be released as a single because it was so different from their usual sound. McCartney was outvoted and the track was offered to fellow Parlophone artist Monro.
The row caused a rift between McCartney and George Martin, and the song went on to win the Ivor Novello Award for 'Outstanding Song of 1965'. The Beatles recorded 'Yesterday' on side two of their album Help!, and eventually released it as a single in early 1976, where it attained the exact same chart position enjoyed by Matt Monro a decade previously.
Monro sang the title track of the highly successful 1966 film Born Free. With lyrics written by Don Black and music composed by John Barry, it was a winner all the way: 'Born Free' won the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Original Song. The film honoured the work of Joy and George Adamson and the orphaned lioness they raised from a cub, Elsa.
The Impossible Dream
To dream, the impossible dream
To fight, the unbeatable foe
To bear, with unbearable sorrow
To run, where the brave dare not go
'The Impossible Dream' was originally written for the 1965 Broadway musical, Man of La Mancha. The single was first released in 1968 by Monro. It has since been covered by a multitude of artists who scored better retail success, for Monro's issue mysteriously didn't even chart.
To right, the unrightable wrong
And to love, pure and chaste from afar
To try, when your arms are too weary
To reach, the unreachable star
The song has become almost an anthem in the mould of 'My Way', and Monro's version is the choice of many fans, over the likes of Andy Williams, Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Diana Ross, Johnny Mathis, Shirley Bassey, Placido Domingo, Glen Campbell, Roberta Flack and Luther Vandross. Andy Williams' take on the song enjoyed a revival in 2006 when a car manufacturer created an advertisement wishing the England football team good luck in the World Cup. Perhaps, next time, they'll choose an English artist.
This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
And to fight for the right, without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause
More recently 'The Impossible Dream' has seen other outings: Andy Abraham entitled his 2006 debut album The Impossible Dream, saving the title track until last; and on Welsh X-Factor star Rhydian Roberts' debut album Rhydian it appeared first.
The Italian Job
The 1969 film The Italian Job regularly appears in polls to find the greatest British film of all time. It contains many memorable moments including: 'You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!!' uttered by Charlie (Michael Caine). Clips from the original movie are used in adverts and programmes testing the probability of some of the scenes. Appearing on the soundtrack over the opening credits, Monro's rendition of 'On Days Like These' has the ability to transport the listener to another place and time. The song also demonstrates Monro's natural ability to sing lyrics in another language, as if it were his own.
Across the Pond and Back to Blighty
You cannot just measure a person's success by the gold records on the wall or the accolades he has gained along the way. His music has touched millions of people from different races, cultures, religions, countries – it didn't matter if their native tongue wasn't English – music is able to transcend everything, even time, and to be able to bring joy to someone doing what you love is enormously satisfying.
– Michele Monro
Not many artists are successful in both the UK and the USA. Monro achieved success and acclaim in the US, where he was popular in cabaret shows and on TV appearances, before The Beatles took America by storm.
Monro felt he couldn't compete with the mega-appeal of the likes of The Beatles and global phenomenon Elvis Presley so he returned home, where he began touring to an appreciative audience grateful of the smooth tones and crystal clarity of his pure voice. Just one of the places he performed at was at the Sandown Pier, Isle of Wight. Monro was always immaculate; dressed in his trademark black tuxedo he epitomised a gentleman respecting the ladies he was serenading. He worked at the very best nightclubs like 'The Talk Of The Town', and was a regular star guest on TV programmes like The Morecambe and Wise Show and This Is Tom Jones. He even continued his cabaret and TV performances when diagnosed with cancer.
A heavy smoker and drinker all his adult life, Monro contracted liver cancer. Doctors suggested a liver transplant, but during an exploratory operation at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, surgeons discovered he was not a suitable recipient for a replacement organ due to the cancer having spread to other organs. Refusing radical treatment Monro discharged himself and went back to singing, living out his remaining time doing what he loved, singing before appreciative audiences. Terry Parsons, stage name Matt Monro, died on 7 February, 1985, at the age of 54.
Monro's wonderful voice lives on through constant requests on radio and featuring on their playlists. The Singer's Singer is a 4-CD box set which is highly recommended for anyone who doesn't already own a Matt Monro CD, or just wants to update their previous collection of vinyl.
Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Vic Damone and Dean Martin all said the same thing: Matt Monro was the very best singer of them all. There are websites dedicated to Matt Monro, such as the one run by h2g2 Researcher Geoffrey007 (Geoff Leonard) of Bristol, England, which includes a full discography.
Monro's son with Mickie, Matt Monro Jnr, is the spitting image of his Dad and has inherited his talent for singing.
Michele Monro is researching a book on her father's life and runs his website. She is always delighted to receive emails about how her father's music has touched the lives of people:
I receive hundreds of letters every week, people opening their heart and souls to me, telling me how they played 'Softly as I Leave You' at their mothers' funeral or how 'Born Free' became their freedom song in a time when politics governed their county, or that when a loved one lay in a coma, they played 'Walk Away' every day because they felt it would make a difference. It is extremely powerful and moving to share in these strangers' stories, to know that to them my father's music meant everything.
– Michele Monro