The Vile Parle wonderboys

Over the course of my research, I’ve occasionally encountered names of performers in programme brochures and on record labels that have, frustratingly, remained little more than just that: names. None of the other musicians I have interviewed have been able to give me more than sketchy details about these performers, I haven’t been able to track down their families and there’s little about them in the news clips I’ve found.
Among these tantalising phantoms are the Theodore brothers: Joe, Harry, George and Bertie aka Lups, who led one of the first Indian swing bands to play a stint at the Taj in the late 1930s.
I first heard about the brothers from the trumpet player Frank Fernand, who made his debut with an outfit led by Joe Theodore around 1937. The saxophonist Mickey Correa, who fronted his own band at the Taj from 1939 to 1961, told me that he’d also played in the Theodore band. Several years later, Correa would find himself hiring his former bandleader’s younger brother Lups, as is clear from the announcements on a scratchy tape I heard of the saxophonist’s farewell concert at the Taj, an invaluable piece of jazz history that Susheel Kurien, director of Finding Carlton, restored for his fabulous documentary.

On a trip to Delhi a few years ago, I picked up two more scraps of information. Percy Dias, the nonagenarian drummer who lived in East of Kailash, told me that the Theodore brothers were from Vile Parle, in northern Bombay and that an early edition of their family band was called the Merry Warblers.
From newspaper ads, it seems that the Warblers played at fun fairs, at movie theatres and at dances.

An advertisement for a fair featuring the Merry Warblers in March, 1930.

The pianist Mohsin Menezes recalled that the Theodores were a burly bunch who loved a good brawl. During the war years, the Theodores played frequently for Allied troops stationed in Bombay and when the dancers got unruly, as was often the case, the Theodores would leap off the stage to  bash in a few heads and quieten things down.

In the early 1940s, Joe Theodore’s band cut at least ten sides, under several, slightly different names: the Taj Mahal Hotel Dance Orchestra, Theodore’s Taj Hotel Dance Band, Theodore’s New Music, Theodore’s Sweet Music and Theodore and his Dance Orchestra.

Joe Theodore also played the bass on several sides cut by another duo about whom I know very little – Mellow and Rich, consisting of a guitar player named Geo Mello and a vocalist named Joe Rich, who performed Hawaiian tunes. (Listen to a snippet on the University of Hawaii website.)

The only newspaper article I’ve been able to find about Joe Theodore was tucked away in Mickey Correa’s album. It dated back to approximately 1938 and, illustrated by the photo on top of this article, described a two-hour session of “snappy dance music” organised by the manager of Majestic Hotel  “that old haunt of Bombay’s pleasure seekers” – (now the MLAs Hostel) on Colaba Causeway. It isn’t clear in which newspaper the article had appeared.

The article said that Theodore and His Boys “need no recommendation” to Bombay dance fans. It was especially enthusiastic about the crooner, Bert Nissim. “He has the moan and the curl, the sob and all that it takes to put crooning right home in the hearts of such as love it,” the writer declared. “For a lad who started out to be an electrical engineer and made a passing good one, he is the bee’s knees as a crooner.” Mickey Correa also drew attention, being praised as “a saxophonist of merit and definite attraction”.

There’s very little in my research material, however, about the other Theodores – Harry, George and Bertie. They’re all in that newspaper photo, but I don’t know who is whom.

A little after this article first appeared on my website in 2011, I received email from a man named Steven Smith in the UK. "I'm George Theodore's grand son," he wrote. "I never met my grand father but I heard all about his band from my mother."

He added: "My mother told me that the band broke up in the forties and that my grand father, George went to the Middle East to work in the oil industry. He and his wife, Vera Theodore, bought a flat in Mistry Chambers, Colaba. They had two children, Marlene (my mother) and Glenn. George died in 1974. My mother moved to the UK in the mid 60s and met a Scotsman, my father. As far as I am aware there are no members of the band still alive. I have no idea what happened to my grand father's brothers."

Even though I can’t identify the brothers, I was fortunate to be given these records by the Italian collector Marco Pacci that allowed me to figure out what they sounded like.

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