Sings Songs For Christmas
Pickwick SHM 3015
Standing around four feet nine and looking like a myopic podgy schoolboy attempting desperately to avoid being picked for the football team, Don Estelle was an unlikely looking actor and an even more unlikely looking singer. While he looked ungainly, furtive and bemused, something remarkable happened when he sang, for Don Estelle possessed a truly amazing tenor voice much bigger and smoother than his tiny body seemed capable of producing. His natural speaking voice was a peculiar squeaky Mancunian dialect, but his singing voice produced a deep harmonious and tone perfect range that seemed somehow to emanate from another plane.
Born in 1933 in the Crumpsall area of Manchester, Estelle found his voice when he was evacuated from the city during the Second World War to Darwen, near Blackburn. He became a more than able boy soprano under the tutelage of church musician Sydney Nicholson and when he returned to Manchester he continued his nascent choral career at his local church, eventually graduating to become a fixture on the Northern club circuit.
His big break came through a piece of crafty and opportunistic blagging while working in Manchester as a small bit-part actor alongside Arthur Lowe. After badgering Lowe for advice on breaking into situation comedy, Arthur suggested (somewhat mischievously suggests Jimmy Perry) that Estelle write to David Croft, who was then writing and producing the enduring TV classic Dad’s Army. Estelle was lucky as Croft was looking for a small actor to play a delivery man in the series and Estelle went on to make several appearances in the show. Appearing in a Croft and Perry sitcom meant that an actor instantly became part of their informal repertory company and a part in any new sitcom was fairly guaranteed. A rare piece of job security in an unsure industry. The next show that Croft and Perry conjured up was It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Estelle’s persistence was rewarded by a role that made him a major star.
Initially the role did not look promising. Playing Gunner Lofty Sugden, the role could have been relegated to minor slapstick and background work, but the comedy was set in an army concert party and the chance to demonstrate his remarkable singing voice soon presented itself. Estelle moved instantly from bit part actor to star when a cast album was recorded. A single taken from the album, Whispering Grass recorded with Windsor Davies, was released, becoming an unlikely but absolutely massive number one hit for the pair in June 1975. The British obsession with novelty singles made some unlikely heroes and there were few more unlikely than Don Estelle and Windsor Davies. The duo went on to record the album Sing Lofty which in its various releases sold well over 300,000 copies, a truly spectacular achievement that saw the album become one of EMI’s most successful records of the 1970s.
After It Ain’t Half Hot Mum finished in 1981 Estelle continued acting and singing, recording over a dozen solo albums during the next twenty years and appearing in many TV comedies. Though he never again troubled the charts or enjoyed the dizzy success of Whispering Grass he continued working solidly and determinedly until his death in 2003.
Don Estelle Sings Songs For Christmas was released in 1979 on the Pickwick label, an American imprint that specialised in bargain bin classics and which pursued a lucrative Christmas themed sideline, producing ubiquitous seasonal albums for the likes of Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley and Max Bygraves. All of whom make worthy label mates for the diminutive Don Estelle! The record itself is a standard romp through the classics. All the seasonal boxes are ticked, many times over. Sleigh bells jingle, children trill away in the background and Robert Hartley conducts the soaring Yuletide orchestration. It is an unremarkable album, but the man behind it was truly remarkable. Don Estelle had a voice that inspired awe and respect and for a brief period was a true shining Christmas star. Sing Lofty…