Donald Phillips


Donald Phillips was born in Dalston, East London, in 1913.

He did not have a musical background; his father was a journeyman tailor. His mother paid for some music lessons, but although Donald had to leave school early, his love of music shone through.

He was talent-spotted when, as a boy of 14, he was heard playing the piano at a pub in Maida Vale by the musical writer and publisher, Lawrence Wright.

As young Donald's success grew, his sheet music was proudly displayed in the window of Wright's music publishing firm in Denmark Street, Soho, centre of the popular music business.

He joined the Musicians' Union in 1936 and remained a member for nearly 60 years. During the Second World War, he served in the RAF and was part of a forces entertainment team. He later entertained the troops in Cyprus with Harry Secombe.

An accomplished pianist, he was musical director and accompanist for the entertainment stars of the 1940s to the 1960s — the Marx Brothers, Beverley Sisters, Dickie Valentine, Shirley Bassey, Donald Peers, Alan Jones, Dick Emery, Anne Shelton, Yana, Jill Day, Joan Regan, Anita Harris, Susan Maughan and, most recently, Ted Rodgers.

He took part in the 1954 royal command performance before the Queen at the London Palladium. In 1958 he won the Ivor Novello award for his outstanding contribution to British popular music with "Melody of the Sea".

In the early 1960s, he composed entries for Ronnie Carroll and Matt Monroe in the British Eurovision song contest. In 1963 he won an international music competition organised by Radio Prague.

His ambition to write a musical was realised in 1977, when "The Barrier," a love story set in Northern Ireland, was performed in Holland and recorded by Elaine Paige. But, partly due to the opening of "Evita" the following year, with Miss Paige in the title role, the show never reached London.

Donald Phillips retained his courtesy and professionalism even during his last five years, when he developed Parkinson's disease.

During his long career, mostly out of the limelight, he was regarded as a true “Tin Pan Alley man”. Among his compositions were Old Piano Rag, A Live Show is the Best Show, Broken Date, and To Him We’re All The Same. Two major mini-concertos stand out: Concerto in Jazz – recorded by several leading orchestras including Sidney Torch, Mantovani and George Melachrino; and Skyscraper Fantasy was probably his best-known work, although its transatlantic style sounded more like the work of an American composer, than a Londoner. This was also recorded by Mantovani for Decca, although the Charles Williams version on Columbia (coupled with the Spellbound Concerto) will have been the bigger seller. Both of these works have been reissued in recent years on compact discs.

Donald Phillips’ music was played and sung on both sides of the Atlantic by artists, bands and orchestras, including Winifred Atwell, Russ Conway, Lalo Schifrin, Liberace, Billy Cotton, Sid Phillips (no relation) and Sidney Torch.

He died in 1994 in a Jewish Care Home in Hemel Hempstead.

- David Ades