David Whitfield was born in the Drypool area of Hull in 1926, a year that saw John Logie Baird demonstrate his television. It was also the year in which John Coltrane and Dame Joan Sutherland were born.
1926 was a great year for the musical industry.
His family lived on Albert’s Terrace, which was located just off Clarence Street. Sadly the house and street no longer exist. During his formative years, the Whitfield’s also lived in Harcourt Street, and Beaumont Street.
David attended St. Peter’s School on Church Street, and it was there that he gained links to St. Peter’s Church where his love of singing started.
After leaving school, he joined the Royal Navy. Aged 17, serving in the Far East, and also on HMS Ramillies during the Second World War. As a seaman gunner on the Ramillies, David was part of the D-Day Landings, protecting the area known as Sword Beach.
At the end of 1945, David relocated to the Far East, and was part of the Entertainment Division that performed for the soldiers based overseas, and he left the Royal Navy in 1949, a process known as being Demobbed.
During this time, David entered a talent show in Southampton, but he was disqualified because the rules stated that the act had to complete their act in it’s entirety. David was unable to complete his because the audience applauded so loudly, and therefore the judges were unable to hear the last part of his song.
A major turning point in David’s career was being persuaded to enter a heat of the popular talent show, Opportunity Knocks.
The show was hosted by Hughie Green, and broadcast on Radio Luxembourg, a commercial station in the days of BBC radio having complete control of broadcasting.
David was offered the opportunity to tour with Opportunity Knocks, and he also broadcast regularily on Radio Luxembourg, but at the end of his 8 month contract, David unfortunately found himself without work.
David returned north to Hull, and worked as a coalman’s assistant, before moving into the world of concrete preparation, where he spent his working life loading cement onto lorries to be dispatched out to the new housing and infrastructure contracts that were so prevalent in post-war Britain.
During that time, singing was still a huge part of David’s life, and he continued to perform in Working Men’s Clubs around Hull and the East Riding, earning around 30 shillings, or around £2 per performance, a figure that would equate to around £80 in 2015’s money.
His contact with Hughie Green, led to a one off performance at the
Criterion Hotel, London in December 1951. After this show, David was offered a regular singing role by Cecil Landau, a local impresario, at the Washington Hotel in London’s West End, where he was earning in the region of £10 per week.
During his time at the Washington, one of the executives at the Decca Recording Company was in the audience, and approached David to offer him a test recording. After this recording had taken place, Decca offered David a full recording contract.
The start of 1953 saw David in the Decca Studios recording his first platter, “Marta” together with Nat Temple and his orchestra. In it’s first month after release, single sales had reached 20,000, which was considered to be very good considering that it was the first record from a relatively unknown artist.
The second release, “I Believe”, sold better than the first, and despite strong competition from Frankie Laine, it sold 75,000 copies.
With “I Believe”, David also entered and won the International Song Festival, a forerunner to the present day competition, the Eurovision Song Contest”, which took place in Knokke-le-Zoute, in Belgium.
Throughout 1953, David continued to tour around the United Kingdom, and, in many of his venues, was given top billing, through his links to Decca, and the quality of his voice.
The next track, “Answer Me”, beat Frankie Laine to the top spot in the charts, and went on to sell 700,000 copies, despite the BBC initially banning it from their playlist, due to the religious context of some of the lyrics.
1954, saw David increase his profile in the UK, with further appearances in Variety Theatre, this saw him fly to Belfast to appear in the Songwriters Guild Concert, performing with the orchestra and company of London’s Victoria Palace Theatre. The year would also see David record his most successful track, and the track that would become his signature tune, Cara Mia.
It was first performed on 26 June 1954, in Blackpool, and at each of the performances, it was received with acclaim and a standing ovation. It was put on general sale by Decca on 1 July.
Cara Mia, reached Number 1 by the middle of July, and sold 300,000 copies by the end of July. It stayed at Number 1 position for 10 consecutive weeks, the first track to ever achieve this, and it is a feat that has only been equalled or bettered on 5 other occasions since the UK singles chart started in 1952.
The track eventually went on to sell 2.5 million copies, and for that achievement received a gold disc. Gold discs in the 1950’s had to sell a million copies, rather than the 400,000 that artists have to sell to receive one today.
David continued to tour the UK, and was invited to perform for the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance on 3 separate occasions. Other performers on the bill that included Noel Coward, Bob Hope, Howard Keel, and Frankie Laine.
After the success of Cara Mia in the UK, the success continued across the Atlantic, and David was invited to perform on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town.
America was, and continues to be, a difficult market to break. David’s first performance on the show was just two songs, but that was enough to jam the switchboard of CBS, the show’s maker, all wanting more information about this talented singer.
He performed on a show a further 6 times, and on the 7th and final
appearance, the US audience rating for the programme was over 65 million people.
After his appearances in America, David was invited for a film test by Joe Pasternak, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated producers. David passed this audition, and was offered a contract, meaning that the boy from Hull, would be moving over the Atlantic.
David decided not to take up this offer, and there are various reasons that have been mooted for this, from home sickness, to causing problems on the Variety Circuit back in the UK. Whatever the reason, Hollywood called, but it couldn’t tempt David to move away.
Towards the end of 1954, the razzle dazzle of America, was replaced with the calming influences of Switzerland. David was suffering with throat problems, and a period of convalescence followed.
After David returned to England, he returned to more chart success with 4 more releases, all of which reached the Top 20. “Beyond the Stars”, “Mama”, and “When You Lose The One You Love” all sold well, but the track “Everywhere” was the most successful of the quartet, reaching Number 3.
Throughout the 1950’s, David continued to have hits that reached the Top 10, but with Rock and Roll now having more of an influence over music, the ballad style was harder to sell in the large numbers that were required to make an impact on the chart.
The last release to make the Top 10 was “The Adoration Waltz” which reached Number 9 in March 1957. After this, the only major success was the theme song to the film “Sea Wife”, which starred Richard Burton, and Joan Collins, which gave great exposure in cinemas, but only reached Number 27 in the chart.
As the sales declined, David returned to touring the country, performing in stage performances, and roles in pantomimes. The first pantomime role came at the end of 1957, as Robinson Crusoe opposite Arthur Askey and Tommy Cooper. Other pantomimes included Humpty Dumpty and Sleeping Beauty at venues across the North of England, Sheffield and Leeds being two of the cities visited.
After his final chart success, a re-release of “I Believe” in 1960, David toured with various stage shows, the first of which being “Rose Marie”, which started in London’s Victoria Palace, before touring around the country taking in venues such as the Bristol Hippodrome, and Sheffield Lyceum.
Whilst touring the UK, David toured the world, adding to the global
following he had. Between 1954 and 1980, his travels took him to places such as the Far East, New Zealand and Australia. David also returned to North America, where his worldwide career started, and there was also a Forces tour taking in Malta, Libya and Cyprus.
It was on one of these tours, that David became unwell. On 15 January 1980, during his 13th tour of Australia, that he suffered a cerebral haemorrage. David was transferred to the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, where on admission he fell into a coma and was pronounced dead just over 2 hours after he was admitted into hospital.
He was cremated at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium in Sydney, and his ashes were then returned back to Hull. David’s ashes were carried on the frigate HMS Sirius out into the North Sea, and scattered at a point 5 miles south-west of Spurn Point.
Looking back over David’s career, there were high and low points, but his legacy is that of a major recording artist, who entertained and wowed audiences all across the globe. The release of Cara Mia, and it’s run of 10 consecutive weeks at Number 1 is something that any artiste would be proud of. This feat has not equalled or beaten since Rhianna achieved it in 2007.
His untimely death in January 1980, robbed the music industry of one of it’s earliest stars, but his music lives on in recordings, early video footage and photos from around the world.
He is remembered in his home city of Hull, by a statue that sits proudly in Kingston Square, just outside the Hull New Theatre. The statue features David in a pose in front of a microphone, a image that sums up a man who performed and shared his music with millions across the world. The statue was unveiled in August 2012, before a show celebrating his life.
Hull certainly has a rich heritage of culture, producing acts that have had chart success, but it all started with David Whitfield, a working class guy, born in the Drypool area of the city, who entertained his audiences with his rich, dulcet tones right up to his sad passing 35 years ago.