Walter William Bygraves was one of six children of Battling Tom Smith, a flyweight professional boxer and occasional dockworker, in a rough part of London. Bygraves showed his talent early, singing and doing impersonations for customers along his paper route and at parties, and was tapped for a solo performance at Westminster Abbey under the sponsorship of his music teacher. He joined the RAF at the start of the second World War, and on his first night in the barracks entertained his fellow troops with an impersonation of "The Cheeky Chappie," a 1930s music hall comedian named Max Miller. His fellow soldiers started calling him "Max," and the name stuck.
Bygraves married a WAAF sergeant in 1942, and continued to entertain his fellow soldiers, being asked to perform in larger and larger concerts. After the war, Max tried to find work as a carpenter, and was considering emigrating to Australia, when the BBC approached him about doing an ex-servicemen's show. In addition to Bygraves, They're Out featured such up-and-comers as Benny Hill
, Harry Secombe, and Spike Milligan
; the show's bandleader, Jack Payne, was impressed enough by him to invite him to join his orchestra. By 1951 Max had played the Palladium, been featured on some radio and television spots, and become friends with rising comic Eric Sykes. Sykes began writing for Bygraves, first in a radio script called Educating Archie, which was to be his breakthrough: Sykes played a ventriloquist dummy, and Max his comic foil; the show became a big hit, making Max a national celebrity.
His first album, entitled The Cowpuncher's Cantata, was released in 1952, to capitalize on his new fame. The title track mashed up four catchy hit songs -- "The Cry of the Wild Goose," "Riders in the Sky," "Mule Train," and "Jezebel" -- and promptly hit number one on the new Hit Parade charts. Max Bygraves had arrived as a superstar. He headlined the Palladium, starred in movies (most memorably the lead in Charlie Moon), famously bought a Rolls-Royce with the license plate "MB 1," supported Judy Garland
in New York, and was awarded the Order of the British Empire. He rode the "Cowpuncher's Cantata" formula to enormous financial success, spinning out a series of popular hit records using continuous medleys of popular songs, even using the mash-up concept in his titles -- he released ten albums alone in the Singalongmax series, as well as multiple releases with such titles as Singalongpartysongs and Singalongmemories.
Bygraves retired to Australia in the 1990s, and published his autobiography, Max Bygraves in His Own Words, in 1997. He was coaxed out of retirement for a series of tours with the Beverly Sisters in 2002, then did a farewell set of performances in 2006. His recordings remain quite popular, and many titles and compilations are available on CD. Not bad for the poor son of an occasional dockworker! ~ Laurie Mercer