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Harry's Way - The Story of Harry Torrani

Posted Tuesday, June 12, 2007

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Harry’s Way:

The Story of Harry Torrani

`Former Music-Hall Singer'

A handful of years ago the local press reported that residents of a North Derbyshire village were campaigning against the District Council’s decision to rename part of their street after a former music hall singer.

Council tenants living at Midland View, Hepthorne Lane, North Wingfield claimed that councillors were out of tune re-numbering their homes and renaming their street Torrani Way as a tribute to Harry Torrani.

The residents wanted to retain the old street name, one of their complaints being that none of them had ever heard of Harry Torrani!

Well, they have now – because the council won the day, - or you could say (tongue in cheek of course) that they had their Way – Torrani Way, which is now officially part of the North Wingfield map.

The residents of Midland View may not have been `wild about Harry’ – but during the first half of the twentieth century thousands of fans around the world were. Harry Torrani was a household name, not only in America, Australia, Africa, the Middle East and throughout Europe – but in North Wingfield too!

Born Harry Hopkinson at the turn of the century in one of the long-since demolished Little Morton Cottages, he went from butcher’s errand boy to become a music-hall superstar who was idolised for his yodelling talents, and during a show business career which spanned half a century made over 25 single records, which today are valuable collectors items.

Although famed throughout the world for his unique singing talents, little is documented of Harry `Torrani’ Hopkinson’s life and he remains something of an enigma to all but his most devoted followers.

Both his father and grandfather were colliers and Harry Hopkinson was born into what was essentially a tough mining community. Whilst still at school Harry helped out the home finances by working as an errand boy for George Austin’s butcher’s shop, situated on Wingfield Green.

It is said that he was blessed with a voice `sweeter than any nightingales’; a voice recognised for its purity by choirmaster Herbert Butterworth who encouraged Harry to become a boy soprano with the North Wingfield Church Choir. Harry’s Sunday evening solos had the building packed to the seams.

As Harry Hopkinson’s reputation grew, he developed into a big strapping youth who left school at fourteen and went to work as a pony driver at Holmewood Colliery. He continued to sing in the church choir as a soprano, his remarkable voice retaining its childhood purity much to Herbert Butterworth’s surprise – the Choirmaster couldn’t understand why his protégé’s voice wouldn’t break. It was this unusual fact that was to make Harry his fame and fortune.

Harry moved to the newly opened Williamthorpe Colliery. He loved the ponies but hated the pit work, and after suffering an accident which left him partially buried for some hours, decided that being a miner was not for him - and set his heart on a singing career.

Whilst still a teenager Harry won a local talent contest where his unique voice was recognised by an entertainment agent who signed him up to tour the country with a music-hall troupe. He changed his name and his image; Harry Hopkinson ex-miner and former butcher’s errand boy became Austin Layton, Music Hall Star.

Dressed in his top hat and tails and looking the picture of elegance with his white gloves and silver-topped cane, the image-makers of the day made the young man with the boyish good looks into the epitome of the 1920’s `Toff’. By the time he was 25 Harry had become the complete showman – and was soon to become an international celebrity following a further change of management and style. For the Music Halls he had been billed as `The Singing Puzzle’ and opened his stage act mysteriously concealed behind a curtain, or sometimes a newspaper, wearing a long wig and a cloak which the audience were allowed brief glimpses of during the performance. The unamplified voice would ring around the theatre, convincing the audience by it’s amazing high-pitched clarity that its owner was female – until the song ended and Harry revealed himself, throwing off the cloak and tossing the wig across the stage to rapturous applause.

Now his new management took him on a European tour to France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland where the yodelling part of his act was expanded and his name was changed to the more continental sounding `Harry Torrani’.

Success followed success for `Torrani’. Harry toured the world during the 1930’s, appearing at theatres as far apart as the U.S.A., Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In an era that witnessed a revolution in the medium of entertainment with the advent of the wireless and the new-fangled gramaphone records, Harry Torrani became a yodelling legend.

He recorded his own compositions on the Regal Zonophone label, accompanying himself on his mother-of-pearl inlaid guitar. In a recording career spanning the years 1932 to 1941 Harry made twenty five records, which over subsequent years have sold millions of copies, and his songs have been copied by numerous artistes.

As with most celebrities legends grew up around him. On one occasion, adrift in the fog-bound English Channel aboard a ship which was in danger of collision, Harry was reputedly called upon to replace the broken fog-horn and yodelled the ship to safety! On another, whilst in the Middle East, Harry was invited to entertain at the palace of an Empress, who as a reward presented him with a huge gold ring encrusted with precious stones.

Wealth and fame brought the former Derbyshire butchers boy into contact with many famous people; he reputedly sang before Hitler and his General Staff in Berlin in 1935, and whilst in America entertained the President and became acquainted with boxing legends Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey.

Despite his international fame Harry never forgot his roots and frequently returned to North Wingfield to visit his father, who by the outbreak of the war in 1939 had moved to a new address at 14 Williamthorpe Road – close by the Miners Welfare, where Harry treated his friends whenever he was home from his travels. A keep-fit fanatic with a muscular physique, proud of his strength and ever the showman, Harry would perform feats of strength, snapping chains before the gathered crowds at Billy Wilson’s slaughterhouse on North Wingfield Green. He was regularly seen driving his Armstrong Siddeley motor-car to Smithy Pond at Wingerworth where he swam every morning, whatever the weather.

Harry `Torrani’ Hopkinson retired from show business in the late 1940’s but his records continued to sell and his unique voice, `sweeter than any nightingales’ is still occasionally heard on the airwaves.

Even the legendary Slim Whitman, when asked who in his opinion was the world’s greatest yodeller, answered without hesitation, “Harry Torrani” and added¼.. “they should name a street after him”.

The residents of North Wingfield can be justifiably proud that they did – and Harry finally got his Way!




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