England's crown jewel of novelty and syncopated piano compositions, Billy Mayerl, was born in 1902 in St. Pancras near London's West End to Austrian immigrant musician Josef Mayerl and his Dutch bride Elise Umbach. Many sources cite his birth name as Joseph William, but the birth registry for Greater London April through June 1902 clearly shows William Joseph (and the 1911 enumeration shows William Josef). His two siblings included Johanna Elise (1901) and Frederic Augustus (1909). During his early years, the Mayerl family was living on Tottenham Court Road near London's fabled theater district where his violinist father frequently found work. Billy took to the piano at a very early age, and by the time he was seven he was advanced enough to be studying at the Trinity College of Music. For all of the tenets of theory and harmony they taught him, his added ingredients of syncopation and musical wit surpassed those studies in short order.
His earliest paying gigs, which helped pay for his schooling, included playing piano at the usual dances of the 1910s as well as accompanying silent movies in London and beyond. His wit translated particularly well to the movies, in which even with the piano, certain aspects of the scenario can be enhanced with the proper background. In his early teens the youth publicly performed the difficult Piano Concerto by Edvard Grieg at the Queen's Hall in London. Not performing in structured ensembles or groups when he was outside of the traditional schooling allowed Billy the chance to play around with his own ideas and get audience reaction and feedback at the same time. In 1919 when he was age 17 the first of many Mayerl compositions, the three part Egyptian Suite, was published.
By the time Mayerl was 20 he was the resident pianist for a Southampton hotel and as part of the band. It was there that British bandleader and saxophonist Bert Ralton first heard him, and instantly sought to hire him for his Havana Band (Cuban music had been gaining in popularity throughout the late 1910s) at London's Savoy Hotel. Allowed to more or less be himself within the bounds of the music, Mayerl instantly brought a new level of musicianship and whimsy to the band. Even though he had been classically trained, Billy was quickly gaining a grasp on the popular music repertoire as well as the novelties that were coming out of new school of composition in the U.S., making him an audience favorite. Mayerl recorded a reported 37 piano rolls for the Echo label in London between 1921 and 1923.
In the in the spring of 1923 Billy married pianist Ermenegilda (Jill) Bernini (sometimes seen as Gilda), who had been a childhood sweetheart of his, and who would later help inspire him to work out duet arrangements. From 1923 to 1926 he was a featured soloist with the Havana Band during the earliest years of the BBC, a time when most people were listening with crystal sets or early ether-tube radios. Having steady work made it easier for him to start composing his own tunes, and subsequently record them as well.
When the talented George Gershwin first visited England in 1923, it has been reported that he possibly met with Mayerl. It was with the Savoy Havana Band that Mayerl tipped his hat to Gershwin, who along with Fred and Adele Astaire was becoming a frequent American fixture in London, by playing for the first British performance of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on October 28, 1925. Around the same time his hands with the "lightning" were filmed in performance by a slow-motion camera for study. Mayerl had nothing but the utmost respect for his American counterpart, "weeping copiously" when George died in 1938.
In 1926 Mayerl left the Havana Band to pursue a solo career in recording and composition, as well as an attempt to teach his style to other pianists. His Correspondence Course in Modern Syncopation was the beginning of what would become a teaching enterprise that would have a wide reach. While maintaining a schedule with the BBC, he also toured the UK performing in venues of all sizes, taking time off to create increasingly complex syncopations for publication. Among these were his signature tune, Marigold, and the fascinating Chopsticks (not the kiddies' waltz by any stretch). From the late 1920s into the 1930s, working with a couple librettists, Billy also helped write a few musical comedies combining clever musical riffs with often less than clever lyrics. Many of them were centered around the popular British sport of horse racing. More importantly, he started publishing not just his own works, but some transcriptions of other composer's pieces he had recorded, helping set new standards for interpretation and performance, much as Fats Waller and Art Tatum were doing in the 1930s. One interesting publication consisted of nothing but 100 syncopated breaks, the patterns used during non-melodic portions of a performance, giving out some major secrets of performance while making some money off of other pianists as well.
Mayerl's correspondence course for instruction in piano and composition became a virtual college of sorts, which did very well in the early 1930s in spite of the world-wide depression. It required a fairly large support staff which would number around 100 by mid-decade, and ultimately grew to 117 branches in several countries, including the United States and Australia, and claiming as many as 30,000 students. As for his mainstream work, an increasing number of his compositions were in the form of suites, related pastiches that formed an overall picture of something. The most famous of these was his Four Aces Suite, which was published for both two and four hands. In response to one of the titles bestowed upon him by admiring music critics, he also composed The Nimble Fingered Gentleman, which would be associated with him throughout his career.
Billy's teaching career received somewhat of a royal boost in 1930 when King Alfonso and Queen Victoria of Spain visited London. According to a June 15, 1930 article reprinted in several newspapers, "They will stay as usual with Queen Victoria's mother, the Princess Beatrice, at Kensington palace. The visit is purely an informal one, although many well-known hostesses are arranging a series of small parties for the Spanish sovereigns. The two infantas, Beatrice and Marie Cristina, are very keen dancers, favoring American melodies. They often take lessons from Billy Mayerl, who is one of the foremost jazz pianists, and they are making excellent progress, much to the despair of their Spanish music master."
To support the correspondence course as well as his viability as a performer, Billy spent increasing amounts of time doing radio appearances both on the BBC and for Radio Luxembourg. As most pianists did not have any means of recording these broadcasts at home, they had to make do with recordings of his work, some by other artists, and some opted to pay for the courses so they could unravel the intricacies of Mayerl's style. He also recorded interpreted works, such as a 1932 medley released in time for Christmas, Say It with Carols. Many of his pieces were inspired, both in name and composition, by Billy's growing hobby of horticulture, dating back to Marigold. In addition to the card suites he also took a side trip with an aquarium-themed group of pieces, and another one around insects commonly found in a garden. While Mayerl had a reputation for his incredibly facile playing and busy composition, many of these works were quite sanguine in contrast.
In the late 1930s Billy formed a group consisting of keyboardists named the Claviers, and they briefly toured the U.K. and Western Europe. According to a review in the Glasgow [Scotland] Herald of July 5, 1938: "The tones of many musical instruments were deftly conveyed across the footlights in the Concert Hall when Billy Mayerl and his Claviers got going on five multi-tone pianos. One imagined the harpsichord, claviechord [sic], drum, guitar, mandoline [sic], and spinet were being played, so skilful was [sic] the imitations provided by Mayerl and his companions. A piano solo, 'Marigold,' was very cordially received by the audience..." Among the members of that group were soon to be famous jazz pianist Marian (Page) McPartland. Later that year he toured with the Stanley Lupino musical Crazy Days as the music director and primary performer.
The run of good fortune ended in 1940 as the UK became a victim of Nazi aggression, limiting opportunities for Mayerl's line of work. In 1940 Billy did one of his last tours with a stage musical, this one a comedy called Happy Birthday. Later that year He took part in a Royal Command Performance, and subsequently led his own band in a popular BBC program "Music While You Work", which was conceived to entertain and provide morale for factory workers during the war. The program actually lasted long beyond the war and Billy's lifetime. His music school quickly collapsed with most of the branches closing by the early 1940s. He spent the war primarily in London, although publishing very little during this time, and mostly recording or playing on radio when conditions allowed. His primary group was the Grosvenor House Orchestra formed in 1941 for the broadcasts.
Once peace had been reestablished, Billy renewed his ties with radio, a medium that had gained a larger following just before and throughout the war. His orchestra continued to perform in the UK through the early 1950s. He also jumped hemispheres bringing his music briefly to the US, then on to Australia and New Zealand. Advertisements in the Sydney Herald during April 1949 announce his April 23 appearance with musical star Stanley Holloway (later known for his work in My Fair Lady) and the New Sydney Concert Orchestra. This was followed by appearances in New Zealand, then a full tour of Australia in June and July.
One of his most interesting later works comes from after the war, four suites of three pieces each titled In My Garden, again centered around a horticultural theme, It stands as his contribution to the legacy of pieces about the four seasons. During the 1950s he made limited appearances on radio or in live venues, but still put out new publications from time to time. Attempts to revive his music school and correspondence course were met with deference in a time when rock and roll was ruling the roost, and his last school closed in 1957.
In May 1958, after years of steady performance, Mayerl made his last BBC broadcast on the show Desert Island Discs hosted by Roy Plomly, signing off as always with "Goodbye chaps and chapesses." This time it was really for good, and he retired from radio and recording. One more publication did appear in early 1959. Billy Mayerl (a heavy smoker for many years) finally met his demise from a heart attack and stroke in March 1959. His novelties remain popular into the 21st century, being rediscovered by a new generation of ragtime and stride pianists. Among his most notable exponents in the 21st century are Virginia pianist Alex Hassan, Eastman School of Music professor and historian Tony Caramia, and British pianist Philip Dyson, all of who have fine recorded examples of the work of the "Nimble-Fingered Gentleman."