Navigation links at the bottom of this page
William Henry (Debroy) Somers (1890-1952)

In the galaxy of stars in the firmament of British dance bands in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, none shone more brightly than that of Debroy Somers, an engaging and handsome fellow with a brilliant musical talent. He rose to become a giant in the big dance band era as a lyricist, composer, musical arranger and band leader. He played every instrument in the band with proficiency and, according to one commentator, was 'an absolute master of the oboe, cor anglais, piano, harp, clarinet, saxophone and xylophone'. In the circumstances of his life and upbringing, this is not surprising.

William Henry Somers, born at the Doctor Steevens Hospital, Dublin on 11 April 1890, was the second of four children of William George and Clara (neé Barclay) Somers of Ship Street Barracks. His birth was registered in the South Dublin Union. The Father's occupation was given as Band Sergeant of the 1st Gloucestershire Regiment. The places of birth of William Henry's brothers and sisters tell us of the unit's movements from depot to depot: Preston in 1888 where his sister Lillian was born; Dublin in 1990, his brother Robert b. 1892; and Malta in 1894 where sister Violet was born.


Debroy Somers as he appeared on a 1934 Will's cigarette card in a series featuring radio personalities


The Royal Military School of Music (RMSM), Kneller Hall, has no record of Bandmaster Somer's transfer to another band, which is not to say that he did not relocate. It is likely that after Malta, the RULI returned to a depot in the Home Command, the military command, that is, of Great Britain. Units in Ireland came under the Irish Command. The reason for assuming that the 1st Gloucestershire Regt. moved from Malta to the Home Command is that William (Bill) Somers was enrolled in the Duke of York's School, Chelsea, in the year 1899. Had the regiment returned to the Irish Command, Bill Somers would have gone to the Royal Hibernian Military School, Phoenix Park.

Another reasonable assumption is that, being the children of a Band Sergeant, Somers and his siblings were baptized into a world of music. In this respect, Somers shared with Arthur Sullivan (collaborator with W. S. Gilbert of the Savoy Operas) the experience having music in his life from infancy. [Sir Arthur Sullivan's father was Director of Brass Instruments at the Royal Military School of Music, and a former pupil of the Royal Military Asylum, Chelsea.]

The RMA, renamed the Duke of York's Royal Military School in 1892, produced a steady stream of accomplished musicians to fill the ranks of the Army's military bands. Those stationed in depots in London and the Home Counties helped satisfy the voracious appetite of bands and orchestras of Victorian and Edwardian London for accomplished musicians. In correspondence, Mr. Paul Collenette, a student of modern British dance bands, writing of the later London musical scene, noted:

"Military band musicians were much in demand for private-function dances in the 1920s and 30s, being well-trained and disciplined. And as their normal wages were paid by the Army, "outside" work would have been pure profit. The "Melody Maker" magazine, representing civilian musicians (who had rent, food, fuel etc. to pay for), used to go crazy about the unfairness of the competition to their members' livelihoods; the authorities should put a stop to it, etc."

At age 14, Somers left the School and went to Dublin to continue his musical studies under a Signor Michele Esposito of The Royal Irish Academy of Music. He testified to this experience in a 1927 interview with journalist Percival Graves. One has to assume that his parents arranged for his continuing tuition in Dublin. It is also likely that the family had relatives in Dublin. Somers always considered himself an Irishman. Indeed, Somers (and Summers), when found in Leinster are usually of English origin. Brendan Hall of the Genealogical Society of Ireland wrote that "In Ulster, Somers is occasionally a synonym for McGovern.

In the Graves interview referred to earlier, for a series headed Recording Angels No. 1 (he being the first band leader interviewed for the series), Somers is quoted as saying:

"In 1905, when a bold boyo of fifteen in Dublin, I collected a small orchestra and some of the old Edison-Bell cylinder discs. On these we made our first records. 'Trial,' did you say? No, trying, very, judged by modern standards. Later on, in London, I was one of a bunch to make 'Bulldog' records, three dozen of them, at the handsome remuneration of seven and sixpence apiece. It was a case of one test, and off you go. I played the piano, oboe, xylogphone (sic) and all kinds of musical instruments short of the sackbut and psaltery. Our leader received the cash and we had a 'share-out' at the nearest hostelry, to which we would adjourn for a change of breath."

His '...later on, in London...' remark is evidence enough that he moved from Dublin to London, probably between 1906 and 1911. In 1911, he enlisted in the 2nd Batt., Royal Irish Rifles (later renamed Royal Ulster Rifles) with regimental number 8551 as confirmed in a letter dated 16 December 1978 from the Ministry of Defence at Kneller Hall. In this letter, Somers is reported having joined the Royal Military School of Music (RMSM) Kneller Hall on 16 November 1911 for a student course on the oboe under Professor W. Hayward. His tutor professor was the leading oboist of his day. His final report on Somer's course of study was "Very good".

When he rejoined his unit 12 November 1912, he was 'appointed the local rank of Corporal' in December 1912, implying that he was a good soldier and musician. Professor Hayward also awarded Somers with a certificate for proficiency in harmony and theory. In the same MoD letter, the RMSM official wryly noted that "He (Somers) is just about the only person on his page in the ledger who was NOT expelled for misconduct, desertion, drunkenness, etc." and "DS is remembered from the late 1920s and early 1930s when he occasionally came to Kneller Hall to advise and conduct the Dance Band. Stories survive that he was a "tough guy" as a pupil, and is said to have supported his authority as a Corporal with a strong right arm. His bandmaster in the R I R (Royal Irish Rifles) was a Mr. E. P. Edwards who later became Professor of Euphonium at Kneller Hall."

Here one is faced with a conundrum which is, what happened to him between 1912 and 1914. He is recorded as having in 1914 joined the King's Royal Rifle Corps as a private (regimental number 6082); further, that he transferred to the Corps of Royal Engineers with the rank of Sapper (regimental number 276827). The entry in National Archives catalogue reference WO372/18 (covering the period 1914-1920) also makes reference under the Sapper entry to WO/201539 Sapper.

A more recent inquiry to the RMSM, Kneller Hall, confirms that Bill Somers did not take the bandmaster course, which would have been a natural course of events for a talented musician. This is not to say that he was not appointed Bandmaster to a unit or regiment of Royal Engineers upon being transferred from the KRRC. At the period in question, bandmasters were not appointed as a matter of course and given non-commissioned or commissioned rank. Hence, a private soldier, corporal or sergeant could have been appointed bandmaster without change in rank. Bill Somers might well have been bandmaster even as a private. That he was qualified to hold such a position is unquestionable.

Somers left the Army in 1919 and went to London where he had established contacts in the musical world. He joined the Aeolian Company as its Director of Light Music. (Aeolian produced player-pianos and organs, and was entering the record business.) The Vocalion  Dance Orchestra and Venetian Dance Orchestra were two of the bands Somers conducted, his name sometimes appears on the labels of the Vocalion Dance Orchestra. The experience with Aeolian was an important phase in his career because the recording sessions tested his ability as a musical arranger.

He was at the time at the very beginning of his meteoric rise in the modern dance band movement when he adopted the name Debroy Somers. That he adopted it with a touch of showmanship to distinguish himself from his 'competitors' there is no question. Manuel (Manny) J. Norman, whose father, Jose Norman, worked closely with Somers in the 1940s, was not aware that he was known by any other name than Debroy. It is nevertheless a fact that his friends and close acquaintances knew him as Bill. His fellow Dukies in the Old Boys Association also knew him as Bill. What then was the origin of the name Debroy? It is not an Irish name, so there is little chance that it came from his mother's side of the family. In the opinion of genealogical researcher Peter Goble:

The era to look for as the source of the Debroy name is the Afro-American influence on music after the war (WWI) and the birth of the blues. The introduction of the Black Community to England during the First World War introduced the British public to the new musical genre of the Afro-American music. Of the Debroy names discovered, five out of six were of African extraction: Lindo, actor (Afro-American); Wilson, singer (Jamaican); Robinson, real estate (Afro-American); Facey, soccer, (U.K., but highly probable Afro-American); Washington, singer-musician (Jamaican); Tony Debroy, disc jockey, (Australian, but could be a stage name). There is every reason therefore to believe Somers was taken enough with the name to use it with his name. Even so, with one exception, Somers was known to his friends and acquaintances by his diminutive name Bill.

In his 1927 interview with Graves, Somers said that he was the first person in the country to "... make special dance-arrangements for recording purposes." He earlier undertook the same commission for the old Savoy Havana Band, which was the predecessor of Bert Ralton's Savoy Havana Band. He found the work, in his own words, "extraordinarily interesting."

In the early 1920s, swing was just getting started, but one cannot exclude the American influence from the birth of the blues and onset of the swing era. Such earlier artists as Irvine Berlin, the Gershwin and Scott Joplin (who had a syncopated style as typified in 'The Entertainer', 'Maple Leaf Rag' and several other rag time hits} were all strong influences.

In 1923, Debroy formed and led the Savoy Hotel Orpheans and, by means of his highly original orchestrations, provided a new and immensely successful sound for the flapper generation. He was, however, extraordinarily ambitious and, in 1926, he handed over leadership of the Orpheans to Cyril Newton, a member of the Orphean band. Newton was succeeded by Carroll Gibbon, yet another band member who, in 1927, took over leadership of the orchestra with co-leader Teddy Sinclair. Other well-known musicians of the period 'did time' with the Orpheans and are worth mentioning. These included Rudy Vallee, Billy Thorburn on the piano, and Frank Guarente, who had previously been touring with the 'New Georgians Orchestra'.

A report in a 1926 issue of the Melody Maker magazine noted Febroy's departure from the Orpheans with a short notice:

"Mr. Debroy Somers, well-known to all as the leader of the celebrated Savoy Hotel Orpheans, and one of the finest orchestrators of the day, has resigned his position with the management of the Savoy Hotel, so that he can devote his time to form an organisation for arranging modern syncopated music and a large band of his own.

Meanwhile, he is acting in the capacity of musical advisor to the Lawrence Wright Music Co., and is making special orchestrations for that firm. Interesting developments are anticipated on which we hope to make a further statement next month."

Somers was a prodigious and indefatigable pioneer in the rise of the British dance-band phenomenon. His eclectic contribution to this vigorous, energetic and vibrant new musical art form covered a wide range music and styles. Nor was he limited to a single genre because his interests ranged from classical music through the operettas of Johann Strauss, Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert and Rudolph Himl to mention a few. Debroy Somers not only an innovative arranger, but a lyricist and composer of originality.

As Mike Thomas, another authority on British dance-bands of the era, noted, "During the 1930s, he did a lot of radio work, notable on Radio Luxembourg & Normandy. His one-hour Horlicks' show was on almost every day for years. These would have been pre-recorded, but I have not found any of the original discs yet."

The Horlicks and Ovaltine companies conducted a lively and intense competition through their respective radio programmes intended to appeal to a family audience. Of this competition, Paul Collenette, another enthusiast, "While I'm sure there was no animosity between DS and Carroll Gibbons ... (there was) ... commercial rivalry between Horlicks and Ovaltine. Years ago I met the former advertising manager for Horlicks, who grumbled that in spite of their efforts to get the best stars on their radio show, the "Ovaltineys" were always that bit more successful in shifting product.

Manuel (Manny) J. Norman, whose father Jose Norman (the man who introduced the rumba to England) worked with Somers in a Latin Quarter revue at the London Casino in the 1940s, made an interesting contribution to our knowledge of Debroy Somers. Manny wrote, "I don't know exactly what the relationship was. I believe that Debroy Somers was the orchestra conductor and my father may either have arranged and/or composed some of the music or might have been an alternate conductor should Debroy Somers have become unavailable any time. Perhaps there was a scene in which the Rumbaleros appeared. My memories are of going in through the stage door a few times to take stuff to my father. He often called home and asked me to take various things to or from him, when he was working. Being a kid I enjoyed the trips on the tube!

Debroy Somers died of a Cerebral hemorrhage at the early age of 62 in May 1952 at St. George's Hospital Knightsbridge. His death was noted in the July 1952 issue of The Chronicle with a terse entry by the OBA general secretary: "I regret to announce the deaths of Bill (Debroy) Somers and Charlie Carbury ...etc" Paul Collenette, who possesses a copy of the death certificate, states that the doctor who signed the death certificate, Dr. B. Watney, later worked for his (Collenette's) employer. He wrote to the doctor for information in 1978, who replied that he had been a junior doctor at the time and had not known Somers well.

Regarding Somers' given names, Paul Collenette said he would have expected the certificate to have recorded William Henry Somers, but no. On it was written 'William Debroy Somers'.

So ended the astonishingly productive and creative career of a remarkable Dukie. He is barely remember in the school, but his music and the sound of orchestras he led and recorded for posterity is enjoyed by generations of listeners. There are those who are still captivated by his wonderful melodies, lyrics and musical arrangements that are his legacy.

Delta Tech Systems Inc
Duke of York's Royal Military School
Royal Hibernian Military School
Reminiscences of a Queen's Army  Schoolmistress
World War I letters and Reports
Books and Militaria
Wellington on Waterloo
Related Links

© A. W. Cockerill 2011

Site Map    Contact me