John Bonner


"This gramophone vogue of choirboys has, at last, brought one who sings naturally. John Bonner is extraordinarily good. Somewhere a Voice is Calling is quiet and dreamy, which if one allows boys to sing it at all, is probably right and usually welcome."

"One of the best possible songs for boys is Purcell's Nymphs and Shepherds. In fact, John Bonner though he sings a correct version of it is unsuccessful, chiefly because he makes it too slow and laboured." ...Gramophone, September 1930

John Bonner was a chorister at Manchester Cathedral during the late 20s and early 30s. He made several records as a boy soprano, and later as a baritone. He had his voice dubbed onto two of his earlier records, Somewhere a Voice is Calling and Angels Guard Thee.

Dr. Dennis Townhill recalls that John later became a Lay Vicar in the choir of Lincoln Minster during the 1939-45 war. "I was pupil assistant organist at the time, and accompanied him on the piano on a number of occasions when he was invited to sing at social functions as a baritone. During a time of food rationing and shortages, it was an added bonus to join John on visits to an event in a nearby farmhouse where there appeared to be no shortages whatsoever and we were invited to dine sumptuously! I remember listening to his recording of a duet for treble and bass, with both parts sung by himself - I thought it was a magical thing to do."

We have included two fine records of John Bonner, recorded in 1930.

Additional notes from "The Better Land - Volume IV"

Bonner is extraordinarily good, and in Christ Church, Westminster Bridge Rd.  he and an orchestra and organ (W.G. Webber) really have made a beautiful record of Handel, though I think with a few non-Handelian notes. ...Gramaphone, July 1929

His 'Angels guard thee' is almost faultless. ...Gramophone, July 1930

More news of John Bonner comes from Mrs. Cherry Johnstone of Canterbury who draws our attention to Dr. Hewlett-Johnson’s book  Searching for Light.  Later becoming the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury, Hewlett-Johnson held the deanery of Manchester during the late 20s and early 30s.  He described the choir there as ' large and excellent, nearly one hundred in number and splendidly marshalled and trained by Mr. Craddock.  The singing was excellently conducted by Mr. Wilson and his assistant organist, Mr. Crocker.

'All the choir were good, but one boy Bonner was outstanding.  When he rose to sing his solo in the Children’s Service, the shuffling of hundreds of feet ceased, and in the dead silence Bonner sang.  Just before his voice was breaking, we were approached by the BBC and they came to hear him and said: “That is the best voice in England.”  They offered him £2,000 for the remainder of the time before his voice broke.  His parents were working people, living in a small house in a back street, and could have done with the money.  They refused,  feeling that £2,000 (a fortune in today’s money) would not compensate for the harm done by publicity and studio life.  Several beautiful gramophone records were, however, made.’

Two of Bonner’s records,  Somewhere a voice is calling  and  Nymphs and shepherds are featured on Volume 1.  Here on Volume 1V we are pleased to feature three of his very best discs.  Sadly, John Bonner died some years ago, but we are proud to bring this excellent voice back to the attention of the public.  His recordings demonstrate the great range of the true boy’s voice, and his ability to carry down the head voice into the lower register.  If one listens carefully to the opening bars of  Slumber dear maid , a single crack can be detected in the voice, which suggests that his  singing voice had been preserved by careful training beyond the natural break.

Additional notes from "The Better Land - Volume V"

'People a hundred years hence will be deeply touched by this boy's voice' Dr. Hewlett-Johnson, Dean of Canterbury. Manchester Guardian, 1929 

John Bonner's nephew, Peter Ward wandered into a record shop and saw a copy of The Better Land Volume One bearing his uncle's name. He put me in touch with John Bonner's widow, Mabel in Sheffield and it was she who told me the story of her husband's career in music. 

John Bonner was born in Manchester on May 31st 1912. His great-grandfather had been a bass at the cathedral and John became a chorister there at the age of ten. Even as a small boy at the Municipal school he possessed an outstanding voice and the teachers used to stand him on a chair and let him sing to the class. 

As a result of Ernest Lough's success there was a search for good voices by the big gramophone companies, and Bonner was first recorded at the same session as the younger Robert Peel. It is likely that Bonner's recording was made before Peel's as it has an earlier matrix number. Bonner was fifteen and Peel thirteen. Bonner was encouraged at every stage by Norman Cocker, the Sub Organist, and by his mentor Dr. Hewlett-Johnson, to whom John remained devoted to the end of his life. The reviews of Bonner's first record were outstanding: 

`Have you heard that new record of The Temple Church Choir singing `Hear my Prayer'? If not, get it; it is well worth hearing. The boy soloist has a remarkable voice, and an exquisite taste in diction. But he sings with two distinct registers, the upper notes sounding like a velvety­toned flute, but the middle and lower tones ringing with a hard chesty production of the clarinet type. All very beautiful, I admit; still not a commendable model for the average chorister to imi­tate. If an adult soprano sang like that, she would be severely criticised. Manchester Cathedral, a few Sundays ago, introduced a boy whose voice was a delight. He sang a long and difficult solo without the slightest signs of chesty tone, all one even exquisite quality, beautifully blended. It can be done.' ...Manchester Guardian 

John Bonner did not record again until 1929, when he was nearly seventeen and recorded seven more records for Columbia in London: his final recording of Somewhere a voice is calling was recorded in July 1930 at the age of eighteen, making him the oldest boy soprano featured on The Better Land

His relationship with his choirmaster, Mr. Wilson was not good. "He just had it in for me," he later told his wife. On one occasion John ran away from the choir and refused to go back until Dean Johnson bought him a large Hydrangea and delivered it personally in his motor car. Johnson often took him to sing at `posh' functions, returning home the following day. Bonner's rich and expressive voice moved his audience to tears at the many concerts he gave. Huge crowds would flock to the cathedral when it was known he was singing a solo and he performed in many concert halls and chapels throughout the North of England. The Oldham Evening Chronicle reported that `Master Bonner once again succeeded in captivating his audience. He has a sweet natural voice of much expression, with splendid enunciation.' 

A year later, in January 1930, he was again the principal attraction at the La Scala Kinema, Hollingwood, which was packed and many turned away disappointed. `In the dim light of the theatre he appeared far away and it seemed as if his voice could not possibly carry. But he could be heard clearly and certainly deserves his fame. During his rendering of Abide with me, many members of the audience were visibly affected. Encores were numerous and the boy responded freely. His greatest success was Vale (Farewell) which roused his hearers to the high­est point of enthusiasm.' 

One story recalled by his widow was that on the occasion of the recording of Angels Serenade the orchestra had so much difficulty with the timing of the song that after several attempts John asked the conductor for his baton saying: "Let me have a go; after all, I've got to sing it." The conductor apparently gave him `a filthy look' but handed over the baton and John stood and conducted the orchestra as he sang. That take is the one we have on this CD!

Bonner sang as a boy soprano at the cathedral for seven years until, what was described at the time as, `an incipient roughness put an end to his days as a soprano soloist'. He then trained as a florist, but three years later Dr. Johnson suggested he re-commence voice-training and he was back at the cathedral as deputy bass. In 1935, at the age of 22, he was interviewed by Sir Walter Alcock at Salisbury, securing the position of bass lay-vicar at the cathedral, later moving to Lincoln. In the late 1930s he became musical director of the Gainsborough Amateur Operatic Society, the Lincoln Thespians and the Clayton-Babcock Operatic Society. It was while in Lincoln that Norman Cocker persuaded John to record a specially arranged duet, dubbing his baritone voice onto his boy soprano recordings of Somewhere a Voice is Calling by Tate and Angels Guard Thee by Godard. At the time, this was unique and it was many years until a similar record was made by Aled Jones. John Bonner's records remained very popular, often played in the B.B.C. Light Programme after the war. 

When war broke out John joined the R.A.F. and, in India, became a member of Ralph Reader's Gang Show, also broadcasting on All-India Radio. After the war John returned to Lincoln where he formed the John Bonner Concert Orchestra. Following their marriage he moved with his wife Mabel to Sheffield where they ran a newsagents shop and where he became the director of the Sheffield Teachers' Operatic Society until his death in February 1977. Fifty years after making his first record, John made a final moving private recording of the song he had last sung many years before at the funeral of Dr. Hewlett-Johnson's wife in Canterbury Cathedral. Introducing There is no Death he said: `You have heard the boy soprano and the same voice ten years later. Now here is the same voice fifty years later. He then sat at the piano and sang for the last time. A few weeks later he was dead: he was aged just sixty-six. A tribute paid at the time in the Sheffield press reads: `Infectious exuberance and enthusiasm were (just two) of the out­ward facets of John's character. His training as a boy and adult chorister in Manchester and Lincoln together with his wartime direction of an orchestra in India could well have fitted John for a successful professional career but he concentrated on the `Amateurs' of this world for whom he had the greatest devotion.'

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