A century of caring, sharing and family
Dame Vera Lynn, 100 years old, in conversation with David Parker
Dame Vera: you were not even a teenager at the start your singing career? Would you say you were fortunate to have become a famous singer at such a young age?
Yes, I was a great deal younger when I first began singing – seven years old! I think it’s a wonderful privilege to become wel-known for what you love doing – at any age. Singing has always been my passion, and I am so grateful to have had such a long and interesting career.
Because I am more used to talking to 50s, 60s and 70s ‘pop stars’, the era of pop song revolution, I asked Dame Vera if she felt part of it at any time?
I’m not sure anyone ever feels like they’re part of a ‘revolution’ while it’s taking place – it’s best for history to judge. I have to say that I very much enjoy a lot of songs from that time.
Since then, pop music has changed and the types of shows and tours have evolved, which are now far from variety clubs and theatre shows where you performed with big bands, but without electronics and amplifiers. What were the beginnings of your show business career and do you remember similar adoration from fans young, and not so young, at and after your performances?
I began by being featured on other people’s records – Charlie Kunz, among others. I remember being played on the radio for the first time. It was a special feeling.
Were you managed and manipulated by managers, promoters and agents in the same way that some of the big names of the 50s and 60s say they were?
I have been very fortunate through my career to be surrounded by mostly kind-hearted people. I never performed a song I didn’t want to, and I look back on my years in the industry with great fondness. My wonderful late husband Harry looked after me from the 50s onwards and I couldn’t have had anyone better.
What do you remember of that first performance and making a hit record for the first time? I ask this because you made songs famous with radio plays before mass sales of Top Twenty hits and TV shows.
I clearly remember going on stage aged seven and singing ‘Glad Rag Doll’. I sang to my doll for the whole performance, who was identically dressed to me.
Were you ‘plucked off the streets’ to become a singing star of the sensational 40/50s? How did it all begin? The war and post war years were so different and we seemed to be much more of a united nation in the recovery years. You travelled widely to entertain troops.
I’ve heard it said that your morale-boosting helped sustain the boys and win the war.
As I mentioned above, I began by performing on other artist’s records before signing with my own record label. I’ve been with Decca for a long time now, which is lovely. I did travel quite a bit during the war – it was an honour to do my bit to bring some joy to those brave boys. It was the least I could do.
Friends of mine became 60s stars, but they have told me it was heart-breaking and hard work and there is no such thing as an overnight hit. You were about seven years old, so who guided you and advised and managed you, and were they good to you or hard task masters through your early years?
I have always had wonderful people around me. My husband Harry was a great support, and my daughter Virginia continues to be so helpful. Family is so important for keeping your feet on the ground, and without them, I couldn’t have done all the things I have.
Were you always confident and had you set your ambitions to be a singer/songwriter musician, or did it grow on you?
I either wanted to be a singer or, if that didn’t work out, a painter. I have always had nerves though – I’m not sure that ever goes away.
Did you have lessons and voice training, and did you learn to play instruments, or did you teach yourself?
I have never had any voice training – I once went to a voice coach but they told me there wasn’t much I could do with my voice and I never went back!
You performed with big bands and other artists. Some stars claim they were influenced by music of the era or before. Did you have your own icons that you tried to emulate?
Not really – although there were certainly icons I was delighted to work with, such as Bing Crosby.
Of all your hits, what was your favourite?
People often ask me this question, and I would say ‘We’ll Meet Again’ is my favourite. Its lyrics span all times, generations and people. They express a universal sentiment.
Of all the tours and one-night stands all over the world, which were the ones you remember most – fondly and not so fondly?
I treasure my Burma tour above everything else. The boys were so kind and welcoming, the conditions were poor – there was no running water or electricity – but I was just so happy and honoured to be able to put a smile on their faces.
How do you spend your time nowadays?
I very much enjoy reading and watching television. We have a lovely garden here, and I spend a lot of my time with my family.
What would you most like to be remembered for? For instance, alongside your outstanding achievements in music, you have supported various charities but have now set up a charity The Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity, but your private life seems to have been kept very private. Tell us something about your family and your time away from the show business scene.
I live in my home in Ditchling, where I’ve been for many years, and my daughter is close by. Family is one of life’s greatest blessings. That is part of the thinking behind the Children’s Charity. It was established years ago to help families affected by cerebral palsy, and it’s a cause very close to my heart because I have seen firsthand what kind of toll a disorder like this can take. I have been greatly encouraged by the generosity towards the Charity this year as I celebrated my birthday – I send thanks to everyone who has donated.
What do you think of ‘pop’ music in the charts these days? Memorable like the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and long-lasting like your own famous songs, or instantly forgettable?
I am not very familiar with modern music, but there are certainly many talented individuals in every generation. I fully support and endorse our newest British singers – some of them were kind enough to contribute to my new album that came out in March. Artists such as Blake, Hayley Westenra, Aled Jones, and Russell Watson have wonderful voices.