Sunday, 13 November 2016

84 Dai Jones, tenor

84 Dai Jones, tenor

A recent feature about William Samuell, a baritone from St Thomas, elicited some details of another notable opera singer – Dai Jones, a tenor from Pontardawe. 

Born in 1906 in the village of Pant-teg, Dai Jones was the youngest of five children, whose father was a foreman at Dyffryn Tinplate Works.  The family moved to Rhydyfro, just north of Pontardawe, and after leaving school Dai began work aged 14 at Pontardawe’s tinplate works. 

Throughout the 1920s W.D. Clee, organist of Wern Chapel in Ystafyfera for nearly 40 years, used to visit local chapels in the Swansea valley to hold auditions for the famous 400-strong Clee Choir of Ystalyfera.  Dai had no inflated opinion of his singing ability, but when W.D. Clee heard him sing at Saron Chapel, Rhydyfro, he was impressed with the crystal-clear quality of his voice, so Dai became a member of the choir and received training to develop his singing talent.  At concerts performed by the Clee Choir he was frequently one of the soloists.  Dai also competed in local eisteddfodau, and his winning championship solo at the 1926 Ammanford eisteddfod was heard by a producer of the Carl Rosa Opera Company (formed in 1873): following a successful audition Dai joined the company.

In 1934 at Tabernacle Chapel in Thomas Street, Pontardawe, Dai married Mary Phillips, who was actively involved at Tabernacle and with Pontardawe Opera Company, and whose half-sister was the actress Rachel Thomas (whose films included The Proud Valley).  When Dai made a guest appearance as soloist at the 1935 Caernarfon National Eisteddfod, his impact was such that several listening assumed that he was a famous Italian tenor! 

Though he was due to sign a contract with Milan’s La Scala Opera Company in 1936, it did not proceed because of the rise of fascism and the deteriorating European situation.  Nonetheless Dai was overseas during his son Trefor’s early months, touring South Africa, which was then still part of the British Empire, with the London Follies.  The theatre critic of the Natal Witness commented in January 1937: “Dai Jones has a most exceptional voice, its timbre and quality allowing him to render equally faultlessly a strongly dramatic air or a delicate little cradle song.”  

Following a successful season at Brighton’s Palace Pier Theatre, Dai was among those of the “Brighton Follies” in the first Variety Show broadcast on BBC Radio from 1937.  His Briton Ferry colleague, bass baritone Bruce Dargavel, applauded his vocal range and said Dai sang a “thrilling top C”.

With the outbreak of war Dai returned to work at Pontardawe tinplate works.  But subsequently, like many others, he found it difficult to establish his singing career again, until he performed with the Welsh National Opera at Cardiff’s Prince of Wales Theatre in 1948.  Changing his stage name to John David, he signed with the Gorlinsky London Quartet, and toured Britain along with a soprano, a mezzo soprano and a bass baritone.  When in 1950 he sang at the Porthcawl Pavilion, a newspaper reported that at the conclusion “hundreds of people were upstanding in their excitement - the scene can only be described as awe-inspiring, as was this artiste’s singing.”  At the first performance of Verdi’s opera “Don Carlos” in Dublin, John David sang the title role, and in Cork he sang the principal part in Gounod’s opera “Faust”.  A 1951 review of the oratorio “Judas Maccabeus” described him as “an outstanding Welsh tenor”.

After performing for over thirty years in opera, concerts, oratorios, variety shows and on the radio, and having worked with such people as baritone Sir Geraint Evans and conductor Sir Adrian Boult, John David retired from singing in the late 1950s, to become a familiar figure as Pontardawe’s park keeper.  This outstanding Welsh tenor died quietly in December 1978 aged 72.  Inducted into Pontardawe’s Hall of Fame in May 2004, his picture hangs in Pontardawe Arts Centre in Herbert Street.             

(with thanks to Mr Trefor Jones)






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