Lehigh Valley

History's Headlines: A singer from Scotland

The record shows that the first singer to sell a million phonograph records was Italian opera great tenor Enrico Caruso in 1902. But another fellow was not far behind.

In 1911, Sir Harry Lauder (1870-1950), a Scotsman and internationally known talent, sold a million records in the British market and that same year was called the highest paid performer in the world. Quite an achievement for someone who started his career singing in a colliery.

With a Scottish accent and sometimes in a kilt and carrying a “cromach” or walking stick, he managed to charm millions from around the world with a singing career that took him from English music halls to performances before King Edward VII and King George V.

And in October 1917 and again in October 1922, he appeared on the stage in Allentown at the Lyric Theatre, today's Miller Symphony Hall.

Lauder was born on Aug. 4, 1870 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Although his roots went back into a titled past, his father was a china designer who died when he was young. As the oldest of eight children, Lauder had to go to work to help his mother support his siblings. His first job was in a flax mill and later in a colliery. The colliery job, which he held on to for 10 years, paid him 10 shillings a week.

Lauder sometimes performed before his fellow colliery workers, who encouraged him to try for a job in a music hall. But it was not until his wife, the daughter of the colliery’s manager, suggested he do so that he decided to try.

At his first engagement, Lauder got paid 5 shillings, the first money he ever got paid for singing. Soon he was singing in music halls across Scotland including Glasgow. Lauder decided that after a tour of Scotland he was ready for a career as a professional singer and quit his job in the colliery.

From 1894 to 1900, Lauder toured music halls in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Along with his singing, Lauder developed comedy routines using Scottish dialect humor. In March 1900, he got his first engagement in London. Getting warnings that metropolitan audiences would not appreciate his dialect jokes, he reduced them and mostly sang.

Lauder was an immediate hit at several prominent London music halls and by 1907 was ready to make his first tour of America in variety theaters. Seeing he was as popular as he was in England, Lauder was to make 22 tours of America into the 1920s.

At his second, in 1911, he commanded a fee of a $1,000 a night.  On his return to Britain in 1908, Lauder performed a private show at Sandringham for King Edward VII. In 1912, he headed the bill at the first Royal Command Performance before King George V.

Lauder was on tour in Australia when World War I broke out in Europe. He quickly returned and went on the stage to raise money for the war effort. As it did for many, WWI brought tragedy to Lauder. In 1916 his only son, John, was killed in the fighting. Deeply stricken by this, Lauder was thrown into deep depression. His wife suggested that what he needed to do was to go back to work. This advice might not have worked for some people, but it did for Lauder.

Despite heavy submarine warfare when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, Lauder decided he had to tour America to encourage them in the war effort. It was this that brought him to Allentown.

It was 11:30 a.m. Monday, Oct. 29, 1917, when “The Harry Lauder Special” pulled into Allentown. At this point in his career Lauder traveled with a cast of actors. They would perform the first half of the show and he would do a solo for the second. Lauder created characters that he would also portray in his singing routines. The Allentown Rotary Club was among those taking the lead in attracting Lauder to Allentown. As a member of the Glasgow Rotary Club, Lauder advocated for the club of which he was at the time the best- known member.

It was understandable then that 25 automobile loads of Rotarians where at the railroad station when Lauder’s train arrived from New York. The club had also reserved 100 tickets at $2 each for the performance. The Morning Call pointed out that Lauder’s original plan for the trip was altered.

“The tour of the world famed comedian is not to be as strenuous as in former years,” the paper noted, “for originally he was to have appeared at two cities on the same day. This plan has been discontinued for Mr. Lauder’s health and state of mind caused by the sad death of his own son.”

Before taking the stage, Lauder was driven to the Hotel Traylor, just open that year, as the ”personal guest of Mr. Traylor”. Allentown industrialist Samuel Traylor, it was hinted in the story, played a role in getting Lauder to stop in Allentown. The fact that like many local industrialists Traylor had large munitions contracts with the British government probably didn’t hurt the chances of getting Lauder to stop here.

For reasons known only to itself, The Morning Call did not give any sort of detailed coverage of Lauder’s actual performance at the Lyric. Perhaps it was widely assumed that it was too well known to talk about, other than to say it was sold out. But the speech that Lauder gave to the USSAC’s at Camp Crane was reported on almost verbatim.

“Silhouetted against the black background of the sky, clad in Scottish kilts, and speaking with an appealing earnestness into the glowing upturned faces of the men from the camp,” wrote the Morning Call, “he presented an imposing figure.”

“The world is on fire and you have been chosen to put out that fire for all time,” he told them. “Today everyone depends on the soldier. Bid him God’s speed and if your American dollar can save their lives, give your all so that they may return safe to their mothers and wives.”

This was followed by a concert from the Scottish pipers who were a part of Lauder’s troupe.

Earlier that day Lauder had made similar remarks to the Rotary Club in a talk he gave in a lunch held in his honor at the Hotel Allen.  He stated, “I have been to the front,” and that world was on fire due to “hellish German vandalism.”

After a night spent at the Traylor, “The Harry Lauder Special”  pulled out early. But it would return to the Lehigh Valley in 1922. Now that the war was over,  Lauder, talking to the Allentown Rotary Club before a performance at the Lyric, was expressing support for international organizations to preserve the peace. Peace was important now he said, particularly in France.

“I own a wee bit of France, a wee bit,” he said referring to his son. “And some of you other fathers own a wee bit.” As one who talked later to those who were there recalled, “there was no dry eye among the Rotarians who rose to tumultuous applause.”

Lauder virtually retired from the stage in the 1930s. But during a war he had never hoped to see he came out to support the morale of Britain with his voice. He died in 1950.

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