Biography from "THE BANJO IN BRITAIN" series by W. M. Brewer taken from BMG December 1955

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Information received from a source which is believed to be reliable is that the eminent banjoist, who was known as Joe Morley, was born on December 3, 1867, at Kinver, Staffs. I have been unable to confirm this because of the unfortunate circumstances connected with his birth. His father, a married man, had an illicit association with a Miss Maxwell and Joseph (Joe) was the result of this union.

It is not known how the baby was cared for at birth, but apparently at an early age, his father took the young son into his household. (It is known that Mr. and Mrs. Morley had a son and daughter at least but whether these children were born before Joe is not known.)

Mr. Morley appears to have earned his living by playing the concertina in the streets (a professional busker!); and when Joe was about five years of age, he was accompanying his father on his itinerant excursions. There is concrete evidence that the Morleys (father and son) were performing outside public houses at Salisbury, Wilts. in the year 1872. The little boy was dressed in jacket and knickerbockers (with stockings encircled by red and black bands) and he step-danced to his father's tunes-


After performing, the Morleys would take a collection (" bottling," as it is known in busking circles) and then move on to the next " pitch."

About the year 1887, the elder Morley was shown an old banjo in one of the inns he visited. (It had been left by a strolling minstrel in lieu of payment.) He bought it for a few shillings and gave it to his son. It was an old fashioned with seven-string smooth-arm instrument fitted with push-in pegs, but to the young lad, it was something marvellous. In a short time, he was plucking simple tunes from it. Encouraged by his father, Joe purchased books on music and second-hand musical scores and, with their aid, essayed to become a composer inventing his own finger technique on the banjo.

In his early twenties, Joe Morley joined a well-known team of buskers - Ben Hollingworth and Fred Sanders (banjoists) and Alf. Wentworth (concertina) and the quartet made their way to North Wales for the summer season, where they toured from town to town earning their livelihood en route. Even at that time, Joe Morley was playing tunes of his own composition and many of those early solos bore titles inspired by the names of the towns he visited.


Later, Joe Morley toured the West Country as a " solo " busker and the late W. A. Edwards (himself a player of the banjo at that time) recalled that, whilst living in Weston-super-Mare some time in the late l890's, he was told of a wonderful banjo player touring the streets. He made a point of meeting him and invited the player to his home. It was Joe Morley and Mr. Edwards said that he was visited by Joe several times and he played selections of classical and popular tunes (and several of his own compositions) with wonderful execution. 

Fred Shewring heard Joe Morley playing his " Wimbledon Barn Dance " in Worcester before that number was printed in an 1894 issue of " The Banjo World ". At this period, Joe Morley was a frequent visitor to a little inn in Worcester, and the young " gentlemen" of the town would visit the inn specially to hear him perform.

The next we hear of Joe Morley is in 1891-as a member of the " Victorian Minstrels," who later changed their title to the " Royal Osborne Minstrels " (after the Royal Yacht      " Osborne," on which they had performed). These " Minstrels " were appearing at Sandown, Isle of Wight, for the summer season. In addition to the " star " soloist, Joe Morley, the " Minstrels " consisted of Alf. Wentworth (concertina), -Twinn (a fine player of the harp who, in the winter months, had a dance orchestra of his own in his home town of Nottingham), Donald Marshall (tin whistle), Dave Pegg (tambourine) and Ted Scott (bones).

In the same year, Clifford Essex had formed his " Pierrots " and, after their debut at Henley Regatta, they went to the Isle of Wight for the summer season. They had intended to stay in Ryde, but, for some reason, went on to Sandown. The " Minstrels ,4 had their " pitch " on the sands, at one end of the promenade so Clifford Essex struck his " pitch " at the other end.


Both groups of buskers held sway at Sandown for three summer seasons, but the increasing popularity of the Clifford Essex Pierrots (they eventually appeared in the Isle of Wight for 23 summers !) sounded the death-knell of the other buskers; and when the " Royal Osborne Osbourne Minstrels " disbanded in 1893. Clifford Essex persuaded Joe Morley to come to London for the winter.

Up to this time, Joe Morley had continued playing on a smooth-arm seven-string banjo, but Clifford Essex told him that, to perform before a London audience, he would have to use the more modern five-string instrument. It was difficult to persuade Joe to change, but on the promise of London engagements, he did buy a six-string banjo with a fretted fingerboard, although, after a few days, Joe took out all the frets with a penknife !

Joe Morley first appeared on a London stage at the Prince's Hall, at a Clifford Essex December concert and he was an immediate success with banjoists and the non-playing public alike. Private engagements followed at Brodrick Cloete's town house in Berkeley Square; the National Sporting Club; and the London headquarters of the Artists' Volunteers and London Scottish Regiments. Clifford Essex also secured for Joe three months' work with the Moore and Burgess Minstrels at the St. James's Hall in Piccadilly.


The following summer, the " Royal Osborne Minstrels " decided to re-form; and on being joined by Joe Morley, they travelled to Colwyn Bay for the season.

I have been unable to discover what Joe Morley did for the next two years (he probably continued busking with the " Royal Osborne Minstrels "), but when Will. C. Pepper left Clifford Essex's " Royal Pierrots " (as they were styled after appearing before Royalty) in 1896, Mr. Essex sent Joe a telegram inviting him to take Pepper's place. Joe accepted, and he first appeared with the Royal Pierrots in that year at Folkestone. He remained with them for 13 years, finally leaving to join Will. Pepper's " White Coons " at Felixstowe.

When Joe joined the Royal Pierrots he had adapted his style of playing to the standard five-string fretted-fingerboard banjo (but he always insisted on push-in pegs!) and from then on, started to write solos for it and the first of his compositions began to be issued. Since then, his published compositions for the banjo have numbered many hundreds and a study of these shows that the composer progressed through many developmental stages of banjo music. Perhaps the most significant change. was after Joe Morley had heard the American banjoist, Vess L. Ossman; at one of the Clifford Essex concerts.

The vogue for minstrels began to wane with the closing of the St. James's Hal in 1904, but eight years later there was a great re-gathering at the London Palladium. Eustace Gray presented the " Palladium Minstrels " and Harry Pepper (who was later to win fame for putting on minstrels, coon and concert parties on the radio) wrote the music for the show-which included 34 banjoists under the leadership of Joe Morley!


Morley was also featured as a soloist in the show, which opened on Boxing Day, 1912, and later toured the principal music halls. 

When the "Palladium Minstrels" disbanded, Joe joined Alec. Hurley's concert party, " The Jesters," which toured Ireland during the early part of the 1914 -18 war. The highlight of this tour was a four-days' visit to the American battle-ships lying in Berehaven.

As a soloist, Joe Morley played for the troops at Aldershot and Salisbury during World War I; and after the Armistice in, November, 1918, he travelled to France and gave many concerts to the Army of Occupation in Cologne and played for the American troops at Coblenz.!

In the early 1920's, he recorded several' banjo duets with OIly Oakley for the Pathe Co. (these were later re-issued on several other labels); and about the year 1924 he made his only solo recordings- " Donkey Laugh " and " Jovial Huntsman "- for the Homochord Co.

From this time, his public appearances consisted mainly of engagements at fretted instrument concerts in London and the Provinces, but when Harry S. J. Pepper was arranging to revive his father's " White Coons " for broadcasting, Joe was sent for and he was featured as a soloist in the first broadcast in August, 1932, and all subsequent shows. In the following January , he made his radio bow as the leader of the Kentucky Banjo Team in the highly popular "  Kentucky Minstrels ".

In all his public engagements, Joe Morley always played the banjo standing up, with his instrument suspended from his neck by means of a sling; and in such numbers as " A Banjo Oddity " and " Donkey Laugh " he seldom glanced at the fingerboard of his instrument when playing, but looked quizzically at his audience to watch the effect of his little tricks.

He was President of the (old) London Banjo Club, the Aston Banjo Club and the Lewisham B. M. & G. Club, the members being content with his masterly recitals, as Joe had no flair for oratory.

Joe Morley is acknowledged to have been the finest finger-style banjoist in Britain of his day and the most prolific British composer for the instrument. He steadfastly refused to forsake the finger - style of playing when Clifford Essex invited him to become a member in 1913 of his first dance band.

The range of Joe Morley's compositions for the banjo includes novelty numbers, such as " Bagpipe Patrol," " A Banjo Oddity " and " Donkey Laugh "; delightfully tuneful items as represented by " Dresden China ", " Chrysanthemum " and " Pompadour "; catchy lilts like " Freckles," " Apple Blossom " and " Piece Caracteristique "; marches, minuets and gavottes; solos calling for exceptionally advanced technique: " El Contrabandista ", " Patricia Rondo ", " Mazzeppa ", " Diana ", " Tarantella ", " Fortissimo " and " Egyptian Princess ," to mention only a few.


Even his medleys had an, essentially banjo flavour, but he seldom made transcriptions or arrangements of classics- Luigi Arditi's " II Bacio " is the only one I can recall.

Two enjoyable memories of Joe Morley occur to me; one at a Wigmore Hall concert when A. D. Cammeyer produced a " surprise item " with himself and Joe playing " A Chinese Patrol " as a duet - the other at a meeting of the (old) London Banjo Club, when he played " Mazzeppa " to a delighted audience. Joe had, handed his pianist for the occasion (Will Kirby) pianoforte part upside down. Mr. Kirby ignored the score because, when he held it up before the audience, it proved to be the accompaniment to another number ! Fortunately; the pianist had had long experience of the Morley tradition and was a skilled extempore artist.

Joe Morley, who never married, began to complain of a sore throat in the summer of 1937 and early in September of that year he was taken to the Fulham Hospital for observation. He was transferred to the Lambeth Hospital where, during a preliminary operation on September 16th, he died of carcinoma of the larynx.