Billy Joseph Mayerl (May 31, 1902 – March 25, 1959) was an English pianist and composer who built a career in music hall and musical theatre and became an acknowledged master of light music. Best known for his syncopated novelty piano solos, he wrote over 300 piano pieces, many of which were named after flowers and trees, including his best-known composition, Marigold (1927). He also ran the successful School of Syncopation for whose members he published hundreds of his own arrangements of popular songs.
He also composed works for piano and orchestra, often in suites with evocative names such as the 'Aquarium Suite' (1937), comprising "Willow Moss", "Moorish Idol", "Fantail", and "Whirligig".
Mayerl was born into a musical family on London's Tottenham Court Road, near the West End theatre district. His father, a violin player, attempted to introduce Mayerl to the violin at the age of four but failed. After noticing Mayerl's affinity for the piano he started him with piano lessons soon afterward and by the age of 7 he was studying at the Trinity College of Music, paid for with a series of scholarships. His first major concert was at the age of nine, playing Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto. In his teens, he supplemented these lessons by accompanying silent movies and playing at dances.
While studying at Trinity College, Mayerl began visiting a local music arcade known as 'Gayland', where he first encountered American ragtime music. After trying his hand at composing ragtime, he was threatened with expulsion from Trinity College if he continued and it was a decade before his first composition was re-issued as 'The Jazz Master'.
Attracted to American popular music, Mayerl joined a Southampton hotel band in 1921. He recorded approximately 37 piano rolls for the "Echo" label in London of various popular tunes of the early 20s. Subsequently he joined the Savoy Havana Band in London, which led to him becoming a celebrity. In the late 20s he recorded in London one single title (Eskimo Shivers) on the "Duo-Art" player piano system for the Aeolian Company.
In 1926, he left the Savoy and opened his 'School of Syncopation' which specialised in teaching modern music techniques such as ragtime and stride piano. This in turn, led to the long running correspondence course on 'How to play like Billy Mayerl'. It was during this period that he wrote his most famous solo 'Marigold'. By the late 30's his correspondence school is said to have over 100 staff and 30,000 students. It finally closed in 1957.
On October 28, 1925, Mayerl was the soloist in the London premiere of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. In December 1926, he appeared with Gwen Farrar (1899–1944) in a short film – made in the Lee DeForest Phonofilm sound-on-film process – in which they sang Mayerl's song "I've Got a Sweetie on the Radio". His song "Miss Up-to-Date" was sung and played by Cyril Ritchard in Alfred Hitchcock's sound film Blackmail (1929).
In the 1930s Mayerl composed several works for the musical theatre including three connected with horse racing, Sporting Love, opening at the Gaiety Theatre, London in 1934, Twenty to One (Coliseum 1935), and Over She Goes (Saville 1936). In 1938, famed jazz pianist Marian McPartland joined his group "Mayerl's Claviers" under the name Marian Page.
Mayerl died in 1959 from a heart attack at his home, Marigold Lodge, after a long illness.
- Harth, Mike. Lightning Fingers: Billy Mayerl The Man and His Music. Paradise Press, 1995
- Archer, John. Billy Mayerl The Man and His Music. The Billy Mayerl Society, pg 4
- Billy Mayerl Society
- Billy Mayerl at The Robert Farnon Society website
- Mayerl's Discography on Folkways Records
- Billy Mayerl at IMDB
- Bill Edward's biography of Mayerl, with a comprehensive list of compositions
Marigold - The Music of Billy Mayerl by Prof. Peter Dickinson, Oxford University Press 1999 - a definitive biography with all listings