Clifford Grey

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Not to be confused with the Pennsylvania politician Clifford Gray.
Clifford Grey in 1921

Clifford Grey (5 January 1887 – 25 September 1941) was an English songwriter, actor, librettist and Olympic medalist. His birth name was Percival Davis, and he was also known as Clifford Gray, Tippi Gray, Tippi Grey, Tippy Gray and Tippy Grey.

As a writer, Grey contributed prolifically to West End and Broadway shows, as librettist and lyricist for composers including Ivor Novello, Jerome Kern, Howard Talbot, Ivan Caryll and George Gershwin. Among his best-remembered songs are two from early in his career, in 1916: "If You Were The Only Girl in the World" and "Another Little Drink Wouldn’t Do Us Any Harm". His later hits include "Spread a Little Happiness".

Unbeknown to his family and professional colleagues, Grey competed as an American bobsleigher, under a different name, in two Winter Olympics, in 1928 and 1932, winning gold medals. Although the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and other sources conclude that the songwriter was the same person as the athlete, some sources disagree.[1]

Biography[edit]

Early years[edit]

Grey was born in Birmingham, Warwickshire, the son of George Davis, a whip manufacturer, and his wife Emma, née Lowe. He was educated at the King Edward VI School.[2] On leaving school in 1903 he had a variety of office jobs, in none of which he had any success. He became a pierrot with a local concert party, and adopted the stage name Clifford Grey. By the time he married in 1912, he had largely given up performing in favour of writing lyrics for West End shows.[3] His wife was Dorothy Maud Mary Gould (1890 or 1891–1940), a fellow member of the concert party. They had two daughters; Grey also adopted Gould's daughter. Their marriage lasted until Dorothy's death.[2]

In 1916 Grey collaborated with the American composer Nat Ayer on The Bing Boys Are Here, a long-running revue that opened in London in April, and contained two of Grey’s early successes, "If You Were The Only Girl in the World" and "Another Little Drink Wouldn"t Do Us Any Harm". He collaborated with Ayer on Pell-Mell, The Bing Girls Are There, The Other Bing Boys, The Bing Brothers On Broadway, and Yes, Uncle! and with Herman Finck in Hullo, America!, Ivor Novello and Jerome Kern in Theodore & Co, Howard Talbot and Novello in Who’s Hooper?, and Ivan Caryll in Kissing Time.[4] On the last show he collaborated with P.G. Wodehouse,[5] who was privately lukewarm about Grey's talent, regarding him as a specialist in adapting other people's work rather than as an original talent.[6] At the same time, he acted in several silent films, including The Weakness of Strength (1916).[7]

1920s – Broadway and Hollywood[edit]

In 1920, Grey was invited to New York City by Kern to renew their collaboration, writing Florenz Ziegfeld’s Sally.[4] Grey remained in the U.S. for most of the decade, with occasional sorties back to London for Phi-Phi with Henri Christiné (1922), The Smith Family with Ayer (1922), and The Rainbow with George Gershwin (1923). For Broadway, he provided a regular stream of lyrics – and some libretti – for musical comedies and revues. His collaborators included Sigmund Romberg and Melville Gideon on some of the less-remembered shows, and Vincent Youmans on Hit The Deck (1927) and Rudolph Friml and Wodehouse on The Three Musketeers (1928).[4] In 1928, Grey secretly took up top-level bobsleighing (see below).

The introduction of talking pictures attracted Grey to Hollywood. He collaborated with Victor Schertzinger on the 1929 Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald film, The Love Parade, and with Oscar Straus on The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), and contributed to films with a range of stars from Ramon Novarro to Lawrence Tibbett to Marion Davies.[4] His songs and lyrics from show were used in many films, and he wrote screenplays and lyrics for fourteen new Hollywood films between 1929 and 1931, including The Vagabond Lover (1929), In Gay Madrid (1930) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931).[2] Even after his death, Grey's songs continued to be used in films and television productions. His best known song, "If You Were the Only Girl (in the World)", appeared in such films as Lilacs in the Spring (1954), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Cat's Meow (2001), and some films, such as Hit the Deck (1955), were adaptations of his shows. In 1929, he returned temporarily to London, where he collaborated with Vivian Ellis on Mr Cinders, which had a long run, and featured one of Grey's best-remembered songs, "Spread a Little Happiness".[8]

Bobsleigher[edit]

Clifford Grey
Medal record
Men's bobsleigh
Competitor for the  United States
Olympic Games
Gold 1928 St. Moritz Five-man
Gold 1932 Lake Placid Four-man
World Championships
Bronze 1937 St. Moritz Four-man

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography writes, of this aspect of Grey's life, that during his New York years:

Grey made many theatrical and sporting friends. Much later, the secret life of this quiet, retiring, and serious-looking man, so supposedly sedentary and shy behind his horn-rimmed glasses, was revealed. With considerable skill, Grey had invented an American persona, Tippi Gray, and it was under this name that he joined three bobsleighing friends and won gold medals in both the 1928 and the 1932 winter Olympic games.[2]

As "Tippi Gray", Grey competed for the United States in bobsleigh, winning a gold medal in the five-man event at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz. He then followed up with a gold medal at the following Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, this time in the four-man event. He also won a bronze medal in the four-man event at the 1937 FIBT World Championships in St. Moritz. While winning all these medals for the Americans, Grey retained his British citizenship. Grey's children did not find out about his gold medals until after his death.[9]

West End, films and last years[edit]

Returning to England in 1932, although apparently spending time in California,[7] Grey concentrated thereafter on the West End stage and British films. His screenplay for Rome Express (1932), a spy story, was "extremely popular in its day and virtually created a sub-genre."[2] He wrote more than twenty screenplays for British films, usually for the popular comedians of the day, but also including My Song Goes Round the World (1934), Mimi (1935), an adaptation of La Bohème, for Gertrude Lawrence and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Yes, Madam? (1940).[2]

Throughout the decade, Grey had shows running in the West End, written in collaboration with previous collaborators and new ones including Oscar Levant, Johnny Green and Noel Gay.[2][4] Grey wrote over 3,000 songs.[10]

When World War II began, Grey joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), which took shows round the country and overseas to provide relief for serving members of the armed forces. In 1941 he was presenting a concert party in Ipswich, Suffolk, when the town was heavily bombed. Grey died two days later, aged 54, as a result of a heart attack, brought on by the bombing, and exacerbated by asthma.[2][11][12]

Selected filmography[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Clifford Barton 'Cliff' Gray", SR/Olympics, Sports Reference LLC, accessed 2 November 2012
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Moore, James Ross, "Grey, Clifford (1887–1941)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; accessed 28 August 2010. (subscription required)
  3. ^ Grey continued to make occasional acting appearances. He appeared in 24 films between 1914 and 1922, including The Crucible (1914, pre-Arthur Miller play of the same name), Madame Cubist (1916), The Best Man (1917), Carnival (1921), and The Man from Home (1922).
  4. ^ a b c d e "Grey, Clifford", Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Oxford University Press, 11 July 2006, Oxford Music Online, accessed 28 August 2010. (subscription required)
  5. ^ Jason, p, 82
  6. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Wodehouse's views did not prevent his purchasing a plot from Grey on one occasion
  7. ^ a b Bull, Andy. "The forgotten story of ... those magnificent men and their flying bobsled", The Guardian, 25 February 2010, accessed 2 November 2012
  8. ^ Originally sung by Binnie Hale, and revived by Sting in 1982, when it reached the British Top 20. See the ODNB and Oxford Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
  9. ^ Stewart, Graham. "With a song – and a bobsleigh – in his heart", The Times, 11 February 2006
  10. ^ Daniels, Robert L. (31 July 2006). "Jazz in July – Twelve Hands, Two Pianos, One Night", Daily Variety (New York, N.Y., Reed Business Information) 31 July 2006, pp. 7–8
  11. ^ Wallenchinsky, pp. 559–60
  12. ^ "Clifford Grey, 54, English Lyricist; Wrote Words for 'Hit the Deck' and 'The Three Musketeers' Tunes – Dies in Ipswich", The New York Times, 27 September 1941, p. 17

References[edit]