Clifford Grey (5 January 1887 – 25 September 1941) was an English songwriter, librettist and actor. His birth name was Percival Davis, and he was also known as Clifford Gray.
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 "Got a Date with an Angel" and "Spread a Little Happiness".
For 35 years after 1979 it was widely believed that Grey secretly competed as an American bobsleigher, under the name Clifford "Tippy" Gray, in two Winter Olympics, in 1928 and 1932, winning gold medals, but it was finally shown that the sportsman was a different person.
Life and career
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 Camp Hill Boys School and the King Edward VI School. 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, performing in pubs, piers and music halls. By the time he married in 1912 he had reduced his stage performing in favour of writing lyrics for West End shows. His wife was Dorothy Maud Mary Gould (1890 or 1891–1940), a fellow member of the concert party. They had two daughters, June and Dorothy; Grey also adopted Gould's daughter. Their marriage lasted until Dorothy's death.
In 1916 Grey had his big breakthrough as a writer, collaborating 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 Hallo, America!, Ivor Novello and Jerome Kern in Theodore & Co, Howard Talbot and Novello in Who's Hooper?, and Ivan Caryll in Kissing Time. On the last show he collaborated with P.G. Wodehouse, 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.[n 1] At the same time, he acted in a dozen silent films, including The Crucible (1914), The Weakness of Strength (1916), Madame Cubist (1916), The Best Man (1917), Carnival (1921) and The Man from Home (1922).
1920s – Broadway and Hollywood
In 1920 Grey was invited to New York by Kern to renew their collaboration, writing Florenz Ziegfeld's Sally. Grey remained in the US 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), Rudolph Friml and Wodehouse on The Three Musketeers (1928) and Ups-A-Daisy with Robert A. Simon for the Shubert Theatre (1928).
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. His songs and lyrics from shows 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). 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 the musical Mr Cinders, which had a long West End run and featured one of Grey's best-remembered songs, "Spread a Little Happiness". [n 2]
Olympian bobsleigher myth
After an article written in 1979 by an American journalist, Tim Clark, in Yankee Magazine, it was believed for more than three decades that Grey had competed, secretly, for the US Olympic bobsleigh team in 1928 and 1932 under the name Clifford "Tippy" (or "Tippi") Gray. Many news sources and biographers accepted this idea, based on circumstantial evidence that Clark had found. The evidence also persuaded Grey's daughters that their late father was not only the peripatetic writer that they remembered, but also a secret world-class sportsman who had been too modest to boast of his Olympic success. The press thereafter widely reported that Grey the librettist had also won a gold medal in the five-man bobsleigh race at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, another at the following Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, this time in the four-man event, and a bronze medal in the four-man race at the 1937 FIBT World Championships in St. Moritz. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography the historian James Ross Moore concluded that during Grey's 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.
There were a few who did not accept that "Tippi" Gray was the same person as Clifford Grey the writer. The Olympic historian David Wallechinsky was one, and John Cross, a researcher from Bowdoin College, was another. Finally, around 2013, Andy Bull, a sportswriter for The Guardian, was writing a book about the 1932 gold medal-winning bobsleigh team that was published in 2015 under the title Speed Kings. Although Bull had earlier accepted the story, as he looked closer, he became suspicious. He found an interview with "Tippy" Gray from 1948 in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, seven years after Grey's death. "Tippy" Gray, the Olympic champion, died in April 1968 in San Diego, California. Bull wrote:
There are so many odd coincidences in the lives of the two men, it's easy to see now how their tales became tangled. ... [T]here was the physical resemblance, close enough for the two of them to be confused with each other in the grainy old black-and-white photos. Then ... "Tippy" Gray was a song-writer too. He had a short career in the movies, but killed his career when he was arrested in possession of an opium pipe and a pistol. After that, he moved to Paris and started writing jazz tunes for the revue at the Moulin Rouge.
West End, films and last years
Returning to England in 1932, although apparently spending time in California, 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 subgenre". 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).
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. Grey wrote more than 3,000 songs.
When the Second World War 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.
Notes, references and sources
- Moore, James Ross, "Grey, Clifford (1887–1941)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; accessed 28 August 2010. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- Bull, Andy. "It's just not cricket: The Mystery of Clifford Grey, Olympic Champion Who Never Was", The Guardian, 5 May 2015
- "Grey, Clifford", Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Oxford University Press, 11 July 2006, Oxford Music Online, accessed 28 August 2010. (subscription required)
- Jason, p, 82
- "Clifford Grey", British Film Institute, accessed 2 November 2015
- Barker, Dennis. "The melody lingers on for a song-writer of the 1920s", The Guardian, 1 September 1982, p. 2 (subscription required)
- Stewart, Graham. "With a song – and a bobsleigh – in his heart", The Times, 11 February 2006
- "Clifford Barton 'Cliff' Gray", SR/Olympics, Sports Reference LLC, accessed 2 November 2012
- Bull, Andy. Speed Kings, Bantam Press (2015) ISBN 0593073762
- Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 9 March 1948, p. 11
- 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
- Wallenchinsky, pp. 559–60
- "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
- Jason, David (1975). P. G. Wodehouse: A Portrait of a Master. London: Garnstone Press. ISBN 978-0-85511-190-8.
- Wallenchinsky, David (1984). "Bobsled: Four-Man". The Complete Book of the Olympics: 1896–1980. Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-006632-6.