Dame Vera Lynn, the songstress who boosted British troops’ morale through much of the 20th century, has died at 103. Best remembered for singing “We’ll Meet Again,” Lynn was the “Forces’ Sweetheart” for delivering reminders of the white cliffs of Dover to far off shores. Oftentimes, her crooned postcards for King and Country were penned by Jews — and she was even discovered by one.
In 1937, at the age of 20, Lynn earned a spot in Bert Ambrose’s band. While often called the “aristocrat of British dance bands,” Ambrose came from humble origins, born to a Jewish family in Warsaw and coming of age in London where his father found work as a rag dealer. But Ambrose knew talent when he saw it. Lynn was a mainstay of Ambrose’s band until 1940 and together they put on a benefit show to raise funds for Jewish children trying to escape Germany.
While with Ambrose’s band, Lynn met her husband, Jewish clarinetist and saxophonist Harry Lewis. They wed in 1941, the same year Walter Kent and a lyricist named Nat Burton (né Schwartz) penned one of the anthems that made her famous, “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover.” But by then Lynn already had something of a standard on her hands in 1940’s “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” the work of boychiks Manning Sherwin and his lyricist Eric Maschwitz, who as a TV executive would go on to commission the series that became “Doctor Who.” Lynn became known to the fighting generation, performing the songs in outdoor concerts for soldiers in Egypt, India and Burma.
With the end of World War II, Lynn began appearing on television and films, and produced a string of studio albums whose songs performed well in America. Her second charting single, “Again,” peaked at 23 on Billboard. The tune was originally written by Lionel Newman (of the Newman film music dynasty for the 1948 noir “Road House,” and was also sung by Doris Day and Mel Torme.
Much of Lynn’s discography was made up of standards, including the odd English riff on a German song (an irony that was accepted by an adoring public) and Sidney Lippman and Sylvia Dee’s 1956 song “A House with Love in It.” Yet, while an aging act in the 1960s, Lynn remained relevant with a needle drop of her signature song in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” and with interpolations of hipper fare. In 1967, she cracked the number seven spot on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart with her cover of Arnold Goland and Jack Gold’s “It Hurts to Say Goodbye,” a track that later received lyrical additions by French-Jewish polymath Serge Gainsbourg for Françoise Hardy.
But Lynn was associated, for better or worse, with times of conflict. In 1982, that connection — and her ability to lift spirits in the face of it — was acknowledged in the single “I Love This Land.” The track, written by Oscar winner André Previn, was released in the aftermath of the Falklands War. That conflict was unpopular, and so was the song. While she had the hearts and minds of the public in World War II, this syrupy tune was pilloried as a sentimental and hollow gesture of nostalgia out of place in Thatcher’s England. It was Lynn’s last single.
While her relevance flagged as the years went on, she still charted with compilation albums, setting records for the oldest living artist in the Billboard charts and the first centenarian with a Top 10 album. Beyond her singing, she was beloved for her charity work on behalf of breast cancer patients, veterans and children.
One month ago, in an empty Royal Albert Hall — a barren scene that recalled the blitz — Welsh soprano Katherine Jenkins sang a “virtual duet” of “We’ll Meet Again” with Lynn. The song’s originator appeared in resplendent, black and white archival footage. Their duet was released as a charity single, reaching 72 on the UK charts and raising money for Britain’s National Health Services. The producer, engineer and keyboardist on the track is a man by the name of Jon Cohen.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.