Albert ChevalierAlbert Chevalier was not of the music hall, nor did he ever feel himself to belong there. He had been a straight actor for fourteen years from his first appearance in 1877 with the Bancrofts, and it was only as a result of a lengthy period without work that he succumbed to the persuasions of friends that he should try the halls. He feared his quiet style would be hooted off the stage, but his success was instantaneous and enormous. Chance Newton and Macqueen-Pope mention the songs he sang in his first appearance (though the lists differ slightly). They were largely of his own composition but with some of the music written by his brother, Charles Ingle. The songs chosen give an indication of the kind of programme he offered:
"The Future Mrs. 'Awkins" "Knocked 'Em in the Old Kent Road" "Coster's Serenade" "Funny Without Being Vulgar" "The Hasty Way 'E Sez It"
Two of these are love songs (although such a definition is not quite appropriate; Chevalier often used the description, "A Cockney Carol"), two are wryly comic, and one is rowdily so.
Chevalier's association with the legitimate stage is apparent in the kind of dramatic monologues he favoured. To hear him giving his monologue, "The Fallen Star," in an old recording is to be taken back to a remarkably different style of acting where the pathos was "rendered" in the most extravagant style, with highly dramatic pauses, wide variations in pitch and volume, and an almost palpable sincerity. Indeed, when he wrote of love or affection outside a comic framework, he reveals the kind of excess that is so common in Victorian songs from the heart. Whether the story that his wife, Florrie (who was George Leybourne's daughter), inspired his song, "My Old Dutch," is apocryphal or not, it is impossible to be sure; but from the internal evidence of the song's tone-its patent, unmitigated, heart-on-sleeve sincerity-one can well believe it was a genuine tribute to his wife. This song has maintained its existence-a case of sincerity rather surprisingly winning through in a cynical world-but it lacks the complexity of tone that makes a song such as "The Future Mrs. 'Awkins" such a delight.
Chevalier's association with the world of the legitimate drama, his recitals, and especially the fact that he could never bring himself wholly to embrace the world of the halls, inevitably distanced him a little from many of his colleagues. He is that rarity in the halls before the First Great War, an outsider from the middle class. Unlike George Robey, however (another such, whose forte was the extravagant act), Chevalier seemed able, as few Cockney comedians were, to express and get beneath that way of life. It is true that there is an element of idealization in the Cockney world of his songs, but at his best he is able to get to its roots in a way that is only very rarely found in any other songs of this kind. It is among the Cockney music-hall songs that are to be found some of the best "songs from the heart" sung in the halls. Good comic songs are to be found fairly readily, but, as is discussed elsewhere, songs of love and grief are nearly always so uncontrollably expressed that, although they could be taken seriously in their own time, they seem comically exaggerated to a later generation. When sentiment, or "sincerity" is expressed within a comic tonal framework, however, deeply-felt feelings may not only still be made acceptable to us, but, in addition, a rare quality of insight and expression occasionally may be shown. Something of this has been suggested in "Cushie Butterfield" and "Waiting at the Church," although there the comic predominates. The relationship of sentiment and comedy is to be seen at its best in some of the songs of Gus Elen and Albert Chevalier.
In view of Chevalier's attitude to the halls, it is a little surprising that he is able so well to get into the world about which he sings and to show such sympathetic understanding about it. He certainly knew the world about which he sang very well from close acquaintance and possibly his songs are the result of the conflict of association and detachment.
The verse of "The Future Mrs. 'Awkins" may be spoken or sung. The music is given as composed by Chevalier himself. He did write most of his songs, though the music was usually composed by someone else, often his brother, Charles Ingle, or his accompanist, Alfred West. It is not always possible to be sure that a singer given the credit for writing a song actually wrote it. For example a Zonophone recording by George Formby, Sr. of "We All Went Home in a Cab" lists him as the composer, whereas the song was the work of Harry Wincott and George Le Brunn. Max Miller frequently joked about ghosting.
Though Chevalier certainly did write his own songs, Chance Newton records that "Mrs. 'Enery 'Awkins" was provided with its "sweet melody" by John Crook, who, among other music for Chevalier, wrote the melody for "Jeerusalem's Dead!" The chorus has an attractive lilt on the name, "Lizer," and there is an effective use of two words spoken (or sung, if the verse is spoken) before the chorus. It is easy to sentimentalize this song in performance, and though Chevalier (if his own recordings of "My Old Dutch" and "The Fallen Star" are anything to go by) may well have done so himself, certainly a non-sentimental interpretation, giving full weight to the touch of mockery in the song, does it most justice.