Introducing William Masters - Liverpool Jazz Legend

Learn about the Liverpudlian Jazz Legend, William Masters, from the streets of Liverpool to traveling with the King.

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William Masters was born in Liverpool on the 5 June 1887, to a Jamaican father of the same name, and a Liverpool born mother of Irish descent, named Anne Jane Masters (née Williams). William lost both of his parents at an early age and was raised by his Aunt and Uncle. Although he was literate and attended school, he chose to join the street urchins, who danced, sang, shone shoes and recited poems. Whilst selling newspapers and entertaining the general public, his potential was spotted and he was invited to join a children’s act called ‘The Five Boys,’ who toured theatres and music halls throughout the UK. By the time he was nine years old, he was invited to join a clog dancing troupe called the Lancashire Lads (a group Charlie Chaplin would join after he left), where he sang, danced and played the bones. 

By 1901, he was back in Liverpool, living at home with his two siblings James and Henry and his mother, who, like many working-class mothers at this time, found it very difficult to make ends meet. Once again, William embarked on his travels and in 1903, his mother tragically died of cancer, aged 41 years. This was also the year that he adopted the professional name of Gordon Stretton, after being influenced by a music hall performer called Eugene Stratton. 

William Gordon Stretton and his Orchestra in the 1920s
Jamaican Choral Union, St George's Hall, 1907/8

Gordon made his way through villages in North Wales, singing, playing instruments and performing the sand dance until early 1906, when he joined the Jamaica Choral Union. They were a Jamaican choir who appeared at the Colonial Products Exhibition at St George's Hall in Liverpool as part of their national tour. In January 1907, he returned to Jamaica as a fully-fledged member of the Kingston Choral Union. They continued touring into the later months of 1908, when Gordon decided to embark upon a solo career. Over the following years, he began appearing in music halls and theatres in South Africa and Australia. 

When the war broke out in 1914, Gordon was back in Liverpool performing at the Pavilion Theatre. He signed up to the British Army and was posted to Amiens where he was wounded on five separate occasions, resulting in him being released from military service. In 1916, Gordon contributed material to a touring show called ‘The Dark Town Jingles and Dusky Revels,’ with its inaugural performance at the Camberwell Theatre on 22 May 1916. Working alongside W.H. ‘Billy’ Dorsey, an African-American, of Louisville, Kentucky, and former musical director at the Monogram Theatre in Chicago. Gordon’s career thrived under his tutelage and in the following two years he became a member of W.H. ‘Billy’ Dorsey’s band, mastered the drums, and led the band when Dorsey took ill with tuberculosis in the early part of 1919. 

Within twelve months, Gordon was leading his own band at Claridges, the Ritz in Paris and played the Hotel Savoy in Nice. He took the band on the road, playing summer seasons all over Europe and using Paris to recuperate in the off season. He had become a firm favourite amongst the established elite of Europe and most notably, royalty. He formed a close friendship with Prince of Wales (later known as King Edward VIII and then Duke of Windsor) and was asked to provide entertainment for many of the Royal Tours of Argentina. As well as being a multi- talented musician, he was now multi-lingual. Fully conversant in Italian, German, French and Spanish, as well as his mother tongue, English. 

On 21 March 1921, Gordon married Molly Smith a nurse, whom he had met whilst recovering in hospital from his war wounds, in 1917. In the same year – 1921 - his band, Orchestre Syncopated Six, crossed the Atlantic to New York to record the ‘Satanic Blues’ and ‘The Lucky Dog Blues’ and in 1923, they recorded for the Pathé label. Gordon was the lead vocalist on several recordings, as well as being the band leader. In May 1923 Gordon and his Orchestre Syncopated Six set sail for South America, arriving in Buenos Aires on in June 1923 to become one of the most accomplished Jazz musicians in Argentina.

Carlos Gardel
Carlos Gardel

By July 1929, Gordon is revered in the Jazz world and performs with renowned musicians in Buenos Aires like the great tango artist Tipica Criolla Jaun B., Guido, the Suipacha Classical Orchestra and celebrated singer Carlos Gardel. The 30s would jettison Gordon to greater heights. He introduces the Argentine population to the first stirrings of swing style music, broadcasting and performing from a hotel roof garden in Buenos Aires. He performed in a musical at the Ciné Paris called ‘Hello Jazz’,  where he played a variety of instruments. He also performed ten summer season engagements in both Mar Del Plata and Buenos Aires and in 1931 he performed with 12 year old African-American, child star, Little Esther (Jones) on her South American tour. 

Into the 1940s, the Argentinian label, Odeon, hired Gordon to make ten recordings. Reflecting on his allegiance to his homeland during WWII, one of them was, ‘There’ll Always be an England.’ In 1942, the proceeds from one of the soundtracks, ‘Pronto Sera’ (It Won’t Be Long Now), were donated to the Red Cross.

Little Esther Jones with dog
Little Esther Jones

The post-war period saw Gordon and his band playing to audiences at the Grand Hotel Nogaro, Mel Del Plata. Clearly demonstrating his skill with many instruments, he played the drums, saxophone, piano, guitar and trumpet. Gordon then continued his personal journey of musical discovery in his adopted homeland of Argentina. 

Gordon’s last recorded public appearance was in 1980, aged 93, appearing alongside Lona Warren at the Café Tortoni, Buenos Aires, in a show called Melodias of Hollywood. He spent his later years in a supported nursing home for retired performers, until his death on 3 May 1983. He lies buried at the Cemeterio Britanico (British Cemetery) in Buenos Aires.

Stretton was a pioneer - facing many challenges in life, which he met head on. From lowly beginnings on the streets of Scotland Road, he reached the dizzy heights of performing his own compositions on an inter-continental and international level. The child prodigy in the Lancashire Lads Dance Troupe became a solo artist and pioneer of jazz music, through his discovery of syncopated jazz as a musical director, lyricist, composer, vocalist, chorister, multi-instrumentalist and jazz percussionist. Revered throughout the jazz world and beyond, Stretton was a truly international artist who never forgot his origins in Liverpool.  

He deserves to be recognised as one of the most important figures in Liverpool cultural and musical history.