The Kreisler of the Mouth Organ

One of our nation’s finest exponent on the mouth organ was Alfred Leslie Benoit, who was born in Ballarat on the 18th June 1899.

To many of his chums he was known as ‘Hooker’. Perhaps a reference to his cricket or boxing prowess. Growing up in the gold fields of Ballarat, he was never far from an adventure or tragedy. When he was only thirteen he attended the funeral of schoolmate, Albert James Fisher, only son of the local banker James Fisher.

Ballarat C box controlled the junction of the Maryborough and Ararat lines as well as the interlocked gates for Macarthur Street. Circa 1915. Photo Wayne Salisbury (Victorian

A couple of years later after Albert’s burial, Les borrowed his older brother William’s ‘pushie’ to see a friend. He peddled down to the railway tracks where he propped it next to the Macarthur Street signal box. He was only gone a couple of minutes, but on return, his vehicle of transportation was nowhere to be seen. I don’t believe William was too impressed with young Les.

Left: Captain Melville – Bushranger Right: Melville’s Caves (State Library)

Les set out on an expedition party, under the guidance of Mr. J Prollongeau in July of 1924, to find a secret passage way in the caves at Devil’s Kitchen known as Melville’s Lair, twenty miles out of Ballarat. There was another motive for their venture as the Captain’s hoard and plunder was reported to be stashed inside. Bushranger Captain Melville had fled to the caves after being pursued by the authorities. The caves were placed under high surveillance for the fugitive was wanted dead or alive, but he never ventured out, or so it appeared. Days later Captain Melville was witnessed out and about, alive and well. There just had to be a secret exit. Sadly no passage was detected large enough for an escape. Mr. Prolongeau’s posse had unearthed a narrow outlet, but in his words, “Captain Melville must have been about as slender and genteel as a ferret.”

Post WWI, in the early Twenties, Les was a competent drummer for the Ballarat Soldiers Band (Les later penned that he was a champion drummer) and also secretary for the Wattle Club where his elocution skills were often tested. The club met monthly to discuss Dickens and other subjects of intellectual importance.

When or how his passion for the ‘Bushman’s Piano’ originated is a mystery to me, but in 1926 he was victorious at the Sebastapol Cambrian Society’s Mouth Organ contest. Les won with 89 points, two points clear of J Cartledge. He was somewhat lucky to be in attendance as only a month earlier he had another incident that involved a bicycle. He was being towed by a motorcyclist (as you would if you could) when he lost control on a dirt patch and came a cropper. Rushed to hospital, Les was treated for some nasty abrasions and shock.

Queen Elizabeth Benevolent Home

Around this time Les, a cabinet maker by trade, was also active in the local aged care facility the Queen Elizabeth Benevolent Home, where he was employed as an entertainment officer. His talents as a singer, elocutionist and harmonica player were in great demand.

In June of 1927 he accepted an offer of a week’s engagement with Melbourne radio station 3LO after a successful trial with three tunes, Lead Kindly Light, Annie Laurie and Drink To Me Only.

Suttons Music Sturt Street Ballarat (circa 1920’s)

Les had made a good mate in a fellow named Joe Saunders, another proficient mouth organist with similar interests and they played around the traps as a duo. In fact, Joe had provided the inspiration and impetus for Les to form a mouth organ band in his home town. Les credited Joe in a newspaper article with forming the first modern mouth organ band in Geelong in 1927, although my records show their first call for mouth organists was in January of 1928. Joe’s Geelong Mouth Organ Band would perform at the Ballarat Coliseum (the venue of the Annual National Mouth Organ Championships) on Saturday July 7, 1928. At the afternoon matinee, they played to an audience of a thousand or more and incredibly, in the evening, to four thousand patrons.

At sometime early in 1928, Les sought interest from mouth organists to meet at Sutton’s Music Store in Church Street. So began the Ballarat Harmonica Band with Les front and centre as conductor. Les and Joe’s lives would follow very similar paths.

Practice was held every Monday Night at the Barber’s shop in Grant Street which was owned by one of the founding members Eddie Greville. Within weeks membership had risen to fifty and their inaugural performance was held at a packed ANA (Australian Natives Association) hall in Camp Street.

Les Benoit (My Favorite Martian, conductor) – Ballarat Harmonica Band (Courtesy of Sovereign Hill Museums Association 05.2425).

The prestigious South Street Competition of Ballarat introduced a Band component to the National Mouth Organ section in 1929, of which there were five nominations. Needless to say Les’ Ballarat Harmonica Band romped it in with a clear margin of seven points after playing the required March, Foxtrot and Hymn. Their one word motto of ‘Refinement’ had come to the fore. Interestingly, the Ballarat Mouth Organ Band (a renegade breakaway from the Harmonica Band or perhaps just an overflow) finished second and Geelong could only finish in third place nearly ten points away. To be fair, they had to be reorganised by Joe specifically for the competition after having a wee recess. Messrs Albert & Co of Sydney presented each member (twenty seven – twenty four mouth organists and three accompanying instrumentalists) with a gold medal and a set of Boomerang mouth organs valued at £10/10.

Les also put his individual talents on display in the Boomerang National Solo Championships of that year finishing equal third, three points behind winner Oliver Roberts. Les’ best result was in 1936 when he was runner up to Harold Collier. Les returned to the daïs in 1938 finishing third behind William Bell (and yes you postulated correctly) just three points in arrears.

1929 was a big year for Les as he also married his childhood sweetheart Elva Richards.

After their win in the National Championships, the band were in great demand. The following year they headed off to the Aeolian Company studios in Richmond to record Repasz Band March and Moonlight And Roses on the Broadcast Label (formerly the Vocalion label). I believe they recorded using Hohner Auto Valve 40 reed mouth organs.

Les’ practice routine was exhaustive so much so that he was compared to famous Austrian musician Fritz Kreisler.

“Les has been called ‘The Kreisler of the mouth-organ,’ and as he practised on his unpretentious instrument for two hours daily for over twenty years no one will challenge his right to that title.” (The Herald, Melbourne 6 June 1930)

Fritz Kreisler-Austrian violinist & composer

The Ballarat Harmonica Band finished a close second in the 1931 National Mouth Organ Band Championship to the mighty Geelong West City Harmonica Band. Judged by highly credentialed bandsman Hugh Niven. Hugh was a champion solo cornetist of the world, who began playing with the Clydebank Prize Band of Scotland. He would successfully lead the brilliant Brunswick City Band. Apparently Hugh had recognised the Ballarat Band had a problem with pitch in the top reeds and the upper register during the competition.

Hugh Niven’s 1931 scorecard for Ballarat Harmonica Band – Runners Up (Courtesy of Sovereign Hill Museum’s Association 05.2426)
Hugh Niven

By 1933 the band had visited eighty cities travelling eighty thousand miles. In 1936 they would revisit success at the South Street Championships. Judged by Gustav Slapoffski, who was the judge of the very first solo mouth organ competition at South Street won by the legendary Percy Spouse in 1925. His comments on the band were, “March was very well played with good rhythm. The hymn was played with good musical feeling with good harmonies. The selection was very effectively played, arranged and conducted.” Les also competed in the solo section finishing runner up by two points to Harold Collier. Judge Slapoffski’s comment on Les’ rendition of the Anvil Chorus as “Very good selection that was ingeniously played and with good rhythm.”

The band would fulfil three daily sessions for a week at the iconic Regent Theatre in Melbourne in 1937.

At the end of 1936 it was reported in the ‘Melbourne Advocate’ that the Christian Brothers School in East Ballarat “has a promising harmonica band under the tuition of Mr. Benoit” and on their performance at the end of year concert “its selection of plantation melodies was well played.”

Just prior to the Second World War Les entertained charities, prisoners, orphanages and the like, with another project – the Les Benoit’s Concert Party. The outbreak of war would interrupt lives and also the band. The band did reform in 1948 concluding in 1955 as did the Concert Party.

Les Benoit (1947)

In the fifties Les teamed up with his youngest daughter, Barbara, to form a harmonica duo. Barbara also was quite efficient on the piano accordion and her father would accompany her on the old twenty hole tin can (mouth organ). They performed a monthly concert at the Queen Elizabeth Benevolent Home with Les the concert organiser (a role he had for more than thirty years) and compère.

The great Les ‘Hooker’ Benoit exited the building on the 23 March 1965.

Please check home page for copyright details.

7 thoughts on “The Kreisler of the Mouth Organ

  1. I knew about Benoit the Aussie musician, I knew about Benoit the French mathematician. But I didn’t know about this Benoit. Great story. Well researched. Thanks Ol’Shep. 👍😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That was a fine read. Did get me wondering about playing live in those early 1920s years and probably without a microphone. 4,000 people! Building venues with amazing acoustics must have been really thought out. Also, off the wall. I never got to see the end of the iconic film ‘The Bicycle Thief’. Decades ago I saw it. Well……didn’t see it. I’ll have to hunt it down now. 😊 All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks mate. Always great to find extra information on the lives of the old harmonica players – they’re always more than just musicians…didn’t know they did a film on who stole William’s bike 😂..I googled the film might have to see if we can locate it somewhere (won’t be down the video store)…there was even a band called The Bicycle Thief!…Cheers for reading & commenting Shep

      Liked by 1 person

      1. William’s bike going missing is from a Richmal Crompton book. 😉 After I commented on your post I looked too. It’s an old black and white 1948 Italian film with subtitles. Wikipedia say it has been recognised as one of the greatest films of all time. Probably why it stuck in my head. I can’t remember how I didn’t watch all of it. Probably a gig or band rehearsal to get to. 😊 Here’s one of the links. . Enjoy your posts. Bit concerned about the Jetpack at the moment. So will be going through internet links and not the App. So will have to sort some sort of plan out through dashboard so I don’t miss any of my fave bloggers being missed. WP App will no longer be giving notifications, stats and a few more bits and bobs omissions. All the best.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s