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  • Writer's pictureDavid Stanley

My Musical Hero: The Incredible Theatre Organist, Robert Wolfe

At The Music Man Project, I often talk about the importance of role models. I’ve been blessed with outstanding musical role models in my life and the first of these is the world-renowned theatre organist, Robert Wolfe of the magical Thursford Collection in Norfolk.

 

August 1987, the Thursford Collection. I’m 10 years old and on a family holiday, one of many the Stanleys enjoyed to Norfolk in the 1980s. I wriggle restlessly in my seat as we wait for the music to start. As soon as Robert Wolfe strikes the first note on the majestic white and gold Wurlitzer organ, I’m transfixed by the sight and sound spectacular, the magic of Robert’s incredible playing. Dressed in a white tux and bow tie, Robert glances over his shoulder and smiles at his adoring audience as he plays with effortless ease. It feels like he’s looking at me. I turn to my mum and whisper “I want to do that”.



Within months I was learning electric organ. Within a year I was playing piano. Within 4 years I passed Grade 8 and two years later I reached the Guildhall School of Music. I went on to study at King’s College, London and the Royal Academy of Music. Despite this wonderful classical training, it was Wolfe and Wurlitzer which set the tone for my musical career. Music should both move and entertain in equal measure – and boy does Robert entertain! He would play so fast that audiences would gasp in amazement!



With my Robert Wolfe LP by my side, I grew up entertaining my own audiences in the same way as my hero. I would interpret, experiment and play around with the score, adding my own “twiddly bits” as audiences described them - the extra, improvised passages which I would add to my performance. No two performances would be the same. While I love classical repertoire, I’m happiest interpreting popular tunes of stage and screen and jazz standards, and I still end my solo piano concerts with a ‘Blackpool Medley’ in Robert’s style. My trademark “Music Man” concert dress is white tux and bow tie.


I was lucky enough to play the Tower Ballroom Wurlitzer in Blackpool for my 18th birthday. Around the same time, I initiated the rescue of the Kingsway Compton Theatre Organ and helped it find a new home in Tabor’s Farm, Rochford. I also attended touring concerts performed by Robert and other organists. As a church organist I would delight in turning hymn tunes into catchy dance numbers or ending services with a Robert Wolfe-infused voluntary which would make even the most devout High-Anglican Priest chuckle. I had to tame myself at funerals though!


With a growing family and developing musical career, life inevitably moved on. Then one day, while working as a music teacher, I found myself playing an old electric organ that had been donated to the secondary school where I worked. Pretending it was a mighty Wurlitzer, I excitedly showed off to my pupils and told them about my musical hero.  Suddenly the organ caught fire! The whole school was evacuated, and the instrument was beyond repair. The headteacher had some money left over which he needed to spend before the end of the financial year. He asked me to find three quotes for a replacement. The burnt-out organ was worth no more than a hundred pounds, but I provided an upper quote for a brand-new Allen Theatre Organ – in white and gold. To my astonishment the headteacher agreed and within 3 months I was the resident organist of the Might Allen Theatre Organ of Eastwood School! I gave numerous charity concerts and the organ featured in school concerts and events:





Sadly, the organ was sold after I left the school to establish The Music Man Project. I played “My Way” as a final farewell in 2012.


In 2019, The Music Man Project finally made it to the Royal Albert Hall, some 20 years after I promised my first group of learning-disabled students that they would one day appear at the iconic concert venue. It was such a special occasion and I allowed myself an organ solo mid-way through the first half. Surrounding by 200 of my Music Man Project UK community and an audience of 3000 people, I played my Blackpool Medley, concluding with 12th Street Rag. In my white tux and bow tie, I glanced over my shoulder to smile at the audience and my hands were projected up on two large screens. It was as a shining tribute to Robert Wolfe and Thursford. The smiles on my student’s faces were the same as mine when I was 10. The gasps of the audience as I swiftly leapt across the manuals transported me back to 1987: “Mum, I want to do that”.



May 2024, the Thursford Collection. I return to the magical place of my childhood - 37 years after my first visit. I’m there with my wife and two children. Our youngest is 10 years old. I wriggle restlessly in my seat as we wait for the music to start. My childhood musical hero Robert Wolfe is still at the console. He’s been resident organist for 44 years. As soon as he strikes the first note on the majestic white and gold Wurlitzer organ, I feel like a 10-year-old all over again - transfixed by the sight and sound spectacular, and the magic of Robert’s playing. What’s more, I’m hit by the realisation of just how influential this man has been on my career as a performer, improvisor and composer. His musicality, phrasing, harmonies and “twiddly bits” are so magical that I’m inspired all over again.


I will continue to try to emulate Robert’s brilliance at the Might Wurlitzer Organ. He is my original musical hero and role-model. There are few people and places that make you smile at the very thought of them. A pure, childlike smile with a hint of unexplainable magic contained inside. That’s what happens when I think of Robert Wolfe and the Thursford Collection. All I can say is thank you!



David Stanley BEM

 

 

 

 

 

      

 

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May 31

What a hero to have, great sound from the organ playing Led Zepplin ‘Kashmir’

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