At first he was embarrassed: this is the only word that can be used to describe his reaction. He was embarrassed that such a thing could happen to him at such a time and in such a place. Clearly nerves had got the better of him – even though, as my father would later assert, he wasn’t feeling particularly nervous at that precise moment in time. He had simply dried up, it was nothing more than that. For the first time in his singing career he had failed to deliver the goods and he felt more than a little foolish. When the music ground to a halt and all eyes turned towards him, he shook his head and broke into a smile and soon everyone in the studio was laughing raucously. Most of the musicians present had seen this sort of thing before, a singer fluffing his cue was nothing new to them. To my father, however, this was something that had never happened in all his years behind the microphone; but even though he was inwardly horrified, Frank Marshall was determined to grit his teeth and get right back to business like the seasoned pro he was destined to be. After all, it was merely a schoolboy error, it was a momentary blip that would soon be forgotten about; the source, perhaps, for a hundred after dinner anecdotes in years to come. When he had smoked another cigarette and composed his thoughts, my father did what anybody else in his position might have done: he simply made a joke of what had just occurred before returning to the sound booth for another stab at recording the vocals to his sure-fire hit. As he made his way back into that tiny room, the producer Tony Hatch patted the young singer sympathetically on the shoulder and told him a story about how the same thing had happened to Sinatra at the tail end of his Colombia days in the forties. It was nothing to be worried about, said Hatch, it happens to the best of them.
For his second attempt my father was determined to get it right: once more he listened carefully to the drum introduction and readied himself for his opening lines. Once more the song clicked into gear and once more he closed his eyes and began to sing. However, when the crucial moment came his voice still refused to operate. When he tried to sing he got nothing – not a sound came out. Now, for the first time, my father began to grow concerned. He couldn’t help thinking back to the last occasion he had sung and realised that it had been almost two months since he had exercised his vocal chords. In fact, the last time he had used his voice was way back in November at the London Palladium – his night of triumph. When he thought about it, my father realised that this was probably the longest break from singing that he had ever taken since he was a little nipper running round in short pants back in the Welsh hills. As the studio musicians began to tap their feet in impatience, Frank Marshall cursed himself. Up until that point he had taken his voice for granted; it had been a gift, something that he had never needed to work at. It was just there: a natural resource to be tapped into whenever the mood took him. Now, for the first time, he realised that he had been taking his talent for granted; his voice was an instrument, just like a clarinet or a sax or a set of drums; it had to be occasionally dusted and polished, it had to be regularly oiled and cleaned. Most of all, it could not be shut away in a cupboard and forgotten about. My father vowed that he would never let this happen again. From now on he would practise regularly, he would put his voice through its paces every day; never again would he allow it to go off the boil. Fate had handed him a cruel lesson and he was determined to take note of it.
The recording session was more than two hours over time when Tony Hatch decided that enough was enough. After takes three, four, five and six had all ended in similar fashion, my father had been marched to a nearby pub and administered with several glasses of Dutch courage. Maybe a drink or two would help loosen Frank Marshall’s seized up vocal chords. When this ploy failed to work, Hatch had tried shouting at my father, hoping that anger would help to kick start the singer’s stalled engine. Nothing, however, seemed to make any difference. The voice had taken a vacation, it had gone AWOL, it was nowhere to be seen. With the clock ticking and the session already way over budget, a reluctant halt was called to the proceedings.
It was well into the early hours when my father finally returned home that night. My mother was sleeping in an armchair, the television hissing and the bottle of champagne that she had uncorked earlier in anticipation of her husband’s triumphant return lying flat and untouched. He had been drinking all night and had no recollection of where he had been since he had departed the disaster scene. All that he knew was that he had taken several more glasses of Dutch courage, several dozen more if the truth be known. He was angry and confused, he was humiliated and suffering a profound sense of disappointment. His moment of glory had been snatched away from him at the last possible moment; inches from the finishing line he had stumbled and lost his footing. He simply could not understand why his voice should have let him down at such a crucial moment.
Sure enough, the next morning Decca was on the phone to him. Through a wretched hangover my father fended off their questions. Frank, what happened in there? Were you not feeling well? Had you been drinking too much? Is it drugs? But he could give no answer, all he could say is that he had tried and he had failed. He had tried to sing and nothing had come out. He could not comprehend what had caused it – he was on untrodden ground. Next time it would be different, he promised. For your sake I hope you’re right, said the man from Decca, a little ominously.
My father tried singing to himself at home but still his voice stubbornly refused to come out of the shadows. On Decca’s advice he visited a voice tutor in West London, a white-haired spinster with a reputation for correcting the vocals flaws in a number of top stars, ‘she’ll soon have you sorted,’ declared the man from Decca. The old lady was named Miss Phillips and she sat my father down on a chair next to an old upright piano and had him run through his scales. Unfortunately, no matter how many hours he spent trying to hunt out his absent friend, that proud Welsh voice steadfastly remained a thing of the past. The only sound that he could produce from the gold-plated larynx that had only recently been making the schoolgirls swoon was a kind of odd gurgling noise, like the sound of water escaping down the plug-hole.
When Miss Phillips failed to get to the bottom of the problem, my father was duly dispatched to a Harley Street clinic, where he undertook a number of time consuming and frighteningly expensive tests. First his throat was checked for nodules – small wart like growths that appear on the vocal chords and are a common problem among professional singers. When that test proved negative they checked the lungs, and then the gold-plated larynx itself and finally the heart. But nothing could be found to explain the mysterious disappearance of my father’s voice.
After the physical tests came the mental tests. By the time that Frank Marshall was lying on a couch telling a certain middle-aged Jewish psychiatrist named Dr. Cohn the story of his life, Harley Street was becoming his second home. No I didn’t have an unhappy childhood; no I’m not a compulsive masturbator; no I didn’t secretly want to fail in the recording session – I wanted to make a hit record. The questions came and went and still my father was incapable of singing a note. Eventually, however, Dr. Cohn made some sort of breakthrough. It took him over thirty hours of concentrated chin-wagging to reach the Holmesian conclusion that my father’s problem might have something to do with the visit that Cynthia Andrews’ had paid my parents a couple of weeks before the recording date. According to the costly Dr. Cohn, my father was suffering an extreme form of guilt trauma; having kept quiet about his extra-marital affair for so long, his voice was now repaying the favour – it was keeping quiet about things itself. Certainly this theory seemed as believable as anything else that had been offered up to explain my father’s grievous loss, and he and the powers that be at Decca had little choice but to accept it. Things, after all, were getting pretty desperate by this time; it had been more than six weeks since my father’s spectacular failure and rumours about his condition were already beginning to circulate in the media. If they did not get to the root of his problem he was in danger of becoming one of the biggest jokes in show business. Dr. Cohn proposed complete rest as a cure; my father was to sit at home with his feet up and get to know the wife and son who had become almost strangers to him over the past few years. He was to eat well and healthily, enjoy a relaxing drink now and again, and generally try to unwind, try to work the tension out of his system. In the meantime, he was to take the train up to London once a week to continue his sessions with Dr. Cohn. Of course, we had no way of knowing it at the time, but the good doctor was barking up entirely the wrong tree. Far from helping my father to overcome his disability, Dr. Cohn’s suggestions were actually making things worse. Considerably worse.
My father used a little more of the rapidly dwindling Decca advance to buy a ridiculously overpriced colour television and for the next few weeks he sat in front of it. One can only guess what kind of thoughts were going through his mind at this time as he absorbed his daily dose of Watch With Mother, although from his mood and actions they were evidently not happy ones. The weeks went by as he sat and waited for to something to happen. The weeks turned into months and the months turned into years. And then, on the morning of my seventh birthday as I sat wondering why I hadn’t received any presents that year, my father finally began to accept that his voice might never return. It had simply disappeared, it had vanished without trace. And he was alone.