Fred Tomlinson (December 18 1927 - July 17 2016) was a singer, conductor, composer and musicologist who will be remembered for his involvement, via the Fred Tomlinson Singers, with such shows as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Two Ronnies, Dad’s Army and Only Fools and Horses (among many others). But there was much more to his life and career.
Born in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, into a musical family, he was the youngest of four children of Fred, a factory foreman, and his wife, May (nee Culpan), a teacher. Fred senior was a keen amateur musician who founded and conducted the Rossendale male voice choir. One of his brothers was the composer Ernest Tomlinson.
All the children sang, and the three boys won scholarships to Manchester Cathedral choir school, with Fred junior following his two older brothers there in 1937. It was there that he came across the song Balulalow by Peter Warlock, which began a lifelong interest in his music. War economies closed the choir school in 1940 and the boys were dispersed. Fred won a place at King’s College school, Cambridge, and was there until his voice broke.
He continued his studies at the local grammar school and went on to study maths, statistics, Italian and music at Leeds University. There he met his future wife, Pamela Mellor, also a singer. Fred’s horizons broadened with exposure to more modern music. “I thought there was no one but Bach, but then I discovered Doris Day,” he said.
Following university, he did two years of national
service in the RAF, mainly serving in Singapore. Then he moved to London to
work for a music publisher alongside Ernest, until joining the George Mitchell
Singers. Tomlinson also formed his own quartet The Northerners. He married
Pamela in 1956 with George Mitchell as best man.
|The Northerners. Fred's in the middle.|
In 1960 the Littlewoods Pools Company asked Mitchell if he would take over as musical director of a broadcasting orchestra they maintained. He refused but sent Tomlinson in his stead. The family moved to Southport for two years and Tomlinson did a number of broadcasts from BBC Manchester, arrangements for the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra, and also some touring. Returning to London, he re-joined the Mitchell Singers, before founding the Fred Tomlinson Singers in the late 1960s.
From then on Fred’s career was mainly on radio and television, but also in concert. His outstanding sight-reading ability meant that he was in demand in every genre, from early music through to pop.
For the Monty Python show, Terry Jones and Michael Palin wrote the words to the famous Lumberjack Song, and Fred wrote the music. Fred and his singers also performed on the song "Spam" in 1970. Palin said: “Fred insisted on high standards, and much work and rehearsal went into ensuring that something extremely silly was also extremely polished.”
Fred Tomlinson and his singers briefly became bona fide pop stars, accompanying Eric Idle in a rendition of Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life on Top Of The Pops in Autumn 1991, after Virgin's re-release of the song scaled the top ten, reaching the dizzy heights of number three in the UK charts.
As chairman of the Peter Warlock Society for 25 years, Fred joined with other musicians to give concerts, recordings and lectures. Under the pseudonym Frederick Culpan he wrote a companion piece to Warlock’s opus The Curlew using the same instrumentation. He also wrote several books about Warlock and edited many of his songs for publication.
Fred Tomlinson died at his home on Sunday 17 June 2016 at the age of 88. Pamela survives him. His elder daughter, also a singer, was killed in a car accident in 1990. His younger daughter, who had Rett syndrome, died in 2011.
(Info mainly edited from an article by Hilary Ashton for The Guardian)