Spike Hughes

Meacham, Gunn, Hughes and Wood family pictured in 1935. Spike Hughes is middle of third row

Patrick Cairns "Spike" Hughes (19 October 1908 – 2 February 1987) was a British musician, composer and arranger who spanned the worlds of classical music and jazz. He has been called Britain's earliest jazz composer.[1] In his later career he became better known as a broadcaster and humorous author.[2]

Early careerEdit

Born in London, Hughes was the son of Irish composer, writer and song collector Herbert Hughes and great grandson of the sculptor Samuel Peploe Wood.[3] His childhood, spent mostly with his mother Lilian Meacham (1886–1973), a Harley Street psychiatrist, involved a lot of travelling in France and Italy, as well as a more settled period of education at Perse School in Cambridge.[4] In 1923 at the age of 15 he went to Vienna to study composition with Egon Wellesz. While in Vienna he claimed to have visited the opera nearly 450 times, always standing at the back of the gallery with a score in his hand.[5] He also began writing his first music criticism for The Times in London.[6] Returning to the UK in 1926, Hughes had a solo cello sonata performed in London,[7] and wrote the incidental music for two theatre productions in Cambridge.


His interest in jazz was stimulated by hearing the London revue Blackbirds, starring Florence Mills, in September 1926. It was an enthusiasm he shared with his friends, the composers Constant Lambert and William Walton and the conductor Hyam Greenbaum. Hughes taught himself double bass (using a German string bass made of tin[8]) and formed his own jazz group in 1930. The group was one of the earliest artists signed to Decca Records in England, and over 30 sessions were recorded between 1930 and 1933.[9] Originally billed as Spike Hughes and his Decca-Dents, he reportedly did not like the name and after three sessions it was changed either to "his Dance Orchestra" or "his Three Blind Mice" for smaller sessions. These records were used as the basis for the "hastily assembled" jazz ballet High Yellow, put on by the Camargo Society at the Savoy Theatre in London, June 1932.[10] Choreography for the ballet was by Frederick Ashton and Buddy Bradley. The title comes from the once widely used, now discredited term high yellow, describing mixed black and white ancestry.

From 1931 Hughes played regularly with the Jack Hylton Band.[8] But his jazz recording career culminated in 1933 with his visit to New York, where he arranged three historic recording sessions involving members of Benny Carter's and Luis Russell's orchestras with Coleman Hawkins and Henry "Red" Allen from Fletcher Henderson's band.[11] These fourteen sides were mostly Hughes' own compositions.[12][13] Though most were not released in America at the time, they have come to be regarded as classics[14] and are still available on CD.[15] Some of his jazz pieces show the influence of Irish folk melodies and his father Herbert Hughes (Donegal Cradle Song[16]). Others are clearly inspired by the work of Duke Ellington (A Harlem Symphony,[17] first tried out on William Walton's piano at No 2 Carlyle Square[18]). Hughes, along with Constant Lambert, met and socialised with Ellington when he was in London in 1933.[19]

Later careerEdit

After the New York recordings, Hughes gave up performing jazz.[9] He orchestrated and conducted shows for C B Cochran and wrote influential jazz reviews for Melody Maker (1931–44), The Daily Herald (1933–36) and The Times (1957–67). He wrote radio plays with his own musical scores for the BBC, such as Nikki Makes News (1937).[5] And he renewed his interest in opera and classical music, through writing and broadcasting, conducting the BBC Theatre Orchestra, and through composing his own operas, including Cinderella (1938)[20][21] and St Patrick's Day (1947) for BBC Television (perhaps the first television operas to be broadcast), as well as a musical, Frankie and Johnny, televised in 1950.[4]

As a writer, regular BBC broadcaster and critic his subjects also included food and travel. The two volumes of autobiography are particularly valuable for the information they include on his contemporaries.[6] In between the more serious works, Hughes produced his series of "The Art of Coarse...." studies which opened with The Art of Coarse Cricket in 1954 and was followed over the years by ...Coarse Travel, ...Gardening, ...Bridge, ...Cookery and ..Entertaining. The series was named as a play on coarse fishing; other later Coarse books were written by Michael Green.

Personal lifeEdit

Hughes married Margery Pargeter in 1931 but the marriage ended in divorce, as did his second, to (Sybil) Barbara Mcfadyean (1917-2006)[22] in 1945. He married his third wife Charmain (née Finch Noyes) in 1955, and they moved from London to a 17th-century farmhouse at Ringmer, Sussex, near Glynde, where they lived until his death in 1987. She survived him and died in 2003. He had been one of the first music critics to visit the early performances at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1934, and made many contributions to Glyndebourne, including writing programme notes, providing subtitles for television performances, and publishing the first history of Glyndebourne Opera in 1965.[23]


  • Who is Sylvia, song (c 1922)
  • Sonata for Solo Cello (1926, published Curwen, 1928)
  • Love for Love (Congreve) incidental music (1926)
  • The Player Queen (Yeats) incidental music (1927)
  • High Yellow, ballet (1932)
  • I Scream Too Much, musical satire (1936)[24]
  • Beyond the Stars (Molnar, based on The Swan), incidental music (1937)
  • Nikki Makes News, radio play with music (1937)
  • Bianca, a Romance with Music (Max Kester, Anthony Hall) (1938)
  • Cinderella, opera for television (1938)
  • Vocal Girl Makes Good, a Familiar Comedy with Music (1938)
  • St Patrick's Day (Sheridan), opera for television (1947)
  • Frankie and Johnny, musical (1950)
  • The Moon Through the Window, radio play with music (1950)

Jazz recordingsEdit

  • Spike Hughes: All His Jazz Compositions, Largo CD, 1999
  • Spike Hughes and Benny Carter 1933, Retrieval, 2009
  • Spike Hughes, His Orchestra, Three Blind Mice and Decca-Dents (1930s) Kings Cross Music

Film scoresEdit


  • Opening Bars – Beginning an Autobiography (Pilot Press Ltd, London, 1946)
  • Second Movement – Continuing the Autobiography (Museum Press, London, 1951)
  • Out of Season – A Traveller's Tale of a Winter Journey (Robert Hale, 1955)
  • Great Opera Houses (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1956)
  • Famous Mozart Operas (1958, 2nd edition (Dover) 1972) ISBN 0-486-22858-4
  • The Toscanini Legacy (Putnam & Co, 1959)
  • Famous Puccini Operas (1962, 2nd edition (Dover) 1972) ISBN 0-486-22857-6
  • Glyndebourne, A History of the Festival Opera (Methuen, London, 1965)
  • Famous Verdi Operas (Robert Hale, London, 1968) ISBN 0-7091-0205-4

"Coarse" booksEdit

  • The Art of Coarse Cricket: a study of its principles, traditions and practice (Museum Press, 1954; repr. Hutchinson, 1961)
  • The Art of Coarse Travel (Museum Press, 1957)
  • The Art of Coarse Gardening: or the care and feeding of slugs (Hutchinson, 1968)
  • The Art of Coarse Bridge (Hutchinson, 1970)
  • The Art of Coarse Entertaining (Hutchinson, 1972)
  • The Art of Coarse Language (Hutchinson, 1974)


  1. ^ Charles Fox, on BBC Radio 3, 29 April 1987
  2. ^ Obituary, The Times, 5 February 1987, p. 14
  3. ^ Hughes, Spike (1946). Opening Bars - Beginning an Autobiography. London: Pilot Press Ltd.
  4. ^ a b Gammond, Peter. 'Hughes, Patrick Cairns [Spike]' in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  5. ^ a b Radio Times, Issue 720, 18 July 1937, p 48
  6. ^ a b Avery, Kenneth. 'Hughes, Spike (Patrick Cairns)' in Grove Music Online
  7. ^ Musical Times, 1 April 1928, p. 327
  8. ^ a b Carr, Ian and others. The Rough Guide to Jazz (2004) p. 378
  9. ^ a b Clarke, Donald. Encyclopedia of Popular Music
  10. ^ Lloyd, Stephen. Beyond the Rio Grande (2014), p. 173
  11. ^ 'Spike Hughes and Benny Carter, 1933' in Jazz Times, 1 September 1997
  12. ^ Hughes, Spike (1951). Second Movement - Continuing the Autobiography. London: Museum Press.
  13. ^ Spike Hughes 1933. Challenge Records
  14. ^ Harry Francis on Spike Hughes at Jazzprofessional website
  15. ^ Spike Hughes: All His Jazz Compositions
  16. ^ Coleman Hawkins & Spike Hughes & His Negro Orchestra. Donegal Cradle Song
  17. ^ Spike Hughes and his Dance Orchestra. A Harlem Symphony
  18. ^ Stephen Lloyd (2001). William Walton: Muse of Fire. Boydell & Brewer. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-85115-803-7.
  19. ^ Lloyd, Stephen. Beyond the Rio Grande (2014), p. 111
  20. ^ Radio Times, Issue 743, 25 December 1937, p 72
  21. ^ Wyver, John. 'A tale of six Cinders, part 2: Cinderella (BBC, 1938, 1948, 1950)' in Screen Play, 12 January, 2012
  22. ^ National Portrait Gallery
  23. ^ Hughes, Spike. Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera (1965, 2nd revised edition 1981)
  24. ^ Radio Times Issue 663, 12 June 1936
  25. ^ Greenpark Productions: Double Bond
  26. ^ Mace Archive. A Flourish of Tubes

Further readingEdit