Vocalist Dai Francis, a former principal member of the hugely popular television programme The Black and White Minstrel Show, was best known for his solo renditions of songs by US perfomer Al Jolson.
Born into Welsh mining stock in Swansea, South Wales on February 23, 1928, Dai was tutored into minstrel type singing at an early age as his father knew over 200 Dixieland songs.
As a boy Dai was already ‘blacking up’ and taking part in jazz band processions at village carnivals. At 14 he began work for the National Coal Board, where he was employed as a wages clerk serving several collieries in the Neath Valley. In 1946 National Service called and Dai joined the RAF and was stationed at Gloucester. While there, Dai continued with his minstrel interest by singing and playing trumpet in the station band. His fellow service man Barry Took once complimented Dai as “being the ace in every pack” when it came to presenting RAF shows.
After perserving with his Jolson act in the forces Dai appeared in a Carroll Levis Talent contest in Cheltenham. This resulted in him being placed in a tourist show called Zuyder Zee, where he met his wife Elsie Monks, who was the Hammond organist in the same show. They later married in 1952 and had a daughter, Cheryl Maria.
Dai went to London after deciding that if no entertainment work was forthcoming within two weeks there he would return to his native Welsh Valley to continue working at the colliery. In the event Dai landed a residency at the famous Pigalle Restaurant, appearing as the featured vocalist with Woolf Phillips Band. About this time Dai met George Mitchell, which resulted in him being chosen as principal soloist with George Mitchell Glee Club for a period of two years.
In 1957 Dai performed with Mitchell’s Minstrels in a one-off special entitled the 1957 Television Minstrels at the Radio and TV Exhibition at Earls Court, which led to the television debut of The Black and White Minstrel Show in June 1958. Featuring the three lead singers Dai, John Boulter and Tony Mercer, the show included song and dance routines, with medleys from America’s deep South, or of country and western origin. It became enormously successful, averaging an audience of 16 million, winning the prestigious Montreaux Golden Rose award in Cannes in 1961 and remaining on air for more than two decades.
A stage production of the show at Victoria Palace proved equally popular. From 1962-72, with a break of only a few months, more than 6,500 performances were given. Two of these were Royal Command Shows.
Dai’s tribute to Al Jolson was a highlight of the show and he became established as Britain’s foremost Jolson impressionist. After the show was taken off air in 1978, Dai filled the title role in The Jolson Show for the summer season at Great Yarmouth in 1984.
In his own right Dai has starred in variety, pantomimes and summer season at home and abroad. More recently he appeared regularly in Bournemouth and Eastbourne. His last summer season was in Scarborough in 1994 at the Opera House.
In 1999 Dai’s health began to deteriorate and after a spell in hospital he decided to leave his house in Esher and retire to Eastbourne to be near close friends.
He died peacefully, aged 75, on November 27 in the Conquest Hospital Hastings, with his partner Rita by his side.