Singer and entertainer who, in a duo with her husband, Teddy Johnson, transformed the UK’s Eurovision prospects in the 1950s
Pearl Carr with Teddy Johnson in 1965. The duo appeared in everything from pantomimes and summer shows to a bill with the Beatles. Photograph: Dezo Hoffman/Rex/Shutterstock
In 1959 the husband and wife duo of Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson were invited to look at songs with which they could represent the UK in the fourth staging of the Eurovision song contest. These were pleasant ballads that owed nothing to the prevailing climate of rock and roll, and there was a trite but cheerful novelty song, Sing, Little Birdie. The pair saw how they could develop it into a routine with solo lines, immaculate harmonies and sideways glances at each other – and chose it as their UK song for Cannes. They came second, losing to a rendition of Een Beetje by Teddy Scholten for the Netherlands. In the event Sing, Little Birdie topped the charts in the Netherlands, having also made No 12 in the UK.
Carr, who has died aged 98, would like to have been remembered for something more substantial than that song, but it did demonstrate that the UK might actually win Eurovision. Sing Little Birdie’s writers, Stan Butcher and Syd Cordell, submitted Pickin’ Petals for Carr and Johnson as a contender for the UK entry in 1960, but this time Teddy’s younger brother, Bryan, represented the UK with Looking High, High, High – and also came second. The UK eventually won in 1967 with Sandie Shaw’s Puppet on a String.
Carr was born in Exmouth in Devon. Her father owned a fish and chip shop and her mother, who had been the music hall artist Lily Palmer, ran a dancing school and taught her to sing and dance. The young Pearl was put into one of CB Cochran’s shows and then joined the Three in Harmony singing group, who appeared in Best Bib And Tucker with Tommy Trinder at the London Palladium in 1942.
She sang with Cyril Stapleton and his Orchestra and then joined a vocal quartet, the Keynotes, for whom she was the lead singer on There’s a Harvest Moon Tonight, a 78 rpm single, in 1946. The Keynotes were regular guests on two radio shows, Take It From Here and Breakfast With (Bernard) Braden.
Johnson, who was two years older than Pearl, had worked as a drummer and DJ, and then had a hit single with Beloved, Be Faithful in 1950. When he appeared on the BBC radio show Black Magic, hosted by the bandleader Stanley Black, Carr was asked to sing with him. The partnership worked well, although they had no plans at the time to repeat it. However, by 1952 they were dating and they started appearing on the same shows, performing separate acts and coming together for Idle Gossip and Shadow Dance, which Johnson would sing while Carr danced.
When they married in 1955 they decided to perform as a husband and wife team, with accompanying light-hearted banter. Audiences responded enthusiastically to their genuine affection.
They were regulars on the Winifred Atwell Show on TV (1956-57), as well as on the new children’s series Crackerjack, and they hosted shows for Radio Luxembourg, advertised as Mr and Mrs Music.
In 1959 they recorded a lyricised version of the instrumental song Petite Fleur, which had been a popular number for Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, but were so dismayed by the record’s production that they told fans not to buy it. They fared much better two years later with How Wonderful to Know, an adaptation of the Italian song Anema e Core, which became their second hit, entering the Top 30.
The duo often worked on variety shows with Morecambe and Wise and, in 1964, they appeared on the same bill as the Beatles on the nationally televised Blackpool Night Out. They featured in pantomimes and summer shows and for two seasons (1977 and 1978) worked with John Inman in Fancy Free.
In the 80s they developed a touring tribute to Bing Crosby, with Pearl taking the place of Bing’s many duet partners. In 1987 they had an 18-month run as Wally and Emily Whitman in the first West End production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, at the Shaftesbury theatre.
They continued to make occasional public appearances and would pretend to be irritated by requests for Sing, Little Birdie, declaring that “we do know other songs”. In later years they both lived at Brinsworth House in Twickenham, south-west London, a retirement home for entertainers. Teddy died in 2018.
- Pearl Lavinia Carr, singer, born 2 November 1921; died 16 February 2020