Colin Whitton McCallum (1852 – 1945), was born in Stepney, East London. In the early 1870’s, he decided to embark upon a career as a music hall comedian and entertainer, and he adopted the stage name of Charles Coborn, the surname being taken from Coborn Road in Mile End.
By the late 1870’s, he was being hailed as “The Comic of the Day”, and throughout the early half of the 1880’s he continued to delight audiences at music halls around the country.
TWO LOVELY BLACK EYES
His big break, however, came in 1886 when he heard the song “My Nellie’s Blue Eyes”, composed and sung by the American entertainer William J. Scanlan (1856 – 1898).
Coborn liked the tune, but he wasn’t that impressed with the lyrics.
In his autobiography, he explained how “The air was tuneful enough, but the words were so trivial that I felt that it screamed out to be parodied…”
So, he rewrote the lyrics as, “Two Lovely Black Eyes”:-
Strolling so happy down Bethnal Green
This gay youth you might have seen,
Tompkins and I, with his girl between,
Oh! what a surprise!
I prais’d the Conservatives frank and free,
Tompkins got angry so speedilee,
All in a moment he handed to me,
Two lovely black eyes!
Next time, I argued I thought it best,
To give the conservative side a rest.
The merits of Glad-stone I freely pressed, When
Oh! what a surprise!
The chap I had met was a Tory true,
Nothing the Liberals right could do,
This was my share of that argument too,
Two lovely black eyes!
The moral you’ve caught I can hardly doubt
Never on politics rave and shout,
Leave it to others to fight it out, if
You would be wise
Better, far better, it is to let,
Lib’rals and Tories alone, you bet,
Unless you’re willing and anxious to get,
Two lovely black eyes!
Two lovely black eyes!
Oh! what a surprise!
Only for telling a man he was wrong,
Two lovely black eyes!
THE SONG’S FIRST PERFORMANCE
For the public premiere of the song, Coborn blacked his eyes, donned a faded frock coat and a lop-sided top hat, placed a battered umbrella under his arm, and strode onto the stage of the Paragon Theatre on the Mile End Road in London, where the new lyrics went down a storm.
It went on to become one of the most popular songs of the Victorian music halls, and it was one of two hits that Charles Coborn is now best remembered for, the other being “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.”
Here he is performing “Two Lovely Black Eyes” in 1934:-
AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES COBORN
On Tuesday, 8th February, 1887, The Pall Mall Gazette published the following article, for which a reporter had caught up with Coborn and had interviewed him about the song that was as popular with the rough audiences in the East End of London as it was with the more “refined” audiences in the West End, at places such as the Trocadero – or “the Troc”, as it was more affectionately known:-
“TWO LOVELY BLACK EYES”
AN INTERVIEW WITH THE SINGER OF THE SONG
“The other night two or three musical amateurs were dining with Sir Arthur Sullivan. The conversation turned on the “Golden Legend.”
“You’ve heard it?” asked the host and composer of one of his guests.
“Well, yes – not quite all of it. I had-well-haw-there’s no use hidin’ it – I couldn’t miss ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’ at the ‘Troc.”‘
PEOPLE HAVE GONE MAD
In fact, people have gone mad over Charles Coborn’s song.
Bill Sloggins at the East-end likes it, and lifts the roof with his stentorian chorus; the news that Coborn was to appear with his black eyes and his flat-iron acted like a four-lined whip on the aristocratic members of the New Club on a Sunday morning. Lord Randolph, Mr. Chaplin, and Lord Charles Beresford are said to have joined in the chorus, and the ladies revelled in the novelty.
HEAR IT AT THE “TROC”
But the place to hear “Two Lovely Black Eyes” is the “Trocadero,” formerly the Argyll Rooms.
For the last six months, Mr. Bignell has had a boom of which “Lovely Black Eyes” was the beginning.
While the rage lasts, Mr. Coborn could fill Mr. Spurgeon’s tabernacle, or, as some say, “Olympia.”
Even those who have no musical tastes may find a visit to the “Trocadero,” or the “Troc,” to use the affectionate abbreviation, instructive.
HE TAKES HIS TURN AT ELEVEN
Mr. Coborn takes his turn at eleven, by which time the gilded and mirrored saloon is bubbling over with excitement and expectation.
Youth and old age vie with each other to get a place.
At the box-office, it is, “Has he been on?” “Not yet.” “Then give us somethin’, a box, or standin’ room, never mind, look sharp,” and there is a crush of seal-skins, Inverness capes, furred robes, rich sables, and the air is filled with exhalations from patchouli and tobacco.
HIS APPEARANCE ON STAGE
A wild cheer and a roystering chorus greet the appearance of the lovely black eyes and the familiar flat-iron, despite the notices forbidding the singing of the chorus, which is of about as much avail as a mop to sweep back the ocean.
It is a remarkable scene, and Mr. Coborn admits even he is not always able to quell it, though he is dictatorial with his audiences.
Sometimes an audience dictates – such things as lumps of sugar and beer glasses, which, if they are well aimed, may produce black eyes, or worse. Flowers, or pennies, or florins are more acceptable tributes, and these are constantly hurled at Mr. Coborn’s feet.
HE GETS TO THE HEART OF THE PEOPLE
No one really gets to the heart of the people like a comic singer.
During his vogue, he is more powerful than a great statesman, and more sought after than a popular preacher. He could live in a state of constant delirium tremens if he accepted all the “drinks” that are offered to him.
The cigars at his disposal would feed a furnace and drive a manufactory.
A peeress may light his cigarette after the show; a literary beauty may send him another verse for his song.
It must be delightful. You have to wait, it is true, but “all things come” to him who does.
Mr. Coborn, though well known, has waited, and is rewarded. The history of one of the half-dozen popular songs of the last quarter of a century, and a conversation with the man who wrote it and sings it is given below.
“OH, WHAT A SURPRISE!”
“It was a fluke; in fact, I might say ‘a surprise.’ Such things generally are. ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’ is a parody of an American song of which the chorus is ‘Nellie’s Lovely Blue Eyes.’
The air is the same, and had been sung in London by some lady vocalists, even at the Trocadero, long before I thought of it.
I had an engagement at the Paragon in the Mile-end-road, and had to sing a new song one Saturday night.
That was a Tuesday, I think. I hummed ‘Nellie’s Blue Eyes,’ and thought the tune would catch them; but I doubted about the ‘blue’ eyes. I thought they would appreciate ‘black’ more.
So I got my chorus – ‘Two lovely black eyes.’ That is always my starting point.
HOW THE WORDS WERE WRITTEN
I had now to find my words.
I was walking down Bethnal. green, thinking about it; the elections were on at the time, and I turned it over. So I got the first line:-
Strolling so happy down Bethnal-green,
This gay youth you might have seen.
You see, ‘seen,’ ‘green?’
Then you would naturally meet someone, met Tompkins.
I wanted a word to rhyme with ‘seen’ and ‘green,’ so I gave Tompkins a young lady:-
Tompkins and I with his girl between.
I had written ‘Harry’ at first, but it was too prosaic, so I changed it to Tompkins, which sounded funnier.
Then I thought of the elections, and, the rest followed easily.
What more natural than that we should fall out, and that Tompkins should hand me ‘two lovely black eyes’?
That is how it, grew.
HIS LITTLE BLACK BOOK
Here is the original which I wrote coming home in the train.”
And; Mr. Coborn produced a little black-covered note-book, every page of which was covered with writing.
Songs and scraps of dialogue, and bits of street conversation, which Mr. Coborn will introduce into his patter.
“I have sung it about one thousand times, in English, French, and German,” and the popular comic gave me some samples.
He is not a polyglottist, but he has a quick ear, and his accent is pronounced to be marvellous.
“I propose to sing it in Hebrew and modern Greek.
But the song has been a fluke right through its career.
I thought it would suit the Paragon audiences (we must consider our public). I thought they would like the chorus.
But when I came to the ‘Trocadero’ I was a little doubtful, thinking it might be too coarse.
So I asked the conductor, and if he had said ‘yes’ I should have changed it at once.
It is my principle rather to sacrifice a laugh than to offend a prejudice.”
THE LION COMIC AT HOME.
Those who see Mr. Coborn with his two black eyes, or in his favourite impersonation of Bill Sloggins, the burglarious gent, who is a charming companion when you know him, would not recognize him as he smokes a cigar and talks about his profession in a sunlit little room not a hundred miles from Shepherd’s-bush, which he calls his study.
Here are docketed scores of bills – .i.e. playbills – songs, newspapers, and letters.
It is very amusing to turn over the songs that are sent to him for his inspection.
Like most artistes, he writes and composes many of his own, though he does not know B flat from F sharp.
But that matters not. He has the words and endeavours to wed the air to them in the most natural manner.
Mr. Coborn is a close and a keen observer, who has studied many curious phases of human nature in his wanderings in the provinces and in the metropolis, for he has had to undergo the drudgery like any other successful man.
Outwardly, with his slightly hooked nose, his eyebrows growing in bushes over his deep-set eyes, he has the appearance of being a contentious spirit, and rushes into polemics with vigour.
He has confronted Mr. Bradlaugh and Mrs. Besant in the cause of the Established Church, and has strong views on the dullness of her services, complaining bitterly of the indifference shown to elocution by curates and Christian ministers, the want of emphasis and understanding they show in conducting their services.
But this is only by the way, as showing that Mr. Coborn thinks about many other things besides his profession.
“It is in this way,” he says:- “A music-hall singer is in the position of a man who works in a lead mine.”
CHARACTER IN THE STREETS AND PUBLIC PLACES
Mr. Coborn is a believer in the naturalistic school. He never travels without a notebook.
“Even the other night,” he told me, “I was walking down Waterloo-place, when I saw a woman lying drunk on the pavement, huddled up in her rags.
I went up to her and tried to help her, but she looked at me with a glare and hiccupped out, “You go ‘long. Talk to your equals, not t’ me,” and subsided with a vacuous smile.
I saw at once a line for a chorus:- “Talk to your equals-not t’ me.” This I jotted down under the light of the nearest lamp-post.
I’ve lost many a good thing by not taking it down at once.
There was a song I wrote for Jennie Hill, which I got in the same way.
I went into a bar one night where a row was in progress. The heroine was a drunken woman who was indignant because the barmaid refused to serve her. “You won’t sherve me, won’t you? Then I’ll go wheram reshpected,” and she reeled out of the door.
Out of that, I made a song, of which this is a verse:-
I don’t care a button for you – (hiccup) – no fear,
Don’t look at me with that nasty sneer.
If I can’t be served like a lady – (hiccup) – here – (staggers)
I’ll go where I am respected. (Reels of)
A MODERN DAY BILL SIKES
Then take ‘Bill Sloggins,’ which is almost as popular as ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes.’
He is a modern Bill Sikes, and the song is a paraphrase of an East-end story which may be apocryphal.”
Here is the dialogue:- ” Say, Jack, ‘av’ you ‘eard the noos? Bill’s cut his wife’s froat!”
“No! ‘av ‘e? ”
“Ay, ‘e ‘av.”
“Well (sententiously) – ‘e warn’t ‘arf a bad sort, arter all, warn’t Bill (long pause) – when you knew ‘im.”
That is the opinion of Bill Sloggins’s friends, who say of him:- “He’s all right when you know ‘im, but you’ve got to know ‘im fust.”
A REALISTIC PERFORMANCE
I strongly advise all foreigners and strangers, who wish to make the acquaintance of a London rough of the Sikes type done to the life, to look in and see Mr Coburn’s realistic performance.
“When I was a boy I lived some years at the East End, and there I learned the idiom. I am not afraid of presenting an Irish labourer to a Dublin audience, and the best compliment that was ever paid to me was at a little London hall which is the favourite resort of costers.
I had given them a French chansonnette first, went off and returned as a coster, swaggering on in the coster’s fashion.
A boy in the galley cried out “Oh! ikey” – Jack”, shouting to a friend and pointing to me. “It’s Bill Gallagher.”
I must say I was flattered.
They are shrewd critics at the East End, and they are quick to detect burlesque or pretension.
“Two Lovely Black Eyes” is sheer nonsense.
Character sketches are my special study, of course.
A song of that sort requires much study and practice, besides the gift of the comedian, which cannot be acquired; but it lasts for years, so that it not only artistic but remunerative.”