Tributes have been flooding in to the late Sir Jimmy Young, the veteran radio broadcaster who died earlier this week at the age of 95.
For more than 60 years Sir Jimmy was a pivotal figure in British broadcasting, first as a chart-topping singer in the 1950s and then, most notably, as a pioneering broadcaster with a unique and much-missed style.
Born Leslie Ronald Young in Cinderford, Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Forest of Dean, he was the son of a baker and dressmaker. A bright boy, he earned a place at grammar school and was keen on music from an early age, learning to play the piano. When his parents divorced in 1939 he moved to South Wales to work as an electrician, but at the outbreak of war he joined the RAF, claiming to be 18 when in truth he was a few weeks short of it.
He stayed in the RAF until 1949, becoming a PT instructor and in his spare time developing his singing voice, performing as a crooner with various dance bands. Shortly after leaving the RAF he was spotted singing in a club by a BBC producer who arranged for his first radio appearances, as well as touring the UK.
The following year, by now performing under the name of Jimmy Young, he signed to a new record label, Polygon, and released a series of singles. His biggest hit with Polygon was a cover of Nat King Cole’s recording of “Too Young”. There were also two duets with another young Polygon artist, Petula Clark.
With his star rising, Jimmy signed to Decca records in 1952, enjoying top 10 hits with “Eternally”, “Chain Gang” and “More”, all covers of American hits. His most successful year was 1955, when he enjoyed successive number ones with “Unchained Melody” and “The Man From Laramie”, both themes from popular feature films. But the music scene was changing and the growth of rock ‘n’ roll would soon eclipse Young’s style of ballad crooning.
As his income dried up, he sank into depression and, as he admitted in later years, sought to drown his sorrows with drink and even contemplated suicide. It was only after visiting a fortune teller, who told him he would be a star again, that Jimmy resolved to prove her right.
Having been fascinated by the world of radio, he felt he could do a better job than some of the presenters and landed a job with Radio Luxembourg, presenting a show called “A Young Man’s Fancy”. Although realising his previous fame as a singer had helped him get the job, he would not rely on that to keep it. Instead he set about learning his new trade with a renewed passion, soon developing his own easy-going but entertaining style.
As his listening figures grew the BBC again took notice, and Young was signed up as one of the first disc jockeys for the new Radio 1 at its launch in 1967, presenting its weekly mid-morning show for six years. Already in his mid-40s, his style was less brash than his younger co-presenters, making his programme ideal as “shared output” broadcast on both Radio 1 and Radio 2 to save money. In 1973 he moved permanently to Radio 2, where he would remain for the next 29 years, building a huge army of loyal fans for what he dubbed “the JY prog”.
It was during this time that he pioneered the concept of incorporating current affairs and interviews with leading politicians and other public figures within his popular music programme. His gently probing style often elicited far more from his subjects than the more hostile and combative approach of so-called serious political programmes.
Soon Prime Ministers and Royals were almost queuing to appear on the Jimmy Young show and no election was complete without each of the candidates making an appearance. Margaret Thatcher appeared no less than 14 times. Some commentators accused him of being too soft on those he interviewed, but he countered that he asked the questions which ordinary people wanted to know the answers to.
Defending his more courteous approach, he said: “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar”, adding that he held conversations with his subjects and listened to their answers rather than relentlessly pursuing a pre-determined agenda. Judging by his record-breaking audience figures, more people gained their understanding of current affairs from the “JY Prog” than any other source.
His divorce from the BBC, when it came, was not an amicable one. By 2002 Young was in his 80s and station’s newly appointed controller decided it was time for a shake-up. Despite his enduring popularity the veteran presenter – by now Sir Jimmy Young, knighted for his services to broadcasting – was targeted for replacement.
He made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t ready to leave and would not go quietly, with thousands of listeners and well-known public figures voicing their support for him. There was even an Early Day Motion tabled in Parliament calling on the BBC to keep him on.
But after acrimonious negotiations it was announced Sir Jimmy would relinquish his show to former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Vine, who had the unenviable task in filling the great man’s shoes. It took almost a decade for the hatchet to be buried between Sir Jimmy and the BBC, the broadcaster eventually returning in 2011 for a special programme to mark his 90th birthday, in which he proved as sharp and appealing as ever.
The following year he was back to co-host a show with fellow broadcasting veteran Desmond Carrington, the popular pair looking back to the 1950s, the decade in which Sir Jimmy first made his name.
Perhaps the most telling tribute this week came from his successor at Radio 2, Jeremy Vine, who said: “Jimmy was just a totally ordinary, honest bloke, the least pretentious person you could ever imagine. And his audience adored him for it.”