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The British Lili Marleen. By John Temple

Features |

Anne Shelton (1923-1994) sang with Glenn Miller

Anne Shelton, born a century ago, was once bigger than Vera Lynn. John Temple salutes the girl with the golden voice

Lili Marleen was the marching tune of World War Two.

Immortalised by Marlene Dietrich, it was originally written as a poem in 1915 by German poet Hans Leip and set to music in 1938 by Norbert Schultze.

During the war, the song became a favourite of servicemen on both sides of the conflict. When Tommie Connor provided an English lyric, the rich contralto voice of Anne Shelton supplied the vocal. Shelton’s rendition was used to counteract a Nazi propaganda campaign targeted at British troops in the North African desert. It sold a million and earned Shelton the title of ‘the British Lili Marleen girl’.

Shelton died on 31st July 1994, aged 70. Had she lived, she would have celebrated her 100th birthday in November.

Shelton was born on 10th November 1923 in Camberwell, London. In 1936, aged 12, she recorded with Jack Hylton and His Orchestra under her real name, Pat Sibley. She didn’t catch on. But when, four years later, she took the name Anne Shelton she became an ‘overnight’ star.

In the dark wartime days of 1940, Shelton came to the attention of the British public. She first appeared on the BBC radio show Monday Night at Eight. Her performance so impressed the bandleader Bert Ambrose that he asked Shelton to audition for him.

Shelton was duly hired and sang with Ambrose throughout the remainder of the war, making several successful records with him.

Such was Shelton’s popularity that in 1942 she was given her own radio show, Introducing Anne. The show became an important link with Blighty for British servicemen in North Africa. So began Shelton’s association with Lili Marleen.

The British troops were already listening to Lale Andersen’s rendition of the song, transmitted to them by German propagandists. However, the song had a German lyric. Winston Churchill asked for Shelton’s voice to be used to counteract the German version. Shelton’s interpretation quickly caught on with the British troops.

She said, ‘We took the show right off them [the German propagandists] and won the war in doing it.’

In 1944, Shelton’s career reached new heights. She sang a duet with Bing Crosby on Variety Bandbox, a popular radio programme of the day. That night, Crosby and Shelton entertained a live audience with a classy rendition of Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade.

Later that year, Shelton was thrilled to sing with Glenn Miller. Miller was in England leading his Army Air Forces Orchestra, and Shelton sang with Miller’s band seven times. She was later invited to accompany Miller on a trip to France to entertain Allied Forces following D-Day. Luckily, she didn’t go. Miller’s plane disappeared over the Channel, with all souls lost.

In 1951, Shelton visited the USA; she stayed there for almost a year and was the first British artist to tour the states coast to coast. In 1956, Shelton topped the British charts with Lay Down Your Arms, another marching song which stayed at the top for four weeks.

Sailor, her last top-ten hit, came in 1961. That song, too, was synonymous with Shelton’s close association with the armed services and touchingly sentimental – she had married David Reid, her long-term fiancé, a former sailor.

During the remainder of her career, Shelton stoically carried on producing her brand of musical nostalgia. She toured Britain and appeared regularly on television and radio. She was a frequent visitor to Canada, the USA and Holland.

In 1979, Shelton successfully reprised I’ll Be Seeing You, one of her wartime hits, in the movie Yanks. The story goes that the director, John Schlesinger, personally asked for Shelton’s voice to feature in his film.

Shelton’s vocal was used in 1986 in Dennis Potter’s BAFTA-winning television drama The Singing Detective, and in 1993 in Lipstick on Your Collar, another of Potter’s acclaimed television creations.

In 1990, Shelton was awarded the OBE for her work for charities supporting armed-services veterans. For the remainder of her life, she continued to feature regularly at events commemorating wartime anniversaries.

Noël Coward once waspishly described Shelton as ‘a big girl who performed behind palisades of make-up, meticulously applied’.

The comedy writer Denis Norden was more gallant, describing Shelton as ‘a fillet steak in a wimpy world’. Norden was such an admirer that he playfully claimed that if Shelton recorded the contents of the London telephone directory, ‘I’d buy it.’

Shelton’s popular acclaim – unlike Vera Lynn’s – did not stand the test of time. But there was a period during the war when her fame surpassed that of the Forces Sweetheart. That admiration was rooted in Shelton’s association with Lili Marleen, the marching song that speaks of a shared longing for peace and which resonated with both servicemen and civilians.

It is as ‘the British Lili Marleen girl’ with the golden voice that we fondly remember Anne Shelton in this, her centenary year.

This story was from January 2024 issue. Subscribe Now