Most churches have their own choir: two dozen well-schooled, soft-spoken, side-parted cherubs in white gowns; a back row of gravel-voiced, scotch-drinking baritones who for the most part wear the job lightly, until called upon to roar aloud the chorus of ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer’ or the final verse of ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’; and the kindly veteran choirmaster holding command over the same organ whose keys his fingers first touched when he arrived at the parish fifty years before.
At the church of Elland Road, Leeds 11, there is no choir as such; instead, every week at our Saturday service the entire congregation raises its voice and sings in praise of Our Father Don Revie, Creator of Heaven and Earth and the Holy Spirit of Billy Bremner, Gary Speed and Robert Snodgrass.
Over the years the Leeds faithful have built an extensive prayer book, a combination of time-honoured chants, calls and responses, and great anthems. But the real Elland Road classics are those of our own making. Through the Sixties and Seventies, the Leeds outfit’s musical output was as prodigious as its footballing record. And it was Hull-born United loyalist Ronnie Hilton who became master of this congregational choir.
Before he began to sing professionally in the Fifties, Ronnie (born Adrian Hill) worked in a Leeds sewing plant. Best-known today for his ditty ‘Windmill in Old Amsterdam’, Ronnie enjoyed great popularity during his active years, his assured and commanding singing voice the perfect match for the American romantic ballads he covered for his British fans. Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis were among those he adapted, whilst Perry Como’s recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘No Other Love’ he took all the way to the top of the UK charts.
Ronnie recorded ‘Leeds United Calypso’ alongside ‘Elland Road Baht’at’. A signal of intent, of global reach and stature
In the Sixties, when Don Revie emerged and declared he would take Leeds United to the towering heights of the football elite, who better to join the cause?
In 1964, as Leeds won promotion from the Second Division to the top tier, Ronnie recorded ‘Leeds United Calypso’ alongside ‘Elland Road Baht’at’. A signal of intent, of global reach and stature: West Indies meets West Riding. Both playful, both cheekily convivial, the two tracks heralded the start of a new age, a newfound self-confidence in our place as a club and a city: as the Calypso had it, “Instead of the Mersey and Liverpool Sound, we’ve got a special noise at the Elland Road ground.”
A league title and two Fairs Cup finals later, and by 1970 Ronnie was back, this time with a Leeds twist on a pair of chants familiar at football grounds across the country: ‘Glory Glory Leeds United’ and ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’. Having once been little more than ambitious, chippy upstarts, these men of Leeds had become (by its own definition maybe) “the greatest football team in all the land”.
What stands out about Ronnie’s songs – more than those popularised by other clubs across the country and even across Europe – is how they pay tribute not just to the city, not just to the club and its iconography, but to the entire team and every man to count himself a part of it.
“Albert Johanneson is one of the few, I don’t know where he comes from but I think it’s Timbuktu.”
‘Glory Glory Leeds United’ tells the tale of how “first we won the League Cup and before so very long the Inter Cities’ champions were really going strong”. But more important are the individual men: “Now little Billy Bremner is the captain of the crew; for the sake of Leeds United he would break himself in two.” Even ‘Leeds United Calypso’ praises the team of “Englishmen and Irishmen and Scotsmen too”, the verse albeit complicated by a line which, no matter how proudly sung in tribute to one of the first black players in the English game, jars rather more today: “Albert Johanneson is one of the few, I don’t know where he comes from but I think it’s Timbuktu.”
The strong team spirit and collective camaraderie is there in Ronnie’s subsequent recordings: his ‘Ballad of Billy Bremner’ (“when they talk of Matthews and Pele, of Lawton and Finney and James, like a whiskey in yer belly he will glow amongst those names”) and ‘Tale of Johnny Giles’ (“it must be all the stew he eats that gives him his endurance, ’cause if you meet him in the street he’ll sell you some insurance”). Nowhere is this made plainer than in ‘The Lads of Leeds’, an incantatory musical dedication to all the players, backroom staff, and supporters – even “the disc jockey (if he plays this)” – and of course “uncle Don Revie an’ all”.
Ronnie’s songs without exception blend touching poetry with more than a dash of Yorkshire wit: the natural antecedent of the modern-day Leeds United fans who can take everything from ‘La Donna E Mobile’ and ‘Que Sera, Sera’ to Depeche Mode and KC & The Sunshine Band and make it their own, or even simply turn up at Colchester on a wet Saturday afternoon and chant ‘Your Ground’s From B&Q’, or cheekily tell the Brighton faithful ‘Stand Up Cause You Can’t Sit Down’.
But all these great hits pale when set against the Leeds anthem best-known and most-loved: our Lord’s Prayer, Jerusalem and God Save the Queen all in one, ‘Marching on Together’. The track was written as little more than a quaint ditty, yet it takes on the sound of a war cry when the Elland Road supporters roar. From its propitious opening fanfare and the upward ascent to its climactic refrain, the song plays out the character of Leeds and its historic football: dogged, tough, impassioned, sung fortissimo from opening bars to final chorus.
The Leeds crew called upon musician and songwriter Les Reed, who through the Fifties and Sixties enjoyed success after success
Yet perhaps surprisingly, the song is one of the few of that era not associated with Ronnie Hilton. ‘Marching on Together’ was written and recorded as the B-side to the track ‘Leeds United’, released in 1972 ahead of the team’s appearance in the centenary FA Cup Final against Arsenal.
The Leeds crew called upon musician and songwriter Les Reed, who through the Fifties and Sixties enjoyed success after success from his partnerships with Geoff Stephens and with Barry Mason. The men who had penned hits for Tom Jones, Herman’s Hermits and Lulu, including ‘Delilah’ and ‘The Last Waltz’, were the ones to craft the song that would live on at Elland Road for long to come.
The A-side, ‘Leeds United’, was based on one of their earlier tunes ‘Sally Sunshine’, a hit for The Mills Brothers in the States and subsequently recorded by Cliff Richard. The song carries on that Leeds tradition, and name-checks each of the players who carried the club to that 1972 final, from Don “the boss who’s right behind us” Revie through to Eddie “The Last Waltz” Gray.
Whilst ‘Leeds United’ was the tribute song, it was ‘Marching on Together’ (recorded under the name ‘Leeds, Leeds, Leeds’) that endured. The recording session took place at Strawberry Studios, the 10cc studio over the Pennines in Stockport, with players and fans invited along to sing – the better voices plucked out and the rather weaker singers put towards the back. After three hours in the studio, both tracks were finished. Les Reed played the piano that day, and after the recording took the tapes to London to overdub the oboe and trumpets to lend the track a more orchestral sound.
The legacy? To this day, ‘Marching on Together’ is still sung at Elland Road before every match, and sometimes chanted a capella in the heady midst of the game. The Leeds Rhinos in Headingley have adopted it as their own too: the song stands for the entire city. It was a victory for Leeds when the song was re-mastered and re-released to celebrate the club’s promotion back to the Championship, landing in the UK Top 10 once again in the summer of 2010.
Georgette, who has taken her granddad’s stage name of Hilton, has been singing and busking since she was in her teens
One of the few Leeds anthems of those days that wasn’t among Hilton’s hits – yet now it is Ronnie’s grand-daughter Georgette who is finishing his work and recording an acoustic ballad-style version of ‘Marching on Together’, set to be released to coincide with the planned Gary Speed memorial in the coming weeks, and to raise funds for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.
Georgette, who has taken her granddad’s stage name of Hilton, has been singing and busking since she was in her teens. Now 23, it was only in November when she turned up to appear on Yorkshire Radio to sing and talk about her place in Open Mic UK that DJ Darren Harper challenged her to sing the old terrace favourite. When her version was aired, the station was inundated with messages and calls: the next day it was played every single hour, such was the reception with which it was met.
From then, Leeds fan Michael Kew led the campaign for Georgette’s rendition to be released as a tribute to Gary Speed. His Facebook group attracted over 1,300 followers in just one week, as well as the support of the club. And soon, Michael and all the rest of those fans will have their way.
For Georgette, a Leeds lass herself, the song has given her a real connection to her late grandfather, who passed away eleven years ago having retired to Sussex. Her devoted and supportive mother Maddy says the response of the Leeds supporters has been incredible: “It’s shown me a whole different side to Leeds fans.” They have taken Georgette as one of their own, and found her version of their song a place in their hearts.
From Ronnie Hilton and Les Reed and the United of the Sixties and Seventies, to Georgette and the support that follows the team today, music flows through the veins, the lifeblood of the club. When they sing ‘Marching on Together’ at Elland Road, it is not an invocation of former glories for the handful of Saturday afternoon day-trippers that still turn out; it is a congregational anthem that brings every man, woman and child in the ground together for those ninety minutes of praise and passion.
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