Joseph Bull was born in England in 1868. He was well known as an "operatic" banjoist. He scored enormous success with his playing of classical pieces. He appeared at many major venues including Buckingham Palace. 

Click here to download the Intermezzo from "Cavalieria Rusticanain" mp3 format 

He recorded 6 sides for Homophon in 1909, including selections from Verdi's Il Trovatore, Wagner's Tannhauser and Gounod's Faust.

Click here to "In the Light of the Sweet Glances" from Il Tovatore download  in mp3 format 
In 1917 he recorded a further 4 sides of popular classics which were released on the Scala and Homophon labels.

After writing briefly about him in the BMG, J McNaughton was contacted by  Joseph Bull in late 1949. He was invited to his home in South Norwood where he interviewed him for the magazine.

 

MANY will be pleased, as I was, to hear that Joseph Bull is still playing the zither-banjo. This grand old pioneer of plectrum tremolo playing in the D tuning wrote to me after reading my October article and invited me to visit him at his home in South Norwood. I did so and was amazed to find him alert and active, despite his eighty-two years, and as I pored over the pages of his books of press cuttings and photographs I soon realised that he had enjoyed success in an astonishing measure in the early part of this century.

Naturally, I was interested to learn his reasons for adopting the ‘title’ of ‘Operatic Banjoist’. His impressive repertoire of excerpts from many famous operas supplied the answer, and—if only to encourage the classically minded among us—I will list some of the items Joseph Bull arranged and played with such great success some forty years ago:

"Demande et Response" (Coleridge Taylor), "Easter Hymn" (Mascagni), "Andantino" (Lemare), "Melody in F" (Rubinstein), "Saint d'Amour" (Elgar), "Liebestraume" (Liszt), "Serenade" (Schubert), "Serenata" (Braga), "Humoresque" (Dvorak).

His selections were arranged from many operas, including: "Faust", "II Trovatore", "Tannhauser", "Cavalleria Rusticana", "Lohengrin", "Carmen", "Bohemian Girl", "Montana", "Tales of Hoffman", and "Pagliacci". In addi-tion, he included some lighter solos such as: "The Lost Chord", "The Rosary", "Love’s Old Sweet Song", selections from "The Country Girl", Sousa marches and popular ballads of the day.

All these were arranged by him from published violin parts, which he had originally played on the mandolin, his first instrument, taken up by him in 1889.

SELF-TAUGHT PLAYER

Joseph Bull was self-taught - the only tuition he received was in the art of solfeggio (tonic sol-fah) from Dr. McNaught - and when he joined the navy as a telegraphist at the age of 15 he wrote, "Learned a bit about conducting" from the bandmaster.

It was in Malta he heard his first opera - "Cavalleria" - and the music so impressed him that he took up the mandolin in order to be able to play the "Easter Hymn". Accompanied on guitar by his brother (who was serving in the same ship) he was soon in demand for concerts and it was then he turned to the banjo - but the gut strings then in vogue did not give him the quality of tone he desired and which he eventually found in the zither-banjo.

To produce a fuller harmonic effect, he fitted extra fourth and first strings to his new instrument and, with his basses permanently tuned to D, he soon became known as an outstanding plectrist.

The measure of his success can be gauged by the fact that he was chosen to appear (with Marie Lloyd and George Robey) at the Hoxton Conservative Club and at other concerts in the Queen’s Hall, where, on the occasion of his second appearance (March 17th, 1911) there were forty-seven artists on the programme.

Under the stage name of ‘Joe Taurus’, Bull appeared for a week at the London Palladium and, later, took his own concert party to Kingston.

"TOPPED"  THE BILL

There were some famous names on the programme of the Clifford Essex Kensington Town Hall Concert in May, 1909: Bertolle and Tait (who played "White Heather"); Master Bert Bassett; The Grafton Banjo Club and Amateur Orchestra (conducted by Clifford Essex and featuring "Pompadour", "Mister Blackman" and "Kentucky Memories") and. S.E. Turner. Joseph Bull not only "topped" this bill but also had the pleasure of seeing a lengthy appreciation in "B.M.G." that month, written by Clifford Essex himself.

After a broadcast from Northern Ireland in 1925, a well-known radio critic wrote: "After his performance, one can never again hear the banjo spoken of disparagingly."

Long before this, Joseph Bull had played at Buckingham Palace before King Edward VII and he also recalls that when he played at a concert given by the Ulster Association in London, the Duke of Abercorn and the Earl of Caernarvon were warm in praise of his work.

Despite all these successes, Joseph Bull is a modest and kindly man, still keenly interested in fretted instruments and playing the mandolin, guitar and zither-banjo with all the enthusiasm of an amateur.

His two hobbies are, to use his own words, "music and longevity" and he has achieved great things in both directions. For his carriage is that of a man twenty years younger and he can still captivate an audience with his music.

 

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