The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the phrase ‘one-hit wonder’ dates from the 1950s, but it would not have been too unfair to apply the term to the music-hall performer Lottie Collins, who died in 1910 and is buried in St Pancras Cemetery. Hers, however, was a hit that lasted longer than many.
She was born Charlotte Louisa Collins in Stepney in 1865. Her father (the family name was originally Kalisch) was a wood-turner who was also part of a blackface-minstrel act. Lottie first started work as a skipping-rope dancer, aged 11, and soon after began appearing with her younger sisters, Marie and Lizzie, as the Three Sisters Collins, performing a sketch called Skiptomania in music hall and pantomime.
In 1881 she went solo, singing blackface songs, whistling, and performing comic sketches, as well as developing a skirt-dancing act, involving manipulating multiple petticoats.
In 1889 she took her act to the USA. She met with little success, but while there she married the manager of her tour, Samuel P. Cooney, after being stranded with him for a week on a train stuck in snowdrifts in the Sierra Nevada mountains. After she had returned to England and while her husband was fulfilling an engagement in the USA, he heard a song which he thought would suit her. Collins agreed, but asked the songwriter Richard Morton to come up with new lyrics. And so ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’ was born:
A smart and stylish girl you see,
Belle of good society;
Not too strict, but rather free,
Yet as right as right can be!
Never forward, never bold –
Not too hot and not too cold,
But the very thing, I’m told,
That in your arms you’d like to hold!
[Chorus] Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay! [sung eight times]
Collins introduced it at the Tivoli Music Hall in the Strand in November 1891. Starting demurely, she would pause at the end of the verse, place her hand boldly on her hip, and then for the chorus launch into a high-kicking can-can-style dance. She later said:
It was, I think, the mad rush and whirl of the thing that made it go. I got round a 40 ft circle twice in eight measures. I first sang it at a matinée and such a storm of applause followed it I didn’t know what I’d done.
Her performance became such a success that at the height of the song’s craze she was shuttling between five theatres a night to deliver it, often taking encores until she was exhausted.
There were accusations of vulgarity. But she insisted to The Era in October 1892 that there was no vulgarity in her rendition of the song:
‘It would be very easy to make it so,’ she said, ‘and almost everyone else who attempts it does vulgarise it; but I am very careful on this point. Just as soon as I find myself getting a little too free on a word, I immediately tone myself down on the words that follow. My idea of the song is that it represents a young woman who is really not so bad as she seems to be, but who takes advantage of the absence of her elders to have a harmlessly lively time by herself. You will notice that I throw a good deal of emphasis on the assertion [in a later verse] “I’m not too good but not too bad,” and the audience has to accept that.’
George Bernard Shaw was impressed by Collins’s performance:
It is a most instructive example of the value of artistic methods in music-hall singing … Miss Collins’s perfect self-possession and calculated economy of effort carry her audience away. She takes the song at an exceedingly restrained tempo, and gets her effect of entrain by marking the measure very pointedly and emphatically and articulating her words with ringing brilliancy and with immense assurance of manner. The dance refrain, with its three low kicks on ‘Ta-ra-ra’ and its high kick on ‘Boom’ (with grosse caise ad lib.), is the simplest thing imaginable, and is taken in even a more deliberate tempo than the preceding verse.
Miss Collins appears to be in fine athletic training; and the combination of perfect sang-froid and the unsparing vigour with which she carries out her performance, which is so exhaustively studied that not a bar of it is left to chance or the impulse of the moment, ought to convince the idlest of her competitors and the most cynical of music-hall managers that a planned artistic achievement ‘catches on’ far more than any random explosion of brainless rowdiness.
Her interviewer for The Era noted the years of dancing experience that went into her performance, and was struck by how, ‘when Miss Collins remarked that a dancer’s limb should hang loosely from the hip, or words to that effect, she allowed her limb to travel towards the chandelier in an absent-minded sort of way that seemed to surprise her very much when she suddenly remembered where she was.’
The song also seemed to take on a somewhat provocative life of its own.
Both James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914–15) and Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford (1939–43) record a street version of the lyrics from the song’s heyday:
Lottie Collins has no drawers.
Will you kindly lend her yours?
She is going far away
To sing Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!
In April 1892 ‘Two Sisters’ writing to The Times complained of being harassed by cyclists who would shout ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ at them.
Disturbances at a political meeting in Derby in August 1892 were beginning to die down until someone reignited them by playing ‘Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay’ on the organ. In October 1892 an unsuccessful Labour parliamentary candidate repeatedly interrupted a Church Congress meeting in Dover by singing ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’. His intention, he explained later, was to test whether interrupting a public meeting constituted a misdemeanour or a breach of the peace, after the police had refused to remove those who disturbed a meeting in his honour the previous night, because no blows had been struck.
When, in 1892, the independent Labour MP Keir Hardie turned up to the new Parliament in ‘a wagonette, with trumpets also, and shawms’, the police forbade the musicians from playing either the ‘Marseillaise’ or ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’ within Palace Yard.
The 1892 pantomime at the Crystal Palace, The Babes in the Wood and Bold Robin Hood, featured robbers called Ta-ra-ra and Boom-de-ay.
In September 1893 the Brock’s ‘living fireworks’ at Crystal Palace featured ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay; or, the pyrotechnic Miss Lottie Collins’.
In April 1896 a court case was brought about the sale of a parrot which turned out to swear in Spanish and sing ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’.
Those who wrote to The Times about the nuisance of street organs often mentioned the playing of ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’ as a particular irritant.
The success was not confined to the UK. In 1892 Collins took the song back to the USA, and was said to be earning £160 a week there – equivalent to over £18,000 today.
In the Anglo-Indian writer Flora Annie Steel’s 1894 novel The Potter’s Thumb, the courtesan Chândni attempted to end a tiff with her lover, Dalel:
She snatched at an old banjo hanging on a nail, sank down amid her draperies like a cobra on its coil, and began recklessly to sing ‘Ta-ra-ra, boom-de-ay,’ while Dalel waggled his head, but half mollified.
‘Thou canst not dance it, though,’ he maundered sleepily, ‘not as ’twas pictured in the papers at the Jubilee Institute.’
In 1910 a writer to the Manchester Guardian reported that some six years earlier he had looked over the side of his liner at Colombo early one morning and saw that ‘Three copper-coloured boys, shiny with the sea, were paddling about on a tree-trunk. Every now and again they burst into “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,” accompanying it by rhythmically cracking their elbows on their ribs.’ The writer, who had also heard boys singing it on a quay on the Aran Islands, speculated that ‘Perhaps something in its barbaric clash struck a common chord of human emotion.’
In 1897 Collins won £25 in libel damages from the proprietor of Society magazine, which had made accusations of vulgarity about two other songs in her act, ‘The Little Widow’ and ‘The Girl on the Ran-dan-dan’.
In 1898 she was reported to have attempted suicide by cutting her throat and wrists with a penknife; it was said that ‘domestic troubles [had] been preying on her mind’.
On tour in Australia in 1901, she told the Adelaide Advertiser that ‘Ta-ra-ra is buried for ever. I sprained my ankle three times in London in the dance which accompanies it … and my health would not permit my thinking of ever putting it on again.’
Her husband, Samuel P. Cooney, died in that year, and in 1902 she married James William Tate, who in 1898 had conducted the musical comedy The White Blackbird, in which Collins starred; his youngest sister (by some 13 years) was the classical soprano Maggie Teyte, a noted interpreter of Debussy.
Collins died in Albany Street, NW1, on 1 May 1910 from heart disease and bronchitis. Her daughter José – later a star in her own right – believed that ‘the excessive strain of her dancing had … undoubtedly sowed the seed of the heart trouble from which she died at so early an age’. She was buried in St Pancras Cemetery four days later. The inscription on her headstone reads:
Charlotte Louisa Tate
who entered into rest
on Sunday May 1st 1910,
aged 43 years.
• The Advertiser (Adelaide), 9 March 1901 (‘Miss Lottie Collins. An Interview’)
• Richard Anthony Baker, British Music Hall: An Illustrated History (Stroud: Sutton, 2005)
• Roy Busby, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who’s Who from 1850 to the Present Day (London: Paul Elek, 1976)
• José Collins, The Maid of the Mountains: Her Story (London: Hutchinson, 1932), quoted in Baker, British Music Hall (v.s.)
• The Era, 8 October 1892 (‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’)
• Frances Gray, ‘Collins, Charlotte Louisa (1865–1910)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, January 2011
• Benny Green (ed.), The Last Empires: A Music Hall Companion (London: Pavilion Books, 1986) (George Bernard Shaw and Lottie Collins ‘mad rush and whirl’ quotes)
• Andrew Lamb, ‘Tate, James William (1875–1922)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, October 2009
• ‘Lottie Collins’, Jewish Virtual Library
• ‘Lottie Collins’, Wikipedia
• Manchester Guardian, 23 August 1892 (‘Mr. Farmer-Atkinson’s “Candidature”: Extraordinary Scenes’), 24 April 1896 (‘A Terrible Parrot’), 4 May 1910 (‘Miscellany’)
• New York Times, 10 November 1898 (‘Lottie Collins Tries Suicide’)
• The Observer, 13 May 1894 (‘From the Cross Benches’)
• Flora Annie Steel, The Potter’s Thumb (London: William Heinemann and New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894)
• The Times, 23 April 1892 (‘A Tyranny of the Road’), 6 and 7 October 1892 (‘The Church Congress’), 26 December 1892 (‘Christmas Entertainments’), 24 June 1892 (‘The Law Courts’), 8 February 1893, 26 October 1893, 8 and 9 April 1896 (street organs), 9 September 1893 (‘Fireworks at the Crystal Palace’), 13 November 1897 (‘Supreme Court of Judicature: Court of Appeal’)