By Tom Bates
Artwork by Ian Lee
He rode across the centre pages of the Daily Mirror on his horse Startrix in June 1958 in the company of Duncan Renaldo -otherwise known as `The Cisco Kid’.
He was pictured in newspapers around the country wearing a white stetson and toting a pair of pearl-handled six-guns, and he rode the ranges of England – from Horse Guards Parade, past Buckingham Palace in the south – to the cinema aisles of Manchester in the north.
He was “Dave Darby – the Authentic Singing Cowboy direct from Ontario, Canada – Star of Stage, Screen and Television”, and the story went on to tell how the lonesome cowboy had just been re-united with his faithful horse following it’s release from quarantine restrictions after the two had arrived in Britain from Dave’s ranch in Canada!
In actual fact the horse had been hired from stables near Rotherham – and the `authentic singing cowboy from Canada’ was really a milkman from Chesterfield who had never been out of this country in his life!
The man living the fantasy was really David Harry Atkin from Old Whittington – and the only range he’d ridden was around Boythorpe, Chesterfield – on his Express Dairy milk float!
The `Singing Cowboy’ later changed his name to David H.Lee and during the height of an amazing show-biz career which spanned five decades, hosted his own television series, toured the world with his band,`The Leemen’, and worked latterly as a musician on the Yorkshire Television hit series `The Darling Buds of May’ starring David Jason.
Later, robbed of mobility by a crippling illness, he devoted himself to raising thousands of pounds for various charities including Motability and The British Heart Foundation.
David was born at Piccadilly Road, Chesterfield in 1927, the second son of coal miner Joseph Atkin and his wife Elsie, who worked in the ticket office at the Hippodrome on Corporation Street, Chesterfield, and his early years were full of tragedy. The family moved to Holme Road, Stonegravels where in 1934, his elder brother Peter, aged nine, died from a brain tumour after being struck on the head by a brick thrown by a rival youngster in a gang fight. Two years later David’s father, Joe, disappeared from his life forever -in similar fashion. He was last seen walking dazedly along Sheffield Road with blood pouring from a head wound after David’s mother had hit him with a hammer!
As war broke on a larger scale in 1939 mother and son moved to Miriam Avenue at Somersal, and David began his first job at Robinson’s Brampton Works in 1942. It was at Robinson’s, where he was the only male in a department staffed by dozens of females that David first discovered the rewards that his unique deep-voiced crooning could bring and quickly developed a following of female fans – unfortunately it also brought him the sack for slowing down the production of small pill boxes!!
Weeks later half of Robinson’s female staff turned up when 17 year-old David made his singing debut with Jim Lofty’s Band at the Odeon ballroom in Chesterfield. Amongst them was 16 year-old Audrey Bates, and the two were married at Old Whittington Parish Church a year later whilst David was on leave from his two years National Service with the Royal Engineers.
They lived at 34 Newbridge Street, Old Whittington, where in October 1946, their first child, a son, was born. Three daughters followed in 1953, 54 and 55, during which time David was a milk roundsman with the Express dairy based at the Lockoford Lane Depot, Stonegravels, and sang with a vocal harmony group known as `The Four of Hearts’, one of the first acts to appear at the Carlton Cabaret Club on Whittington Moor.
Also a keen sportsman, he played both football and cricket for Old Whittington, and along with Arthur Wilkins, Frank Perkins and Ron Collins was a founder-member of Old Whittington Cricket Club in 1953.
He became Dave Darby `the Singing Cowboy’ in 1956 and made his first television appearance two years later on `Bid For Fame’, the forerunner of television talent shows, hosted by Macdonald Hobley, thus becoming the first Chesterfield-born entertainer to appear on national television!
Marriage and a young family proved incompatible with a burgeoning show-business career and acrimonious divorce followed after David had set up home for awhile in London with singer Alma Cogan. A year later he moved to Manchester where he met and married his second wife, Barbara.
In 1961 they moved to Bristol and two years later, to Somerset, where David met jazz musician Acker Bilk.
Under the management of David Bilk, Acker’s brother, Dave Darby dropped the cowboy image and became David H. Lee, recording his first single, `Heaven With No Angel’ with Pye Records in 1960.
His popularity increased during the sixties and he recorded his first successful album, `David H.Lee Remembers Jim Reeves’ in 1965, followed three years later by another called `Meet David H.Lee’, which included four self-penned tracks.
Now a singer/songwriter, David landed a contract with the BBC based in Manchester and moved north again to work on radio shows like `Night Ride’, `Late Night Extra’, `Sounds of The Night’ and `The N.D.O.Melody Show’. He became one of clubland’s top acts, headlining wherever he appeared, including five successive command performances at the City Varieties Theatre in Leeds – and as advertising increased on commercial television, he did voice-overs, sometimes doubling for the late Michael Holliday.
During his years on the northern clubland circuit he made many friends including Yorkshire comedians Les Dawson and Charlie Williams, and singers David Whitfield, Dorothy Squires and Scotsman Karl Denver, who lodged for six months with David at his Salford home.
In 1968, along with his newly formed band `The Leemen’, he appeared with Roy Orbison at Manchester Odeon and was invited to tour America the following year.
International success followed David’s American tour, and a double-A-sided single,`You Better Take Time’ & `Today I Started Loving You Again’ hit the charts in the States in 1970 and the following year was released in Europe.
Early in 1972 David had a heart attack on stage in Germany and was invalided home, diagnosed as suffering from the advanced stages of athero-sclerosis, he retired to an isolated farmhouse at Coniston in the Lake District.
Here he began writing his own songs and in 1977 at the age of 50 he sent a tape to a local radio station, with the result that BBC Radio Carlisle invited him to present a weekly country music programme. The following year he was back in the recording studio producing an album of self-penned songs simply titled `Me’, and the success of this album forced him into a full-time return to show-biz. A series on Border Television followed, and despite a worsening medical condition, David began touring again with a newly formed band called `Lakes Express’. An almost inevitable second heart attack occurred in 1979 and David’s professional career was finally over. So was his second marriage, which had produced another son and daughter, and in 1985, now sick and disabled, he returned to his native Chesterfield.
He met and married his third wife, Mary and for the remaining eleven years of his life David dedicated himself to charitable work. He became Chairman of the Derbyshire Coalition for the Disabled, and teamed up with disabled keyboard wizard Keith Newton to form the duo `Newton & Lee’. Four more charity albums followed in the next ten years, three solo and one with Keith Newton called `On The Road’, – the proceeds of which went to the `Motability’ Charity.
In 1990 at the age of 63, David H Lee won the coveted `Best Solo Artiste’ award from the Welsh Country Music Association, and after a long and glittering career, celebrated his 50th year in show-business with his final bow at a Christmas charity show in Clay Cross in 1994. Fifteen months later on March 31st 1996, the Chesterfield Cowboy rode into his last sunset.
Copyright 2015 Tom Bates All Rights Reserved