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The 1940s bandleader who braved virulent sexism

Ivy Benson and her band Image copyright Getty Images

Bandleader Ivy Benson was as famous in the 1940s as Glenn Miller and Dame Vera Lynn, yet her name has not lived on in the public consciousness. Former Spice Girl, Melanie C, wants to make sure her legacy is remembered by a new generation.

British bandleader Ivy Benson was a gutsy and glamorous woman. Fifty years before Victoria, Mel B, Emma, Geri and myself were talking about Girl Power, Ivy and the members of her all-girl band were risking their lives entertaining Allied troops in war-torn Europe, and fighting the battle of the sexes back at home.

Ivy started her dance band in 1939. She wanted to prove that women could be good musicians. It seems strange now, but before World War Two, the main orchestras and bands in the UK were filled entirely with male musicians.

Ivy worked herself and her girls very hard. To begin with, people went to see them out of curiosity because they had never seen women playing trombones and trumpets before.

Audiences were surprised by the high standard of playing and Ivy gradually built up a following on the variety circuit. Within a few years, Ivy's band was top of the bill at venues like the Palace Theatre Manchester, Covent Garden (the Opera House was turned into a dance hall during World War Two) and the London Palladium.

Joyce Terry, nee Clark, was a singer in Ivy's band from 1943 to 1946. She still remembers Ivy with great affection.

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Image caption Melanie C with Joyce Terry, who performed with Ivy Benson's band from 1943-1946

"She just thought there wasn't anything we couldn't do. We were going around the country living wonderful lives. Not depending on any men. We were earning our own living. Doing what we wanted to do and doing it very well too. Men tried to put us down, but we wouldn't have it and Ivy wouldn't have it," says Terry.

Ivy ran her band (in one form or another) from 1939 to 1982. During those years, she gave hundreds of girls and women the chance to become professional musicians.

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Having been in a girl band myself, I can appreciate just how tough critics can sometimes be.

In 1943, Ivy's band became one of the BBC's resident dance bands. This raised eyebrows in the male-dominated musical establishment and led to what became known as The Battle of the Saxes.

The Dance Band Directors' Section of the Musicians' Union even sent a delegation of representatives to Broadcasting House to complain about Ivy's appointment.

But this controversy didn't diminish Ivy's popularity. During WW2 she received 300 letters a week from British servicemen stationed overseas. Also, in 1945, the band was flown to Berlin at the special request of Field Marshal Montgomery to perform at a concert celebrating the end of war in Europe.

Given all she achieved during her lifetime, it's a real shame the name Ivy Benson is unknown to my generation. I hope I can go some way to change that.

She was born on 11 November 1913 in the Holbeck area of Leeds, above a pub called The Malt Shovel Inn run by her grandparents.

Ivy's dad, Digger Benson, was a professional musician and started to teach Ivy the piano when she was three years old. It was Digger's dream that Ivy would become a concert pianist and there were signs that Ivy might indeed follow her dad's chosen career path.

At the age of nine, Ivy became a regular performer on music programmes for children broadcast from Leeds by the BBC. However, by the time she turned 13, Ivy's musical ear had been tuned to the music of Benny Goodman (a jazz and swing musician) and the clarinet took over from the piano as Ivy's favourite instrument.

When she left school, Ivy got a job in a factory and began to save up for her first saxophone. Then, she combined working in the factory during the day with performing in small ensembles at night.

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Image caption Gracie Cole was a talented trumpet player

Eventually, she turned professional and moved to London to secure more work. Her first job was in a nightclub near Piccadilly. Two years later, she started her own band. She wanted to lead a group of female musicians who not only looked good but sounded good too.

Ivy found most of her players in brass bands in the north of England. For instance, Gracie Cole won countless accolades and awards playing the trumpet in brass bands in Yorkshire before she was persuaded to join Ivy's band on £18 a week in 1945.

Sadly, Gracie died in 2006, but her recordings survive to demonstrate her astonishing musical ability.

Most of Ivy's musicians left her band to get married and Ivy was constantly recruiting new players to replace those who had been whisked off their feet by American GIs and British servicemen on leave.

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Media captionListen to Ivy Benson in action

That wasn't the case for Gracie though. Gracie left because she had been invited to join a male band run by George Evans, as Bill Geldard (Gracie's husband) recalls:

"Gracie was a phenomenal trumpet player. The proof of that is that she went from Ivy's band into a male band. No one came close to the way Gracie played, so she got the job. In those days, women musicians didn't get a shot in a male band. Women were virtually restricted to being the vocalist," says Geldard.

Today, female and male musicians work alongside each other and compete for the same jobs. Ivy Benson helped bring this about. That's why I believe she was the originator of Girl Power. They may not know her name, but women who achieve success in music today have a lot to thank her for.

Ivy Benson: Original Girl Power will be broadcast at 10.30 BST on Saturday 18 October on BBC Radio 4. Or catch up later on BBC iPlayer.

Melanie C will be presenting another documentary about Ivy's Benson's band for BBC Radio 2 in 2015 looking at the history of the band up to the 1980s when Ivy Benson retired to Clacton-on-Sea.