The ‘X’ Files: Top 10 Xylophonists of the Past

We predicted a comeback for the zaney xylophone in pop music some months ago, it’s just one of those cheery instruments that takes us back to our childhoods and plays a part in all of our lives. So when the granddaughter of the famous xylophonist Harry Robbins got in touch with us yesterday we thought it was probably about time we compiled a Top 10 Xylophonists of the Past chart. We know what you’re thinking, “A TOP 10 XYLOPHONISTS OF THE PAST CHART?!! I need to drop what I’m doing and read this!” No need to thank us, just click on the stills to enjoy the clips… 

NUMBER 1Teddy 

This 1930 clip of the famous Teddy Brown is our favourite and tops the xylophone chart. Teddy finishes his song with quite a flourish – physically spinning along the length of the xylophone whilst still playing it. In the 1930s sizeable citizens weren’t as commonplace as they seem to be in the 21st century: The title screen itself announces “And now for the one and only Teddy Brown… there’s quite a lot of him”. The canister notes chirp on about “the vast expanse of his trousers and jacket”. 

NUMBER 2Charlie

14-year-old Charlie is “the world’s boy-wonder wielder of the sticks with knobs on, and playing one of his own compositions too”. The nauseatingly fast tune is well worth a watch. In the canister notes an intern from a previous era has written: “I think Charlie looks like a midget, not a 14-year-old boy. Does anyone know the real story behind this act?” No second name is mentioned… Charlie remains a mystery, but he’s Number 2 in our chart.   


Vesta isn’t quite the athlete that Michel (Number 4) is but she manages to do the splits whilst still playing her xylophone. Positively glittering from head to toe, Vesta sports a dazzling perma-grin throughout the entirety of her performance and has her name in flashing lights on the front of her instrument. A real xylophone diva if ever we saw one, and a neat number 3 in our chart. Vell done Vesta.   

NUMBER 4Michel 

Multi-talented Michel tap dances and performs acrobatics as he taps away on both the keys and the floor. Michel also wins the prize for most-starched-trouser-creases in the world. For his high leg kicks, even higher spirits and sheer athleticism Michel makes it in at number 4! Again, no surname is listed. Where did they find these extraordinary people, and more importantly, what became of them?   

NUMBER 5Doreen

Described as “a youthful platinum blonde musician”, Doreen is the second female entry in our Xylophone chart. She plays ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘Old Folks at Home’ for the audience. Grayson Perry – we’ve discovered the inspiration behind your Turner Prize winning look! See more Doreen in her floral best here, she was a bit of a hit in her day!   


Oh Fred, you didn’t have to. The legendary Fred Samburn incorporates elements of slapstick comedy into his xylophone routine and is accompanied by his own orchestra. We can’t hear the audience laughing very loudly though… We like to imagine Fred’s act was met with a host of blank expressions and mild disgust. Doing the splits we’re fine with, but fake eyebrows and xylophones just don’t go. Do they Fred?   


Harry Robbins performs a song written especially for the xylophone called “crazy sticks”. Very upbeat and jolly indeed. Quite a dapper chap is our Harry. We love his window boxes too, nothing like a hastily painted backdrop in front of some austere floor-to-ceiling curtains to set the scene.   

NUMBER 8 –  Jack

Playing a slightly more sinister song than his contemporaries it’s Jack Simpson. Blink and you’ll miss his haunting little grin! Jack performs at the bottom of a staircase somewhere in Pathe studios, dressed like the Butler from an early Alfred Hitchcock. There’s some great aerial footage in this one too. Jack squeezes in at Number 8 today but we think there’s mileage in Jack yet, possibly as the inspiration behind a new slasher movie?  


NUMBER 9Chester  

Chester Tunis couldn’t afford a xylophone but gives us a lovely song on a line of bottles. We say lovely, ear-splitting is probably a more accurate critique. Also, not enough people are calling their children Chester these days. Can somebody look into this? Thanks.  


NUMBER 10Patricia  

One of two 14-year-olds in the chart, Patricia Frost gives a lovely medley of 1940s seaside tunes. Just hanging in there at the bottom of our list, we couldn’t resist a nice bit of pitter patter from our old friend Patty. We don’t envy the cleaner who had to polish that table surface though, it looks like a Richard Wilson installation.    


Over so soon? That’s right, you’ve reached the end of British Pathé’s Top 10 Xylophonists of the Past. But if you go to there are plenty more clips to watch, with more from Doreen, Jack and Teddy … all your favourites!


Author: British Pathé

British Pathé holds the world's finest newsreel collection. We also represent the Reuters historical collection. All 220K films are viewable on our website.

10 thoughts on “The ‘X’ Files: Top 10 Xylophonists of the Past”

  1. Delighted to see Teddy Brown remembered, saw him at the Grand Theatre Wolverhampton when I was a young lad.

  2. Great site but you missed the best of the best. Teddy was great but you forgot Sunny Schreff, America’s Foremost Xylophonist. Sunny was with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra and then went on to do a vaudeville act throughout the 40’s thru the 50’s. What an act.

    1. Sunny Schreff was my dad’s drum teacher in Shamokin, Pa. I’ve heard much about him from my dad & met him once when I was a kid. I’m also a drummer, so maybe I could be considered a 2nd generation student of “Schreff”. I’ve heard that Ronny is a great drummer also.

  3. Kellogg’s Own Midget


    Posted By: Marilyn Holmes (email)
    Date: 10/11/2009 at 10:41:56

    Article appeared in the Kellogg Historical Society booklet, Vol. III; publ. 1983

    “THE KING”
    Charlie Rector


    At one time Kellogg had a midget, by the name of Charles Rector. The son of Edwin Forrest (1883-1943) and Cora Lee Rector (1881-1949) he was born on August 9, 1913 in Newton. His parents moved to Malcom when he was a baby and lived there the first 12 years of his life. He lived in Kellogg for several years in the early 1930s. While in Kellogg, his father worked for the railroad and they were very close friends of the O.C. Nortons. They occupied houses on Water St. and Reynolds St.

    He was an accomplished musician, played the xylophone, drums and cymbals. He gave many performances in the Kellogg area. Velma Paulson Williams remembers accompanying him on the piano while he played the xylophone and tap danced.

    He did commercials calling for “Phillip Morris” cigarettes.

    At a very young age “The King” as he was called was offered engagements with outstanding New York companies where he held a six month engagement on Broadway. He spent the greatest share of his life touring the U.S. with his mother and father accompanying him with their mobile home pulled behind the family car. His acts were mostly dramatic shows, vaudeville and musical comedy.

    At the age of 21, “The King” weighed 42 lbs. and was 42″ tall. His greatest achievement in life was to make other people happy with music, songs, and dancing.

    His clothes for the stage were made by his mother, but his street clothes were tailor made. He wore an infants size 8-1/2 shoe and children’s gloves and his shirts were the size of a six-year-old.

    With a love for animals, he included his white fluffy dog “Sparky” who played vaudeville with him. At one time he traveled with the Ike Rose Midgets. He had his own orchestra and played for clubs, lodges and various spots with the U.S.O.

    “The King” had a wonderful personality, always smiling and full of life. He had many serious sick spells but was nursed through them by his loving mother who idolized him.

    On October 11, 1944, “The King” passed away suddenly of a heart attack just as he was ready to go on the stage in Oklahoma. Services were held in Malcom, Iowa with burial there in the Ivy Hill Cemetery.

  4. Great videos thanks for sharing, but please realize that many of the videos were marimbas and the “shimmering” sounding instrument with a pedal was a set of vibraphone.

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