Historian Robert Nykolyszyn remembers a singing sensation whose career started in Bradford

MENTION Salts Mill and its contribution to history in any conversation and a multitude of answers may arise. Some likely responses may stress that the mill is part of a World Heritage site, others may point out it is the home of the 1853 Gallery with David Hockney’s unique paintings and drawings, but the more discerning will mention Titus Salt and his contribution to the processing of alpaca fibre into a finished product.

But how many will know that Salts Mill gave a young man, taken as slave labour under the Nazis, the freedom to pursue his dream of singing? Not only did he develop this talent but he went onto became a multi-lingual singing sensation during three decades.

The textile spinner in question was Volodymyr Luciv, a Ukrainian refugee, who much later came to be known as Tino Valdi. Although a grandfather and retired pensioner now living in Twickenham, Volodymyr is still nostalgic about his brief time in Bradford and his career as an entertainer.

He recounts how towards the end of 1945 he decided to leave Germany to seek his fortune in England. Soon after, Volodymyr found himself in Market Drayton. Shropshire. His time there proved to be short-lived. It was a friend who encouraged him to go to Bradford and work in Salts Mill as part of a three-year employment contract.

"Let me tell you," said Volodymyr, "For the first time in my life I had a steady income earning less than five pounds for a 46-hour working week. One of the perks of earning money was that I had somewhere to live and I could put some money aside to buy, for instance, a 50 shilling suit. This I eventually did. Although my English was not as good as it is now Salts Mill did employ an ex-Polish combatant by the name of Andrzej Mazurkiewicz who acted as an interpreter for all the foreign workers.

"Even though I had a steady job my passion was always to continue with my singing. So I started to take private lessons with a singing teacher by the name of Harry Horner who lived on Bradford Road near Frizinghall. He taught me how to pronounce properly. This came in useful when singing English songs. I will always be indebted to Mr Horner because he impressed on me that if I wanted to pursue my interest in singing I would have to go to London. When I discussed my intention to go to London to study singing my friends said nothing would come of it and that I would soon return to Bradford. I never did return. Instead I ended up travelling all over the world."

He added: "I must admit one thing I did not like and could not see myself coming back to was the smog that I experienced in Bradford. Many is the time when I walked home I could barely see my feet! It was absolutely horrendous."

Volodymyr took Horner’s advice and managed to secure a place and scholarship at the prestigious Trinity College of Music. During the day he studied singing while in the evening he worked as a waiter in a top London establishment. After a year he secured a place and scholarship to study at the world famous National Academy of St Cecilia in Rome.

This opportunity enabled Volodymyr not only to study and learn the Italian language and the arts but also to improve his singing. It was not surprising to discover that his growing success as a singer resulted in being invited to perform in many live concerts as well as radio and television all over Italy.

The critical turning point came in 1958 when the National Academy of St Cecilia, sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Culture, invited Volodymyr to perform on his bandura (a traditional plucked-string musical instrument from Ukraine) and sing a wide selection of Ukrainian songs. He had learned to play the bandura at the end of the war when he met Gregory Nazarenko, the famous bandurist. His performance and singing was very well-received in the local press. Nonetheless, Volodymyr decided to return to Britain where he felt the opportunities would be greater in the world of music.

The year 1958 also proved memorable for many other reasons. Volodymyr got married and embarked on a solo singing career. Having registered with the Norman McCann theatrical agency, Volodymyr felt that his career was unfortunately being held back by his name. The public were under the impression that he was a ‘Russian tenor direct from Moscow’ rather than a Ukrainian singer. After some careful consideration and advice from fellow performers Volodymyr hit upon using Tino Valdi as a pseudonym when performing as a singer. However, he still retained his real name when giving concerts on the bandura thereby reflecting his Ukrainian heritage.

The next few years proved to be as momentous as meteoric. Tino Valdi, or the suave ‘Italian singing star’ as he became known to audiences, seemed to be everywhere, giving innumerable live performances in many hotels, concert halls and other venues all over Britain, including the Royal Festival Hall, Royal Albert Hall and the Theatre Royal.

With his ever-rising popularity, Tino was invited to join TV personality Bruce Forsyth’s variety road show which was booked to tour the country. In the midst of new offers of work Tino was asked to join the England team in 1961 to participate in the Knokke-Heist for vocal recitation aka Song Festival staged in the Casino of Knokke-le-Zoute in Belgium.

The multi-cultural English team consisted of Ken Kirkham, Kathy Kirby, Dick Francis, Carmita and Tino. With this strong line-up of singers the group got off to a good start and never looked back. They proved to be too good and ended winning the competition.

From now on Tino was in great demand touring Britain and Europe appearing on radio, television and in many of the leading theatres and concert halls. By 1963, Tino found himself performing on the cabaret scene in London, Sweden and Holland. Throughout the next two decades he remained a crowd- pleaser with his audiences.

Following a serious illness in the early part of the 1980s Tino felt it was now time to stop singing professionally. Instead of putting up his feet he took on another ‘challenge’. In the late 1980s he began assisting the Ukrainian community to host cultural events ranging from a retrospective exhibition of the Ukrainian sculptor Gregor Kruk held at Cliffe Castle to a large-scale concert at the Royal Albert Hall featuring 400 choristers celebrating the Millennium of the Christianisation of Ukraine, proto-state Kyivan-Rus.

During his career as a singer and ‘organiser’, Volodymyr has had the great pleasure of meeting people from all walks of life including many dignitaries. He says perhaps the person that stands out most was His Holiness John Paul II who was introduced to Volodymyr after he assisted in the organisation of a choral rendition of the Ukrainian-Byzantine-rite liturgy performed in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Today, his life has become less frenetic than it used to be. Even so, Volodymyr continues to be involved with many cultural activities both musical and literary. One fact that has remained constant is his strong feelings for his cultural roots and the northern industrial town that gave him the opportunity to develop his singing career all those years ago.

Perhaps the last word should go to Volodymyr who notes: "I remain proud of having a Ukrainian heritage and Bradford roots both in equal measure."