George Leybourne’s real name was Joe Saunders. He was born in the Midlands in 1842 and gave up a job as a mechanic for a career in the northern music halls. His first professional appearance in London was at the Whitechapel Music Hall in 1864.
In 1866 he and Albert Lee wrote ‘Champagne Charlie’ which became an immediate hit. Dressed in the height of ‘fast’ fashion, in bow tie and tails he would swig from a bottle of Moët declaring his love for the high life and women. His style evolved a new type, the Lion Comique, which was a ‘swell’ or attractive, fashionable, young man.
Leybourne was employed at the Canterbury Hall in 1866 for £30 a week. When William Holland became manager, he gave Leybourne a carriage drawn by four horses and told him that he must only drink champagne in public. Over the next year his salary rose to £120 per week. Women fancied him and men admired his cavalier attitude to life.
A rivalry began with The Great Vance, as breweries and wine and spirit producers sponsored Leybourne and Vance to sing songs extolling the virtues of their products until they had sung their way through the wine list.
Later song successes included ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’, which celebrated Léotard’s sensational debut at the Alhambra, but Leybourne failed to adapt to the changing times and his popularity declined. A victim of success and fast living, he died aged only 42.