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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kentwell, Wilbur Davies (1914–1981)

by G. D. Rushworth

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Wilbur Davies Kentwell (1914-1981), musician, was born on 20 January 1914 at Castle Hill, Sydney, sixth surviving child of John Amos Kentwell, carpenter, and his wife Lucretia, née Davies, both born in New South Wales. Wilbur attended Parramatta High School to Intermediate level. Possessing innate musical ability, he had begun some limited formal musical tuition at the age of 8. After later instruction in organ playing, in his early teens he played for services at his local church. He was introduced to the theatre organ and public entertainment through the large Christie instrument at the Roxy Theatre, Parramatta, where he later performed professionally. From 1939 he was resident organist at the Savoy Theatre, New Lambton, Newcastle, for some five years, using a Hammond electronic organ. He also worked as a salesman.

On 29 June 1940 at Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, he married with Anglican rites Euphemia Cowan, a theatre usherette. Called up for full-time duty in the Militia on 4 August 1942, Kentwell served in the artillery in the Newcastle area before being discharged as medically unfit on 27 March 1945. He had continued to play the organ at the Savoy Theatre, and at the Century Theatre, Broadmeadow, whenever he could obtain a leave pass.

In the later 1940s Kentwell became resident organist at the Vogue Theatre, Double Bay, while playing regularly at several other theatres and at the Trocadero ballroom, Sydney—sometimes dashing between two engagements in the one evening. He was also staff organist at radio-station 2CH until appointed director of music to Macquarie Broadcasting Services Pty Ltd. There he attained national fame, particularly through his association with Jack Davey, who enjoyed an enormous following. Kentwell undertook freelance work for 2KY and 2UE, and for Australian Broadcasting Commission radio, on which he performed both as a soloist and in a trio. He also composed songs, writing words and music. His musicianship brought him engagements on radio as an associate artist with many celebrities, including Bob Hope, Nat King Cole, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, Peter Dawson, Gladys Moncrieff and George Formby.

After local television transmission started, Kentwell moved to Brisbane as director of music at Channel 9; he later worked for Channel 0. He also began teaching his techniques of theatre organ entertainment, and continued until his death. As well as making many recordings on traditional theatre organs, he used electronic instruments, particularly the Hammond organs (produced in the United States of America from the 1930s), which became popular with radio stations, theatres and nightclubs.

Reputed to be able to play more than one thousand melodies from memory, Kentwell was one of the last of a group of versatile musicians who provided `live’ incidental, accompaniment and effect music, which was a characteristic feature of radio broadcasts up to the end of the 1950s. Predeceased by his wife, he died of head injuries and barbiturate intoxication on 9 February 1981 at Toowong and was cremated. His daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Sun (Sydney), 28 Feb 1957, p 30
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 11 Feb 1981, p 25
  • T.O.S.A. News, Mar 1981, p 9, Apr 1981, p 8, May 1981, p 5
  • series B884, item N284116 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

G. D. Rushworth, 'Kentwell, Wilbur Davies (1914–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 28 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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