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William Garnet ("Billy") James (28 August 1892 – 10 March 1977) was an Australian pianist and composer and a pioneer of music broadcasting in Australia.

Early years

James was born in Ballaratmarker in 1892. He studied piano at the Melbourne Universitymarker Conservatorium of Music, graduating in 1912. Subsequently, he headed overseas to study in Londonmarker and Brusselsmarker with Arthur De Greef, a former pupil of Franz Liszt. It is around this period that James composed his Six Australian Bush Songs, which were dedicated to Dame Nellie Melba.

After being rejected for military service, James worked for the British Red Cross Society during the First World War. In 1915, he made his public debut as a pianist with the Queen's Hall Orchestramarker. By this time he had begun to publish his compositions, and in 1916 his ballet music By Candlelight was performed in concert at the Savoy Theatremarker, London.

ABC career

In 1923 James returned to Australia, eventually taking up a teaching position at the Melbourne University Conservatorium. In the late 1920s, he joined the newly formed Australian Broadcasting Company, the forerunner of the Australian Broadcasting Commissionmarker (ABC). He became the latter's first Director of Music in 1931, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1957. It was during his tenure that the ABC established its state orchestras.

From 1935, James made regular overseas trips to persuade international artists to perform in Australia with the newly formed ABC orchestras. During World War II, when such exchanges became impractical, the ABC instead organized local talent competitions, which James adjudicated. James's selection of repertoire for concert performances was conservative, possibly because he felt contemporary composers might not have a broad enough appeal for radio audiences.


James wrote many pieces for voice, choir and piano, but his most enduring pieces are still his six sets of Australian Christmas Carols, in which traditional Christmas themes were given "outback" settings, such as The Three Drovers. ABC staff writer John Wheeler wrote the lyrics for these carols. The Australian Christmas Carols can still be found in music catalogues today. Outback themes were common in his secular songs as well, in compositions such as Bush Song at Dawn, familiar to many Australian children of the 1950s and 1960s through the school songbooks of the period. Other compositions by James have rustic Englishmarker themes (A Warwickshire Wooing) or claim Māori inspiration (Six Maori Dances).

Personal life

James was married twice. His first marriage, in 1921, was to the Russian opera singer Saffo Buchanan, née Drageva (known professionally as Saffo Arnav), by whom he had a son and a daughter. Buchanan died in 1955, and in 1960 he married again, to widow Caroline Mary Dally-Watkins, née Skewes. They divorced in 1967.


  1. Music Australia website.


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