Sometime in the later 1950s the magic partnership between Ronnie Dukes and Ricky Lee was established. By the beginning of the 60s the basic framework of their act had been set and they had already built up a
tremendous reputation in the South Yorkshire area. There was Ronnie, full of himself and a trained dancer (though his build would not allow him ever to be part of any ballet company) the lovely Ricky with the wonderful voice and that smile, ever tolerant of her partners antics, and Vi, Ricky’s mum, pianist and silent butt of much comedy. And then, did you know, they retired from the stage? It’s true. In November 1964 they gave their farewell performance at the Willow Club in Kinsley and were presented with a silver salver to mark the occasion. I know. I was there. Ronnie had ideas of going into the licensed trade but the whole thing fell through, and within months they were back on the boards, heading for much bigger things. They were at Wheatley W.M.C. in the following February. Countless comics used mother-in-law gags, but can you think of any others who had the lady herself on stage with them? As time went on, Vi decided to retire for a while, her place was taken by the brilliant musician Terry Herrington, and later they were backed by the established group The Trackers. Terry wrote a stunning piece for them “The Glory Road”. It means nothing really, but the way Ronnie did it gave it tremendous impact.
There’s some of that on a good You-Tube clip of them from Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club. You can get some of the flavour of the act, but really they had to be seen live. Ricky’s singing voice shone through, so pure and clear, and her amused tolerance when Ronnie suddenly burst into some frenetic dancing.
James Towler, a Leeds businessman and variety enthusiast, who wrote the “Yorkshire Relish” column in The Stage newspaper for over ten years, once sent a letter to a well-known London agent offering to pay his First Class return rail fair to Yorkshire if he would come up and see them. He never got a reply.
Through sheer talent and perspiration the pair worked their way up the show business ladder through the big clubs, theatres and a bit of T.V. and ending up on the Royal Variety Performance. Only a few Northern club artistes have done that. They had the large house in Cawthorne and the Rolls Royce. “We need to earn a crust” he would say.
Ronnie’s physical stress must have been enormous, and it was telling. Doctors warned him several times that he must take it easier or it would be the end of him, his heart would give out. He always replied that this was his life, this was what he did if it happened, it happened. And one night, in the early 1980s, it did. He collapsed and died on stage. Ricky was devastated, as were the band, which by now had some of their sons in it.
She carried on as a singer – in 1982 I saw her in “The Ricky Lee Show” at Summerland in the Isle of Man, as good as ever, but it wasn’t enough. Ricky died not long after in her home in Jersey. Some say it was cancer, others alcoholism. What does it matter, she’s gone and we shall never see their like again.