Decades before the rise of X Factor, Ammanford once boasted a pop superstar of our very own. In the 1950s Ammanford’s Donald Peers was the highest-paid popular singer in Britain. Local historian TERRY NORMAN relates his story.

DONALD Peers was born in 106 Wind Street, Ammanford, on July 10, 1908 and grew up from the age of five in Betws.

His mother, Mary Rees, who was from Ystalyfera, had been sent to Hot Springs, Missouri, in America to seek a cure for her early developing rheumatoid arthritis. It was in America that she met and married English-born Frank Peers. Both became converted to a severe fundamentalist denomination called the Pilgrim Brethren and continued in this faith on their return to Wales.

First they moved to Ystalyfera before finally settling in Ammanford where Frank Peers was given a job at the Baltic sawmills, then owned by William Herbert, the founder of Ammanford’s Pilgrim Brethren who still worship at the town’s 1911-built Gospel Hall.

Donald Peers’ upbringing was strict; once he was caned by his father for singing a popular song in the Gospel Hall instead of a hymn. The Pilgrim Brethren frowned on all forms of non-religious music and Frank Peers never went into a cinema, theatre or any entertainment venue after his conversion, not even to see his son perform in Ammanford after he’d become famous in the 1950s.

It was while visiting his mother’s family in Ystalyfera that Donald Peers was bitten by the entertainment bug, for his uncle Elwyn ran the town’s theatre and cinema, the Coliseum. In this home could also could be found a piano and a gramophone, items deemed unnecessary for the purposes of salvation and therefore not to found in the Peers’ Ammanford home. In his autobiography Peers expresses his delight in "the way Uncle Elwyn allowed me to roam the stage and visit the projector room of the cinema. I am certain that the first seeds of longing for a life on the stage were planted during my visits to the Coliseum. The theatre, which had a seating capacity of about 300, prospered quite happily until the coming of the talkies."

In 1951 Peers published his autobiography entitled Pathway and in it he expresses his frustration at being confined in a small town like Ammanford, where the world of the Gospel Hall seemed to be crowding in on him: "During these years I was unconsciously leading two lives. On the one hand there was the magic of the gramophone at Ystalyfera, the highly-coloured posters outside the Coliseum which lifted the curtain and gave me a glimpse of another world outside the valleys. On the other there was our family life, linked with the daily practice of a simple faith. One was associated with Bible readings, and the glowing, inspired oratory of the Chapel Elders. The other drew me irresistibly to a world where men and women became stars of the stage and of the screen, and earned a living, not in monotonous daily toil, but actually by doing something they enjoyed."

Although Peers won a place at the newly-opened Ammanford County (later Grammar) School and was expected to pursue an academic career, the day before his sixteenth birthday he ran away from home.

But it wasn’t to join the circus or a troupe of wandering minstrels or anything similarly romantic, but to go off with some itinerant painters and decorators he’d met while they were painting Ammanford railway station. For the next two decades painting and decorating were his main trades but he gradually gained experience as a singer working part-time with dance bands, mostly in the provinces. For a time he was forced to draw dole in Ammanford and at one time almost resorted to street singing in London. But he started getting engagements with BBC radio, small-time at first, until his breakthrough in 1948 when the BBC gave him his own radio programme called Cavalier of Song and he was on his way to stardom through his pleasant, personable crooning and a confident way with an audience. Perhaps his greatest professional triumph came on the May 9, 1949 when he gave a two-hour solo performance at the Albert Hall, London, to 8,602 paying fans accompanied only by two pianists.

So at the age of 42, he became a pop star. Peers made BBC musical history by earning £600 per week (about £20,000 a week in today's money) and receiving 3,000 fan letters a week and also appearing in several films. His fame and fortune continued for five years until he decided to go to Australia where he stayed for two years. When he returned to England the fans had forgotten him. He began to work his way back to stardom through the club circuit and began to hit the pop charts again with a revival of romantic ballads. He had comeback hits in the British charts with "Please Don't Go" (1969) and "Give Me One More Chance" (1971).

By the early 1960s Peers was sufficiently re-established on the show-business circuit to be given his own programme on television, which was just overtaking radio as the dominant broadcasting medium. His programme was called "Donald Peers Presents" and in 1962 he gave a young pop singer his first exposure on British TV. That young singer's name was Tom Jones and he made enough of an impression to be recalled for another programme later. The rest, as they say, is history.

There are still some people over a certain age in Ammanford who remember Donald Peers, and especially his theme song, In a shady nook, by a babbling brook, which he sang at all his performances. There is a popular belief in Ammanford and Betws that Nant y Ffin flowing through Betws is the brook mentioned in the song and that Peers wrote it. However, this song was in fact written in 1927 by Americans E. G. Nelson and Harry Pease.

Peers died in a Brighton nursing home in 1973 at the age of 65 and was buried in the Downs Crematorium in Brighton.