Saturday, 15 August 2015

Billy Cotton and His Band

The other week I was mooching through a pile of old 78 rpm records on a stall in one of those large antique warehouses that rent space to stall holders. I came across around twenty records of the British Dance Band of Billy Cotton.

This was Billy Cotton Senior - his son, Bill Cotton, became Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC having the unenviable job during the late 1950s of having to tell his Dad what was wanted of him. I wouldn't have been able to tell my Dad that and I gather he had a similar challenge...

Billy Cotton had played a drum in the army in the First World War and landed at Gallipoli and then became a pilot in what was then the Royal Flying Corps. His first solo flight was taken on the day that the RFC became the RAF. On leaving the forces at the end of the war he played first in bands led by someone else and then formed his own band. "Round The Marble Arch", coupled with "Snap Your Fingers, Clap Your Hands" was released in 1932, with the band's new singer featured on both sides. He was called Alan Breeze and he joined the band on a verbal agreement and stayed with Billy, without a formal contract until the band disbanded (if you'll pardon the pun) in 1959.

Alan Breeze is on the left of this photo with Billy Cotton in the centre and Kathie Kay, pictured more towards 1959 than 1932. He became known as the man with the sunshine in his voice.

World War One had been and gone, but World War Two came in the middle of Billy's band leading career. He, along with many other band leaders of the time, recorded many patriotic songs to help those at home in the midst of bombing and rationing to get through the uncertain days and years of the war.

But there were also many light-hearted records to raise a chuckle when there wasn't always much to laugh about.

Billy Cotton would end up recording for the Decca label after World War Two and stayed with them to the end of his recording career. These Decca records along with the Rex recordings (late 1930s-1945/6) are the easiest to find.

As a child in the 1950s I remember Billy shouting "Wakey W-a-a-a-key!" at the start of his shows on both the radio and television. Alan Breeze was joined by Kathie and a small group of backing singers who sometimes took the lead. They were The Bandits and the dancers (TV only - they didn't do well on radio...) were the Silhouettes. Regular guest artists included pianists Russ Conway and Mrs Mills and singer/comedian Max Bygraves.

Not all of the 78s were perfectly flat... This one required a bit of extra weight on the playing head so that the needle wouldn't be thrown out of the groove! At least it didn't need the weight of an old copper penny!

Billy himself would occasionally bend his tonsils around a tune. Like most band leaders, he wasn't blessed with the greatest voice, but he could knock out a tune and give it a lot of good natured robustness!

Only one of the records I bought refused to play. Although a later 1950s record, my guess is it had been played on a wind-up gramaphone and the horribly heavy and sharp steel needle - probably about 3 lbs in weight (1.36kg!) had been dropped on it, gouging out an S-shaped scar pinpointed by the yellow hand. Other wear is visible all around the record - I gave up after a few seconds - it didn't sound good!

I'll leave Billy with this still from one of his appearances on the programme Christmas With The Stars. Billy Cotton, drummer, soldier, pilot, band leader, recording artist, singer and star of radio and TV. He was one of Britain's best-loved stars and had over thirty years at the top of his game. Not a bad legacy to leave.

William ("Billy") Edward Cotton, 6 May 1899 - 25 March 1969.

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