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Monday, 6 May 2013

Billy Cotton born 6 March 1899

William Edward Cotton (6 May 1899 – 25 March 1969), better known as Billy Cotton, was an English band leader and entertainer, one of the few whose orchestras survived the British dance band era. Today, he is mainly remembered as a 1950s and 1960s radio and television personality, although his musical talent emerged as early as the 1920s. In his younger years Billy Cotton was also an amateur footballer for Brentford F.C. (and later, for the then Athenian league club Wimbledon, now AFC Wimbledon), an accomplished racing driver and the owner of a Gipsy Moth which he piloted himself.

Billy Cotton started his musical career playing drums with the Royal Fusiliers when he was just 15 years old. He saw service in the Dardanelles and was given a commission in the Royal Flying

Corps at 18. By this time he was playing the drums in small camp bands. When demobilised, he briefly worked at a bus conductor, a butcher's roundsman and a millwright's assistant, supplementing his income by gigging with Gilbert Coombes and his Fifth Avenue Orchestra in Kilburn. He also played football for Brentford.

In the early 1920s, one of his first jobs, though still a semi-pro musician, was playing in a trio for 5/- (25p) a night. The other two member of the trio were his nephew. Laurie Johnson (only four years Bill's junior) on violin and Arthur Rosebery on piano. Rosebery went on to become a major bandleader himself, but his story belongs elsewhere. Laurie Johnson, despite being only 18 years old, was something of an impresario and after a spell leading the band at the Ealing Palais, with Bill on drums, for £6 a night, he landed the plum job of providing four bands at the 1924 Wembley Exhibition. Laurie himself led one of these, with Bill on drums, and called it Al Johnson and the San Prado Band. The band also broadcast over 2LO. 

After the exhibition, Bill went to work for Jack Howard at the Olympia Ballroom. Then he decided to form his own band, which included Laurie on violin and he auditioned for Gaumont-British; this led to a resident position at the Regent Ballroom in Brighton. This was in 1925.  Bill called the band "Billy Cotton and his London Savannah Band", a name he continued using until 1929. Laurie left to form his own band when Bill moved to Southport Palais on May 29th, 1925. At this time, Bill's musicians included several that were later to become big names, such as Syd Lipton on violin and Joe Ferrie on trombone. They stayed at Southport until 1927. It was here that Bill gradually changed the band from playing purely dance music, to putting on stage acts.  The band moved to the Astoria, Charing Cross Road, then on to the Locarno, Streatham. During this period, Bill started his long recording career, making records for Metropole and Piccadilly, plus a solitary disc for Decca. His big break came on moving to Ciro's Club in about 1929, where he stayed until the spring of 1931.

In early summer 1931, Bill became quite ill with rheumatic fever and had to stop performing. Obviously, his musicians became restless and left him. The three brass players, Nat Gonella, Sid Buckman & Joe Ferrie, joined Roy Fox's new band, while Syd Lipton left to start his own band. Bill had a knack for spotting good musicians, and, undaunted, re-built the band a few months later, with help from his nephew, who disbanded his own band, so that
Bill could have the pick of the musicians. His pianist and arranger for almost his whole career, was Clem Bernard. Many other musicians stayed with Bill for years too, including singer Alan Breeze, who joined in the Spring of 1932 and stayed until the end in 1969, coloured trombonist & dancer, Ellis Jackson and violinist Phil Phillips.

From 1930 to 1936, he made many records for Columbia, Regal and Regal Zonophone, switching then to Rex until the late 1940s when the label was discontinued. Subsequent records were made for Decca right up until the late 1950s. 

For most of the rest of his career, he and his band did stage shows, with his nephew as his "right-hand" man, starting at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square in 1931. He is well-remembered today for the long-running "Billy Cotton Band Show" which was a popular Sunday lunchtime radio programme on the BBC Light Programme from 1949 to 1968. Bill started each show with the cry “Wakey-Wake-aaaay!”, followed by the band’s signature tune “Somebody Stole My Gal.” The show transferred to BBC Television in 1956, usually on Saturday evenings at 7.00 pm. It ran, under various names, until 1965. Regular entertainers included Alan Breeze, Kathie Kay, Doreen Stephens and the pianist Russ Conway. Pianist Mrs Mills made her first television appearance on the show.

Cotton was presented with an Ivor Novello award in 1959 and voted Show Business Personality of the Year in 1962. The series never witnessed a decline in popularity, with only Cotton's death from a heart attack while watching a boxing match at Wembley on 25 March 1969 bringing it to a close. The final show was transmitted on 20 July 1968. 

Bill had passions other than music. He was a fearless and determined racing driver and actually drove the famous Blue Bird, achieving a speed of 121 mph.  and also had his own aeroplane, a Gipsy Moth, which he often flew in the years before World War II. He married Mabel Gregory in 1921. He had two sons, Ted & Bill junior, the latter becoming head of entertainment at the BBC.
(Info mainly from Dance Band Encyclopaedia)

Highly atmospheric footage from a dance at the Adelphi ballroom in Slough 1931. The combined bands of Arthur Roseberry and Billy Cotton play and sing "I'm Just Wild About Harry".


boppinbob said...

Go here for an extensive Billy Cotton mp3 playlist
curtesy of

zephyr said...

Thanks Bob they made such a happy sound I really like listening to the oldies.
Take care