Ray Noble, an Englishman with exquisite musical taste, led one of the greatest bands of all time before he came to America. The only trouble was the band wasn’t his. Instead, it was composed of leading musicians who played regularly with numerous other bands in England but also assembled for Noble’s recording dates.
So good and so successful Were they, that Noble decided to come to America. This time, though, he didn’t organize another all star band. He let Glenn Miller do that for him.
Glenn knew his way around musicians. He’d already organized a band for Smith Ballew, and had helped the Dorsey Brothers start theirs. And, of course, he was a top arranger. Besides, Noble was having problems of a different sort when he arrived in the States. It seems the musicians’ union wasn’t ready to give him his card.
But Ray was able to find other employment, for he had already established himself as an outstanding composer via such hits as Goodnight Sweetheart, By the Fireside, Love is the Sweetest Thing and The Very Thought of You. So, while Noble went to Hollywood to write songs for the movies, Glenn began whipping his band into shape. It was quite an impressive crew, too. Just take a gander at the brass section. Charlie Spivak and Pee Wee Erwin played trumpets; Glenn, of course, and Wilbur Schwichtenberg were the trombones, Wilbur Schwichtenberg?! That is Will Bradley’s original name. The reeds featured Bud Freeman on tenor and Johnny Mince on clarinet, and the rhythm section had Claude Thornhill on piano, George Van Epps, about the best guitarist in the business at that time, and a magnificent bassist named Delmar Kaplan. Bill Harty, the manager whom Noble had brought over from England with him, was the drummer. More about him later. And Al Bowlly, who’d also come across with Ray, was the vocalist. More about him later, too-much more.
When Ray returned to New York, a union member in good standing. the band was well set. Some of the men looked as much to Miller for direction as they did to Noble. This, of course, led to friction. From many reports, even though its music may have sounded wonderfully relaxed, this was never the most carefree band in the world, It sported such an all-star line up that Noble was bound to be somewhat in awe of the musicians. Will Bradley talked about this recently. “I remember one night I wasn’t feeling too well and during a radio broadcast I went for a high last note on an arrangement ,I think it was a top D flat. I missed it. Only air came out I tried again. Again only air.” Did Noble lace into Bradley? Hardly. “I say, old boy,” he remarked almost apologetically, “did you lose one of your relatives?”
Mistakes were few and far between in the Noble band. Even though it was filled with top-notch musicians, it rehearsed often and well. Both Noble and Miller knew how to get the best out of their men, and it showed. Both tended to be perfectionists, as evidenced by the time they spent working for just the right sound and effects in a recording studio. On one date, in fact, they were so completely dissatisfied with what they’d done that they scrapped all the sides. But the time they spent in the recording studios was nothing com-pared with the time they spent on top of Radio City in the swank Rainbow Room, the band’s first and most important engagement. This turned out to be a seven-days-a-week affair with hours from nine p.m. until three a.m. Obviously, the band members got to know one another pretty well. Obviously, too, the grind began getting them down after a while. Sometimes, if there were no dancers in the room, the band might be dismissed early. This happened one Monday night. the men were down-stairs on the sixty-fourth floor-one floor below the Rainbow Room,. changing their clothes-when manager Harty rushed in and said, “Sorry, but an important customer just came in and he wants some music. So we’ve got to go back” And back the band went-all except Claude Thornhill. Noble waited a few minutes for him, but still no Claude. So the band began playing. And then in the middle of the first tune in walked Thornhill, immaculately dressed in his tuxedo jacket, shirt and tie. Only one thing was missing-his trousers! Yes, obviously the grind was beginning to wear down some of the men.
The “important customer” who caught Thornhill sans trousers later became the Governor of New York. His name: Nelson Rockefeller, It’s interesting to note that the Rockefeller family continued for twenty years thereafter to be good friends and admirers of Claude Thornhill. There must be a moral here somewhere!
Being tardy, according to Bradley, was part of the regular routine of the Noble band. ‘Ray and Harty,” he recalls, “had a habit of coming in at least forty five minutes late for rehearsals. After a while we all caught on and everybody came in fifteen or twenty minutes late.” Noble, the composer and creator, was inclined to be a dreamer. He was a man of tremendous personal charm ,tall, lanky, and rather like the guy in a British movie who didn’t get the girl because he kept falling into the swimming pool. Harty, as might be expected, was more of a business-man-shrewd, caustic, very perceptive-who took on the node of Noble’s hatchet man.
Both Noble and Harty were sharp enough to bring with them the man whose voice highlighted so many of their English recordings. This was Al Bowlly, an intense, warm, lovable, sentimental, bushy-browed chap. Bowlly had a unique way of phrasing and enunciating, as you can hear on these recordings. One night backstage he crooned a new song for me. one which, he told me, Glenn Miller had just written and which brought tears to AI’s eyes as he sang it. It was called Now I lay Me Down to sleep, but it was never recorded with its original lyrics. Several years later, however, Glenn did record it with its revised title, Moonlight Serenade.
Glenn’s musical presence was very much in evidence in the band, just as it is on many of the sides on this record. The four instrumentals, ‘Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, Dinah, Bugle Call Rag and Chinatown, My Chinatown, are strictly the Miller of that period ,sort of an expanded Dixieland approach with numerous catchy, novel effects, plus plenty of blowing room for such soloists as Freeman, Mince, Erwin, George Van Eps and Thornhill.
Freeman’s work is brilliant on these sides. His solo On ‘Way Down Yonder in New Orleans is most fascinating: his passage on Dinah is especially poignant and swinging. Bud’s wild harmonic and rhythmic excursions fascinated the guys in the band, according to Bradley, who reports that, “Glenn used to tum to me and say, ‘betcha a couple of drinks he doesn’t come out of this one,’ and I’d say, ‘Iwo drinks he does.’ 1 almost always won, too”
There are several other sides which sound quite Miller-ish, such as Slumming on Park Avenue, Big Chief De Sola, Double Trouble and Why Dream?, which uses some ooh wah brass effects, reminiscent of Glenn’s own band. Of course, Millers scores, great as they were, were not indicative of the typical Noble sound. This is much more in evidence on the smoothly phrased ballad sides, with light piano fill-ins, and especially so on “Down by the River”, played with the half-time rhythmic concept that permeated so many of Ray’s earlier recordings.
In many ways the most typical Noble sound of all, however, was that of Al Bowlly’s voice, which is so pervasive and so persuasive on many of the slower numbers. He succeeded in projecting a wonderfully warm and intimate mood, reflected especially here in Yours Truly Is Truly Yours, Where Am I?, The Touch of your lips (Noble’s own song), Why Dream? and With All My Heart And, of course, there is also the Noble personality, the light-hearted joker who’s really not quite the buffoon he pretends to be, on two Irving Berlin songs ,Slumming on Park Avenue and Top Hat.
So much a part of the entire Ray Noble musical picture was Al Bowlly, that when he left the band late in 1936 it lost much of its identity. Five of the star musicians had departed before Al , Thornhill, Freeman and Bradley firth, then Miller and Spivak but, as good as they all were and as much as the band’s high musical level was lowered when they left, losing them was not as critical as losing Bowlly. Bowlly returned to England, re-established himself there, and then, sadly, was killed in a nightclub that was bombed during an air raid in April 1941.
Though Noble remained in America for many years, he was never again to lead a band as musically satisfying as the one which made these recordings. In February 1937, shortly after the latest side contained herein Slumming on Park Avenue was made, the band broke up under rather unpleasant circumstances, with charged and counter-charges being hurled between the musicians on one side and Noble and Harty on the other. The two Englishmen went to Hollywood to perform on a radio series which they claimed had been promised to them. Out there, Ray, apparently more interested in a career as a comedian, organized a new band, one which possessed neither the charm, the excitement nor the musical finesse of his former orchestra. It is this former ensemble that must go down in dance band annals as one of the most tasteful, versatile and musicianly outfits of all time.
George T Simon