Al Bowlly and Ray Noble (OEX 9710 – 1972 )

OEX 9710 Front
RAY NOBLE and AL BOWLLY, two men whose careers span one of the greatest eras of change the world has ever known, are heard again in this nostalgic, unashamedly romantic album of the music of their time.

To people accustomed to accepting discordancy as the norm and cacophonous screeching as good music, this album may come as something of a shock: but it will provide many happy hours for lovers of soft, sweet music, whose ear-drums crave for a revival of the clean, rich sound of a good band and the vocalising of a honey-tongued singer with a leaning towards a love-torn lyric.

Such a singer was Al Bowlly who , a generation ago in a world of jazzy parties, cats whiskers, crystal sets and flickering early movies was rivalling  that old maestro Bing Crosby in popularity .

With All My Heart – Al Bowlly with Ray Noble And His Orchestra (LSA 3067 – 1972 )

LSA 3067 FrontRay 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

We Danced All Night (CDN 5131 – 1958 )

cache_17365968Ray Noble, born in Brighton in 1907, is unique in the history of modern dance music. He is the only English bandleader to have become popular on both sides of the Atlantic through having lived and worked on both sides of the Atlantic.

Various British bandleaders, such as the late Jack Hylton, have visited the U.S.A., and some even recorded somewhat fleetingly there, and of course during the inter-war years, when dance music reached its zenith, many Americans visited us, some stayed, some left. Few are remembered now anyway. Yet the doctor’s son who at nineteen won a contest in the infant Melody Maker for arranging a long-forgotten tune called There’ll Come A Sometime became the Musical Director for the Gramophone Company at 22, having already won his spurs as arranger for Jack Payne’s resident B.B.C. Dance Orchestra.

After five years of directing every conceivable recording session, from light classics to low comedy, from salon and dance music to accompanying the great theatrical personalities of the day, Roy Noble received and accepted an offer to go to the U.S.A., taking with him his Irish drummer, Bill Harty, and his South African vocalist, Al Bowlly, then regarded as Britain’s answer to Bing Crosby. He formed a new band of American talent — and what talent! His personnel reads like a mid-thirties Who’s Who of Swing.

He had Sterling Bose, trumpet-playing hero of a hundred sessions all the way from New Orleans to New York via St. Louis; Glenn Miller, the dour trombonist from the crumbling Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra, and even in 1935 giving broad hints of the fine dance-music arranger to come; Bud Freeman, to this day still very active and regarded as the greatest white tenor saxophonist in jazz; Johnny Mintz (also spelt Mince and Meuenzenberger) on clarinet, afterwards a shining light in Tommy Dorsey’s great band; Claude Thornhill, one of the most forward-looking of arrangers, on piano; so it goes on, almost a case of “You name them, Ray Noble used them.”

It had been the same in England; he used the very cream of talent available in London, the resulting records were hailed then as masterpieces of their kind, and they have since become connoisseurs’ items.

Not only a great arranger, Ray Noble composed many songs during the thirties that have passed into the standard category, Goodnight, Sweetheart, Love Is The Sweetest Thing; The Very Thought Of You, I Hadn’t Anyone Till You, and Cherokee, the number which in 1939 inspired the late Charlie Parker to begin his experiments and create an entirely new conception of modern rhythmic music.

Two more Ray Noble songs are heard on this record, admirably sung by Al Bowlly, who charmed the American girls but who returned to this country in 1937 and was killed by a Nazi bomb in 1941.

As a light comedian in Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy show, Ray Noble showed yet another facet of his many-sided abilities, yet despite many years in the forefront of American show-business, he has never lost his British accent and demeanour.

At a time when it was generally accepted the world over that the American bands were far superior to all others, Ray Noble quietly but impressively proved the theory wrong. After all, as I have said, he is the only British bandleader to have proved good enough for the Americans to keep.

Brian Rust