The Arts

Ray Who?

Recently my wife, Nikki, and I spent a pleasant afternoon chatting with an old friend. During the conversation she asked me whether I had heard of Freddy Mills. He was a famous boxer who came to a rather sad end. Indeed I had. I come from a family once very involved in boxing, so I knew quite a bit about him. The next morning, as I waited for my local bus, the name “Freddy Mills” came slowly toward me, painted on the face of the bus. If, like me, you travel around our city by bus, do you ever wonder about the names on our buses? One name always starts music playing in my head. It is ‘Ray Noble’.

Ray NobleRay was born in Montpelier Terrace in 1903. He studied the piano and went on to the Royal Academy in London. Soon after graduation he began to play piano in dance bands. He became a successful bandleader and an arranger. In the early 1930s his recordings with the wonderful singer, Al Bowlly, were extremely popular. He was invited to work in the USA, with Al Bowlly, and they had a few years of success. Eventually Ray’s arranging skills began to date and he was surpassed by the emerging talent of the great Glen Miller. He moved to Hollywood, where he had a short career playing dim upper-class Englishmen on radio and in films.

But Ray had one very special talent: he was a great songwriter. If you are of my generation you will remember that dances often used to end with “Goodnight Sweetheart”. Ray wrote that song. He also wrote a song which seems to capture a certain feeling of the 1930s, “Love is the Sweetest Thing”. Even those are not his best songs. He wrote a set of “Red Indian” songs and one of them, “Cherokee” became a hit in the 1940s, both as a song and a big band arrangement. One of my favourites is, “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Till You”, beautifully recorded by Ella Fitzgerald. Another hit was “The Touch of Your Lips”. But best of all, and still often heard today, is, “The Very Thought of You”, first recorded by Al Bowlly. There are many other excellent songs.

Recently I attended a coffee concert by the singer Imogen Ryall, when she gave us a whole hour of Ray’s songs in modern settings. Alec Wilder, a leading authority on American popular songs, says that Ray’s very best songs can stand comparison with those of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, etc. I agree. Brighton should be very proud of Ray Noble. He thoroughly deserves his place on the front of one of our buses!

Ah, here comes my bus. It’s “David Jacobs”. Now, he knew all about Ray Noble.

Peter Batten

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