I had thought of calling British bandleader Ray Noble the musical Forrest Gump because he seemed to have a way of being in on some significant moments in musical history, but it’s probably more accurate to call him the musical Kevin Bacon (as in ‘six degrees of’). During his career Noble had connections with a lot of very well-known performers, and inspired many others to become stars.
A classically-trained pianist, he first rose to fame in England during the decade following the first World War, but not by playing Chopin. He was fascinated by the popular new music of the jazz age, and by 1929 had worked himself into a position as director of the New Mayfair Dance Orchestra. Over the next several years the group’s popularity boomed, as did their record sales. After the American market discovered his music – and liked it – Noble decided it was time to head West.
Strict music union rules at that time made if difficult for Noble to bring his orchestra to the states, so he arranged for a young trombonist named Glenn Miller to recruit American musicians for a new band. He did bring talented vocalist Al Bowlly with him, and the reconstituted band was a big success, playing New York’s Rainbow Room and filling the house. While Miller occupied a trombonist’s chair he gained valuable experience that would later help him become a world-famous bandleader. (He also wrote “Moonlight Serenade” during this period.)
Noble continued to have success as a bandleader for a number of years. His band could play hot jazz – for example, one of my favorites, “Harlem Nocturne,” – but was probably better known for sweet music, much of it composed by the leader himself. Songs such as “The Very Thought Of You” and “Goodnight, Sweetheart” became standards, and he was much in demand as a composer. He wrote “Cherokee,” which ended up as a huge hit and theme song for Charlie Barnet, and provided Woody Herman, Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill and others with some of their best music.
Noble also provided music for some popular radio shows, including The Charlie McCarthy Show and Burns And Allen, and even appeared as an actor occasionally, usually in scenes with Gracie. By the late 1930’s he’d dissolved the band and transitioned himself into radio and films. He enjoyed some success with occasional comic acting – usually taking advantage of his accent – and was kept busy as an emcee. He prospered for the next couple of decades, and even dipped his toe back into bandleading a time or two in the 1950’s, but gradually wound down toward retirement. He died in 1978.