Ray Noble: England’s Greatest Melody Maker
Before the Beatles, before the Rolling Stones, before Elton John, an English musician captured the musical taste of the American public. Today he is largely forgotten. Ray Noble was the first English musical talent to become a star in the United States.
When I was young in the 1950s, attending dances and courting the girls, the evening always ended with the same song. A voice would announce, “Last dance, ladies and gentlemen.” The dance floor would grow crowded while the band or juke box would strike up “Goodnight Sweetheart.”
Good night, sweetheart, till we meet tomorrow.
Good night, sweetheart, sleep will banish sorrow.
Tears and parting may make us forlorn,
But with the dawn, a new day is born.
So I’ll say good night, sweetheart, though I’m
Not beside you,
Good night, sweetheart, still my love will guide
Dreams enfold you in each one I’ll hold you,
Good night, sweetheart, good night.
I always liked the song — it had melancholy and sweetly sentimental qualities, and it was a perfect way to end a nice evening, especially if you found a girl to see again.
I never knew who wrote that haunting, lovely tune and was surprised to discover it was someone I knew from listening to the radio as a young boy. Ray Noble was the bandleader on one of my favorite radio comedy shows, “Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy,” where he served as the foil of McCarthy’s barbs. I remember Noble, saying “rather, rather,” “wot, wot,” portrayed on the show as a slightly silly upper-class Englishman. The show was one of the most popular on radio for over a decade and gave Noble recognition beyond his musical skills.
Ray Noble’s fame faded quickly. Even “Goodnight Sweet Heart” was waning when I stopped going to dances, giving way to Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s more urbane and less sentimental, “The Party’s Over” from the musical "The Bells Are Ringing."
Ray Noble is worth a second look. His career was a remarkable one, and for about two decades while America struggled through the depths of the Depression and the dark days of World War II, he was one of the most productive popular song composers with a long string of memorable hits. His best songs tapped into the sentimental side of a nation trying to find itself.
He was born in Brighton, England in 1907 (some sources say 1903). Trained as a classical pianist and arranger, he won England’s "Melody Maker" award in 1926, and was eventually appointed director of music for HMV, the English off shoot of the RCA-Victor Record Company. The dance band he formed, known as the "New Mayfair Orchestra," contained some of England’s best musicians as well as a popular singer Al Bowly, who had mastered the art of crooning that had become popular in America. With the New Mayfair Orchestra, Noble developed a unique sound that was a combination of sweet and cosmopolitan at the same time. He became the most popular bandleader in England in the 1930s.
In 1931, Noble wrote his first great success, “Goodnight, Sweet Heart” which became a No. 1 hit for Guy Lombardo, then leading one of the most popular bands in the United States, the "Royal Canadians." Other successful versions were recorded by Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo, then at the peak of their popularity. Al Bowly had the big hit in England and was starting to be recognized in America also. “Goodnight Sweet Heart” made the popular music charts numerous times with the best version in my view by Rudy Valee singing it to Claudette Colbert in the 1941 film, "The Palm Beach Story."
Noble followed “Goodnight Sweet Heart’s” success two years later with his orchestra’s first number one hit, “Love Is The Sweetest Thing,” which again showed his mastery of romantic lyrics and an ability to tap into the sentimental side of life. The last verse demonstrates his word skills perfectly:
Love is the greatest thing
The oldest yet, the latest thing
I only hope that fate may bring
Love’s story to you.
The second line, contrasting ‘oldest’ with ‘latest’ is worthy of Cole Porter.
In 1934, Noble came to the United States along with his band’s popular vocalist, Al Bowlly. The two formed a perfect team although they came from markedly different backgrounds. Bowlly was born in Maputo, Mozambique of a Greek father and Lebanese mother. He grew up in South Africa and learned his musicianship there. Bowlly possessed the kind of sweet voice that matched the best crooners of the early 1930s. He sounds like a cross between Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby. Noble and Bowlly would work together until World War II when Bowlly died during the final stages of the Blitz in April 1941.
Noble became director of Rockefeller Center’s Radio City Music Hall’s house band. Because of union rules, he couldn’t bring his British band to America. The band he assembled included some of America’s greatest musicians including Glenn Miller, Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill and guitarist George Van Eps. Miller and Noble wrote most of the scores as well as sharing the arranging of the songs. But Noble had a falling out with the band members and in 1937 he took off for the gold of Hollywood.
Noble did scoring for Hollywood films and even appeared in a few. He had a part in “The Big Broadcast of 1936,” leading his orchestra playing his composition, “Why Stars Come Out at Night” which featured a young Glenn Miller on the trombone. Noble also played the quintessential English silly ass in Fred Astaire’s first musical without Ginger Rogers, “A Damsel in Distress.” He also appeared leading the orchestra in a rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Always” in the 1942 smash baseball-cum love story about Lou Gehrig, “The Pride of the Yankees.” Later Noble led orchestras for various radio shows culminating in a long run for the popular ‘Bergen and McCarthy’ show where he played the silly English upper class twit for over a decade and was a constant foil for the McCarthy puppet’s needling.
Noble’s song writing tailed off in the 1940s although his orchestra still managed one last big hit in 1947, Buddy Clark’s smash vocal of “Linda,” written by Jack Lawrence in 1941 while he was in the Army. Interestingly enough, the Linda of the song, was the one year old daughter of a close friend Lee Eastman. Linda Eastman later became Paul McCartney first wife.
For about a decade Noble produced a dozen hit songs, most of them romantic ballads but with an occasional surprise.
Noble’s 1939 song, “Cherokee,” the first part of his Indian Suite, became a swing standard for Charlie Barnet and one of the most recorded jazz songs in American history. It also became one of Charlie Parker’s favorite songs. In 1938 Tommy Dorsey had a huge hit with Noble’s “I Hadn’t Anyone Til You” which also became an often recorded classic. Noble’s orchestra’s version with a vocal of Tony Martin rose to No. 1 on the charts.
Noble’s biggest hit and his eventual theme song was perhaps his best: “The Very Thought of You” which he wrote and recorded in 1934. It was No. 1 on the musical charts for five weeks that year. In 2005 it received the prestigious “Grammy Hall of Fame” award. Years later the publicist, Sid Ascher, claimed that he wrote the song about his wife and sold it to Noble in 1934 for $100. The story is unconfirmed and probably untrue. “The Very Thought of You” has all the earmarks of Noble’s best ballads: a smooth blend of sentimentalism and sophistication. His band had the number one hit with the song while Bing Crosby’s version reached No. 11. “The Very Thought of You” made the charts six times including a version by Rick Nelson in 1964, 30 years after it first appeared. It is easy to see why musicians, especially singers, liked the song:
The very thought of you and I forget to do
The little ordinary things that everyone ought to do
I’m living in a kind of day dream
I’m happy as a king
And foolish though it may seem
To me that’s everything.
The mere idea of you, the longing here for you
You’ll never know how slow the moments go till I’m
Near to you
I see your face in every flower
Your eyes in stars above
It’s just the thought of you, my love.
Like “Goodnight Sweet Heart,” “The Very Thought of You encapsulates the rich romanticism of the best songs of the 1930s. Again Noble’s gift is most apparent in the line where he parallels "the mere idea of you" with "the longing here for you."
Ray Noble was the first of a long line of English musical talents who came to the United States and became a star. At his best his music matched the work of America’s greatest composers: Gershwin, Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern. Eighteen years after his death in 1978 Noble was elected to the Song Writers Hall of fame. It was a long overdue honor.