Whether or not you know who Billy Cotton is will depend upon when and where you were born and what your outlook on life was. To those who do know between the 1920’s and the late 1960’s Billy Cotton was one of the most popular bandleaders in Britain despite the fact he couldn’t read a note of music and his only instrumental talent was playing drums. In between setting up his own group, the London Savannah Band in 1924 and being voted Showbusiness Personality of the Year in 1962 William Edward Cotton lived what one obituarist described as a “Life Less Ordinary”.
He was born, one of 10 children, on the 6th May 1899 in Smith Square, Westminster. It was not the prestigious home of government departments, company offices and political parties as it is now. Billy Cotton described it as…
“In my time there were rats in the basement… and opposite my mother’s window when I was born there was a bus-yard with horse-drawn buses waiting. The local sounds were iron tyres, horses clopping, children shouting and the skidding crash of roller-skates hitting the ground from a fair height.”
Falsifying his age he enlisted at the age of 15 into the Royal Fusiliers as a drummer and soon found himself on active service in Gallipoli…
“We landed on W Beach next to the narrows… It came to my turn to get down off the boat and wade ashore. There was a big marine helping us off and he said to me ”Come on, son, where’s your bundook?“… and I said ”I don’t want a rifle. I’m a bugler.“ He said ”There’s only one bloke blowing a horn tonight. That’s Gabriel, and he’s up in heaven… and you’ll be bleeding well with him if you don’t catch hold. Catch hold!“ So I caught hold of a rifle and became a soldier!”
After Gallipoli Billy was recommended for a commission in the Royal Flying Corps and learned to fly the Bristol Fighter. On the 1st April 1914, the day that the Royal Flying Corp was re-established as the RAF he managed to crash his plane into a hanger and spent the next 4 months in hospital.
At the end of the First World War Billy started taking a serious interest in football. First he played for Maida United but was spotted by a scout from Brentford FC and invited to Griffin Park for a trial. His first match was against Queen’s Park Rangers – and Billy scored the only goal. The local paper reported “For Brentford a new comer, W. Cotton, knows the value of first time shooting.”
Mr Halliday, the Brentford manager said to Billy after the match, “You played nice positional play. Would you like to sign amateur forms for Brentford? We’ll offer you the use of the gymnasium, the training and the baths.” Billy signed up.
The following week he was asked to play for Brentford against Millwall. Unfortunately he arrived late at the Den – and was very nearly barred from playing – but he did manage to put two goals past Millwall. Although he played well Billy began to doubt the wisdom of signing for Brentford…
“I’ll have to make up my mind about this football business, because if I go on playing for Brentford I shall have no money at all. I was a fool to sign those amateur forms. For me it will have to be professional status or nothing.”
The problem for Billy was he had no proper daytime job. His only income came from Saturday night gigs playing drums with the Fifth Avenue Dance Band….and these required him to be back home and ready to go by 6.00pm. Mr Halliday, the Brentford manager, was not at all sympathetic to Billy’s plight so Billy refused to play for the team. A couple of weeks later Billy was persuaded to play in a charity match against another amateur club Wimbledon based at Plough Lane. Once again Billy scored. Afterwards Jack Meadows, the Wimbledon manager asked Billy if he would like to join them. He did!.
Mr Halliday at Brentford was livid. “You can’t do this”, he said. “Meadows cannot sign you on amateur forms. I’ve got you on amateur forms already!” Billy put his foot down. “I have the freedom to do what I like, and if I decide not to play for you I don’t play. You can’t keep me and neither can any form.” And so he left.
Over the coming years Billy Cotton, who was now with the London Savannah Dance Band, was becoming increasing successful, with residences in Brighton, Southport and in 1932 Ciro’s Club in London. It was here that he first met Alan Breeze, a singer who was to become a regular feature of the Billy Cotton Band for the rest of his life. Initially offered a month’s trial period ‘Breezy’ was still working it out 36 years later!
With a regular and decent income Billy Cotton was able to develop his two interests outside music – namely speed and danger. First he bought himself a plane…
“It was a second-hand Moth with a Gypsy 111 engine, one of the last Moth aircraft made of wood, very reliable and wonderful to fly….I don’t think that it was a particularly good idea for me to fly to band engagements but I considered it better to have a comfortable quick ride than rather travel up to 200 miles by coach which I found very exhausting.”
Then in September 1936 he made an attempt on the World Land Speed Record driving Sir Malcolm Campbell’s 12 cylinder ‘Bluebird’, a car that according to Billy had only 2 speeds – ‘fast’ and ‘stop’. He didn’t break the record which stood at 276.82 mph but managed to scare himself rigid with a speed of 121.57mph on Southport Sands.
By the end of the 2nd World War Billy Cotton’s career was burgeoning. In 1949 the Billy Cotton Band presented a Sunday lunchtime radio show, heralded by his trademark catch phrase “Wakey Wakey”. It became as memorable a part of Sunday lunchtime as the smell of roast beef and Yorkshire pud…
I came into the studio only a few minutes before the red light was due to go on and the band were slouched around like a lot of tired giraffes. “Oi, come on,” I said, “Wakey Wakey!” It worked and everybody got so cheerful that the producer said that we could well start the actual show with it."
In 1956 the Billy Cotton Bandshow and its cast of regular singers like Alan Breeze, and Kathy Kay transferred to television. The programme ran on BBC until 1968.
Looking back the programme does seem corny and old fashioned. Although the show often featured rising stars of the time like Tom Jones, Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black, Billy Cotton seemed unaware of the ‘Swinging London’ scene. He was the last of the old time variety entertainers and as such in 1962 was voted ‘Showbusiness Personality of the Year’ by the Variety Club of Great Britain. The following year that award went to the Beatles!
“He had natural ability, a great sense of humour and a way of making good friends with good people once he thought they were on the same wavelength as he was.”
Brian Tesler – TV Producer
And every Saturday night for over 10 years on BBC TV 20 million ‘good people’ became his good friends.
“Many things have been said about Billy Cotton. He was popular, he was brave and he was capable of love and generosity. He took life by the scruff of the neck and shook it.”
Billy Cotton Jnr – Managing Director of Television
1964 Billy Cotton Band Show
— from Martyn Day