Billy Cotton

Billy Cotton, whose theme song was "Somebody Stole My Gal," was one of the most famous British dance band leaders. As both a drummer and vocalist, he had the talents to either stand in front of a band or back it up. Cotton's group was known not only for its dance numbers but for its well-mounted comedy skits as well. He began his career as a drummer in the Royal Fusiliers at a mere 15 years old, and by 18, he'd received a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. As might be expected, military music was only a part of the picture and by night he would be behind the drums in various camp combos. After the war his syncopation was at first limited to the activities of a bus conductor and he also worked at jobs such as a butcher's roundsman and a millwright's assistant. Meanwhile a few gigs trickled in such as a spot with Gilbert Coombes & His Fifth Avenue Orchestra in Kilburn. In the early '20s he was hardly riding high in the music business; typical pay for a trio job of that period was a bit less than 10 bucks. Eventually, Cotton set his sights on starting his own band, including his cousin Laurie Johnson, whose talents included promotion as well as the violin. By 1925, Billy Cotton & His London Savannah Band was landing extended stints at venues such as the Southport Palais, with fine players Sid Lipton and Joe Ferrie in the band on violin and trombone, respectively. During the two-year life of this job, Cotton evolved from simply presenting dance music to mounting more of a visual stage act. As Cotton's group moved from job to job, he began a series of recordings for the Metropole, Regal Zonaphone, Piccadilly, and Decca labels. The group was mostly known for its stage shows, however. As the public's taste for vaudeville diminished, Cotton made a smooth transition to new mediums. The Billy Cotton Band Show became popular over both radio and television in the '50s and '60s, and is credited with introducing the obnoxious expression "Wakey, wakey!," a sure-fire method of creating violence if whispered in the wrong sleepyhead's ear. The bandleader's hobbies outside of music sometimes got him even more attention. He was a racer and was reported as having driven an infamous car calle the Blue Bird at more than 120 miles per hour. Cotton was also an airplane pilot. ~ Eugene Chadbourne

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