Composer, librettist, playwright, actor, singer and director - Noel Coward was all of these, and he remains one of the most famous figures in twentieth century British theatre. Quintessentially English he was too, and patriotic, and proud of it. In this collection of twenty-three different recordings ranging from 1928 to 1950, we are proud to present a tribute to the versatility and brilliance of this multi-faceted major talent.
From the time of his first published recording in 1928 into the 1940s Coward frequently used Carroll Gibbons as his accompanist or orchestral conductor - a wise choice as the American-born (but confirmed Anglophile) was a first-rate musician. At the keyboard he was matchless, with his own immediately identifiable style which we can enjoy on the sides where he accompanies Coward and, more specifically, in our opener, Something To Do With Spring. By this time, Carroll had sole leadership of The Savoy Hotel Orpheans as co-leader Howard Jacobs had left in June 1932 to direct the band at the Berkeley Hotel. Words And Music also gives us four more numbers or selections which first saw the light of day in this revue. Light years away from Gertrude Lawrence's 1932 recording is the delectable Dinah Shore, from Tennessee, who gives us her caressing rendition of Mad About The Boy. This firmly points the way to Dinah Washington's classic version sixteen years later. By 1939, the seven year-old The Younger Generation was in need of a little dusting off. This is certainly gets with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's breathtakingly dazzling improvisations at a time when the soloists and The Quintet Of The Hot Club Of France were at their cohesive best. The outbreak of war found them in England; Reinhardt risked life and limb to leg it back to France while Grappelli stayed in the UK for the duration of the hostilities.
The talents of the sixteen year-old Ray Noble were first revealed in 1926 when the young man won two first prizes in the 'Melody Maker' arranging contests. In August 1929 he became assistant to Carroll Gibbons at HMV records. Carroll had been appointed the label's Director of Light Music where his activities included the formation of a 'house' band, the New Mayfair (Dance) Orchestra (the title 'Dance' often being dropped from light orchestral selections, as here). When Carroll took off for Hollywood early in 1930 to work for a while as a staff composer for the MGM film studios, directorship of the HMV 'house' or 'studio' band was passed over to Ray Noble. Noble had the pick of all the top musicians from the leading London dance bands and made such a success with the unit that his own name started appearing on some of the sides in 1931 and attracted attention from the United States. In fact Noble emigrated to the USA in August 1934, but that is another story. For now we can enjoy what must surely be one of his own superb arrangements in a selection from Words And Music made a couple of days before the revue opened in London's Adelphi theatre. Six days later Noble and orchestra accompanied Coward himself in four numbers from the show, including his renowned recording of Mad Dogs And Englishmen. So it's a brave man who follows in the steps of Coward and carries it off. This is certainly the case with Danny Kaye, not going over the top for once, and delivering a different but equally amusing rendition with sympathetic accompaniment by Johnny Green. A couple of months after this recording, Kaye appeared at the London Palladium for the first time and caused an absolute furore, creating the biggest impact in the theatre's history. Newspaper reports like "The biggest individual variety success in London for many years" only confirmed this.
With one exception, the five songs featuring Noel Coward himself were not written for any show, but simply as 'one-offs'. (For a comprehensive, chronological survey of songs from the shows and revues, performed exclusively by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, try our double album 'Noel & Gertie'). Mrs Worthington was written in a vain attempt to discourage over-eager stage mothers from contacting him in their efforts to arrange auditions for their 'prodigiously-gifted little darlings'. The song says it all really, and with Coward's succinct words delivered in idiosyncratic clipped tones, it's simply a case of 'having to be cruel to be kind'. It is rumoured to be based on Angela Fox (n'e Worthington) who went on to become the mother of three famous sons, the actors Edward and James Fox and the youngest son, Robert, who became a successful producer. Angela died in 1999, and the theatrical dynasty continues with her granddaughter, Emilia Fox, a talented young actress whose star is rapidly in the ascent. The patriotic London Pride is Coward's tribute to the idomitable spirit of Londoners in the Blitz-torn capital city. The tune is based on the old English melody to the words of the hymn 'Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken', later appropriated by the Germans as their national anthem 'Deutschland, Deutschland 'ber alles'. Coward thought "...that the time had come for us to have it back in London where it belonged". Coward's 1950 musical play Ace Of Clubs was an attempt by the playwright to create something with a contemporary theme. Like 'Pacific 1860' from nearly four years earlier, it was, alas, not a great success. It starred the sparkling Pat Kirkwood who introduced the charming song 'Chase Me Charlie' and the number featured here, Josephine. The satirical Imagine The Duchess's Feelings is a witty little number dating from 1941 which Coward had hoped would match the popularity of Mrs Worthington; it didn't, but as performed by its composer it does not fail to amuse. Coward's final contribution on this collection is the haunting Most Of Ev'ry Day, a song of unrequited love.
Like most Ray Noble recordings, Twentieth Century Blues (from Cavalcade) with legendary vocalist Al Bowlly has dated well, defying its seventy-year age tag. Wisely, perhaps, Noble elected to use just a sextet for this recording. Inaccurately described on the labels as the New Mayfair Novelty Orchestra, the musicians comprise Max Goldberg (trumpet), Laurie Payne (reeds), Noble and Harry Jacobson (pianos), Al Bowlly (guitar) and Jack Evetts (string bass).
From Bitter Sweet, another 'oldie' given a new lease of life is Zigeuner, which is picked up by the tail by clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw and brought firmly in to the Swing Era. Always a maverick, Shaw tired of constantly being pitted against Benny Goodman for the title of 'King of Swing' and walked out on his band at the end of 1939 and retreated to Mexico for a few months. Another band was formed in 1940, only to be disbanded after a short while and this pattern continued until he enlisted in the Navy where he organized a great service band. Discharged from the Navy on health grounds, Shaw continued to lead bands and ensembles but gave up his clarinet completely in 1954. Like Artie Shaw, Hildegarde is now retired and in her nineties. Born of a German Catholic family in Wisconsin, Hildegarde Loretta Sell honed her cabaret act in London and Paris during the 1930s. Assisted by her manager, Anna Sosenko, she studied and utilised various tricks of the trade and paid particular attention to appearing glamorous and elegant. Her hard work paid off, and on settling in New York in 1939 she started recording for American Decca. From her first two sessions we have three numbers: firstly the gentle waltz song, I'll See You Again, from the same operetta as Zigeuner, which provides a welcome contrast. The remaining two come from This Year Of Grace - the well-known A Room With A View, introduced in the revue by Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale but alas never recorded by them. Finally we have a pleasantly relaxed rendition of Dance, Little Lady, a marked contrast to Coward's own frenetic recording from eleven years earlier. Our last number from the revue is an instrumental version of Teach Me To Dance Like Grandma, played with great verve by Capetown-born rhythm pianist Raie Da Costa. Classically trained, Raie found it hard to sustain a living as a concert pianist so she took the wise decision of diversifying into popular music. The Parlophone Record Company signed her up in 1928 and billed her as ""The Parlophone Girl - Dance Pianiste Supreme"". Variety bookings followed and marked the beginning of a highly successful career. HMV Records lured her away from Parlophone in 1930 and she remained with the label, recording prolifically, until her tragic early demise in 1934 at the age of twenty-nine.
Inevitably, most of the major British dance bands recorded some of the songs from whichever Coward show was currently playing. Aside from Carroll Gibbons and Ray Noble, we also have Roy Fox with his regular star vocalist, Denny Dennis in another waltz song (this one from Operette), Where Are The Songs We Sung? Misleadingly described as 'The New Mayfair Orchestra' on the American Victor release of the record, You Were There, with a vocal by the ever dependable Sam Browne, is played by The Phoenix Theatre Orchestra under Clifford Greenwood. This was recorded nearly three weeks before the London opening of Tonight At 8.30, appropriately at the Phoenix Theatre, on 9 January 1936. Noel Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence starred. Shadow Play (from which this song is taken) was one of nine short plays in the revue; just three of the plays were enacted at each performance, but the sequence was frequently altered to keep things fresh for audience and actors alike.
Our earliest number dates from 1925 and the revue On With The Dance. Poor Little Rich Girl was introduced by Alice Delysia and remains the best-known song from the show. The great Judy Garland with husband of the time David Rose acting as musical director, gives the song a more timeless, contemporary flavour. Much the same can be said for Frank Sinatra's rendition of I'll Follow My Secret Heart from Conversation Piece. This is worlds away from Yvonne Printemps and Noel Coward's cast recording from a decade earlier, as one would expect. Sinatra recorded his immaculate version at a special V-Disc session (recordings made specifically for the American armed forces) in July 1944. He must have retained an affection for the song as he did eventually get round to recording it commercially in London: in 1962 as part of his 'Great Songs From Great Britain' album, made with ace arranger and conductor Robert Farnon.
Set To Music was designed as a vehicle for Beatrice Lillie and was essentially a rehash of Words And Music from six years before with a handful of other songs old and new. 'Marvellous Party' was one of the new numbers as was Never Again. This song is interesting inasmuch that it enjoyed two outings; one pre-war in America, the other post-war in England. Here the smoky-voiced Austrian-born songstress Greta Keller gives her intelligent and beguiling account of the song in a Liberty Music Shop recording. In 1945 Coward used the number again, incorporating it into his new revue Sigh No More.
Noel Coward's long-time associate Graham Payn maintains that Coward learned a lot about phrasing from Hutch. The gifted West Indian entertainer recorded surprisingly little Coward, but one of the nuggets was the tellingly autobiographical song I Travel Alone.
Upon learning of Gertrude Lawrence's sudden death on 6 September 1952 aged only fifty-four, a shattered Noel Coward wrote ""Sometimes, in Private Lives, I would look across the stage at her and she would simply take my breath away: nobody I have ever known, however brilliant or however talented, has contributed quite what she contributed to my work. Her quality to me was unique and her magic imperishable."" Noel was just thirteen when he first met Gertrude, a fellow child actor who was one year his senior. As a team, their golden years were the 1930s, and Gertrude must have been feeling nostalgic when she re-recorded Someday I'll Find You in December 1950. Three months later she opened in what was to be her last great Broadway success, Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'The King And I'. When she died, all the theatres in London's West End and on Broadway in New York dipped their lights for two minutes in silent homage.
After World War II Coward seemed to drift out of fashion for a while though he kept busy and worked hard on his cabaret appearances which gained him much acclaim during the 1950s. At loggerheads with the new generation of avant-garde playwrights and never afraid to express his views, Coward was in danger of being consigned to the pre-war scrapheap by the early 1960s. However, a revival of interest began in his work from 1964 when he was invited by Sir Laurence Olivier to direct a revival of his comedy Hay Fever with the new National Theatre Company. And the bandwagon has been rolling ever since. Awarded a knighthood in the New Year Honours list of 1970, Coward spent his last years in well-earned retirement, dying in his beloved Jamaican home on 26 March 1973.
2001 HUGH PALMER