Billy Cotton (May 6, 1899 – March 25, 1969) was an English band leader and entertainer, one of the few whose orchestras survived the British dance band era. Cotton is now mainly remembered as a 1950s and 1960s radio and television personality, but his musical career had begun in the 1920s. In his younger years Billy Cotton was also an amateur footballer (soccer player) for Brentford (and later, for the then Athenian league club Wimbledon), an accomplished racing driver and the owner of a Gipsy Moth, which he piloted himself. His autobiography, I Did It My Way, was published in 1970, a year after his death.
Born in London, Cotton was a choirboy and started his musical career as a drummer. After the end of the First World War, in the early 1920s, he worked at several jobs, including as a bus driver, before setting up his own orchestra, the London Savannah Band, in 1924. At first a conventional dance band, the London Savannah Band gradually tended towards music hall/vaudeville entertainment, introducing visual and verbal humour in between songs. Their signature tune was “Somebody Stole My Gal” [Listen on Spotify], and they made numerous commercial recordings for Decca.
During the Second World War Cotton and his band toured France with the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). After the war, he started his successful Sunday lunchtime radio show on BBC, the Billy Cotton Band Show, which ran from 1949 to 1968. In the 1950s, composer Lionel Bart contributed comedy songs to the show. It regularly opened with the band’s signature tune and Cotton’s call of “Wakey Wakey”. From 1957, it was also broadcast on BBC television. Cotton often also provided vocals on many of his band’s recordings, in addition to work as a vocalist on recordings that didn’t feature his band.
As a racing driver, he raced at Brooklands between the wars but his finest moment came in 1949 when he finished eighth in the 1949 British Grand Prix.
Cotton had two sons, Ted and Sir Bill Cotton, who later became the BBC’s managing director of television. In 1962 Billy Cotton suffered a stroke and died in 1969 while watching a boxing match at Wembley.
Billy Cotton Band Show
The Billy Cotton Band Show was a Sunday lunchtime radio programme broadcast in the BBC Light Programme from 1949 until 1968. The band leader, Billy Cotton, was a larger-than-life Cockney character who started each show with the cry “Wakey-Wake-aaaay!”, followed by the band’s signature tune “Somebody Stole My Gal”.
The show transferred to BBC Television on March 29, 1956, usually on Saturday evenings at 7.00 pm. It ran, under various names, until 1965.
Regular entertainers included the pianist Russ Conway. Pianist Mrs Mills made her first television appearance on the show.
Sir Bill Cotton
After working on various programmes such as his father’s Billy Cotton Band Show and popular music programme Six-Five Special, Bill Cotton (April 23, 1928 – August 11, 2008) was promoted to Head of Light Entertainment in 1970. Cotton was responsible for overseeing the production of a whole series of popular and iconic comedy programmes, including The Morecambe and Wise Show (1968–77), Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969–74), The Two Ronnies (1971–87), and Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game (first run 1971–77).
Cotton’s success as Head of Light Entertainment led to his promotion to Controller of BBC1 in 1977. In 1981, he was made the BBC’s deputy managing director of television under and, in 1984, Cotton was promoted to become managing director of Television, a role he fulfilled until his retirement from the Corporation in 1988.