Born Reginald Moxon Armitage on 15 July 1898 Armitage re-christened himself using Noel Coward’s given name and Masie Gay’s family name. Maisie Gay was one of London’s biggest revue stars in the twenties.
Master Armitage was a talented pianist and organ player by the age of eight. He won a scholarship for the Royal College Music and, because of his age, he had to join the army in the First World War, albeit for a brief period. After the War he went to Christ’s College at Cambridge University where his interest in popular music began and his talent to write catchy songs developed. Under his original name he had been known for writing classical and religious music and this move away from this led to the new name which he felt was required when he had a song accepted for a revue. As Noel Gay he would become one of the most successful of song writers between the two World Wars.
During the thirties and forties he wrote constantly for the stage and film. His first big chance was given to him by Andre Charlot writing much of the score for his “1926 Charlot’s Revue”. Then came the husband and wife team of Cicely Courtneige and Jack Hulbert’s “Clowns in Clover”, a terrific hit that made him one of their favourite writers. The advent of sound in the movies brought a flux of stage stars to the cinema and Gay’s breed of happy and hopeful songs were just the thing for the brightest British stars such as Gracie Fields, George Formby, Flanagan and Allen and the already mentioned Hulbert’s.
His greatest success was “Me and My Girl” which has already been mentioned in articles on this site (go to the search button to explore). It opened in 1937 starring Lupino Lane at the Victoria Palace. Far from a hit to start with, it took a live BBC radio broadcast to catch the public’s imagination and the song, ‘Lambeth Walk’ became a gigantic success, with the entire cross section of social standing learning the dance. It even spread to the States as a novelty dance. “Me and My Girl” played through much of the War having to change theatres because of bomb damage. It closed after 1646 performances and was quickly revived in 1952, to a changing audience.
Noel Gay’s son, Richard Armitage took over his father’s publishing house, which had been formed in 1938, upon his father’s death on 4 March 1954. Noel Gay Music controlled his entire portfolio and more. Richard Armstrong formed the Noel Gay Organisation diverging into theatre, television and theatrical agency. It was Richard who had the brilliant idea of reviving “Me and My Girl”. He knew it was in need of an updated book and that it had to be handled carefully. He chose the young Stephen Fry for the task. With full access to Gay’s entire song catalogue Fry, careful to retain the original atmosphere of the piece, chose songs to enhance the original. It was a major hit in 1984 running eight years in London and having a long run on Broadway.
Richard Armstrong again revisited the father’s song catalogue to produce an entirely new musical called “Radio Times”. The songs were good, the production lavish but the book let it down. It was seen at the Queen’s Theatre starring Tony Slattery in 1982 and more recently at the Watermill, Newbury.
Noel Gay left a vast collection of songs representing a period of hope and innocence. Luckily many of the songs have been recorded and are still available. He wrote little after the Second Word War finding the world so changed. His last published song was in 1950.
RSB Illustrations from the Overtures Archive