Noel Gay born Reginald Armitage (July 15, 1898 - March 4, 1954) was one of the most successful British composers of popular music of the 1930s and 1940s.
He was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, England and educated at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School, London's Royal College of Music, and Christ's College, Cambridge. He then became music director and organist at St. Anne's Church in London's Soho district.
Whilst at Cambridge, Armitage's interest in musical comedy grew, and he began writing popular songs, using the stage name Noel Gay in order to avoid embarrassing the church authorities. After contributing to reviews he was commissioned to write the score for the Charlot Show of 1926. His next show was Clowns In Clover, which starred Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert.
Gay's career quickly blossomed, due to his talent for writing catchy, popular melodies in styles ranging from music hall to operetta. He is the only composer besides Andrew Lloyd-Webber to have had four shows running at the same time in London's West End.
His most famous show, Me and My Girl was originally performed at the Victoria Palace London, in 1937, starring Lupino Lane. Me And My Girl ran for a phenomenal 1,646 performances. It was revived again in 1952, and 1984, when it ran for eight years at the Haymarket and Adelphi theatres in London from 1984, later going on tour throughout Britain, and transferring to Broadway. The show's showstopper, "The Lambeth Walk" has the distinction of being the only popular song to be the subject of a leader in The Times. In October 1938 one of its leaders read 'While dictators rage and statesmen talk, all Europe dances - to The Lambeth Walk.'
Gay went on to write songs for reviews by the Crazy Gang, and for star artists like Gracie Fields, Flanagan and Allen and George Formby, penning popular World War II songs such as "Run Rabbit Run". After the war, his songwriting diminished, and he concentrated on production.
Noel Gay Artists
Noel Gay Artists is now one of the leading British showbusiness agencies was formed by his son, Richard Armitage (born 1928) as a talent agency to supply singers to perform in Noel Gay hits.
Five years ago, London talent agent Alex Armitage, the grandson of the legendary showbiz figure Reginald Armitage, founder of the Noel Gay Organisation, took a good, long unsentimental look at the talent agency’s client list and what the clients were contributing to the bottom line. Frankly, he was depressed by what he saw.
Earnings were falling, and little wonder. “We had an extremely impressive list of big TV stars like Esther Rantzen, but they all tended to be in their 50s and 60s, and the days of the general TV presenter were fading fast,” he recalls. “We were too entertainer-based and badly placed to take advantage of the boom in factual TV. “There was a lack of young clients on our books. In areas like radio and new media, where there was likely to be future growth, we had hardly any presence at all. We needed to bring down the average age of our clients by 20 or 30 years. “It was no way to go into a new century, let alone keep us in new projects and the sort of lifestyle we were accustomed to. We realised that we didn’t know what Noel Gay was about anymore.”
As every historian of the British entertainment industry will tell you, the Noel Gay Organisation was formed by the composer/musician Reginald Armitage in 1938 as a music publisher. Armitage, a one-time organist at Wakefield Cathedral, had penned music hall ditties like “The Lambeth Walk” and “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”. By the late 1950s, the company had re-invented itself as an agency, Noel Gay Artists, principally to supply singers to perform Gay’s songs, and led by Reginald’s son Richard. From the 60s until the 80s, the outfit expanded rapidly to meet the demands of the TV age. As a schoolboy, Alex Armitage, who as chief executive now runs the company in tandem with managing director Nick Ranceford-Hadley, remembers Paul McCartney and his then girlfriend, Jane Asher, coming over for Sunday lunch to the family home. At the time, Asher’s brother, Peter, as one half of 60s pop duo Peter and Gordon, was on his father’s books. “The next day I’d go to school and tell everyone that Paul McCartney had tuned my guitar, but, of course, no one believed me,” recalls Armitage, an old Etonian who turned down a place at Oxford to join the family business. Despite a pronounced stutter, he is a natural raconteur and possessor of a dry wit, essential in a business such as his, and not afraid to speak his mind. “Television is much less star-driven than it’s ever been,” he says. “For the first time ever, you can get to be a celebrity for being thick and useless. In the past, it helped if you had talent and charisma.” The company that he and Ranceford-Hadley have now repositioned bears little resemblance to the entertainment-led previous incarnations of Noel Gay . After sacking some of the existing clients (“That required tact and delicacy, but ultimately we’re running a business”) the two men have attempted to equip the agency for the modern world.
To bring about the changes, the pair thought hard about the direction in which the broadcasting industry was heading, watched a lot of TV, especially news and current affairs shows, and listened to the radio. “We sniffed around a bit,” says Armitage, a slightly shabby figure whose lived-in Denmark Street office comes straight from the pages of a Raymond Chandler story. “One thing we tend not to do is poach. We don’t ring people up and say ‘We’d be a better agent than the one you’ve got’.” The strategy - effectively to go upmarket and concentrate on TV and radio presenters - appears to have worked. But not everything has gone according to plan. Two years ago, Armitage’s older brother, Charles, left the family firm taking a promising film business with him (Noel Gay Films had co-produced Trainspotting). Yet in the teeth of a media recession, Noel Gay’s revenue has doubled in the past four years, and Armitage is confident that growth on this scale can be sustained in the future as the money paid for the right presenters continues to soar in TV and radio. The fees he and his colleagues negotiate on behalf of their clients must, of course, remain confidential. “What I can tell you,” says Armitage, “is that we take 15 per cent and we’re billing in excess of a million pound’s worth of commission a year.” The core of the company’s activities revolves around what may turn out to be a still more lucrative niche in the future: remodelling news and current affairs presenters across TV and radio into fully fledged celebrities who can present, write and do the odd bit of voiceover work as well.
Jeremy Vine, the ex-Newsnight presenter who successfully nabbed Jimmy Young’s much-fought-over slot on Radio 2, reportedly doubling his fee in the process, and Rod Liddle, the ex-Today editor turned Spectator and Guardian contributor and TV presenter, are both personally handled by Armitage. Other clients include Sarah Montague, the Today presenter spotted by Armitage on Sky News, and Radio 5 Live’s Sony award winning Julian Worricker. But Noel Gay’s highest – earning hack is the Sun’s Mr Angry and sometime Sky Presenter, the columnist Richard Littlejohn, who recently re-signed to the paper for three years at a reputed £1m a year.
“Alex has created a whole new business here,” reckons Ranceford-Hadley, a sharp-suited zoology graduate who joined Noel Gay in 1989. “Before he spotted the opportunity, a lot of these people had never thought about having an agent who could help develop their careers.” But do journalists really require agents? Surely having one fosters resentment in Fleet Street management, since an agent’s over-riding priority is to clinch the biggest fee possible? If only it were that simple, maintains Armitage, who can spin like the old pro he emphatically is. “I have great affection for journalists as talent, because the ability to tell a story and keep people’s interest in a certain amount of time and words is a crucial skill in pretty much any media,” he says. Flattery will get you everywhere Alex, but ultimately the prospect of a lorry load of greenbacks must be an important factor when a Liddle or a Littlejohn agrees to come on board?
“I am pretty good at that (securing a lucrative contact), but the secret of a good deal is one that your client is happy with and doesn’t mean the buyer goes out of business in two years. There’s no point in getting a huge amount of money if the buyer isn’t going to want to renew the contract. You might have got your client enough cash to buy a new Ferrari, but it ‘s not going to help his long term career prospects. That’s not to say we’re not a tough agency, but the negotiation is the sex on the wedding night . A lot of courtship goes into getting two people to the altar.”
And if, to extend the metaphor, the marriage is to stand a chance of not ending in divorce, a good agent needs to know what other potential suitors are likely to offer. “You use your knowledge of the market to get them as much as the market will stand,” he explains. “You can stick a price on someone and say. ‘My client is worth £100,000, but if no one will pay that, then you’re wrong.”
The beauty of it, however, is that he claims the re-born Noel Gay is doing quite nicely thank you from a set of young clients who have not yet reached their full potential. “It really is a case of you ain’t seen nothing yet,” insists Armitage. Not for nothing was he brought up with show business in his blood.
Financial Times (London, UK - April 1, 2003