Billy Cotton

6/5/1899 - 25/3/1969

Record updated 06-May-20

Billy Cotton was a British band leader and entertainer, mainly remembered as a 1950s and 60s radio and television personality. He was also an amateur footballer, a power-boat enthusiast, an accomplished racing driver, a boxer and the owner of a Gipsy Moth which he piloted himself.

Billy Cotton

William Edward Cotton, better known as Billy Cotton, was born in Lambeth, London. He was one of the few whose orchestra survived the dance band era. He started is musical career as a drummer, an occupation he also pursued in the army during the First World War. In the interwar years he had several jobs such as bus driver before setting up his own orchestra, the London Savannah Band, in 1924. At first a straight dance band, over the years the London Savannah Band more and more tended towards Music Hall/vaudeville entertainment, introducing all sorts of visual and verbal humour in between songs.

In the 1930s he stared racing motorcycles, first on Magilligan Strand and several other sand racing venues. In 1935 he raced at Brooklands for the first time driving a Riley Nine prepared by his friend Charlie Martin of Byfleet Motors. Undaunted by his comparative lack of top-class racing experience, Bill entered for the feature event, the British Racing Drivers' Club 500-mile race. However, it was to be a short-lived debut as he retired with a split exhaust manifold after only 20 minutes racing.


The following year he was back racing an MG K3 Magnette which he entered in the Long Handicap race at Brooklands. Second place ahead of the experienced Earl Howe's GP Bugatti suggested that the lad might have some talent! Shortly afterwards he forged a partnership with the great 'Wilkie' Wilkinson who prepared his cars for the remainder of his racing career. In August, Bill won his first race, the Long Handicap at Brooklands, and followed this up with third in the prestigious British Empire Trophy race. In the BRDC 500-mile race he finished fifth.


During 1937, Bill raced in Ireland at Phoenix Park. Now driving the ex Seaman ERA R1B, he and Wilkie recounted surveying the trophies for the race which were on display in a shop window in Grafton Street. Pointing to a very grand gold cup, Bill said to Wilkie "This is the one we want." He won the trophy but was enormously disappointed when the organising club presented him with a replica at the prizegiving ceremony, saying they would not allow the gold cup to be taken out of Ireland!


Bill was also racing in sand events, in which he had a number of close calls. There were a few on the circuits as well including going backwards into the woods at Donington.


He bought the ex-Henry Segrave V12 Sunbeam and took it to the 14 mile long Southport Beach in Lancashire where he was timed at 121.5 mph. The Sunbeam fell into neglect and it's not clear whether Cotton sold it or merely left it at Southport. Eventually it was discovered in 1943 standing out in the rain behind a garage just outside Southport in a very sorry state.


In 1938, Bill was selected with Arthur Dobson and Johnny Wakefield for the British Team against the Germans in the Grand Prix at Donington. In a race which was to become famous, Nuvolari took the individual win in an Auto-Union, while the British team took the coveted team prize. At the finish, all depended on Cotton and Dobson bringing their ERAs to the finish ahead of the third Mercedes. This they did, in the process igniting scenes of excitement in the crowd seldom seen at motor racing. The drivers fled the approaching mob and had to climb out of reach on to the top of the pits. Unsurprisingly, Bill Cotton regarded this as his finest win.


During the Second World War Cotton and his band toured France with the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA). Between engagements he taught gymnastics to the ATC at the Windsor Boys School.


After the war he was aware that he had been neglecting his duties as a band leader, so when he returned to racing it was somewhat half-hearted compared to his prewar efforts. Thus it was no surprise when he ended his serious racing career at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1948.


IN 1949 he started his successful Sunday lunchtime radio show on BBC, the Billy Cotton Band Show, which ran for more than 20 years. 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.


In 1962 Billy Cotton suffered a stroke. He died in 1969  at the Wembley Arena, while watching a boxing match.