June 15, 2021

Legend in the Wings: Harry Noble, Jr.

I never knew my grandfather, but if you grew up in the '60s, you probably danced to his music.

Legend in the Wings: Harry Noble, Jr.

This essay originally appeared in The Loop Magazine in 2013 and has been re-published here as originally written.

I grew up in a musical family. My father’s been a pianist for almost 50 years and my mother a vocalist for nearly as long. I’ve known my way around a saxophone since I was eight and my brother has blown a trumpet for most of his life, too. One might imagine what living in our house sounded like — a cacophony of melodies and squeaks as we honed our crafts in the living room, our bedrooms, and even the shower.

It was my mother who always reminded my brother and I of our musical roots. I never knew my grandfather, though he was a prominent figure in our household growing up. A painting of him hung on the wall behind his Steinway grand piano, which my parents had restored and refinished when I was very young. This piano traveled with him when he performed and yes, it is possible for a six-foot Steinway to be considered “portable”. The Steinway has been a member of our family since before I was born and it is as much a part of our history as it was his.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to speak with my grandfather, as he died when my mother was only eight. While my brother and I were growing up, she told us stories of the parades of famous stage and screen stars who he worked with on any given day, like Frank Sinatra, Liberace, Tom Bosley, Vera Brynner, Broadway veteran George S. Irving, and Sam Coslow, the man behind such songs as “Everybody Loves Somebody” and “Sing You Sinners”.

My grandfather was Harry Noble, Jr., a songwriter from New York who made a name for himself in the 1930s as one-third of the singing trio, “The Three Marshalls”, and later as half of the Café Societie duo “Noble & King” with cabaret singer Frances King. He also wrote one of the lesser-known Christmas songs, “Out of the East”, and the minor hit “Don’t Touch Me”.

However, Harry Noble was best known for a song he wrote in 1952 that became a hit single in two different decades and has been covered by numerous artists over the years, “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me”.

I’d known my grandfather’s contributions to American music were important, but in researching his past I was surprised to find very little written about Harry Noble, Jr., save for a few newspaper clippings and a short passage in a book by Stan Bader called Diary of a Restaurateur:

“Harry was a very unusual performer. He was a tall, good-looking Englishman and he looked somewhat like Arthur Treacher. He was always impeccably dressed. I remember one day he came in with a pink jacket, gray slacks and white shoes.”

According to my mother, he was the only man capable of pulling off a look like that. He didn’t just love getting dressed up, but felt it necessary. His fashion consciousness was once exhibited on a cruise aboard the Queen of Bermuda when he’d inadvertently left his suitcase on his bed at home. As a result of his faux pas, he had to share a tuxedo with my late uncle and perform in the only shoes he had on-board, his deck shoes. “It killed him,” my mother said. “He hated not being dressed for a gig.” She told me this must be where I got my urge to wear suits whenever possible.

But Harry Noble didn’t just look the part — he acted the part. As Bader regales in his memoir:

“He was very different from any entertainer the people had seen before. He would start off by doing some of the standards and requests and then would go into one of the shows that he had done the music for. He would not only do the music, but would describe the sets, the costumes, and the story line. The people loved it.”

Or, as my mother lovingly put it, “He was a ham. My mother always had to hold her hand over his mouth.” He was boisterous and often the center of attention at dinners and gatherings. And as the organist for the baptist church in Jersey City, he would practice his church music with the windows open on an organ he had in the living room “and give all the neighbors a concert.” He could never just go out and be entertained. No matter where he was or who he was with, he was always the entertainment.

His performances extended well beyond the stage and would sometimes land him in hot water. “He used to get in trouble for drag racing,” my mother said giggling. “He would race in Jersey City and he got his license suspended.” And so twice a week at 2 a.m., my grandmother would load my mom and her two brothers into the car in their pajamas and drive into Manhattan to pick him up from the nightclubs. When I asked if her mother was ever upset about trekking into the city in the middle of the night, she simply said, “It’s what you do when you marry a musician.”

Aside from setting speed records on city streets, my grandfather also dabbled in acting. In his younger days, he was cast in a Boston Music Festival performance of Annie Get Your Gun along with George S. Irving and Jerry Stiller. He and his singing partner King also had small parts in the 1944 Frank Sinatra vehicle, Step Lively, though he hated Hollywood. This explains why Step Lively was my grandfather’s first and last film.

Program for Annie Get Your Gun
Inside the program for Annie Get Your Gun

When I learned about his past both in front of and behind the scenes, it was shocking to find hardly anything was known about the man who wrote “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” and performed with some of the biggest stars who ever lived. Even more surprising was that I’d never heard any of his own recordings. Sure, he wrote and arranged music for others, but why wasn’t there a version of “Hold Me” sung by Harry Noble? After all, his picture was on the sheet music.

Then one day, my parents Googled his name and stumbled upon an intriguing link. It was an article about a reissue of an old LP recorded in the 1950s called World Weary: The Songs of Noel Coward Sung By Harry Noble. Why hadn’t I heard of this before and, more importantly, why hadn’t I heard him before?

Musicologist Dominic Vlasto was asked to write an introduction to the newly-rediscovered record and had this to say about my granddad:

“Meanwhile, at almost exactly the same time in New York, the singer/actor Harry Noble, with his accompanist Stuart Ross, was the first artist other than Coward himself to attempt an entire LP of Coward songs.”

[…]

“Noble sings very tunefully and clearly, and for the most part paces the songs well. For two of the earliest — ‘Parisian Pierrot’ (1922) and ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’ (1925) — Noble and Ross allow us the rare luxury of two full verse sections in addition to well-judged restlessly rhythmic moods in the refrains.”

My mother purchased the CD, as the vinyl version was buried in a box somewhere in the attic, and I forgot all about it until a few months ago when I typed my grandfather’s name into iTunes and saw that same album available for sale. My first thought was, “$7.99 is way too low for such greatness,” but perhaps the demand for vintage recordings of Noel Coward songs isn’t what it used to be.

I clicked “Buy Now”, watched the progress bar fill, then loaded the first song on his album, “Nina”. I’m not sure what I expected my grandfather to sound like, but I wasn’t expecting such a melodic and whimsical voice to erupt from my speakers. It was just him and his piano. There was no auto-tune, nor an overbearing backup band to drown out his vocals. His voice was crisp and clean. It was the voice of a man who truly loved and understood the material and it made me wish he had recorded more.

It hurts to know I’ll never meet a man who’s been such an important part of my life. I have so many questions and the few answers I do have are like trees in winter. The painting on the wall, the piano in the living room, and the boxes of sheet music in the attic are all that physically remain of my grandfather. His imprint on American music was subtle, but when “Hold Me” comes on the radio on my mother’s birthday, or is played at her son’s wedding for the first dance, he lives once more among the people who miss him most.