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“ONE of the most listened-to, talked-about and imitated big bands of all time was that of Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Why? For a time even its leader couldn't answer that question. "We didn't know what we had," Guy once told me during a discussion of his band's early days. "We had to ask people what it was they liked about the band."
They did not have to ask for long. It soon became evident what it was that people liked about "The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven": Carmen's lead saxophone and singing, Lebert's lead trumpet and Guy's leading of the band as a whole. …
The respect that Lombardo generated from people who had been associated with the band was tremendous. As Gabler once emphasized: "Guy is just a sensational person—as a human being and as a man to work with." One of the most prominent talent agency executives, Larry Harriett, who handled dozens upon dozens of top stars, once stated: "Guy Lombardo is the nicest man that's ever been in the music business."
And Lombardo finished first in more than just personal popularity polls. His band sold more records than any other dance band.”
- George Simon, The Big Bands, 4th Ed.
The following appeared in the May 15, 1982 edition of the Jazzletter, only the second year of this self-published ad libitum journal’s [as much or as often as necessary or desired] existence.
Although very popular during the Swing Era, the Guy Lombardo Orchestra was the subject of much derision by post World War II modern Jazz fans who considered it square, hep and essentially uncool.
This contemptuous group would have included Gene Lees until he became a convert as is described in this segment of the Jazzletter.
“... and Guy Lombardo For everyone there is a last battle, the one you don’t win, and at the time Duke Ellington was fighting his I went to hear the band of another leader, a band I had never seen, one I had never wanted to see, one whose passing has altered our New Year's Eves forever. l refer of course to Guy Lombardo. When I saw his band in person, I found, to my own incredulity, that I liked it. And about thirty years of jazz theology got blown to hell.
In the late 1930s and during about the first eight years of the ’40s, there were hundreds of big bands traveling America. including those with a strong regional popularity, known as territory bands, which never broke through to the national and international status of “name bands”. This term was a sort of a generic catch-all that did not imply judgment of whether these orchestras were good or bad, whether they were jazz bands (the pinnacle) or sweet bands (the pits). It was useful in that it avoided the terminological confusion that has plagued discussions of music probably since pithecanthropus erectus started stomping around a stew-pot.
All the bands, including the jazz orchestras such as those of Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Chick Webb, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Woody Herman, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw, and Jimmie Lunceford. played for dancing and had for the most part begun as dance bands. And others that were basically dance bands were capable of playing jazz — Benny Goodman, Glenn Gray, Les Brown. Harry James, Tommy Dorsey. Indeed when the Tommy Dorsey band chewed into a chart by Sy Oliver, as in Well Git It or Deep River, roaring ahead on a rhythm section fueled by Buddy Rich, it was transformed suddenly into a soaring jazz band, and often could swing as hard. For the sake of clarity, then, let's say that there were a lot of dance bands—thousands of them, if you included those whose activities were confined largely to the dance pavilions of the local amusement parks that dotted the continent.
Some of them were infused with a jazz spirit and staffed with jazz players and they played as much jazz as they could get away with. There was another kind of band that had no apparent interest in jazz. These were the so-called “sweet” bands, detested by the jazz fans on a sliding scale according to the corn content of the music. Hal Kemp, whose band even a lot of musicians liked; Kay Kyser; Freddie Martin; Tommy Tucker; Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythm; Richard Himber; Wayne King, even then an anachronism because his thing was waltzes in an age of unrelenting four, and Sammy Kaye. A few jazz fans secretly liked Kay Kyser, although they would not dare mention it to their- hipper-than-thou young friends. It was a good commercial band despite its Ish Kabibble comedy and Kyser’s mortarboard hat, which fact I mentioned to Johnny Mandel. “Of course,” Johnny said and, being one of those walking encyclopediae of arcane information, promptly ran off some of the personnel roll of the band. “Some pretty good players,” he said. Then he added drily, “The Sammy Kaye band, however, had no redeeming features.”
The jazz fans considered these bands a threat to the true faith, and they were perhaps right. Mass public taste does not naturally tend toward altitude, and the businessmen who then as now dominated entertainment displayed their usual unswerving fidelity to whatever made the most money. And the sweet bands made a lot of money, none more than Guy Lombardo, who was probably the most successful bandleader since Strauss the Younger and quite possibly the richest in the history of the world.
Consequently he was at the head of the hate list. His was the name that most immediately inspired the ire of true believers, the young finger-poppers who dug the jazz bands. And with ritual regularity we elected him King of Corn in the Down Beat poll, although Alvino Rey told me recently with a sort of shy and perverse pride, “We won that title once.” But rumor had it that Louis Armstrong liked the Lombardo band. And since he occupied in the pantheon of jazz approximately the position of Zeus, this presented a problem like the Manichean heresy. Nobody has ever determined, as far as I know, whether Charlie Parker was putting us on when he said he liked Rudy Vallee’s saxophone playing. But in the case of Louis Armstrong, rumor was in accord with fact: he did indeed like the Guy Lombardo band, whereby hangs a tale to which we shall come in due course. Louis’s opinion was so disturbing that we all chose to ignore it, hoping it would just go away.
Almost as unsettling was the rumor that Guy Lombardo in tum was a jazz buff. Early in 1974, Lombardo was booked to play an engagement in Toronto. Don Hartford, the president of radio station CFRB and a big-band fan, asked me to interview him for the station. I threw that journalistic switch that requires you to suspend prejudice and be fair, no matter the subject, and met Guy in the studio at the station. Like Duke, he was then in his seventies—71, to be precise. Unlike Duke, he really did not look his age. He looked about 55. And he turned out to be a warm and altogether lovely man, innocent of pretense.
He invited me to hear the band and I went to do so, already beginning to catch glimpses of history. Of the few bands that survived into the 1970s, all were born in the l930s or’40s. But those of Duke Ellington and Guy Lombardo were born in the '20s. They had moved on an unaltered course from the time of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the hip flask and Shipwreck Kelly, through the eras of bread lines and shot-down workers, World War II, the bomb, the home-coming, the burgeoning of suburbs, Korea, ducktail hair, Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley, Timothy Leary, Viet Nam, the Rolling Stones, Dealey Plaza, Bangla Desh, and Alice Cooper and his snake. They had led their bands from the time of Mary Pickford and Pola Negri into that of Linda Lovelace and Georgina Spelvin.
I settled down at a table to await the band. This was in the main dining room of the Royal York, one of the many hotels Guy still played regularly. It was a candlelight-and-wine setting, with white-and blue-haired ladies comprising much of the audience. That women generally outlive their husbands was attested to by the fact that there were tables without men where elderly ladies sat together. (Later on I watched two of them get up, at first timidly and then with growing amusement. to dance together, like schoolgirls.) There were also many white-mustached men in the audience and, surprisingly, a few thirty-year-olds.
The band came out and sat down and Guy followed and took his bows to great applause and raised his long baton, and they began playing. And I went into mild shock, as he swooped and danced about the stage, smiling: it was a damned good band, clean and smooth. To be sure, its music was simple, none of those rich harmonies that came into use through the '30s and ’40s and ‘50s: But if I could like triadic French popular music, for exactly what it was, why couldn't I like this? And very quickly, I began to do so.
The band was a museum piece. It had preserved a style from time before people in middle age were even born. And it wasn't an imitation, a reconstruction. It was alive, as Duke's band was alive and these men knew how to play that music. Its instrumentation was what it had always been: two trumpets and one trombone, three saxophones doubling clarinets (no baritone), two pianos and drums. Tuba carried the bass line. I had never seen a tuba-bass dance band. There were only two concessions to changing times - the band included guitar and it was amplified, and one of the “two pianos” was a Fender-Rhodes. Otherwise it was a kind of a monument to and evocation of an era that had faded long ago.
Guy joined me at the table after the first set. I told him how much I liked the band, hoping my surprise was not obvious, and asked him how he accounted for his almost solitary profession: survival. He sighed. “Well,” he said, “we lost a lot of very talented people to untimely deaths, for one thing. If Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were still alive, they would still be in the music business, and it would be a better business because of it. “And then there are no places today to develop new bands. Th ballrooms are gone. In the old days, every hotel had a band, an some of them were very good bands. “And we were lucky. We were very lucky.” “In what way?’ I asked.
Guy was born in London, Ontario. He and his brothers, Lebert (trumpet) and Carmen (flute), played for garden parties and weddings with four- or five-piece groups. “Sometimes,” Guy said, “we even got paid.” The success of the Paul Whiteman band ha great impact on him and his brothers. The saxophone became popular. Carmen planned to be a symphony flutist and was working toward that goal but, for the sake of the jobs they were playing, he took up the saxophone. “He wanted to avoid that reedy sound,” Guy said.
“He wanted to get a flute sound.” “Then that explains his vibrato,” I said. “It’s a flute vibrato.
“Exactly,” said Guy. “And it gave him a unique sound. Carmen's saxophone was one of the things we had in our favor. (And it was one of the things I learned some years after this, that Louis Armstrong liked about the band.)
The band had grown somewhat in size. All the musicians in it wanted to improvise. “I told them, ‘Play the notes as they're bloody well written.’ That almost caused a mutiny. We had a big confrontation in a poolroom. But I told them, ‘Play the notes or you don’t work,’ and they gave up.” London, Ontario, lies halfway between Toronto and Detroit at 43 degrees north latitude on a peninsula formed by Lake Huron, the St. Clair River, and Lake Erie. Almost due south of it, acros Lake Erie, is Cleveland, Ohio. In November, 1923, the same month Sousa worked that gig in Sioux City, Guy and his brother took a chance on a trip across that invisible border in the lake to Cleveland. They were never to go home again, except on tour (But Guy played his home town once a year all his life.)
“In Cleveland, we had another piece of luck. The owner of the Claremont was a man named Louis Bleetz, who knew the band business from A to Z. We had just enough brains to listen to him. He taught us to play softer and play slower. He schooled us for year. So when the real break came, we were ready for it.” The break came in 1927, when they were booked into the Granada Café in Chicago. The owner of the Granada didn‘t think Guy Lombardo and Company was a very classy name. And so they became Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians probably for a subliminal association with the good booze that was following Guy across the border.
The mob was running loose in Chicago, busy with its internecine warfare. One night two hoods came in with machine guns. The band hit the deck when the shooting started. Several people were killed. Guy didn't say whether he considered packing up and going home but the thought surely crossed his mind. For whatever reason, he stayed on, and it was in Chicago that success came, not even overnight but in four hours.
The band had picked up a few fans, including some musicians.
"Is it true that you and Louis Armstrong were friendly?"
“Yes," Guy said. "He was playing in Chicago, and I just loved him, and he loved our band. He and his whole band used to come to hear us." Guy's voice dropped then, sad with a memory. "But in those days, you see," he said, "they couldn't get in. So they used to stand on the roof of their car and look in the window." (Duke was at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Bix was with Whiteman.)
Louis Armstrong may have liked the band but few lay men knew it existed. After a time Guy did indeed begin to feel discouraged and did think about going home. A new radio station wanted to try its equipment and its manager elected to do a remote of the band. At 8 p.m., the club was almost empty. But all over Chicago, people were listening to the radio, still fascinated by the new phenomenon. College kids, hearing the broadcast and finding something totally fresh in the band, began getting into cars and driving downtown, and by midnight the club had wall-to-wall customers.
Broadcasts on subsequent nights made the band into a Chicago smash. They were offered a record contract. The label, however, had little faith in them. Thus, even in that time, one sees the phenomenon of a record company signing an act and then doing nothing to sell it. You could get the records in Chicago but they were hard to find elsewhere. And soon kids at the eastern colleges, Yale and Harvard and Princeton, were having their friends in Chicago send them to them, and the band became a hit on records too, in spite of the company. Its first hit was a song Carmen had written. Little Coquette.
Guy went back to the bandstand to play another set. By now I was fascinated by the band and the man. I stayed until the end of the evening.
Next day Guy and I had lunch.
In the 1940s Guy had become wealthy enough to indulge in one most expensive of rich men's hobbies: speedboat racing. It is not forgotten in sports circles that he was one of the great racers.
"Do you ever miss it?” I said.
“I’ll tell you," Guy said, "I once asked that question of my friend Wilbur Shaw, the great race driver. He said, 'Sometimes. But I just go lie down in a quiet room and turn out the lights and the feeling goes away.' I feel the same way."
Nonetheless we lapsed immediately into talking about those wonderful Harry Miller engines, and the three Allison engines-built for the Bell Aerocobra, a hot but dangerously unstable fighter of World War II — that he had mounted in a boat in the late 1940s to blister his way across the water with a vast white rooster-tail behind him and set records which, he admitted, he would now and then sentimentally look up in the books.
"I gather from what you've told me," I said, "that you're a jazz lover."
"Oh yes," Guy said. "Particularly Dixieland jazz. I think good Dixieland jazz is the most creative, the most soulful music in the world. That's what I listen to a lot. "Twice I tried to change my band into a jazz band, but the public hated it. So I went back to what we've always done. Although obviously I like what we do, or I wouldn't be doing it."
"It's funny," I said, "how the public is about keeping its heroes in pigeon-holes. They wouldn't let Edith Piaf sing comic songs."
After lunch we shook hands on the street and parted. He had invited me to come and visit him. I always intended to do it. I wanted to ask him more about Chicago, about the early days, about how it all came about. But I never got the chance. He died.
Recently Gerry Mulligan played Los Angeles with his new big band, born in the 1980s and proof that the big bands will not go away, no matter what the conglomerates do. It had on lead trumpet a girl — that's one of the ways times have changed named Laurie Frink, and on tenor, young Ted Nash. Ted was 14 when Duke died. His father, the superb trombonist Dick Nash. was born while Guy was playing the Granada and Louis had to stand on the roof of a car.
I told Gerry about my experience with Guy Lombardo and how much I had liked the band the one time I heard it in person.
"I'm glad to hear you say that," Gerry said with a certain fervor "Everybody was always so busy putting that band down that they never bothered to listen to it. It was not a corny band. It was a hip, 1920s dance band."