A Sentimental Journey
With Les Brown
Image provided by Reel to Real.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
April 4, 2016 — At first glance it’s just another college date for Les Brown and his Band of Renown. The packed house at the University of Wisconsin campus in the small town of Whitewater burst into wild applause as the big band that Brown once termed “The Malted Milk Band,” opened swinging with its signature song, “Leap Frog.” Only it was 1995 not 1945.
Ponce de Leon was nowhere in sight, but The Fountain of Youth was a palpable reality as septugenarians tossed off Lindy hop swingout combinations from sense-memory that, over the decades, had lost speed and intricacy but still had brio to spare.
What had once been common had become a rarity – a one-nighter for the 83-year-old Brown and his 16 piece swing band. Many of the members, like Butch Stone, drummer Jack Sperling and Brown’s younger brother Stumpy had been with him for five years shy of half a century.
Although the band never innovated on the scale of, say, the Duke Ellington outfit or Benny Goodman’s small groups, nonetheless, for years, Brown and the boys carried the swing torch on one-night road trips across America to little-town hamlets like Whitewater.
Big Band music or more popularly the “Swing Era” flourished between 1935 and 1945. Although fervent followers, mostly in their golden years still refuse to let the music fade away. By the mid-‘90s, other than “ghost” bands carrying the names of their mostly deceased namesakes, the only top drawer band leader from that time still swinging was Brown. But even then, live concerts like that date in Whitewater were fading into a murky collective consciousness.
Prior to the Wisconsin gig, we took the hour-long drive from Los Angeles north to Santa Barbara where Brown, semi-retired, was living in a villa affording him spectacular views of the Pacific. He explained that his ocean side aerie was temporary until his home in L.A. was repaired (the house had been battered in the Northridge earthquake which had occurred a few months before we met). Brown, a tiny man barely bigger than his conducting baton, wore a rumpled light blue shirt that looked as if it had just been napped in, and his hair was snow white. In his appearance, he was a composite of any audience member from his geriatric fan base.
Brown, at that time was virtually the last man standing as it pertained to still booking occasional live appearances such as Whitewater. “The dance business has gone to hell at least at our prices,” he bemoaned. “And also the style of music we play. Let’s face it, people who liked our music are dying off, or the few who are left don’t go out anymore, like myself. I don’t go out unless I have to.”
Raised in a musical family near Harrisburg, Penn., Brown said he knew from an early age that music would be his vocation. He attended the prestigious Ithaca Music Conservatory, where he honed his talents on saxophone and learned the intricacies of arranging and composing music. He later attended Duke University, where he organized the Duke Blue Devil’s Dance Band.
In 1936 with 13 of his Duke musicians in tow, Brown trooped into the Decca Records studios in New York to record his first two 78 singles: “Poppa Tree Top Tall” and “Swing For Sale.” It was to be the beginning of a recording career that would eventually total more than 200 singles and some 100 LP’s and compact discs.
By 1938 Brown was leading his own 12-piece band called Les Brown and his Orchestra. It featured outstanding tenor saxophonists, Wolffe Tannenbaum and Stewie McKay and lead saxophonist, Steve Madrick.
In the summer of 1939, a 17-year-old kid singer from Cincinnati named Doris Day joined the group and helped elevate the Brown band to top-flight status.
Portrait of Doris Day and Les Brown, Aquarium, New York, N.Y., ca. July 1946.
Image by William Gottlieb and courtesy Library of Congress.
“I was told that a young singer was quitting Bob Crosby’s band and I should go listen to her,” recalled Brown, sitting back and almost disappearing into his plush white couch. “I heard her sing at the Strand Theater, went back stage and hired her. But she was in love with a trombone player from Jimmy Dorsey’s band (Al Jorden) so she went back to Cincinnati in 1940 after only nine months with the band to marry him.”
Day was replaced by another young singer, Betty Bonney, who sang the vocal on the band’s first million-record seller, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” penned by local disc jockey Alan Courtney, with help from Ben Homer.
Even without Day, the band hit a commercial groove, playing a five-month engagement in 1941 at Chicago’s Blackhawk Restaurant. It followed that stint with lengthy engagements at other prime swing venues – the Café Rouge in the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City, Chicago’s Sherman House and the Palladium in Hollywood. While in Tinseltown, the band appeared in its first motion picture, a war-time opus called Seven Days Leave starring Lucille Ball, Victor Mature and Carmen Miranda and rival band leader Freddie Martin.
However, even with newfound success, Brown wanted Day back with the band. After a succession of phone calls, she relented. “Doris was very impressionable at that time,” he said. “When she got divorced, she rejoined us in 1944 and stayed with us until her film career took off in 1947. Doris had a great voice and was very cute.”
It was that “great voice” that paid off for Brown with a series of recording successes, including “My Dreams are Getting Better All the Time,” “Day by Day” and “You Won’t be Satisfied.” In November 1944 Day recorded Brown’s biggest hit, “Sentimental Journey” (which he co-wrote along with Ben Homer and Bud Green).
She first sang the song at some late-night rehearsals at the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York. Nobody at the time guessed that the ballad, tinged with melancholy, would become a classic. When it was first played during a live radio broadcast, the tune’s fame was sealed. The song was recorded for Columbia on Nov. 20, 1944.
“From the moment it hit the airwaves the song became a smash hit,” said Brown. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t meet the sales demands because wartime rations on the materials used to press records limited the number of discs we could produce. It still sold more than one million copies, but we had orders for another two million that we couldn’t fill.”
It was during this period that Brown recorded his other monster hit, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Oddly enough, Columbia didn’t release the track until late 1948, two years after it was recorded. The Irving Berlin tune became the last big band hit of the swing era and the band’s biggest instrumental success. The record hit the charts on Christmas Day, 1948 where it remained for 17 weeks reaching number one for a week. “Sentimental Journey” charted in March 1945 and stayed for 28 weeks, peaking at No. 1 for nine weeks.
The moniker “Les Brown and his Band of Renown” came about by accident in 1942 when a slightly inebriated band member held up a scheduled radio broadcast from the Roosevelt Hotel in Washington, D.C.
“We couldn’t play our theme song, which at that time was ‘Evening Star’ because we were waiting for one of our musicians, Si Zentner, to pull himself away from the bar,” said Brown. “The announcer was ad-libbing until Si arrived. Finally, he introduced us by calling us that ‘band of renown, Les Brown.’ With the announcer’s permission, we changed our name to Les Brown and his Band of Renown.” While Brown used the tagline at all personal appearances, he did not sign that musical signature until 1949.
When the popularity of big band music began to wane after World War II, most bands disbanded. After nearly 10 years of constant touring, in 1946, Brown, too decided to temporarily give up the rigors of the road. He relocated from New York to Beverly Hills to give his family a home base and some stability.
Brown could easily have become a historical footnote to the big band era if it wasn’t for a fortuitous appearance at the Hollywood Palladium (a gig that almost didn’t come to pass) just months after he relocated to the West Coast.
Brown had forgotten about the Palladium booking and had disbanded his musicians. The management of the Palladium threatened a lawsuit so Brown quickly reorganized the band. In the audience that night was Bob Hope’s agent who quickly signed Brown and his band to join the comedian’s top-rated radio program. Brown’s association with Hope included radio, television and personal appearances around the world, as well as Hope’s annual Christmas tours to entertain troops during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
During all of the overseas trips, Brown didn’t recall the Hope entourage ever coming into harm’s way. “They claim we were, but I don’t remember hearing a shot,” he said. “We got close to bombings in Saigon during the Vietnam War. We visited some Army hospitals, but other than witnessing doctors removing shrapnel from one soldier’s ass, that’s the closest we came to ever seeing any combat.”
Les Brown and his Band of Renown had been reborn and this time they endured, enjoying an almost 50-year run. “The end of the big band era was devastating to many of my colleagues,” said Brown. “But I got lucky. I had Hope.”
When not appearing with Hope, Brown remained a big draw in the theater-hotel-ballroom venues that still booked swing music. The band began winning disc jockey pools and was consistently voted America’s favorite dance band by publications such as Down Beat, Billboard and Metronome.
In addition to Hope’s shows, Brown and his band played from 1965 to 1974 on the weekly Dean Martin Show. The group also kept busy with benefits, private parties and occasional dance concerts.
Brown, an accomplished saxophonist, decided to give up playing the instrument in 1963 in favor of conducting and arranging.
Brown’s appearance in Whitewater was to be one of his last. He died of lung cancer in 2001 at age 88. A ghost band bearing his name still tours under the baton of his son, Les Jr.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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