Asked to name the great “bandleaders” — Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Vaughn Monroe, Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo — few pop music fans will mention Les Brown among the top names. Gently remind them, and they’ll concur immediately that Brown was certainly one of the greats. But it’s interesting that his name doesn’t come to mind immediately, and in an odd way, it supports the premise that Les Brown was the consummate bandleader.
While other front men were clearly the stars of the show, Brown embraced the role of boss, musician, arranger, producer, etc. Although he didn’t shun the spotlight, he seemed more comfortable when it was on the vocalist, or the “host” in later years. Brown was in fact so smooth as bandleader, that even when he was fronting a troupe of session musicians it was referred to as “The Band of Renown.”
Brown began fronting his own namesake orchestras in 1936 when he parted company with the Duke University show band, called the Blue Devils. During the late 1930s these were seldom the same assemblage; in fact the Les Brown Orchestra made some appearances with an ensemble borrowed entirely from other bandleaders. At this time Les appeared mostly in the New York metro area, where he earned a living as an arranger for various acts, including Isham Jones.
The “big break” came in the form of Eli Oberstein, chief A & R man for Victor Records. Oberstein was a consummate wheeler-dealer; he headed up the Bluebird Records division of Victor and a few “secret” labels that sold r & b and bluegrass records — secret in that nobody knew they came from Victor. Oberstein had a deal with NBC radio to produce live programming from the Hotel Edison ballroom in New York City, and he hired Les to bring in his orchestra. Having none, Les quickly assembled a group, later stating for biographers that this was a quick and easy process as so many musicians were out of work.
Brown soon had a deal with the Bluebird label. Although much less prestigious than the parent Victor label, it was common to put new acts under the Bluebird brand as a marketing ploy. The records were sold at deeply discounted prices to encourage sales and build a following for the act. Once they were successful, the act was moved to the higher priced Victor label. This was accompanied by the pomp and circumstance of a signing announcement to generate further publicity. Glenn Miller was one such artist; Brown would follow but eventually moved to a better deal at Columbia.
In 1940 Brown got a tip that Bob Crosby was about to part ways with his female vocalist. She was just a teenager, but had a magnetic appeal that belied her youth. Thus Doris Day joined the Band of Renown in August, and Brown’s stock began to soar. Unfortunately Day left to marry and start a family with Al Jordan, then a trombonist with Jimmy Dorsey.
Betty Bonney was quickly recruited to replace Day, and did so capably. Within a few months Les Brown had his first national hit, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” in the summer of 1941. He also had a popular gig at “The Cabin” in Armonk, NY. Brown’s male vocalist during this time was Ralph Young, a popular vocalist who is best remembered as half of the Sadler & Young duo. The upward momentum continued through the year, until World War II struck the nation in December. Losing key members left and right to the draft, Les somehow managed to keep the band alive.
His struggle would end by the middle of the decade. In 1943 Day divorced Jordan, and Les was anxious to bring her back. Bonney was looking to bigger and better things, and had left the act to join Frankie Carle’s successful orchestra where she sang under the name of Judy Johnson. Brown believed that Day had the stage presence to put his act over the top, and took some unusual measures at that time to make it work.
Day now had a child, and insisted that he accompany her on the road. This would require a full-time nanny, a role that Day’s mother would fill. Brown bankrolled the added expenses, making Day one of the earliest known “divas.” What made Day’s situation even more unlikely was that she had yet to rise to pop stardom. Whatever the case, it was a far cry from the outlandish demands of today’s pop divas.
What makes this all so remarkable is that Brown managed to keep his orchestra moving forward while an overwhelming majority of big bands were downsizing or falling apart. Between the war and the American Federation of Musicians’ strike, even the great Dorsey bands were a shadow of what they once were. Brown was moving toward a more sophisticated sound, and his first big hit of 1944 bears that out. It was a re-make of Glenn Miller’s classic “Little Brown Jug,” with a smoother approach than the precise original.
The next hit would put Brown and Day over the top. It was “Sentimental Journey,” and it came out just as the country was beginning to sense victory. The song ruled the charts for weeks, and it was just the beginning. Over the next two years Les Brown and His Band of Renown would hit the top ten a dozen times with Doris Day, whom Brown affectionately referred to as “his canary.” Brown had a number of instrumental hits, and a few with male vocalists at the same time.
Doris Day’s star was simply too bright to remain in any kind of canary cage, so she eventually moved on to movie and solo fame. Brown had moved to Hollywood, where he struck up a friendship with Bob Hope.
Although Les Brown was now a household name, he was more comfortable as bandleader than front man. That had been the case throughout the 1940s, when he was always willing to showcase the vocal talent and key musicians. Brown was tired of the road. He saw that Bob Hope’s Hollywood Palladium show was a winner, and believed he could do a far superior job than current bandleader Desi Arnaz. Arnaz was popular and a consummate showman, but wasn’t delivering the type of musical quality and performance Hope wanted.
Brown and Hope clicked immediately. Les delivered a smooth, sophisticated orchestra sound and played perfect straight man for Hope’s comic banter. It was a role Brown kept for the next half century, as the official bandleader until Hope’s death.
Les Brown continued to record throughout the 1950s and 1960s. His records appealled to maturing and then aging members of “the greatest generation.” Often his records were re-makes of 1940s era material, with a mix of current music and some songs that were featured on the Hope shows. But through those years he was constantly on America’s biggest stages, not only with the Hope shows but also as Dean Martin’s TV bandleader during the 1960s. Regardless of the venue, Brown was the consummate professional, ensuring that the orchestra provided perfect accompaniment.
Whether it was Doris Day, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Steve Allen, Julie London or Betty Bonney, Brown took a backseat and put the “star” first. A fine example was the early 1950s hits he recorded with the Ames Brothers, and also with Teresa Brewer. In the case of “Undecided,” legend has it that Brown did everything but sing the parts, yet was happy to remain in the background. That’s the consummate bandleader.
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There is a bit of music history involving Les Brown that you probably aren’t aware of. In the early years of NARAS, Brown was president of the Los Angeles chapter. NARAS began to present annual awards in 1959 that featured a gramophone. Nicknamed “Grammys,” these awards were presented at a dinner ceremony, although some were presented in disorganized fashion in offices and hotel lobbies to artists who were often unaware that they even existed.
Two of the founders of NARAS, Sonny Burke and Paul Weston, were friends of Brown’s who had written a few of his hits. Because of his access to NBC via Bob Hope, they asked him to produce an Academy Awards style show to legitimize their Grammy. Brown claimed years later that NBC told him they’d do it if he could deliver either Hope, Frank Sinatra, or Bing Crosby to appear on the program, figuring it would bury the project. Far from it. Brown delivered all three superstars, and the Grammy had instant credibility. The broadcast was a success, and the Grammys soon became the benchmark for the music business.