the lombardo orchestra circa 1920
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The Guy Lombardo Story
Part One: A Bunch of Kid Musicians 1902-1923
by Christopher Doty

lebert carmen guy and victor lombardo circa 1932 Nearly 25 years after his death it still can be said: Guy Lombardo is the most famous Londoner of all time. But just how instrumental was this small Ontario city to the successful big band of all time?

 


Guy and his talented siblings (pictured above) are testament to London's Italian musical heritage . The city's Marconi club - named after the inventor of wireless communication - grew out of a well-established Italian community during the early part of this century. Music was one of their cornerstones and Italian orchestras were considered exotic and fashionable at society functions. Club organizers even imported a Professor Pasquale Venuta from the Italian island of Lipari to give their children music lessons.

Guy was born into this environment on June 19, 1902 in a small house on Queens Avenue. Four brothers and a two sisters would follow between 1903 to 1924. In addition to Guy, four of them would end up with musical careers: Carmen, Lebert, Victor and baby sister Rose Marie.

Like Professor Venuta Guy's father was also a stickler for playing music as it was written. Once, when he caught Guy jazzing up a classical melody on his violin, he broke the instrument over his son's head. "Of course, it was a small violin," Papa Lombardo later explained . Although the senior Lombardos were proud of their heritage they forbade the speaking of Italian in their home. They wanted their children to speak English without an accent so they could integrate into the Anglo-Saxon world of pre-World War I London. It was a mixed blessing for Guy who later wrote: "I often regret this policy as I travel around and meet so many people with the same ethnic background who will greet me with an Italian phrase or expression and find to their dismay that I don't understand what they're talking about."

From a modest duet for the Mother's Club in 1914 (Carmen on flute, Guy on violin) the ensemble grew to include brother Lebert and the band's long-serving pianist Freddie Kreitzer. The band's first regular gig on June 22, 1919 was nearly their last. The owner of the Lakeview Casino in Grand Bend refused to give the group a full hour for dinner, arguing his customers were paying to hear the musicians to play, not to eat. Guy's father was so outraged he took his sons home and told them to pursue another line of work. The ban didn't last long. Within months the Lombardo brothers decided to quit school and become full-time musicians. Their father couldn't argue. He had always told his boys to learn music because it was a light load to carry. For the rest of their lives, that load would have to carry the Lombardos.

lombardo orchestra at port stanley summer 1923The year 1923 was an incredible one for the Lombardos. In the spring they landed their most prestigious gig to date - as the house band for the Hopkins Casino at the Lake Erie resort town of Port Stanley (pictured on the left). Carmen, who had secured a job as a saxophonist in a Detroit band, resigned so he could return to London.

By the time the band opened their second season at the Winter Gardens, Guy was just marking time in London. "With the type of band he had here it was just too good. It was being wasted actually," said Venuta. A few weeks later he secured the name of a Cleveland-area booking agent, Mike Shea, and bluffed his way into a one-night stand at the Elk's Club. Too proud to let Londoners know the limitations of his success, he let everyone - except the band - believe he had booked a vaudeville tour in America.

On the evening of November 24 the Lombardo band played their final set in London. A few hours later the ten young musicians, most of them in their teens, left to pound the pavement in Cleveland. "I keep thinking back, wondering about the faith the folks in London had in us," Guy remembered. "We had to make a train at one o'clock Sunday morning and perhaps a hundred people were there to see us off. A bunch of kid musicians who hadn't proved anything yet, but here were friends standing on a bitter-cold railroad platform, losing sleep to reaffirm their confidence in us."

This article originally appeared in The London Free Press on December 27, 1998.
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