the lombardo orchestra circa 1920

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The Guy Lombardo Story
Part Two: An American Success Story 1924-1954
by Christopher Doty

After becoming the top orchestra leader in his hometown of London, Ontario, a 21-year-old Guy Lombardo was ready to conquer Cleveland, Ohio. America offered challenges the young musician hadn't counted on but by the time the band resurfaced in South Western Ontario in 1927 (left) Guy and his Royal Canadians were on the verge of national success.

The odds against success were tremendous. Then, as now, the American music business was fiercely competitive in 1924. Lombardo's band didn't even have a distinctive style. Its earliest recordings - made four months after the departure from London - reveal a competent but unremarkable jazz group with none of the traces of the famed Lombardo sound. As things stood, the band was on the road to oblivion.

Then the three brothers remembered their father's advice: "Music is easy to play and easy to listen to if you don't forget the melody and choose songs people can sing, hum, or whistle." Gradually the Lombardo style - which was really no style at all - developed. The band began to offer dancers a song's melody, unadorned by arrangement or improvisation. It was a hard sell a bunch of would-be jazz men.

"The kids looked at me like I was an idiot. I was restricting their creative ability," Guy recalled. Guy and his brothers won the argument. One of the first things that changed was the band's sax section.

"The secret of the whole thing that Guy discovered was his brother Carmen had a unique tone on that alto saxophone. When the three sax players blew they all seemed to blend with him. With that unique tone there was a beautiful sound," said Barney Venuta, the son of Lombardo's music teacher.

Thanks to exposure on radio - Guy originally had to pay for the air time - the band began to attract an audience. They even found a name. Agent Mike Shea came up with the dreadful idea of dressing the musicians up in Mountie uniforms. Guy balked and suggested calling the boys The Royal Canadians after the Royal Canadian Regiment. A move to Chicago's Granada playhouse in the fall of 1927 all but severed the band's professional connections to the London area.

Even by today's standards, the band's sales remain impressive. Between 1929 and 1952 there was no year that a Lombardo disc didn't chart. Twenty one of those tunes would peak at number one. To date, the Royal Canadians are the only dance band to sell more than 100 million records.

Network radio and the movies were the next fields to conquer. In July of 1934 the band's first starring film, Many Happy Returns, was easily held over at London's Capitol Theatre. It was as close as most of Guy's former neighbors could hope to come to him during his glory days. Despite all the stories of annual homecoming concerts, the Royal Canadians made no more than a half dozen appearances in the London area at the height of their popularity.

But Guy couldn't and wouldn't forget London. At the apex of the band's popularity, Lombardo threw away a lucrative engagement at Detroit's Fox Theatre so he could stage a benefit for victims of the Thames River flood of 1937. The Royal Canadians opened the evening with Home Sweet Home, a gesture that reduced many audience members to tears.

As London's Lombardo family matured, so did the band. Younger brothers Carmen and Lebert were with Guy from the start. In 1942 Rose Marie signed on as song stylist. Two years later fellow vocalist Kenny Gardner married older sister Elaine. Even non-musical brother Joseph was hired to redecorate the ball room of New York's Roosevelt Hotel - the Royal Canadian's wintertime base for 33 years.

"It's not true you have to be a relative to work with us but it helps," Guy joked.

But operating a family business had one major drawback, and its name was Victor Lombardo. The family's youngest musical brother was notorious for his frequent fall-outs and fisticuffs with Guy. On more than one occasion Victor left the Royal Canadians to form his own band which shamelessly traded on the Lombardo name and style. Guy's willingness to take Victor back after each spat and failed musical venture was less a case of sound business judgement than of unwavering brotherly love.

Over the years, it was always easy to find critics of Lombardo's music. One memorable Woody Woodpecker cartoon set at a 1950s sock hop depicted Lombardo's music as a square record. Bing Crosby commented that the band's success went to show what you could accomplish with talent, dedication - and one good arrangement. Among his non-fans, London's famous son was nicknamed Gooey Lumbago.

Guy couldn't have cared less. His band wasn't in the business to blaze new musical frontiers but to please people who enjoyed pure melody - and they were in the majority. Jazz aficionados will always be tormented that Lombardo's fans included Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. The Royal Canadians even set the record for audience attendance at Harlem's famed Savoy Ballroom.

In 1954 the Royal Canadian's recording of Young at Heart went to number 24 on the American pop charts. It would be the last time the group would enjoy such success.

This article originally appeared in The London Free Press on December 27, 1998.
Coming in August - I Never Get Bored Playing 1955-1977