In 1911 Gaetano Lombardo Sr. made a fateful decision when he presented his nine-year-old son with a three quarter violin. Within a decade music had consumed the young boy's life. He had quit school to devote himself to his fledgling orchestra.
"My dad liked music. He didn't know music. He came here when he was 15 years old from Italy and he immediately studied voice." Guy Lombardo recalled after receiving an honourary doctor of music degree from the University of Western Ontario. "He used to say this, and I liked it very much: 'Along with your schooling, know a little bit of music. Study music. It's a light load to carry.'"
But it wasn't that easy. A story that was often repeated by both Guy and his father involved a row the two had over a rehearsal one day.
"He was a pretty good student, but a little hard headed. So one afternoon I had to break a violin over his head," recalled Lombardo Sr. in a 1949 radio interview.
In March of 1924 the freshly-christened Royal Canadians made their first recordings at the Gennett studios in Richmond, Indiana - with Guy on violin. Unfortunately, the only side where Guy's playing is audible - Someone Loves You After All - was not released. The issued sides sounded like every wannabe jazz orchestra from the time period and were largely ignored by the record buying public. But by the time the orchestra achieved national fame five years later, the group had acquired their distinctive sound - and the violin was on its way out.
"I had come to the conclusion I would never be a great violinist," Guy recounted in his 1975 autobiography. "My fingers were too stiff and inflexible."
What isn't widely know is that Guy was not the musical heart of the band. That honour belonged to his younger brother Carmen who excelled on saxophone and as an occasional vocalist. Carmen's musical professionalism was reflected in his attitude towards Guy's violin playing.
Al Pierson, who directs the current incarnation of the Royal Canadians, recently told a reporter for The Hastings Tribune the story of the tour that supposedly ended Lombardo's violin career. The band was stuck in a snowstorm in Lincoln and Carmen Lombardo was tired of hearing his brother play. He took the violin outside and placed it under the bus wheel. When Carmen heard the crunch as the band rode away, he replied, "I've been wanting to do that for a long time."
Another story that has circulated puts the instrument's demise in the hands of Guy himself. The band was on their way to an engagement when Guy, sick of playing the instrument, stuffed it into a piano of the hotel they were leaving. However, when they arrived at their next destination a taxi cab was waiting for them. The hotel manager had discovered the violin and sent one of his employees on a mad dash after the Royal Canadians, fearful Guy would not be able to conduct without his instrument.
And yet another tale was related by columnist Bennett Cerf that during a particularly wild New Year's Eve party fellow bandleader Abe Lyman smashed the violin over the head of Little Jack Little.
"Guy has been conducting with a baton ever since. He just doesn't like music in the hair," Cerf wrote.
As things turned out, the violin was more of a hindrance than a help in furthering the success of the Royal Canadians. When Guy eventually dropped his fiddle for a conductor's baton, it gave him the freedom to chat with dancing patrons as they waltzed passed the bandstand. This established him as the industry's key music frontman and gave the Royal Canadians a warmth and intimacy few orchestras enjoyed.
This image was reinforced in 1961 when Guy was scheduled to conduct a high school band in his hometown of London, Ontario. The students were puzzled when their music teacher, Martin Boundy, insisted on rehearsing them so they could play without direction.
"But isn't Mr. Lombardo going to conduct us?" asked one student.
"He's not going to be conducting you!" snapped Boundy. "He's just going to be waving a baton and smiling for the news photographers!"
One of Guy's violins can currently be seen at the Guy Lombardo Music Centre in London.