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When Little Bands Were Big

July 2024
14min read

It may seem incredible now, but there really was a time when radio stations featured live programming almost all the time, albeit that was nearly a half century ago. The term “disc jockey” had not yet entered the lexicon, let alone the studios. Instead, stations in those days had “announcers,” and, true to the title, their duty was simply to announce the next number, then stand aside.

Such a personage greeted ten jittery young musicians who entered the broadcasting studio of Station WCAH in downtown Columbus, Ohio, one spring evening in the late 1920’s. He seemed genial, sophisticated, and suave, and the suggestion of a mustache decorated his upper lip, while a bright boutonnière sprouted from the lapel of his double-breasted suit. He may also have served as the program director, possibly even the station manager. At least no one else was in the studio that night, save for an engineer, seated in a glassed-in booth, who was surrounded by an awesome array of dials, switches, and flashing lights.

“Come in and make yourselves at home, fellas,” our dapper host greeted us cheerily as we hesitated at the entrance, weighted down with instruments, music stands, and packets of music. “You got plenty of time before you go on the air, so take your time to get set up.”

We found ourselves in a carpeted, windowless area about the size of a large living room. The only furnishings were a piano and a microphone surmounted by the station’s call letters and perched atop a pedestal. A speaker above the engineer’s lair softly relayed a network broadcast that was going over the air.

“My daughter says you guys have the best band in her high school,” our newfound friend assured us. “Ever been on radio before?”

“No,” I confessed, warily eyeing the impressive microphone.

“Nothing to it,” he assured me. “Not nearly as bad as playing for a dance with all that noise and confusion. Got your program ready?”

I handed him a paper with the titles of ten selections written on it—ample, as we had worked it out in feverish rehearsals, for a half-hour broadcast.

“Fine!” he said, and left to confer with the engineer in his glass cocoon The hands on the clock above his booth read 7:40. Twenty minutes to go.

Working intensely, we set up folding chairs, uncased instruments, spread arrangements on music stands, and tuned up, accomplishing all this in what for us was record time. But it was really a waste of energy. Vor now the clock read 7:48—which left twelve minutes still to go.

We stared at the mike around which we were grouped, and it stared back impassively at us. We were dressed in our Sunday finest for such a historic occasion, but soon the room seemed unbearably hot. I could feel beads of perspiration dribbling down my sides, and my collar was choking me. We tried a little small talk with each other, but the badinage that rippled back and forth so easily at rehearsals now died away in distressed mumbles. Our eyes swung back and forth, from the microphone to the relentless clock. All thoughts were on the unseen audience out there glued to their Atwater Rents. Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? The very surmise only energized our sweat glands.

The twelve minutes passed in what seemed an hour or so, and our friend the announcer rejoined us. Above the engineer a red light proclaimed “ ON AIR .” The announcer was speaking easily into the mike:

”…so we’re happy to bring you one of the best new bands in Columbus. And now for their first number—‘Coquette.’ ”

I tapped out the beat, and our first radio broadcast was under way. “Coquette” was one of our favorite numbers (although I’ve never heard it since without a shudder), a great showpiece for our first trumpet, Tubby Metcalf. Tubby always did tend to blush easily, but now his face was scarlet. Beads of sweat speckled his forehead, and he played now flat, now sharp, now bubbles of air.

Ah, well. The sax section led the next chorus, and we could always rely on good old Harold Hecker, a tall young man with blond curls ever in immaculate order. But Harold was all atremble. What came out of his saxophone sounded like the wails of the damned. And Vie Ballinger missed his drum break at the end of the chorus. But we all wavered into the final coda, then sat back, faces trickling sweat, hands shaking.

The announcer was on us like a cat.

“For crissakes, tune up!” he hissed. “I’ll put on a record while you get straightened out.”

Eddie Riggs gave us an A from the piano, but it was unnecessary. We all were in perfect tune. That was the least of our troubles.

The record finished, and, eyeing us dubiously, the announcer introduced the next number—“Persian Market.”

Somehow we all managed to arrive at the final note on the same beat, but in between was pure chaos. By now we were drenched, our self-confidence shattered, every nerve tingling. Even so, I felt we had improved a bit by the time we got into the final chorus. I’d heard of mike fright, but maybe we were over it by now. The rest of the program should go better.

The announcer was back at the mike again, his voice as suave as ever. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he purred, “you have just heard the concluding number of a concert by Earl Clark’s Orchestra.” He signalled to the engineer, and the ON AIR light flicked off. Then he whirled on us.

“Now I’ll give you clowns five minutes to get out of here,” he snapped. “I thought the way my daughter talked that you guys had a dance band. Hell, I never heard anything so bad in my life! G’wan, pack up and get outa here. AND DON’T COME BACK !”

An unusually subdued band of musicians silently rode the elevator back down to street level and headed for our cars. We consoled ourselves that anyone could have been baffled by this new technology. And anyone could tell that station manager was no real judge of music. You could see that to look at him—foppish little mustache, slicked-down hair, and that dumb flower in his lapel. Why worry about radio? There was always another dance job waiting.

Dixieland jazz as played by small combos still was popular, but it was the mellow, danceable music of the big bands that dominated the popularmusic scene. Paul Whiteman was hailed as the King of Jazz, swinging his baton over a huge orchestra that included such sidemen as the Dorsey brothers, Henry Busse, Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, and Bing Crosby. Every college campus had its homegrown bands, many of them destined to become famous. Waring’s Pennsylvanians were still not long out of Penn State in that year when CaI Coolidge was finishing his second term in the White House, with Herbert Hoover being groomed to succeed him. Students at the University of North Carolina were blessed with a choice of three bands, led by Kay Kyser, Hal Kemp, and Tal Henry. Les Brown soon would be organizing his band at Duke.

Jazz had swept the campuses—not just the colleges but also the high schools. There was a big audience out there eager to dance cheek to cheek and an insatiable demand for bands to supply the music. But few dance sponsors could afford the name bands whose glossy tones filled the airwaves.

“Have $250 in treasury for spring dance,” a college prom committee wired Ted Weems at a time when he led one of the bands most sought after by collegians. “How many men can you send for that?”

“Three sheets of music and a piccolo player,” Weems wired back.

But there was another outlet for a school group on a tight budget. That was to hire one of the bands, like ours, that could be obtained for a few dollars per man.

There were thousands of us in cities, towns, and hamlets all over the nation. In my one high school there were three or four such bands, depending on when you took a census. For like our better known big-time colleagues, the little big bands raided each other’s ranks with relentless determination. The official high-school marching band was our recruiting ground, with first-chair musicians in top demand. Bands came and went as musicians swept back and forth like the tides.

We were a bulwark of the fast-growing music industry. Conn, Wurlitzer, Buescher, Selmer, and Gibson owed more of their dividends to us than to the pros, for the simple reason that there were so many more of us. We tallied up the value of our band’s instruments one night and found it came to more than fifteen hundred dollars, not counting the piano—a tidy sum in 1929 dollars for a group of teen-agers. Beyond that, we were a steady market for reeds, mouthpieces, sheet music, and other paraphernalia, as well as the inevitable replacement of old instruments by newer and costlier ones.

Anyone who could play an instrument and read music could join a band, or start one, even though few of us entertained any thoughts of rising through the ranks to become a Ben Pollack or a Ray Noble. Of all the musicians in our high school I recall only one who made it big. He was hired byPaul Whiteman and came back for a visit driving a Cadillac. His star descended as rapidly as it had risen, and we heard that booze had conquered him. Which seemed strange, for Prohibition was in the land then.

While it was fun to make music with your peers, there were other benefits, like learning the merits of discipline and teamwork. Our band took shape while most of us were still smooth-chinned sophomores. We practiced hard and regularly, two or three nights a week, working from stock arrangements divided into parts for each instrument in the band. We went over and over these numbers until they sounded good enough to us to perform in public. We enjoyed the challenge of combining our individual efforts into the unified sound of a big band, but we also looked forward to the time when someone might even consider paying for the privilege of hearing us.

Our first professional engagement, to use the term loosely, came with the opening of a big new neighborhood grocery. As so often happened, the job came through the girl friend of one of the bandsmen, for her father was the manager. In addition to giveaways, free coffee and cookies, and the chance to view this startling new merchandising development (“supermarket” also had not yet entered the lexicon in those days), the management announced that opening night would feature Live Music. That was us.

The store had a narrow mezzanine overlooking the main floor, and we squeezed onto this in a single line of chairs, all ten of us. Kirty Osborne, who played third sax, was on the end of the line—that is, the end next to a narrow passageway through which visitors made their way to the refreshments. A little too close to the end, as it turned out, for every time Kirty started to play, someone bumped into his music stand and spilled its contents on the floor. By the time Kirty had the music rearranged and put saxophone to lips, some widehipped matron would knock it over again. We collected two dollars apiece for that night’s première, and there was some discussion as to whether Kirty was entitled to his split. But he convinced us that he had been just as busy as the rest of us, even if we only saw his back most of the time.

Jobs began to come with gratifying frequency after that. Our ten-piece instrumentation was two trumpets, trombone, three saxes, bass horn, ,piano, drums, and banjo. For fifty dollars we’d all go. For a lesser amount we’d drop the bass, a sax, trombone, and second trumpet, in that descending order. We played for as little as two dollars apiece in the early stages but gradually averaged out to five, and there was the munificent night when we went home with ten bucks each.

We were playing for a Rainbow Girls’ dance down in the south end of Columbus one night, all ten of us, when we were approached during an intermission by one of the chaperons. “You kids sure have a great band there,” he said. “How would you like to play for the radio program I sponsor?”

I thought momentarily of the night some months back when we had bombed out. Did we dare try it again? I took a quick poll and got a quick answer. We did.

So it was that a few nights later we trooped into the same studio from which we had been booted so summarily not too long since. The same announcer was there to receive us, and it was evident from his lowering countenance that we had made a lasting impression upon him. “Yeah, I’ve met ’em,” he growled as our sponsor started the introductions.

But the microphone had lost its terror for us. And we had added quite a few more public appearances to our experience. The half hour went smoothly, and at its conclusion the announcer was happy, our sponsor was happy, and we were delirious.

It turned out that our benefactor owned a furniture store on a side street in downtown Columbus. He decided to ensconce us in his show window for a weekly remote broadcast, in the belief that this might promote evening store traffic. As far as we could tell, that traffic consisted chiefly of doting parents, loyal friends, and an occasional wino staggering along the deserted sidewalk. But the sponsor was satisfied, for the talent wasn’t costing him anything (“look at all the publicity you’ll get,” he convinced us). And we were satisfied, for we did get exposure—on the air, that is, not in the show window—and the weekly radio stint did in fact make it easier to line up jobs. Indeed, as time went on we left the furniture-store window for a weekly program on WAIU , for which we received two dollars per man per broadcast.

Transportation for these engagements, at least for most of the band, was my 1922 Dodge touring car, a capacious relic into which we regularly crammed one banjoist, one bassist, one drummer, two trumpeters, and two saxophonists—together with all their instruments. Station WAIU was located in what was then the swanky Deshler-Wallick Hotel at Broad and High, the heart of Columbus. En route to our weekly broadcast one night in the elephantine Dodge we were horrified when the car sputtered to a halt. We were accustomed to running out of gas, but this time we were still many blocks from our destination, and time was getting short. “Fill ’er up” was another phrase unknown to me then, the standard practice being to drip in a gallon or two at a time except on those rare occasions when I could afford a whole dollar’s worth at the going price of seventeen cents a gallon.

By dint of considerable contortion—after all, with seven musicians and all their instruments shoehorned in we had to unload by the numbers—everyone finally got free and began to shove. Fortunately we had a downhill run for two blocks, but then it levelled off. We still had to cross busy High Street and push another couple of blocks to the nearest gas station. And by then it was getting dangerously close to air time.

We dribbled in the regulation two gallons and sped off for WAIU with only minutes to spare. Ordinarily we parked in a lot several blocks away and walked back, but there was no time for that now. A Hudson, a Hupmobile, and a Packard were lined up at the hotel’s main entrance, but I usurped a space in front of them and braked to a halt before an astonished hotel doorman, resplendent in gold braid and epaulets.

“Get that goddam heap outa here!” he thundered as bejewelled matrons and their escorts stared at the Dodge’s bulging side curtains.

“Righto!” replied Vie, the first man to wiggle out, thrusting his bass drum into the doorman’s flailing arms. “Hold that a minute, will ya?”

The doorman dropped the drum on the walk and waved more vigorously. “I said get that junk heap outa here, and I mean it!” he yelled, growing somewhat livid.

“Yessir,” answered “Rose” Budd, our bassist, maneuvering his huge bass horn into the doorman’s arms. “Soon as we get the rest of our stuff out.”

“Now, look—” the doorman began, but words failed him as two trumpeters, two saxophonists, and more instruments continued to cascade from the car. It was now five minutes till air time.

“Get set up!” I shouted to the musicians now diving into the pile of equipment blocking the doorway. “I’ll be right back.”

The Dodge screeched away from the curb as I headed for the parking lot, leaving behind one totally confounded doorman and six laden musicians struggling through the revolving door to the lobby. To save time they took my banjo with them so 1 could run back to the hotel unhindered. This time the doorman saw little more than a blur as I streaked past him and headed for the elevators. Fortunately it takes no breath to play a banjo, for I had none left as I dashed into the studio. The band was already halfway through the first number when I eased into my seat and joined them in time for the final chorus. So blasé had we become about playing on the radio.

We became familiar with grange halls, lodge ballrooms, fraternity houses, and community clubs in widely scattered parts of Franklin County as we tooled around playing our weekend dance jobs, the more or less faithful Dodge always crammed to the roof. Or almost, as we discovered one night. We were heading out a county road past the Elks Country Club, approaching a railroad crossing. I spotted a freight train far in the distance and, finally deciding we’d be gone long before it arrived, kept on going. At which point a wiseacre in the back seat screamed: “Train’s coming!”

It was too late to stop, so I took the only alternative—I gunned it. It was a rough crossing, so the Dodge was temporarily airborne. A bystander might have been puzzled to see the fabric roof of the old touring car bulge abruptly as seven heads simultaneously expanded it upward. The train, it turned out, was still a half mile away. But we couldn’t verify that, for we could scarcely turn our heads for the rest of the evening.

By this time we were picking up frequent promises, and even an occasional job, from booking agents. These were free-lancers who, the stock market having crashed by then, picked up a little spare change by bringing customers and talent together, for a 10 per cent fee. A couple of them dropped by to hear our rehearsals and, apparently satisfied, went to work helping line up jobs for us. We even received an offer from a booker back in Pennsylvania, in response to an ad we ran in Billboard magazine, to book us into a resort at Delaware Water Gap at the handsome sum of thirty-five dollars per week per man—for the summer!

The moment of truth had arrived. The big time beckoned. But some of the parents raised questioning eyebrows.

“How are you going to live that far from home on thirty-five dollars a week?” they asked. “What are you going to do if they don’t like you and you’re stranded there? How do you know this booking agent isn’t a phony?”

And of course there was the implied question “Fun’s fun, but what do you mean running off to be a musician when we’re planning to send you to college to learn an honest career?”

True, high school was behind most of us by now, and the close-knit association of those years was beginning to weaken. It might have burst asunder had we gone to Delaware Water Gap—or it might have strengthened, at least for a summer. But we never had the opportunity to find out for ourselves. The band’s parents split fifty-fifty on whether their respective sons could take the plunge. And another difference between those days and this was that kids then generally didn’t leave home without their parents’ consent.

We continued to play the usual local jobs that summer, even including a stint at a dine-and-dance restaurant that ended after one night when the manager discovered we weren’t union musicians (we all came from middleclass families with deep-dyed suspicions of unionism in those pre- NRA days).

By fall the jig was up. First I had to find a replacement for a trumpeter who was hired away from me, then the first sax, then the drummer, then the trombonist. The old camaraderie was gone, and I didn’t know from one rehearsal to the next who was going to show up. And so, one melancholy winter night, we agreed to call it quits.

Perhaps we were just ahead of our time. The era of the great swing bands was just dawning. Holding down a chair in a dance band was the easiest means of working your way through school in those Depression days. And when World War II came along, it was much more pleasant to tootle in a military band than scramble for a foxhole.

But in a few more years the big bands began to break up, just as ours had. Even if your name was Tommy Dorsey, you might not know from one night to the next whether your first trumpet might have gone over to a rival band or started his own.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a revival in high schools and colleges these days of the big bands that were so popular in our generation. They’re usually called stage bands now, and they’re actually sponsored by the schools, complete with faculty advisors.

That would have been unthinkable in our day. We were double extracurricular, and the music teachers scorned us. We were entirely self-financed and self-dependent. Some of us—a very few, to be sure—might wind up some day playing in one of the name bands or be invited to sit in for a hung-over musician when one of these bands came to town for a one-nighter. But mostly we just got together and played for our own enjoyment or for the enjoyment of someone who couldn’t afford anything better.

We’re grandfathers now, and perhaps gathering dust in many an attic is a battered case enclosing a trumpet that once sent the strains of “Sweet Sue” wafting over a dance floor. We’d rather like to pass it on to a grandson. But he’s only interested in an electric guitar.

Amplified, of course.

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