Dance bands | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Dance bands

Dance bands (or orchestras). Groups of musicians which play for social dancing; more specifically those bands in North America in the period 1900-50 which enjoyed great popularity through their radio work, recordings, and public appearances.

Dance bands

Dance bands (or orchestras). Groups of musicians which play for social dancing; more specifically those bands in North America in the period 1900-50 which enjoyed great popularity through their radio work, recordings, and public appearances. Their popularity peaked in the 1930s, despite or perhaps because of the Depression, when audiences crowded into dance halls or listened avidly at home to late-night dance band broadcasts. The radio programs offered free entertainment and a welcome escape from the desperate times. The best-known bands were of US origin, and these were no less popular in Canada. Only one Canadian organization attained international success - Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, based after 1924 in the USA. They in fact were among the most popular dance bands of the era.

In Canada the relatively small size of cities and towns, the distances that separated them, and the severity of the climate made impractical the kind of touring regimen that sustained many bands in the USA. A Canadian band's sole means of wide exposure was national radio - at various times the CNR and CPR networks (which broadcast bands from the ballrooms of their hotels) and the CRBC and its successor, the CBC. Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen were successful in co-ordinating radio and touring and consequently became the only Canadian dance band of national significance; other bands (eg, Trump Davidson, Bert Niosi, and Dal Richards) may have been known nationally by their broadcasts but, with few exceptions, rarely performed outside their home provinces.

Over the years the bands grew to as many as 20 pieces, comprising trumpet, trombone and saxophone sections, piano and/or guitar, string bass, and drums. Most bands also featured singers.

Earliest Canadian Dance Bands

However, the earliest dance bands in Canada, as in the USA, were small: 5 to 10 pieces, including the obligatory cornet (or trumpet), saxophone, violin, piano, tuba (or, later, string bass), and drums. Among these early bands was the 10-piece group of Charles Bodley (1885-1953), formed in Toronto in 1908. Others in the pre-1940s era were led in Toronto by Gordon Day, Jack Evans, Fred Fralick, Charles Musgrave, the Romanelli brothers, Stanley St John, and Gilbert Watson; in Ottawa by Orville Johnston; and in Montreal by Earl Melloway, Billy Munro, George Sims, Andy and Johnny Tipaldi (of the Melody Kings; Johnny a violinist and Andy a banjo player who later, 1942-69, was president of the Musicians' Guild of Montreal, AF of M local 406); and in Vancouver by Lafe Cassidy, Len Chamberlain, Les Crane, Harry Pryce, and others. Dance bands in this period recorded for Apex, Brunswick, Compo, Domino, HMV, Starr, and Victor.

Some black dance bands were also active in this era, among them Millard Thomas' Famous Chicago Novelty Orchestra (a US group) ca 1919- ca 1928 in Montreal, Randolph Winfield during the 1920s in the Maritimes, and Mynie (Myron) Sutton's Canadian Ambassadors and the Harlem Dukes of Rhythm during the 1930s in Ontario and Quebec.

Dance Bands at Hotels, Resorts and Other Venues

The early bands often were employed by hotels, and many bore their employers' names, eg, in Montreal, the Windsor Hotel Orchestra (Harold Leonard and his Red Jackets) and Andy Tipaldi and his Ritz-Carlton Orchestra. The largest hotels in Canada had successions of orchestras which, by the 1950s and 1960s, also came to be used as showbands to accompany individual performers. Leaders at the Royal York Hotel (Toronto) have included Charles Bodley, Fred Culley, Rex Battle, Don Romanelli, Billy Bissett, Horace Lapp, Stanley St. John, Moxie Whitney, and Howard Cable; at the King Edward Hotel (Toronto), Luigi Romanelli, Norman Harris, and Leo Romanelli; at the Mount Royal Hotel (Montreal), Joseph C. Smith, Jack Denny, Charlie Dornberger, Lloyd Huntley, Don Turner, and Peter Barry, all US-born save Barry (b Toronto as Samuel Herbert Greisman 10 Dec 1915, d Montreal 17 Jul 2008), and Battle, who was English-born, and Max Chamitov; at the two successive Hotels Vancouver, Lafe Cassidy, Len Chamberlain, Mart Kenney, Stan Patton, and Dal Richards (the last-named 1940-65); and at the Chateau Laurier (Ottawa), James McIntyre, Joe DeCourcy, Ozzie Williams, Len Hopkins, and Moxie Whitney. Long-term engagements were held by Gilbert Darisse at the Château Frontenac (Quebec City), Jimmy Sadler at the Nova Scotian Hotel (Halifax), and Billy Tickle at the Empress Hotel (Victoria, BC).

Dance halls, built or converted for the purpose, were popular, among them the Palais Royale (home 1932-50 of Bert Niosi's band), and the Palace Pier (home 1944-61 of the Trump Davidson orchestra) in Toronto; the Brant Inn at Burlington, Ont; Victoria Hall (home 1941-51 of the Johnny Holmes band) in Montreal; the Roseland Ballroom in Winnipeg; the Trianon Ballroom in Regina; and the Alexandra and White Rose ballrooms in Vancouver. Summer resort areas and amusement parks also had dance pavilions in season. Both US and Canadian bands appeared at Dunn's Pavilion in Bala (in the Muskoka Lakes region of Ontario), but other venues were the domain of Canadian bands alone - eg, the Royal Muskoka Hotel and Bigwin Inn in Muskoka; Sylvan Lake, south of Edmonton (where Paul Perry led a band 1947-65 in one of the area's three dance halls); Belmont Park, Montreal; and Manoir Richelieu, at Murray Bay, Que (where the Romanelli orchestras played for many years). Summer entertainment was heard also at Clear Lake, Man, Crystal Beach, Ont, and at hotels in the Banff and Waterton Lakes national parks.

Boat cruises often employed dance bands as entertainment. Don Romanelli led bands on the Lake Ontario boats Cayuga and Chippawa as early as 1918; Art Brown played in the 1920s and Eddie Sanborn in the 1930s on Canadian Steamship Lines boats on the St Lawrence River and Great Lakes; and boats of the Union Steamship Lines carried dance bands for evening excursions from Vancouver, while those of the CP and CNR took bands on longer trips along the west coast.

"Sweet" and "Swing" Bands

Dance bands developed individual identifying characteristics as their locales diversified and the competition for work increased. Among US bands, which set the styles for Canada, there were 'sweet' bands and 'swing' bands. Examples in Canada of the former, also known as society bands and often heard in private or club functions, were those of Stanley St John and Frank Bogart in Toronto, Eddie Alexander and Pete Nassif in Montreal, and Dal Richards and Claude Logan in Vancouver. Examples of the latter - staffed by a large contingent of jazz musicians - were the bands of Benny Louis, Cy McLean, Bert Niosi, and Pat Riccio in Toronto, Johnny Holmes and Stan Wood (saxophonist) in Montreal, Jerry Gage in Winnipeg, Paul Perry at Sylvan Lake, and Trevor Page and Sandy DeSantis in Vancouver. Many bands fluctuated between the two styles, according to the occasion. Others were distinguished by their repertoires (eg, the Latin-American music of Chicho Valle e los Cubanos and the music for ice skaters played and recorded by Max Boag of Newmarket, Ont) or their instrumentation (eg, Stan Patton's band of reed and rhythm sections only). Other bands of regional popularity included those of Roy Brown and Paul Grosney in Manitoba (Grosney's heard 1948-59 on the CBC's 'Rancho Don Carlos'), Walter Budd, Walter Dahlke, Ken Peaker, and Leo Smuntan in Saskatchewan, the Wright Brothers (see Don Wright) and Ellis McLintock in Ontario, Bruce Holder in New Brunswick, and Peter Power and Don Warner in Nova Scotia.

Decline of the Big Band; Revival

Though some of these bands still were active in the 1950s and 1960s, the end of the 'dance band era' as such was signalled by the AF of M recording ban 1942-4 during which North American instrumentalists under the leadership of James C. Petrillo refused to perform for recordings until a system of payments for repeated public use of their recorded performances was brought into effect. In the absence of instrumentalists, the recording industry turned to singers and vocal groups, many of whom had started their careers with dance bands. By the time the ban was lifted, they had eclipsed their former employers in popularity. Moreover, singers were better suited to the medium of TV which was introduced in the USA in the late 1940s. These factors, together with the increasingly high cost of touring and the rise in the early 1950s of rock 'n' roll, greatly reduced the number of bands. By the 1970s only a dozen or so US dance bands (eg, the Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and Glenn Miller orchestras under 'ghost leaders') and big (jazz) bands (eg, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, and Buddy Rich) remained on the road in North America. No Canadian organization was active in this manner.

However the rallying cry 'The big bands are back' was heard intermittently in the 1970s and 1980s attendant to a succession of 'nostalgia crazes'. In Canada a revival of interest was signalled during the early 1980s by the popularity of new recordings by Peter Appleyard's All Star Swing Band (Swing Fever), by Dal Richards (Swing Is In... Let's Dance) and by the Spitfire Band (which was formed in 1981). At the same time, airchecks of several earlier Canadian bands were released under the Nomadic label, established in 1979 in Aurora, Ont, by the discographer Ross Brethour, who had issued nine EPs of material by 1991. A Canadian feature film released in 1989, Anne Wheeler's Bye, Bye Blues, recounted the story of dance-band singer during the late 1940s. Of Canada's veteran dance band musicians, Frank Bogart, Art Hallman, Mart Kenney and Dal Richards continued to lead orchestras on occasion into the early 1990s. In Toronto Frank Evans sustained the dance-band tradition started by his father, Jack, in 1926. Other, younger musicians have led orchestras for private social functions without, however, enjoying their predecessors' renown.

Canadians in the US and UK

Besides the Lombardos, many Canadian musicians had careers in the USA during the dance band era. Among them were Billy Bissett (who led bands 1940-53 in Chicago, using the name Billy Bishop after 1942); the Bob-O-Links, a Toronto vocal group (Babs Babineau, George Dean, Jack Duffy, Ron Martin, and Babs Masters) which travelled in 1948 with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (Duffy, b Montreal 27 Sep 1926, d Toronto 19 May 2008 continued as a soloist with Dorsey until 1950); Fred Culley, concertmaster, assistant conductor, and finally music director with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians for some 40 years, and his brother George, a trumpeter with the same orchestra for some 25 years; the Large brothers, Freddie (leader and saxophonist), Jerry, and Ken, of Niagara Falls, Ont, whose orchestra was taken over in the USA by Jan Garber in the early 1930s and became one of the most popular 'sweet' bands of that decade; Will Osborne (b Oliphant),a singer who imitated Rudy Vallee and led a popular orchestra in New York during the 1930s; and such other singers as Phyllis Marshall and Dick Todd.

The Toronto origin of the celebrated Casa Loma Orchestra has been the subject of some confusion in dance band histories. The band, originally from Detroit, did in fact play at Toronto's Casa Loma (a disputed point) under another name and at the time (1927-8) included several Toronto musicians. The US musicians who made up the core took the name Casa Loma Orchestra when they reassembled in New York in 1929. Two Canadians (the pianist Joe Hall and the drummer Tony Briglia, both of London, Ont) were members of this new orchestra, and Murray McEachern was a featured soloist 1938-41.

Other Canadian musicians had careers in England - those in New Princes' Toronto Band (see Les Allen), as well as the singers Allen, Paul Carpenter (b Charpentier), and Denny Vaughan, and the instrumentalists Johnny Burt, Art Christmas (saxophone), Max Goldberg (trumpet), and Alfie Noakes. Billy Bissett led his Canadian band at the Savoy Hotel, the Mayfair, the Café de Paris in London, and also recorded for HMV and appeared in movies, in the late 1930s. The Trump Davidson band of 1938 was taken over by the English bandleader Ray Noble for a British tour, and several Toronto musicians (including the pianist Dave Bowman, Murray McEachern, the guitarist Danny Perri, and the trumpeter Jimmy Reynolds) worked for the English bandleader Jack Hylton during his years in the USA. The popular 15-piece RCAF Streamliners dance orchestra was posted to the UK in 1944, where it made frequent broadcasts and played at London's Queensbury Club.

See also Jazz.

Further Reading