A native of Lorain, Ohio, Bill Darnell worked as a grocery store butcher before becoming a professional singer in the late 1930s. He earned a solid reputation as a vocalist with jazz, sweet, and swing bands before his career was curtailed by the draft in 1941. After the war, Darnell focused on pop music, moving from label to label, looking for that elusive hit, which never came. In the 1960s, he switched from singing to promotions, working as an executive with a number of small record labels up until his death in 1976.
Darnell performed with jazz greats in his early career. In 1937, he recorded several sides with African-American pianist Edgar Hayes, and later that year he sang with Frank Froeba. He had his own sustaining program on WNEW before joining Red Nichols in 1938. With Nichols’ band, he was often the only vocalist and sang 50 or 60 songs an evening. This combined with Nichols’ grueling schedule of one-nighters exhausted Darnell, and in mid-1940 he left for Al Kavelin, who led one of the most popular sweet bands of the period. Darnell later remarked that he’d joined Kavelin in order to rest, as the orchestra kept a much slower pace than had Nichols.
In November 1940, Darnell left Kavelin for Bob Chester, becoming the first male vocalist that Chester had hired since the band’s inception in 1939. Chester’s band played sweet swing which Darnell handled well, and he soon began to gain popularity. Unfortunately, he received his draft notice in March 1941, and he was off to the army. Darnell was first stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia, earning a promotion to corporal for his work with the camp’s entertainment programs. By October, the army had transferred him to Camp Langdon, New Hampshire, where he sang on the weekly radio broadcast Let’s Join the Army at Camp Langdon, which featured guest visits from major stars. When a new law came into effect later that year which required the military to release men 28 years of age or older from active duty and put them on reserve status, Darnell found himself out of the service in November and back with Chester’s band.
Darnell barely had time to settle back into civilian life before Pearl Harbor occurred. While he awaited word on if he was to report back to the service, he continue singing and recording with Chester. In January, Chester lent both he and fellow vocalist Betty Bradley to the classical Standard label, who was making their first foray into popular music. The two singers recorded solo, backed by Harold Grant’s orchestra. The label’s first release featured both Darnell and Bradley back-to-back on one single.
In January 1942, orders finally came for Darnell, and he headed back to Camp Langdon. Despite his promotion to corporal before his release, he was once again at the rank of private. Darnell was soon transferred to Fort Slocum in New Rochelle, New York, where he led the camp’s band. Chester helped out by giving him arrangements. By December, Darnell had made sergeant and was leading the band at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. Another report that month put him, perhaps erroneously, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and unhappy that Chief Petty Officer Artie Shaw had stolen several recently-drafted musicians that he had requested. A newspaper report in June 1943, however, put him back at Camp Kilmer. Darnell disappears after that, prompting Down Beat magazine to ask his whereabouts in September 1943. According to The Baltimore Afro-American, Darnell had been shipped overseas, where he served in Africa and Italy.
Darnell received a medical discharge in late 1944 and quickly tried to get back on his feet again in the music business, recording with Jimmy Lunceford’s band for Decca in January 1945. For the next several years, however, he struggled to gain recognition, spending time at NBC and ABC and making freelance recordings for several small labels. He recorded with Keynote in late 1946, and made the theater and night club circuit, even singing in burlesque halls. In 1948, he spent time with Kay Kyser’s orchestra but soon went back to being a single again, recording on the Abbey label later that year. His Abbey singles featured organ accompaniment. That year he also began spelling his last name “Darnel,” with only one “l.”
Luck began to change for Darnel in 1949 when he signed with Coral in what was his first term contract with any recording company. He remained with Coral into 1951, selling records and gaining fans but never achieving a hit. In late 1951, he moved to Decca, where he had his biggest successes in 1952, with “Lonely Wine” selling 250,000 copies and “Tonight, Love” 350,000. While at Coral, Darnel had made friends with one of the label’s promotional men, Jimmy Hilliard. The two had been reunited at Decca when Hilliard changed jobs, and in 1954, when Hilliard became involved in the formation of the new “X” label, he took Darnel with him.
Darnel released the very first recording on “X” and took part in the label’s promotional push to announce itself, traveling across the country with Hilliard and another “X” executive. Darnel continued to look for that elusive hit, trying different styles. “I’ll even Yiddishe Mama [sic] in Greek if I can get a hit,” he said. He failed to secure one at the new label though, even on a duet with Betty Clooney in 1955, and by the end of the year he had been dropped.
In 1955, the spelling of Darnel’s last name began to vary between one “l” and two. By the late 1950s, “Darnell” was again the standard spelling. In late 1955, he signed with Rex, another new label, founded by former bandleader Joe Marsala, where he was again slated to record the first release. In 1956, he recorded on the London label, and in 1957 he signed with Jubilee, where by 1958 he had also assumed the role of sales chief for the label’s parent organization, Jay-Gee Record Company, owned by another former bandleader, Jerry Blaine.
Darnell recorded on the Paris label in 1959. In 1960, he partnered with Sy Stewart to form a personnel management firm and a music publishing business, but by 1963 he was back singing again. In 1967, Darnell became head of national promotions for the Bang and Shout record company, leaving in mid-1968 for the same job at Diamond Records. In 1970, he headed promotion for All Platinum and Stang, where he remained until at least 1973. He was director of special projects for TK Records in April 1976 when he tragically lost his life, drowning off the coast of Acapulco, Mexico. Caught in the undertow while swimming, he was dragged too far away from shore to swim back. After his passing, Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart took out a full page ad in Billboard that was all white space except for a few words in the center of the page: “Your memory will live on as part of my life. Bill Darnell.”
Standard released a second of Darnell’s January 1942 recordings in 1943 during the American Federation of Musician’s recording ban. ↩︎
“My Yiddishe Momme” was a song by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack, made famous by Sophie Tucker in 1928, with one side of the record sung in English and the other in Yiddish. ↩︎
Darnell was another performer who became younger as he grew older. A May 1954 interview gave Darnell’s age as 33, however he was at least 28 years old in October 1941 as he was released from the army and put on the reserve list due to a new law coming into effect that exempted men 28 or older from active duty, making his birth year no later than 1913. Darnell would have been 40 at a minimum in May 1954, given that his birth month is June. Darnell’s obituary in Billboard falsely gives his age as 55 at the time of his death in April 1976, which is at least consistent with the 33 he gave in 1954. He would have actually been 62 at the youngest. His obituary also falsely claims that he began his career as a vocalist on Decca, omitting everything he did prior to 1952. ↩︎