Popular singer Bob Eberly spent much of his career with Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra. Eberly gained prominence in his early years by winning Fred Allen’s amateur hour and began his professional career performing in clubs around his hometown of Hoosick Falls, in upstate New York. His act consisted of singing while accompanying himself on the guitar. One reviewer described his style as “individual.” It was in Troy, New York, where the Dorsey Brothers discovered him, later hiring him to replace the departing Bob Crosby.
Eberly started work in the spring of 1935, three weeks before Tommy walked out on the orchestra. Having been hired by Tommy, he feared losing his job, but both brothers offered him a position. He chose Jimmy, as Tommy wouldn’t be able to pay him for several weeks until his new band was ready to perform. At the beginning of 1939, he changed the spelling of his last name from Eberle because the announcer of the Milton Berle radio program kept mispronouncing it.
Eberly stayed with Jimmy for eight years and ranked as one of the top male vocalists of his day, rivaling Bing Crosby and later Frank Sinatra for that title. He placed third in Billboard magazine’s 1940, 1941 and 1942 college polls for best male vocalist, moving up to second in 1943. He placed third in Down Beat magazine’s 1939 poll for best male singer and second in 1940, narrowly behind Bing Crosby. He placed second again in Down Beat’s 1941 poll, ahead of Crosby but behind Sinatra, but fell to third in 1942 and 1943, behind both his rivals. Most famous are his duets with Helen O’Connell, who joined the band in 1939 and in whom it was also said he had romantic interest. Eberly married Florine Callahan in Chicago in early 1940.
Well-liked by his peers, Eberly became best friends and eventually roommates with Jimmy Dorsey. Throughout his career, he was encouraged by many in the industry to strike out on his own, but he refused. He was perfectly happy earning a weekly salary with Dorsey’s group, saying “all I got to do here is sing a couple of songs, keep my suit pressed, and collect my check… I ain’t got no worries, so why should I want to change a set up like that?” In early 1941, rumors circulated that Eberly would leave Dorsey to start his own band, backed by Dorsey’s money. Both Eberly and Dorsey declared the rumor “crazy as hell.” Eberle appeared with Dorsey’s band in two film musicals, The Fleet’s In in 1942 and the Red Skleton vehicle I Dood It in 1943.
In November 1943, Eberly’s relationship with Dorsey finally ended when he entered the army and was stationed at Gardiner General Hospital in Chicago, where he was a projectionist for films shown to patients. While there, he also sang for Wayne King, who was directing show units for Chicago’s Sixth Service Command. Even though he spent the entirety of 1944 in the service, Eberly won Down Beat’s 1944 poll for best band singer, garnering three times the number of votes of second place winner Buddy DeVito. In late 1944, while still in the service, he signed a record contract with Decca.
After he received his discharge, Eberly began recording and touring as a solo act, finding though that, outside of Down Beat readers, he had been largely forgotten by the general public. When his solo Decca recordings didn’t sell, the label teamed him up with other Decca artists, including Carmen Cavallaro, Russ Morgan, Bob Haggart, and the unusual combo of organist Ethel Smith and The Bando Carioca, before eventually dropping him in 1948. He recorded for Coral in 1949 and Riviera in 1950. In 1947, he and O’Connell sang together in the fantastical biopic The Fabulous Dorseys, and when Eberly signed to Capitol in 1951 he was reunited O’Connell on duets. That same year the pair also became regulars on the television program TV’s Top Tunes. By the middle of the decade, however, Eberly had faded from the public eye. He spent the rest of his career singing mostly in small clubs.
In 1980, Eberly had one lung removed but still continued to sing. Frank Sinatra paid for the operation, even though the two singers had never met. Bob Eberly died of a heart attack in 1981. His younger brother, Ray Eberle, sang with Glenn Miller and later led his own band. A third Eberle brother, Walter, briefly sang for Hal McIntyre in 1941.
Down Beat broke their singer category into band and non-band categories starting in 1944. Eberle didn’t compete with Crosby and Sinatra that year. ↩︎