Bon Bon

Photo of Bon Bon
  • Birth Name

    George Tunnell
  • Born

    June 30, 1912
    Reading, Pennsylvania
  • Died

    May 20, 1975 (age 62)
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Orchestras

    Jan Savitt
    Johnny Warrington

Best re­mem­bered as vo­cal­ist for Jan Savitts or­ches­tra, pop­u­lar singer Bon Bon, born George Tunnell, grew up in the Philadelphia area and be­gan singing as a child, mak­ing ap­pear­ances on The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour pro­gram on lo­cal sta­tion WCAU in the late 1920s. In the early 1930s, he teamed up with pi­anist Bob Pease and elec­tric gui­tarist John Slim” Furnell to form the Three Keys. Using no writ­ten arrange­ments, the trio fea­tured har­mony singing and a unique sound de­scribed as a new mode of in­stru­men­ta­tion.”

The Three Keys quickly be­came pop­u­lar in the Philadelphia area. In 1932, they be­gan ap­pear­ing on lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion KYW, an NBC af­fil­i­ate, where they caught the ear of a net­work ex­ec­u­tive who brought them to New York for an au­di­tion. They launched their own fif­teen-minute na­tion­wide pro­gram in August, broad­cast from Philadelphia four times a week, and in 1933 they recorded ten sides for Brunswick as well as ap­peared in the sixth Rambling Round Radio Row short. The trio moved to New York in 1934 be­fore head­ing to Europe, where they played London’s Palladium and gave a com­mand per­for­mance for King Edward VIII. They also per­formed over British and French ra­dio.

With Jan Savitt

Upon their re­turn to Philadelphia, Bon Bon be­came a vo­cal­ist with the KYW stu­dio or­ches­tra, led by Jan Savitt, which was also broad­cast on NBC. When Savitt de­cided to take his group on the road in 1938 and seek na­tional recog­ni­tion, Bon Bon went with him, mak­ing him one of the first African-American vo­cal­ists to reg­u­larly ap­pear with a white or­ches­tra. Able to sing both sweet and swing as well as scat, he proved a sen­sa­tion dur­ing the band’s de­but at the Lincoln Hotel in New York’s Times Square and quickly be­come one of the most well-known vo­cal­ists in the na­tion, plac­ing fifth in Billboard mag­a­zine’s 1940 col­lege poll for most pop­u­lar male band singers and sixth in 1941.

As a black per­former in an oth­er­wise all-white band, he faced much dis­crim­i­na­tion on the road. He of­ten pre­tended to be the band man­ager’s valet in or­der to stay in the same ho­tel as the oth­ers. He re­fused to go much fur­ther, how­ever, and did­n’t tol­er­ate the racism he came up against. During a per­for­mance in Kentucky, af­ter he was re­fused ser­vice by the ball­room’s soda stand, he boy­cotted the show, only ap­pear­ing on stage to sing dur­ing the thirty min­utes of the band’s na­tional ra­dio broad­cast.

Bon Bon be­came in­fa­mous for quit­ting and re­join­ing Savitt’s or­ches­tra nu­mer­ous times in his three year stint with the band. During his pe­ri­ods away from the group, he of­ten re­turned to Philadelphia to sing with the Three Keys again, though once he at­tempted to start his own band to lit­tle suc­cess. Finally, in March 1942, he quit Savitt for good, re­turn­ing home to be­gin a solo act at the pop­u­lar Philadelphia night­club Lou’s Moravian Inn, which would be­come his home away from home for many years to come.

Post-Savitt

Bon Bon re­turned to KYW as well, singing with their then cur­rent stu­dio or­ches­tra, led by Clarence Fuhrman. Also slated for an NBC Blue Network pro­gram, he cut record­ings on Decca un­der the name Bon Bon and His Buddies us­ing a stu­dio crew. A four-piece band bear­ing that name made its live de­but in April at Lou’s and later ex­panded to a six-piece combo. They ap­peared on lo­cal tele­vi­sion sta­tion WPTZ as well.

In May, Bon Bon moved to ra­dio sta­tion WCAU, where he hosted Dixiana, an all-sepia” va­ri­ety pro­gram, dur­ing the sum­mer. The pro­gram ran off and on over the next year. He also con­tin­ued work­ing with his band around the Philadelphia area, per­form­ing mostly at Lou’s. He re­mained pop­u­lar in his home city but strug­gled to gain the same na­tional fol­low­ing that he had earned with Savitt. His band signed with the Fredericks Bros. agency in March 1943 and made a New York ap­pear­ance, but he was soon back in Philadelphia again.

In late 1943, Bon Bon be­gan singing for WCAUs stu­dio or­ches­tra, led by Johnny Warrington, who had once been an arranger for Savitt. An ex­cit­ing band, Warrington be­gan to tour re­gion­ally, tak­ing Bon Bon with him. In sum­mer 1944, Bon Bon once again faced racism when he was de­nied the chance to sing at Atlantic City’s fa­mous Steel Pier due to its pol­icy of al­low­ing only white per­form­ers on its stage. He quit Warrington soon af­ter and re­turned to Philadelphia.

Later Career

After leav­ing Warrington, Bon Bon be­gan to work on and off with the Four Keys again, the cur­rent ex­panded ver­sion of his old group, also per­form­ing solo and with other area bands. In September 1944, he signed to a multi-year con­tract with Beacon Records, one of the small la­bels run by mu­sic pub­lisher Joe Davis with the ex­press pur­pose of plug­ging his songs. Bon Bon be­came one of Davis’ most used plug­gers, mak­ing mul­ti­ple record­ings over the next four years on both Beacon and the Joe Davis la­bel as well as Celebrity, an­other Davis im­print. His records were pop­u­lar in Philadelphia but made no im­pact na­tion­ally. He also recorded on the lo­cal Melody la­bel with the Four Keys.

Bon Bon made an­other at­tempt to front his own or­ches­tra in mid-1945, part­ner­ing with arranger Eddie Durham, who had just scrapped his all-girl out­fit. The six­teen-piece band played sev­eral one-nighters in Florida dur­ing October but failed to catch on.

In August 1948, Bon Bon signed with Philadelphia ra­dio sta­tion WDAS to star in his own pro­gram. The Bon Bon Show both fea­tured mu­si­cal per­for­mances and served as a com­mu­nity ser­vice show for the city’s African-American com­mu­nity. Bon Bon would of­ten take a tape recorder out onto the street and ask passers-by their opin­ions. The show was pop­u­lar enough that WDAS gave it a sec­ond weekly edi­tion in April 1950. By the end of the year though, Bon Bon had moved to WPEN to work as a DJ be­fore un­suc­cess­fully at­tempt­ing to launch a solo mu­sic ca­reer again. He fi­nally re­tired from show busi­ness in April 1951, tak­ing a job as as­sis­tant dis­trict man­ager for the Eastern Division of Schlitz brew­eries.

Notes

  1. The nick­name Bon Bon is a ref­er­ence to the choco­late cov­ered candy. African-American per­form­ers dur­ing this time pe­riod of­ten used ref­er­ences to choco­late in names and ti­tles. The late 1920s all-black re­vue Hot Chocolates at one time fea­tured a singing group called the Bon Bon Buddies, a moniker trac­ing back to a pop­u­lar song writ­ten in 1907. Some his­to­ri­ans have con­fused the singer Bon Bon with this group due to his form­ing a combo known as Bon Bon and His Buddies in the early 1940s. He had no con­nec­tion to the New York group how­ever. The name Bon Bon it­self was used by sev­eral per­form­ers over the years, in­clud­ing a pop­u­lar white strip­per in the 1950s.

Music

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  • 720 in the Books
    Jan Savitt (Bon Bon), Decca (1939)
  • Good Morning
    Jan Savitt (Bon Bon), Decca (1939)
  • Make-Believe Island
    Jan Savitt (Bon Bon), Decca (1940)
  • Truthfully
    Bon Bon and the Red Caps Trio (Bon Bon), Joe Davis (1945)
  • Better Stop Playin' Around
    Bon Bon and the Red Caps Trio, Joe Davis (1945)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.

Sources

  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Bon Bon.” IMDb. Accessed 29 Jul. 2016.
  3. “The Three Keys, Radio's Latest Sensation.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 20 Aug. 1932: 7.
  4. “Notes for Coming Week.” The Montreal Gazette 20 May 1938: 10.
  5. “On the Stage.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 11 Aug. 1938: 9. Print
  6. McClarrin, Otto. “Otto McClarrin's Seaboard Merry-Go-Round.” The Washington Afro-American 18 Feb. 1939: 6.
  7. “Bon Bon Leaves Savitt.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 2 Nov. 1940: 14.
  8. “Night Club Reviews: Sherman Hotel, Panther Room, Chicago.” Billboard 7 Feb. 1942: 13.
  9. “On the Records.” Billboard 21 Feb. 1942: 66.
  10. “On the Records.” Billboard 14 Mar. 1942: 25.
  11. “Bon Bon, Hot Singer, Back in Pa.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 21 Mar. 1942: 15.
  12. “Advertisers, Agencies, Stations.” Billboard 21 Mar. 1942: 6.
  13. “On the Stand: Bon Bon and His Buddies.” Billboard 11 Apr. 1942: 22.
  14. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 25 Apr. 1942: 23.
  15. “List of Winners: Collegiate Choice of Vocalists.” The Billboard 1943 Music Yearbook, 1943: 139.
  16. “Campus Picks Top Chirps.” Billboard 2 May 1942: 19.
  17. “Advertisers, Agencies, Stations.” Billboard 23 May 1942: 8.
  18. “Advertisers, Agencies, Stations.” Billboard 4 Jul. 1942: 6.
  19. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 1 Aug. 1942: 23.
  20. “Program Reviews: Dixiana.” Billboard 15 Aug. 1942: 8.
  21. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 12 Sep. 1942: 21.
  22. “Four Keys Originated in Philly.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 19 Sep. 1942: 12.
  23. “Off the Cuff.” Billboard 26 Dec. 1942: 18.
  24. “Off the Cuff.” Billboard 20 Feb. 1943: 19.
  25. “Program Reviews: Open House.” Billboard 27 Feb. 1943: 9.
  26. “Bon Bon Leads Combo Again.” Billboard 27 Mar. 1943: 18.
  27. “No Time to Fill, But Lee Broza Buys New Talent.” Billboard 16 Oct. 1943: 7.
  28. “On the Stand: Johnny Warrington.” Billboard 16 Oct. 1943: 16.
  29. “Talent-Hungry Radio Lanes Turn To Rich Unit Pasture.” Billboard 23 Oct. 1943: 22.
  30. “Program Reviews: Dixiana.” Billboard 6 Nov. 1943: 11.
  31. “Philly Earle Light $17,800, Fay's 96C.” Billboard 27 Nov. 1943: 17.
  32. “Births.” Billboard 24 Jun. 1944: 33.
  33. “Hate Policy Bans Bon Bon.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 12 Aug. 1944: 8.
  34. “Philly Cocktaileries Bring Back Talent.” Billboard 12 Aug. 1944: 29.
  35. “Bon-Bon Contracted to Cut 16 Disks Yearly for Beacon.” Billboard 23 Sep. 1944: 36.
  36. “Off the Cuff.” Billboard 23 Sep. 1944: 37.
  37. “Off the Cuff.” Billboard 21 Apr. 1945: 28.
  38. “Bon Bon Fronts New Ork.” Billboard 14 Jul. 1945: 66.
  39. “Bon Bon and His 16.” Billboard 29 Sep. 1945: 32.
  40. “Music as Written.” Billboard 20 Oct. 1945: 24.
  41. “Adanced Record Releases.” Billboard 3 Apr. 1948: 126.
  42. “Back Stage Whispers Got Peggy a 'Break.'” The Baltimore Afro-American 8 Jun. 1948: 6.
  43. “1-Hour Daily Negro Service Program Skedded by WDAS.” Billboard 13 Aug. 1948: 6.
  44. “No New Quintet for Public.” Billboard 4 Dec. 1948: 20.
  45. “Vox Jox.” Billboard 29 Oct. 1949: 26.
  46. “Music as Written.” Billboard 12 Nov. 1949: 42.
  47. “Vox Jox.” Billboard 1 Apr. 1950: 24.
  48. “Music as Written.” Billboard 9 Dec. 1950: 17.
  49. “Music as Written.” Billboard 5 May 1951: 18.