Best remembered as vocalist for Jan Savitt’s 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.
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 WCAU’s 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.
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.
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. ↩︎