Ford Leary

Photo of Ford Leary

Trombonist and novelty singer Ford Leary found his greatest fame as a member of Larry Clinton’s orchestra in the late 1930s. In the mid-1940s, luck landed him a starring role on Broadway, and he appeared to have a bright future ahead of him. Unfortunately, though, it wasn’t to be, and his life met a sad ending.

A Buffalo-area native, Leary played the cello, guitar and multiple brass instruments as a youth.[1] He worked locally with Buffalo bands before moving to New York City in 1937, where he became a staple on the jazz scene as both a singer and an instrumentalist. In 1937, he spent time with Phil Napoleon and Bunny Berigan before joining Clinton’s band at its formation in the summer of 1938, and later that same year he scored a big hit with the biblical-themed swing tune “Shadrach.” The song would become his signature piece.

Leary become a popular member of Clinton’s band and was featured in two musical shorts with them. In late 1939, fueled by his departure from Clinton during an engagement at the Glen Island Casino in October, rumors circulated that he was planning to form an orchestra of his own. Leary denied the rumors, however, and returned to the band before the engagement had finished. Clinton had already filled Leary’s vacant trombone chair, leaving Leary with only a singing role.

While still with Clinton, Leary made several recordings in early 1940 under his own name with a 14-piece pick-up band. He continued to do so over the next two years, with the recordings variously labeled Ford Leary and His Orchestra or Ford Leary and His Boys, though at no time did he ever lead his own band. He remained with Clinton until late summer 1940, when he joined George Hall’s orchestra as both a singer and trombone player. Leary didn’t stay long in Hall’s band, however, becoming part of Charlie Barnet’s group by October. He remained with Barnet through at least October 1941.

In January 1942, Leary joined Muggsy Spanier’s orchestra. Weighing upwards of 250 pounds (113 kg), Leary was often the butt of jokes about his size. In the press, his name was typically preceded by such adjectives as “hefty.” When he joined Spanier, the popular joke was that Spanier had chosen him to balance out the bus with clarinetist Irving Fazola, who had a similar weight.

Leary stayed with Spanier through at least June 1942. In July, he became part of Jack LeMaire’s sextet of comedy vocalists at the Brass Rail in Chicago, which played into August. In October, Leary earned a role in the Broadway musical comedy Beat the Band, which ran for two months. In early 1943, he announced that he’d given up on name bands and would focus on radio. He soon reversed that decision, however, appearing with Bob Crosby at the Capitol Theater in New York as part of a Dixieland outfit put together for the occasion by Van Alexander.[2]. Leary said: “I’m going to try everything, see which fits me best.”

In May 1944, Leary joined the pit orchestra of the Broadway musical Follow the Girls starring Jackie Gleason. Producers had a difficult time finding an understudy for Gleason and finally decided to sign Leary for the role. He filled in several times for Gleason when the comic was ill or had other obligations, and in June 1945 he took over the role permanently when Gleason left the show to star in the Twentieth Century Fox film Doll Face. Leary proved a big hit, attracting film offers. Unfortunately he injured his back at some point after November and had to leave the show. He spent the next two years in upstate New York recovering from his injury.

Leary reappeared in the news in March 1948 when Down Beat erroneously reported his death. He let it be known, though, that he was very much alive and planning to work again as a musician and comedic singer. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Leary passed away in June 1949. His body laid at Bellevue Hospital for a week before his son identified it, with the hospital refusing to release the cause of his death, saying it was “confidential.” Leary was 40 years old.

Leary was married twice. He first married English-born Jewell Burr, also known as Julia, in 1928.[3] The couple had three sons. Burr appears to have passed away at some point in the mid-1930s, or perhaps she and Leary had divorced, with Leary gaining custody of their children.[4] By 1940 Leary was married to his second wife, Bernice, and had adopted her daughter from a previous marriage. The couple had at least one child together, possibly two. The 1940 census listed Ford as having five children in total—three sons and two daughters—and a 1941 article added one more, giving him three daughters. His obituary, however, stated that he had only four children. When Barnet’s band traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast, Leary bought a station wagon and drove his wife and children to California.


  1. Census data shows that Leary attended one year of college. ↩︎

  2. Crosby had given up his Dixieland outfit by this time. ↩︎

  3. Leary and Burr reportedly tied the knot in Iowa, though there are no primary sources to verify that information. If true, then it shows that Leary traveled with at least one band in the late 1920s. ↩︎

  4. According to the 1940 census, Leary lived in Buffalo in 1935 and his three sons lived in rural Erie County, outside of Buffalo. Why they didn’t live in the same location at that time is unknown. By 1940, however, Leary’s sons lived with him. No other public records mention Burr aside from the 1930 census. ↩︎


  1. “Ford Leary.” IMDb Accessed 2 Feb. 2022.
  2. “Ford Leary.” Internet Broadway Database Accessed 2 Feb. 2022.
  3. “Buffalo Cat Gets Lost in 52nd St. Jam Joints.” Down Beat Mar. 1937: 33.
  4. “Band Reviews: Phil Napoleon and Band.” Billboard 7 Aug. 1937: 13.
  5. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 26 Nov. 1938: 33.
  6. “The Reviewing Stand: Larry Clinton.” Billboard 4 Feb. 1939: 15.
  7. “Leary & Allen Set For Leader Jobs.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1939: 7.
  8. “Critics in the Doghouse.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1940: 7.
  9. “Clinton and Shaw Trade Disc Labels.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1940: 19.
  10. “New York News.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1940: 12.
  11. “Barnet Backs New Auld Ork.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1940: 1.
  12. “Barnet Back to Normal.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1941: 7.
  13. “On the Records.” Billboard 15 Feb. 1941: 67.
  14. “Leary Set to Go.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1941: 5.
  15. “Musicians Off the Record.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1941: 10.
  16. Gayer, Devin. “Bobby Canvin in Hundling's Place with Charlie Barnet.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1941: 6.
  17. “Philadelphia Grosses.” Billboard 25 Oct. 1941: 27.
  18. “Record Reviews.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1942: 14.
  19. “Utility Men.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1942: 20.
  20. “Diggin' the Bands Where They Play: Muggsy Spanier.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1942: 20.
  21. “Philly 18G Despite Heavy Competition.” Billboard 4 Jul. 1942: 17.
  22. “Vaudeville Reviews: Earle, Philadelphia.” Billboard 27 Jun. 1942: 16.
  23. “Night Club Review.” Billboard 25 Jul. 1942: 69.
  24. “Record Reviews.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1942: 8.
  25. “Band Blitz Through Chi.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1942: 2.
  26. “Ford Leary Turns to Studio Career.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1943: 2.
  27. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 20 Mar. 1943: 16.
  28. “Ford Leary Tries Band Field Again.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1943: 7.
  29. “Send Birthday Greetings to.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1943: 19.
  30. “Broadway Showlog.” Billboard 13 May 1944: 29.
  31. “GI's Entertained By Ford Leary.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1944: 13.
  32. “Broadway Showlog.” Billboard 14 Oct. 1944: 21.
  33. “Broadway Showlog.” Billboard 9 Dec. 1944: 31.
  34. “Footlights for Jazz Notables.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1945: 10.
  35. “Broadway in Review.” The Washington, D.C., Sunday Star 24 Jun. 1945: C-8.
  36. “Broadway Showlog.” Billboard 1 Sep. 1945: 36.
  37. “Follow the Girls.” Billboard 3 Nov. 1945: 13.
  38. “We Found.” Down Beat 24 Mar. 1948: 10.
  39. “Beat Wrong, Leary Alive.” Down Beat 21 Apr. 1948: 3.
  40. “Ford Leary Dies.” Down Beat 29 Jul. 1949: 1.
  41. “Final Bar.” Down Beat 29 Jul. 1949: 10.
  42. “United States Census, 1910,” FamilySearch ( : Sun Mar 10 14:25:20 UTC 2024), Entry for Frank W Leary and Nina Leary, 1910.
  43. “United States Census, 1920,” FamilySearch ( : Thu Mar 07 04:11:11 UTC 2024), Entry for Frank W Leary and Nina L Leary, 1920.
  44. “United States Census, 1930,” FamilySearch ( : Sat Mar 09 01:35:31 UTC 2024), Entry for Frank W Leary and Nina L Leary, 1930.
  45. “United States Census, 1940,” FamilySearch ( : Sat Mar 09 13:43:11 UTC 2024), Entry for Frankford Leary and Bernice Leary, 1940.