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, and in the 1930s he became a staple on the New York 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, rumors circulated that he was planning to form an orchestra of his own, fueled by his departure from Clinton during an engagement at the Glen Island Casino in October. Leary denied the rumors, however, and returned to the band before the engagement had finished. Clinton had already filled Leary’s vacant trombone chair, however, 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 and 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 often preceded by such adjectives as “hefty.” When he joined Spanier, the popular joke was that he was chosen 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 for 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.. 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 either 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 was a big hit, attracting film offers for himself as well. 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 a family man. When Barnet’s band traveled from the East Coast to the West Coast, he bought a station wagon and drove his wife and children to California. Reports on the number of children Leary had varied. A 1941 article stated he had three sons and three daughters. His obituary stated that he had four children.
Crosby had given up his Dixieland outfit by this time. ↩︎