Frankie Lester

Photo of Frankie Lester
  • Birth Name

    Francis Joseph Divito
  • Born

    December 19, 1920
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Died

    December 6, 2004 (age 83)
    Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Orchestras

    Tommy Dorsey
    Dean Hudson
    Ted Lewis
    Bill McCune
    Hal McIntyre
    Buddy Morrow

Few vocalists managed to make a career out of big band music in the way that Frankie Lester did. After twelve years on the bandstand as a singer in the 1940s and 1950s, Lester went on to lead three touring orchestras over the next two decades. He remained active as a band singer until the mid-1990s.

A Philadelphia native, Lester was the son of an Italian immigrant father and a second-generation Italian-American mother. In 1940, alongside his mother and sister, Lester worked part-time at a business that made ladies’ handbags, where he was employed as a “cutter helper.” In February 1942, he was unemployed. However, he soon began to pursue a career in music.

Lester was singing and playing guitar in Philadelphia cocktail lounges as part of Jack Lewis’ Three Collegians in October 1943 when he caught the eye of bandleader Ted Lewis, who signed him as a vocalist. He stayed with Lewis until April 1944, when, with Lewis’ blessing and support, he left the band to, as Billboard magazine put it, “make a bid for the swoon sweepstakes,” or in laymen’s terms: to start a solo career. He failed to make a name for himself as a single act, though, and in September he began a trial period with Bill McCune’s band. Whether he earned a permanent spot in the orchestra is unknown. When he married Philadelphia chorus girl Evelyn Kayton in October, no mention was made of his association with any band.

In February 1945, Lester tried out for Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. Dorsey, at the time, was having trouble finding suitable male vocalists whom he both liked and who were willing to travel on the road, or in the case of Teddy Walters submit to his contract demands. He’d been through a slew of boy singers since Skip Nelson had left the previous October, and in February he hired both Lester and Billy Usher at the same time on a trial basis. Neither singer stayed long. Usher was gone in two weeks, and Lester was gone by early March when Stuart Foster came aboard.[1] Lester joined Dean Hudson’s orchestra that same month.

Lester stayed with Hudson until June, when he left for Hal McIntyre’s band, just in time for their European USO tour. McIntyre’s current singer, Jimmy Cook, another brief ex-Dorsey chirp, had failed to pass the physical required for the trip, and Lester took his place. Lester became a fixture of McIntyre’s post-war sound, remaining with the orchestra through at least the end of 1950.[2] By July 1951, he had joined Buddy Morrow’s band.

In an early 1954 interview with Down Beat magazine, Lester expressed his frustration with never having been offered a solo recording contract:

Frustrated? Sure I am. And so are a lot of other band singers who have been working hard for years to get experience and know-how, and who sing well, and then see somebody come from out of nowhere with one hit record, get tons of publicity, then disappear almost as quickly.

So what do I have to do to get even one chance at recording the way I want to on my own date? Change my name and be billed as an unknown 25-year-old who was discovered by Perry Como while I was singing at some unheard-of club?

If I did get a record of my own, and it dropped a bomb, then I could forget the whole thing and go work on an ice wagon. But I’m going to keep knocking on doors until either it seems useless to keep it up or I get to do what I want on a record just once.

Soon after that interview, Lester finally did get the chance to prove himself when he left Morrow that summer to sign as a solo artist on the new “X” record label, an RCA subsidiary that later changed its name to Vik, recording several sides over the next two years. In September 1955, Lester announced the formation of his own big band for the purpose of accompanying him on recordings and eventually to tour with him. It made one recording and then fizzled.

In August 1958, Lester bought the rights to the name and book of Billy May’s orchestra, which had been dormant for over a year. Lester toured across the country with the band, keeping very busy until at least 1967 and possibly through 1969.[3] Sometime after that, he sold the rights for May’s band to Ray Anthony.

Lester reemerged briefly as a bandleader in 1972, leading the Steel Pier Orchestra, a group loosely associated with Atlantic City’s Steel Pier and formed to promote big band music. In 1979 and 1980, he fronted Eddy Howard’s orchestra. Lester appeared with a band one last time, singing with Henry Busse’s group, in 1994 and 1995 as part of a big band revival series, When Swing Was King, which toured the country.

Frankie Lester passed away in 2004 just a few days shy of his 84th birthday.


  1. Lester can be added to the long list of those who claimed to have replaced Frank Sinatra in Dorsey’s band, despite the fact that there was a two-and-a-half year gap between Sinatra’s departure and Lester’s arrival. ↩︎

  2. In an amusing aside, Down Beat reviewer Michael Levin caught McIntyre’s band at the Meadowbrook in New Jersey one night in 1948 when Lester was in the middle of a “scuffle” with the ballroom’s bartender, Rudy. Whenever Lester got up to sing, Rudy would distract him however he could by making loud noises all throughout Lester’s numbers. ↩︎

  3. An advertisement in late 1968 announced a New Year’s Eve dance with “Frankie Lester and his Orchestra (ten pieces),” but a May 1969 photo caption identified him as leader of the Billy May Orchestra. ↩︎


  1. “Olsen and Johnson, Ted Lewis Grab Lounge Talent.” Billboard 6 Nov. 1943: 22.
  2. Advertisement. Billboard 22 Jan. 1944: 2.
  3. “Frankie Lester To Try Swoon Dough.” Billboard 18 Mar. 1944: 12.
  4. “Music Grapevine.” Billboard 30 Sep. 1944: 14.
  5. “Marriages.” Billboard 11 Nov. 1944: 53.
  6. “T.D. Male Voice Still Unsettled.” Billboard 10 Feb. 1945: 15.
  7. “Music as Written.” Billboard 24 Mar. 1945: 15.
  8. “Advanced Record Releases.” Billboard 7 Apr. 1945: 25.
  9. “Gloria Jean and Hudson Ork Big 16 1/2 G for Five-Day Wk.” Billboard 28 Apr. 1945: 31.
  10. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 7 Jul. 1945: 74.
  11. “McIntyre in E.T.O. via George Moffett.” Billboard 14 Jul. 1945: 16.
  12. “Platter Chatter.” Richmond Collegian 21 Sep. 1945: 2.
  13. Levin, Michael. “McIntyre Music A Mellow Sello.” Down Beat 12 Aug. 1948: 8.
  14. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 9 Jul. 1949: 43.
  15. Advertisement. Defiance Crescent News [Defiance, Ohio] 9 Oct. 1950: 4.
  16. “Music Popularity Charts.” Billboard 14 Jul. 1951: 66.
  17. “New Buddy Morrow Ork Opens At Meadowbrook.” Down Beat 21 Sep. 1951: 3.
  18. “Hendler-Woods To Break Up.” Billboard 13 Dec. 1952: 28.
  19. “Morrow Draws 2,145.” Billboard 11 Jul. 1953: 14.
  20. “Reviews of New Pop Records.” Billboard 20 Feb. 1954: 32.
  21. “Frankie Lester Sings—If You Haven't Heard.” Down Beat 10 Mar. 1954: 2.
  22. “Frankie Lester Gets Label 'X' Contract.” Down Beat 3 Nov. 1954: 5.
  23. Advertisement. Billboard 18 Dec. 1954: 15.
  24. Advertisement. Billboard 19 Mar. 1955: 20.
  25. “Reviews of New Pop Records.” Billboard 23 Apr. 1955: 50.
  26. “Frankie Lester Has Own Disk Band.” Billboard 10 Sep. 1955: 21.
  27. “Reviews of New Pop Records.” Billboard 17 Sep. 1955: 49.
  28. “Clink Revivals on Upbeat in All Fields.” Billboard 24 Mar. 1956: 18.
  29. “Reviews of New Pop Records.” Billboard 17 Nov. 1956: 49.
  30. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 2 Oct. 1958: 10.
  31. “Billy May Set to Trek West.” Billboard 16 Mar. 1959: 59.
  32. Advertisement. Syracuse Herald Journal 17 Mar. 1967: 31.
  33. Advertisement. Salisbury Daily Times [Salisbury, Maryland] 30 Dec. 1968: 10.
  34. “The 34th Annual Dunkirk Police Benevolent Association Ball.” Dunkirk Evening Observer [Dunkirk, New York] 3 May 1969: 9.
  35. “B'Way Theaters Opening Doors.” Billboard 16 Sep. 1972: 4.
  36. Advertisement. Ironwood Daily Globe [Ironwood, Michigan] 7 Jun. 1979: 2.
  37. Advertisement. Madison Wisconsin State Journal 11 Aug. 1979: 2.
  38. Advertisement. The Hillsdale Daily News [Hillsdale, Michigan] 5 May. 1980: 5A.
  39. “Anthony Taking May Band on the Road.” Billboard 19 Jun. 1982: 36.
  40. “Paramount plans big band series.” Anderson Herald Bulletin [Anderson, Indiana] 27 Feb. 1994: E6.
  41. Advertisement. Anderson Herald Bulletin [Anderson, Indiana] 28 Feb. 1994: C7.
  42. Advertisement. Burlington N.C. Times-News 13 Aug. 1995: D5.
  43. Mirtle, Jack. The Music of Billy May, Greenwood Press, 1998: 419.
  44. “United States, Social Security Numerical Identification Files (NUMIDENT), 1936-2007,” database, FamilySearch ( : 10 February 2023), Frank Joseph Divito.
  45. “United States Census, 1940,” FamilySearch ( : Sat Mar 09 16:59:42 UTC 2024), Entry for Severino Divito and Margaret Divito, 1940.
  46. “Pennsylvania, World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1940-1945,” FamilySearch ( : Fri Feb 23 21:07:32 UTC 2024), Entry for Francis Joseph Divito and Margaret Divito, 16 Feb 1942.
  47. “United States, Social Security Numerical Identification Files (NUMIDENT), 1936-2007,” database, FamilySearch ( : 10 February 2023), Frank Joseph Divito.