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 singer in the 1940s and 1950s, Lester went on to lead several touring orchestras up into the 1980s. He remained active as a band singer until the mid-1990s.
Lester was singing and playing guitar in Philadelphia cocktail lounges as part of Jack Lewis’ Three Collegians in October 1943 when bandleader Ted Lewis 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 started a trial period with Bill McCune’s band. Whether he earned a permanent spot in the orchestra is unknown, though when he married Philadelphia chorus girl Evelyn Kayton in October no mention was made of his association with any band in the public announcement.
February 1945 found Lester trying out for Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. Dorsey, at the time, was having trouble finding suitable male vocalists whom he both liked and 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.
In March 1945, after his experience with Dorsey, Lester became vocalist for Dean Hudson’s orchestra, where he stayed until leaving for Hal McIntyre’s band in June, 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. Lester became a fixture of the McIntyre’s post-war sound, remaining with the orchestra through at least the end of 1950. By July 1951, though, 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. 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. Sometime after that, though, 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.
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. Lester was still working the Philadelphia lounge circuit when Sinatra left Dorsey. ↩︎
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. ↩︎