Guitarist, singer and bandleader Hal Derwin spent most of his career in hotel ballroom orchestras with the exception of the early and mid-1940s when he found national fame as a member of Les Brown’s band and as a Capitol recording artist. Unfortunately, that fame didn’t last, and in the 1950s he settled down to lead the house band at a Los Angeles hotel.
A Chicago native, Derwin attended business college and worked as a stenographer and secretary in a large firm before losing his job during the depression. Unable to find comparable work and possessing a good baritone voice, he decided to take a chance on singing as a career and went to local radio station KYW, who turned him away because they had no openings. A vocalist friend gave him the name of someone at the station and suggested he return and talk to them. Unbeknownst to Derwin, the station was having auditions that day to fill the third spot in a new male trio being put together for a sustaining program. Derwin auditioned and won the job.
Calling themselves The Campus Trio, the three men expanded beyond radio into club work and eventually joined Harry Sosnik’s orchestra at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. When Sosnik headed to the West Coast, they decided to remain in Chicago. Disagreements, though, caused them to disband soon after, and Derwin went back to office work, taking a job as a sales manager. Not able to get singing out of his blood, he soon auditioned for Boyd Raeburn’s hotel ballroom orchestra, landing the position of singer and guitarist. He joined Raeburn at some point before May 1936.
In early 1938, Derwin joined Louis Panico’s orchestra at the College Inn and later went on the road with them. When Shep Fields needed a new singer, a mutual friend convinced the bandleader to take a look at Derwin. By April, Derwin had joined Fields as both a singer and guitarist, becoming the band’s featured vocalist and earning a name on the national stage. He remained with Fields until September 1940. By August 1941, Derwin was back in Chicago with Raeburn’s band, where he stayed until October 1942 when he joined Les Brown.
Derwin’s stint with Brown, which lasted until at least September 1943, put him firmly in the national spotlight. After leaving Brown, Derwin went solo, filming a universal short in early 1944 and touring with the Meet the People review that spring and summer. He made at least three soundies and musical shorts in 1944: “Fellow with a Furlough,” with the Les Paul Trio and the Nilsson Sisters; “There Goes That Care,” a samba, with Joe Reichman’s orchestra; and “Pagliacci Swings It,” with Reichman and Carolyn Grey.
In summer 1945, Derwin recorded with Artie Shaw, the first male balladeer that Shaw had used in five years. In early 1946, he signed with Capitol, where he recorded over the next three years, sometimes with his own orchestra. Derwin first put together a band in mid-1947. It cut its first wax in June and debuted live in September to generally positive reviews. The orchestra played standard ballroom fair, with Mildred Shirley and Jeanne Taylor as female vocalists. Derwin disbanded in early 1948 but soon returned to Chicago to form a new outfit, with the Hi-Liters providing vocals. The new orchestra broke up late that year.
Derwin recorded duets with Martha Tilton in 1949, his last sides for Capitol. In 1950, he recorded on RCA Victor with Spade Cooley’s western swing band. In early 1951, Derwin put together a new orchestra for the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, which launched a house band policy that spring. He remained at the Biltmore until at least summer 1954.
Hal Derwin passed away in 1998 at the age of 83.
Many sources on the internet list Derwin’s birthdate as July 14, however multiple sources in the 1930s and 1940s, including Derwin’s own press bio, give it as August 7, as does the Social Security index. ↩︎