Philadelphia native Jimmy Saunders had a moderately successful career singing with both Harry James and Charlie Spivak during the early and mid-1940s. In the latter part of the decade, he went out as a single but never really got off the ground. Plagued by domestic trouble, poor song choices, and an ill-conceived name change, his career fizzled out in the mid-1950s.
Born to Sicilian immigrant parents, Vincent La Spada began singing under the name Sonny Saunders on Philadelphia radio station WFIL in 1939 before joining WCAU, the city’s top broadcaster, where he sang both solo and as vocalist for Joey Kearns’ studio orchestra. Popular with local audiences, Billboard magazine reported in August 1940 that Saunders “had his schnoz bobbed as the first step on leading a band of his own.” In May 1941, he made his first recording on Columbia Records with Sonny Kendis, whose orchestra was then residing at New York’s Stork Club. Whether Saunders worked as a regular vocalist with Kendis or simply entered the studio with the band is unknown.
After losing vocalist Dick Haymes to a solo career in December 1941, Harry James signed Saunders as a replacement, changing his first name. The newly-minted Jimmy Saunders joined the band on December 27, 1941, at the Hotel Lincoln in New York and remained with the group until August 1942. Billboard reported that month that he was “to be” the new Les Brown vocalist. Whether that actually happened or not is unknown. In September, he was back in Philadelphia at WCAU, where he often worked with Johnny Warrington’s orchestra. In February 1943, Saunders became one of the stars of WCAU’s Open House program, which also featured Bon Bon and Dolores O’Neill. By early April, however, he had received his draft notice and entered the army.
Saunders did not sing during his military career. Never raising above the rank of private, he received a medical discharge in December 1943 and returned to Philadelphia, where he sang at Frank Palumbo’s club in January. In February, he joined Charlie Spivak’s orchestra, where he reached the peak of his popularity, recording often with the band and placing in the top ten of Down Beat magazine’s 1946 poll for favorite male band singer. In November 1945, he married well-known pin-up girl and cover model Rita Daigle. Reports gave his age as 25 at the time, though he was actually 29.
Saunders’ band career came to an end in August 1946 when Spivak gave him two weeks notice after a flare-up between the two men backstage at the Paramount Theater in New York. Saunders then disappears from the press until early 1948, when Rainbow Records released solo recordings made in late 1947. In 1949, Saunders recorded solo again on Rainbow and on the Hi-Tone/Signature label, where he also collaborated with others artists, including Ray Bloch’s orchestra, Peggy Ann Ellis, and the vocal group the Riddlers. Later that year, he recorded with Xavier Cugat’s band on Columbia.
In July 1949, Saunders and Daigle separated, with Daigle filing for legal separation in September. Daigle accused Saunders of striking her with a rolled-up newspaper and threatening to slash her face so that she could no longer work as a model. Saunders denied the charge and blamed the failed marriage on his overbearing mother-in-law and his wife’s aunt, whom he claimed had undermined him with his wife and children. The couple had two daughters.
Saunders recorded again with Bloch’s orchestra in 1950 on Hi-Tone/Signature and in 1952 on Coral. He recorded with Lily Ann Carol on Signature in 1950. In early 1951, he appeared as a monthly guest on Pittsburgh television station WDTV’s Duquesne Show Time program. In 1953, he recorded solo for Coral. Down Beat gave a brutal review of his releases on that label, the novelty songs “I Wanna Be on a Merry Merry Merry-Go-Round with You” and “A Jersey Tomato and an Idaho Potato on a New York Central Train,” giving both one out of five stars and writing: “Full report withheld, pending further analysis of libel laws.” Saunders also recorded on Jay-Dee, a label owned by music publisher Joe Davis, who used it to plug his songs.
In early 1954, Saunders changed his professional name to Marco Polo, a move which caused much humor in the press. The name change did little for Polo’s career. He made two sides for Coral and two for Quality that went nowhere. The name also likely hindered him. In early 1955, NBC aired a musical spectacular about the life of the original Marco Polo, which was released on an album by Victor. Polo was last heard from in April 1955, when he was said to be brushing up on his guitar for a club act. He then vanishes from history.
Jimmy Saunders passed away in 1990 at age 73.
When Saunders joined Harry James, reports stated that he was a WCAU vocalist. None mentioned Kendis. ↩︎
If Saunders sang with Les Brown, it would have been a very quick in and out. No sources ever mention an association with Brown’s band except that one announcement. Saunders is always identified as either an ex-James vocalist, prior to 1944, or a former James and Spivak vocalist, in his later career. ↩︎
Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen wrote that “no one knows” why Saunders made the name change. Such changes were often made to break free from past career baggage, though in Saunders case it may have been to distinguish himself from the other better-known Jimmy Saunders in the music business. An African-American pianist of the same name was making waves with his orchestra during that time period, and there was a popular Arizona bandleader named Jimmy Saunders. There was also a country music artist of the same name. ↩︎