Orchestra leader Bobby Byrne is best remembered for his romantic but forceful trombone style. He was and is considered by many critics to be the definitive trombonist of his era. “Brilliant” and “amazing” were words often used to describe his playing. Byrne’s one fault, though, was that he tried too hard. He was serious and dedicated, and he was a perfectionist. His band was capable of producing some of the best music of the swing era but was often held back by the tension Byrne created in his drive for exactitude.
A child prodigy on his instrument, Byrne went to work for the Dorsey Brothers in 1934 at only 16 years of age. When Tommy walked out on the band and formed his own orchestra in 1935, Byrne remained with Jimmy and took over as lead trombone. He soon began to receive great critical acclaim for his musicianship, and in 1939, at age 21, and with Jimmy’s backing, he formed his own orchestra.
Byrne’s outfit debuted in fall 1939 with Dorothy Claire and Jimmy Di Palma as vocalists. By the first of the year, Di Palma had changed his last name to Palmer. Claire, who had sung with Bob Crosby’s orchestra before joining Byrne, emerged early on as the star of the band. Her exuberant vocals and stage persona captured audience attention. The orchestra recorded on Decca.
Byrne battled appendicitis for much of the group’s first year. In June 1940, he entered the hospital to have his appendix frozen, an old treatment meant to forestall having it removed. While he was out for two days, Palmer fronted the band. Byrne lasted only a few months. In October, he underwent an emergency appendectomy. During his hospital stay and recovery, a dozen big name bandleaders, including Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and Charlie Barnet, stepped in to front the orchestra while he was gone.
Another blow came to the orchestra in December 1940 when Glenn Miller, facing the imminent departure of Marion Hutton, enticed Claire to leave Byrne, reportedly offering $250 a week, a significant incentive to the $75 a week she received with Byrne. Miller also promised Claire evening clothes as well as extra pay for recordings and special broadcasts. Claire accepted and joined Miller on January 6, 1941, despite the fact that she had just signed a two-year contract with Byrne in November.
Understandably upset with Miller’s poaching of Claire, Byrne sued Miller for $25,000, charging him with “conspiracy, connivance, coercion and intimidation” for inducing the singer to break her contract. Miller’s attorney argued that Claire was still under 21 years of age at the time, which meant any contract she had entered was not legally binding in the eyes of the law. Claire’s mother, however, had countersigned her contract. Miller eventually decided that the legal headache wasn’t worth it and released Claire at the end of March, replacing her with Paula Kelly. Claire returned to Byrne.
During Claire’s absence, Kay Little sang until having to be rushed to the hospital to undergo an emergency appendectomy in early March. Palmer left the band in January 1941 at the same time as Claire. Jerry Wayne replaced him. Wayne stayed through late April. Stuart Wade then took over. Wade almost immediately had to step up and front the band when Byrne entered the hospital yet again that same month. In late July, Wade left the orchestra to study for an operatic career, with Palmer returning.
In early 1941, Byrne hired Don Redman and Edgar Sampson to provide arrangements, but despite using charts by African-American arrangers Byrne’s music was decidedly white. Byrne was never satisfied with his musicians or himself. He worked his men seven days a week and would not tolerate wrong notes. This tendency to overachieve also prevented him from fully integrating Redman’s complicated and relaxed charts. He soon fired him and brought in Sid Brantley, who wrote simpler yet still strong arrangements that better fit Byrne’s method of bandleading.
The band continued to struggle, with Byrne filing bankruptcy in summer 1942. Jerry Scott was male singer by June, staying through at least August. After Claire’s contract ran out in October, she left the band. Virginia Maxey replaced her in November. Jerry Stone had become male vocalist by October when he too left the band, replaced by Jerry Burton. In November, the band lost seven musicians, and Byrne had to scramble to find suitable replacements.
Byrne kept plugging along into 1943. Vivian Blane sang early that year. Byrne finally decided to call it quits in spring 1943, accepting a commission in the Army Air Force. He had long expressed an interest in flying and served as both a bandleader and a pilot during the war. Fellow trombonist Jack Jenney took over the band.
Upon his discharge in 1945, Byrne began freelancing around the New York City area, often working with cornetist Bobby Hackett. He also formed a new orchestra in 1946, which featured saxophonist Larry Elgart. Vocalists included Dick Merrick. The group failed to achieve the same level of notoriety as did his early band and lasted only a few years. Byrne himself remained active as both a musician and bandleader up through the 1970s. He worked often on television, leading a dixieland combo on Steve Allen’s program from 1952 to 1954, appearing on Your Hit Parade, and performing on the shows of Milton Berle, Perry Como, and Patti Page. He also served as A&R director for Command Records and often performed as a studio musician for that label.
In the early 1970s, Byrne left the music industry for the business world, though he occasionally continued to perform. He retired permanently in the late 1980s. Aside from his trombone work, Bobby Byrne was a gifted musician on several instruments. He passed away in 2006.
For some reason, according to Down Beat magazine, Byrne had planned to travel from New York to Fort Worth, Texas, for his operation. The emergency surgery occurred in New York. ↩︎
Choosing Claire to replace Hutton was a smart decision by Miller. Claire and Hutton had similar singing styles, which made Claire basically a drop-in replacement for Hutton’s role in the band. ↩︎
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.