Millionaire playboy, saxophonist, and bandleader Charlie Barnet is one of the more colorful figures in jazz history. Nicknamed “Mad Mab,” he was married eleven times. He was also a champion of racial equality, hiring many black singers and musicians at a time when other bands were segregated. His use of African-American performers often kept his orchestra out of hotels and ballrooms and prevented him from earning any big commercial radio series. His music and arrangements were admittedly influenced by Duke Ellington. So dedicated to the Duke was he that when he built a fallout shelter after the war he stocked it with a collection of Ellington recordings.
Barnet was born into New York high society in 1913. He rebelled against his parent’s wishes that he study law and became a jazz musician instead, playing in his first outfit at age 16. He spent time fronting a five-piece band on trans-Atlantic ocean liners before forming his first orchestra in late 1933, a 24-piece band that played “elaborately orchestrated show melodies and special production numbers.” Vocalists were Ruth Robin, Helen Heath, and Jack Martin. The band recorded a few sides on various labels, including Fox, Perfect, and Melotone. Barnet’s main interest was jazz, however, and he abandoned the orchestra in mid-1934. He won his first major attention as a jazz artist later that year when he played on Red Norvo’s early recordings as part of an all-star line-up that also consisted of Artie Shaw, Jack Jenney, and Teddy Wilson. Barnet’s style of sax playing was often described as unique and original.
Now focused on jazz, Barnet formed a new orchestra in late 1934, which became the first white band to play Harlem’s Apollo Theater in October. The band struggled to define itself over the next few years, however, never quite getting the recognition it needed. They landed a recording contract with Bluebird in 1936, but the label dropped them in mid-1937. Barnet himself sang during this period. Other male singers included Joe Hoste and Bobby Parks in 1936, and sax player Kurt Bloom in 1937. Harry Von Zell and Don Darcy also appeared with the early band. Laura Deane was female vocalist in 1936, though in September of that year Barnet had no girl singer at all. Gail Reese joined in October 1936, and Kathleen Lane sang in the first half of 1937, with Elise Cooper providing vocals in the latter half. Pat Miller, Shirley Lloyd, and Jane Churchill also sang. The Modernaires spent time with Barnet’s band in 1936 and early 1937. It was Barnet who gave the vocal group their name, billing them as the Barnet Modern-Aires.
Peak Popularity: 1939 to early 1942
In late 1938, Barnet began to slowly reorganize his band as it toured the country. When they turned up at the Famous Door in New York on January 17, 1939, the quality of Barnet’s new outfit surprised and amazed both patrons and critics. The group quickly began to attract attention, signing with Bluebird again and releasing a series of well-received recordings that year, including “Cherokee,” Barnet’s first big hit, which became his theme song. Judy Ellington impressed audiences as the band’s female vocalist, and the equally talented trombonist Larry Taylor joined in May to handle male singing duties. Del Casino recorded with the orchestra in September.
On October 2, 1939, Barnet’s band narrowly escaped with their lives when the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles burned to the ground. The fire began during intermission when the radio engineer for the night’s broadcast carelessly left a cloth on top of his equipment. Flames spread quickly, and Barnet’s men had no time to save their instruments or musical library. All were completely destroyed. The band quickly rebuilt, and on December 1 they again played at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the first white band to perform there since Barnet had played it five years earlier. Police riot squads had to be called out to keep the throngs back from the doors on opening night, such was the demand for seeing Barnet. The Apollo ran six shows a day to meet the demand as compared to their usual three. Barnet returned to the Apollo numerous times during the 1940s.
In August 1940, Barnet started a spat with his booking agency, Consolidated Radio Artists, by self-booking his band into New York’s Fiesta Danceteria, violating his agreement with the agency. Barnet claimed that the agency had forced him to self-book because they had promised him a return to the club in mid-September but had not followed through, and he needed to secure a New York location in order to comply with union rules on out-of-town musicians. The American Federation of Musicians, however, sided with CRA and ordered Barnet not to play the Fiesta Danceteria date. Barnet, ever the rebel, ignored the order, and in early November the AFM tore up his union card, effectively preventing him, and his musicians, from working. In order to get his card back, Barnet had to pay CRA $8,200 in fees and buy back his contract with them.
Compared to his earlier and later years, Barnet had a relatively stable line-up of vocalists from 1939 through late 1941. Taylor remained until September 1940, when he left for radio work. Bob Carroll replaced him. In October, Barnet hired trombonist and novelty singer Ford Leary. Ellington left at the end of November, replaced by Mary Ann McCall, an equally talented jazz singer who made her debut with the band during their record-breaking Apollo run. McCall remained with the band until June 1940, when Barnet decided to bring in Harriet Clark to take her place.
Clark was an understudy on the short-lived Broadway production Keep Off the Grass at the time she joined the band. Barnet’s official version of her arrival was that he had discovered her during a rehearsal of the show. The more accurate version was that Clark had sent off test records to various bandleaders. Ray Heatherton had first hired her, but she changed her mind and decided to go with Barnet instead. Barnet and Clark were seen around New York together before any official announcement of her joining, though rumors of romance were denied. McCall grew concerned and asked Barnet if she should be worried about her job. He told her no, but she later learned he’d lied, and she gave notice before Barnet could fire her. A spat between McCall and Barnet briefly spilled over to the pages of Down Beat, with both sides claiming they’d been the one to give notice.
Though Barnet billed her as “America’s Swingheart,” Clark failed to set the world on fire. She remained as vocalist for six months, but she was used in the studio only once, unlike Ellington and McCall before her, who were featured on numerous recordings. Barnet’s real interest in Clark was confirmed in late November when the two of them flew to Havana to get married. She became his fourth wife, quitting the band after her marriage. By mid-January 1941, the couple had separated, and over the next several years their relationship became fodder for the gossip columns until they finally divorced.
Clark’s departure from the band allowed Barnet to bring in his most famous and perhaps best female vocalist, Lena Horne. The African-American singer joined in December 1940 at a time when it was still quite rare and somewhat shocking for white bands to feature black artists. As with those African-American vocalists who had preceded her in making history—June Richmond, Billie Holiday, and Bon Bon—Horne faced discrimination during her short time with Barnet’s orchestra. She left in April 1941, having made four now-famous recordings with the band, including her first big hit, “Good for Nothin’ Joe.” To replace Horne, Barnet rehired McCall, who had apparently forgiven him.
Barnet attempted to use an all-female vocal quartet in early 1941 but quickly abandoned the idea and hired a mixed quartet, the Airliners, instead. They stayed very briefly. In April, Barnet brought in the Quintones, a vocal group composed of four men and one woman. Tragedy struck in late August, however, when one of the Quintones, Lloyd Hundling, was killed in a traffic accident along with Barnet guitarist Anthony “Bus” Etri. To replace him, the Quintones brought in another woman, Barbara “Bobby” Canvin, who had been one of Bing Crosby’s Music Maids. When McCall left the band in September, Canvin and fellow Quintones singer Patty Morgan became Barnet’s female vocalists alongside their vocal group duties.
October 1941 saw Barnet losing almost his entire vocal staff. Carroll left, as did Leary. The Quintones broke up that month after the draft had taken one of their key members, with Canvin and Morgan leaving to form a new vocal group together. Barnet brought in Hazel Bruce as female vocalist, temporarily at first. To replace Carroll, Quintones member Al Lane stayed with Barnet. Jack Whiting also sang in early 1942. Having trouble with his entire band at that point, Barnet decided to reorganize, bringing in an almost entirely different crew and switching labels to Decca.
Early 1942 to Spring 1944
Barnet’s new band debuted in February 1942 and featured a slightly different sound than his previous outfit, with less emphasis on hot swing and more on sweet. Barnet also pushed the color line even further by hiring several black musicians, including trumpet player Peanuts Holland, who also sang novelty numbers. Bruce and Lane initially remained as vocalists, though Lane soon found himself in the army. Barnet asked Larry Taylor to return. Taylor, who had since gone into music publishing as a partner in his own firm, rejoined Barnet as a favor. Bruce was also gone in March, with Frances Wayne taking her place at the end of that month. Wayne was a relative newcomer but Barnet was so impressed with her voice that he hired her at $225 a week, an astronomical sum for a vocalist.
For a while, it looked like the band would regain its old popularity, but the combination of the draft, a changing industry, and the American Federation of Musician’s recording ban, which started in August, quickly began to take its toll. Taylor, upon learning his wife was expecting, left as the ban took effect, returning to his music publishing house. Sax player Huck Andrews replaced him as vocalist until December when he received his draft notice. Dean Sayre took over Andrews’ sax and singing duties. Tony Palmer also sang. Wayne was gone in September, with Nita Bradley taking her place.
In early 1943, doctors ordered Barnet to take a rest. During his break, he again reorganized, opening mid-March at the Capitol Theater in New York with a new band. At first, this particular outfit featured only twelve musicians, dropping the trombone section in an effort to secure more dates at smaller hotels who couldn’t afford to book larger bands. Holland remained and McCall once more handled female vocals along with Dell Parker. Holland was the only male vocalist until trombonist James “Trummie” Young joined at the first of April. Parker had left by that date, with McCall departing in August. Virginia Maxey then took over the femme vocalist spot, though in October she shared those duties with Ann Salloway. Both were gone in November when McCall was back yet again, staying only a month. When she left in December, Harriet Clark inexplicably returned, joining the band at the Strand Theater in New York. Clark and Barnet were either separated or divorced at the time, and gossip columnists as well as industry insiders were confused. Barnet even gave Clark a mink coat for Christmas. When asked about it in mid-1945 by Erskine Johnson, Barnet added more confusion by replying:
Well, we were not speaking the last time I saw her so I hired her to sing with the band. No, that didn’t make us friends. I gave her a mink coat for Christmas but we still didn’t speak. She was mad because I kept telling her she couldn’t sing.
Clark supposedly told a friend: “I want to thank him for the coat, but he won’t talk to me.”
Clark didn’t last long, leaving in February 1944 after getting ptomaine poisoning, and McCall returned one final time, staying only briefly. At some point prior to February 1944, African-American singer and pianist Jean Eldridge also sang. Dancer Bunny Briggs began performing with the band during live shows in 1943, scat singing on occasion, and remained associated with Barnet’s outfit through 1949.
Spring 1944 to Summer 1948
Barnet went through yet another reorganization in spring 1944. Holland remained as novelty singer, with Gwen Tynes as female vocalist. Kay Starr took her place in August, and Phil Barton had joined as male vocalist by September. Starr cut a number of good sides with the band, remaining until March 1945, when Ginnie Powell took her place. When Powell left in August, Starr returned, leaving again in October due to strep throat, with Fran Warren coming in, who stayed until June 1946. Barton had left by early January 1946, with Freddie Stewart taking his place. Johnny McAfee also sang that year, with Art Robey taking over as novelty vocalist.
In August 1946, Barnet again scrapped his band, correctly predicting that other bandleaders would also be forced to break up in the following months. 1946 saw many bands struggling, and Barnet’s prediction came true, with a number of well-known orchestras, including those of Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey, and Jimmy Dorsey, folding by year’s end. High band payrolls meant venue owners had to shell out huge guarantees to book name outfits. The post-war economic situation and changing musical tastes, however, meant that those same bands failed to bring in enough customers for venue owners to make a profit, so bookings dried up, and bands in turn couldn’t find enough work to meet their payroll.
After disbanding, Barnet took a vacation and came back with a new orchestra in late 1946, paying lower salaries to his musicians, and a new label, Apollo. He began to veer away from swing music and into more commercial arrangements, proclaiming that swing was dead.
Jazz bands must vend entertainment. Kids don’t want to dance anymore. Swing disguises a multitude of musical sins. It served a purpose in the growth of American music, but it got out of hand and degenerated to unmusical din. The fad for it is over.
Robey stuck around for a while as singer. Other vocalists for Barnet’s new band included Al Lane and Betty Perry in November 1946, Billy Usher, who sang from March to October 1947, and femme chirper Jean Louise. Martha Raye recorded an album with Barnet in 1947. Vocalist Bonnie Lou Williams joined the band at the very end of its life, in August 1948. That month, Barnet finally lost interest in the commercial music industry and turned over his orchestra to Bob Dawes, exclaiming that he’d rather play real jazz and starve than play dance halls.
Late 1948 and Beyond
Barnet formed a new 21-piece orchestra in late 1948 that focused on progressive concert jazz in the tradition of Stan Kenton. Notable musicians included Doc Severinson and Maynard Ferguson with arrangements from Pete Rugulo, Mannie Alban, and Dave Matthews. Vocalists Frances Lynne and Chuck Clarke sang during the orchestra’s debut, followed by Trudy Richards, Dave Lambert, Buddy Stewart, and trumpeter Ray Wetzel.
The orchestra recorded on Capitol Records. Critics loved Barnet’s new sound, but in summer 1949, discouraged by the state of band music, he made the decision to quit once and for all. He cited the lack of enthusiasm by concert-goers and changing tastes in dance music as key in his departure from the stage. He told Down Beat:
Out of 15 one-niters, we were lucky if we got a warm reception at one. People wanted things corned up. They wanted “Hop Scotch Polka.” They didn’t care what you stood for in music.
The final concert came on October 27 at the Apollo, 15 years to the month he had first played the theater. After the break-up, Barnet went into the personal management business, becoming an associate of Carlos Gastel, where he handled Woody Herman’s orchestra. Barnet eventually settled on the West Coast, occasionally leading small combos. Financially set, he never worried about starving or making a living. He dabbled in music publishing and the restaurant business in his retirement. In the mid-1960s, he headed a big band organized specially for a two-week stint in New York’s Basin Street East. He made his last recording in 1966. Charlie Barnet died in 1991.
Numerous internet sites name Buddy Holly or Jimmy Cavallo, both 1950s rock and roll acts, as the first white band to perform at the Apollo. This is incorrect. Barnet beat them by twenty years. Several white bands played the Apollo during the big band era, including those of Woody Herman and Bob Chester. ↩︎
Kurt Bloom had a long association with Barnet, joining him sometime between September 1936 and May 1937 and remaining through multiple reorganizations until Barnet finally called it quits in 1949. Bloom temporarily took over band manager duties in 1945. ↩︎
Barnet apparently got on the plane just one step ahead of his third wife’s attempt to serve him alimony papers. He supposedly said: “Millions for defense, not a fucking cent for alimony.” ↩︎
The Airliners consisted of three men, Pat Haywood, Jimmy Engler, and Webb Tilton, no relation to Martha or Liz, and one woman Phyllis Kenny. ↩︎
Taylor was later drafted and stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he died suddenly from pneumonia in March 1943. His wife had just given birth to a child near the first of the year. ↩︎
Barnet and Raye had toured together on the theater circuit as far back as 1942. ↩︎
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.