Born in 1905 in the Ukraine, Charlie Spivak came to the United States with his parents in 1910, settling in Connecticut. Spivak studied trumpet as a youth, playing in his high school band while also working with local groups, including John Cavallaro’s orchestra. In 1924, he became part of Phil Sprecht’s band, remaining with Sprecht until 1930. Spivak then hooked up with Ben Pollack in 1931. He left Pollack in late 1934 for the Dorsey Brothers and then joined Ray Noble the following spring. During 1936 and 1937, Spivak worked mainly as a studio musician, including stints with Gus Arnheim, Glenn Miller, and Raymond Scott’s radio orchestra. He joined Bob Crosby in January of 1938, staying until August when he went to work for Tommy Dorsey. He left Dorsey in June of 1939 for Jack Teagarden.
In late 1939, Spivak was encouraged by Miller to form his own orchestra, which Miller backed financially. Spivak’s new band debut in November of 1939. Within a year, however, Spivak was forced to disband due to internal conflicts. Not letting his initial failure deter him, he then took over Bill Downer’s orchestra. Spivak’s new band emerged as one of the top commercial outfits in the country, surviving the post-war band bust and continuing until the late 1950s.
Despite Spivak’s past employment with some of the top jazz groups of the day, his orchestra played it straight, focusing on ballads and popular numbers. Featured in the band during its formative years were drummer Davey Tough, bassist Jimmy Middleton, and trumpeter Les Elgart. Nelson Riddle played trombone and shared arranging duties with Sonny Burke. Early vocalists were Garry Stevens and the Stardusters quartet, which featured June Hutton, who also sang solo with the band. When Spivak fired the Stardusters in September 1943, he brought in former Gene Krupa vocalist Irene Daye to replace Hutton. Daye stayed with the band for many years, marrying Spivak in 1950. Other vocalists during the 1940s included Betty Bonney, Tommy Mercer and Jimmy Saunders.
In the beginning days of his orchestra, Spivak, known as “Cheery, Chubby Charlie,” played his trumpet with a mute, trying to project a softer tone. He later switched to playing open trumpet, for which he received great critical acclaim. He was one of the better trumpet players of the era, though he was undoubtedly overshadowed by Harry James. He never completely gave up his mute, however, until later in his career.
In the late 1950s, Spivak moved to Florida, where he continued to lead a band until 1963, when illness forced him to briefly retire. After recovering, he led bands in Las Vegas and Miami. In 1967, he organized a small outfit that played regularly at the Ye Olde Fireplace restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina, with Daye as vocalist. Daye battled cancer during the last years of her life, finally losing that battle in 1971. Spivak remained at the restaurant up until his death in 1982. In his last few years, he led a new seventeen-piece orchestra.
One printed source and many online biographies say that Spivak began working with Don Cavallaro’s orchestra while still in school. The correctness of this fact is questionable. I’ve yet to find evidence that a Don Cavallaro existed. There was, however, a John Cavallaro who operated an orchestra based out of New Haven, Connecticut, Spivak’s home area, during the 1920s. This is most likely a typo or a mistake in the original printed source. ↩︎