Composer and arranger George Paxton was a busy man during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Paxton grew up in New Jersey, where he learned to play the saxophone and trombone as a youth. He formed his first group, a six-man outfit, in 1933 while still in high school. The band included guitarist Tony Mottolo and saxophonist Herbie Haymer. The three later moved to New York, where bandleader and Meadowbrook Inn owner Frank Dailey hired Paxton to write arrangements.
In the late 1930s, Paxton joined George Hall as an arranger and sax player. He also sang novelty numbers with the orchestra. When Hall went on tour in 1940, Paxton remained in New York and found work arranging for Bunny Berigan and singer Bea Wain. He briefly moved to Cincinnati to join Charlie Spivak but soon returned to New York, where Ina Ray Hutton hired him in February 1942 as arranger and saxophonist.
Hutton, who had recently disbanded her all-female orchestra and formed a new all-male group. reportedly paid Paxton fifty percent of her profits for his talent. He eventually came to play an important role in the band, becoming its music director and de facto leader. Paxton also arranged for Vaughn Monroe, Paul Lavelle and Sammy Kaye.
Forms Own Orchestra
In May 1944, Paxton announced the formation of his own 18-piece orchestra, comprised of six brass, five sax, three rhythm and four strings. Alan Dale and Liz Morrow provided vocals. By the time of its debut on June 23, 1944, at the Palisades in New Jersey, it had become 19 pieces with the addition of another musician to the brass section. The group would play Paxton arrangements exclusively. After three nights at the Palisades, the band made a short trip to Florida and then back to New Jersey before opening at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, where it had been booked for ten weeks.
Paxton’s orchestra was highly promoted. Paxton himself made the cover of Billboard magazine on September 16, 1944, and the band’s Roseland stay was extended into 1945. In late 1944, the group signed with the Hit recording label, which later merged with the Classic label to form Majestic. They also made two soundies with Filmcraft: Dance with a Dolly in late 1944, and Pretty Kitty Blue Eyes in early 1945. Liz Morrow sang on the former; Ann Parker on the latter. Virginia Maxey was also vocalist in early 1945, replaced by Dottie Reid, who remained only a short while before being dropped from the band.
Paxton’s band was one of the most expensive orchestras in the business. Its large size taxed the pocketbooks of both leader and theater owner, as the hype and promotion surrounding it drove booking prices well above what the band could make at the door. Booking agents charged top band prices, when Paxton drew only average attendance. While at New York’s Hotel Lincoln in March 1945, Paxton dropped his string section in an effort to save money. Rumors suggested that the hotel had demanded it.
In May 1945, Paxton left Majestic for the Guild label. Dale still provided male vocals. Julie Hewitt had become female vocalist by late 1945, and trumpet player Johnny Bond also sang. Dale left to go solo in April 1946, and Lee Taylor was brought in to replace him. Taylor stayed until the end of 1946, when Dick Merrick took over his duties. Rosemary Calvin became female vocalist in August 1945, and a vocal group, the Five Lynns, sang in early 1946. The orchestra was back on Majestic by mid-1946.
Continued Financial Problems
The band’s expensive nature continued to plague Paxton. In January 1946, his orchestra became the focal point of a breakup between partners of the Robbins booking agency. Paxton was reportedly $35,000 in debt to Robbins, and the question of who would take on the band was contentious. Paxton eventually ended up in an unhappy relationship with the Frederick Brothers agency before managing to part with them in August 1946, after making payment arrangements for his massive debt. Paxton hopped between different booking agencies for the next two years, trying to find one that could book the band profitably.
In an effort to cut expenses, Paxton revamped and streamlined his orchestra in May 1947, reducing its size to twelve musicians. The new band had an unusual composition, featuring an accordion, vibes, two trumpets, one trombone, one french horn, four rhythm, and two sax players who also doubled on flute and clarinet. Paxton played trombone and shared arrangement duties with Fred Weismantel. Merrick and Betty Norton provided vocals. The new grouping, which featured many musical gimmicks, proved unsuccessful, and Paxton returned to sixteen pieces the following month.
1947 also saw Majestic drop Paxton from its stable in June. The band didn’t sign another recording contract until October, with MGM. In the interim, the Musicraft label released a few previously unreleased Paxton recordings made for the Hit label in 1944.
By late 1948, Calvin had returned as female vocalist, but Paxton had grown weary of leading a band. In early 1949, he scrapped it and opened his own music publishing house. He later co-founded the Coed record label in 1958, which had as its biggest stars Adam Wade, the Crests, the Duprees, and the Rivieras.
Paxton became embroiled in the 1960 payola scandal in which DJ and American Bandstand host Dick Clark was accused of accepting payment to promote songs on his various programs. Paxton, who testified before the House of Representatives, paid Clark to push the Crests’ recording of “16 Candles,” making a reported $200,000 personal profit from the deal. Coed went out of business in the early 1960s.
George Paxton died in 1989, age 75, of an apparent suicide. His body was found on the beach of his oceanfront condominium in Vero Beach, Florida.