Glen Gray

Photo of Glen Gray
  • Birth Name

    Glenn Gray Knoblauch
  • Born

    July 7, 1900
    Roanoke, Illinois
  • Died

    August 23, 1963 (age 63)
    Plymouth, Massachusetts

As leader of the Casa Loma Orchestra, Glen Gray’s name is syn­ony­mous with the band, and it was of­ten billed un­der his name, es­pe­cially in its later years. Progressive for their time, as early as 1929 the Casa Loma Orchestra be­gan play­ing the same mix­ture of hot jazz and sweet bal­lads that Benny Goodman would later pop­u­lar­ize, mak­ing it the first white band to ex­plore the emerg­ing swing style.

Originally named the Orange Blossoms, the group first formed in Detroit dur­ing the mid-1920s as an off­shoot of Jean Goldkette’s or­ches­tra. Gray, then known as Spike Knoblauch, joined the group in the win­ter of 1925-26 as a sax player. Henry Biagini was leader. Playing in and around the Detroit area, the Orange Blossoms were booked into a brand new Toronto club called the Casa Loma in 1927. Built in prepa­ra­tion for a visit by the Prince of Wales, the club never opened, and in 1929 the Orange Blossoms, shed­ding Goldkette’s man­tel and strik­ing out on their own, de­cided to re­name them­selves the Casa Loma Orchestra in mem­o­rium.

The band­mem­bers formed a co­op­er­a­tive, dis­miss­ing Biagini and elect­ing Gray as pres­i­dent and leader. Mel Jenssen be­came front man. They moved to New York and were soon booked into the Roseland Ballroom, where a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from Okeh Records dis­cov­ered them and of­fered a deal. Gene Gifford’s imag­i­na­tive arrange­ments set the band’s style. Alternating be­tween big band jazz and sen­ti­men­tal bal­lads, the group sounded bet­ter on the lat­ter than it did on the for­mer. Never in its his­tory did it re­ally have a great lineup, and of­ten times it sounded flat when at­tempt­ing jazz. Nevertheless, the Casa Loma Orchestra had a unique sound and quickly be­gan to at­tract the at­ten­tion of the hip­per col­lege crowd.

After cut­ting six sides for Okeh, the group signed with Brunswick. They were so pop­u­lar, how­ever, that Victor also signed them, and the group ended up record­ing on both la­bels si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Eventually they be­gan to record ex­clu­sively for Brunswick and re­mained there un­til sign­ing with Decca in 1943. Kenny Sargent, who also played sax, was vo­cal­ist for many years. On their first sides for Okeh and Brunswick, they were billed as sim­ply the Casa Loma Orchestra.” Victor how­ever billed them as the Glen Gray Orchestra.” After leav­ing Victor they be­gan us­ing the com­bined moniker Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra.”

In 1933 and 1934, the group was fea­tured on the Camel Caravan ra­dio pro­gram, be­com­ing the first swing band to ap­pear on a com­mer­cial ra­dio se­ries. They played both sum­mers at the Glen Island Casino, where fre­quent ra­dio broad­casts helped boost their pop­u­lar­ity across the coun­try. By 1935, how­ever, the swing era had be­gun, and the or­ches­tra was no longer a trend set­ter. Gifford, whose al­co­holism made him un­re­li­able, was fired and re­placed by Dorsey Brothers arranger Larry Clinton, who did his best at the dif­fi­cult job of writ­ing book for the band. Despite these set­backs, they con­tin­ued to re­main pop­u­lar, in­au­gu­rat­ing the Paramount Theater’s stage band pol­icy and set­tling in to a book­ing at the swank Rainbow Room.

In 1937, Gray de­cided to front the group him­self and dis­missed Jenssen. Clinton left for Tommy Dorsey and was re­placed by Dorsey arranger Dick Jones. Arranger Larry Wagner joined the fol­low­ing year. By 1940, how­ever, the Casa Loma Orchestra had be­gun to lose its pop­u­lar­ity. Major per­son­nel changes fol­lowed. Tutti Camarata and Harry Rodgers now arranged. The LeBrun Sisters sang. Sargent left in 1943. Later vo­cal­ists in­clude Eugenie Baird, Bob Anthony, and Skip Nelson. Red Nichols also ap­peared with the band for a short time. By 1946, though, the group’s pop­u­lar­ity had tanked, and they called it quits.

Music

Previous <<
Play > Pause ||
Next >>
0:00 / 0:00
Select a song to play
Play All
  • My Heart Tells
    Glen Gray (Eugenie Baird), Decca (1944)
  • Suddenly It's Spring
    Glen Gray (Eugenie Baird), Decca (1944)
  • While You're Away
    Glen Gray (Skip Nelson), Decca (1945)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.

Radio

Previous <<
Play > Pause ||
Next >>
0:00 / 0:00
Select a program to play
Play All
  • One Night Stand: Glen Gray
    April 5, 1944 (AFRS) 28:57