Guy Lombardo was more than just an orchestra leader, he was an institution. Every New Year’s Eve at the stroke of midnight, millions of listeners from all across America would tune in, via radio and later television, to hear Lombardo and His Royal Canadians play their familiar theme song, “Auld Lang Syne.” Lombardo was the consummate bandleader. He presented the kind of music that the general public wanted to hear and to which they wanted to dance, what he called the “Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven.”
The son of an immigrant tailor, Lombardo grew up in a musical family. Brother Carmen played flute and saxophone, while brother Lebert (Liebert) played drums and trumpet. Younger brother, Victor, played clarinet and sax. Guy himself learned the violin as a child and formed a dance band with his brothers in 1916. The group proved popular in the area around their London, Ontario, home, and in November 1923 they traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, to make an attempt on the American market.
In March of 1924, the Lombardos’ band recorded several songs for the Gennett label. These recordings reveal the group’s early jazz roots. Their sound differed little from that of other white bands of the era, however, and the recordings sold poorly. They soon realized that changes were needed if the orchestra was going to survive. They began to develop their own brand of sweet music, focusing on melody over improvisation. Brother Carmen also helped create a distinct saxophone sound which gave them instant listener recognition and helped set them apart from all the other bands. Their big break finally came in Chicago in 1927 when Guy paid radio station WBBM to broadcast a fifteen-minute segment of their performance at the Granada Cafe. By the end of the night the ballroom was packed and the radio station had received so many calls that they extended the broadcast further into the evening.
Around this time Guy gave up his violin for a baton and began to front the band. This proved a positive move, as his bright, outgoing personality was perfect for the orchestra’s image. He would banter with the audience as they danced near the bandstand, laughing, joking, and putting everyone in a good mood. Also around this time the band took the name “Royal Canadians” as a compromise when their agent tried to convince them to dress as Mounties.
In October of 1929, the Lombardo orchestra began a long booking into the Roosevelt Grill in New York City. Radio broadcasts on WABC helped draw a crowd, so much so that on December 31st a competition developed over the rights to the show. A compromise was reached. CBS broadcasted the first half, up to the stroke of midnight, and NBC the other half, after midnight. It was at that time when Lombardo began his tradition of playing “Auld Lang Syne” to a national audience on New Year’s Eve, one that would last until his death, from the Roosevelt Hotel until 1966 and then from the Waldorf-Astoria.
The Royal Canadians enjoyed great success throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Not everyone appreciated their music however. They were often the butt of jokes. A Woody Woodpecker cartoon portrayed one of their records in a square shape. Still, many others found much to praise about Lombardo, including Louis Armstrong, who called Lombardo his favorite bandleader. Lombardo also consistently ranked high on orchestra polls and even set the record for attendance at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.
Vocals in the early years were for the most part provided by Guy’s brother, Carmen, and brother-in-law, Kenny Gardner, who joined the family when he married sister Elaine. Other vocalists over the years included brother Lebert, sister Rose Marie, Bill Flannigan, Tony Craig, Cliff Grass, Don Rodney, Stuart Foster, Jimmie Brown, Skip Nelson, Hildegarde, Edie Adams, Kenny Martin, and Billy Leach. The orchestra recorded for Columbia up until 1935 when they switched to Decca.
In 1953, the Royal Canadians failed to chart a song for the first time since 1929. They continued to enjoy steady bookings and immense popularity however. They were featured in their own television program in 1954 and 1955, and Guy even made several appearances on Laugh-In in the late 1960s. During the 1970s, though, the orchestra began to go into decline. Carmen died in 1971 and the band’s heart seemed to go with it. Guy appeared tired of performing but never admitted it. He continued to press on, playing to a increasingly gray-haired audience. In November of 1977, Guy suffered a massive coronary and passed away. Victor took over the band briefly but couldn’t maintain it. When Lebert severed his ties in 1979, the group finally dissolved. The orchestra was later revived in 1989 by Al Pierson, playing a mix of nostalgic tunes and modern arrangements.
Aside from his show business career, Lombardo was also a champion speedboat racer. He won numerous titles during the 1940s and 1950s and once set a world record.