Guy Lombardo

Photo of Guy Lombardo
  • Birth Name

    Gaetano Albert Lombardo
  • Born

    June 19, 1902
    London, Ontario, Canada
  • Died

    November 5, 1977 (age 75)
    Houston, Texas
  • Featured Vocalists

    Stuart Foster
    Skip Nelson

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 played drums and trumpet.[1] 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 the three oldest brothers 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. Brother Victor joined them in 1929.

In October 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 aired 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, 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. The orchestra recorded on Brunswick up until 1934 when they switched to Decca. They left Decca for Victor in 1935 but returned to Decca in 1938.


Up until late 1939, Carmen was the orchestra’s lead vocalist. He also sang as part of a trio with fellow sax players Fred Higman and Larry Owen, both of whom had been with the band since the 1920s. The trio had no name until 1939, when it became the Lombardo Trio. The vocal department began to diversify in 1939 when reedman Mert Curtis joined the band. Curtis sang solo and also took the place of Owen in the trio. Various versions of the trio continued over the years. Brother Lebert sang in 1939 and the early 1940s.

Kenny Gardner became the band’s first dedicated singer in December 1940, remaining until the draft took him in mid-1942. By that time, Carmen had been relegated to singing only with the trio. Bobby Gibson replaced Gardner as lead vocalist. Gibson left in September, replaced by Billy Leach, who fell victim to the draft in fall 1943. Skip Nelson briefly replaced Leach, but Lombardo thought Nelson overpowered the band and released him in January 1944. Tony Craig then took over, leaving by early fall, with former Ina Ray Hutton singer Stuart Foster taking his place. Foster left in December to join Hutton’s new band.

Sax player and vocalist Jimmy Brown joined the band in late 1943 and became the band’s lead vocalist after Foster left, with guitarist Don Rodney, who had joined the band in mid-1944, also singing that year. Rodney became the main singer in 1946, with Curtis as secondary. After Gardner rejoined the band in 1947, he and Rodney mainly handled the band’s vocal chores. When Rodney left in 1949, guitarist Bill Flannigan shared vocal duties with Gardner. Gardner, who married Lombardo sister Elaine, remained with the band for many years. Clarinetist Cliff Grass, who joined in 1947, also sang.

Sister Rose Marie was the orchestra’s main female vocalist. She first recorded with the band under her own name in 1940 and from 1942 to 1947 sang on stage and appeared on numerous recordings under the band’s name. Kay Penton was vocalist in September 1943. Kay Armen recorded with the band in February 1945, and in 1945 and 1946 Lombardo shared billing on Decca sides with both the Andrews Sisters and Hildegarde.

Later Years

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.


  1. Lebert’s name was often incorrectly spelled Leibert. ↩︎


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Who's Who in Music: Guy Lombardo's Ork.” Down Beat Aug. 1939: 12.
  3. “The Reviewing Stand: Guy Lombardo.” Billboard 13 Apr. 1940: 15.
  4. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 11 May 1940: 24.
  5. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 21 Dec. 1940: 64.
  6. “On the Stand: Guy Lombardo.” Billboard 11 Oct. 1941: 12.
  7. “Changes in Personnel Of Bands.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1942: 15.
  8. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1942: 5.
  9. “Billy Leach.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1942: 13.
  10. “On the Air: Guy Lombardo.” Billboard 31 Oct. 1942: 22.
  11. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1943: 13.
  12. “Vaudeville Reviews: RKO-Boston, Boston.” Billboard 25 Sep. 1943: 17.
  13. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1944: 5.
  14. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 2 Jun. 1945: 31.
  15. “We Do Have Standards!” Down Beat 30 Jul. 1947: 5.
  16. “Guy Makes Few Switches, Just Rolls On.” Down Beat 3 Nov. 1948: 13.