Though it began life as a six-piece jazz band in the mid-1920s, Hal Kemp’s orchestra reached the peak of its popularity in the mid-1930s playing sweet music. Kemp’s outfit had its roots in his days as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina. The early band featured John Scott Trotter on piano and Skinnay Ennis on drums and made its first recordings on Brunswick in 1928. Fred Waring financially backed Kemp’s group in its early days, and among the orchestra’s fans was Prince George, the future King George VI of England. The band made a tour of Europe in 1930.
By the early 1930s, personnel changes had reduced the quality of musicianship and hurt the band’s sound. Only Kemp, who played clarinet, and arranger Trotter could competently read music. Trotter often needed to sing the tune to help musicians learn new songs. The group’s lack of strong instrumentalists forced him to develop a muted, simple style built on staccato triplets that could be easily played. At the same time, however, he kept the rhythms interesting. The resulting sound was unlike any other band during this period, and by 1934 it had caught the public’s ear. Metronome magazine readers twice voted Kemp best sweet orchestra. When Trotter left in 1936, Hal Mooney took over as arranger.
Always playing the part of a Southern gentlemen, Kemp was well-liked by his musicians and singers. Ennis was the band’s most popular vocalist, stepping out from behind his drum kit to sing in his unique breathy voice. Bob Allen joined in 1933 and handled songs that required more powerful vocals. When Ennis left Kemp in 1938 to start his own band, Allen took over as the sole male vocalist. Sax player and novelty singer Saxie Dowell joined in 1934.
Deane Janis became the orchestra’s first female vocalist in 1932. By July 1935, Maxine Gray had replaced her. Gray briefly left the band at the end of 1937 in relation to film work, either promised or actual. Rosalind Marquis took her place, but Gray was back with the band by early February 1938. The orchestra suffered a tragedy, though, that same month when the train they were travelling on left the tracks at Worth, Illinois, and crashed. Kemp himself received only minor cuts, but other band members were more seriously injured, including Gray, forcing her to leave the band. The diminutive Judy Starr, who was 25 inches shorter than Kemp and the wife of Kemp bassist Jack Shirra, stepped in to take over.
Dowell had left the band by 1938, with trumpet player Harry Wiliford taking over novelty vocals. Dowell returned in 1939. Kemp tried adding swing into his repertoire to keep up with the times, though with a humorous twist. In 1938, he himself “sang”, with the group’s vocalists joining in as the Swing-a-roosters, but the band was never really capable of swinging to any degree.
Starr left in early 1939. Fredda Gibson, who like Kemp was under contract to CBS, replaced her until Gray returned briefly in May as the band began a new radio program, Time to Shine, sponsored by Griffin shoe polish. Gray stayed only two weeks however, and Nan Wynn, who had been featured on the program, took over. Wynn was not an employee of Kemp. Like with Gibson, both she and Kemp were under contract to CBS and Griffin, and when Griffin canceled Time to Shine in October, Wynn and Kemp parted company. Kemp had a hard time finding a replacement for Wynn. Clair Martin stepped in to record with the band in December while Kemp auditioned 500 girls in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh without finding anyone he wanted. Janet Blair finally took over as vocalist in early 1940. In 1939, Kemp also began to feature a vocal group called The Smoothies.
Kemp moved to the Victor label in 1937. The quality and popularity of his band declined throughout the late 1930s, with a brief period of revival during Nan Wynn’s tenure as female vocalist. He was in the midst of revitalizing the orchestra in late 1940 when he tragically lost his life on December 21 as the result of an automobile accident. Kemp was driving between engagements, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, when his car struck another head-on in Madera, California. He suffered a fractured leg and several broken ribs, passing away two days later from pneumonia. The band’s clarinetist Kenny LaBohn was also in the car and suffered less serious injuries.
The orchestra continued for a few weeks without a leader fulfilling radio obligations with Allen and others acting as front men. Allen for a while was expected to take over, as was Ennis, who at the time was leading the band on Bob Hope’s radio program. Without Kemp, however, the orchestra fell apart. In mid-1941, Art Jarrett secured the right to use Kemp’s book and music. About half of Kemp’s former musicians joined the new group.
Though Ennis spelled his name “Skinnay” after he left Kemp, he was billed as “Skinny” Ennis by both Brunswick and Victor. ↩︎
Saxie Dowell’s most enduring contribution to popular music was his original composition “Three Little Fishes”, first recorded and performed by Kemp, with The Smoothies on vocals. Dowell also wrote the song “Playmates.” ↩︎
Brunswick misspelled Gray’s last name on its labels, billing her as “Maxine Grey.” ↩︎
The train was the St. Louis Limited on the Wabash Railroad. ↩︎
Judy Starr had first tried to join Kemp’s orchestra in 1929, when female band vocalists were almost unheard of. She wrote to Kemp regularly over the next few years, reminding him of her interest, until she married Shirra. ↩︎
Fredda Gibson later changed her name to Georgia Gibbs. ↩︎