Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters emerged as one of the country’s leading orchestras during the late 1930s. Savitt, who was classically trained, had no background in jazz, but his use of a musical device called “shuffle rhythm” allowed his group to swing with the best of them. This device, which featured a piano playing double time, gave the orchestra a relatively fresh sound in comparison to many of the dedicated swing outfits and earned them engagements at some of the country’s top spots. The Top Hatters were also quite capable of producing wonderful ballads, making them an all-around favorite with listening audiences.
Born in Russia, where his father had been a drummer in the Imperial Regimental Band of Tsar Nicholas II, Savitt immigrated to the United States with his family at age fifteen. Hailed as a child prodigy on the violin he won several scholarships to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and later became the youngest person to perform with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.
In 1936, Savitt organized his own string quartet, which earned a spot on a national radio series and won the Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal Award. These achievements caught the attention of local Philadelphia radio stations WCAU and KYW, where Savitt was offered employment as musical director. There he formed the Top Hatters. The group’s most popular early hit was the highly swinging “720 in the Books,” so named because that was the song’s number in the band’s catalogue. In the early 1940s, Savitt added a string section to the orchestra.
Savitt’s primary girl singer was the lovely Carlotta Dale. His early male vocalist and featured star was Bon Bon, a wonderful performer with a rich voice and one of the first African-Americans to work with a white band. Aside from Bon Bon and Dale, Savitt used a variety of vocalists, including Betty Bonney, Eugenie Baird, Allan DeWitt, Dorsey Anderson and actress Gloria DeHaven.
In the late 1940s, Savitt found himself in debt to the IRS. To earn extra money he scheduled a series of one-night performances. Savitt’s life was tragically cut short during that tour however when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while traveling to a show in Sacramento.