Les Brown

Les Brown
  • Birth Name
    Lester Raymond Brown
  • Born
    March 14, 1912
    Reinerton, Pennsylvania
  • Died
    January 4, 2001
    Los Angeles, California (age 88)

Tireless bandleader Les Brown’s career spanned more than seventy years. Remembered best today for vocalist Doris Day and the song “Sentimental Journey,” as well as for his work with Bob Hope and his efforts to entertain American troops abroad, Brown truly reflected the spirit of American popular music in the golden age. His band members loved and respected him and took pride in their music. They also had a great deal of fun.

Raised in Tower City, Pennsylvania, Brown’s father, a baker by trade, played soprano in a sax quartet that performed the music of John Phillip Sousa. Brown began playing sax at an early age and made his professional debut in a band at age nine. At age 14, he formed his own orchestra, The Royal Serertadore. He later enrolled at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, where he studied classical clarinet. He then attended Duke University and joined the Blue Devils orchestra, which he took over as leader in his junior year. The group left Duke behind in the spring of 1936 and went on the road, finally disbanding late the next year.

After the group’s break up, Brown kept busy arranging for such orchestra leaders as Larry Clinton, Ruby Newman, and Don Bestor. In the summer of 1938 he fronted a local band at Budd Lake, New Jersey, and recorded for Decca. He’d planned to take a permanent job with Clinton when the season ended, but club management wouldn’t let him quit. Around the same time he switched labels to Bluebird, and an RCA Victor exec took interest in him, convincing him to organize a better band and arranging for him a booking in the Green Room of New York’s Edison Hotel.

Starting with only twelve pieces, the orchestra quickly grew in both quantity and quality. Its greatest failing, however, was a lack of intimacy with its audience. Even the arrival of Doris Day in the summer of 1940 didn’t make the band seem any warmer. Doris had been working for Bob Crosby’s group but had decided to quit after, reports say, a member of the band had made strong passes at her and frightened her. She fit right in with Brown’s group, who were probably as respectable as swing musicians could be. Doris stayed for only a year, retiring, temporarily, to marry Jimmy Dorsey musician Al Jordan.

The band finally came of age in the summer of 1941 with its first big hit, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” sung by Betty Bonney. With their new success, the orchestra began to loosen up, adopting several novelty numbers and joking around on stage. Vocalists during the early 1940s included Bonney, who sang in 1941 and 1942, Butch Stone and Ralph Young. By that time the group had become known as “Les Brown and His Band of Renown,” a name given to them by a radio announcer.

In 1942, the orchestra starred in its first movie, Seven Days Leave, with Lucille Ball and Carmen Miranda, and began a series of Coca-Cola-sponsored radio broadcasts from military bases. Brown also talked Doris Day into returning late that year, and not long after her arrival they recorded their biggest hit, “Sentimental Journey.”

The group remained popular throughout the war years. Brown, however, began to be less and less interested in being a bandleader and more interested in the music publishing business. In December 1946, he disbanded, as did many orchestra leaders, due to financial losses and settled in Los Angeles but soon learned that he had forgotten about a March booking at the Palladium. Management wouldn’t let him out of his contract, so he was forced to throw together a new band for the engagement. After the booking he decided to continue working with the new group, which included most of his former musicians.

In the late 1940s, Brown and his orchestra appeared on Bob Hope’s radio program, and in the 1960s and 1970s they worked on Hope’s television specials and on various programs for Dean Martin and Steve Allen. The band continued to perform through the end of the century. In 1996, Brown was awarded an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the leader of the longest lasting musical organization in the history of popular music. Les Brown passed away from lung cancer in 2001.

Music

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  • Celery Stalks at Midnight
    Les Brown (Doris Day), Okeh (1941)
  • Joltin' Joe DiMaggio
    Les Brown (Betty Bonney), Columbia (1941)
  • My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time
    Les Brown (Doris Day), Columbia (1945)
  • Sentimental Journey
    Les Brown (Doris Day), Columbia (1945)
  • Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief
    Les Brown (Butch Stone), Columbia (1946)
  • The Best Man
    Les Brown (Butch Stone), Columbia (1946)

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