Les Brown

Photo of Les Brown

Tireless bandleader Les Brown’s career spanned more than fifty 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.

Brown began playing sax at an early age and studied classical clarinet. He 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, recording on Decca in 1937, labeled variously as Les Brown and His Duke Blue Devils or Les Brown and The Duke University Blue Devils. Reed player Herb Muse sang.

Early Band

The Blue Devils broke up in late 1937, and Brown kept busy arranging for other orchestra leaders. In the summer of 1938 he fronted a local band at Budd Lake, New Jersey. He’d planned to take a permanent job with Larry Clinton when the season ended, but club management wouldn’t let him quit. The group recorded on Bluebird, and RCA Victor exec Eli Oberstein 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. Reviews of that first New York engagement were terrible. Vocalists Miriam Shaw and Muse, who sang specialty numbers, were praised for their “showmanly attributes,” but the band was panned for being “too wrapped up in their own playing.”

Shaw remained as female singer until February 1940, when she left to join Richard Himber. Shirley Gaye briefly took over vocal duties, staying less then two weeks before leaving for Dick Stabile. Wendy Bishop, a favorite Down Beat photographic subject, replaced her, staying until July. Muse remained through at least August 1940. The band recorded with African-American singer Shirley Howard in December 1939.

Starting with only twelve pieces, the orchestra quickly grew in both quantity and quality. Its greatest failing, however, continued to be a lack of intimacy with its audience. Even the arrival of Doris Day in August 1940 didn’t make the band seem any warmer. Day 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. Day stayed less than a year, leaving to marry Jimmy Dorsey musician Al Jorden in March 1941. Trombonist Ronnie Chase also sang in 1940 and 1941. The group recorded on Decca in 1940 and simultaneously on Okeh and Columbia in 1941 and 1942, remaining on Columbia thereafter.

Success at Last

The band finally came of age in the summer of 1941 with its first big hit, “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio,” sung by Betty Bonney, who replaced Day in May 1941. With their new success, the orchestra began to loosen up, adopting several novelty numbers and joking around on stage. 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. Saxophone player and specialty singer Butch Stone joined in October 1941 and remained with Brown, except for a period in 1947, for over thirty years. Ralph Young was vocalist from at least August 1941, remaining until June 1942 when he joined Shep Fields. Jack Carroll replaced him.

In 1942, the orchestra starred in its only movie, Seven Days Leave, with Victor Mature and Lucille Ball. Marie Green and Her Merry Men recorded with the band in 1942. Bonney left to get married in August of that year. Vocalists in November 1942 were Roberta Lee and Hal Derwin. Derwin and Lee remained until at least September 1943. Vocal group the Town Criers joined in November 1942 and remained until the end of 1943.

Brown talked the newly-divorced Doris Day into returning at the beginning of 1944. Her second stint with the orchestra coincided with her rise to stardom in 1945 with two number one hits, “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time” and “Sentimental Journey.” She stayed with the band until September 15, 1946, when she again left after getting married. Pat Flaherty replaced her. Male vocalist during this period was Gordon Drake, who sang from at least April 1944 through April 1945 when he left for Henry Jerome. The band was without a full-time male singer for a while until Jack Haskell joined in early 1946.

Later Career

Brown’s orchestra 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, as the bottom fell out of the band business. He 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 band for the engagement. After the booking he decided to continue working with the new group. Vocalists included Eileen Wilson, Ray Kellogg and Lucy Ann Polk, who sang with Brown from late 1949 to June 1953, winning Down Beat magazine’s reader poll for best female band singer for four years in a row. Brown continued to record for Columbia until switching to Coral in 1951. Martha Tilton recorded with the band in 1952.

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. Les Brown passed away from lung cancer in 2001.

Vocalist Timeline

Herb Muse
Jack Carroll
Gordon Drake
Pat Flaherty
Jack Haskell

Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. Orodenker, M.H. “The Reviewing Stand: Les Brown.” Billboard 29 Oct. 1938: 14.
  3. Ackerman, Paul. “Vaudeville Reviews: Loews State, New York.” Billboard 11 Nov. 1939: 23.
  4. Advertisement. Billboard 20 Apr. 1940: 10.
  5. Wray, Joseph H. “Dance Personalities Have Top-Ranking Possibilities.” The Gettysburgian [Gettysburg, PA] 8 Feb. 1940: 2.
  6. “On the Down Beat.” The Gettysburgian [Gettysburg, PA] 22 Feb. 1940: 2.
  7. “Bishop Joins Brown.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1940: 21.
  8. “Stuff's Here.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1940: 4.
  9. “Orchestra Personnels: Les Brown.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1940: 14.
  10. “Who's Who in Music: Les Brown.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1940: 11.
  11. “Windy Shot.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1940: 15.
  12. “Les Brown Reviews His Band.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1940: 23.
  13. “Club Talent.” Billboard 8 Mar. 1941: 17.
  14. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 31 May 1941: 10.
  15. “Record Buying Guide.” Billboard 9 Aug. 1941: 74.
  16. “Les Brown Hold over Gets New Vocalist.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1941: 18.
  17. “Record Buying Guide.” Billboard 20 Sep. 1941: 70.
  18. “On the Records: Les Brown.” Billboard 31 Jan. 1942: 37.
  19. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 21 Mar. 1942: 18.
  20. “Ralph Young to Leave Les Brown.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1942: 13.
  21. “On the Records: Les Brown.” Billboard 20 Jun. 1942: 20.
  22. “Shep Field's Singer to Head Army Band.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1942: 15.
  23. Cover. Billboard 11 Jul. 1942: 4.
  24. “On the Stand: Les Brown.” Billboard 11 Jul. 1942: 20.
  25. “Night Club Reviews: Edgewater Beach Hotel, Beach Walk, Chicago.” Billboard 8 Aug. 1942: 12.
  26. Advertisement. Billboard 19 Sep. 1942: 64.
  27. “Latest Record Releases and Pertinent Facts About Artists Represented in This Supplement: Les Brown.” Billboard 27 Sep. 1942: 59.
  28. “On the Stand: Boyd Raeburn.” Billboard 17 Oct. 1942: 21.
  29. “NSA Celebs.” Billboard 21 Nov. 1942: 35.
  30. “On the Air: Les Brown.” Billboard 28 Nov. 1942: 22.
  31. Advertisement. “Les Brown.” Billboard 28 Nov. 1942: 23.
  32. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 2 Jan. 1943: 74.
  33. “Bands Dug by the Beat: Les Brown.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1943: 18.
  34. “Sp'd Sunday Vaude Starts Fight Over $300 Rental Fee.” Billboard 13 Mar. 1943: 11.
  35. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 3 Apr. 1943: 14.
  36. “Bands Dug by the Beat: Les Brown.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1943: 16.
  37. Dugan, Bill. “The Bandbox.” Down Beat 15 May 1943: 19.
  38. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 10 Jul. 1943: 18.
  39. “Les Comes On.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1943: 11.
  40. Unknown Title. Down Beat 15 Sep 1943: 18.
  41. “Family Group is Bona Fide.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1943: 6.
  42. Kardale, Chick. “Along Chicago's Melody Row.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1944: 12.
  43. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1944: 5.
  44. “Vaudeville Reviews: Earle, Philadelphia.” Billboard 22 Apr. 1944: 27.
  45. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 28 Oct. 1944: 26.
  46. “Popular Record Releases.” Billboard 6 Jan. 1945: 22.
  47. “Jerome Band In GAC Fold Again.” Down Beat 1 May 1945: 2.
  48. “On the Stand: Les Brown.” Billboard 19 Nov. 1945: 19.
  49. “Advanced Record Releases.” Billboard 27 Apr. 1946: 122.
  50. “Music as Written.” Billboard 18 May 1946: 26.
  51. “Night Clubs-Vaudeville: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 26 Oct. 1946: 49.