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.
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, labled variously as Les Brown and His Duke Blue Devils or Les Brown and The Duke University Blue Devils. Reed player Herb Muse sang.
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 an 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. Miriam Shaw, female vocalist, 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 until February 1940, when she left to join Richard Himber. Shirley Gaye briefly took over vocal duties 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.
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 late 1941 and remained until the group disbanded in 1946. Ralph Young was vocalist from at least August 1941, remaining until July 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, Hal Derwin, and the Town Criers. Derwin and Lee remained until at least September 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.
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. Vocalists included Eileen Wilson, Ray Kellogg and Lucy Ann Polk. Brown continued to record for Columbia until switching to Coral in 1951.
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.