Les Brown

Photo of Les Brown
  • Birth Name

    Lester Raymond Brown
  • Born

    March 14, 1912
    Reinerton, Pennsylvania
  • Died

    January 4, 2001 (age 88)
    Los Angeles, California

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. Wendy Bishop, pre­vi­ously with Dick Stabile and a fa­vorite Down Beat pho­to­graphic sub­ject, re­placed Shaw. Bishop stayed un­til July, leav­ing to join the seven-piece Latin combo led by her hus­band, pi­anist Arturo Arturos. 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 Crosbys 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.

Music

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  • From Now On
    Les Brown (Miriam Shaw), Bluebird (1938)
  • Oh Marie!
    Les Brown (Herb Muse), Bluebird (1939)
  • Three at a Table for Two
    Les Brown (Doris Day), Okeh (1940)
  • Celery Stalks at Midnight
    Les Brown (Doris Day), Okeh (1941)
  • Amapola (Pretty Little Poppy)
    Les Brown (Doris Day, Ronnie Chase), Okeh (1941)
  • Joltin' Joe DiMaggio
    Les Brown (Betty Bonney), Columbia (1941)
  • I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)
    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.

Radio

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  • One Night Stand: Les Brown
    September 4, 1945 (AFRS) 29:01

Sources

  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. “Bishop Joins Brown.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1940: 21.
  6. “Stuff's Here.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1940: 4.
  7. “Orchestra Personnels: Les Brown.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1940: 14.
  8. “Who's Who in Music: Les Brown.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1940: 11.
  9. “Windy Shot.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1940: 15.
  10. “Les Brown Reviews His Band.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1940: 23.
  11. “Club Talent.” Billboard 8 Mar. 1941: 17.
  12. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 31 May 1941: 10.
  13. “Record Buying Guide.” Billboard 9 Aug. 1941: 74.
  14. “Record Buying Guide.” Billboard 20 Sep. 1941: 70.
  15. “On the Records: Les Brown.” Billboard 31 Jan. 1942: 37.
  16. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 21 Mar. 1942: 18.
  17. “On the Records: Les Brown.” Billboard 20 Jun. 1942: 20.
  18. “Shep Field's Singer to Head Army Band.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1942: 15.
  19. Cover. Billboard 11 Jul. 1942: 4.
  20. “On the Stand: Les Brown.” Billboard 11 Jul. 1942: 20.
  21. “Night Club Reviews: Edgewater Beach Hotel, Beach Walk, Chicago.” Billboard 8 Aug. 1942: 12.
  22. Advertisement. Billboard 19 Sep. 1942: 64.
  23. “Latest Record Releases and Pertinent Facts About Artists Represented in This Supplement: Les Brown.” Billboard 27 Sep. 1942: 59.
  24. “NSA Celebs.” Billboard 21 Nov. 1942: 35.
  25. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 2 Jan. 1943: 74.
  26. “Sp'd Sunday Vaude Starts Fight Over $300 Rental Fee.” Billboard 13 Mar. 1943: 11.
  27. “Les Comes On.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1943: 11.
  28. Unknown Title. Down Beat 15 Sep 1943: 18.
  29. “Vaudeville Reviews: Earle, Philadelphia.” Billboard 22 Apr. 1944: 27.
  30. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 28 Oct. 1944: 26.
  31. “Popular Record Releases.” Billboard 6 Jan. 1945: 22.
  32. “Jerome Band In GAC Fold Again.” Down Beat 1 May 1945: 2.
  33. “On the Stand: Les Brown.” Billboard 19 Nov. 1945: 19.
  34. “Advanced Record Releases.” Billboard 27 Apr. 1946: 122.
  35. “Music as Written.” Billboard 18 May 1946: 26.
  36. “Night Clubs-Vaudeville: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 26 Oct. 1946: 49.