The Mitchell Ayres Orchestra was a cooperative effort founded by ex-members of the Little Jack Little Orchestra in the mid-1930s. Violinist Ayres served as president and front man for the band, an atypical collection of performers which at first glance appeared more like a group of homely scientists than an orchestra. Nevertheless, the band, whose catch phrase was “Fashions in Music,” proved itself one of the more musical hotel ballroom orchestras. Employing a unique sound that emphasized melody, the band never truly swung hard but did present good arrangements, specializing in novelty numbers and swing versions of the classics.
Born in Milwaukee, Ayres was considered a violin prodigy as a teenager but put aside his musical studies to attend Columbia University in New York, where he became an all-around athlete. After graduation, he returned to the violin and took a job with the pit band at the Roxy Theater. He later played with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra before joining his first dance band, led by Jimmy Carr. After working with Ben Marden, he ended up with Little Jack Little. When Little walked away from the band in late 1936, the musicians decided to continue on as a cooperative unit, electing Ayres as their leader.
The band spent the first eight months of 1937 at the Hollywood Restaurant in New York, where they began to attract attention, signing with Master Recordings in early spring and making sides for the Variety label. Ruth Gaylor was vocalist by April, with songwriter Abner Silver recording one of his songs with the band that same month. When Ayres left the Hollywood in August to begin a road tour, Gaylor stayed behind at the club. Mary Ann Mercer had joined as female vocalist by January 1938. Competent on ballads and novelty numbers, she remained with the band for three-and-a-half years, becoming one of its star attractions.
Ayres recorded on Vocalion in early 1939 and later that year signed with RCA Victor, where the band was placed with their Bluebird subsidiary, becoming one of the label’s top selling artists. Tommy Taylor joined as male vocalist in late 1939. He and Mercer made a formidable duo, often singing and recording together. In late 1940, Ayres brought in trombone player and singer Warren Covington, who remained with the band through at least mid-1942. 1940 also saw the addition of comedy singer Gee Gee, who performed child and animal roles in novelty songs.
Mid-1941 saw big changes in Ayres’ vocal lineup. Wooed away by Benny Goodman, Taylor left the band in July 1941, with Mercer leaving in August for radio work. Trumpet player and novelty vocalist Johnny Bond joined the band to replace Taylor, with Meredith Blake taking Mercer’s position. Gee Gee was gone by the end of the year. Both Bond and Blake left in October 1942. Bond joined Jerry Wald’s band but returned to Ayres in May 1943. By March 1943, Dick Dyer and Ruth McCullough were vocalists. Other vocalists over the years included Frances Holbrook, Marilyn Day, Roberta Quinlan, and Dick Craig, though no dates are found for their time with the band.
In early 1943, Ayres began an association with the Andrews Sisters, the two acts having the same management. Ayres toured with the sisters, backing them during shows. When the Paramount Theater in New York tried to book another band in place of Ayres as part of an Andrews Sister appearance, the sisters held firm and forced theater management to hire Ayres instead. The orchestra appeared in two films with the Andrews Sisters, their first being Universal’s 1943 musical western Moonlight and Cactus, where they play members of a merchant marine band who end up on a California ranch run by girl cowhands. Swingtime for Johnny soon followed, which also featured Harriet Hilliard, of Ozzie and Harriet fame.
In early 1944, the draft board reclassified Ayres as 1-A, and he faced induction in April. The band voted to carry on using Ayres name, bringing in female trumpet player Stelle Slavin as their new leader. Selective service suddenly suspended Ayres’ induction, however, due to his age, and he returned to the band. McCullough and Dyer both left for Sonny Dunham in May, with Jimmy Foster coming in on vocals. At that point, though, with the band being back in New York and after having spent 42 weeks on the road, most of the musicians decided that they didn’t want to go out on tour again, and they voted to disband, with several of the members heading to the West Coast. Ayres then settled into leading the studio orchestra on Jack Pepper’s CBS radio program, with seven of his former musicians joining him. In August, he organized a new orchestra for a date at the Paramount Theater to back the Andrews Sisters but later decided not to form a permanent touring unit, preferring to remain in New York and on the Pepper show.
In 1945, Ayres became the musical director for Columbia Records, where he remained until early 1949. He also orchestrated several television programs, including that of Perry Como, for whom he worked from 1948 throughout the 1950s. Mitchell Ayres passed away in 1969 when he was struck by an automobile while crossing the street in Las Vegas.
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.