Sammy Kaye

Photo of Sammy Kaye
  • Birth Name

    Samuel Zarnocay, Jr.
  • Born

    March 13, 1910
    Lakewood, Ohio
  • Died

    June 2, 1987 (age 77)
    Ridgewood, New Jersey
  • Featured Vocalists

    Judy Johnson
    Sally Stuart

The words “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye” make up probably the single most memorable tag line of the big band era, though in actuality it was mostly “sway.” Kaye’s arrangements never approached the swing end of the spectrum. His music fell quite tidily into the style of simple, commercial dance rhythms often called “Mickey Mouse,” and he was very successful at it.

The son of Czech immigrants, Kaye played clarinet in college bands while at Ohio University in the late 1920s, and in the early 1930s he led his own orchestra at the Statler Hotel in Cleveland. In 1937, he signed with the Vocalion label and began to establish himself on the national scene. The band switched to Victor in mid-1938, and in November of that year they made their New York debut at the Commodore Hotel. Kaye’s orchestra quickly rose in popularity, becoming one of top sweet bands in the nation and appearing in a long running radio program, Sunday Serenade, which began in 1940 and ran into the 1950s.

Kaye copied much of his act from Kay Kyser, including the singing titles at the beginning of each song. Like Kyser, he also relied on several gimmicks to make his performances more entertaining. His most famous gimmick was called “So You Want to Lead a Band.” He would bring a member of the audience up on stage to wave a baton and act as bandleader.

Kaye’s band never featured any truly memorable musicians. In fact, his sidemen were often rather mundane. Kaye, however, was strict and demanded discipline, and the sound that came out of his men’s instruments was usually flawless. Kaye’s dictatorial attitude as a bandleader was well known, and at one point in the 1940s almost his entire band walked out on him because of it.


Kaye kept a stable of vocalists on-hand at all times. Singers during the 1930s were all musicians out of the band: guitarist Tommy Ryan, sax player Jimmy Brown, pianist Clyde Burke, and sax and bass clarinetist Charlie Wilson. Ryan, who sang the opening titles on each song, was the main male vocalist. He remained with Kaye until October 1943, when he left to go solo. Brown stayed until 1941. Wilson remained with the band until at least 1948 but sang much less often after 1940. Burke sang from spring 1939 to spring 1940.

As the 1940s rolled around, Kaye began to hire proper vocalists alongside his musician singers. Arthur Wright, who had previously sung with Kyser, joined the band in late 1940 and remained through late 1945. Marty McKenna had joined by 1941 and left late that year after being drafted. Allan Foster had became part of the orchestra by July 1941. Other vocalists in 1941 include George Gingeil and multi-instrumentalist Maury Cross. [1]

In March 1942, guitarist and singer Don Cornell joined the band in anticipation of replacing Foster who was scheduled to report to the service in June. In July 1942, Kaye brought in Billy Williams, originally for the sole purpose of singing a song that the young Texan had written and given to Kaye. Williams ended up remaining with the band and became Kaye’s featured singer in late 1942 when Cornell received his draft notice.

In April 1942, Kaye recorded for the first time using a female vocalist, Elaine Beatty, the winner of a contest which brought her to Chicago to record two sides with the band. In June, Kaye hired his first permanent girl singer, Nancy Norman, a 17-year-old Hollywood girl.

By October 1943, Kaye had hired a second female vocalist, Sally Stuart. He continued to keep two female singers on the stand for the next four years. When Norman exited in late 1945 to marry Dick Brown, who also sang with the band, Betty Barclay took her place. Stuart left by late October 1945, replaced by Susan Allen, who was in turn replaced in March 1946 by Marie McDonald, an NBC radio page girl, whose name Kaye changed to Mary Marlow. When Barclay quit the band that fall to start a solo career, Kaye did not hire a replacement. Marlow remained as the band’s only girl singer until mid-1947, when Laura Leslie replaced her.[2]

By April 1946, Cornell had returned from the service and rejoined Kaye, sharing male vocal duties with Williams. According to Cornell, he became the band’s featured vocalist after an accident in transit destroyed his guitar. He likely assumed that role early on after returning. That summer, Williams grew dissatisfied with his treatment by Kaye and felt that other vocalists were getting better tunes. He either gave his notice or was given it at the end of August after a blow-up with Kaye. Pianist Johnny Ryan replaced him as second male vocalist. Sax player Chubby Silvers also sang from late 1945 through at least early 1948.

Ryan remained with the band until March 1948. Dick Edwards replaced him as both singer and pianist. Edwards left by March 1949, with Tony Alamo taking his place. Cornell left the band in January 1950 to begin a solo career. Leslie left the band in June 1950, briefly replaced by Betty Bonney, who changed her name to Judy Johnson on joining. Alamo left the band in late 1951. The band moved to the Columbia label in 1950.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Kaye used a vocal group comprised of several of his singers. The group originally called itself the Three Barons, but after mid-1939 it had become the Three Kadets, though it was sometimes Four and Five, and also sometimes Kaydets. Billing varied. Kay also used members of his band as a glee club and choir.

Later Years

Kaye’s radio program moved to television during the 1950s, and he continued recording up until the 1960s. He eventually retired, though his orchestra carried on under the direction of trumpeter Roger Thorpe. Sammy Kaye died from cancer in 1987, age 77.


  1. Tracking Kaye’s early vocalists is difficult due to the number of singers he kept on hand at any one time. There is no clear sequence of vocalists like in a typical band, and there are undoubtedly many who are missed in this summary. ↩︎

  2. Kaye loved giving his girl singers alliterative names. ↩︎

Vocalist Timeline

Tommy Ryan
Jimmy Brown
Charlie Wilson
Clyde Burke
Arthur Wright
Marty McKenna
Allan Foster
Don Cornell
Nancy Norman
Billy Williams
Betty Barclay
Susan Allen
Mary Marlow
Johnny Ryan
Laura Leslie
Dick Edwards
Tony Alamo

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. Kaye, Sammy. “George Hall & Sammy Kaye Review Bands.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1940: 2,13.
  3. “Vaudeville Reviews: Lyric, Indianapolis.” Billboard 27 Jul. 1940: 22.
  4. “Vaudeville Reviews: Earle, Washington.” Billboard 14 Sep. 1940: 22.
  5. Abbott, Charles. “Finds Jump Juiceless Moola Only in Schmaltz.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 9.
  6. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 7 Mar. 1942: 25.
  7. Haynes, Don. “Pattie Name to Stay in Music.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1942: 19.
  8. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 22 Apr. 1942: 16.
  9. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Down Beat 15 May 1942: 6.
  10. “Changes in Personnel Of Bands.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1942: 15.
  11. “Vaudeville Reviews: Earle, Philadelphia.” Billboard 15 Aug. 1942: 17.
  12. “Sammy Kaye's Gal.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1942: 3.
  13. “Ravings at Reveille.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1942: 3.
  14. “Changes in Personnel Of Bands.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1942: 9.
  15. “Candid Scenes from the House of Kaye.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1942: 12.
  16. “Vaudeville Reviews: State, Hartford, Conn.” Billboard 5 Dec. 1942: 16.
  17. “Vaudeville Reviews: RKO-Boston, Boston.” Billboard 28 Aug. 1943: 20.
  18. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand, New York.” Billboard 9 Oct. 1943: 20.
  19. “Tommy Ryan Gets Blue Barron Band.” Billboard 30 Oct. 1943: 14.
  20. “Musicians Off the Record.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1944: 10.
  21. “Vaudeville Reviews: Orpheum, Minneapolis.” Billboard 22 Apr. 1944: 27.
  22. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 24 Jun. 1944: 26.
  23. “Kaye Krew On Jersey Side.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1945: 2.
  24. “Vaudeville Reviews: Shea's Buffalo, Buffalo.” Billboard 27 Oct. 1945: 37.
  25. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 9 Mar. 1946: 46.
  26. “Big Girl Now!” Down Beat 11 Mar. 1946: 8.
  27. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 25 Mar. 1946: 1.
  28. “On the Stand: Sammy Kaye.” Billboard 25 May 1946: 36.
  29. “Williams and Kaye Part; Bradley OO's Single-O Routine.” Billboard 7 Sep. 1946: 16.
  30. “Kaye Kutie.” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1946: 3.
  31. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 22 Mar. 1947: 40.
  32. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 7 Jun. 1947: 39.
  33. “On the Stand: Sammy Kaye.” Billboard 15 Nov. 1947: 36.
  34. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 31 Jan. 1948: 37.
  35. “Trade Tattle.” Down Beat 24 Mar. 1948: 18.
  36. “Vaudeville Reviews: State-Lake, Chicago.” Billboard 29 May 1948: 43.
  37. “Just Can't Let Laura Alone.” Down Beat 28 Jul. 1948: 15.
  38. Advertisement. “Selmer.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1948: 20.
  39. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 12 Mar. 1949: 51.
  40. “Music as Written.” Billboard 17 Dec. 1949: 18.
  41. Wilson, John S. “Cornell Fared Well With 'It Isn't Fair.'” Down Beat 22 Sep. 1950: 2.
  42. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 16 Jun. 1950: 5.
  43. “Things To Come.” Down Beat 16 Nov. 1951: 13.