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 more just “swaying.” Kaye’s arrangements never approached the swing end of the spectrum. His music fell quite tidily into the style of simple and commercial dance rhythms often called “Mickey Mouse,” and he was very successful at it.
The son of Czech immigrants, Kaye began playing clarinet in college bands while at Ohio University. In the early 1930s, he led his own orchestra at the Statler Hotel in Cleveland. Later he performed at many of the best hotels in New York and starred in his own radio program. Vocalists at various times included Don Cornell, Jimmy Brown, Sally Stuart, Judy Johnson, George Brandon, Maury Cross, Marty McKenna, Tommy Ryan, Charlie Wilson, and Arthur Wright.
Kaye 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.
Kaye’s radio program moved to television during the 1950s, and he continued recording up until the 1960s. He eventually retired to Southern California, though his orchestra carried on under the direction of trumpeter Roger Thorpe. Kaye died from cancer in 1987.