Tenor saxophonist and vocalist Tony Pastor first made his name in Artie Shaw’s band before launching his own orchestra at the end of 1939. Though never reaching the same level of popularity as Shaw, Pastor managed a long and successful career. With his expressive singing and his impish personality, he always put on a good show. Pastor was both honest and friendly and was well loved by his musicians and fans.
Pastor began playing professionally while still a teenager, working with the Wesleyan Serenaders in the mid-1920s, John Cavallaro in 1927, Irving Aaronson from 1928 to 1930, and Austin Wylie around 1930. In 1931, he opened a nightclub in Hartford, Connecticut, and fronted an orchestra of his own. The group struggled until disbanding in 1934. Pastor toured with Smith Ballew in 1935 and played briefly with Joe Venuti and Vincent Lopez before joining Shaw in 1936, where he both sang and played saxophone.
Pastor and Shaw had known each other during their younger days in New Haven, Connecticut, and Pastor became a core member of Shaw’s orchestra for the next several years. Shaw grew increasingly dissatisfied with the band business, and in mid-1939, after recovering from a serious illness, threatened to quit. Pastor and arranger Jerry Gray talked him out of it. Their victory was short lived, however. Facing several lawsuits and the wrath of jitterbuggers who began to smash his records after he called them “morons,” Shaw finally had enough and walked off the bandstand in November 1939. Pastor was asked to take over the orchestra but declined after it voted to become a cooperative affair. He formed his own band instead.
Largely made up of ex-Shaw musicians, Pastor’s new group debuted at the end of 1939, recording on Victor subsidiary Bluebird. The band went through a number of vocalists during its first year. Elisse Cooper served as its first female singer, with Bob Carroll as male balladeer. Kay Foster replaced Cooper in March, and Carroll left in March for George Hall’s orchestra. Foster had left by mid-October, replaced by another Kay, Kay Little. Saxophonist Johnny McAfee, who also sang, had joined by September, and balladeer Dorsey Anderson by November. In late 1940, Pastor combined his vocal staff into a quartet variously called “Three Boys and a Girl” or “Three Lads and a Lassie,” which recorded in September.
In the latter part of 1940, Pastor began to feature specialty drummer Johnny Morris, which resulted in one of the band’s most memorable tunes, “Paradiddle Joe.” Pastor’s little brother, Sal, known more commonly as “Stubby,” began to occasionally play with the orchestra in 1941 and officially joined the group later that year. Pastor went all out when it came to buying charts for his book. His orchestra featured some of the most modern jazz arrangements of its time. In contrast to Shaw, much of Pastor’s music could be termed “lowbrow,” often focusing on novelty tunes and ethnic humor.
Little left the band in January 1941. Linda Keene, who had been with Red Norvo’s recently disbanded outfit, took her place in February but stayed only a month, rejoining Norvo in early March when he reorganized. Eugenie Baird then took over the female vocalist spot in March and settled in for the long haul. For the next few months, with Baird, McAfee, and Anderson, Pastor had a relatively stable vocal department. Anderson, however, fell victim to the draft in mid-1941. He made a brief reappearance with Pastor’s band in November when he received a weekend furlough. McAfee left in early 1942, lured away by Benny Goodman. Anderson, who had been discharged from the service by that time, rejoined Pastor in March, staying through at least April.
Baird remained with Pastor until late 1942 when reports in September had her suffering from “bad tonsils” and planning a vacation. Marcia Rice had taken over by November, staying through at least February 1943. The Norton Sisters were the band’s female vocalists by April, with Betty Norton as soloist. The sisters left in or before July. Patti Powers was vocalist in November, with Virginia Maxey taking over in December. Maxey remained through at least October 1944. Neither Rice, Powers, nor Maxey, during this time period, recorded with the band, their stays falling entirely within the American Federation of Musicians recording ban from August 1942 to November 1944.
After the union lifted the ban, Pastor began recording on the Victor label proper, where he focused more on his own singing, only recording with one female vocalist during the next year, Ruth McCullough in April 1945. That changed in 1946 after a move to the Cosmo label. Maxey returned to the band early that year, with Pastor using her on several recordings from February through May. During this time, Pastor also recorded with a vocal group, The Tunetimers.
In late 1946, seeing the bottom starting to drop out of the band business, Pastor hired the Clooney Sisters, Rosemary and Betty, and began modernizing his sound. That year the band recorded a selection of songs from Disney’s Song of the South with Tommy Lynn joining the sisters and Pastor on vocals. The sisters proved highly popular and remained with Pastor until late 1948, when they left the band to start their own act, though they continued to record with Pastor until 1950. Dotty Evans, formerly one of the Murphy Sisters, replaced them on stage. Kay Little returned as vocalist from August 1950 through at least November 1950. In 1949, Pastor switched to the Columbia label, working with Pearl Bailey on two songs.
The band made their last sides for Columbia in 1950. It would be three years before they entered the studio again, this time for Decca, where they made four sides. They recorded two more sides for Columbia in 1955. Pastor kept his band going through at least 1957. In its later years, his son, Guy, sang with the orchestra.
After disbanding, Pastor organized a small group that played the Las Vegas circuit. The new outfit featured his three sons. Pastor became very ill in the late 1960s and quit the music business, living in virtual seclusion for the rest of his life. Tony Pastor passed away in 1969.
Foster had been with Benny Goodman in late 1939 when Shaw’s band had broken up. After Pastor turned down the job of leading the ex-Shaw band, Georgie Auld took over. Auld and Goodman traded vocalists, with Shaw singer Helen Forrest going to Goodman. Auld’s band quickly fizzled out, with Foster joining Pastor after it disbanded. ↩︎
Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.