Though not as well remembered as other bandleaders of the 1940s, Vaughn Monroe led one of the most popular orchestras of that decade and arguably the most successful. His was one of the few to prosper during the band bust of 1946. When many top leaders, including Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Les Brown, scrapped their orchestras due to financial losses, Monroe continued breaking both sales and box office records through the end of the decade, remaining profitable even with a large 21-piece outfit.
Part of the reason for Monroe’s success was due to his added popularity as a vocalist. While critics regularly panned his voice, the public loved it, and polls often ranked him as favorite male vocalist behind only Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. After the war, when the tide of public favor turned to singers instead of bands Monroe could navigate successfully in both worlds. Record label RCA Victor astutely focused on Monroe’s voice. His band recorded few instrumentals and instead churned out a long list of sweet romantic numbers that best emphasized his somewhat limited vocal abilities. Monroe himself disliked this focus on his voice, but as an entertainer he believed in giving the public what they wanted.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Monroe mastered the trumpet in his youth, winning a statewide contest as a teenager. He formed his first four-piece band while in grade school and began professionally singing with swing bands while attending high school in Jeanette, Pennsylvania. Young Vaughn also directed a church choir and had ambitions to become an opera singer, though he eventually decided against that career choice as he felt there wasn’t enough money in it.
After moving to the Boston area, Monroe worked with Larry Funk’s orchestra before joining Jack Marshard’s band in 1937 as trumpet player and vocalist. Marshard was so impressed with Monroe’s abilities and charisma that he turned the band over to the young man and worked behind the scenes as its manager, a position he retained until his untimely death from an auto accident in 1948.
Monroe spent several years building a solid reputation in the Northeast, recording for both Bluebird and RCA Victor, before coming to New York in October 1941, where the band played its first engagement at the Hotel Commodore. Billboard magazine’s 1941 college poll named the orchestra as the top up-and-coming band, and it didn’t take long for the group to become the hottest act in town. In a few short months, they’d placed second in a local radio poll, behind Glenn Miller and ahead of Tommy Dorsey, and finished sixth in Billboard’s 1942 overall band poll. Monroe himself placed fifth as best male vocalist in Billboard’s poll that year.
MGM signed Monroe’s orchestra to a film contract in 1942 and picked them the following year to star in what would eventually become Abbott and Costello’s Lost in a Harem. September 1943, though, saw many name bandleaders reclassified as 1-A by the draft board, and Monroe soon received his letter. He put the band on notice, and they played their last performance in October. When Monroe reported for induction, however, he was again classified 4-F, and he quickly worked to re-organize the group. Jimmy Dorsey’s orchestra eventually ended up in the film. It wasn’t until 1944 that Monroe’s group made its first silver screen appearance, Meet the People, with Lucille Ball and Dick Powell.
Monroe’s orchestra ranked tenth in Billboard’s 1943 college poll with Monroe fifth as male vocalist again. His popularity remained high into 1944, when he found himself on the cover of Billboard’s January 8, 1944, issue. When the American Federation of Musicians finally lifted their two-year-long recording ban in November, RCA Victor rushed Monroe’s group into the studio the following morning, making it their first orchestra to record after the ban, and the resulting release, “Trolley Song,” hit number one and became the group’s biggest hit to date.
Riding on the success of “Trolley Song,” 1945 proved a strong year for Monroe. The summer release of “There, I’ve Said It Again” became a smash hit, finishing as one of the top ten biggest selling records of that year. Monroe also earned another Billboard cover and placed third as best male vocalist in the college poll. The orchestra overall placed fifth. For the holiday season, Monroe released “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” which topped sales records again, making him one of the hottest acts going into 1946. Polls that year placed him at third for male vocalist, while band polls placed him variously in the top ten, including a number one spot.
1946 also saw Monroe earn his own radio show. Slated as a summer replacement for Abbott and Costello, the program proved so popular that sponsor Camel cigarettes turned it into a full-time series which lasted until 1954. It consistently placed as the top-rated orchestra program during the late 1940s.
When many name orchestras went bust in late 1946, Monroe remained unaffected by the downturn in the band business, again placing high in polls during 1947 and breaking box office records. Monroe and the band also appeared in the 1947 Federal Films production Carnegie Hall. 1948 became an even bigger year for Monroe. His release of “Ballerina” hit number one in January on every music chart but the country and race charts, holding that accomplishment for three weeks in a row. It became Monroe’s biggest selling record to date and earned him yet another Billboard cover.
Monroe was on top of the music world going into 1949. A two-month tour early that year pulled in an unheard of half-a-million dollars in profit, making front page news in trade papers. Hollywood called again, with Monroe signing to Republic pictures for a musical western. The signing prompted a series of western themed songs from the singer, including “Riders in the Sky,” which earned him yet another Billboard cover and became Monroe’s top selling record of all-time, finishing number one for the year in both retails sales and jukebox plays. With two more records in the year’s top thirty, Monroe himself finished at number one overall in retail sales and number two in jukebox plays.
Monroe again placed high in 1948 polls, with the orchestra taking top spot in the college round. 1949 would prove his watershed year, however. He took a break from the band to film Singing Gun, which was released in 1950, though the band continued performing. That year also saw the launch of his own television variety program, which focused on Monroe as a singer instead of a bandleader. The show was cancelled after one year, though a second Monroe program in 1954 filled in the summer slot for Dinah Shore. This shift in focus away from being primarily a singer and bandleader signaled the beginning of his decline, despite his fifth Billboard cover appearance in January 1950.
Monroe went through a string of female vocalists. In the band’s early years Marilyn Duke mostly filled that role. Duke joined Vaughn in January 1941, replacing Mildred Law. Her voice became essential to the orchestra’s emerging popularity, and she is often associated with its rise to fame. Duke left the band in May 1943 but returned in August 1944. In her absence, Phyllis Lynne took over vocalist duties until April 1944, then Dee Parker.
As Monroe rose in popularity as a singer, the band’s female vocalist spot became less and less important over time and eventually came to be spotlighted only during live shows or on the radio. Duke left the orchestra for good in early 1945, replaced by Rosemary Calvin, who was in turn replaced by Janie Reid mid-year. Sally Stuart took Reid’s place in January 1946.
Monroe used a variety of backing vocal groups. In the orchestra’s early days, four members of the band sang as The Four V’s. In mid-1942, Monroe added a female vocal group, the Lee Sisters, known briefly at first as The Four M’s. The Murphy Sisters replaced them in early 1943, with the four Norton Sisters replacing the Murphy Sisters in early 1945. When her siblings left in March 1946, along with Stuart, Betty Norton remained with Monroe as his female vocalist.
Monroe stopped hiring outside vocal group acts after the Nortons departure and instead formed his own backing quartet, the Moonbeams, in March 1946. He quickly changed their name to the Moon Racers when he discovered that Kay Kyser had used the Moonbeams name previously, then further adjusted it to the Moon Maids, which remained the group’s moniker for the rest of its existence. Monroe’s backing male vocal group, the Four V’s had become the Moon Men by 1949.
Betty Norton left as female vocalist in May 1947, replaced by Cissie Martin, who was replaced by Madelyn Russell in early 1948. Russell left mid-year, and Monroe didn’t immediately sign another vocalist. Connie Haines took over as the featured female singer on the radio program until Cece Blake joined the band in late 1948. Blake stayed until mid-1950.
Saxman Ziggy Talent sang novelty numbers. He remained with Monroe through the end of the 1940s. His work was mostly heard during live performances and on the radio, and he was often billed as a separate act when the orchestra played in vaudeville theaters. Talent was quite popular, and in 1948 Monroe backed him on recordings of his own. Johnny Bond also provided novelty tunes from mid-1944 to mid-1945.
1950s and Beyond
As the early 1950s unfolded, Monroe disbanded his orchestra as a full-time concern. He continued to sell records as a vocalist, though his popularity slipped dramatically from its high in 1949. His mentions in the press also begin to thin. He filmed another musical western, Toughest Man in Arizona, released in 1952, and appeared as a guest on numerous television programs of the era.
By the 1960s, rock and roll had firmly altered the musical landscape. Though Monroe had been able to survive the band bust, he couldn’t compete with the younger artists who now dominated the charts, despite attempting to stay relevant with changing musical tastes. In 1962, he made a slight comeback, releasing an album of surf music, which featured the song “Mr. Moto.” He also appeared on an episode of Bonanza and hit the television talk show circuit. It was his last hurrah.
Vaughn Monroe moved to Florida in the early 1960s. He continued to record, perform, and sell records up until his death in 1973, age 61, after a long illness that had included surgery related to a stomach ailment.