Will Bradley will always be remembered most for his boogie-woogie orchestra of the early 1940s. Bradley himself, though, preferred to play ballads and had a long and successful career as a trombonist outside of his band. He was a busy studio musician throughout the 1930s, working with such artists as Red Nichols, Eddie Cantor, Victor Young. Jacques Renard, Nat Shilkret, Andre Kostelanetz, Raymond Paige, Kate Smith, and Al Jolson. In 1935, Glenn Miller, who thought Bradley the best trombonist in the business, hired him to play in Ray Noble’s American band, which Miller was organizing. He left Noble the following year, however, and returned to studio work. Bradley also played with Milt Shaw’s orchestra in 1931, where he met drummer Ray McKinley.
Bradley’s name was unknown to the general public when in 1939 William Morris talent agent Willard Alexander suggested he form a swing orchestra. Trombone-playing leaders, such as Miller and Tommy Dorsey, were currently popular, and Alexander felt Bradley would do well on his own. Drummers were also the rage, and Alexander teamed Bradley with old bandmate McKinley, who was then with Jimmy Dorsey. Backed by a powerful publicity campaign, the duo’s orchestra debuted in 1939 under Bradley’s name and soon had its first big hit in “Celery Stalks at Midnight.”
The band initially featured pianist Freddie Slack, who would later go on to lead his own orchestra. McKinley sang on upbeat and speciality numbers. Carlotta Dale and Larry Sothern were initial vocalists. Sothern was replaced by Jimmy Valentine in January 1940. Dale remained through March 1940, replaced by Louise Tobin, who stayed through at least July and was replaced by Phyllis Myles. Myles left at the end of the year, and Valentine left in early January 1941. Lynn Gardner and Terry Allen replaced them. The group’s first recordings in 1939 were on the Vocalion and Okeh labels. Subsequent releases were on Columbia.
In 1940, Bradley and McKinley began to feature a boogie woogie sound in their arrangements. Initial success with the song “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” sparked a slew of similar recordings, such as “Bounce Me Brother, with a Solid Four” and “Scrub Me Mama, with a Boogie Beat.” The new style proved popular with the public, and the band quickly developed a niche following. By early 1942, however, Bradley had tired of boogie-woogie and wanted to focus more on ballads. McKinley disagreed and left to form his own band. Bradley set about reforming his orchestra but was forced to hang up his baton after only six months due to the war. He lost too many musicians in the draft and was unable to replace them. The new orchestra did not enter the studio. Allen and Gardner remained as vocalists.
Bradley continued to record under his own name during the war and through the late 1940s, using studio musicians, on the Signature label. Ironically, considering the cause of his orchestra’s break-up, in 1944 he released material on the Beacon/Celebrity label as Will Bradley and His Boogie Woogie Boys. In 1947, he also recorded with vocalist Anita O’Day on Signature, and in the 1950s he released three albums, which included one RCA collection of boogie woogie songs.
Bradley worked often as a studio musician after the war and spent many years in the Tonight Show orchestra. In 1953, he did a brief spell with the Sauter-Finegan Band and also composed several classical works in his later years. Will Bradley passed away in 1978.