Modernaires

Photo of Modernaires

Perhaps the best re­mem­bered of the big band era vo­cal groups, the Modernaires are most of­ten as­so­ci­ated with Glenn Miller. Though they only worked with Miller for the last year-and-a-half of the or­ches­tra’s four-year ex­is­tence, they be­came iden­ti­fied with his sound in such a way as to be­come in­sep­a­ra­ble from the band­lead­er’s legacy.

Formed in Buffalo, New York, as a high school trio, orig­i­nal mem­bers Hal Dickinson, Chuck Goldstein, and Bill Conway ini­tially called them­selves ei­ther the Don Juan Two and Three” or the Three Weary Willies.” They per­formed on lo­cal and na­tional ra­dio as the Blue Ribbon Boys be­fore join­ing Ray Noble’s band. It was Noble who sug­gested the name Modernaires. In 1936, they sang with Charlie Barnet and then worked for Ozzie Nelson, who billed them as the Three Wizards of Ozzie.

Adding Ralph Brewster, the group ex­panded to a quar­tet to join Fred Waring’s ra­dio pro­gram, where they formed part of V-8, a com­bined vo­cal en­sem­ble with Bea and the Bachelors. In 1937, they recorded with George Hall’s or­ches­tra and in 1938 joined Paul Whiteman, ap­pear­ing on his ra­dio show as well as tour­ing and record­ing with the or­ches­tra. They left Whiteman in April 1940 and be­gan singing in the Broadway mu­si­cal Walk with Music the fol­low­ing month. They also ap­peared in their own ra­dio pro­gram from 1939 to 1941.

The Modernaires joined Miller in January 1941. When Miller’s fe­male vo­cal­ist, Marion Hutton, took leave of ab­sence early that year, Dickenson’s wife, Paula Kelly, filled in for her and be­gan to ac­com­pany the quar­tet on num­bers. When Hutton re­turned in August, she con­tin­ued Kelly’s role of vo­cal­iz­ing with the en­sem­ble. Neither woman was con­sid­ered a mem­ber of the group how­ever, as is of­ten writ­ten. Modernaire Hal Tennyson, who also played tenor sax, oc­ca­sion­ally filled in for sick or ab­sent Miller mu­si­cians and later went on to be­come a mem­ber of Ted Powell’s out­fit.

After Miller dis­banded in September 1942 to en­ter the ser­vice, Hutton and three of the Modernaires ini­tially planned to form a quar­tet for ra­dio work. A fourth male vo­cal­ist joined the vo­cal group, how­ever, and they set out with both Hutton and Tex Beneke, book­ing road dates as the Glenn Miller Singers. Hutton and the group con­tin­ued tour­ing to­gether un­der the same name when Beneke was drafted in December, with Johnny Drake re­plac­ing him. Hutton was not a mem­ber of the group at that time time ei­ther. Promotional and book­ing ma­te­r­ial al­ways re­ferred to her and the group sep­a­rately, with the men call­ing them­selves by their oft used al­ter­nate name, the Four Modernaires. The com­bined act proved a huge suc­cess, ap­pear­ing in one film, Crazy House, for Universal.

When Hutton left the tour in August 1943, Kelly re­placed her and even­tu­ally be­came an ad­junct mem­ber of the group, which toured and recorded as the Modernaires with Paula Kelly,” though the four male mem­bers of the group also con­tin­ued to per­form and record with­out Kelly as just the Modernaires.” Kelly stayed with them un­til her re­tire­ment in 1978, re­placed by her daugh­ter. Dickinson was the only orig­i­nal mem­ber of the group to re­main for the du­ra­tion, ap­pear­ing un­til his death in 1970. The en­sem­ble played one last en­gage­ment with Miller, via a three-way ra­dio con­nec­tion that in­cluded Hutton, on September 2, 1944. The broad­cast was heard by sol­diers in England and France.

The Modernaires re­mained pop­u­lar long af­ter leav­ing Miller, tour­ing and record­ing of­ten. Their suc­cess lends it­self to a will­ing­ness to adapt to chang­ing mu­si­cal tastes while at the same time cel­e­brat­ing their big band roots. They ap­peared on many ra­dio and tele­vi­sion pro­grams, spend­ing four years on Bob Crosbys pop­u­lar CBS day­time tele­vi­sion show from 1951 to 1955, and from 1965 to 1969 as reg­u­lars with Red Skelton. A group bear­ing the Modernaires’ name still per­forms to this day.

Notes

  1. The Modernaires’ his­tory is shrouded in sev­enty years of pub­lic­ity ma­te­r­ial, which is no­to­ri­ously un­re­li­able as a source if not com­pletely dis­miss­able. Sixty years of bad re­search, based on that pub­lic­ity ma­te­r­ial, has mud­died the wa­ters even more. The in­for­ma­tion on this page was as­sem­bled from a mix­ture of con­tem­po­rary and mod­ern sources and aims to be the best fac­tual his­tory of the group that it can. It was of­ten easy to sift through what was fact and what was false. For in­stance. the Modernaires did not join Miller in the late 1930s as is typ­i­cally stated. They sang with Whiteman un­til April 1940 and ap­peared on Broadway in the lat­ter half of that year. The date of Paula Kelly’s join­ing in as­so­ci­a­tion was also not 1942 as usu­ally listed. Sources at the time clearly show she joined in August 1943.

Music

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  • Milkman's Matinee
    Charlie Barnet (Modernaires), Bluebird (1936)
  • It's Swell of You
    George Hall (Modernaires), Variety (1937)
  • Jeepers Creepers
    Paul Whiteman (The Four Modernaires and Jack Teagarden), Decca (1938)
  • Perfidia
    Glenn Miller (Dorothy Claire, Moderniares), Bluebird (1941)
  • Elmer's Tune
    Glenn Miller (Ray Eberle), Bluebird (1941)
  • Chattanooga Choo Choo
    Glenn Miller (Tex Beneke, Modernaires), Bluebird (1941)
  • Moonlight Cocktail
    Glenn Miller (Ray Eberle, Modernaires), Bluebird (1941)
  • I Know Why
    Glenn Miller (Paula Kelly), Bluebird (1941)
  • I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo
    Glenn Miller (Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton, Modernaires), RCA Victor (1942)
  • Jukebox Saturday Night
    Glenn Miller (Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton, Modernaires), RCA Victor (1942)
  • That Old Black Magic
    Glenn Miller (Skip Nelson, the Modernaires), RCA Victor (1942)
  • Moonlight Becomes You
    Glenn Miller (Skip Nelson, the Modernaires), RCA Victor (1942)
  • Connecticut
    Modernaires with Paula Kelly, Columbia (1946)

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Films

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  • Screenshot
    "Chattanooga Choo Choo"
    Glenn Miller (Tex Beneke, Paula Kelly, Modernaires)
    from Sun Valley Serenade, 20th Century Fox (1941)
  • Screenshot
    "People Like You and Me"
    Glenn Miller (Ray Eberle, Marion Hutton, Modernaires, Tex Beneke)
    from Orchestra Wives, 20th Century Fox (1942)
  • Screenshot
    "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo"
    Glenn Miller (Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton, Modernaires)
    from Orchestra Wives, 20th Century Fox (1942)
  • Screenshot
    Bob Crosby Show - 30 Nov 1953
    Bob Crosby, Modernaires, Joanie O'Brien
    CBS (1953)
  • Screenshot
    Bob Crosby Show - 2 May 1955
    Bob Crosby, Modernaires, Paula Kelly, Joanie O'Brien, Carol Richards, Johnny Mercer
    CBS (1955)

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Radio

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  • Glenn Miller Chesterfield Show
    May 14, 1942 (CBS) 13:59
  • Glenn Miller Chesterfield Show
    July 14, 1942 (CBS) 13:59

Sources

  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. Walker, Leo. The Wonderful Era of the Great Dance Bands. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.
  3. “Duce and Hitler Toasts on Air.” Spokane Daily Chronicle 6 May 1938: 11.
  4. “Band Leader Experiments With Music.” Ottawa Citizen 1 Oct. 1938: 28.
  5. “Whiteman, Waring Bands to Be Heard for Chesterfield.” The Victoria Advocate [Victoria, TX] 7 Sep. 1939: 2.
  6. Radio Schedule. The Pittsburgh Press 28 Nov. 1939: 22.
  7. Cohen, Harold W. “The Drama Desk.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 29 May 1940: 21.
  8. Radio Schedule. The Pittsburgh Press 21 Jan. 1941: 9.
  9. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 26 Sep. 1942: 21.
  10. Carter, Dick. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 26 Sep. 1942: 67.
  11. “Miller Singers Rebooked.” Billboard 12 Dec. 1942: 17.
  12. “Midnight Shows at All Downtown Houses Tomorrow.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 30 Dec. 1942: 9.
  13. “In Person! Marion Hutton and the Four Modernaires.” The Milwaukee Sentinel 13 Feb. 1943: A-5.
  14. “Big 23 G for Ina Ray Hutton, Miller Singers in Chicago.” Billboard 20 Feb. 1943: 14.
  15. “Vaudeville Reviews: Roxy, New York.” Billboard 3 Apr. 1943: 14.
  16. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 3 Jul. 1943: 25.
  17. Steinhauser, Si. “Opens Mouth Silently, Draws Breath and Pay.” The Pittsburgh Press 19 Aug. 1943: 31.
  18. “Miller, Crosby & Shore a GI Treat.” Billboard 16 Sep. 1944: 13.
  19. Lino, Al. “Remember April 1940?” St. Petersburg Times 22 Apr. 1945: 39.
  20. “Versatile Modernaires Have Varied Musical Backgrounds.” Wilmington Sunday Star 20 Sep. 1953: 12.
  21. Wolf, William. “Like Mother, Like Daughter.” The Pittsburgh Press 14 May 1967: n. pag.
  22. “Artie Shaw Orchestra, Modernaires Have Stood the Test of Time.” Toledo Blade 8 Apr. 2005: D-7.