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 the “Don Juan Two and Three” and 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. They also worked for Ozzie Nelson, who billed them as the Three Wizards of Ozzie.
In 1936, adding Jack Lathrop, 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. At the same time they were appearing on Waring’s program, they also sang and toured with Charlie Barnet in 1936 and early 1937 as well as performed on the vaudeville theater circuit under their own name. In mid-1937, they recorded with George Hall’s orchestra. At some point, Lathrop was replaced by Ralph Brewster.
By April 1938, the Modernaires had joined Paul Whiteman, appearing on his radio show as well as touring and recording with the orchestra. According to Whiteman, at one point during their tour of the South in early 1938, the quartet was stopped at a Japanese beetle quarantine inspection station and when asked if they had any insect-bearing plants in their car they made a joke about have a lot of “jitterbugs” inside. They were then ordered to pull over so the officers could fumigate the vehicle. It apparently took a great deal of explanation to convince the officers what a jitterbug actually was.
While with Whiteman, the group also continued to perform on their own, appearing at the Hotel New Yorker in late 1939. They left Whiteman in April 1940 over monetary issues after the bandleader lost his radio sponsor and had to cut salaries. The four men quickly found work, hitting the club circuit, recording on Decca, and singing in the Broadway musical Walk with Music. They also appeared in their own radio program from 1939 to January 1941.
The Modernaires went into the recording studio with Miller in late 1940, though they continued performing under their own name as well. They didn’t join Miller’s band full-time until January 1941, heading out on the road with the orchestra when it left New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania on the 18th. All the Modernaires were also accomplished musicians and would often sit in with the band when needed.
During their time with Miller, it became standard for the band’s female vocalist to sing with the quartet on backing vocals, first with Dorothy Claire, who had taken Marion Hutton’s place when Hutton had gone on a leave of absence, and then with Dickinson’s wife, Paula Kelly, who took Claire’s place. When Hutton returned in August, she continued vocalizing with the ensemble. None of the women were considered members of the group, however, as is often written.
After Miller disbanded in September 1942 to enter the service, Goldstein dropped out of the group, and Hutton and the remaining three Modernaires initially planned to form a quartet for radio work. Plans changed, and NBC tenor Jimmy Blair was hired as the new fourth Modernaire. The four men then joined both Hutton and Tex Beneke on a tour as the Glenn Miller Singers. Blair left after only a month, and Johnny Drake was brought in from Jan Garber’s band to replace him. When Beneke left to join Horace Heidt’s band in December, Drake, who was also a sax player, took over his role. 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. She 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.” 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 group continued to use Miller’s name in promotion through the mid-1940s, performing many of the songs they sang while with the late leader’s band. They recorded on Columbia throughout the 1940s and into 1950, moving to Coral in 1951.
The group’s line-up went through several changes during the 1940s and 1950s. Drake left the group at some point but rejoined in May 1946. Fran Scott joined in June 1946. Conway was out of the group by that same month, though sources don’t give an indication who replaced whom between Drake, Scott and Conway during that period. The line-up of Dickinson, Brewster, Scott and Drake remained intact until August 1948, when Jan Garber vocalist Alan Copeland replaced Brewster. Copeland was still there as of late 1950 when the line-up was given as Dickinson, Scott, Drake and Copeland, however a mid-1951 photo shows the group’s members as Dickinson, Brewster, Scott and Drake again. The photo attribution to Brewster may have been an error, as a late 1951 birth announcement indicates that Copeland is still a Modernaire and an early 1954 photo list the members as Dickinson, Scott, Drake and Copeland again. Trumpet player and singer Dick Cathcart joined in early 1957, replacing Copeland, who went solo.
The Modernaires appeared in several films and musical shorts, starting from as early as 1936. They also appeared on many radio and television programs, including a regular spot on Bob Crosby’s popular CBS daytime television show from 1953 to 1956. They continued performing long after many such groups from the big band era had faded into history. 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. Their success lent itself to a willingness to adapt to changing musical tastes while at the same time celebrating their big band roots. A group bearing the Modernaires’ name continued performing into the 2000s.
The Modernaires’ history is shrouded in eighty 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 mostly contemporary sources and aims to be the best factual history of the group that it can. ↩︎
Goldstein may have gone by the last name Golden early on, or it may have simply been a mistake made by Billboard magazine. ↩︎
Conway was the group’s arranger. ↩︎
There was also a popular Canadian swing band with the same name during the late 1930s and early 1940s. ↩︎
Beneke had tried to enter the service but was denied due to color blindness ↩︎
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. ↩︎
Brewster went on the sing with Russ Morgan’s band. ↩︎
They had appeared on CBS radio with Crosby in the late 1940s as well. ↩︎