When Little Bands Were Big


“Now, look—” the doorman began, but words failed him as two trumpeters, two saxophonists, and more instruments continued to cascade from the car. It was now five minutes till air time.

“Get set up!” I shouted to the musicians now diving into the pile of equipment blocking the doorway. “I’ll be right back.”

The Dodge screeched away from the curb as I headed for the parking lot, leaving behind one totally confounded doorman and six laden musicians struggling through the revolving door to the lobby. To save time they took my banjo with them so 1 could run back to the hotel unhindered. This time the doorman saw little more than a blur as I streaked past him and headed for the elevators. Fortunately it takes no breath to play a banjo, for I had none left as I dashed into the studio. The band was already halfway through the first number when I eased into my seat and joined them in time for the final chorus. So blasé had we become about playing on the radio.

We became familiar with grange halls, lodge ballrooms, fraternity houses, and community clubs in widely scattered parts of Franklin County as we tooled around playing our weekend dance jobs, the more or less faithful Dodge always crammed to the roof. Or almost, as we discovered one night. We were heading out a county road past the Elks Country Club, approaching a railroad crossing. I spotted a freight train far in the distance and, finally deciding we’d be gone long before it arrived, kept on going. At which point a wiseacre in the back seat screamed: “Train’s coming!”

It was too late to stop, so I took the only alternative—I gunned it. It was a rough crossing, so the Dodge was temporarily airborne. A bystander might have been puzzled to see the fabric roof of the old touring car bulge abruptly as seven heads simultaneously expanded it upward. The train, it turned out, was still a half mile away. But we couldn’t verify that, for we could scarcely turn our heads for the rest of the evening.

By this time we were picking up frequent promises, and even an occasional job, from booking agents. These were free-lancers who, the stock market having crashed by then, picked up a little spare change by bringing customers and talent together, for a 10 per cent fee. A couple of them dropped by to hear our rehearsals and, apparently satisfied, went to work helping line up jobs for us. We even received an offer from a booker back in Pennsylvania, in response to an ad we ran in Billboard magazine, to book us into a resort at Delaware Water Gap at the handsome sum of thirty-five dollars per week per man—for the summer!

The moment of truth had arrived. The big time beckoned. But some of the parents raised questioning eyebrows.

“How are you going to live that far from home on thirty-five dollars a week?” they asked. “What are you going to do if they don’t like you and you’re stranded there? How do you know this booking agent isn’t a phony?”

And of course there was the implied question “Fun’s fun, but what do you mean running off to be a musician when we’re planning to send you to college to learn an honest career?”

True, high school was behind most of us by now, and the close-knit association of those years was beginning to weaken. It might have burst asunder had we gone to Delaware Water Gap—or it might have strengthened, at least for a summer. But we never had the opportunity to find out for ourselves. The band’s parents split fifty-fifty on whether their respective sons could take the plunge. And another difference between those days and this was that kids then generally didn’t leave home without their parents’ consent.

We continued to play the usual local jobs that summer, even including a stint at a dine-and-dance restaurant that ended after one night when the manager discovered we weren’t union musicians (we all came from middleclass families with deep-dyed suspicions of unionism in those pre- NRA days).

By fall the jig was up. First I had to find a replacement for a trumpeter who was hired away from me, then the first sax, then the drummer, then the trombonist. The old camaraderie was gone, and I didn’t know from one rehearsal to the next who was going to show up. And so, one melancholy winter night, we agreed to call it quits.

Perhaps we were just ahead of our time. The era of the great swing bands was just dawning. Holding down a chair in a dance band was the easiest means of working your way through school in those Depression days. And when World War II came along, it was much more pleasant to tootle in a military band than scramble for a foxhole.

But in a few more years the big bands began to break up, just as ours had. Even if your name was Tommy Dorsey, you might not know from one night to the next whether your first trumpet might have gone over to a rival band or started his own.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a revival in high schools and colleges these days of the big bands that were so popular in our generation. They’re usually called stage bands now, and they’re actually sponsored by the schools, complete with faculty advisors.