Guy Lombardo
The Royal Canadian 1902-1977

Although he completed only grade school in his native London, Ontario, on May 25, 1971, Guy Lombardo received an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Ontario. The citation read in part: Our distinguished graduate achieved early in life what many artists spend their lives searching for, a unique, distinctive and recognizable style.

Born in 1902, Lombardo considered this award his greatest lifetime honour. He had many others to choose from, for Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians – the band that played The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven – had played at the inauguration balls of several United States presidents, had performed for Royalty, and had sold some 300 million records around the world.

By their early teens both Guy and younger brother Carmen were performing at church and other socials around London. Another London native, Freddie Kreitzer, joined them as pianist. Later, their brother, Lebert, born in 1905, and sister, Elaine, took part in local concerts, experimenting with different instruments to create the beginning of the band.

Carmen, a child prodigy with the flute, took up the saxophone, while Lebert moved from drums to trumpet. Other Londoners joined the group including drummer George Gowans, who, like Kreitzer, stayed a lifetime with the band.

The band got their first break in 1922 when they were booked into London’s Winter Garden and at Port Stanley the next summer. Success, however, would be achieved only by their going to the United States and being heard on radio, a goal Guy pursued for months. Finally an agent booked them as one of eight acts at a club in Cleveland. While the band’s sound was not a total success, word quickly spread around London that Lombardo’s band was U.S.-bound. To avoid embarrassment, Guy pushed the agent into getting them another U.S. date – a one-week stint at Akron, Ohio. On the basis of that booking, the band boarded a train in London one Sunday at 1.00 a.m. with approximately a hundred people to see them off. Guy recalled years later, I remember thinking I never would let them down.

He and the band didn’t. The agent got them into the El Club of Cleveland and suggested a name change to Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. A local radio station gave them air time and soon they were booked into a theatre in the afternoons and the club at night. They were taking on other jobs around Cleveland as well until Julius Stern of the Music Corporation of America signed them to a contract.

In 1927 Stern moved them to Chicago where arrangements were made to hook them up with Chicago’s newest radio station, WBBM. The broadcast the first evening was supposed to last 15 minutes but went on until 1 a.m. as people jammed the station’s lines every time Guy tried to sign off and crowds arrived at the club to see the band they were hearing. For the next two years they remained in Chicago. One reviewer described the band, after a performance at the city’s Palace Theatre, as the softest and sweetest jazzmen on any stage this side of heaven. The slogan lasted a lifetime.

Probably the best known band leader of his era, or any era, was Guy Lombardo. A native of London, Ontario, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians made champagne bubbles dance each New Year’s Eve to Auld Lang Syne in a career spanning nearly six decades. [Photo, courtesy The Toronto Star]

In 1929 the Royal Canadians moved to New York’s Roosevelt Grill and became so popular on radio that they ushered out 1929 for CBS and the New Year in for NBC. They also became the first band nationally sponsored on radio; to enhance their sponsor’s product – cigars – Guy hired George Burns and Gracie Allen for comedy skits while his music played in the background. Two more Lombardos also worked with the band from time to time. Elaine, who became their female vocalist, eventually married their lead singer, Kenny Gardner, and a younger brother, Victor, joined them several times between stints with other bands or when not leading a band of his own.

When, because of the Depression, the Roosevelt Grill cut back on its contract, the Royal Canadians moved to the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles where numerous movie stars came to dance and became friends. In 1934, this led to their first of three movies, one in which Carmen had one of his many hit songs.

One-night stands while on tour for as much as nine months of the year was another reason for their popularity. One of the stops was London where the Lombardos always visited old haunts and invited the band’s newest members to go along. In 1937 they made a special trip to London to play benefits for victims of the flood that devastated the city that year, a routine they were to continue, particularly during World War II.

Despite the demanding schedule of one-night stands or contract stays at such famous spots as the Coconut Grove, the Waldorf Astoria, and the Pavillion at Long Beach, New York, the band made numerous recordings. The first was cut in 1924, and for another 50 years Guy Lombardo records were produced and sold around the world – 11 million of them in 1946 alone!

That year, Guy, an avid speedboat racer, won the Gold Cup at Detroit. Two years later he suffered a broken arm when he had to crash his boat during a race but he continued racing until 1954, when he was asked to produce musical extravaganzas at the Jones Beach Marine Theatre on Long Island, a job he and his brothers took on for the next 24 years. He produced such classics as Show Boat, South Pacific, Oklahoma and The King and I as well as other shows written by his brother Carmen with his song-writing partner, John Jacob Loeb.

Guy Lombardo’s sweetest music this side of heaven sold more than 300 million records throughout the roaring twenties, the dirty thirties, wartime forties, the jukebox fifties, the twisting sixties, and the Nixon seventies. [Photo, courtesy Charles J. Humber Collection]

The first major blow to the band was Carmen’s death in 1971. For months Guy could not face the orchestra and led while facing the audience. But he continued because he couldn’t think of what he would do in retirement. Retire to what? he asked in his autobiography published when he was 73. I have been blessed with an occupation that enables me to make other people happy ... on the bandstand I am having a party every night I am working.

As a result he continued leading the Royal Canadians until his own death in November 1977, a death which came as a shock to North Americans, one biographer wrote, because the man was an institution and institutions don’t die. Further honours were awarded to keep his memory alive. The city of London named a bridge after him and officials of Freeport, Long Island, his home city for many years, changed South Grove Street to Guy Lombardo Avenue and renamed the local marina to perpetuate his name.

The band kept on under the leadership of Lebert’s son, Bill, but, as Guy had written in his 1973 autobiography, Rock ‘n’ Roll had replaced the big bands on radio. While he felt the Beatles were superb and imaginative musicians, he admitted that he neither understood nor appreciated the new cacophony called music being played by many groups. I have never resisted change in our industry, Guy wrote, but the deafening noise and lyrics that were suggestive and worse ... I didn’t want to understand.

Mel James