Editorial: How Guy Lombardo Became “Mr. New Year’s Eve” with His Version of “Auld Lang Syne” | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Editorial: How Guy Lombardo Became “Mr. New Year’s Eve” with His Version of “Auld Lang Syne”

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

“Auld Lang Syne” is the song the English-speaking world uses to welcome the new year. It combines a note of merriment with a poignant sense of loss — just the right mood for New Year’s Eve, when our minds hover between regret and anticipation. “Auld lang syne” translates literally as “old long since” or “and days of long ago.” The version we sing today was popularized by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. It is a version of an ancient song that was reworked by the 18th-century Scottish poet, Robert Burns. Lombardo and his band, who sold more than 450 million records, became an institution in the United States and internationally. Their performance of “Auld Lang Syne” was broadcast nationally from New York City every New Year’s Eve from 1929 to 1976. Variety magazine called Lombardo “the only Canadian ever to create an American tradition.”
Auld Lang Syne: “The sweetest music this side of heaven”

Guy Lombardo first heard this song when, as teenaged musicians, he and his brothers toured the rural areas around his hometown of London, Ontario, which had been settled by Scots. In one of those delightful multicultural blends that are representative of the Canadian experience, the mix of Scottish and Italian heritages produced a unique cocktail.

Guy’s father Gaetano was determined that music should play a part in all his children’s lives. In school, Guy organized a four-piece band that played at church socials. By 1919, when Guy was seventeen, he and his two brothers, Carmen and Lebert, had left school to work as musicians. In 1924, the boys boarded a bus for Cleveland and opened at the Claremont Inn. The club owner, Louis Bleet, suggested a name change from the bland Lombardo Brothers Orchestra, and “His Royal Canadians” were born. Bleet also steered the band toward its unique sound, suggesting that they play softly. When Lombardo told Bleet that he could not possibly keep up with all the requests for songs, Bleet suggested medleys, for which the band became famous.

Guy moved the band to Chicago in 1927. They played to empty houses until he persuaded the local radio station to broadcast their shows from the club. As a result, the station was deluged with calls and the club was jammed.

Guy Lombardo
Guy Lombardo, shown here with his band in 1964, was one of the world's best-known band leaders.

In October of 1929, the Royal Canadians moved to New York and established themselves at the Roosevelt Grill, a two-tiered room with a second dance floor. When the Grill closed many years later, the band moved to the Waldorf Astoria, the site of the familiar New Year’s Eve television broadcasts.

Lombardo developed a rare sound that was unmistakable: slow, rhythmic and above all danceable. Many found it sentimental, but no less a fan than Louis Armstrong talked about the thrill of hearing Lombardo on the radio: “There we would listen to the sweetest music this side of heaven... Guy Lombardo had us spellbound.” Lombardo went on to sell an incredible 450 million records. He introduced some 400 hit songs. Many of them, such as “Seems Like Old Times” and “Return to Me,” were written by his brother Carmen. For much of the 20th century, Lombardo was easily considered one of the best-known Canadians in the world.

By the time the band settled in New York, it was so popular that two radio networks vied for its services. On New Year’s Eve 1929, Lombardo signed off CBS just before midnight and on to NBC just after. To bridge the gap, he used the old tune that he had learned back home, “Auld Lang Syne.”

Even those who found Lombardo’s sound schmaltzy reverently watched the band count down the seconds to the New Year. They did so every New Year’s Eve from 1929 to 1976. Variety magazine called Lombardo “the only Canadian ever to create an American tradition.” Life magazine wrote that if Lombardo failed to play “Auld Lang Syne” the American public would not believe that the new year had really arrived. Lombardo was mystified as to why everyone thought that the playing of “Auld Lang Syne” was so brilliant; the Scots in his native Canada had been singing it for years.

But what an appropriate song it is. It evokes memories of old friendships that never die, of old loves that remain young and the bright colours of youthful dreams.