Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians

Guy (Gaetano Alberto) Lombardo - b London, Ont, 19 Jun 1902, naturalized US 1938, d Houston 5 Nov 1977; honorary D MUS (Western Ontario) 1971 - was its leader from its inception, ca 1917 as the Lombardo Brothers' Orchestra and Concert Company, until his death.

Lombardo, Guy
Guy Lombardo, shown here with his band in 1964, was one of the world's best-known band leaders (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/e005176089).

Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians

 Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Dance band formed in London, Ont, named in Cleveland in 1923, and known for 'the sweetest music this side of Heaven,' a description coined by Ashton Stevens of the Chicago Tribune in 1928.

Guy (Gaetano Alberto) Lombardo - b London, Ont, 19 Jun 1902, naturalized US 1938, d Houston 5 Nov 1977; honorary D MUS (Western Ontario) 1971 - was its leader from its inception, ca 1917 as the Lombardo Brothers' Orchestra and Concert Company, until his death. The 'orchestra' was a quartet: Guy (violinist), his brothers Carmen (flutist, saxophonist, singer; see previous entry) and Lebert (drummer, trumpeter, b London, Ont, 1904), and Freddie Kreitzer (pianist). The 'company' included, variously, the Lombardos' sister Elaine (soprano) and father, Gaetano (baritone, b Lipari, Italy, ca 1873, d Stamford, Conn, 6 Oct 1954), and occasionally a Scottish comedian and dancers.

The Lombardo quartet fulfilled its first significant engagement at an outdoor dance pavilion at Grand Bend, Ont, during the summer of 1919. With an expanded group, the Lombardos spent the winter season 1922-3 at the Winter Garden in London and the summer of 1923 at Port Stanley, Ont. Curtailing its second season at the Winter Garden late in 1923, the Lombardo Brothers' Orchestra - the quartet plus Archie Cunningham (saxophone, later a popular radio entertainer in Toronto), Jim Dillon (trombone), Eddie Mashurette (tuba), Francis 'Muff' Henry (guitar), and George Gowans (drums) - went to Cleveland. It remained in the USA, thereafter, although it toured in Canada in later years.

In 1924 the orchestra, now called Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, took a two-year residency at a Cleveland nightclub, the Claremont Tent. There it was coached by the owner, Louis Bleet, who has been credited with slowing the band's tempos and lowering its volume and with introducing the idea of a medley to accommodate the many requests from his patrons. These innovations to the dance band style of the day, together with the developing Lombardo sound, contributed substantially to the Royal Canadians' popularity.

Several elements characterized the Lombardo sound: the smooth vibrato of the saxophones, led by Carmen's alto; Carmen's emotive singing, often satirized for its marked tremolo and precise diction; the preponderance of schottisches in the orchestra's repertoire; the use of the tuba instead of a double-bass, and in a harmonic rather than rhythmic role; and the quiet drumming of Gowans, barely audible save to the other musicians.

In Cleveland, Guy used the new medium of radio to his advantage, arranging to play an unsponsored program on station WTAM and thereby developing a substantial following for the Royal Canadians' appearances in the area. The band made its first recordings 10 Mar 1924 in Richmond, Ind, for Gennett. After performing in and around Cleveland until 1927, it moved to Chicago, where it played at the Granada Cafe and broadcast over station WBBM.

In 1929 it began a 33-year residency at the Roosevelt Grill in New York. The broadcast (and later, the telecast) by CBS of the Royal Canadians' annual New Year's Eve performance at the Roosevelt Grill (and later at the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria) became a traditional part of festivities throughout North America; the orchestra's rendition at the stroke of midnight of 'Auld Lang Syne' (a song that had been part of its repertoire since the days when it played in Scottish communities near London) was heard by millions of celebrants.

The Royal Canadians also took residencies in Los Angeles in the 1930s and long engagements in other New York nightclubs after leaving the Roosevelt Grill in 1962. The orchestra toured extensively in the USA and Canada, performing both for dances in small communities and in the nightclubs of major cities. Though heard most often on the CBS network, it also had radio shows on NBC and MBS and was seen in a series telecast on WNBT, New York, in the mid-1950s from the Roosevelt Grill. The Royal Canadians appeared in the movies Many Happy Returns (1934), Stage Door Canteen (1943), and No Leave, No Love (1946), performed at the inaugural balls for every US president from F.D. Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower, and again in 1985 for Ronald Reagan, and played for several World Series at Yankee Stadium, New York.

The personnel of the Royal Canadians, who grew to 16 by the late 1940s, remained remarkably stable under Lombardo's direction. Besides the Lombardo brothers, three other early members passed the 40-year mark: Gowans, Kreitzer, and the saxophonist Fred 'Derf' Higman (who had replaced Cunningham in 1924). The US singer Kenny Gardner, who assumed the role of featured vocalist from Carmen in 1940, married Elaine Lombardo and remained with the Royal Canadians for over 30 years. Another Lombardo sister, Rose Marie (b London 22 Nov 1925), sang with the orchestra 1941-8. Among the other Canadians to play in the orchestra were Bernard Davies, who replaced Eddie Mashurette ca 1926; and Hugo D'Ippolito, one of several pianists to join Kreitzer in a two-piano team.

On Guy's death, direction of the orchestra passed through several hands, including those of another Lombardo brother, Victor (b London 1912, a saxophonist and clarinetist who first joined the Royal Canadians in 1930 and later led his own band in the Lombardo style), Lebert's son Bill (who had succeeded Gowans as drummer in 1971), and Art Mooney. The band continued to tour in 1990 under the leadership of Al Pierson.

Besides their two 78s for Gennett in 1924, the Royal Canadians made more than 45 78s 1927-31 for Columbia and about 40 1932-4 for Brunswick. The orchestra recorded 1934-57 for Decca and then for Capitol, although Decca continued to issue previously unreleased material after 1957. The Royal Canadians' recordings 1924-42 are listed in Brian Rust's Complete Dance Band Discography 1917-1942 (New Rochelle 1975). Many of these and later recordings were re-issued 1961-5 in a four-part series entitled The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven: 1926-32 (Decca 78962), 1932-9 (Decca 74229), 1941-8 (Decca 74328), and 1949-54 (Decca 74329).

At the time of Guy Lombardo's death, about 100 LPs had been released comprising pop songs of the day (many written by Carmen Lombardo, and many more introduced to the public by the Lombardo orchestra), show tunes, folksongs, Italian and other national songs, and light classical pieces - either performed individually or arranged in medleys. The recordings of 'Winter Wonderland,' ' The Third Man Theme,' 'Easter Parade,' and 'Humoresque' were million sellers. By the early 1970s total sales exceeded 300 million, confirming the status of Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians as the most popular dance band of its day.

Independent of the Royal Canadians but with the participation of his brothers, Guy began producing musical extravaganzas at the Jones Beach Marine Theater (near his home at Freeport, Long Island, NY) and continued for over 20 years. He also competed in hydroplane races 1940-2 and 1946-63, winning many throughout North America.


Further Reading

  • Best, Katharine. 'Some like it sweet,' Stage, Jan 1939

    Israels, Josef, II. 'Corn is always green,' Maclean's, 15 Jul 1949

    Various 25th-anniversary tributes. Variety, 28 Sep 1949

    Herndon, Booton. The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven (Toronto 1964)

    Carroll, Jock. 'Luck of the Lombardos,' Weekend Magazine, 4 and 11 Jul 1964

    Miller, John. 'The sweetest music this side of Kilgore,' Canadian Magazine, 26 Dec 1970

    Wilson, John S. 'Guy Lombardo,' International Musician, Sep 1971

    Lombardo, Guy, with Altschul, Jack. Auld Acquaintance (New York 1975)

    Fenwick, Harry. 'Should old acquaintance be forgot,' Weekend Magazine, 31 Dec 1977

    Cline, Beverly Fink. The Lombardo Story (Don Mills, Ont, 1979)

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