Whatever their era, and whatever their style, few musicians
have been more successful - or more popular -- than Guy Lombardo, leader of the
Royal Canadian Orchestra that played so sweetly for so many years in so many
Lombardo and his orchestra have been gone for more than
30 years, but their memory lives on. We're reminded of them, certainly, every
New Year's Eve. For three decades, the Royal Canadians were the centerpiece of
the celebration in New York that was broadcast to huge audiences throughout the
United States and Canada.
As a note in the sadly now closed Guy Lombardo Music
Centre in his hometown of London, Ontario, explained :"It was not New
Year's Eve if North America didn't hear Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians at
midnight" - playing, naturally, "Auld Lang Syne."
The centre, a trove of Lombardo memorabilia, was closed
last fall, ironically because of poor attendance. Lombardo and his orchestra
introduced more than 300 songs and sold more than 300 million recordings over
their half-century of music-making -- totals that no dance band has even come
close to matching. Yet the centre had drawn only 600 visitors through the whole
Nevertheless, many people still buy and play Lombardo's
recordings, the soothing, bouncy tunes, the beat and rhythm of gently swinging
saxophones, muted trumpets and dulcet voices. At the same time, of course, many
others - including me, I must admit-- continue to deride them as banal. It's
music so soft, one critic complained, "You could even hear a mashed potato
That, however, was the point. As another centre note
said, "Guy kept his music self-consciously simple and low key ... music to
dance cheek-to-cheek to ... 'We play for lovers, not acrobats,' Lombardo once
announced almost disdainfully."
Don't forget, too, that some of Lombardo's most popular
tunes, written by his brother and lead singer, Carmen were used as advanced
musical vehicles by others. Louis Armstrong's recording of Carmen's
"Sweethearts on Parade," for instance, is among the greatest of all
Like it or not, there's no denying the immense popularity
of Lombardo's music - and the popularity of the thoroughly likeable man
It all began in 1924. That's when 22-year-old violinist
Guy and two of his brothers, who had been playing in a band formed in London by
their Italian father, went to Cleveland to play as the Royal Canadians. They
later moved to Chicago and finally, in 1929, to New York City and global fame.
The orchestra, eventually including all seven of the Lombardo children and some
of their children, played in New York for more than 40 years, first at the
Roosevelt Grill, later at the Waldorf Astoria.
Lombardo was a particular favorite of U.S. presidents.
His music, after all, took pretty much the same approach as they did. It was
solidly in the mainstream, designed to appeal to as many people as possible.
His orchestra, royal and Canadian though it was, played at the inaugural balls
of six presidents - Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon and Carter.
Lombardo was not only a champion musician. He also was a
champion speedboat racer, winning every major U.S. trophy in the sport before
two serious accidents led him to retire from racing in 1948.
Lombardo eventually became a U.S. citizen, but never
forgot his roots. He and his orchestra returned regularly for performances in
London and other Ontario cities. He played a major role in London's centennial
celebration in 1955 and returned for special honors in 1971, when he was
awarded an honorary degree from the University of Western Ontario and celebrated
by conducting the band at his old high school.
Those who knew him describe Guy Lombardo as having been a
notably gracious and modest man despite his great celebrity and wealth. When he
wished the world "happy New Year," as he did for so many years, there
was never any doubt that he truly meant it.
Copyright (c) Dick Meister