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The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven
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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 places.

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 summer.

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 drop.'"

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 jazz recordings.

Like it or not, there's no denying the immense popularity of Lombardo's music - and the popularity of the thoroughly likeable man himself.

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