This post was written by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.
The Big Band era and the Golden Age of Old Time Radio were long past in the summer of 1956, when NBC Bandstand hit the airwaves. Live performances by the great dance orchestras had been a staple of network radio in the 1930s and 1940s, and there will still enough bands with loyal followings that a daily two hour broadcast featuring the best remaining groups seemed worth a try.
By this time, NBC was serving its daytime audience a slate of soap operas that hadn’t migrated to television, and Weekday, a morning news magazine block patterned after Monitor the network’s weekend news and performance service. Though Monitor had found an audience, Weekday was struggling, and NBC Bandstand claimed its 10:00 am to noon block.
It premiered on July 30, 1956 with host Bert Parks presenting an array of bands more sweet than hot: Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, and the orchestras of Wayne King and Freddie Martin. Singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer was on hand too, as were the Dorsey Brothers, easily the most energetic and swinging of all the featured bands. Mercer, Lombardo and the Dorseys all performed in NBC’s New York Studio 6-A before an audience of 100 seated nightclub-style at tables with waiter service. Wayne King was heard from NBC’s Chicago studio, and Freddie Martin was in Los Angeles. The show aired live, and Martin’s Orchestra was standing by 7:00 am, PST. “What’s a bandleader playing music at this hour for?” Martin wondered aloud to the radio audience.
NBC program executive William R. Goodheart, Jr had this answer:
“The studies we have made indicate that housewives want good, easy-listening music,” he said. “That’s just what we’re going to give them…live big band music every morning.”
“We’ll steer clear of bands that play only rock-and-roll, or be-bop. We feel the housewife wants to sweep and dust in the morning…not jitterbug. Our concept is this simple: NBC Bandstand will feature entertaining music…distinctive because it’s live and because it present all big bands.”
The next day, syndicated columnist Jack O’Brian complained that the show had arrived “exactly 20 years late,” and opined that programs of pre-recorded music in high fidelity were just as good. Like other critics, he also had little patience for the irrepressibly chipper host Bert Parks, a singer and game show host best known as the host of the annual Miss America pageant.
But overall response was strongly positive. In California, columnist Bob Foster of the San Mateo Times noted these reactions two days later:
“’I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed that kind of music,’ one woman called to tell us. Another listener who even admitted her age—which we won’t—said ‘It sure made me feel young again. I only wish my husband had been around to enjoy it. We me dancing to the music of Guy Lombardo and in our courting days danced to all those bands.’”
This must have been gratifying to NBC’s Goodheart, but Foster reported that NBC Bandstand was reaching men as well. A gas station operator declared it “the best thing I’ve heard on radio in nearly 10 years.” A traveling man Foster met told him: “Gee that was great…that’s got record shows beaten lots of different ways, hasn’t it?”
In the show’s early days, the 10:30 – 11:00 am slot was simulcast on NBC television, an arrangement that lasted through November 23rd, 1956. In its nearly three year run, it hosted the bands of Lionel Hampton, Claude Thornhill, Les Elgart, the latter day Glenn Miller Orchestra led by Ray McKinley, Sammy Kaye, Hal McIntyre, Ralph Flanagan, Russ Morgan, Shep Fields, Tex Beneke, Billy May, Buddy Morrow, Neal Hefti and many others appeared. Singers Dick Haymes, Maxine Sullivan, Gene Austin, the Delta Rhythm Boys, Abbey Lincoln, Julius LaRosa and others also joined in
NBC Bandstand’s first year on the air would also preserve some of the last recordings of two swing era’s giants: Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, who would not survive the show’s first year. In addition to being part of Bandstand’s first two weeks on the air, the brothers returned for a two week engagement in October, with a return engagement booked for the holiday season. The Dorseys had a unique sibling rivalry that sometimes turned into an all-out war.
After more than a decade as sidemen, in the depression year of 1934, the brothers had gambled and won when they formed a touring and recording unit. The Swing Era had barely begun, but the Dorseys were already leaders. In the summer of 1935, their already notorious sibling rivalry turned into an all-out feud, with Tommy storming out of a rehearsal to form new band and leaving Jimmy to lead their orchestra on his own. The brothers had little to do with each other in the next few years, but managed a professional rapprochement with some shared engagements and patched things up in the 1940s at the request of their dying father, though there were subsequent scraps between the two, and they never tired of pranking each other.
In 1947, they played themselves in the film The Fabulous Dorseys, but there was never serious talk of a full reunion, as both of them were major stars on their own. By 1953 though, the big bands were on hard times. The brothers and their orchestras were still attractions, and when they rejoined forces that spring that spring, they were riding high again. Their subsequent exposure on Jackie Gleason’s TV variety show and their own series Stage Show helped them draw crowds that they hadn’t seen since the mid-1940s.
Their lengthy residencies in the Café Rouge at the Hotel Statler in Manhattan, less than a mile south of NBC studios, made them natural guests on Bandstand. But Tommy Dorsey died suddenly in November, leaving his ailing brother Jimmy to lead the band. Jimmy had undergone surgery for stomach ulcers in early 1954, and was feeling the effects of years of heavy drinking and smoking. In spite of this, he was still playing beautifully, as can be heard on his Bandstand appearances and “So Rare,” a solo record he cut shortly before Tommy’s death that became a major hit in 1957.
Jimmy led the group ably and cheerfully on Bandstand starting on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1956. The band was in good form, and their sets on the show reflect a band in transition, favoring Jimmy’s hits over Tommy’s, and some of the group’s more daring recent arrangements such as Ernie Wilkins’s “Power Glide” and Tadd Dameron’s “Bula Beige” that had been more to Jimmy’s tastes than Tommy’s. Guest vocalists Vaughn Monroe, Snooky Lanson, Johnny Desmond and others added sentimental favorites in their appearances.
The second week of the NBC Bandstand residence started on December 31, 1956. The Billy May Orchestra, led by Sam Donahue, was the guest for the first hour, with the Jimmy returning for the second hour. The Dorsey Orchestra was also heard that night on both CBS and NBC, part of a six hour New Year’s Eve coast to coast hookup with top bands that the networks had been hosting since the 1940s.
Jimmy and the band were back on Bandstand hours later, this time hosting the first hour of the show. It would prove to be his last appearance on NBC Bandstand, and his last known recordings. Later that day, Jimmy complained of throat pains, and his manager Tino Barzie brought him to Doctor’s Hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. By the end of the week, he was in surgery for what was publicly described as a “wart” on one of his lungs, but which was really for his advancing lung cancer. Barzie later said that Jimmy’s doctors decided that he would not be able to take the news that cancer would soon kill him, and withheld their diagnosis.
Incredibly, Jimmy was on the road a few weeks later, playing one-nighters in the south and southwest, as his last release, an R&B influenced version of the 30s pop song “So Rare” began its improbable climb up the charts in the era of Elvis and Pat Boone. “So Rare”’s rise continued through the spring, as Jimmy entered the hospital for the last time. On June 12, 1957, he died with “So Rare” at number 2 on the national charts, in the middle of more than four months it would spend in the national Top Ten.
NBC Bandstand carried on until April, 1959. By this time, an NBC studio orchestra led first by Skitch Henderson and then Doc Severinsen provided most of the music, with guest vocalists and the occasional name bands. While it’s true that over its daily run of nearly three years—nearly 800 shows in all—it had favored the sweeter side of swing and pop, it had also often presented first rate jazz, and even a bit of rock and country at times, with visits from the Platters, Mickey and Sylvia, the Everly Brothers, Eddy Arnold and George Hamilton IV.
“Melodies with the Dusting,” Washington Post and Times Herald, July 22, 1956.
“On the Air” by Jack O’Brian, New York Journal American, July 31, 1956
“Musicians, Public Go For ‘Bandstand’” by Bob Foster, San Mateo Times, August 1, 1956.
Matthew Barton will present clips from NBC Bandstand on Tuesday, December 17th, 2019, 7:30 pm, in the Mary Pickford Theater in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington, DC, as part of the presentation “So Rare: The Last Days of Jimmy Dorsey.”
Learn more about the Library’s NBC Radio Collection at The National Broadcasting Company at the Library of Congress and how to conduct further research in the Recorded Sound Research Center Any inquires to dig deeper into the history of radio or on other audio collections may be directed to the Recorded Sound Research Center or the Library’s Ask-a-Librarian.
Very nice account of this show and era. Although I listened to the radio in those years, I was not aware of all of the underlying dynamics and context. Thanks for the insights! Carl