Lombardo auld acquaintance not forgot

WAY BACK WHEN

January 03, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Sometime during the late 1960s, while making a cameo appearance on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, bandleader Guy Lombardo - who was known as "Mr. New Year's Eve" - stared into the camera and said, "When I die, I'm taking New Year's Eve with me."

Well, almost.

Even though Dick Clark replaced Lombardo with his New Year's Eve broadcasts, people still think of the great bandleader as the old year yields to the new.

And more than likely on New Year's Eve, you heard a recording of Lombardo and his Royal Canadians playing their signature vibrato saxophone rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" at the stroke of midnight.

For 48 years until his death in 1977, Lombardo and his orchestra were a year-end tradition and as much a part of the celebration as the illuminated ball from New York's Times Square.

On Lombardo's last New Year's Eve broadcast from the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, it was estimated that some 55 million tuned in to hear him welcome in the new year.

Creator of "the sweetest music this side of heaven," Lombardo was a 12-year-old when he and four other youngsters began playing at women's clubs in London, Ontario, his birthplace.

Lombardo was later joined by his brothers Carmen and Lebert, and they relocated their band to Cleveland in 1925. Another brother, Victor, and a sister, Rosemarie, were also associated with the orchestra.

In 1927, Lombardo moved the band to Chicago, and while playing an engagement at the Grenada Hotel changed the band's name from the Canadians to the Royal Canadians.

Also while in Chicago, the band made its first nationwide broadcast for the Columbia Broadcasting System, and established a professional relationship that lasted 50 years.

Moving to New York in 1929, the band made its new home at the Roosevelt Grill. It remained there until 1964, when it moved to the Waldorf-Astoria.

The Royal Canadians made history when they broadcast their theme song, "Auld Lang Syne," from the Roosevelt Grill on Dec. 31, 1929, only six weeks after the stock market crash.

"But New York was still the city where everyone dressed to go out after 6 p.m.," Lombardo recalled in a 1971 interview.

"They wore tuxedos - no gray suits; you'd as soon go out in your pajamas. And there were lots of people in full dress that New Year's Eve. People were happier on New Year's Eve during the Depression than they are now. They all felt they were in the same boat and they hoped the new year would bring some improvement," he said.

"During World War II, New Year's didn't have an honest ring to it. But 1945-1946 seemed to me the happiest of all the New Year's Eves we ever played," the bandleader said.

Lombardo credited CBS founder William S. Paley, who had lined up Robert Burns Pantellas as the band's sponsor, for using "Auld Lang Syne" as a theme song. It was also Paley's idea that the Royal Canadians would close out the year with a live broadcast from 11:30 to midnight from the Roosevelt Grill.

"Also, Western Ontario, where we started, was heavily Scottish and every dance ended with the playing of that song," Lombardo said.

Lombardo's New Year's Eve broadcast was first televised in 1954.

While jazz critics scorned Lombardo as "the King of Corn," his and his band's popularity soared. He is credited with introducing more than 300 songs including, "Boo Hoo," "Give Me a Little Kiss, Will Ya Hon," "Easter Parade," "You're Driving Me Crazy," "Little White Lies" and "Snuggle on Your Shoulder," that became legitimate hits.

"We're giving the public what they want. We don't force bad songs on them," Lombardo said. "We play music people like to hum while they're dancing. Any time a band has a `class' following, any time it creates a distinctive quality, some of the other musicians call it corny."

"Few bands were untouched by the Lombardo sounds after Guy's opening at the Hotel Roosevelt. Although they rejected his ricky-ticky beat with distaste and made great fun of his flea-bite cymbal-beat codas, Harlem bands adopted his saxophone voicing almost to a saxophone man," observed The History of Jazz in America.

At Lombardo's funeral, Robert Moses, New York's master builder, spoke of his friendship with the bandleader in a 15-minute eulogy.

"He was a family man who appealed to the plain people, reminded them of their memorable days and helped them celebrate their anniversaries with unforgettable music. ... Guy Lombardo was no ordinary guy. ... There has been only one guy at midnight on New Year's Eve on Broadway."

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