Leader of renowned big band known for `sweet' musical style

Also was a board member of Mechanic Foundation

Blue Barron : 1913-2005

July 18, 2005|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Blue Barron, who led a big-band dance orchestra known for its signature sweet-sounding music, strictly devoid of jazz influences, died Saturday at his longtime North Baltimore home. He was 91.

Mr. Barron died in his sleep at the home he shared with his sister, Clarisse B. Mechanic, former owner of the Charles Center theater that bears her late husband's name.

"He was a private person. He wanted no publicity. I want to respect his wishes," she said.

Fronting a band that played in the style of Guy Lombardo and Sammy Kaye, Mr. Barron once had a national audience for his nightly radio broadcasts. He popularized many songs, among them the 1948 hit "Cruising Down the River." His photo appeared on thousands of sheet-music song covers.

"He was never carried away by his fame, and in its day it was enormous," said veteran New York radio personality Joe Franklin, who is heard on Bloomberg Radio. "He was the most un-actory, unpretentious, unassuming and untheatrical band leader I ever had on my programs. He often told me he was more of a businessman and could have been a haberdasher."

Music colleagues recalled yesterday that he was born Harry Freedlin in Cleveland and earned a degree from Ohio University at Athens, where he became interested in music management and played violin in a campus band. His mother wanted him to become a doctor or lawyer, his sister said.

"He really played no instruments in the band but was a sharp guy when it came to business," said Jerome H. "Buzz" Zaremba, a retired drummer who played in the Barron band from 1934 to 1942.

Mr. Barron adopted the professional name Blue Barron and in 1934 founded the Blue Barron Orchestra, directed by Red Atkins.

When Mr. Atkins left, Mr. Barron began fronting the band, which had early dates in Troy, Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y., and Buckeye Lake, Ohio, before accepting an engagement at the Southern Tavern in Cleveland.

"There was a radio hookup there, and because of some kind of a musicians strike in New York, the network put us on coast-to-coast," Mr. Zaremba said.

With the band getting a larger audience, requests for other bookings came in. One was from Maria Kramer, who owned the Edison Hotel in Manhattan and signed the band to play its Green Room.

By 1937, Mr. Barron had signed an RCA Victor recording contract and made numerous pressings for its Bluebird label.

Beginning in early 1938, Mr. Barron and his band played in New York at the Edison Hotel or the Lincoln Hotel for six months of the year and traveled the other six months.

His band's theme song was "Sometimes I'm Happy." He introduced selections with: "The music of yesterday and today the Blue Barron way."

"He made me a star," said Russ Carlyle, who sang with the Blue Barron organization for many years and now lives in Breezy Point, Minn. "Blue would introduce me on the radio as singing in `the romantic style of Russ Carlyle.' He made me the No. 4 vocalist in the country in 1939."

In the summer of 1940, Mr. Barron followed band leader Bob Crosby into Chicago's Blackhawk Restaurant for a stand and later performed at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.

"Blue certainly had his own style, highly stylized, an unapologetic sweet band," said Rich Conaty, host of The Big Broadcast, a Sunday New York radio program that features popular music of the 1930s.

"But after World War II and the bands broke up and the ballrooms closed, Blue's band continued on and had hits well into the 1950s. The critics might have teased his sound, but his music appealed to the feet."

"In my perspective, Blue Barron had an excellent orchestra," said Christopher Popa, a Chicago music librarian who runs a big-band Web site. "It was aimed at something other than the music of Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, who had the young kids and the teenagers. Blue Barron aimed at a more sedate, older audience. All these years later, you say the name Blue Barron and it will light up people's eyes."

Mr. Barron enlisted during World War II and became a paratrooper in a glider unit in Europe. During the war, his sister took over the management of the orchestra.

"We were always very, very close," Mrs. Mechanic said yesterday.

Mr. Barron resumed running the orchestra after World War II and signed a recording contract with the MGM label. He and the band continued to tour widely in the Chicago area.

After his brother-in-law, theater owner Morris A. Mechanic, died in 1966, Mr. Barron began spending more time in Baltimore. He gave up the band and helped manage his sister's real estate holdings, including the theater. They lived together in the Tuscany-Canterbury area of North Baltimore.

At his death, Mr. Barron was a trustee of the Morris A. Mechanic Foundation, a local charity that gives money to schools and other institutions.

"You could read the happiness on his face when we would discuss giving money to a school," said Gerald M. Kavanagh, a retired banker who lives in Bel Air and sits on the foundation's board. "I feel like I'm a better person for knowing Blue."

Mr. Barron enjoyed sports and remained a fan of Cleveland teams.

At his request, no service will be held.

His wife died many years ago. A son, Gary Barron, died in 2003.

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