Popular Music for Orchestra – A Brief History (Part Eleven) by Dick O'Connor

Radio informed, entertained, and brought a multifarious human presence into our homes, clubs, and places of business. Sharing the sounds, splendors, and sorrows of civilization it provided us with a passing parade of unifying common experiences and focal points against which we measured our lives. Radio dissolved distance, conquered space, and eliminated, to some extent, regional, social, and economic inequalities, democratizing the fruits of knowledge, culture, and experience, and the products of blessedness and hard work, but also standardizing, consolidating, homogenizing, and, for some, cheapening them as well. With the airplane and the automobile, radio presented us with the prospect of a triumphant technological transcendence of time and the elements, as an agent of change replacing hollow superstitions with concrete conceits. It shaped our opinions and sold us everything under the sun.

Radio greatly increased the sense of intimacy between listener and performer. If recordings brought the artist’s work into the home to be enjoyed at will, radio then made the artist himself a regular guest. It was not unusual for people to clean, bake, shower, change clothing, or otherwise prepare for a favorite program. The millions looked to their ‘magic box’ for more than music, news, comedy, and drama. They wanted to get to know, identify with, feel for, and care about others. They wanted to make friends, to feel human warmth. Radio offered the illusion of intimacy without responsibility and complication. What was felt, however, was real enough and went far toward the making of a host of national superstars.

Being an auditory medium radio was a natural for music. All styles, genres, and types were aired, often in the course of a single evening or even a single program. Many hours weekly were devoted to its featured performance, and beyond that it still had a thousand and one uses. As in vaudeville it introduced and chased acts, underscored punch lines and stage business with cues that broadly suggested what could not be seen. So accustomed did the listener become to introductory signature themes that a single bar of music could effectively mark the presence or announce the entrance of a popular personality. As in the theatre its incidental use aided continuity, heightened mood, built suspense, suggested psychological counterpoint, revealed underlying feelings, and diverted the audience between scenes, acts, and shows. It accompanied and supported the on-air activities of the great entertainers of the day and the would-be greats of the next day. All major shows used live in-studio musicians, and even programs devoted to cooking demonstrations, farm topics, and poetry readings often had an orchestra, a combo, or an organist. Networks kept instrumentalists at the ready in the event of a loss of signal, a performance breakdown, an indisposed host or hostess, or other mishap. Music sold insurance, merchandise, and war bonds, dramatized the news, illumined history, reassured the apprehensive, and refreshed the weary. Thousands of Americans conducted their daily lives to its melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and colors.

As radio became successful the purchase of larger and increasingly expensive blocks of time by commercial sponsors facilitated more elaborate programming and lavish production and made possible salaries that ended the reticence of major show business personalities to enter the medium. While the depression deepened radio flourished, dominating, with motion pictures, the entertainment industry and attracting many of the country’s finest instrumentalists to its studios with wages unheard of elsewhere.

Radio musicians had to become adept at many styles. A violinist might be called upon to take part in a string quartet, provide a hot solo on a jazz number, furnish gypsy fireworks during a comedy or dramatic sketch, or render an ethereal obbligato for a hymn.
A percussionist could be responsible for a series of vaudeville-style sight cues, a novelty xylophone solo, driving a swing band on drum set, and switching to timpani for an operatic excerpt. A woodwind player would use his flute for salon music, bass saxophone for dixieland, oboe in a symphony, and clarinet on dance music. The necessity of convincingly reproducing this plethora of styles, of adapting to shifting settings and genres, and the daily pressure of perfecting new music and finally adjusting it to on-the-air exigencies gave radio ensembles a facility and technique, an alertness and flexibility unmatched anywhere.

The first orchestras to broadcast were existing symphonic, dance, salon, wind, and theatre units, many of which volunteered their services or worked for reduced pay for exposure or out of fascination with the new medium. A few stations employed small house bands. By 1925 record company aggregations were offering their experience, cohesiveness, and studio savvy to programmers and advertisers. The growing influx of money allowed busy urban stations to build substantial ensembles of their own and the creation of the networks standardized the thirty-plus piece orchestra (some were much larger) for concert and ‘good music’ programs.

The ‘good music’ format, as established by NBC’s Palmolive Hour and Cities Service Concerts in 1927, consisted of a regular group of trained singers performing a wide variety of vocal music from opera and concert songs to folk music, the best of Broadway, and the latest hits, concentrating on the familiar melodies of yesterday’s operetta stage, specially arranged to emphasize intimacy, an aura of romance, and an air of dignity. Musical Album (1927-36), The Contented Hour (1931-51), Waltz Time (1933-48), The Fred Waring Show (1933-36, 1938-50), The Hour of Charm (1934-48), Vicks Open House (1934-38), Lavender and Old Lace (1934-36), the Prudential Family Hour (1941-48), Here’s To Romance (1943-46), the Longines Symphonette (1943-57), Texaco Star Theatre (1944-49), Music From the Heart of America (1947-49), The Pet Milk Show (1948-50), and Musicana (1948-51) were among the many shows that adopted it. Both the Voice of Firestone (1928-54) and The Telephone Hour (1940-58) began as ‘good music’ programs before switching to concert formats. Variations included The American Album of Familiar Music (1931-51) and Saturday Night Serenade (1936-48) which held to an all-old favorites-all-the-time policy, their highbrow counterparts the American Melody Hour (1941-48) and Harvest of Stars (1945-50), which introduced dramatic sketches, and the condensed light operas and musical comedies of The Philco Hour (1927-30), the Palmolive Beauty Box Theatre (1934-37), the Railroad Hour (1948-54), and others. All used large orchestras.

Comedy, personality, variety, and strictly popular music programs generally had smaller ensembles, often expanded vaudeville or dance bands with or without stringed instruments.

Arrangement and preparation of music initially fell to conductors or studio musicians.As demand increased full and part-time writers were hired. In the 1930s and 40s the major networks kept dozens of arrangers busy around the clock while single stations, depending on their productivity, might employ perhaps one to five. Many had experience in the musical theatre, the silent cinema, or the publishing and recording industries. Many were recent graduates of conservatories, concert or dance bands. Many were arrivals from Europe and Russia. Some worked on as many as thirty shows each week, others were primarily associated with particular programs. Their names are often available to us only on surviving studio rosters and payment sheets. Some of the more talented we are familiar with as conductors or from subsequent recording, television, and concert work. At NBC Adolf Schmid headed a department that included Robert Armbruster, Norman Cloutier, Gordon Jenkins, Leo Kempinski, Joseph Koestner, Harry Kogen, Ernest LaPrade, Gus Levene, Wayne Robinson, David Rose, Henry Russell, Harold Sanford, Leroy Shield, David Terry, and Meredith Willson. The CBS contingent, led by Emery Deutsch, contained Ray Bloch, David Broekman, Wilbur Hatch, Lenny Hayton, Bernard Herrman, Billy Mills (later at NBC), Vladimir Selinsky, Harry Sosnik, Leith Stevens, and Mark Warnow. Mutual employed Philip Lang and David Rose, ABC Toots Camarata and Glen Osser, and Percy Faith, Johnny Burt, and Robert Farnon worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

In the 1930s Al Goodman, Johnny Green, and Victor Young brought their expertise to the airwaves. Jeff Alexander, Ralph Barnhart, D’Artega, Carmen Dragon, Morton Gould, Matty Malneck, and Nathan Van Cleave were accomplished orchestrators who often took up the baton. During World War Two Paul Weston, Frank DeVol, and Axel Stordahl moved from dance band to studio work and after the conflict many excellent swing band writers – Jerry Gray, Billy May, Glen Osser, Nelson Riddle – and talented and articulate younger men such as Monty Kelly, Warren Barker, Don Costa, Alexander Courage, and Jerry Goldsmith entered the field.

Across the ocean the BBC was brightened by the work of Frank Chacksfield, Frank Cordell, Syd Dale, Robert Docker, Johnny Douglas, Brian Fahey, Robert Farnon, John Fox, Ron Goodwin, Johnny Gregory, Ray Martin, Angela Morley, Ray Noble, Bob Sharples, Sidney Torch, and Gilbert Vintner, while Dolf Van Der Linden, Carlo Savino, Bert Kaempfert, Werner Muller, and Roger Roger made important contributions to the networks of their countries.

Educated, experienced, constantly compelled to create, and with fine studio orchestras on hand to perform their creations, the best radio arrangers developed skills in composition and orchestration that a Bach, a Haydn, or a Brahms would have envied.

The paucity of published radio logs and extant airchecks from the 1920s makes it difficult to assess the exact amount of popular music for orchestra available to listeners during that decade. Dance band remotes were common, and there were a number of experimental broadcasts by theatre orchestras. Local salon ensembles were heard regularly and traditional light and semi-classical fare was included in band and symphony concerts, and on network music programs. The large cinema orchestras that essayed symphonic works and instrumental novelties on the Capitol Family Broadcasts and Roxy and His Gang must also have performed the popular theme music from featured motion pictures, but little is known about this. Well chronicled, however, is the decade’s fascination with symphonic jazz.

As the popularity of Paul Whiteman, Vincent Lopez, Paul Specht, Leo Reisman, Abe Lyman, Duke Ellington, Ted Fiorito, Roger Wolfe Kahn, and other dance bands moved them into theatre and concert venues many developed showpieces specifically for stage presentation. Known as “symphonic jazz”, they may be categorized as 1) light classical and concert works utilizing syncopated rhythms, ‘blue’ notes, instrumental colors and other characteristics of jazz, blues, and dance music, which usually took the form of ragtime novelties, descriptive intermezzi, virtuosic fantasies, or harmonically rich semi-impressionistic mood pieces. 2) dance and syncopated versions of popular symphonic, operatic, and semi-classical excerpts. 3) concert arrangements of pop songs incorporating structural, textural, imitative, developmental, and contrapuntal elements from classical music. Pioneered by Whiteman writer Ferde Grofe and publishing house arrangers catering to the new bands, symphonic jazz was initially featured by the bands themselves, but the great success of Whiteman’s February 12, 1924 Aeolian Hall concert, which spotlighted all three categories and installed George Gershwin as the creative darling of the age, prompted composers to write works in this genre which were eagerly taken up for broadcast by symphonic, motion picture, music theatre, and radio orchestras.

It may have been some of the early experiments in symphonic jazz that inspired violinist Harry Horlick to include concert versions of popular hits on his A&P Gypsies show. The Gypsies began as a six piece salon group with a repertoire that ran the gamut from classical and semi-classical to folk and Gypsy music. From 1923-24 into the 30s they were the most popular instrumental music program on the air. Horlick’s genius was for simple, logical, concise arrangements of tunes that added vital narrative, dramatic, and vibrant orchestral elements, effectively transforming them into light classical compositions. His highly melodic treatments, by turns soaring, fiery, or sentimental, provided listeners with a welcome alternative to the more frenzied heavily rhythmic dance music of the period. Toward the end of the decade the Gypsies, maintaining the same style, content, and characteristics, expanded to a fashionable thirty piece ensemble which Horlick scored in a deft, well-balanced, and richly satisfying theatre orchestra manner.

Basically the same approach was utilized by Nathaniel Shilkret in his recordings with the Victor Salon Orchestra from 1924. Current publicity hailed it as “a concert orchestra that would play popular music in novel arrangements” which would “take nothing away from the original composition and would add some elements of beauty which might not be inherently part of it” and treat it “in the classic manner and bring to its rendition all the resources of the classic styles”. The following year that ensemble, comprised of Victor studio musicians, made its radio debut backing fellow Victor artists and was soon providing musical support for the shows of other advertisers as well. A series of brief instrumental spots in these programs led to a 1930 feature The RCA Hour and a similar vehicle the following year under its leader’s name. Recordings reveal it to have consisted of a few to fifteen players, later somewhat more, expanding to twenty-five or thirty-five pieces as needed for the General Motors Family Party (1927-32), The Coffee House Orchestra (1927), the General Electric Hour (1929-30), the Kodak Hour (1930), and the often more pretentious Music That Satisfies (1932), and for occasional concert and theatre appearances. Popular discs made as the Victor Concert Orchestra, while demonstrating a skillful and idiomatic handling of instrumental forces, are ultimately disappointing in their imitation of certain successes by Paul Whiteman and others. Nevertheless, for versatility, sensitivity, technique, and influence Shilkret must be recognized as one of the medium’s premier arranger-conductors.

Another was Louis Katzman, who came to radio with several years of experience as a dance band leader and publishing house orchestrator. On Whithall’s Anglo-Persians his small ensemble moved easily from dance music to salon, semi-classical, and symphonic selections, to exotic novelties. The Hoover Orchestra (1927-29), and The Invisible Microphone (1933) were among his series, and he scored and conducted Fred Allen’s first show (1932-33) and George Gershwin’s 1934 programs on NBC and CBS. As a musical director of Brunswick Records he also specialized in latin numbers and orchestral versions of favorite international standards.

The work of pianist and theatre conductor Frank Black, also with Brunswick, helped establish larger orchestras as commercially viable in the early network period. A powerful figure at NBC, Black undertook much of the writing for the many programs with which he was associated, pioneering the symphonic treatment of pop songs as well as the lush use of a large, singing string ensemble on the Sieberling Singers (1927-30), The Palmolive Hour (1927-31), The Happy Wonder Bakers (1929-31), The Chase and Sanborn Choral Orchestra (1929-30), and the Big Six of the Air (1932), well before these innovations became stylish in the mid 30s.

In February of 1929 CBS brought Paul Whiteman’s aggregation to the airwaves in a move to rival the peppy circus-styled novelty dance music of Benjamin Rolfe on NBC. Whiteman championed the creative and interesting arrangement of popular music, and on this and subsequent programs often featured contrasting stylistic and period settings of a single melody to demonstrate its importance, while showcasing the work of staff orchestrators Ferde Grofe, Lenny Hayton, Roy Bargy, William Grant Still, Fud Livingston, and Adolph Deutsch as well as contributions solicited from other talents. 1930s Whiteman vehicles such as The Kraft Music Hall always made room for orchestral specialities, usually works of “Modern American Music” (symphonic jazz), familiar or novel light classics, or pleasing treatments of current popular songs, a practice that was happily continued well into the next decade by John Scott Trotter after Bing Crosby took over the show in 1936.

Other leaders experimenting with studio orchestra versions of popular standards on early network series included Victor Arden ( Melody Matinee, 1926-38), Max Dolin ( RCA Hour, Song Painting, 1928; Nights In Spain, Eveready Salon Orchestra, Kylectroneers, Slumber Hour, 1929; Concert Jewels, 1930), Joseph Koestner ( Armour Hour of Music, 1929-33; Williams Syncomantics, 1929, and Oilomatics, 1930), former Victor Herbert arranger Harold Sanford ( Slumber Hour, 1927; Savannah Liners Orchestra, 1929; Maxwell House Melodies, 1930; Two Seats In the Balcony, 1932; The Hour Glass, 1933), and composer Vincent Sorey ( brief early 30s programs featuring a salon orchestra).

At the end of 1933 CBS conductor Andre Kostelanetz began leavening half hour concerts of symphonic excerpts and opera soloists with highly imaginative instrumental interpretations of recent musical theatre songs. Warm, lush, active and flamboyant, making full use of the colors, textures, and effects available in a large studio orchestra, they represented a more fanciful, complex, and free approach to the scoring of popular music and quickly found favor with a sizable segment of the American public when the program became a commercial entity as Chesterfield Presents on April 2, 1934. Praised by partisans as fresh and exciting while dismissed by detractors as showy and overdone, Kostelanetz’ orchestral treatment of popular melodies stimulated radio arrangers to higher levels of creativity, ushering in a period of competitive emulation and rendering most previous attempts at the same dull, stodgy, and dated.

Station and network programmers, recognizing the trend, were soon allotting ace writers continuing fifteen and thirty minute slots of unsold air time to ‘show their stuff ‘.Within two and a half years of the first Kostelanetz Chesterfield broadcast Frank Black, Emery Deutsch, Max Dolin, Al Goodman, Morton Gould, Johnny Green, Gus Haenschen, Lenny Hayton, Harry Horlick, Gordon Jenkins, Louis Katzman, David Rose, Harold Sanford, Leroy Shield, Jack Shilkret, Vincent Sorey, Peter Van Steeden, Mark Warnow, Meredith Willson, and Victor Young, among others, had undertaken instrumental music shows of their own. Perhaps more significantly, established variety, personality, popular, and ‘good music’ programs altered formats to likewise feature their studio ensembles. Transcription services found clients requesting similar fare. Even vocal accompaniment began to reflect the new orchestral enthusiasm, becoming livelier, richer, more striking and enchanting. Radio had given us a new kind of music.

To Part Twelve

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