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Swing Band Leader of RenownCopyright © 2001The Scotsman, 2001
Les Brown led one of the best known and most popular big bands of the Swing era. Although never as big a star as the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, his Band of Renown scored regularly in the charts of the day, and reached huge audiences through their four decade association with comedian Bob Hope.
Browns most famous hit came in 1945 with Sentimental Journey, co-written with Ben Homer and lyricist Bud Green, and sung by the bands young singer, Doris Day. The sung struck a particular note of poignant homecoming in the last days of the war, and not only confirmed Browns standing as a leader, but also launched Day on her stellar career.
The band had several other major hits, mostly with purely instrumental tunes, a sequence which began in 1941 with Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, their tribute to the great baseball star, and included Ive Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Midnight Sun, Mexican Hat Dance, Ramona, and the tune which became their signature, Leap Frog.
Brown was hired to replace Desi Arnaz as Bob Hopes musical director in 1947, an association which continued for over forty years, until the comedian retired in the early 1990s. Brown and his band worked with Hope initially on radio, and later on television, and accompanied him on many world tours, including his famous Christmas tours to entertain American troops stationed abroad.
Lester Raymond Brown was born into a musical family. His father was a baker to trade, but a keen saxophonist and local band leader by inclination, and the young Les quickly discovered that the best way to be excused helping out in the bakery was to take music lessons.
He took up cornet briefly, then turned to soprano saxophone, clarinet and bassoon. He studied music at a military band school in Ithaca, New York, where his interest in symphonic music was encouraged, then won a scholarship to the New York Military Academy in Cornwall, New York, where he played saxophone in the military band, and began to write and arrange music.
He fell in love with the big bands he heard on the radio at this time, featuring the likes of Paul Whiteman, Red Nichols, and Fletcher Henderson. He enrolled at Duke University in 1932, and became the leader of the colleges famous swing band, The Blue Devils. He toured the east coast with the band for over a year in 1936-7, the beginning of his professional career. He moved to New York, where he wrote arrangements for the bandleaders like Isham Jones, Jimmy Dorsey, and Red Nichols.
He was offered a recording opportunity by RCA Victor in 1938, and formed his own 12-piece band for the occasion, taking up a long residence at the Edison Hotel in New York. They played at the Worlds Fair in New York in 1940, and acquired their distinctive name as the result of an off-the-cuff comment by a radio announcer in 1942, who introduced the band as Les Brown and his band of renown. Brown liked the sound of the phrase, and adopted it as the bands official name (they had been known simply as the Les Brown Orchestra until then).
Brown acknowledged that his approach to his music was a little conservative. He was never as innovative as many of the other great band leaders of the era, nor did he feature his own playing in a solo role in the band. He preferred to cultivate a clean, disciplined ensemble sound, rather than build his band around virtuoso players. Their skillful, lightly swinging arrangements, whether his own or the work of arrangers like Ben Homer, Frank Comstock, or Skip Martin, were carefully tailored for dancers, and always had a strong commercial appeal.
The band varied in size at times, but always retained the classic section structure of the jazz big band. Among the many musicians who passed through the group were saxophonists Matt Uttel, Lou Ciotto and Abe Most, trumpeters Don Rader, Bud Madison and Don Fagerquist, and trombonists Si Zentner, Andy Martin, and Ray Sims.
The trombone section also featured two of his brothers, Warren Brown and Clyde Stumpy Brown, the latter for over 50 years. The band remained an attraction for six decades, and is still active, although Brown limited his appearances in recent years, often leaving the job of directing the band to his son, Les Brown, Jr.
In addition to Bob Hope, he worked with a number of famous radio and television personalities over the years, including the late Steve Allen, and a lengthy run on The Dean Martin Show, an association which lasted from 1965 to 1974. The band played at the opening of the first Disneyland theme park in 1955, and performed at inauguration galas for two Presidents, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The band also entertained Queen Elizabeth II, at a ball arranged by Frank Sinatra.
He was the first president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and is said to have been responsible for persuading starts like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra to lend their influential support to the nascent Grammy Award ceremonies.
Les Brown died from lung cancer at his home in Los Angeles. He is survived by his wife, Evelyn; their son, Les, Jr.; and their daughter, Denise.