Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Lester Raymond Brown, 14 March 1912, Reinerton PA; d 4 January 2001, Los Angeles CA) Bandleader; played reeds but rarely soloed. His father was a frustrated musician who encouraged the boys; his brother, trombonist Warren 'Stump' Brown, had been with Les since '39. Jack Sperling was on drums for almost 40 years. The Duke Blue Devils were formed at Duke University '34 and recorded for Decca; in May '96 PBS taped a Brown gig at the Hollywood Palladium: he outlasted everybody, still playing good arrangements extremely well, like the Glenn Miller band making both 'sweet' and 'hot' fans happy. Gunther Schuller has pointed out that Brown had a knack for hiring reedmen who could play well in the higher registers, giving the band a modern sound influenced by Lester Young; good musicians passing through included Abe Most, Zoot Sims, Dave Pell on reeds; Ray Sims (Zoot's brother) and Si Zentner on trombone; Billy Butterfield and Don Fagerquist on trumpets.

The Duke Blue Devils broke up '37; he arranged freelance for a few months, then started again; the new band wasn't very good at first because it was a co-operative: Brown, Woody Herman, Johnny Long and others found that with a co-op band you have to have a meeting to make every decision. But with arrangers Frank Comstock (ex-Benny Carter), Ben Homer, Skip Martin, trumpeter Bob Higgins ('High On A Windy Trumpet', 'Lover's Leap'), Wes Hensel, guests Mary Lou Williams and Bill Holman, 'Les Brown and his Band of Renown' became the most famous and popular white dance band of late '40s-'50s. He recorded for Bluebird, then CBS labels from '40; the first hit was Homer's 'Joltin' Joe DiMaggio', with vocalist Betty Bonney '41, when the entire country was following the New York Yankees. The band made film Seven Days Leave '42; there were many radio broadcasts for Coca-Cola. Reedman Butch Stone did the novelty vocals; Doris Day joined '40, again '43-6, her biggest hits 'My Dreams Are Getting Better All The Time' and 'Sentimental Journey' (composed by Homer) were both no. 1 '45, 'You Won't Be Satisfied (Till You Break My Heart)' no. 5 '46; also 'Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief'. Other vocalists on records over the years included Lucy Ann Polk, Julie London, June Christy, Jo Ann Greer; classic instrumentals included 'Bizet Has His Day' (using an out-of-copyright tune by the 19th-century French composer during the ASCAP strike against broadcasters '40), 'Leap Frog' (another riff from Joe Garland, who also got composer credit for 'In The Mood'), lovely 'Twilight Time' '45 (co-written by Buck Ram and the Three Sons, later a hit for the Platters).

Brown quit in late '46 to take a year off and settled in Los Angeles, but had forgotten a March '47 ballroom gig; he couldn't get out of it and re-formed, and then being on the West Coast got radio and TV work at a time when other bands were folding. A Columbia executive heard them playing 'I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm' '48 and thought they should record it: they had already recorded it, in '46: at Christmas '48 it was no. 1 and everybody knew it was the last big instrumental hit of the Swing Era.

Brown entertained troops for many years with Bob Hope, recorded on Coral '51-5 (hits with the Ames Brothers '51), did Steve Allen shows '59-60; Dean Martin '66 etc. Several compilations on Columbia included biggest hits in Best of the Big Bands series, and Les Brown With Doris Day; radio airchecks were issued on Circle, Hindsight, Joyce and First Heard. Other albums included a two-LP live concert on MCA from the Hollywood Palladium '53; LPs on Capitol '55-8 (material later on Curb and Pair); Les Brown Live At Elitch Gardens (famous Denver venue), two CD volumes made live '59 from the English Status label; New Horizons '72 on Daybreak, Les Brown Today '74 on MPS, Les Brown in Time-Life series, Anything Goes on USA Music, The Les Brown Show In Hollywood (U.S. Navy shows) on Magic. Concert albums made in Japan '83 included Jo Ann Greer, Butch Stone, guests Rosemary Clooney, Georgie Auld and Buddy DeFranco. Digital Swing '86 on Fantasy had Mundell Lowe on guitar. Gerry McDonald recorded Brown, Harry James and Les & Larry Elgart on a binaural tape recorder starting in '54, he later issued CDs on his Renown label in good sound.