Trombonist Daniel C. Gabel, a member of the NEC Jazz Orchestra who is currently working on a biography of Vaughn Monroe, has supplied this program note for the music performed at NEC on October 17. In addition to his current studies at NEC, Gabel is bandleader of The Abletones, High Society Orchestra, and Hot Jazz Combo.
Vaughn Monroe (1911–1973) was and still is one of the most popular and identifiable stars of the big band era. Known affectionately as “old leather lungs” or “the voice with hair on its chest,” his unique vocal sound and style are vividly remembered by millions of fans, yet often forgotten by history texts and dismissed by jazz critics.
Immediately after high school, Monroe enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, pursuing his love of science, but only completed one year. He had no trouble finding work with various touring dance bands, playing lead trumpet and featured on an occasional vocal. While with Larry Funk’s Band of a Thousand Melodies, Monroe came to know and love Boston. Opting for a more settled lifestyle, and following early aspirations of becoming an opera singer, Vaughn Monroe moved to Boston. He enrolled at New England Conservatory in the classical voice department in the fall of 1935, studying with Clarence B. Shirley.
Establishing himself in Boston, Monroe connected with Jack Marshard, the top society band leader and music promoter in New England at the time. Monroe began working in the Marshard band’s trumpet section, and left NEC for a steady payroll in 1936. Marshard recognized Vaughn Monroe’s work ethic, talent, and incredible voice. Coupled with the young trumpet star’s good looks and warm personality, Monroe was the likely choice to begin fronting some of Marshard’s bands. By 1939, important talent agents recognized the Monroe charm as well, and with Jack Marshard’s blessing, Vaughn decided to go out on his own with a new band.
The Vaughn Monroe Orchestra was born in 1940, but not before he married his high school sweetheart, Marion, and settled in Wayland, Massachusetts. At the urging of several agents, Vaughn Monroe decided to pack away the trumpet in favor of featuring his voice. The band was thus built around the strong and unique voice of the maestro. The band opened at Seiler’s Ten Acres in Wayland, a popular nightclub, in May of 1940. Remote broadcasts began that same month, which allowed the new band to be heard by a larger audience. Soon, calls came in from New York City and the band was on the road after just a few months. Monroe scored many hits quickly, including perhaps his most enduring recording, "Racing with the Moon," his own composition, which served as the band’s theme tune.
The Monroe band had one of the most consistent personnel rosters during its fourteen-year tenure. While the band rarely had any notable jazz soloists, it did consistently boast a high level of musicianship. A few are worth noting here: Andy Bagni was the style-setting lead alto sax with Monroe during the band’s entire existence. Frank Ryerson played lead trumpet and was also a talented arranger. Johnny Watson contributed most of the arrangements for the early band, including the theme tune and some excellent instrumentals, such as Take it, Jackson. Others went on to greater fame in their own right, including Ray Conniff, Art Deidrick, Don Costa, Frank Levine, vocalist Marylyn Duke, and the master rhythm guitarist, John "Bucky" Pizzarelli, who remembers his six years with Monroe with much fondness. Tenor saxophonist Ziggy Talent was often featured as a novelty vocalist, and had several big hits for Monroe, including "The Majarajah of Magador." The Monroe organization grew when he added a vocal group. The Norton Sisters, later billed as “The Moon Maids” (in reference to the theme tune "Racing with the Moon") joined to record "Let’s Get Lost."
With excellent musicians, finely-crafted arrangements, and a string of enduring top hits, Vaughn Monroe and his Orchestra swept popularity polls between 1942 and 1949, especially among college campuses. A deeply patriotic man himself, Monroe aided the war effort during WWII by recording V-discs and playing for servicemen. "When the Lights Go On Again" was an important song, epitomizing the sentiment felt all over the world. The lyric references the required blackouts of the world’s major cities, defending against bombings, yet contains a profound sense of optimism about a bright future. It is a reminder now of what life was like when the world was at war. Other selections of this period captured the hearts of the public through love songs. For example, the incredibly popular "My Devotion" was voted the “#1 wedding song” at the time. Countless Monroe recordings and songs had a profound effect on the public. Several historians vividly portray these as “music that won the war.”
During the post-war boom, Vaughn Monroe built and ran his own nightclub and restaurant. The Meadows, located on Route 9 in Framingham, opened in 1946, and served as “home base” for the busy Monroe band. The Meadows was a mainstay of entertainment in the greater Boston area for thirty years, creating an important cultural hub in the Natick-Framingham area along the turnpike. Assuming the true identity of a New Englander, Monroe became a Red Sox fan, befriending several star players including fellow left-hander Ted Williams. The Monroe Orchestra opened the Red Sox season at Fenway Park several times.
This fruitful period yielded some of the biggest and most enduring recorded hits for the band, including "Ballerina." Then living in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife and two daughters, Vaughn Monroe traveled more and more. Though the Monroe band had appeared in several Hollywood films throughout the 1940s, Monroe himself began working as a solo actor in Westerns. A good deal of music from the period of the late 1940s reflects this shift, including multimillion-selling "Ghost Riders in the Sky." This pensive cowboy song, combined with other novelty Western records, made Vaughn a force to be reckoned with on several media fronts.
In 1968, Vaughn Monroe decided to give up bandleading and touring permanently. He graciously donated his entire musical library to his alma mater, New England Conservatory. He and his wife then moved to Florida to plan a retirement together. Unfortunately, the retirement was cut short when Vaughn Monroe passed away from health complications on May 20, 1973.
The music of Vaughn Monroe, its legacy and message stands as a testament to the man himself: sincere, direct, consistently of high quality, family-oriented, patriotic, and above all, musical. And New England Conservatory is pleased to present, for the first time since the archival acquisition, “The Music of Vaughn Monroe.”