Guest column | James Pettican

Guy Lombardo remains an auld acquaintance who won't soon be forgot

Guy Lombardo performs for a sold out crowd at the St. Petersburg Coliseum in 1965. Lombardo’s band, which included his three brothers, is best know for its iconic New Year’s Eve performances.

Times (1965)

Guy Lombardo performs for a sold out crowd at the St. Petersburg Coliseum in 1965. Lombardo’s band, which included his three brothers, is best know for its iconic New Year’s Eve performances.

My New Year's Eves are haunted by Guy Lombardo. It's not a scary sort of haunting, probably more nostalgic than anything else. At this point, some youthful reader is probably figuring that I'm referring to some Italian street singer of whom he or she hasn't heard.

My reference is to what for many years was known as "The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven." For many, not knowing what may be offered on the other side, this was literally true.

Gaetano (Guy) Lombardo and his three musician brothers came to Cleveland from Canada in 1923 to try their luck on the U.S. pop music scene. Their band had been popular in their hometown of London, Ontario. Their first records had poor sales, however, so they searched for a new sound. They found it in a new blend of saxophones that made them instantly recognizable. Their success led to radio airtime and they were on their way.

They were soon booked into the Roosevelt Grill of New York City's prestigious Roosevelt Hotel and were on their way to icon status. Two networks, ABC and NBC, fought over the radio rights to their phenomenally popular New Year's Eve broadcasts

A compromise was reached with each network airing its half of the hourlong show.

I remember the broadcasts from my early teens, too young to go out on the town but allowed to stay up and hear the band. In our house, we somehow gathered in the kitchen on the holiday eve and various relatives would stop by to schmooze for a while and wish everyone well in the coming year. One of my older cousins, named Bob, was a cigar-chewing, gruff-voiced, super salesman type who we rarely saw the rest of the year. But he always came by on New Year's. I think he liked my grandmother's cooking.

TV came along and now we could see the band as well as hear it, not to mention the huge crowds in Times Square and the ball-drop.

Swing band fans who didn't like the sweet Lombardo style would refer to him as "Guy Lumbago" but his popularity never waned throughout the 1930s and '40s. In 1953, however, the band failed to chart for the first time and its popularity was fading throughout the 1960s. The decline continued in the '70s and Guy died in 1977.

Brother Victor took over the band, but he couldn't halt its decline and soon, it was history. A contemporary version of the band formed in 1989 and still plays the bay area now and then, drawing a gray-haired audience with a growing number of wheelchairs and walkers. I'm in the audience when I can make it.

Living in a retirement enclave, my wife and I went to New Year's Eve parties for many years. They always end at 1 a.m. Now, with my 89th eve almost here, I try to stay awake until midnight but am not always successful. The Lombardo theme song, Auld Lang Syne, an ancient Scottish refrain, is still heard on New Year's Eve though so the Lombardos have left something behind even though today's music styles don't always do it justice.

Retired journalist James Pettican lives in Palm Harbor.

Guy Lombardo remains an auld acquaintance who won't soon be forgot 12/30/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 8:16pm]

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