Although there were a lot of orchestras around in the late 1920s and they were playing everything from ballroom music to dixieland, a new style was beginning to evolve. Ironically, ‘hot’ jazz became the coolest thing around, and its rising popularity soon led to the beginning of the big band era, a period that would see many bandleaders attain the kind of fame that made them the rock stars of their day. But some seemed to miss the express to big-time fame.
Luis Carl Russell was born in Panama in 1902, and as the son of a music teacher he grew up proficient on a number of instruments, including violin, guitar, trombone, and piano. He was still in his mid-teens when he first began working professionally by playing piano for silent films, but his fortunes rose when he won some money in a lottery, allowing his family to emigrate to America.
Newly relocated in New Orleans, Russell was in the perfect spot to immerse himself in a rich mix of just about every kind of music, and for several years he did just that. By the mid-1920s he’d earned his chops working as a pianist in the area and subsequently decided to move to Chicago, where he soon joined the legendary King Oliver’s band. Russell was never a virtuoso as a pianist but he fit in well with the group and gained a lot of experience along the way. When Oliver relocated to New York a couple of years later he went along, but shortly thereafter left the group to start his own band.
Over the next few years Russell was one of the biggest stars of early jazz, leading a highly-respected band and working with guys like Louis Armstrong and Red Allen, not only in clubs but also on dozens of good records. But as the 1930s got underway, Russell seemed to begin to fade from sight. Armstrong eventually took over leadership of his dynamic band, and Russell scuffled along for several years while occasionally forming short-lived groups. He resurfaced in the late 1940s to lead a band for club dates and the occasional record, but never really made much of a splash. By late in the decade he was pretty much out of music, although he played the occasional guest spots — including one appearance he made late in life in his native Panama. He died at age 61 in 1963.
Luis Russell Orchestra – “Panama”
Bandleader Art Mooney led one of the most popular orchestras around during the post-war years, but his biggest success came after he changed styles. He’d led a solid swing band for a few years, but found the magic formula to widespread popularity when he changed to a feel-good type of music, one that featured sweet and familiar tunes and often included audience-pleasing singalongs. His band subsequently scored several Top Ten hits, topped by “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” which hit #1 in 1948.
Mooney was born in either Lowell, MA, or Brooklyn, NY — sources vary — but in any case he learned to play sax while growing up, and by the early 1930s had embarked on a professional music career. He spent some time as a member of various forgettable outfits and by late in the decade had become the leader of his own band, finding mixed success in the years leading up to World War II.
After his war-time service Mooney put together a first-class swing band, one that featured solid arrangements and some future stars, including — at one time or another — Dean Martin, Fran Warren, the Ames Brothers, and even Sid Caesar, who was a talented saxophonist in his early days. But Mooney and his band didn’t really click in a big way until he took a new road that led to the sounds of the past. He soon began spinning out hit records on songs like the chart-topping “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” along with “Baby Face,” and “Bluebird of Happiness.”
Mooney continued to find success into the next decade, with Top Ten hits on “Babe” and “Honey-Babe,” followed by another #1 hit with “Nuttin’ For Christmas” in 1955, but things began to slow after that. His band continued to enjoy a lot of popularity by adapting its music in an attempt to keep with the latest, including country and rock and roll. But even though the group continued recording for the next decade or so, it gradually wound down and mostly became a nightclub band. Mooney later owned a restaurant for a while and also spent some time leading the late Guy Lombardo’s orchestra, but eventually retired. He died in 1993 at age 82.
Art Mooney Orchestra – “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover”
You might or might not remember Art Lund, but I’m willing to bet that you’d recognize his 1947 chart-topping “Mam’selle” if you heard it. (And you can, below.) But Lund was in no way a one-hit wonder. He was actually a multi-talented guy with a long performing life that began with success as a big-band crooner, followed by a string of best-selling pop records, Broadway stardom, and eventually a career as a busy character actor.
A native of Salt Lake City, Arthur London first began to make his mark in the music business in the early 1930s when he landed a job as a young singer with one of the many second-tier bands that toured the country at that time. Within a few years he’d managed to work his way up to one of the best around — Benny Goodman’s band — where he spent more than a decade, interrupted only by his World War II service.
London changed his name to Lund during his time with Goodman, and became a very popular performer on some of the band’s biggest sellers, including “Blue Skies.” He also teamed up with Peggy Lee, the band’s songbird at the time, spinning out hits like “Winter Weather.” All of it led to his breakout as a solo recording artist, peaking in 1947 with his #1 hit on “Mam’selle” and other big records like “Peg O My Heart” (a chart-topper that same year for the Harmonicats).
But even though Lund remained on record charts well into the 1950s he also kept an eye open for other opportunities, and he soon began finding good parts in Broadway musicals. His best-remembered role is probably as Joey in The Most Happy Fella, but he made appearances in a number of shows before then turning his attention to acting. He subsequently spent more than two decades as a character actor in dozens of TV shows and movies before finally slowing down, spending his final years in semi-retirement while sometimes singing in personal appearances. He was 75 when he died in 1990.
Art Lund – “Mam’selle”