When you think of the banjo you would normally visualize either bluegrass or folk music, and we’ve featured plenty of both here on the GMC. But the banjo has been around for a long time and its popularity in the early part of the last century made it a natural fit for many of the bands that found success in the early jazz age. One of the best ‘pickers’ of the era was Harry Reser, a banjo virtuoso who became a huge recording star.
Born and raised in small-town Ohio, Harrison Franklin Reser was a musical prodigy who learned as a child to play guitar, violin, cello, piano, trumpet, and sax. In fact, he didn’t even pick up a banjo until his mid-teens, but it would turn out to be the instrument that he wielded when he first began to find professional success in regional bands. His star quickly rose in the early 1920s when he moved to New York and began playing in some of the top jazz bands around, including those of Bennie Kruger and Paul Whiteman.
Reser also began hitting the recording studio with regularity, and it wasn’t long before his talent made him one of the most popular record stars around, but his solo career wasn’t the only side of Reser. Over the next decade he also made countless records as the leader of more than two dozen different bands — or at least different in name, even if the same musicians were sometimes used. It would take too much space to list them all, but some of the more interesting names included the Okeh Syncopators, the Parlophone Syncopators, the Victorian Syncopators, the Seven Rag Pickers, the Seven Wild Men, and the Seven Little Polar Bears.
But it was as the leader of the Cliquot Club Eskimos (complete with costumes and igloos) that Reser made the biggest splash, starring on records and in stage shows, while also enjoying a ten-year run on radio. In fact, his ongoing success allowed him to become a pioneer in forging endorsement deals with instrument makers, but as the years passed music tastes were changing. Even though Reser’s talent and expertise (he also wrote a series of instructional manuals) meant that he could always find plenty of work, he gradually faded from the spotlight. He was still pursuing his muse when he died in 1965 of a heart attack while warming up in the orchestra pit before a Broadway show. He was 69 at the time.