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At 75, He's Still Striking Up That Band of Renown

November 14, 1987|JACK HAWN

He's lived in the same house on a quiet, shady street in Pacific Palisades for 35 years, been with his wife even longer, played golf and bridge for decades . . . and, not surprisingly, always gives fans what they expect--those familiar big-band arrangements that started toes tapping and feet shuffling half a century ago.

If Les Brown has been in a rut all these years, it's been an enviable one--a happy combination of work and play.

"We probably play (gigs) more than anyone," he said, referring to his contemporaries, of which few remain active. "We're the only organized band left."

Nonetheless, Brown and his Band of Renown--a nucleus of 17, but sometimes as many as 35 for large concerts--are not overworked.

"I've been semi-retired since I joined Bob Hope in 1947," the 75-year-old conductor said during a recent interview at his home. "I used to average three days (of work) a week. Last year it was two days a week, and now I'm down to a little less than two days a week."

His next outing will be tonight at the Hollywood Palladium, where friends and fans will gather in honor of his 50th anniversary as an orchestra leader.

"Actually it's 51 years," he said. "I had a one-year hiatus in New York when I was arranging."

Brown kicked off his half-century celebration last April 5 with a concert to raise funds for a chair in the music department at Duke University, where he and his Blue Devils made music from 1934 to 1936.

Graduating from Duke in 1936, Brown immediately launched his professional career. Six years later, he changed the name of his band from Les Brown and His Orchestra to . . . and His Band of Renown after a radio announcer used the phrase during a broadcast from a hotel in Washington, D.C.

It was, indeed, a prophetic change. The name might have been premature in 1942, but five years later, when Brown joined Hope, the Band of Renown quickly began to expand its reputation throughout the world.

"We did a weekly radio show with Hope that went into the '50s and for a couple of years combined radio and early television on the Bob Hope Comedy Hour," Brown recalled.

"During the summers we would go on the road for 12 weeks and capitalize on our exposure with Hope, then come back and take it easy for nine months. Finally, we said no more road trips. Sometime in the '50s we stopped doing long tours."

Hope recalled how he happened to hire Brown 40 years ago.

"Stan Kenton had quit," he remembered. "All at once I looked up and Les Brown was in the seat, so I hired him. It's been an exciting 40 years."

Regular appearances on weekly network TV series--starting in 1959, when the band was featured on the Steve Allen Show--only added to Brown's popularity. The orchestra's longest run on TV was from 1965-74 on the Dean Martin Show.

The Band of Renown has played for Grammy award telecasts, traditional New Year's Eve shows from 1980-84 in Las Vegas, staged concerts, played for golf tournaments and commercial business functions--large and small--and has recorded for most major labels.

Among his offbeat recordings that remain popular are a couple of novelty tunes, "Bizet Has His Day"--the prelude to the third act of "Carmen"--and "Joltin' Joe DiMaggio," Brown's first big hit about the Yankee Clipper's 56-game hitting streak in 1941.

"We still get requests for that," Brown said, "mostly from Italians."

But his top sellers were the 1945 standard, "Sentimental Journey," which he co-wrote with two others, and Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," recorded three years later.

An 18th-Century travel book called "Sentimental Journey" inspired the song, Brown said, and it paid off handsomely.

He was able to make a down payment on his first house in Beverly Hills and still receives royalties--from the recording, sung by his regular vocalist Doris Day, and from composer rights.

Not one to make frequent changes in much of anything, including band members, Brown has employed only four regular female vocalists over the decades, the others being Lucy Ann Polk, Ellen Wilson and his current singer, Joanne Greer, who has been with him more than 20 years.

Most of Brown's musicians are longtime veterans. Butch Stone, 75, and Brown's brother and business manager, Stumpy Brown, 62, have been aboard since the early 1940s, and many others date to the 1950s.

The band also rates high on VIP social calendars, having played for the inauguration parties for Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, Gov. George Deukmejian and a gala for Queen Elizabeth II, arranged by Frank Sinatra.

But primarily it has been Brown's close 40-year association with Hope that has kept his orchestra in the spotlight. Brown has provided musical accompaniment for 18 of Hope's Christmas tours, three of his around-the-world junkets and still is committed to six specials a year for the 84-year-old comedian.

"Now we prerecord all of our music for Hope," Brown said, "and he takes it with him. We don't travel with him out of the country."

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