Once in a while I like to feature one of the less-remembered bandleaders of the big band era, guys who might have been very popular at one time but lacked the lasting fame of a Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey. One who could be described in those terms was another trombonist, Russ Morgan, who had a varied career that stretched all the way from John Phillip Sousa to Vegas stage shows.
Morgan was born into a coal-mining family in Scranton but both parents had musical backgrounds, and even though young Russ did work in the mines for a while he soon began to devote all his time to music. By his mid-teens he was playing piano to accompany silent movies, and was soon manning a trombone in a local band (one that would eventually also provide spots for the Dorsey Brothers).
When he left the band in the early 1920s to try his luck in New York, he found himself working as an arranger for the legendary Sousa — who was a huge star at that time — and others, and even spent some time touring Europe with one group. He eventually returned and spent several more years working with other bands while also gaining experience on radio, before finally forming his own orchestra in the mid 1930s.
In the early days, the Russ Morgan Orchestra was all about sweet sounds — lots of violins, and a songbook that was definitely tilted toward the kind of music that seems dated now but was very popular with fans at the time. Morgan’s group became one of the most successful around, not only on radio and in concert, but also in record sales.
The band’s popularity would continue for several decades as Morgan skillfully adapted to the public’s changing tastes. Although the rise of rock and roll did challenge many of the big bands, he was still leading a group in Vegas as late as the 1960s, and after his death in 1969 his son Jack took over leadership. Even now it continues to appear from time to time, billed as Jack Morgan and the Russ Morgan Orchestra.