Unlike most of the entertainers I’ve written about, swing-era bandleader Horace Heidt’s talents didn’t depend on his own musical abilities. Although he could play piano, he usually left the keyboard to others. And he was never really known as a composer or arranger, like so many of his contemporaries. But he did have two things going for him. He had the ability to enlist talented young performers in his band, and he knew what the public liked. As a result, for a decade or so beginning in the mid-1930s, his orchestra — Horace Heidt and His Musical Knights — was one of the most popular ‘sweet’ bands around.
The California-born Heidt actually began his musical career way back in the 1920s, after an injury knocked him out of his plans to play football. His first band was named the Californians, and managed to slowly build a following in the Berkeley area before eventually widening its fan base by appearing in other locations, including the vaudeville circuit and New York.
By the early 1930s, Heidt and his band — now called the Musical Knights — had worked their way into an appearance at the prestigious Drake Hotel in Chicago. It was there that lightning struck in the form of a radio broadcast that featured a clever promotion — giving a cash prize, live on the air. The Pot O’ Gold radio show became so popular over the next few years that it even generated a 1941 movie of the same name. It starred Paulette Goddard and Jimmy Stewart, who at one point joined in with the guys on harmonica. (Dubbed by Jerry Adler.)
Heidt’s band, featuring talented singers like tenor Larry Cotton, whistler Fred Lowery, the King Sisters, and future movie star Gordon McCrae, along with instrumentalists like Bobby Hackett, Jess Stacey, and Frankie Carle, would have dozens of hit records. Among them were songs like “Gone with the Wind,” “Ti-Pi-Tin,” and “The Man with the Mandolin.” The band also had a big seller with “The Hut-Sut Song,” an addictive tune that would become a sort of symbol of the pre-war culture.
By the close of World War II, the band’s popularity was beginning to wind down and Heidt began spending most of his time tending to his investments, eventually becoming very wealthy. He died in 1986 but a few years back his son, Horace Heidt, Jr., led a band and carried on his musical tradition for a while.