In a recent piece about actress/singer Shirley Ross I mentioned that she often sang with Gus Arnheim’s orchestra, as did Fred McMurray (before he became a movie star). In fact, Arnheim was a tremendously influential figure in the early jazz age, a talented pianist and composer who also had a hand in helping build the careers of a number of stars, including Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Russ Columbo, and Bing Crosby.
Philadelphia-born but raised in Chicago, Arnheim first began finding some career traction in Southern California around 1920, playing piano alongside drummer Abe Lyman in area nightspots. He then spent some time as flamboyant singer Sophie Tucker’s accompanist before eventually rejoining his buddy Lyman as part of a band that became a popular attraction at the Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove night club. It became one of the regular in-spots for anyone connected to the booming movie industry.
The orchestra eventually made a successful European tour, and Arnheim then led a group that exhaustively traveled the U.S. before again settling in Southern California, where it would continue to prosper into the 1930s. By then Arnheim’s talents as a songwriter had become apparent and the orchestra often featured his music, including songs like “I Cried For You” and “Sweet and Lovely.” He also provided a showcase for rising stars like Crosby, who was ready to go solo after working in a trio with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Crosby’s first hit, “I Surrender Dear,” soon followed.
As the decade of the 1930s continued, early jazz was beginning to change into a newer style, a modern swinging sound epitomized by guys like Benny Goodman and the Dorseys. Arnheim was on board with that, and it was reflected in his music as the band continued to prosper, at one point late in the decade appearing with great success in an extended stay at the Congress Casino in Chicago. However, World War II was a volatile era in music and in the years following Arnheim began to wind down. He retired from leading a big band, although he did continue to write music and lead smaller groups from time to time. He was just 57 when he died in 1955 at his home in Beverly Hills.