Ghost Bands Could Be Scary Good

Does anyone remember when some of the famous big bands would be taken over by a relatively unknown leader when the star retired or died? An example that comes to mind is when Glenn Miller was lost over the English Channel in 1944 and saxophonist/vocalist Tex Beneke took over. It was billed as Tex Beneke and the Glenn Miller orchestra.

I remember going to see one of these ‘ghost bands’ as they were sometimes called. I think it was in the 1970s, and our small city wouldn’t have attracted any of the bands still with star bandleaders, like Stan Kenton or Duke Ellington. This was a touring band that called itself the Glenn Miller Orchestra. By then they’d probably gone through several leaders and had stopped using a frontman’s name. (The Glenn Miller Orchestra is still touring even now.)

I wanted to hear the music and Mrs. BG (the first) wanted to dance, so we bought tickets and went to see them. They had arranged to rent a big Air National Guard hanger, which had plenty of room for the bandstand, a bunch of tables, and a dance floor. It also had horrible acoustics but I still enjoyed the music. What I didn’t enjoy was being required to buy cheap champagne at an exorbitant price.

Ghost bands have always been a part of the music scene, and have continued into modern days, as popular combos sometimes sell their name, songs, and arrangements when the originals are ready to move on. Sometimes unauthorized copycat groups come along too, doing their best to sound like the real thing.

But we’re discussing ghosting in the big band era. There are a lot of examples, like Dick Johnson, who took over for Artie Shaw when he left the band for the last time. (He was famous for quiting again and again.) Warren Covington led Tommy Dorsey‘s band after the latter died at just 51, although brother Jimmy Dorsey did it for a while until he too died. Buddy Morrow took over in the late 1970s and led it for many years.

When Guy Lombardo died in 1977, his brother Victor took over leadership and he was then followed by brother Lebert, but the band went downhill and dissolved. A decade later it was restarted under the direction of Al Pierson.

One of the most well planned exits was that of Sammy Kaye, a star bandleader for years who is probably most remembered for his slogan ‘swing and sway with Sammy Kaye’. He kept his orchestra going as long as his health allowed and then arranged for it to be taken over by Roger Thorpe, a friend who was also a respected music professor and the leader of an ensemble. It was a good choice. Thorpe is still leading Kaye’s band even now.

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