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Born in London, Ont. in 1902, Gaetano Alberto Lombardo grew up in a musical household, and along with his brothers Carmen, Lebert, and Victor, learned to play instruments at an early age so they could accompany their father Gaetano Sr. in his band. They all were proficient at several instruments, and Guy’s favourite was the violin.
Guy formed his first band while still a teen in grammar school, rehearsing in the back of their father’s tailor shop. At the age of 12, he got his first paid gig, performing with Carmen at a church lawn party in London, Ont. From there, the family quartet, which also featured his sister Elaine and his father, as well as other local musicians from time to time, performed regularly at the Winter Garden in London and at Port Stanley, Ont. While performing in Cleveland in 1924, he renamed The Lombardo Brothers’ Orchestra and Concert Company to The Royal Canadians. They took a two-year residency at Cleveland’s Claremont Tent, where the club owner, Louis Bleet, took the group under his wing and helped tailor their sound to the accomodate the varied requests from the club’s patrons. The War To End All Wars was over, and people needed something to lift their spirits, and it was these innovations to the big band sound of the day that helped contribute to Lombardo and company’s popularity.
A growing number of households at the time had a radio, and Lombardo used the new medium to his advantage. The band played on an unsponsored program on a local radio station, thereby helping develop a following for the live shows. Before the end of ’24, they travelled to Richmond, Indiana in 1924 and recorded at the Gennett Studios, the same studio that famed trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke made his legendary recordings. The Royal Canadians received mixed reviews in their earliest days, with some jazz and swing purists calling his big band sound “corny.” But those in the industry, including Louis Armstrong, encouraged them to continue on their path. Their music was characterized by several elements – the smooth vibrato of the saxophones, the emotional resonance in Carmen’s voice, and the innovative use of the tuba, all which gave the band a unique appeal. In 1927, the band moved to Chicago, where they played at the famed Granada Cafe for two years and continued expanding their audience on local radio stations. After hearing the band at a local club, a Chicago Tribune writer billed them as “creating the sweetest music this side of Heaven.”
In 1929, they began a 33-year gig playing at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, while taking short residencies throughout the US and back home in their native Canada. Their New Year’s Eve radio broadcasts from New York’s Waldorf Astoria continued until they made the leap to television until 1976. By the time Lombardo became a naturalized US citizen in 1938, he’d already had a string of hits, and became the first Canadian artist to top Billboard’s singles charts with a number of songs that mixed jazz and swing with a big band sound, first with “By The River St. Marie” in 1931, followed by “What’s The Reason,” “Paradise,” “Boo Hoo,” “Lost,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “Stars Fell On Alabama,” among many others.
Throughout the Second World War, they appeared on their own radio shows on all three networks, as well as in the films “Many Happy Returns,” “Stage Door Canteen,” and “No Leave, No Love.” During this time the orchestra ballooned to 16 people, and they played their first inaugural ball for FD Roosevelt, and continued doing so to Dwight Eisenhower’s term in office. They returned to the White House dance in 1985 when Ronald Reagan took office, and also played during several World Series games.
It was during the ’40s that Lombardo also took up hydroplane racing, becoming very accomplished at it and winning many races throughout North America until his last race in 1963. In the early ’50s, he also began a side project when he started producing musical shows at the Jones Beach Marine Theatre near his home at Freeport, Long Island, NY, which he continued for over two decades. But by the early ’70s his health was failing, and he began to slow down. In 1977, Lombardo fell victim to the heart ailments he’d been suffering from, and died in a Houston hospital at the age of 75 from a massive coronary.
By the time of Guy’s passing, he had recorded over 100 LPs and nearly that many 78s for Gennett, Columbia, Brunswick, and Decca Records, totalling well over 300 million records in total. The orchestra continued on for several years under the direction of several conductors, including his brother Victor. When Lebert severed his ties in 1979, the group finally dissolved. The orchestra was later revived in 1989 by Al Pierson, playing a mix of nostalgic tunes and modern arrangements, but called it quits for good less than a year later. To this day, their rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” still plays as the first song of the new year at Times Square.
In 2002, a quarter of a century after his death, Lombardo was inducted into Canada’s Music Hall of Fame, recognizing the importance of the band, and his sheer genius, whether the songs were show tunes, traditional folk songs, Italian and other national songs, or light classical pieces. That same year, he was also inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame for his accomplishments. In 2007, he was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2007. His contributions to the music and sports worlds were also recognized when The Guy Lombardo Society was set up to preserve the music and history that he and his orchestra created. A bridge in London, Ontario, and a street in Freeport, Long Island were also named after him. A museum was opened in London in 1984 to honour him, but closed in 2007 due to a lack of funding.