Bandleader and clarinetist Les Brown, who entertained American troops on tours backing Bob Hope and scored a #1 hit in 1946 with "Sentimental Journey," died January 5 of lung cancer. He was 88.
Brown, who toured with his Band of Renown until last year, recently completed a new recording with his son, Les Brown Jr. The as-yet-untitled album, due in March, will revisit many of his big band's tunes never recorded in stereo.
"I want to keep the music alive," said Les Jr., who now leads the Band of Renown. "It always amazed my dad to play concerts, and I remember when he'd look at the audience and see younger people there, it intimidated him. He thought they were going to hate him. I told him just go out and do it. He said, 'I guess I can't change now,' and people loved it."
Born in 1912 and raised in Tower City, Pennsylvania, Brown's musical career started at age 14, when he won a scholarship at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. He later attended the New York Military Academy and Duke University, where he led the school's big band, the Blue Devils, to a recording deal on Decca.
"Sales [of the Blue Devils' recording] were not too hot," Brown once said. "There were 12 guys in the band, and we found that 12 parents bought the record."
Brown later put together a band and played gigs in New York, and in 1940, he asked a young Doris Day to sing with the group. They went on to record the hit "Sentimental Journey" (RealAudio excerpt), which endeared itself with soldiers returning from World War II.
"The happiest times in my life were the days when I was traveling with Les and his band," Day told the Associated Press. "I loved Les very much. I am going to miss his phone calls."
Around the same time "Sentimental Journey" was a hit, Brown's band was dubbed Les Brown and his Band of Renown after band trombonist Sy Zentner ad-libbed the phrase for a radio broadcast. Brown's brothers, Warren and Clyde "Stumpy" Brown, played in the band for more than 50 years.
In 1947, Brown received word that Bob Hope wanted him to take over for Desi Arnaz as his bandleader, leading to a collaboration that continued through the 1990s, when Hope retired. With Hope, Brown spent many years entertaining troops during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"They were the greatest audiences in the world," Brown once recalled. "To hear anything from back home, for them, was great. You didn't have to be good, you just had to be there. The tours were very tiring, but also very exhilarating. And interesting."
"We did a show [last year in Iowa] at the oldest operating ballroom still left in the country," Les Jr. recalled. "We saw what it meant to all those people who lived through World War II the association of course with Bob Hope and the Christmas tours they did. ... People come up to me all the time and talk about that 'I saw your father in Korea, Japan, Germany' and those kind of memories."
During his career, Brown also helped to get the Grammy Awards televised as president of the L.A. chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in the late 1950s, and in the '60s led his band on Dean Martin's television show.
He is survived by his wife and two children.