Russ Morgan Orchestra
From the Repository (Canton, Ohio), dated November 6, 1935:
Russ Morgan, former musical director at WXYZ, Detroit, will present “Music in the Morgan Manner,” a new series, over the WEAF network at 10:30. He will be heard each Wednesday night for three weeks.
From the Druid (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), dated March 1, 1936:
Russ Morgan, popular Nanticoke youth, has played his way to the top of the orchestral world, recently opening an engagement with his band with great fanfare in the supper room of Hotel Biltmore, New York City.
From the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), dated March 10, 1936:
Band Followers Uncover Treats Along Air Waves
By Jay Hall
For a real band enthusiast there is no better fun than following the radio dial through the course of an evening on orchestra pickups. Many of the bands are little known, that being somewhat the purpose of a radio line, to make them better known. In most part the discoveries will not generate open joy, because if they were better known the pleasure would have been generated in previous broadcasts or build-ups.
Still in between those not known widely, which is comparatively small, an occasional known good band is encountered whose musical interpretations are infrequent enough on the air to create proper appreciation. One of these is Russ Morgan whose billing, “Music in the Morgan Manner,” might easily confuse him with a small swing band. He has an occasional spot on the NBC-WJZ system and is well worth a search in the meter lanes. Unless previously prepared, his music will bring genuine surprise coupled with pleasure. Superb orchestration gives the band a finished tone that should rank it among the Nation’s best in the dance music field.
Morgan is now playing at New York’s Biltmore and not too young in the orchestra directing business. However, his musical history dates back to Victor Herbert for whom he was arranger and then later as musical director of a Detroit radio station.
Singers with the Morgan orchestra are Linda Lee, native of New Orleans and one-time department store buyer, and Lewis Julian, one-time page in the Radio City studios of NBC. Lewis hails from Kansas having gone to New York after graduation from the University of Wichita.
From the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), dated March 23, 1936:
Morgan to Have New Air Period Under Sponsors
It didn’t take long for a sponsor to grab Russ Morgan and his band for a new radio commercial. For some time now the distinctive music of the maestro has been featured in sustaining programs over the NBC system from his spot in New York’s Biltmore. He has likewise been a featured band on the Magic Key hour which is pretty tops in radio spots.
However, the new series of commercials will be aired over the Columbia system and will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. There is nothing out of the ordinary in this switch of radio outlets even though his build-up can more or less be laid at the door of NBC through his Music in the Morgan Manner periods. NBC classifies his as their band, with our without management under their artist service, but commecials still remain commercials over any network.
Morgan is an old-time jazz hound having been associated with Joe Venuti, late of the Baker here, in Jean Goldkette’s band in the days when swing was jazz. As everybody knows Venuti is pretty hot on the fiddle and Morgan isn’t so cold on both the piano and trombone. They combined their hotness in a record-making business on a small unit base. Likewise the training with Goldkette, a master of torrid rhythms, gave both Venuti and Morgan their aptitude for the swing rage. Recently Morgan appeared as a guest on a Venuti broadcast for a brief fling at old-time hot tunes.
Morgan is a native of Scranton, Pa., the son of a coal mine foreman and himself a worker in the mines. However, both his father and mother were one-time vaudeville performers and started young Morgan toward a musical education when he was 7. His first job as a musician was in a Scranton theater. Later he removed to Philadelphia and joined up with Paul Specht’s band then to Detroit as director for the State Theater orchestra.
Morgan turned then to radio, becoming music director for a Detroit station and embarked on a series of local commercials. On a visit to New York he conferred with NBC heads and the outcome was the somewhat recent formation of his own band for outlet over that system. He was seasoned first by a road trip and then brought into the Biltmore where his classic music created something of a sensation among local enthusiasts.
From the San Diego Union (San Diego, California), dated May 24, 1936:
Ken Murray, famous comic of stage and screen; Phil Regan, popular radio tenor, and Russ Morgan’s orchestra will be starred in a new series to be presented over KGB and the Columbia network today at 3:30 p.m.
From the Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), dated May 29, 1936:
It is rumored that Russ Morgan may disband his swell work this fall to accept a musical post with NBC. We hope the report is false for the Morgan band, in our opinion, is one of the best on the air.
From the Druid (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), dated August 1, 1936:
Russ Morgan, leader of Russ Morgan’s Orchestra, is a former resident of West Scranton. Russ is the son of Eli Morgan, formerly of Academy street, who now lives at Nanticoke. He has made a meteoric rise in the musical field. Russ was born of a musical family. His father played in the old Lawrence Band and in the Thirteenth Regiment Band.
From the Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), dated August 13, 1936:
On Broadway with Walter Winchell
Then there is the drummer in the Russ Morgan band who suffers from superstition-poisoning. He will not play the ditty: “If I Had the Wings of an Angel” even if you threatened to shoot him. At a recent broadcast, for instance, that song was necessary as accompaniment to a feature. Rather than have any part of it, the drummer paid $18 from his own purse for a substitute who played only five minutes. The reason: He fears the song brings him sour luck. The last time he tapped his sticks to it – a telegram was handed him. It contained horrible news.
From the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), dated December 6, 1936:
Russ Morgan, the band leader, carries half a dozen shark’s teeth about his person all the time for luck.
From the Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), dated February 14, 1937:
Famous Orchestra To Play Here For Hospital Benefit
Russ Morgan’s Dance Band Leads Headliners to Appear at Performance at Auditorium March 12
A program featuring band music, a dance recital by over 100 performers, comedy by a radio star and dancing to the music of Russ Morgan’s famous dance orchestra was announced last night for the Rotary club Shriners’ hospital benefit at the Auditorium, March 12. The program was announced by the executive committee of which Raymond B. Shattuck is general chairman and the proceeds from the show will go to further work of the local Shriners’ hospital for crippled children.
From the Evansville Courier and Press (Evansville, Indiana), dated February 16, 1937:
Russ Morgan takes over the music direction in Johnny the Call-boy’s program on WEAF-NBC at 7.
From the Register-Republic (Rockford, Illinois), dated April 24, 1937:
Mine to Mike
Russ Morgan Followed That Strange Path When His Father Fired Him
By Jeanette Sims
When he was scarcely more than a child, Russ Morgan went to work in the damp, dark coal mines of his native Pennsylvania. For five years his companions were rough-and-ready miners with no knowledge of the world that lay outside their own small circle.
Today, Russ Morgan is known to radio listeners from coast to coast as the purveyor of suave, sophisticated melodies, termed “Music in the Morgan Manner.”
His orchestra is heard over both the Columbia network and NBC in two major radio programs – Charles Martin’s Thrill of the Week and It Might have Happened to You.
And Morgan, “in person,” is polished worldly, immaculately dressed – a remarkable contrast to the disheveled, dust-smeared, naïve laborer that he once was. To top this amazing picture, listen to Russ himself: “I guess I’m still 75 percent miner. Oh, sure, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been all over the country and Europe, and established a reputation for myself. But at heart, I’m the same kid I was back in Pennsylvania. In all my travels, I’ve never found a spot that I liked better than those mountains back home, or people who were more genuinely my friends than the fellows that worked with me in the mines.”
He adds, in his genuine, unpretentious manner: “As a matter of fact, I’d probably still be a miner if it hadn’t been for my father. Life was always exciting there. Something was always happening. Danger lurked around every corner.”
“Once some gas exploded, caught fire, and burned my eyebrows off. I didn’t even feel it – until later. Another time I was carried above the surface in the dynamite cage and narrowly escaped being sliced to ribbons by the machine that carves out different kinds of coal from the raw stuff that’s found 900 feet under the surface of the earth.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong as far as my present career is concerned. I like music. I started to play the piano when I was 6, and composed tunes before I’d ever taken a lesson. I’ve always been able to get the hang of any instrument with a little practice. Today, I play the piano, trombone, saxophone, guitar, vibraphone, celeste and marimba.”
“But I still say – I wouldn’t be where I am today if my father hadn’t forced me out of the mines!”
A visit to Morgan’s skyscraper office reveals proof of his astonishing statements. For, scattered among photographs of the orchestra leader with the most celebrated radio and theatrical stars of the last 15 years, are pictures of a brawny, broad-shouldered lad in black-dusty denim and miner’s cap. And the latter occupy the places of honor – obviously, they’re highly prized.
Morgan’s father was a mine foreman in Nanticoke, Pa. He was a pretty good musician too – a drummer with local bands. Morgan, senior, had toured in vaudeville with Mrs. Morgan, a talented pianist, before Russ was born.
“Father went into the mines because it was a steady job and provided a sure income,” explains Russ. “But his heart was always in music. He tried to fulfill this frustrated desire through me. He was determined to make a musician of me – and, eventually, he did.”
Russ finished grammar school at 13and went into the mines. He oiled cars, he drove a mule, he served as brakeman and motorman. And all this time he worked underground, like a mole, in total darkness without seeing the sunlight for days at a time.
At night, in order to eke out the meager family income, he put his musical talents to use, touring the dance halls of the district with a small orchestra.
He learned to play the trombone because the family doctor ordered him to. “I’d had double pneumonia and scarlet fever,” says Russ. “One lung was pretty well shot. The doctor thought trombone practice would be good for me. He was right, in more ways than one.”
When Morgan was 19, an accident occurred which was to change the entire course of his life. “I had my trumpet down in the mine, and was playing it when I was supposed to be on duty,” he grins. “Dad came along and caught me. He was the foreman. He fired me. Had to, you understand, to save his own job.”
“Well, I still wanted to be a miner, but Dad queered me with all the other bosses in Pennsylvania. As I said before, he wanted me to be a musician, so he forced me out of the mines forever.”
Young Morgan’s first full-time musical job was with a dance orchestra in Wilkes-Barre. One day his boss told him to go over to Billy Lustig’s rival band and hire away the trumpet player. Russ went over all right – but the result wasn’t quite what his employer had anticipated. Lustig hired Morgan.
An ironic twist is that Lustig, who is admired and respected by musicians throughout the country, today works for Russ Morgan.
The ex-miner’s climb to fame was not spectacular, but slow, steady and patient. Each job was bigger and better than the preceding one. After touring Pennsylvania, he was summoned to New York to play for Paul Specht at the Monte Carlo night club.
Along about this time, Russ got married. He met Elva Mae Irvine, who “wasn’t a professional, never has been one and never will be.” They met on Tuesday, and on Saturday a minister pronounced them man and wife.
A European tour with Specht’s band followed the New York engagement, then a period with Charlie Kerr in Philadelphia, and later Russ worked with the illustrious John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert, as an arranger.
“How did I get to be an arranger? By studying the various instruments and their possibilities. I was always studying – when I wasn’t working. I wanted to enhance my value to my employers.”
Russ is proud of the fact that Sousa, on his last tour, included one of Morgan’s own compositions in his repertoire. It was entitled “Chinese Honeymoon.”
Afterward, the music-maker was summoned to the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit, where Jean Goldkette’s band was playing. He reorganized the outfit and directed it for a year. That aggregation, says Morgan, still remains one of the greatest swing bands in history – even though in 1925 the term “swing” was unknown. They called it “jazz” then. There were such noted players as Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Jimmy Dorsey, Fuzzy Farrar and Steve Brown – the first man ever to slap a bass fiddle.
“Steve was such a hit,” Russ recalls, “that people would stop dancing to hang around and listen to him. But he was one of the most naïve musicians I ever met. When people clapped, he honestly didn’t know whether it was because they liked him – or wanted him to stop!”
Morgan left Goldkette to become an arranger for the orchestra at the State Theater in Detroit. He’d been there only a short while when the music director walked out – 20 minutes before curtain time. They shoved Russ into his job, without any hesitation. “The curtain went up, the spotlight flashed on my face and there I was,” he says. “It wasn’t any question of choice – but one of necessity. I had to make good!”
Before long, Russ was offered an executive position with a radio station as music director – his first real radio job.
“Though, as a matter of fact,” he grins, “I was in radio for a time way back in the infant days of the business. We used to toot our trumpets in a local station in Philadelphia, and blow our heads off – all the while knowing our efforts were futile, because we couldn’t be heard more than a few blocks away.”
After his radio experience, Russ played with several bands and finally – just about a year ago – he realized the ambition of which he had dreamed for years. He organized his own orchestra and put it on the air.
Last season, he furnished the music for Ken Murray’s CBS programs and introduced such a distinctive style that “Music in the Morgan Manner” became a by-word with thousands of fans.
Recently, he succeeded Leo Reisman on Johnny the Call Boy’s programs over NBC, and when the same sponsor started the series It Might Have Happened To You, he was assigned to that show as well.
His music is distinguished by the fact that it’s sophisticated and “dancy,” but at the same time remains musical enough so that the melody isn’t destroyed. He appeals not only to the public but to the musicians – which is regarded, in musical circles, as an enviable achievement.
Asked about his plans for the future, he answers frankly, without pretense or subterfuge: “I want to go on long enough to establish my reputation firmly. Then, I’d like to take a vacation – several months, anyway – and compose serious music. It’s almost impossible to do that when you’re working the way I am. You must have time and leisure.”
From the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), dated December 28, 1937:
Both the Adolphus and Baker are in pursuit of “Music in the Morgan Manner.” It’s rather ironical. Two years ago either hotel could have booked Russ Morgan with the same personnel of instrumentalists and the same style of music at less than half the price they’ll have to pay to get him this spring.
From the Dallas Morning News (Dallax, Texas), dated March 24, 1939:
Anent Mr. Morgan
Russ Morgan will open Fort Worth’s Casa Manana season this summer. If the warbling maestro’s recent broadcasts are indicative of his present brand of music, however, something has happened to his band and that something isn’t on the good side. Your correspondent caught Morgan on the air Monday night in company with a bandleader who is a very fine musician. Both your correspondent and the leader were somewhat amazed at the difference between the quality of the music heard then and that produced by Morgan on his commercial broadcasts. The recent broadcast revealed sloppy instrumentation, fuzzy tones and a marked comedown in arrangements from those dainty, very fine things which made Morgan’s band one of the best.
From the Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania), dated July 22, 1939:
Morgan, Band Leader, Marries Secretary
Forth Worth, Tex., July 21 (AP) – Russ Morgan, 35, the orchestra leader, and his secretary for the past three years, Miss Shirley Gray, 23, of Long Beach, Long Island, N.Y., were married today by Justice of the Peace Frank Hurley. The marriage is Miss Gray’s first, Morgan’s second.
From the Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), dated November 14, 1939:
Russ Morgan Band Will Play Here
Russ Morgan, who brings his 17-piece orchestra to Millhiser Gym on the University of Richmond campus for a one-night stand on Thanksgiving night, Thursday, November 23, is noted for fine musical arrangements.
Before organizing his own band, Russ made quite a name for himself as an arranger for John Phillip Sousa, Victor Herbert and Jean Goldkette. He was also an arranger for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and led his band at the Detroit Capitol Theatre. After that he became musical director of Radio Station WXYZ and finally came to New York City for phonograph records and to form his own orchestra.
Russ is also a composer and has to his credit such semi symphonies as “Red Satin and Black Velvet” and “Tidal Wave,” and “Burlap,” originally written for piano and trombone.
Carolyn Clarke, vocalist, will be featured at the university with Morgan on Thanksgiving. The dance is being sponsored by the University of Richmond’s interfraternity council, and is open to the public.
From the Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), dated January 28, 1940:
Russ Morgan’s Band on Bandwagon – Russ Morgan who traveled from a mining job in Pennsylvania to the bandstand, will take his orchestra aboard the Fitch Bandwagon in its return to New York at 6:30 p.m. today over WMAQ.
From the Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), dated June 16, 1940:
On the Popular Side
By Norman Rowe
Russ Morgan played a one-nighter here at Westwood on Wednesday – and delivered a performance that best can be described as a musical treat for the popular side.
But despite the masterly musicianship displayed by the maestro – the time is ripe for Russ Morgan to quit the band-leading business.
Morgan, composter of a few hits in recent years, among them the beautiful “Does Your Heart Beat for Me?” which he uses as a theme, should retire from the bandstand and devote his full time to composition and arranging.
During his presentation here the Westwood audience found itself dancing and listening to several pleasing, yet strange and unknown melodies. A checkup revealed them to be Russ Morgan originals. Among them were “So Long,” “Walking Alone In the Dark,” “Surrender to a Thrill” and “Oh, You Gorgeous Dancing Doll.”
Picked for Hits
It will be a safe bet to predict that the first three titles will be hits on the popular side, when and if the maestro sends them to a publisher. They have melodic qualities comparable to Cole Porter’s work and musical construction that marks a versatile musician.
Another point that makes Morgan a natural for the composer’s role mastership of every instrument in the dance band and expertness on trombones and piano. (Russ admits the trombone to be his favorite; many critics insist the piano is his best instrument.)
Morgan now holds a respected position in modern music, but we believe there’s an even brighter spot for Russ in American music – as a composer of hit tunes.