July 19, 1942: Sabby Lewis on NBC’s “Bandwagon”
In the glory years of network radio, the F.W. Fitch Company sponsored a weekly program featuring swing music in cities from coast to coast, aptly called the “Fitch Bandwagon.” The program started in 1938, and by 1942, the half-hour show was in a prime-time slot on Sunday night, and broadcast by more than 120 stations nationwide over the NBC radio network. Its audience numbered in the millions.
During the summertime, as the Bandwagon rolled from city to city, it would sponsor contests to ask the locals to vote for their favorite band, and the winner would appear on the show. Fitch announced that on July 19, Bandwagon would be broadcast from Boston’s Statler Hotel. The F.W. Fitch Company made hair care products, so presumably the ballots (postcards, which then cost a penny to send) were available at barber shops, drug stores, and the like.
George Frazier was then writing his “Sweet and Low-Down” column in the Boston Herald, and he went to work on making the case for Sabby Lewis, based on the simple fact that Lewis had the best band in town. It wasn’t so easy, though, because Lewis played nightly at the Savoy, a small club with no dance floor, while his main competitors were white dance bands playing in hotel ballrooms. Nonetheless, Lewis prevailed, and it was his band the nation would hear on July 19.
Sabby and band broadcast that night from the Statler Hotel’s Terrace Room, but we don’t know how they sounded because no air check has ever surfaced. For the record, the band that night was Jackie Fields, alto saxophone; Ricky Pratt, tenor saxophone and primary soloist; Jerry Heffron, tenor saxophone and chief arranger; Gene Caines and Charlie Hooks, trumpet; Maceo Bryant, trumpet and trombone; Val St. Cyr, trombone; Joe Booker, drums; Al Morgan, bass; Lewis, piano; and Evelyn White, vocals.
The radio appearance had a positive impact on the fortunes of the Sabby Lewis band, beginning, in fact, the following night. Benny Goodman dropped by the Savoy after his own show at the Metropolitan Theatre and sat in. About the Lewis band, Goodman told Frazier, “Pretty good? It’s more than that. It’s a great band, one of the greatest bands I’ve heard in a long time.” He also tried to hire Heffron, without success.
Correction: This article now shows the correct personnel for the broadcast band. The version published on July 20, 2013 listed Charles Hawkins instead of Caines on trumpet, and omitted Hooks, St. Cyr, and White. Lewis added a trumpet and trombone for this broadcast.
Lewis advertised his band as the Fitch Bandwagon Orchestra for several years thereafter. Because of the recording ban, which cost Lewis a contract with Decca, we’ll never get to hear this band, one of Sabby’s best. Here, though, is the 1946 band, with Gene Caines on trumpet and Paul Gonsalves on tenor. The tune is “Edna,” named for a waitress at the Savoy.