Election Special: Wild About Harry
Let’s take a break from the insults and name calling of the 2016 presidential campaign to recall a lighter moment from the Dewey-vs-Truman campaign of 1948. It involves Thomas E. Dewey’s motorcade through the streets of Boston, Nat Pierce’s band, and Harry S. Truman’s campaign theme song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
This all starts with David X. Young, the abstract expressionist painter and proprietor of the legendary Jazz Loft in New York City. He lived in Boston in the late 1940s, and was a devoted fan of Nat Pierce’s jazz orchestra.
Young wrote the liner notes for a 1975 album that collected the work of that band. (Nat Pierce Orchestra 1948–50, Zim Records ZM-1005, out of print) He mentions a 1948 incident where unnamed musicians serenaded Dewey with Truman’s campaign song, “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” as Dewey passed by on Boylston Street. He noted that Dewey listened “glumly” as confetti rained down. When, I wondered, did this happen?
Truman and Dewey each made one trip to Massachusetts after their respective party conventions, both close to election day. Truman delivered a fire-breathing speech before an enthusiastic crowd in Boston on October 27, and his Democrats were positive they were going to win. Boston mayor James M. Curley said Truman would carry the state by a hundred thousand votes.
Dewey on the Trail in Massachusetts
Dewey arrived the next day. Dewey’s campaign train crossed the state from west to east and ended its trip in Boston, where the Republicans staged a major rally at the Boston Arena (now Northeastern University’s Matthews Arena). October 28 thus has to be the date of our Dewey serenade.
Then as now, Massachusetts was a one-party state—but the Republican party called the shots. The governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and secretaries of state and treasury were Republicans. Both U.S. senators were Republicans, as were eight of the fourteen members of the house of representatives, including Speaker of the House Joseph Martin of Attleboro. The Republicans were confident of a statewide victory (polls had them leading statewide by six percentage points), but some were anxious because those polls also showed that Truman’s statewide support had increased by five points over the past month. So on came Dewey, six days before the election, promising a “fighting speech” in Boston, to be delivered to a nationwide radio audience.
Dewey’s private train, the Victory Special, arrived at South Station at about 4:15, and his motorcade wound from the station to Tremont Street, skirted the edge of the Boston Common on Boylston Street, and finally turned into Park Square, where it ended at the Statler Hotel (today’s Park Plaza).
Along Piano Row
That stretch of Boylston, known as Piano Row, was home to two businesses where one might find a brass band to to play “I’m Just Wild About Harry” to Dewey’s passing parade: the Ace Recording Studio, on the fifth floor at 120 Boylston, and the Kasper-Gordon Studio, on the second floor at 140 Boylston. The Kasper-Gordon Studio location offered a better opportunity to attract attention. (You can see the same view today from the second-floor room at Troquet, which now occupies the Kasper-Gordon space.)
Young did not identify the musical instigators by name in his liner notes, but why even mention the incident if it were someone other than Pierce? And there are good reasons why the Pierce band might be on Boylston Street at the appointed hour.
First, perhaps they were rehearsing at Kasper-Gordon. The Pierce Orchestra temporarily disbanded at about this time, and Nat, along with six of his bandmates, joined trumpeter Larry Clinton’s New Sounds orchestra. Down Beat mentions the band rehearsed in Boston before hitting the road in late November, traveling as far afield as Texas.
Second, even though the 1948 recording ban was still in effect, union musicians were permitted to record transcriptions for one-time radio play under certain circumstances. Members of the Pierce band had recorded a series of them at Kasper-Gordon in 1948, each featuring the work of a different Tin Pan Alley composer. October 28 might have been one of those sessions.
Finally, perhaps the only reason for a fun-loving bunch like the Pierce band to be on Boylston Street at all that day was to mess with Dewey. The motorcade route was published in the newspapers, so they knew it would pass under Kasper-Gordon’s window. They could have asked Eddie Kasper if they could watch the parade from the studio. Then, as the Dewey motorcade passed, they could have opened the windows, let loose with “Harry,” and promptly retreated to the Mardi Gras, a Washington Street dive bar where the Pierce band sometimes rehearsed in the afternoon.
I checked the Boston Globe to verify the story, but it did not mention the ambush staged by the musical minutemen in its coverage. Their reporter did observe a lone trumpeter outside the Dewey rally at the Boston Arena later that night. He played another Truman favorite, “The Missouri Waltz,” and greeted most of Dewey’s remarks “with a ‘horse laugh’ played on the trumpet.”
Dewey made his speech and retired to the Statler without any statements to the press. The Victory Special rolled out of town the next morning, ending the candidate’s sole visit to Boston.
We all know what happened. Truman won convincingly, and carried the Commonwealth by 242 thousand votes. The Democrats, holding on tight to Truman’s coattails, turned the Republicans out of almost every statewide office as well.
Nat Pierce never ran for elected office. Neither did Peggy Lee, but she sang a spirited version of “I’m Just Wild About Harry” a decade after the election. Here she is in 1958 with the Jack Marshall Orchestra, from her album I Like Men!