Few bandleaders enjoyed longer or more successful careers than Les Brown. After coming out of Duke University in 1936, where he led his first dance band, the Blue Devils, Brown formed what would later become the Band of Renown in 1938. Les got a big break in 1947 when comedian Bob Hope hired the band to provide the music for his weekly radio (and later, television) programs. This led not only to a life–long friendship but to sixteen Christmas tours to entertain U.S. servicemen and women around the world and years of steady, well–paying gigs for Les and the band. When not working with Hope, the Band of Renown played backup for raconteur Steve Allen (1959–61) and singer Dean Martin (1963–72). Les Brown led the band for more than sixty years before handing the baton to his son, Les Jr., shortly before his death last January at age eighty–eight. Some may be surprised at how hard the ensemble swings and how well it plays Jazz, but the truth is that Les Sr. always had a number of talented ad–libbers in the band, guys like Ted Nash, Dave Pell, Abe Most, Don Fagerquist and Warren Covington. Pell’s widely admired mid–’50s octet was comprised mainly of sidemen from the Band of Renown. The ensemble also served as a launching pad for one of the country’s most celebrated popular singers, Doris Day (who can forget “Sentimental Journey”?). That classic and the Oscar–winning “Secret Love” from Day’s delightful film Calamity Jane are sung here by another fast–rising young star, Jane Monheit, who’s not bad but no Doris Day — at least not yet. There are two more vocals (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “I Only Have Eyes for You”), admirably sung by the band’s other guest, veteran baritone Lou Rawls. The ensemble’s top–drawer instrumental soloists include tenor Rusty Higgins, clarinetist Don Shelton, trumpeters Don Clarke and Don Smith, drummer Dave Tull, guitarist Jon Turnick and pianist Mike Melvoin. Les Jr. wanted Session #55, dedicated to his father’s memory, to be extra–special, so he enlisted the help of a number of prominent arrangers who’d worked with the band over the years to write new charts or update earlier ones, and used several others penned by arrangers who’d since passed on (Skip Martin, Ben Homer and especially Joe Garland, who not only wrote the band’s popular theme, ”Leap Frog,” but gave the Glenn Miller Orchestra one of the Swing Era’s most enduring benchmarks, “In the Mood”). The other charts are by Frank Comstock, Van Alexander, Wes Hensel and J. Hill (whose “Yo Henry,” written for Les Sr.’s right–hand man, saxophonist Henry “Butch” Stone, is a gem). Les Sr. arranged the standard “Undecided” on which Clarke, Shelton and Melvoin blow up a medium–scale storm. Bottom line: the Band of Renown is playing as well as ever, Session #55 (which represents the band’s fifty–fifth recording date) is a pleasure to hear, and if Les Sr. were still around that famous Les Brown smile would no doubt be lighting up the room.
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Les Brown Jr., conductor; Don Smith, Darrel Gardner, Don Clarke, Fred Koyen, trumpet; Chauncey Welsch, Jack Redmond, Bob Payne, Clyde