Whenever the topic of the Big Band Era is discussed by music critics, there generally holds an agreement that it lasted from 1935 to 1945. However, more astute fans of the era know that it never really ended. In ballrooms across America, many name bands continued to draw crowds even as their leaders became octogenarians. Leaders like Guy Lombardo and Lawrence Welk kept Big Band music alive on Television (Welk’s show continues in reruns to this day). And one man almost single handedly kept it alive on radio: Chuck Cecil. Chuck’s radio show “The Swingin’ Years” ran for decades. Regretfully this icon of Big Band radio died on April 30th. He was 97.
When I first heard Cecil’s radio show in the mid-70’s I was immediately hooked. In those days Chuck’s only affiliate in the San Francisco area was a tiny AM station with a weak signal. Determined to get my Saturday night fix of “The Swingin’ Years”, I ran a wire from our backyard clothesline to my bedroom radio to pull the station in. The signal was scratchy but nevertheless there it was: Big Band music back on the radio!
Chuck Cecil was born in Oklahoma, but “Dust Bowl” conditions during the Depression drove the Cecil family west to Los Angeles, California. Chuck attended Van Nuys High School where he became acquainted with a couple of notable fellow students- future actresses Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Chuck was a guest at the wedding of Monroe (‘Norma Jean Baker’) to Jim Dougherty in 1942.
In the early 40’s Cecil ventured into radio before his career was interrupted by Pearl Harbor, where he served in the US Navy’s pilot training program. After the war he settled in Oregon and got back into radio as the announcer for a local orchestra where he met and eventually married the group’s vocalist, Edna Brown, in 1947. In the early 50’s Chuck and his new bride relocated to the Los Angeles area, where he was hired by the powerhouse NBC affiliate owned by Earle C. Anthony, radio 640 KFI.
It was while working at KFI that Chuck had an idea. The record room was filled with dusty records from the Big Band and Swing Era. Why not dust a few off and start a weekly Big Band show? Cecil pitched the idea to the station’s management and they loved it! “The Swingin’ Years” debuted to enthusiastic listener response in June of 1956. Now, popular artists of the Swing and Big Band Era were back on the air- including such greats as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.
Cecil’s concept for the program was simple: focus on the musical hits of the Swing era and include the many popular ballads of the Big Band era that topped record charts from 1935 to 1955- what Cecil called “The Swingin’ Years”. The music he played on the program initially came from KFI’s record library, and later from Chuck’s expansive personal collection of some 30,000 recordings. As the show gained in popularity, Cecil used recordings of interviews he conducted with many of the artists featured on “The Swingin’ Years”, incorporating those conversations into the program.
As the show grew in popularity, word began to spread. Soon there was a demand for his program in US markets, and by 1973 “The Swingin’ Years” went into national syndication, at one point carried by some 300 stations coast to coast. In addition, from the 1960s to the 1980s, Chuck produced a show called “Big Band Countdown” for the American Forces Radio Network, sharing his love of Swing with servicemen throughout the world.
For Cecil, the popularity of his show was the product of a lifetime of the love of swing music: “I grew up at the peak of the Big Band Era”, Cecil told writer John Tumpak, author of “When Swing Was the Thing”. “(I) saw many of the greats, Stan Kenton at his historic summer of ’41 engagement at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California; Jimmie Lunceford at the Trianon Ballroom at South Gate, California; and Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra, Connie Haines, Jo Stafford, and the Pied Pipers at the Hollywood Palladium. Claude Thornhill played our high school senior prom at the Hollywood Palladium.”
Cecil’s career as a local host at KFI lasted through 1973, when he moved across town to KGIL and later KPRZ. He remained a fixture in Los Angeles radio into the 1980’s. Throughout all these changes he ran the show he is best known for, later producing the program out of his home studio. At the show’s peak it was heard weekly on hundreds of stations, and Chuck only stepped away from his microphone as recent as in the fall of 2016. The show had just celebrated its 60th anniversary on the air.
Chuck says of his life-long endeavor: “My greatest satisfaction has come from simply serving as a vehicle to provide today’s listening public an opportunity to hear Big Band music and read the letters I receive each week from listeners thanking me for doing my part keep the Era alive.” And keep it alive he has. “The Swingin’ Years” brought back wonderful memories for those who grew up during the Swing era, and taught new generations to love the music Chuck loved. His passion has set the standard for great music on the radio.
The sound of Chuck’s voice and the music he loved that came crackling through the radio all those years ago in San Francisco helped light a flame that for this broadcaster burns brightly to this day. As the torch of Big Band radio is passed from Chuck’s generation to the next, we all owe a great debt of musical gratitude to Chuck Cecil.
As Chuck might no doubt say, “Swing on, ‘Swingin’ Years’, Swing on!”
Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Bing Crosby’s chauffeur.