The Casa Loma – High on a Hill and High in Popularity

High on a hill in Toronto, Canada, sits ‘Casa Loma Castle’. Replete with gables, turrets and arches, the medieval castle boasts more than 100 rooms, 60 bathrooms, 5000 electrical lights, and the largest wine cellar in North America. It cost Canadian industrial magnate Sir Henry Pellatt more than $5 million dollars to construct between 1911 and 1914. By the late 1920’s, the ‘Casa Loma’ (literally ‘House on a Hill’) served briefly as a hotel, which is where the story of the property as private residence ends and the story of the Casa Loma Orchestra begins.

The Casa Loma Orchestra emerged from the remaining members of a band called “The Orange Blossoms”, formed by big band pioneer Jean Goldkette.  The band took on the name “Casa Loma” following its eight-month engagement at the Casa Loma Hotel. However, in reality the band never performed at the Casa Loma under that name, appearing instead as the Orange Blossoms.

By 1930, the Casa Loma Orchestra had departed from under the control of the Goldkette organization, and incorporated in New York with band members becoming ‘shareholders’ of the new band. Because the band operated as a corporate entity (having no official ‘leader’ as most all other groups), the organization was able to successfully attract and maintain a stable group of personnel with little variance. Band members who got out of line would be summoned before the ‘board of directors’, and potentially be ejected from the band and have their ‘ownership’ bought out.

Early on the band was led by violinist Hank Biagini, and eventually saxophonist Glen Gray, who guided the band’s raise to fame. The band’s manager, Cork O’Keefe, served as a vice president and arranged for appearances in places such as New Rochelle New York’s Glen Island Casino (which the band helped popularize), and the Essex House Hotel in midtown Manhattan, which led to their increasing popularity augmented by radio throughout the Big Band Era. The Casa Loma Orchestra was unique in so much as it was a ‘white band’ that was able to compete musically for the same ‘swing and drive’ as black bands from Harlem. Among musicians it was unique for being respected and even admired by its best black musical competitors.

In 1929 the band landed a contract to record for Okeh Records. The next year they signed with Brunswick Records, where they remained until 1934. They briefly recorded for Victor in 1933 (as “Glen Gray & His Orchestra”), as the Casa Loma name was under contract to Brunswick. The band recorded and released the original version of the jazz and big band standard “Sunrise Serenade” in 1938 with Frankie Carle on piano. In late 1934, they joined Jack Kapp’s newly formed Decca Records and there the group remained until they signed with Capitol Records in the early 1950’s. During their 3 decades plus history the group recorded almost 500 songs.

The Casa Loma Orchestra’s performances on the long-running ‘Camel Caravan’ (introduced by the band’s well known theme, ‘Smoke Rings’) increased their popularity even further. Initially, Glen Gray chose not to conduct the band in the early years, content to play in the saxophone section while violinist Mel Jenssen acted as conductor. In 1937, the band overwhelmingly voted in favor of Glen leading the orchestra, and he accepted the job.

In the late 1930’s Gray took top billing, fronting the band as “Glen Gray & The Casa Loma Orchestra”, and by the end of World War II (as other original players left) Gray would come to own both the band and the Casa Loma name outright. During this period, the band featured such well-known artists as guitarist Herb Ellis, trumpeter Bobby Hackett and cornetist Red Nichols. In 1943, Eugenie Baird became the first female vocalist ever featured with the Casa Loma Orchestra.

In 1942, the orchestra made a Warner Brothers short film, ‘Glen Gray & the Casa Loma Orchestra’, featuring the songs “Hep and Happy,” “Purple Moonlight,” and “Darktown Strutters Ball.” Additionally, in 1943 Universal Studios produced a short subject file, “Smoke Rings” featuring the band. The film showcased Eugenie Baird, Pee Wee Hunt, and The Pied Pipers. The band also appeared in 1944’s “Jam Session”, where they played their famous “No Name Jive.”

Hits included “Casa Loma Stomp,” “No Name Jive” and “Maniac’s Ball”. Part of the reason for the band’s decline is that other big bands included in their books hard-swinging numbers emulating the hot Casa Loma style. The Casa Loma Orchestra blazed a musical path for the bands that followed, literally shaping the Big Band era.  One writer characterized the band as the one most frequently “admired and emulated”- none “more frequently discussed, more widely admired or emulated . . .  no other band of the day, whatever race, could rival it for popularity, precision and team spirit, or for the ability to bring dancers to the floor.”

By 1950, Gray retired to Massachusetts and disbanded the group. Later recordings on Capitol Records were in fact recorded by studio musicians with several CLO alumni joining in on the sessions. From 1957 to 1963, the Casa Loma reorganized as a top-flight studio recording band in Hollywood, made up of experienced musicians under the direction of its most notable leader, Glen Gray. The reconstituted band made a number of live performances and appearances on television, recording some fifteen albums for Capitol Records before Gray passed away at the age of 63 from lymphoma at his home in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1963.

The music of the Casa Loma Orchestra is regularly featured on Swing Street Radio.

Craig Roberts writes the “Hot Big Band News” column for Swing Street Radio, and on occasion claims to have been Bing Crosby’s caddie.