Morgan, Russ, American bandleader, trombonist, and composer; b. Scranton, Pa., April 29, 1904; d. Las Vegas, Nev., Aug. 7, 1969. In the spring of 1949, Morgan’s sweet band placed four songs in the Top Ten, culminating more than 25 years of effort for a musician who had worked in nearly every capacity in popular music, including sideman, arranger, songwriter, bandleader, singer, recording artist, radio personality, and movie performer. In the wake of his belated breakthrough, Morgan continued to score hits for a few years, and he appeared on television, in films, and in live performances increasingly concentrated in Las Vegas over the next two decades. But his greatest success derived from the 1949 hits, “Cruising Down the River” (a million-seller), “Forever and Ever,” “So Tired,” and “Sunflower.”
As a youth, Morgan worked in a coal mine to earn money for music lessons. He initially played the piano but took up the trombone as a means of strengthening a broken arm and eventually also learned saxophone, guitar, vibes, and organ. In 1921 he joined Billy Lustig’s Scranton Sirens, which featured Jimmy Dorsey on saxophone. When he left the group in 1922 to join Paul Specht’s band in Detroit, Tommy Dorsey replaced him.
Specht went to N.Y., where Morgan was able to find work arranging for John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert. After a tour of Europe with Specht, Morgan returned to Detroit, where he performed in the Detroit Symphony and joined the main orchestra of band organizer Jean Goldkette, then briefly became music director of radio station WXYZ. At the start of the 1930s he returned to N.Y. and wrote arrangements for The Boswell Sisters, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, the Dorsey Brothers Orch., and others. He also played in various bands, ultimately joining Freddy Martin’s Orch. In 1934, where he developed a distinctive “wah-wah” trombone sound. He also served as recording director for the American Record Company’s Brunswick label.
Morgan left Martin in 1935 and started his own band, which gained a residency at the Biltmore Hotel in N.Y. He first reached the hit parade in July with “Love Me Forever” (music by Victor Schertzinger, lyrics by Gus Kahn), followed in August by “The Rose in Her Hair” (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Al Dubin). He returned to the hit parade in November 1936 with “Midnight Blue” (music by Joe Burke, lyrics by Edgar Leslie), then had five chart entries in 1937: “When the Poppies Bloom Again” in April; “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” (music and lyrics by Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin) in June; “Stop, You’re Breaking My Heart” (music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Ted Koehler) in August; “So Many Memories” in October; and “Farewell, My Love” in November. “I Double Dare You” (music by Terry Shand, lyrics by Jimmy Eaton) entered the hit parade in January 1938 and became Morgan’s first chart-topper in February, but he didn’t return to the hit parade until October with “Lambeth Walk” (music by R. M. Armitage under the pseudonym Noel Gay, lyrics by Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose), his last hit for several years. Following an earlier marriage, he married his secretary, Shirley Gray, on July 21, 1939; they had four children.
In the early 1940s, Morgan was based on the West Coast, where he played at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, Calif. Also a songwriter, he had cocomposed his theme song, “Does Your Heart Beat for Me?” (music also by Arnold Johnson, lyrics by Mitchell Parish), and his next Top Ten hit came with another of his tunes, “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place” (music and lyrics by Morgan, Dick Howard, and Bob Ellsworth), which had been written in 1937 but did not become successful until it was featured in the Universal film Strictly in the Groove early in 1942. (Morgan and his Orch. later performed the song in the 1947 film Sarge Goes to Coll.).
Morgan returned to the Top Ten periodically during the mid-1940s, with “Good Night, Wherever You Are” (music and lyrics by Dick Robertson, Al Hoffman, and Frank Weldon) in July 1944; “Dance with a Dolly (With a Hole in Her Stockin’)” (music and lyrics by Terry Shand, Jimmy Eaton, and David Kapp, based on the public domain song “Buffalo Gals [Won’t You Come Out Tonight?]) in December 1944; “There Goes That Song Again” (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn) in January 1945; “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (music by Vaughn Monroe, lyrics by Cahn), accompanying Connee Boswell, in February 1946; and a revival of the 1927 song “I’m Looking over a Four Leaf Clover” (music by Harry Woods, lyrics by Mort Dixon), with vocals by the Ames Brothers, in March 1948. But he never placed among the top recording artists of the period until his surprising run of hits in 1949.
It began with the fall 1948 release of “So Tired” (music and lyrics by Russ Morgan and Jack Stuart), which peaked in the Top Ten in early April, by which time “Cruising down the River” (music and lyrics by Eily Beadell and Nell Tollerton) had hit #1 and “Forever and Ever” (music by Franz Winkler, English lyrics by Malia Rosa) was also in the Top Ten. Within weeks, “Sunflower” (music and lyrics by Mack David), the B side of “Cruising down the River,” reached the Top Ten, giving Morgan a remarkable set of simultaneous hits and making him one of the most successful performers of the year at a time when the big bands were in decline. A revival of the 1917 song “Johnson Rag” (music by Guy G. Hall and Henry Kleinhauf, lyrics by Jack Lawrence), released late in 1949, became another Top Ten hit for him in February 1950.
Just prior to his breakthrough, in the fall of 1948, Morgan and his Orch. had been regulars on the television series Welcome Aboard. With his new success, Morgan was given a second chance at TV with In the Morgan Manner, which debuted on March 1,1950, and ran until July 30. Meanwhile, he scored his last Top Ten hit with “Sentimental Me” (music and lyrics by James T. Morehead and James Cassin) in June.
Morgan toured extensively during the 1950s, pausing to make the occasional film (Disc Jockey in 1951, The Great Man in 1956, The Big Beat in 1958) and to take another stab at TV with the summer replacement program The Russ Morgan Show, broadcast live from July to September 1956. In 1960 he reorganized his band, which by now featured his sons Jack and David, into a smaller unit and concentrated on playing in and around Los Angeles. In 1965 he settled in Las Vegas, playing at the Dunes Hotel. He remained active until his death following a stroke at the age of 65 in 1969, after which his son Jack led the band.
Russ Morgan & His Orchestra Play 22 Original Big Band Recordings (1937); Music in the Morgan Manor (1941).