Elgart, Les(ter) Elliot

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Elgart, Les(ter) Elliot

(b. 3 August 1917 in New Haven, Connecticut; d. 29 July 1995 in Dallas, Texas), trumpeter and dance-band leader.

Elgart’s father, Arthur Max Elgart, worked as a mechanic, electrician, and salesman. His mother, Bess Aisman, was a talented amateur pianist who taught music prior to her marriage. Elgart’s only sibling, Lawrence (“Larry”) Elgart, born in 1922 in New London, Connecticut, also gained fame as a saxophonist and bandleader.

By 1927 the family had moved to Morristown, New Jersey, where Les learned to play the bugle as a Cub Scout. In 1929, with their parents’ encouragement, Les began playing trumpet, and Larry took up the clarinet, later switching to saxophone. During the 1930s the family moved several times, finally settling in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, where the brothers attended Pompton Lakes High School. Although Les was a fine athlete and pitched well enough in grammar school to attract the attention of a minor league baseball scout, his greatest ambition was to be a bandleader. He began playing trumpet with local groups and left high school in 1933 to pursue his career.

Elgart’s idol was the trumpeter Bunny Berigan. In 1939 he won the lead trumpet chair in Berigan’s band, but the band went bankrupt in 1940. Between 1940 and 1942 Elgart played in various bands, including those led by Harry James and Charlie Spivak, who said: “He was one of the best sidemen I ever had.” On 2 April 1942 he enlisted in the navy in Newport, Rhode Island, but was discharged on 29 May 1942 due to an unspecified physical disability. Shortly thereafter, he joined Woody Herman’s band and appeared with the band in the movie Wintertime (1943), starring Sonja Henie.

In 1945 the brothers organized their own big band ensemble, the Les Elgart Orchestra. Les fronted the band and played trumpet; Larry led the saxophone section on alto sax. Using arrangements by Bill Finegan and Nelson Riddle, they played at ballrooms in New York and New Jersey, but big bands faced economic difficulties due to a postwar recession and the growing popularity of television. In 1948, after recording two singles for Bullet Records that garnered little attention, the Les Elgart Orchestra disbanded. Between 1948 and 1952 Les worked as a freelance trumpeter, and Larry freelanced in New York City and immersed himself in the new recording technologies. The use of more sensitive microphones allowed subtle sounds to emerge with greater clarity and reduced the need for a heavy rhythm section.

In 1952 the brothers organized another band, distinctive for what came to be known as the “Elgart sound”: silky-smooth saxophone playing and a rich, brilliant brass section, featuring bass trombone. Arrangements by Charles Albertine showcased the tightly synchronized saxophone and brass sections and a rhythm section with guitar instead of piano, with few improvised solos.

Intent on landing a recording contract, Larry took a demo recording of the band to George Avakian at Columbia Records. “I liked the light swinging beat and straight ahead sound,” Avakian said, “… and thought it would have youth appeal.... Les had all the qualities for success as a bandleader, good-looking, fine musician, warm and friendly, and his sidemen were carefully chosen to fit the sound.” Columbia issued three singles late in 1952, which did not sell well; however, Sophisticated Swing, an album issued in 1953, was a smash hit, winning a five-star review in Down Beat from Jack Tracy, who wrote: “It’s difficult to see how Elgart can miss with this new band.” A second album, Just One More Dance (1954), was equally popular, which led to a coveted booking at the Hotel Astor in New York in August 1954. Thereafter, the band toured the country, using “Heart of My Heart” from the Sophisticated Swing album as its theme song.

While playing a date in Philadelphia in 1953 the Elgart brothers saw a local television show, American Bandstand, hosted by Bob Horn. Les contacted Horn and offered to record a theme song for the show. Horn agreed. In a collaborative effort, Larry Elgart created a melody, Charles Albertine arranged it, and the Les Elgart Orchestra recorded it as “Bandstand Boogie” in 1954. Dick Clark kept the theme when he took over as host, and American Bandstand later became ABC’s longest running show for teenagers (1957 to 1987).

In 1955 a Variety reviewer wrote: “Elgart’s band… manages to generate some unusual sounds [with] interesting experimentation going on in the interplay of the various sections. The result is an overall fresh approach in a conventional dance band format.” The big-band historian George Simon later wrote: “It was a very musical band and Les was a good lead trumpeter.”

Although the band continued to tour and record for Columbia, the brothers had different artistic goals. Les preferred to front the band and concentrate on the dancers, whereas Larry was concerned with musical style and perfecting their recordings. The brothers split up in 1959. Larry remained on the East Coast and formed the Larry Elgart Orchestra, which recorded for RCA and MGM. Les moved to California and recorded eight more albums for Columbia, including Les Elgart on Tour (1959), Half Satin-Half Latin (1961), and Best Band On Campus (1962).

In 1963 Larry rejoined the band, renamed the Les and Larry Elgart Orchestra, which recorded eight more albums for Columbia. The band did several network radio broadcasts between 1964 and 1966 and appeared on a Jackie Gleason television special featuring big bands on 21 November 1966. Their last album for Columbia was Wonderful World of Today’s Hits (1967). Due to changing musical tastes, Columbia released many of its longtime artists in 1968, including the Elgart band, and the brothers again went their separate ways.

During the early 1970s Les moved to San Antonio, Texas, and continued touring with his band, using a core group of musicians augmented with local players. On 17 October 1977 in Dallas, he married Joerene (Williams) Ingram, who had three children from a previous marriage. She and Elgart had no children. She became manager of the band, which played at colleges, at conventions, and on cruises. Elgart’s final performance was on Long Island, New York, shortly before he died of a heart attack at his stepdaughter’s home in Dallas. He is buried at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas.

Although some critics felt the “Elgart sound” was so consistent as to be tiresome, Les Elgart’s goal was to lead a big band that provided danceable music with a distinctly different sound. In this he succeeded, and his band survived at a time when many big-name bands did not, leaving a recorded legacy of two dozen albums.

Some of Elgart’s personal papers and big-band arrangements are held by his brother, Larry, in Florida; others are with his widow, Joerene Elgart, in Texas. Richard F. Palmer and Charles Garrod, Les and Larry Elgart and Their Orchestras (1992), a Joyce Record Club publication, contains an extensive discography, dates and locations of band appearances, and some biographical material. Several articles about the Les Elgart Orchestra are in Down Beat (6 Oct. 1954), including Nat Hentoff, “Les Elgart: The Band That Didn’t Imitate Glenn Miller.” Some of Elgart’s Columbia recordings have been reissued on the compact discs Best of Big Bands: Les Sr Larry Elgart (1990) and Sentimental Swing: All-Star Dance Classics (1993). An audiotape, Les Elgart at the Pelham Heath Inn, is available from the Joyce Record Club, Portland, Oregon. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News (both 31 July 1995).

Susan Fleet