Monday, November 2, 2009

Hal Kemp and his Orchestra: The Sweet Sound of Success

During the 1920s and 1930s, Hal Kemp and his Orchestra reigned supreme both at home and abroad in live performances, on the radio, and in the movies. Read on about this Marion boy who scaled the heights of popular music, and whose premature death silenced “the sweetest sound this side of Heaven" (apology to Guy Lombardo).

Born James Hal Kemp in Marion, Alabama, on March 21, 1904, the future orchestra and band leader was the son of T. D. Kemp, Sr., and Leila Rush Kemp, a poet. Hal began his musical training playing piano at the Bonita Theater in Marion. He probably attended Marion Institute (MMI) for at least one year, 1917-1918, as a Cadet Kemp is listed as playing clarinet in the Cadet Band. Hal’s family then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he enrolled in Central High School, graduating in 1921. While at Central, Hal formed a five-piece band, The Merrymakers. In addition to piano and clarinet, he also studied trumpet and alto sax.

The MI Cadet Band, c. 1918. (Credit: 1918-1919 MI Catalogue, MMI Archives)

Roster for the MI Cadet Band, 1917-1918. A Cadet Kemp played clarinet. (Credit: 1917-1918 MI Catalogue, MMI Archives)

Entering the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1922, Hal Kemp immersed himself in extracurricular activities including forming a jazz group, The Carolina Club Orchestra, which recorded for Okeh Records and which toured Europe during the summers. Kemp also formed a smaller seven-man combo which became the forerunner of his later professional orchestra.

Hal Kemp’s Carolina Club Orchestra at UNC-Chapel Hill. (Credit: Chapel Hill Memories,

Turning the Carolina Club Orchestra over to fellow UNC student, Kay Kyser, later another top band leader, Kemp (who didn’t graduate from UNC) based his new orchestra in New York City and toured Europe and the United States. The band gained the attention and support of band leader Fred Waring and Prince George of England, later King George VI.

Two publicity shots of Hal Kemp:

Shot One. (Credit:

Shot Two. (Credit:

In 1932, Kemp’s jazz orchestra settled in at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago, Illinois, where they changed styles and perfected their sound as a “sweet orchestra.” Their new sound was a hit both at the Blackhawk and on the radio and, by 1934, Hal Kemp was ready to take the band back on the road. He again turned over the bandstand at the Blackhawk to Kay Kyser.

Kemp’s orchestra had a sweet, smooth, and sensuous sound with interesting musical arrangements which captivated audiences both at home and abroad. The male and female vocalists – from Skinnay Ennis and Bob Allen to Maxine Gray and Janet Blair - were quite popular both with live audiences and on their RCA Victor recordings.

Hal Kemp with vocalist Maxine Gray (later, Lawrence Welk’s first “champagne lady.”) (Credit: Old-Time Radio,

Hal Kemp’s last vocalist, Janet Blair, later a popular movie and television star. (Credit: New York Times,

The Hal Kemp Orchestra scored a number of hit songs including four No. 1 tunes – “There’s a Small Hotel,” “When I’m With You,” “This Year’s Kisses,” and “Where or When.” Other popular tunes included “Got a Date With an Angel,” “Lamplight,” “Heart of Stone,” and “Three Little Fishes.”

Kemp’s orchestra was also the first band featured in a motion picture, Radio City Revels (1938).

In 1932, Hal Kemp married Texas debutante, Betsy Slaughter. They had two children. The couple divorced in 1938, Kemp later marrying Martha Stephenson in 1939.

In 1939, also, Kemp served as guest conductor of The Chicago Symphony. Tragically, on December 19, 1940, while driving from Los Angeles to a gig in San Francisco, Hal Kemp hit a car head-on. He died two days later from his injuries in Madera, California. He was 36. Attempts were made to keep his orchestra going, but it just wasn’t to be and the Hal Kemp Orchestra passed into history forever.

The Best of Hal Kemp and his Orchestra. (Credit:

Hal Kemp was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1992, and he is also in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. His papers are housed in the Southern Historical Collection in the Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC-Chapel Hill.