The Carolina Club Orchestra was the creation of Hal Kemp, who was actually born in Marion, Alabama. A gifted musician, he played piano at Marion’s Bonita Theater while still a child. His family eventually moved to Charlottte, North Carolina, where he attended Central High School. It was there that he formed his first band, a five piece group known as The Merrymakers.
Kemp attended the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1922. It was there that he formed the Carolina Club Orchestra, which became successful enough to tour Europe during summer vacations. Kemp never graduated, opting instead to take the band to New York City, where they would record with Brunswick, Melotone, and Okeh Records. A good example of their kind of jazz can be found in the sophisticated swing of “She’s a Great, Great Girl.”
Nice, right? Catchy, pleasing melodies on top with some nice back and forth between the horns underneath, making it a song that is smarter than it at first seems.
“Under a Texas Moon” is a more placid affair, but still a lovely listen.
It was the theme song to the 1930 Warner Bros. film of the same name, which bears the distinction of being the second Western to be filmed in Technicolor. It also bears the burden of being flagrantly racist against Mexicans, depicting them as lying womanizers. Latinos in New York City picketed the film. The police came in and beat the protesters, resulting in the death of civil rights leader Gonzalo Gonzalez.
What does that have to do with the Carolina Club Orchestra? Not much. After all, Kemp and the boys recorded the song four months before the release of the film, which meant that they couldn’t have asked to give it a critical viewing even if that was common practice at the time—and of course, it wasn’t. Then as now, struggling musical acts would be thrilled to be on a big film’s soundtrack, no questions asked. I just find it interesting to take a peek at Hollywood’s long and troubling relationship with folks who weren’t middle class WASPs.
Another Okeh movie song was “He’s So Unusual”, with vocals from Hal’s college chum Skinnay Ennis. Funny how the vocal clearly changes the gender to “she’s so unusual” but the title remains the same. Even in 1929, Publishing lawyers were not to be trifled with.
Helen Kane (aka Betty Boop) recorded a better known version of the song.
In 1930, Hal took the band on the road in Europe once more. Apparently, Prince George (future King George VI) was a big fan. By 1932, the band had settled in as house orchestra for Chicago’s Blackhawk restaurant. The stability of staying in one spot must have helped Kemp play with the band’s sound, because he eventually came up with what was known as a “sweet” orchestra, providing a smoother, less syncopated sound that was perfect for ballroom dancing. His contract wouldn’t allow him to take the act on the road unless he provided a decent replacement act, so he tapped another college chum—Kay Kyser—to bring his then-struggling orchestra up to the Windy City, thereby providing the first solid break to a man who would go on to have a very fruitful career of his own.
Appearances on radio shows like Penzoil Parade and the Chesterfield Program helped advertise the new sound, and the people liked what they heard. The movies continued to beckon, too. Just take a look at this delightful short film from 1936, featuring vocal help from Maxine Gray, Skinnay Ennis, and Saxey Dowell, as well as some impressively humorous dancing from Charlie Baron and Joan Blair. And dig the Rickenbacker “Frying Pan” electric Hawaiian guitar at the 3:34 mark. Pretty unusual for its time.
Kemp’s success continued apace, with two number one hits in 1936 and two more in 1937. In 1939, he realized a lifelong dream by guest conducting the Chicago Symphony. Unfortunately, it would all come to an end the following year: on December 19, 1940, Hal’s car was struck by another car while driving from Los Angeles to a show in San Francisco. The injuries Kemp sustained included a broken leg, some cracked ribs and a punctured lung. He died of pneumonia in the hospital just two days later, at the age of 36.