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Radio Pioneer Fred Waring Remembered:
An OTR Article by Read G. Burgan
Published In RADIO WORLD January 25, 1995:


I Still Hear Music
Read G. Burgan

Fred Waring died on July 19, 1984. But he has not been forgotten. And his influence extends even to those who have never heard of him.

One example is contained in a recent clipping sent me from the Star Gazette of Elmira, New York detailing how 115 former musicians and singers for Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians met in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania to rekindle their memories. They came from 28 states. Ninety one year old Leonard Kranendonk, who had been a featured bass soloist from 1938 to 1981 traveled 1,000 miles from Florida. One thousand people crowded the East Stroudsburg High School to hear the performers sing many of the Waring arrangements. I wish I had been there.

Waring was a radio pioneer. WWJ of Detroit carried some of his very first broadcasts. During the early years of radio, Waring's Pennsylvanians were heard for fifteen minutes five days a week under the sponsorship of Chesterfield Cigarettes beginning in 1939 and extending to 1944. His show originated from the Vanderbilt Theatre in New York and he treated his studio audience to a one hour show at the conclusion of every broadcast. For five consecutive years his program was named the "Best Quarter Hour Program" by newspaper radio editors in the United States and Canada. During the '30's and 40's Waring's Pennsylvanians were a staple on network radio including CBS and NBC, and his sponsors included the Ford Motor Company, Chesterfield Cigarettes and General Electric.

Fred was born in rural Pennsylvania on June 9, 1900. A teenage birthday present forever shaped his life: A banjo. With his brother Tom at the piano, and boyhood friends Poley McClintock on the drums and Fred Buck on another banjo, he formed a group called the Banjazzatra. While a freshman engineering student at Penn State in the early 1920's, the Banjazzatra, now called the Collegians, booked a prestigious engagement at the University of Michigan. Even though they were only a back-up band, the crowd went wild. Soon the Collegians were booked for a month solid. Waring dropped out of Penn State, changed the name of his group to the Pennsylvanians, and earned an international reputation.

For several decades, Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians were a household word. What made him so popular? Why was he different from all of the other popular musicians of the 20's, 30's and 40's? For one thing, quality. Waring was a perfectionist. The Waring blend was perfection musically personified. When he first decided to try a radio broadcast, he rented a sound studio for several days and cut about 200 transcriptions. He was determined to present the best possible sound to the radio audience. All of this was for a single broadcast emanating out of Cleveland, Ohio. But the Herculean effort was a success. Old Gold Cigarettes sponsored his first series of radio programs beginning in 1933 on the CBS radio network on Wednesday nights. Then the Ford Motor Company picked up his sponsorship in 1934 and by 1935 he was heard on both CBS and the Blue Network. By the time Waring was a national success in 1933, small radio stations all over the country began producing their own Fred Waring programs using phonograph records of his group. To stop them, Waring didn't make another record for ten years!

Later he had a daily half hour morning program on NBC sponsored by Johnson's Wax that was probably the highest priced daytime program of its time, costing $18,000 for the orchestra alone. This program was twice awarded the honor of "Best Daytime Show".

In 1949 Waring made the transition to television. Many successful radio personalities floundered when they attempted to bring their shows to TV. Not Fred Waring. Following the same methodical approach to details that made him a success in radio, Waring hired a young Bob Banner to be his TV producer. Banner, who produced the Gary Moore Show, understood the differences between radio and TV.

Radio required little more than the Pennsylvanians singing interspersed with Waring's engaging comments. TV required full-blown skits akin to mini-broadway productions. Elaborate sets, lavish customs, plenty of action, creative camera work and frequent guest stars including Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and Celeste Holm insured a large audience for this weekly Sunday evening program. Surviving kinescopes of his TV programs show a remarkably innovative and sophisticated program for its time. After five years, Waring quit his weekly TV program, opting for occasional specials.

Waring was quick to recognize new talent and many professional musicians and singers were first showcased on Waring's programs. They included choral director Robert Shaw, guitarist Les Paul and movie stars Rosemary and Priscilla Lane. Waring's Lumpy Branahan, whose Little Orley stories entertained young and old alike, went on to become Mr. Greenjeans on Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. Over the years many Miss America's traveled with the Pennsylvanians. His soloists were singularly talented. Gordon Goodman's soaring tenor voice was a featured Waring attraction for twenty two years. Jane Wilson's melodic soprano voice enchanted radio and TV listeners for years.

Waring was an innovator. In a 1931 stage production he equipped every member of his chorus with a megaphone, creating a non electrical amplifier. In the 1960's, he championed the Cordovox accordion, featuring accordionist Betty Ann McCall. At that time the Cordovox included two unwieldy suitcase size units filled with vacuum tubes plus the twenty four pound accordion, interconnected with a cable several inches in diameter. He even invented the Waring blender.

Amazingly, this college dropout was even an educator. Waring's real forte was choral music. He took the popular music of several generations and turned it into lush choral arrangements that seemed to surround you and take you out of yourself. He surrounded himself with extraordinary arrangers, including Roy Ringwald, Hawley Ades, Harry Simeone and Livingston Gearhart. His Shawnee Press arrangements have been used by high school, college and church choral groups for at least five decades.

Beginning in 1945, Waring established an annual summer music workshop at Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. The Waring Music Workshop developed into a hotel-size dormitory, dining room, rehearsal and lecture halls and even included state-of-the art recording facilities. Each year more than 10,000 choral conductors, teachers and others attended the workshops to learn the Waring technique. One of Fred's concerns was that people be able to understand the words of the songs. To that end, he created a technique he called, "Tone Syllable." In his method of enunciation, the group sang every component sound in every word in a carefully defined unison. Choral directors around the world adopted his approach to choral music.

Waring educated through his music, too. He delighted in interspersing classical music in his concerts and records. Almost always in a way that would entertain while still maintaining the dignity of the original piece. But he could have fun with a serious selection. And he was not above creating words for classical numbers that never had any. Waring once stated, "I always felt that the static presentation of 'long hair' material could be enhanced with lyrics." Liebestraum and The Nutcracker Suite were two of the most successful classical pieces to which Waring added his own words. Rigid musicologists may have cringed at some Waring arrangements, but tens of thousands of Americans had their first exposure to serious music through his concerts.

Fred Waring was proud to be an American and took every opportunity to prove it. Irving Berlin's Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor based on the Emma Lazarus' poem on the Statue of Liberty was a frequent number in Waring programs, concerts and records. He produced at least three long play albums dedicated to American themes. Roy Ringwald's The Song of America may well be the pinnacle of those albums. A musical saga, it chronicles America's history from the landing of the Pilgrim's to the death of Abraham Lincoln. It was released on both the Decca and Capitol labels. His last patriotic album, America I Hear You Singing, was a combined effort with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Waring himself wrote several patriotic songs, including Where In The World But In America, Army Hymn and The Flying Marines.

Waring always loved an audience. Year after year he took his Pennsylvanians on grueling tours of America's heartland, often covering 150 cities. During the radio years, his program originated from towns and cities all across America. I first heard him in concert in Salt Lake City on January 26, 1963. He was at his peak. These were his mature years. He was tall, erect, grey haired and just slightly pudgy. His voice was both authoritative and engaging. His humor was pleasant, sometimes wittingly sarcastic. Precisely at 8:30 the lights dimmed.

Then after a slight pause, he instructed the person in charge of the spotlights to turn one on those who were still filing into their seats in the now dark auditorium. "We made it all the way from New York on time. Couldn't you make it from your home a few blocks away?" he teasingly asked the now embarrassed latecomers. "Does anyone here know this baldheaded man?" he asked when the spotlight singled out another hapless person. "He's apparently lost his way."

Then the spotlight was extinguished and the first strains of "I Hear Music" softly wafted through the auditorium. It was a night of magical music that I will forever remember. As always, the evening ended with the equally soft refrain "Sleep."

Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians no longer tour the country and his program has been off the air waves for more than forty years. But the quality and excellence of his life and music continue to shape American music through the teachers and conductors who studied at his workshops and listened to his music on radio and records.

I still hear music. And the music I hear is that of Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians.

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