In late 1935, young Ticonderoga saxophonist Johnny Hayes sat in during a performance by a traveling orchestra from Boston. His performance so impressed the band leader that a permanent position was offered. Hayes had recently completed a summer stint at The Deer’s Head Inn (Elizabethtown), followed by a tour of central and northern New York cities with his own band.
He accepted the offer and began traveling with the orchestra within two weeks. It was the first step in a journey that would link him with many all-time greats of the Big Band Era.
By 1940, Hayes was appearing regularly on radio and in major dance halls as first saxophone with Van Alexander’s Orchestra. Swing magazine called him a key component of the band’s great sound. Alexander worked with a number of orchestras during his career and is regarded historically as one of the great music arrangers.
In mid-1940, Hayes signed with Buddy Rogers of movie fame (Rogers was also husband of actress Mary Pickford), playing first sax on a nationwide tour. In 1941, he joined another high-profile band of the day, Shep Fields and His New Music.
Johnny next hooked up with bandleader Hal McIntyre, an original member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. When Hal set out on his own, his close friend Miller provided financial support for McIntyre’s new musical group, for which Johnny Hayes played tenor sax. For two years running (1942–43), Billboard magazine selected McIntyre’s band as “the most promising new orchestra.”
The band performed in movies (watch the first ten seconds for their name, and further to hear them play), on the radio, at dance halls, and at all the top venues across the country. Their weekly gig, broadcast from New York City’s Commodore Hotel, was a big hit, receiving high praise in Billboard, Swing, and the columns of top music critics.
Johnny routinely performed the band’s tenor sax solos. (Many of McIntyre’s recordings, made with Hayes as a band member, have recently been offered on CD.) Hayes played with McIntyre into the late 1940s, but also appeared periodically with many other of the era’s greats.
Besides a few recordings with the Ziggy Elfman Band (star trumpet player for Tommy Dorsey), Billy May, and Tex Beneke (with Eydie Gorme singing), he played with the legendary Les Brown and the Band of Renown. Brown’s band was linked to Bob Hope’s performances for 50 years, including 18 USO tours. Hayes played with them in 1944 and on other occasions, leaving no doubt about his musical capabilities in the eyes of his peers.
In the late 1940s, he also played and toured with Skitch Henderson, another orchestra leader who became a show-biz legend (among his credits, Henderson was the original bandleader on The Tonight Show, which starred Steve Allen).
For all his success, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Johnny Hayes’ musical life occurred before his orchestra career began. He was born in Ticonderoga in 1918, the son of attorney Richard Hayes and his wife, Lillian. At the age of three, his musical fate was nearly foiled by an accident: Johnny fell on a broken bottle, badly cutting his hand and severing a tendon. After an emergency trip to the hospital, the healing went just fine.
A signature moment in Hayes’ life came in March 1929, when Leonard Allerton of Catskill, New York, was hired to oversee the music program at Ticonderoga High School. Two years later, under his tutelage, 13-year-old Johnny Hayes was playing first clarinet for the Purple and White. He later turned his attention to the saxophone, and in 1933, in the New York State Music Contest at Syracuse, Johnny took fifth place among twelve contestants.
In his senior year (1935), hoping to earn another berth in the state finals, Hayes competed in the preliminaries at Massena, finishing first in Division Two for clarinet and first in Division One for saxophone.
At Syracuse, after facing off against 47 other boys and girls, he finished tied for second in the saxophone category. Landing in the top five made him eligible for the national championships in Madison, Wisconsin, but traveling that far was a pipe dream for most small-town folks struggling through the Great Depression.
Hayes had received financial support from the community for the Syracuse trip, and Leonard Allerton had raised Ticonderoga’s music program to a high level of performance, something the town was quite proud of. Everyone banded together once again, and with Ticonderoga businessmen leading the way, enough money was raised to send Johnny on his way.
Pre-performance jitters on the day of competition were normal, and were certainly capable of causing a sub-par performance. As if that weren’t enough, Johnny’s accompanist from the University of Wisconsin had failed to appear due to a flat tire while en route.
Disheartened, he was faced with going solo or withdrawing. Since he was the last scheduled performer of 42 in his division, Johnny delayed the decision as long as possible.
With three minutes to spare, his accompanist arrived. There was no time to prepare, so Johnny took to the stage and played “Emily,” the same tune that had earned him second place in Syracuse and a trip to Wisconsin for the National Music Contest.
Imagine the reaction in Ticonderoga that night when Johnny Hayes was voted the nation’s number one high school saxophonist. Best in the country!
Far lesser accomplishments (even a single tackle in a football game, for cryin’ out loud) will often find today’s youth strutting around, pounding their chests, and celebrating their self-perceived greatness. Where’s my star? Look at what I just did! Ain’t I great?
In comparison, you have to love old-time, small-town America. After besting the top musicians in the entire United States, Johnny Hayes, saxophonist extraordinaire, returned home with a wonderful comment: “I feel swell.”
In the days when humility was a virtue, other folks took care of bragging about you or honoring your accomplishments, and that’s what Ticonderoga did. Johnny’s success was mentioned in the county newspapers, and a school assembly was held, citing his achievement and crediting Johnny, Mr. Allerton, and the school community for the fine results of their cumulative efforts.
Best of all, at least from my perspective, was the celebration held on the evening of his return. Johnny was greeted by the entire school band, decked out in the new uniforms of the Purple and White. Placing Hayes at the lead, they marched him through the streets of Ti in a fine display of hometown pride.
At one point, the procession halted on the corner of Montcalm and Champlain. Requesting a solo, the crowd was treated to Johnny’s rendition of “Home Sweet Home.”
Pound your chest all you want, but it doesn’t get any better than that.
Photos: Advertisement for the State Theater in Ticonderoga, featuring a movie with the Hal McIntyre Orchestra, and mentioning Ti’s own Johnny Hayes.
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.