Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Benny Rolfe: Inspiring the Great Satchmo

6A  BARNewEdisonPhonoDuring his contract with Lucky Strike, which lasted several years, Brasher Falls native Benny Rolfe’s reach was expanded to more time slots and more stations, reaching virtually every part of America. Rival CBS Radio came up with the “Old Gold Hour”, also sponsored by tobacco, to compete with Rolfe’s great success, but it was a tough assignment. A survey of radio programs in 1931 to determine the popularity of orchestras around the world found Duke Ellington in the number two position—second to B. A. Rolfe.

That same year, an issue of Radio Digest magazine featured articles on Rudy Vallee, Lowell Thomas, and B. A. Rolfe, the “ex-millionaire radio celebrity” who had returned to prominence. He lived well and owned a yacht, but never again lost sight of music as the most important component of his life, one that had served him well for many, many years.

It also influenced several of his peers, including one of the all-time great trumpet players, Louis Armstrong. The subject was Rolfe’s legendary solos, accessing stratospheric notes that few could even touch. Biographers of Armstrong note that Satchmo was impressed by such a rare ability carried to perfection. Benny’s rendering of “Shadowland” an octave higher than anyone else inspired Louis to develop the capability of playing extra-high notes, which became a hallmark of his own performances.

In late 1931, the stars of radio joined on five special broadcasts to promote President Hoover’s unemployment relief program. The third installment featured such luminaries as Amos ’n Andy, Kate Smith, Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo, and B. A. Rolfe.

The yearly ranking of radio shows at that point had Amos ’n Andy at number one, followed by Eddie Cantor, Rudy Vallee, and B. A. Rolfe. Even in his early fifties, Benny was still hip.

At the end of October, his contract with Lucky Strike ended. The program Rolfe produced for them is considered the origin of radio’s famous “Your Hit Parade” show, which it was renamed several years later.

In November 1931, the president of NBC announced that Benny had been appointed their musical emissary to Europe, where he would handle several trans-Atlantic broadcasts and study European radio methods. Several weeks later, however, Benny sailed south through the Panama Canal, north to Los Angeles, and then to Hawaii, where he conducted nationwide broadcasts of Hawaiian music for a month.

By January he was back in New York, and in March, NBC signed him to a long-term contract, with Ivory Soap as the initial sponsor. On Thursday, June 9, Benny celebrated his 1200th program since beginning at Palais d’Or in 1926. He participated in special events as well, including a nationwide broadcast for the Elks in December 1932. To an audience of millions, including more than 700,000 Elks members, master of ceremonies George M. Cohan introduced the musical leader for the evening, B. A. Rolfe.

6B  BARNewEdisonPhonoFollowing Ivory Soap as sponsor for Rolfe’s show in 1933–34 was Hudson Automobiles (specifically the high-end Terraplane). Besides the usual dance shows, Benny produced an unusual program in 1933, “Tracked Around the World”, a musical comedy series of 39 half-hour episodes. That was followed by a variety of broadcasts including dance programs and a wake-up show. Under NBC, he was on the air at least an hour each week.

In 1935, B. F. Goodrich sponsored Rolfe’s show, “Silvertown Circus Night”. In keeping up with the times, he had begun playing songs from the latest trend, swing music. Radio critics credited him for the resurgence of ragtime, which many claimed had been renamed swing and presented as something new.

In 1937 he was still on radio three days a week, including the Heinz Magazine of the Air. Among the hundreds of special guests that appeared on Rolfe’s shows in the past was Robert Ripley back in 1933. In 1937, Robert assumed a two-year sponsorship of Rolfe’s shows under the title “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”. After the contract expired, their association continued for the better part of a decade, resuming intermittently whenever Ripley returned from his travels with a series of new subjects.

Benny, described then as a “265-pound jovial maestro,” was also a go-to leader for fundraisers and entertainment committees. He was, of course, an entertainer by nature, proficient not only on the trumpet, but also the alto trombone, cello, piccolo, and violin. His involvement in show business since early childhood paid dividends for not only him, but for a host of friends and organizations in the city and back home in the North Country.

Always looking for the next big thing, Benny was also busy in 1938 promoting Vode–Vision, a possible solution to the high cost of producing stage shows. In theory, actors would appear live before filmed backdrops, and accompanied by canned music. Industry bigwigs attended sample Vode–Vision shows presented as “streamlined vaudeville.” It seemed promising, but unions strongly resisted an idea that would eliminate thousands of longstanding entertainment jobs.

In 1942, shortly after American entered World War II, Rolfe organized a 30-piece, all-girl orchestra. His Daughters of Uncle Sam, with hostess Arlene Francis, played on the radio through the end of April, offering a range of patriotic music in support of various fundraising organizations.

In 1943, Benny was hired as the director of Long Beach Municipal Band in California, successfully introducing novelty songs and current tunes to the group’s repertoire. In 1944, Time magazine commented, “Bandmaster Rolfe has endeared himself to Long Beach’s music lovers by adding a judicious dash of polyrhythmic oomph to the band’s traditional rhythmic oompah.”

After a three-year run, he left in 1946 and toured the country, focusing on the latest popular trend in America, square-dancing. For Benny, music was all about giving the people what they wanted.

6C AdDaughUncleSamIn 1950, he was making plans to enter a new medium, television, but the move never materialized. Now 71, he settled into retirement in Massachusetts with his second wife, Edna (Britton). He died in 1956 near Mansfield, where he is buried in the Britton family plot.

In all, Rolfe’s résumé includes more than 60 films, nearly 150 Edison recordings, 20 or more successful vaudeville shows, somewhere between 2000 and 3000 radio programs, thousands of cornet/trumpet solos amidst it all, and untold hundreds of charity, fundraising, and church appearances. Nearly a century later, a number of Rolfe’s orchestra tunes can be found on the internet.

Benny’s philosophy of music is best expressed in his own words. “I decided that music should have a foundation of happiness, or else should touch the emotions. In other words, it should tickle the listener in the ribs or strike him in the heart.”

For millions, from the hometown folks of Brasher Falls to even the great Satchmo himself, the Boy Trumpet Wonder did just that.

Photos: Rolfe on trumpet; Rolfe advertising Edison’s new portable phonograph (1929); Ad, Rolfe’s all-girl band (1942)

Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region’s past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley’s books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

2 Responses

  1. Joe H. says:

    Thank you for a great series on a remarkable man.

  2. Lawrence P. Gooley Larry says:

    Thanks Joe. You’re right … he sure was remarkable, a multi-talented guy who seemed to really enjoy life.