Original Nighthawk Orchestra: Radio Aces
by Chuck Haddix
The Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra was the first Kansas City band to achieve national recognition. Due to their national radio broadcasts, the Nighthawks' popularity eclipsed that of Jean Goldkette, Ben Bernie and the "King of Jazz," Paul Whiteman. They were the Pied Pipers of the 1920s, a wild decade often referred to as the "jazz age." Additionally, they were the catalysts for three significant developments in the entertainment industry: the birth of radio broadcasting, the start of the MCA Booking Agency and the development of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Carleton Coon met Joe Sanders in 1919 at the Jenkins Music store in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Joe was playing the piano when Carleton came into the store to buy some accessories for his drums. Carleton was impressed with Joe's musical abilities and introduced himself.
Carleton, who was affectionately known as "Coonie," was gregarious and self-assured. Sanders was musically gifted but somewhat self-conscious. Legend has it that Sanders became known as the "old left-hander" after he struck out 27 consecutive batters in a regulation amateur baseball game. They became close friends and in 1920 they formed the Coon-Sanders Novelty Orchestra.
They performed at noon in the Pompeiian Room in the Baltimore Hotel and in the afternoons as part of a vaudeville show at the Newman Theater. Because of their stage antics and danceable music, they quickly became Kansas City's most popular band.
On March 24, 1921, the Coon-Sanders Novelty Orchestra recorded four songs for Columbia records. The only recording released from this session, "Some Little Bird," is musically closer to the popular and novelty songs of the day than it is to jazz. Joe Sanders referred to their music as "happy music." Their fans didn't care what the music was called, as they came to dance and have a good time. That same year the Coon-Sanders band began an engagement at the Plantation Grill in the Hotel Muehlebach.
In November 1922, the band began regular broadcasts over WDAF, which was owned by the Kansas City Star. Radio was in its infancy and WDAF was one of a handful of radio stations in the country. Because they had a "clear channel," these nightly broadcasts could be heard from Hawaii to Maine. Many listeners tuned in on homemade crystal sets. These broadcasts, from 11:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., were the first regular broadcasts of a musical group.
One night after a broadcast, WDAF was inadvertently left on, and their
announcer, the "Merry Old Chief," Leo Fitzpatrick, commented
on mike that "you would have to be a Nighthawk" to stay up and
listen to their broadcasts. Thousands of fans responded by telegram that
they were indeed "Nighthawks."
That same year, while playing a summer engagement at the Lincoln Tavern, the Nighthawks were approached by Jules Stein. Stein wanted to start a booking agency, but lacked the necessary venture capital. Stein proposed that the Nighthawks let him book a tour and use the profits to form a booking agency. Joe and Coonie agreed and Stein booked a five-week tour for the Nighthawks. The tour was a success and Stein used his profits to start the Music Corporation of America. The Nighthawks became Stein's first and most important client. MCA would later become the most prominent booking agency in the country.
In 1926, the Nighthawks moved to the Blackhawk Restaurant located at the corner of Wabash and Randolph. The Blackhawk quickly became the hottest night spot in Chicago. Al Capone was a big fan of the Nighthawks, frequenting the Blackhawk and lavishing tips on the band. The Nighthawks were broadcast Saturday nights on WGN as part of the program "Knights and Ladies of the Bath." The program was so named because in those days most people bathed once a week--on Saturday night. Western Union and Postal Telegraph machines were installed on stage and so many requests and dedications came in that by the end of each broadcast the stage was covered by a blizzard of paper.
For the next four years, The Nighthawks maintained their home base at the Blackhawk. They played one summer at the Wisconsin Dells. Other summers they toured the Midwest in multicolored Auburn sports cars with Coonie and Joe leading the way in their Cords. The cars were given to them by E. L. Cord, the motor car magnate. Each band member had his own car with his name across the trunk. They traveled caravan style playing college proms, dances in small towns, and new venues that were opening across the country--ballrooms. In 1927, the Nighthawks triumphantly returned to Kansas City to open the El Torreon Ballroom.
The popularity of the Nighthawks' radio program was not lost on a young man named William Paley. He needed an incentive for radio stations to join his fledgling Columbia Broadcasting System. Paley and MCA arranged an eleven-month New York engagement for the band at the Hotel New Yorker Terrace Room. Their broadcasts over the CBS Network were sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Coonie loved the nightlife of New York. After hours, he frequented the Cotton Club and other nightclubs that flourished in Harlem during the "Harlem Renaissance." Coonie and Cab Calloway formed a mutual admiration society. Cab confessed that Coonie influenced his vocal style and the Nighthawks were one of his favorite bands.
Joe and other band members were not so enamored with New York. Homesickness for the Midwest was reflected in their new theme, "I Want to Go Home," recorded during the Nighthawks' last session for Victor on March 24, 1932. The same weariness that had settled on the country due to the depression affected the band. In addition, America's musical taste was changing with the music of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and other African -American band leaders gaining wider acceptance.
Their spirits were briefly elevated by their return to Chicago in the spring of 1932 for an engagement at the College Inn. However, this exuberance was short-lived as Coonie entered the hospital in critical condition on April 30, 1932 suffering from blood poisoning which resulted from an abscessed jaw. The Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra essentially died with Carleton Coon on May 4, 1932.
Coonie's body was returned to Kansas City for burial. His funeral was one of the biggest Kansas City had ever seen with a procession that stretched for miles. Sanders continued to lead the Nighthawks, but the magic of the Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra was gone. Joe disbanded the group on Easter Sunday 1933.
Joe Sanders relocated to Hollywood for a short time, writing movie scores without much success. His personal fortunes declined when the Auburn Motor Car Company went bankrupt during the depression. In 1934 he formed a new group, the Ole Left-Hander and His Orchestra. He remained popular in the Midwest but never enjoyed the national prominence that he achieved as co-leader of the Nighthawks. Sanders continued to lead his group until 1952 when he retired to Kansas City where he died on May 14, 1965.
[ index | people | sounds | venues ]
all content © 1999-2000 University of Missouri-Kansas City