By John Hopkins
It seems like these days longevity in the music business is measured in years, perhaps months, but certainly not decades. Yet in 2018 Belleville’s own Commodores Orchestra will celebrate nine decades of swinging. It is an impressive achievement for any musical collection, but especially for a group that not only grew and thrived through the big band era of the 1940s, but has also managed to keep the music alive through the lean years as well.
“The story is unique,” says Andy Sparling, the current band leader who has recently launched a book celebrating the band’s achievements, ‘The Commodores Orchestra - Dance of the Decades’. “These are musicians who have always had a mystical connection with swing music. It moved the band through its glorious heyday but also kept it going in the tough periods, when they played just one gig a year or were willing to forego payments. No matter what, they have been willing to put it all on the line.”
The band debuted in May, 1928, opening the Bay of Quinte Golf and Country Club. It thrived through the 1930s, ‘40s and into the ‘50s, riding the popularity of jazz and swing music and musicians like Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey.
At its peak the band opened its own winterized dance hall, Club Commodore, in 1945, refurbishing an old chicken barn at the Quinte Fairgrounds.
“The core of the musicians invested the equivalent of about $30,000,” explains Sparling, a 25-year member of The Commodores. “By 1951 they had invested about $100,000, which in today’s terms would be about $1,000,000. These were basically ordinary guys – plumbers, carpenters – and for them to make that kind of effort, to show that kind of commitment was almost unheard of.”
At its peak, between 1945 and 1949, Club Commodore hosted four dances, bringing in 1,500 dancers, a week and featured dining and catering facilities. At the forefront was the 14-piece Commodore Orchestra.
The city of Belleville provided a fertile ground for the popular music of the time, points out Sparling. With its location between Toronto and Montreal, and proximity to the United States, the region drew the top names of the day and was exposed to the popular hits of the era.
“By 1950 the heyday of swing music was over in the United States and the move was to crooners, and you were beginning to see the first stages of rock and roll,” Sparling says. “But the music was still big here, and performers like Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey would come across through the 1,000 Islands, and they would have a Monday and Tuesday off before they played in Toronto, so they would look to pick up gigs in Kingston, Peterborough or Belleville.”
As a result, The Commodores would mix and mingle with some of the biggest names in the business. Trumpet player Jimmy Elliott filled in with Count Basie when his band played Grant Hall at Queen’s University in Kingston. In 1950 the orchestra was on the same bill with Teddy Wilson, who broke the colour barrier playing with Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall in 1936.
But as glorious as The Commodores reign was during those peak years, the band’s survival through the 1960s and ‘70s, after the big band sound had lost its voice, is perhaps even more impressive.
“The club closed in 1963 and it was a shadow of itself,” Sparling explains. “The late 1960s and 1970s were grim days. The band became a travelling band again and played maybe one gig a year.”
By the 1980s there was a slight resurgence, however. Top musicians like drummer and arranger Brian Barlow and saxophonist Bob Leonard, both Grammy Award winners, moved into the area, as did Juno nominated musician Dan Bone.
The band has also modernized its sound, to a degree, and has recently launched a rock and roll show with noted radio and concert personality Freddy Vette.
“We’re trying to keep up with the times,” jokes Sparling.
The current line-up features a 17-piece orchestra with two vocalists, in the big band tradition.
The drive to keep The Commodores alive centres on a passion for music that has seen the band through its leanest years.
“At the end of the day, there’s nothing like playing in a big band,” says Sparling. “When you’ve got 17 players, all swinging together, playing their hearts out, going like hell, that’s what drives them.”
‘The Commodores Orchestra – Dance of the Decades’ can be ordered through hastingshistory.ca