Although Canada’s premiere dance band, the Royal Canadians, are most closely associated with Guy Lombardo, it was in fact his younger brother Carmen who was the true driving force behind the music group. Born in London, Ontario in 1903, the Lombardo brothers made their first debut together at a church function in 1914, starting what would end up to be a 55-year collaboration.
Both Carmen and Guy began taking music lessons at the same time, with Guy on violin and Carmen on flute. Over the years, Carmen would switch to saxophone while Guy would just pick up a conductor’s baton. The Royal Canadians formed in 1916, with Carmen as singer, saxophone player and composer. Their first prominent performance occurred at a dance pavilion in Grand Bend, Ontario in 1919.
In 1923, The Royal Canadians moved to Cleveland, Ohio and quickly obtained a permanent gig at a nightclub called the Claremont Trent. The band was taken under the wing of club owner, Louis Bleet, and continued to play in the Cleveland area until 1927, when they moved to Chicago and began broadcasting live on the radio from the Granada Cafe. In 1928, two of Carmen’s songs, Coquette and Sweethearts on Parade, became major hits for the group, attracting international attention. The Royal Canadians were known for ‘the sweetest music this side of Heaven’, a description coined by Ashton Stevens of the Chicago Tribune. In 1929, The Royal Canadians began their longest standing gig at the Roosevelt Grill in New York City, lasting 33 years. It was at the Roosevelt that The Royal Canadians began the annual tradition of a New Years Eve telecast on CBS. The Royal Canadians sold at least 100 million records. Between 1929 and 1952 there wasn’t a single year that a Guy Lombardo record didn’t chart – 21 of them at number one, and many featuring songs by Carmen Lombardo.
Although Carmen continued to be the lead singer of The Royal Canadians, he never really enjoyed the job. In 1940, he was replaced as the lead singer, allowing him to concentrate solely on songwriting. Among the hits that Carmen penned, made popular by the Guy Lombardo Orchestra, were Jungle Drums, Boo Hoo, It’s Never Too Late, It’s Easier Said than Done, Seems Like Old Times, Where Are You Gonna Be When the Moon Shines?, Get Out Those Old Records, How Long Has it Been?, and Marry the One You Love. On the novelty side, Carmen wrote quirky numbers like Play Ball with the New York Mets, an ode to the hapless baseball team of the early 1960s. He also penned the stage scores Arabian Nights, Paradise Island and Mardi Gras!
Over the course of half a century, Carmen collaborated with such great writers as John Jacob Loeb. Other creative partners included Charles Newman, Johnny Green, Jimmy Monaco, Cliff Friend, Gus Kahn, Gene Austin, Art Kassel, Sam Coslow, Irving Caeser and Roy Turk.
Carmen continued to play with the band on saxophone until 1970, when his failing health forced him to retire from the band. He continued to write until his death in 1971, and his final song was entitled What Have We Done to Our World?, a bleak tune incongruent with the rest of his work. “They (the songs) kept him from thinking about the pain those last few months of his life,” Carmen’s widow explained. “… The songs kept him alive an extra four months.”
Standing the test of time, Carmen’s songs have appeared in Woody Allen films such as Annie Hall and Bullets Over Broadway and have been recorded by artists including Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Dean Martin.