Sunday, January 25, 2015
Tal Henry & his North Carolinians (Undated)
There’s a great misconception of North Carolina when it comes to music. Many people think of the state as being predominantly represented by such musical acts as Earl Scruggs and Andy Griffith, or “shag music” from the shore. And we’re proud of that stuff. But our musical history is much more diverse than that. It covers all genres; including the rare and elusive traveling jazz -dance band orchestra and comedy act of Tal Henry and His North Carolinians.
Well, in actuality Tal Henry was born in Georgia in July of 1898. He arrived in North Carolina; Burlington to be exact; after he had completed his education at Shenandoah Conservatory of Music located in Dayton, Virginia. In North Carolina he worked at Elon College, near Burlington, where he taught violin, an instrument he had been playing since he was 7 years old.
His first experiences playing for entertainment seem to have been in the Burlington area around 1919. He was the violinist with Frank Hood and his band; now making his home in Greensboro. By 1924 he had taken over the band which he named Tal Henry and His North Carolinians. It’s not clear just how many of the band members were from North Carolina, but the name was a big draw at college campus parties and social events in the surrounding area.
Next the band found work in Washington, Pennsylvania doing the same thing as they had in Greensboro; playing dances and events; only now they had a home at the Washington Hotel where they were under contract as the house band. Remember that radio was just coming into play as a major means of entertainment, and so “society bands”; as they were known at the time; were still in great demand.
The next move the band made was to Charlotte; which at the time was poised to become the great center of music that Nashville became later on. Charlotte only lost her hold due to the logistics of the vaudeville circuit. At the time her 50,000 Watt transmitter at WBT-AM was the largest one in the South, and as such the station drew all kinds of entertainers to its studio on Tryon Street. Arthur Smith was a regular and had his own show. He loved Charlotte so much that he never left it; dying there (here to me) just about a year ago. There the orchestra performed at the opening of the Hotel Charlotte in 1924. But the bands big break finally arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania when they were introduced to Bob Hope and George Burns. They were booked to join the troupe for a sixteen week tour beginning immediately.
From then on the band worked more or less non-stop for about 27 year; appearing on stage, at galas and celebrations, on radio, television and even a few movies along the way. They worked with just about everybody in show business at the time, including; Bob Hope, ,Mary Pickford, Kate Smith, Kay Kyser, Fred Waring, Paul Whiteman, Jan Garber, Duke Ellington, Vincent Lopez, Randolph Scott, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Hal Kemp, Jack Marshall, Nat "King" Cole, Ina Ray Hutton and even a young Lionel Hampton.
I have run across the name of the band several times over the years while reading both fiction and non-fiction books. I figured it was high time to find out who he was and how he fit in to the history of music in North Carolina. He may not have been born here, but North Carolina is the place he learned how to swing.