Photo of Sabby Lewis

Sabby Lewis

The Sabby Lewis Orchestra made a national splash when it appeared on the Fitch Bandwagon radio program on July 19, 1942.

In the glory years of network radio, the F.W. Fitch Company sponsored the Fitch Bandwagon, a weekly program of swing music heard from coast to coast. The program started in 1938, and by 1942, the half-hour show occupied a prime-time slot on Sunday night. More than 120 stations nationwide carried the show over the NBC Red network. Its audience numbered in the millions.

During the summertime, as the Bandwagon rolled from city to city, it sponsored contests to select the bands. Local people voted for their favorite band, and the winner appeared on the show. Fitch announced that on July 19, Bandwagon would be broadcasting from Boston’s Statler Hotel. The F.W. Fitch Company made hair care products, so presumably the ballots (postcards, which then cost a penny to send) were available at barber shops, drug stores, and the like.

George Frazier was then writing his “Sweet and Low-Down” column in the Boston Herald, and he made the case for Sabby Lewis, based on the simple fact that Lewis had the best band in town. It wasn’t so easy, though, because Lewis played nightly at the Savoy Cafe, a small club with no dance floor and a relatively small audience. His main competitors, meanwhile, were white dance bands playing in hotel ballrooms. Nonetheless, Lewis prevailed, and the nation heard his band on July 19.

Although Sabby and band broadcast that night from the Statler Hotel’s Terrace Room, we don’t know how they sounded. No air check has ever surfaced. For the record, the band that night was Jackie Fields, alto saxophone; Ricky Pratt, tenor saxophone and primary soloist; Jerry Heffron, tenor saxophone and chief arranger; Gene Caines and Charlie Hooks, trumpet; Maceo Bryant, trumpet and trombone; Val St. Cyr, trombone; Joe Booker, drums; Al Morgan, bass; Lewis, piano; and Evelyn White, vocals.

The radio appearance had a positive impact on Sabby’s fortunes, beginning, in fact, the following night. Benny Goodman dropped by the Savoy after his own show at the Metropolitan Theatre and sat in. About the Lewis band, Goodman told Frazier, “Pretty good? It’s more than that. It’s a great band, one of the greatest bands I’ve heard in a long time.” He also tried to hire Heffron, a crack arranger, without success.

Lewis advertised his band as the Fitch Bandwagon Orchestra for several years thereafter. Because of the recording ban, which cost Lewis a contract with Decca, we’ll never get to hear it. Here, though, is the 1947 band, with “Minor Mania,” their theme song.