Del Porter is one of the music world's forgotten men. In the 1930s, he was one-fourth of a unique vocal quartet that wowed Broadway, packed nightclubs, sang in movies and radio, toured with Glenn Miller, and recorded with Bing Crosby and Dick Powell. In the '40s, his multiple and varied talents helped jump-start one of the hottest bands in the country. Yet Porter's undeserved obscurity is largely his own fault, as he was the first to admit.
Porter traveled the Northwest with a number of bands before he joined the newly reorganized quartet the Foursome in 1928. He achieved considerable success with the group, notably in a pair of Broadway shows with Ethel Merman -- George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy and Cole Porter's Anything Goes.
While they recorded extensively for Decca, a long dry spell followed the quartet's appearance in the Eleanor Powell movie Born to Dance. Nothing much happened until Spike Jones -- an ambitious young drummer who backed the Foursome on many of their records -- suggested that Porter start a band. The result, the Feather Merchants, was a six-piece group patterned after the cockeyed musical humor of Frank & Milt Britton and Freddie Fisher's Schnickelfritz Band.
The band stayed afloat in tough times by playing market openings. But Jones, who was making ten bucks a week as manager of the band, had bigger things in mind. "Spike said,'Why don't we kind of go in together with this thing, and let's see what we can do,'" Porter recalled in an interview with Jones' archivist Ted Hering. "So I said,'Fine.' That's the way it started. We started rehearsing at my house, and it evolved from the Feather Merchants into the City Slickers."
Porter exerted substantial influence on Spike Jones and his City Slickers -- the zany band that revolutionized the field of comedy music during World War II -- from their earliest days, as clarinetist, composer, arranger ("Hotcha Cornia," "Der Fuehrer's Face") and lead vocalist. He wrote two songs ("Siam" and "Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy") which became staples of the band's repertoire. But he was all talent and no ambition, and soon took a back seat to Jones. "It was supposed to have been a partnership, but it didn't turn out that way," contended Porter's lifelong friend Raymond M. Johnson, who sang alongside him in the Foursome. "Spike just took it over and Del was left out in the cold."
Porter reflected toward the end of his life: "Spike was a slick guy. Of course, I didn't care; I didn't want all the trouble of looking for jobs and all that sort of thing. I was too busy creating. I was a lousy salesman, as far as that goes." Porter stayed with the group and remained a prime influence on their repertoire; after leaving the Slickers in 1945, he returned to lend his melodious voice on Spike Jones Plays the Charleston and their Bottoms Up album.
"My Pretty Girl," which Porter wrote with the Foursome's Ray Johnson, was recorded by Jones, Lawrence Welk and Cliffie Stone. In addition to his music publishing business (Tune Town Tunes) with fellow City Slicker and songwriting partner Carl Hoefle, Porter later wrote jingles for Paper Mate pens. He also recorded with his Sweet Potato Tooters (for Capitol transcriptions), as well as Mickey Katz and Spade Cooley ("Chew Tobacco Rag," alias Andy Climax). He continued to dabble in songwriting in his later years.