Orville Knapp

Biography by

It is darkly prophetic that this fellow was named after Orville Wright, who had made the first airplane flight two weeks before Orville Knapp's birth, as flying airplanes turned out to be the end of him.…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

It is darkly prophetic that this fellow was named after Orville Wright, who had made the first airplane flight two weeks before Orville Knapp's birth, as flying airplanes turned out to be the end of him. The Midwest big band leader was one of the rare artists with no family background in music. The young boy and his sister, Pauline Knapp, became interested in music and theater in elementary school, and in high school Orville taught himself to play the saxophone. After graduating, he and Pauline moved to New York where they appeared in a vaudeville dancing act. He played with both Leo Reisman and Vincent Lopez's orchestras during this New York stay, sometimes hitting the road. At 19 years old, he toured with the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks band; a 1923 photograph taken in Kansas City shows him on-stage with this outfit. In the late '20s, he had one band of his own which for a short time featured the young Curly Howard of the Three Stooges as a conductor of musical comedy numbers. As he moved his arms, pieces of Curly's coat and tails would fall apart until finally his pants would break away and the crowd would predictably erupt into guffaws. While this type of nonsense was going on, Knapp's sister had headed for Hollywood to try a film career. He went out there to visit her in 1933 and found, among other things, that the Warner Bros. studio had changed his sister's name to Evelyn Knapp. Her best-known films are Sinner's Holiday with James Cagney and the serial Perils of Pauline. Of course, the brother found jazz performance possibilities on the West Coast, starting out with a small combo in a series of café gigs and then escalating to starting his own big band. This group debuted at Santa Monica's Grand Hotel in 1934, featuring vocalists Virginia Verrill, then only 18 years old, and Don Raymond. The band was signed to a recording contract for Decca the same year. Verrell's mom issued a no-touring ultimatum, one of several personnel changes Knapp had to make. These included hiring the interesting pianist and arranger Charles Floyd and singer Edith Caldwell, both pilfered from the Ted Black Orchestra. The group quickly went through a series of male vocalists, including Ray Hendricks, Dave Marshall, and Norman Ruvell. A permanent male vocalist was not found until Leighton Noble was snatched away from the George Hamilton Orchestra in 1935. During the same period of tryouts, Knapp revealed an absolute lack of instinct for new talent by turning down both Stan Kenton and Spike Jones for the respective positions of pianist and drummer.

The band began touring and broadcasting over WOR radio the same year. While in New York, the band recorded eight songs for Brunswick and Knapp married actress Gloria Grafton, who had starred in the Broadway musical Jumbo. It was an optimistic period for the band, their personal appearances and recordings praised for the group's sweet sound as well as some unusual effects in the arrangements. Yet there were clouds in the sky, literally. By now, Knapp had gotten into flying as a hobby, the interest occupying most of his free time. Shortly after his wedding, he bought a biplane and while practicing emergency landings at a Boston airport, he was involved in a fatal accident. This obviously cut the history of the Orville Knapp band quite short, although by then the group had actually made a total of 17 records, including 13 for Decca. The band stayed together after the leader's death, with vocalist Leighton Noble temporarily taking charge. The singer was ousted by both the band's booking agency and widow Gloria Knapp, who decided that '20s bandleader George Olsen should take over. Under his direction, the group became known as the Orville Knapp Orchestra & the Music of Tomorrow. In 1937, Noble took talented bandmember Floyd under his wing and the two formed their own band, which operated under Noble's name. By the summer of 1938, the Knapp band was, in the words of a certain raven, nevermore. The group's most famous songs include "Why the Stars Come Out at Night," "Everything Stops for Tea," and the band's theme song, "Accent on Youth."