Sam Lanin (Sept. 4, 1891 - May 5, 1977)

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925, by Tim Gracyk. The book was published in late 2000.

Few dance band directors presided over as many recording sessions in the 1920s as Sam Lanin, who never actually played an instrument during sessions aside from drums during a few early ones. Sometimes his name was cited on record labels--Sam Lanin's Dance Orchestra, Lanin's Famous Players, Lanin's Red Heads, Lanin's Arcadians--but dozens of non-Lanin names were also used for studio groups he assembled. Occasionally his name was used for recording ensembles that he did not personally supervise.

He was notable not for specific titles--no one Lanin record was a huge hit--but for the sheer quantity of records made under his supervision. He may be best remembered today for the superb musicians who at some point worked under him, including Miff Mole, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Manny Klein, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy McPartland, Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Eddie Lang, and Bunny Berigan. Nick Lucas played banjo and guitar during some Lanin sessions before Lucas became a Brunswick artist in late 1924. Lanin gave much session work to a young Red Nichols beginning in 1923 and helped Nichols in 1925 with the formation of the Red Heads, renamed the Five Pennies in 1926.

In the 1920s it was common practice for bandleaders such as Lanin when coordinating sessions to send telegrams to musicians a day before a scheduled session, instructing each to be at a certain studio at a certain time. Musicians for these "pick-up" groups showed up without knowing what new popular songs would be scheduled for recording at that session. Lanin was paid by a record company for sessions, and he in turn paid the musicians. Many hired by Lanin were also used during sessions supervised by Ben Selvin, Nathan Glantz, Adrian Schubert, and Lou Gold.

Most of his sessions produced dance records featuring popular songs of the day that were given tasteful yet conservative arrangements. He was not an innovator but instead helped popularize musical trends begun by others. Some Lanin sessions featuring small ensembles produced good jazz records though none are of extraordinary interest to the jazz historian.

He was born into a Jewish family headed by Benjamin and Mary Lanin. Sources differ on whether he was born before or after the parents emigrated from Russia to the United States. He was raised in Philadelphia. Younger brothers Jimmy, Howard, and Lester also became dance band directors. Born on July 15, 1897, Howard led dance orchestras in Philadelphia and made recordings beginning in 1923. He died in that city on April 26, 1991. As a society bandleader, Lester enjoyed his greatest success in the 1950s.

When a child, Sam studied violin and later took up clarinet. By 1912 he played clarinet in Victor Herbert's Orchestra (one source states that he was a timpanist). He joined the Navy in World War I but remained in the States, serving the military as a skilled musician. Sam led a dance band in Philadelphia upon his return from military duty and by the end of 1918 played in New York City's new Roseland Ballroom on Times Square at Broadway and 51st Street. Roseland, called "The Home of Refined Dancing," was opposite Madison Square Garden (it was moved decades later to 52nd Street) and was the nation's most prestigious dance hall during the years that Lanin's dance orchestra along with various other dance bands was featured. Under the management of Louis J. Brecker, the ballroom was prosperous enough to sponsor in the mid-1920s its own newsletter, Roseland News, which was edited by Arthur Roland and given free to patrons. The September 1924 issue establishes that the three featured bands at Roseland at that time were those led by Vincent Lopez, Jan Garber, and Sam Lanin.

His first issued record, featuring two numbers cut for the Columbia Graphophone Company on April 28, 1920, was credited to Lanin's Roseland Orchestra. That he made his recording debut with a major company is noteworthy since most sessions in subsequent years produced records issued by minor as well as budget labels, important exceptions including Ipana Troubadours sessions for Columbia from the mid-1920s to early 1930s. Soon after cutting titles for Columbia he recorded for Okeh and by late 1920 made Emerson records. At some point in the 1920s he worked for possibly every American record company though the name Sam Lanin was never on Brunswick or Victor discs. In 1925 Victor issued a few Howard Lanin and His Benjamin Franklin Hotel Orchestra records, but logs indicate that Sam Lanin was the director.

By mid-1921 he began an association with the Starr Piano Company, often leading a dance ensemble called Lanin's Famous Players on the company's Gennett label. At least for some sessions he may have provided direction for a smaller group of skilled jazz musicians identified as Bailey's Lucky Seven on some Gennett records, Ladd's Black Aces on others. (The names are misleading since there was no "Bailey" and the groups recording under this name did not always have seven musicians. No black musicians were in Ladd's Black Aces.) Lanin's Southern Serenaders was another name for a small group that played jazz. The personnel of Lanin groups constantly changed though trumpeter Phil Napoleon (his real name was Filippo Napoli) was present at most sessions. Other regulars in the early 1920s were Miff Mole and Jules Levy, Jr.

He contributed a vocal refrain when Ladd's Black Aces cut "Shake It and Break It" in August 1921 for Gennett. This was uncharacteristic of Lanin though when Lanin's Southern Serenaders, consisting of the same musicians, cut the song around this time for Emerson, he sang a refrain for this also.

His dance band had its final Roseland engagement in May 1925, a month after his new Ipana Troubadours made its radio debut. His Roseland orchestra had played on WHN radio as early as 1923 (it was featured regularly on Monday nights), so Lanin was one of the first "name" bandleaders to broadcast, and after leaving Roseland he worked steadily on network programs. Sponsored by the Bristol-Myers Company, which made Ipana toothpaste, he led the Ipana Troubadours, popular on radio each Wednesday evening and on Columbia's full-priced series of popular records. The names Broadway Bell-Hops, the Westerners, Sam Lanin and His Orchestra, and others were used for Columbia's budget labels.

The orchestra was first heard on April 8, 1925, on stations WEAF and WOO. The first Ipana Troubadours recording session was on October 30. Photographs establish that orchestra members wore distinctive uniforms--of course, audiences listening to radios could not see the clothing. Direct advertising was not allowed on WEAF at this time. Borrowing the sponsor's name for the orchestra's name was an effective form of indirect advertising.

Lanin's name is prominent on Ipana Troubadours discs: "S.C. Lanin--Director." A Columbia session on December 28, 1928, is notable because a young Bing Crosby, at the time under contract to Paul Whiteman, contributed vocal refrains for "I'll Get By As Long As I Have You" and "Rose of Mandalay" (1694-D). It was a case of one Columbia bandleader loaning to another a singer for a session (labels state, "Vocal Refrain"--Crosby is not identified). A month later, on January 25, 1929, Crosby had a session with Lanin and His Famous Players. Joe Tarto decades later told researcher Stan Hester that he was arranger for Crosby's sessions with Lanin. Other Lanin arrangers included Einar Swan, Frank Ludlow, and Franz Jackson.

The last Ipana Troubadours broadcast was in January 1931, according to Variety on January 14, 1931. Lanin continued to use the name for several months for concerts and Columbia sessions. He led ensembles for other record companies, even making Hit of the Week discs for the Durium Products Corporation, using the name Sam Lanin's Dance Ensemble. In July 1931 he began leading his Pillsbury Orchestra for the Pillsbury Pageant radio program each Friday night over New York City's WABC. The music industry at this time suffered terribly from the Depression. Recording sessions became infrequent for musicians and many radio shows, even popular ones, were abruptly ended because sponsors cut expenditures.

After the Pillsbury radio show was cancelled in March 1932, Lanin found other radio work and made many transcriptions on the Associated label until 1937. He retired early, having built up considerable wealth from years of hard work. He died in Hollywood, Florida. His wife was named Sadye.