Nicknamed the “G.I. Sinatra,” singer Johnny Desmond rose to fame as vocalist for Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force band during World War II. Much was expected of Desmond on his return to civilian life, but he failed to live up to the hype, and his career stagnated in the late 1940s. Starting as a tenor but later switching to baritone, he finally caught the public’s ear in the 1950s, emerging as a popular singing star and branching out into dramatic acting roles on television, in film and on Broadway.
A Detroit native, Desmond got his first big break while singing with the Downbeaters vocal quartet on radio station WWJ. Following the success of Tommy Dorsey’s Pied Pipers, vocal groups became all the rage in the early 1940s, and other bandleaders sought to cash in on the trend. Among them was Bob Crosby. While performing in Detroit during mid-1940, Crosby and band manager Gil Rodin heard the Downbeaters and promptly hired them, changing their name to the Bob-o-links. Composed of three men and one woman, the other members of the quartet were Tony Paris, Ed Lavine, and Ruth Reddington.
Though an early report suggested that audiences raved about the four young singers, music journalists were not impressed. Reviews of the group were often harsh and sometimes hostile, especially from Down Beat magazine staff. Down Beat writer Dave Dexter Jr. once complained that they “clammed up many an arrangement with their trite and unrefreshing vocals.” In a review of the recording “Far Away Music,” Dexter said it “might have been better had the Bob-o-links been farther away.” In an April 1941 Down Beat article reviewing the terrible Crosby band film Let’s Make Music, John Henry Aegis lamented the fact that advertising had promised the Bob Cats, the band’s Dixieland unit, “but the Bobcats turned out to be four things called the Bob-o-links.”
The Bob-o-links were gone from Crosby’s band and had broken up by July 1941. In noting their departure, Down Beat writer George Frazier said “I don’t honestly think anyone will be gravely disappointed.” Desmond returned home to Detroit, where he auditioned for and won a job with Gene Krupa, who had just lost Howard Du Laney to the draft. In her autobiography, fellow Krupa singer Anita O’Day described Desmond as the odd man out in Krupa’s group. He didn’t drink or do drugs, and he was loyal to his wife. He remained with Krupa until summer 1942, when he too fell victim to the draft, entering the Army Air Force.
A drummer as well as a vocalist, Desmond found himself stationed in Enid, Oklahoma, playing drums for the local base band rather than singing, a situation which made him unhappy. When he read in Down Beat that Miller had enlisted and planned to recruit an orchestra, he wrote a letter to the bandleader, applying for a spot, saying: “Right now, I’m a drummer, and I don’t feel that’s being much help. If there’s any place in your orchestra for me, I’d be gratified for the chance to join you.”
A few members of Miller’s service band knew Desmond and recommended him to the leader, who wrote back saying that he was interested. Orders for Desmond’s transfer came through a month-and-a-half later but were, in typical military fashion, sent to the wrong location, where they were lost. In the meantime, Desmond had been transferred to Chanute Field in Illinois as a vocalist with the base band and then assigned as a singer to the musical play Winged Victory, an Army Air Force production that toured the country in 1943, using real servicemen as actors to tell the story of a group of recruits.
Receiving a ten-day leave during the show’s production, Desmond went home to Detroit, where he received a phone call from Miller, who was then headquartered at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Miller wanted to know where Desmond was, saying that they’d been calling all over the country trying to locate him. New orders came through a few days later, and Desmond left for Yale.
Desmond didn’t immediately begin singing for Miller. At first, he did orderly duties and band boy tasks. When Miller finally brought him in to sing on one of their weekend broadcasts, Desmond ended up ill and had to miss it. After another failed attempt to join the broadcast, Desmond finally made his debut, and from that point forward he was Miller’s vocalist.
When the band went to Europe in mid-1944, Desmond found himself experiencing fame for the first time, his popularity quickly rising with servicemen and civilians alike through his performances and radio broadcasts. Receiving much the same type of reception from young women as Sinatra did, he counted among his fans Princess Elizabeth, the future queen. In France, he was known as “Le Cremair” for his creamy-sounding voice, with his French fan club taking the name “Les Bobby Sockers.” He sometimes sang in German, earning fans inside the Axis as well.
Back in the States, however, Desmond still remained relatively unknown. Armed Forces radio broadcasts and recordings were, by agreement with the American Federation of Musicians, illegal to play on civilian radio and illegal to sell. The American public heard almost nothing from service bands in Europe. Executives in the entertainment industry, however, were well-aware of Desmond’s success overseas. They began building him up during summer 1945, after the war in Europe had ended and it looked like Miller’s group would be returning home soon, though without their leader unfortunately. Desmond originally planned to remain with the band as it went under Tex Beneke’s civilian leadership, but that soon changed. He received offers for an NBC radio show and a solo recording contract with RCA Victor, and he took the leap.
Post-War Disappointments and Success
Billed as the “new Sinatra,” Desmond received his discharge in November 1945 and hit the ground running at full speed. He was on the air by the end of that month as vocalist and emcee on the The Teentimers’ Club show, sponsored by Teentimer, who made dresses and cosmetics for bobby-soxers. Desmond debuted live as a solo artist at New York’s Strand Theater in December and made his first recordings for Victor that month. In January 1946, he began a second NBC radio show, Follies of 1946, co-starring with Margaret Whiting, backed by Jerry Gray’s orchestra. After all the hype, however, many felt that Desmond disappointed, with reviewers noting his “so-so voice” and strained high notes. One reviewer said Desmond’s performances weren’t “quite the fulfillment of all the rave notices read beforehand.”
During early 1946, an unnamed Hollywood studio signed Desmond, but no film ever manifested from the contract. Neither of his NBC radio shows did well in the ratings and by summer he was off the air. October 1946 found Desmond at the Mutual Network, where he began a new musical variety show, Judy 'n Jill 'n Johnny, which aired at noon on Saturdays, sponsored by Judy 'n Jill, makers of clothing in the junior miss line. The show followed the adventures of two music mad girls at a mythical university, with Desmond singing three songs an episode with a different name band that was said to be appearing at the school that week. The show struggled. In January 1947, Beneke’s band was made the regular orchestra, but by the end of the month the program was off the air.
After the Judy 'n Jill show ended, Desmond left New York and went to the West Coast to discuss another movie contract, which failed to materialize. After he returned east, Mutual lined up a new show for him, sponsored by the Carr-Consolidated biscuit company, with the Clark Sisters, backed by Tony Mottola. RCA Victor had dropped him from the label by the end of 1946. He made a two recordings on the Columbia label in 1947 with the Dell Trio, which consisted or organ, accordion and guitar. The new radio program failed to catch on, and in February 1948 Mutual resurrected Teentimers, which had originally run on NBC.
In May 1948, CBS Television offered Desmond a five-year contract and a fifteen-minute, five-day-a-week sustaining program called Face the Music, in which he co-starred with a female vocalist, Shaye Cogan at first and then Sandra Deel, with Mottola backing. Desmond left Teentimers in August to focus on the new medium. Unfortunately, Face the Music suffered a similar fate as Desmond’s radio shows. Failing to secure a sponsor, it was cancelled in December, ending in January 1949.
From the bright shiny promise of being the new Sinatra, Desmond had watched everything he’d done fall apart. It was a bitter pill for the young singer to swallow. In a 1952 interview with Down Beat, he blamed the collapse of his career on himself. “I just tried to do everything too fast,” he said. “At first, I laid the blame on poor management, but I realize now it was my fault. I was just too inexperienced to cope with situations that came up.”
Desmond signed with the MGM label late in 1948. In early 1949, he began his own five-minute radio program, sponsored by Ronson lighters, first on Mutual and then on ABC, backed by Mottola again. In July, an offer came to work on Don McNeill’s popular Breakfast Club radio program, broadcast on ABC from Chicago. Desmond hesitated. “At first I didn’t want to go,” he told Down Beat. “Chicago seemed another world to me. I thought New York or California were the only places where it was possible to become successful.” The job proved to be a turning point for Desmond however. His appearance on the program, which reached forty million listeners a week, brought him back into the public eye, and the wide variety of material given Desmond to perform helped him develop into a better and more versatile singer. He quickly found his star rising once again.
1950s and Beyond
The 1950s proved to be Desmond’s decade. Aside from his work on the Breakfast Club, he also appeared on other radio programs of his own and returned to television in 1951 with Tin Pan Alley, which showcased a different songwriter each week. Television played a major role in Desmond’s career in the 1950s. He branched out from musical programs to drama, appearing on many of the playhouse programs starting in 1953. In 1954, he left Breakfast Club and returned to New York, where he became a regular on Jack Paar’s CBS television series. In late 1951, he switched recording labels from MGM to Coral.
In 1957, Desmond starred in his first two films, the musical drama Calypso Heat Wave and the crime drama Escape from San Quentin. He made two more films that decade, Desert Hawk and China Doll, both in 1958. In late 1955, Desmond had his first chance at Broadway with the musical The Amazing Adele. The show went on its pre-Broadway tour in December but closed in January 1956 before making it to New York. It would be April 1958, with the lead role in the musical Say, Darling, when Desmond made his stage debut. The show ran until January 1959.
Desmond’s career slowed down in the 1960s. He continue singing and making guest appearances on television during the early part of the decade but made only two films, Caribbean Hawk in 1962 and The Bubble in 1966, the latter a 3-D science fiction picture. In June 1965, Desmond replaced Sydney Chaplin as the lead in the Broadway production Funny Girl. Chaplin, who won a Tony Award for his role in the show, was paid to leave the production after feuding with star Barbra Streisand. Desmond played opposite Streisand for six months before she too left and Mimi Hines took her place. The role of Nicky Arnstein, a swindler and con man who mistreats his wife, was a hard one to play and not very rewarding. Desmond became bored and began missing performances. Like Streisand and Chaplin, he and Hines feuded. Nevertheless, both finished out the show, which ended in July 1967.
By late 1960s, Desmond’s acting career had ended. His singing career had slumped as well, with appearances in the early 1970s at cocktail lounges and shopping centers rather than more respectable venues. In the late 1970s, he joined many other singing stars from his era to take part in big band nostalgia events, which provided him with a slight career lift. He re-emerged on television in 1977 as a regular on the short lived sitcom Blansky’s Beauties and also made a guest appearance on Laverne and Shirley. Desmond continued singing right up until a few months before his death from cancer in 1985 at age 65.
Beneke’s band had their own thirty minute show on Mutual that aired right after Desmond’s, making it convenient for them to do both shows basically at once. ↩︎
Mel Tormé took over Desmond’s Teentimers spot. ↩︎
Both films co-starred Merry Anders. Calypso Heat Wave also featured appearances by Maya Angelou and former Little Rascal Darla Hood. ↩︎