Bob Chester

Tenor saxophonist and bandleader Bob Chester came from a wealthy family. His stepfather was head of General Motor’s Fisher Body Works. A Detroit native, Chester formed his first band in 1934, becoming popular on the hotel circuit in the East and Midwest. An April 1937 review of the band by Down Beat reported that “Chester has some nice vocals, but the band sounds dead—has sort of a flat sound. Band swings nice, however.”

In 1939, Chester formed a new orchestra whose sound was heavily influenced by Glenn Miller, a stigma that would forever haunt his reputation. After the band’s disastrous debut at the Detroit Athletic Club, Tommy Dorsey invited Chester to New York, where he and his manager, Arthur Michaud, helped him relaunch his career. With a Bluebird contract under his belt, thanks to Dorsey and Michaud, Chester took his orchestra on the road in summer 1939 to work it into shape, with hopes to earn bookings on the New York hotel circuit that fall. Initial female vocalist was Kathleen Lane, who had recently made a name for herself with Bunny Berigan. Trumpet player Al Stuart provided novelty vocals. When Lane left in September, Dolores “Dodie” O’Neill replaced her. The band’s star musician was young trumpet player Alec Fila, who had been “plucked” from the Juilliard School of Music.

Chester’s sound continued to be influenced by Miller, so much so that Down Beat sarcastically remarked, in their December 1, 1939, issue: “Bob Chester followed Lawrence Welk into the Nicolette hotel [in Minneapolis] for the Twin Cities’ first taste of Glen [sic] Miller.” A popular joke featured a perturbed Miller being told by a local, after arriving in a new city where Chester had played before him, “Gee, Mister Miller, your band sounds like Bob Chester.”

By early 1940, Chester’s band finally started to come into its own, though the Miller stigma remained. O’Neill stayed until November 1940 when she suddenly departed. O’Neill objected to Down Beat’s report that she’d walked out on Chester, saying instead that she had become suddenly ill and had to be rushed back to New York. She also denied reports that she and Fila, who had moved on to Benny Goodman by then, were engaged, though the couple quietly married in early 1941. In August 1941, Billboard reported that she’d left Chester because of the “stork.”

To replace O’Neill, Chester hired Betty Bradley. At the same time, he also brought in his first male crooner, Bill Darnell. When Darnell fell an early victim to the draft in March 1941, Bill Reynolds briefly sang before Bob Haymes, brother of Dick, took over. Jerry Scott replaced Haymes in November. Darnell was released from the army that same month, however, and put on reserve status due to his age.[1] He returned to Chester’s band only for Pearl Harbor to happen soon after, which meant his recall by the army in January 1942. Chester then hired Gene Howard, a singer he’d heard over Nashville radio but had never seen in person.

In April, Chester hired a vocal quartet featuring Elisse Cooper, initially called by the rather awkward name “Rhythmites” but later named both the “Rhythm Aires” and “Three Lads and Elisse Cooper.” The three lads were Bob Gibbons and brothers Eugene and William Knaub, all from York, Pennsylvania. Gibbons also became the band’s guitarist. Cooper and the Knaub brothers left Chester in late May and returned to New York from Chicago.

By the end of 1941, Chester’s orchestra was rapidly becoming one of the local favorites in the New York area, setting up that September for a ten-week engagement at Log Cabin Farms in Armonk, New York, where they broke attendance records. They also proved popular in Chicago, breaking records at the Hotel Sherman’s Panther Room in May 1942. The band remained relatively unknown outside of the East and Midwest however. A trip to the West Coast in late 1942 resulted in poor draws at the Casa Manana in Culver City.

Though Chester’s band continued to improve musically into 1942, the bandleader struggled financially, not helped by Chester’s constant legal troubles. In December 1941, Michaud sued him for $10,000 in back commissions and loans, and Chester fired him as his manager, hiring Jack Philbin in January 1942. When Chester’s lawyer refused to accept notice of the lawsuit, Michaud made a failed attempt to attach Chester’s earnings from two theaters before filing a second $50,000 lawsuit for breach of contract. Before the action could be settled, Chester filed bankruptcy in August, listing liabilities of $23,223 and assets of $1,285. Among his creditors was Dorsey, who owned ten percent of Chester’s band.

Chester’s popularity began to wain in 1943, as did Chester’s health from non-stop touring and financial stress. In August, he suffered “lost equilibrium,” which Billboard explained was another term for a nervous breakdown, and spent a week in bed. At the end of that year, Bluebird dropped him from their roster of recording artists, and his wife, Edna, whom he had married in October 1939, filed for divorce soon after the birth of their daughter.

Bradley remained as the band’s female vocalist for four years, temporarily fronting the band in April 1944 when Chester fell ill. Howard had left by late February 1943, and the band was without a male vocalist until Russ Perkins joined in March 1944. Perkins was gone by April with Kirk Wood[2] briefly taking his place. The band recorded four sides on the Hit Label before Wood left for Cincinnati radio station WLW in May. David Allen then became Chester’s new male singer. In August, Chester attempted to strengthen his band by offering singer Helen Forrest, with whom they had been touring theaters, fifty percent of the band’s profits if she would join the orchestra. Forrest declined.

Post-War Activity

In November 1944, Chester disbanded for what was announced as a month’s rest. Bradley decided to go solo, with Allen heading to Henry Jerome’s outfit. Chester confusingly seemed to reorganize several times over the next few months. In March, he attempted to break his contract with his booking agency. In April, he began to record on the Sonora label, with Lora Jamison and Larry Butler as vocalists, and in May the American Federation of Musicians briefly expelled him for failing to pay his personal manager. After quickly settling that debt, he organize another new band, announcing Margie Wood as female vocalist with Allen returning as male singer. Allen, however, was with Boyd Raeburn’s band at the time. Bob Anthony was vocalist in September, with Lou Gardner taking the spot in October and Larry Butler back in the band by November. Alan Foster replaced Butler in March 1947. Wood had left by February, with Linda Gray becoming female vocalist at some point after. Phyllis Lane had that role in June 1947. The band recorded on the Sonora label.

Chester disbanded again in late 1948 and returned to the Detroit area where he joined radio station WKMH in Dearborn as a disc jockey in October. Chester constantly received requests for two-beat jazz, and when he decided to return to the band business in mid-1949 he built his new orchestra around a light two-beat sound. Ballads still received the Miller treatment however. Alan Foster became the new band’s vocalist. They recorded on Columbia in 1950, the Regal label in 1950 and the RFD label in 1951, remaining active until at least 1952. An orchestra fronted by Chester recorded on the National Juke Box Music label in 1954. Eventually, Chester left the music business altogether and entered the automotive industry. Bob Chester died in 1966 at age 58.


  1. Draftees over 28 years of age were released in November 1941 and put on reserve status. They were recalled in January 1942 after war was declared. ↩︎

  2. Hit Records incorrectly credited singer Kirk Wood as “Kirby” on the single recording he made with the band. ↩︎

Vocalist Timeline

Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “New Faces Hike Pitt Lenten Biz.” Billboard 30 Mar. 1935: 12.
  3. Morris, Jack. “An Imitator Who Can Beat the Original?” Down Beat Apr. 1937: 22.
  4. Sidney, Frank. “Leader to Surprise Cats Taking Band for Granted.” Down Beat Jul. 1937: 24.
  5. Advertisement. “Bob Chester and His Orchestra.” Down Beat Oct. 1937: 26.
  6. “Chester's New Combo.” Down Beat Aug. 1939: 12.
  7. “The Reviewing Stand: Bob Chester.” Billboard 9 Sep. 1939: 13.
  8. “Nation's Big Name Leaders Shift Men Like Tenpins.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1939: 11.
  9. “Who's Who at Nicollet.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1939: 15.
  10. “Record Reviews: Bob Chester.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1940: 15.
  11. “Record Reviews: Bob Chester.” Down Beat 1 May 1940: 14.
  12. “Plenty of Jersey Boys With Chester.” Down Beat 15 May 1940: 21.
  13. “Record Reviews: Bob Chester.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1940: 15.
  14. “Miller Stumbled Into a Style.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1940: 20.
  15. “Chester's New Vocalists.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1940: 3.
  16. O'Neill, Dodie. “I Didn't Walk Out on Bob Chester.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1941: 10.
  17. “Bill Darnell Drafted.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1941: 15.
  18. “Bob Chester Is on Rise At Log Cabin.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1941: 17.
  19. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 11 Oct. 1941: 11.
  20. “Ravings at Reveille.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 19.
  21. “Three Changes in Bob Chester Ork.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1941: 3.
  22. “Bob Chester in Philbin Stable.” Billboard 24 Jan. 1942: 9.
  23. “Chester Hires Singer by Wire.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1942: 9.
  24. “Bob Chester.” Billboard 21 Feb. 1942: 4.
  25. “Lawyers Fight Over Michaud Attachment.” Billboard 21 Feb. 1942: 23.
  26. “Round Three Comes Up for Bob Chester.” Billboard 7 Mar. 1942: 23.
  27. “Four Chirps to Chester Combo.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1942: 2.
  28. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 18 Apr. 1942: 23.
  29. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 25 Apr. 1942: 23.
  30. “Night Club Reviews: Sherman Hotel, Panther Room, Chicago.” Billboard 23 May 1942: 12.
  31. “Who's Who in Music: Bob Chester's Band.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1942: 9.
  32. “On the Air: Bob Chester.” Billboard 13 Jun. 1942: 21.
  33. “Being a Chronicle With A Human Interest Angle.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1942: 4.
  34. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1942: 4.
  35. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1942: 2.
  36. “Bob Chester Broke.” Billboard 5 Sep. 1942: 21.
  37. “and this is the navy, mates.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1942: 12.
  38. “On the Stand: Bob Chester.” Billboard 10 Oct. 1942: 20.
  39. “Los Angeles Band Briefs.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1942: 7.
  40. “Vaudeville Reviews: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 6 Mar. 1943: 14.
  41. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 21 Aug. 1943: 22.
  42. “Lost Equilibrium Beds Bob Chester.” Billboard 28 Aug. 1943: 15.
  43. “Births.” Billboard 4 Sep. 1943: 29.
  44. “Victor Prunes Band List.” Billboard 4 Dec. 1943: 14.
  45. “Vaudeville Reviews: Orpheum, Los Angeles.” Billboard 8 Jan. 1944: 26.
  46. “Leader's Wife Asks Divorce.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1944: 1.
  47. “Vaudeville Review: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 11 Nov. 1944: 25.
  48. “Chester Loses Singer.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1944: 11.
  49. “Bob Chester Returns To Ork After Illness.” Down Beat 1 May 1944: 11.
  50. “On the Stand: Bob Chester.” Billboard 6 May 1944: 21.
  51. “Kirk Wood to WLW.” Billboard 13 May 1944: 21.
  52. “Mrs. Chester Wins Round 1.” Down Beat 15 May 1944: 1.
  53. “Music Grapevine.” Billboard 27 May 1944: 14.
  54. “Music Popularity Chart.” Billboard 10 Jun. 1944: 19.
  55. “Music Grapevine.” Billboard 24 Jun. 1944: 17.
  56. “Forrest's 50% Chirp Deal?” Billboard 26 Aug. 1944: 13.
  57. “Vaudeville Review: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 4 Nov. 1944: 28.
  58. “Sidemen Collect; Fronters Don't.” Billboard 25 Nov. 1944: 13.
  59. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1944: 5.
  60. “Chester Ork Seeks Release From MCA.” Billboard 31 Mar. 1945: 13.
  61. “Bob Chester Back In Band Biz Again.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1945: 12.
  62. “Bob Chester Back Fronting Band With MCA Still Booking.” Billboard 25 Aug. 1945: 17.
  63. “New Bob Chester Men.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1945: 12.
  64. “On the Stand: Bob Chester.” Billboard 17 Nov. 1945: 19,30.
  65. “Vaudeville Review: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 16 Feb. 1946: 44.
  66. “Terrace Room Goes Mickey.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1946: 1.
  67. “Music As Written.” Billboard 29 Mar. 1947: 18.
  68. “Record Reviews: Bob Chester.” Down Beat 23 Apr. 1947: 19.
  69. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat 2 Jul. 1947: 8.
  70. “Chester Adds Singer.” Down Beat 21 Jul. 1947: 5.
  71. “Music As Written.” Billboard 31 Jul. 1948: 42.
  72. “Bob Chester Newest Ex-Leader Disc Jock.” Down Beat 20 Oct. 1948: 16.
  73. “Vox Jox.” Billboard 6 Nov. 1948: 42.
  74. “Music As Written.” Billboard 2 Jul. 1949: 44.
  75. “New Chester Ork Makes Light Two-Beat Palatable.” Down Beat 12 Aug. 1949: 7.
  76. “Record Reviews.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1950: 15.
  77. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 12 May 1951: 31.
  78. “Calif. Jukemen Order 10,000 of 1st NJBM Disk.” Billboard 18 Dec. 1954: 16.