Jan Savitt

Photo of Jan Savitt

Jan Savitt and His Top Hatters emerged as one of the country’s leading orchestras during the late 1930s. Savitt, who was classically trained, had no background in jazz, but his use of a musical device called “shuffle rhythm” allowed his group to swing with the best of them. This device, which featured a piano playing double time, gave the orchestra a relatively fresh sound in comparison to many of the dedicated swing outfits and earned them engagements at some of the country’s top spots.

Born in Russia, where his father had been a drummer in the Imperial Regimental Band of Tsar Nicholas II, Savitt’s family immigrated to the United States while he was a toddler. Hailed as a child prodigy on the violin, he won several scholarships to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and at age 16 he became the youngest person to perform with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

Early Band

In 1936, Savitt organized his own string quartet, which earned a spot on a national radio series and won the Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal Award. These achievements caught the attention of local Philadelphia radio station KYW, where Savitt was offered employment as musical director. There he formed the Top Hatters and began to focus on jazz, which he called “the finest musical expression we have ever perfected in this nation.” The orchestra later moved to WCAU and was broadcast across the country on CBS.[1]

As vocalists, Savitt brought in CBS radio singer Carlotta Dale and local African-American singer Bon Bon, who had been a member of the popular Three Keys earlier in the decade. Harry Roberts also sang. During one show in 1937, Dale sang on the band’s program from her hospital room while the orchestra circled overhead in an airplane. The orchestra recorded first on the Variety label in 1936 before moving to Bluebird in 1937.

In early 1938, Savitt decided to take his band on the road. Most of his musicians refused to travel, and Savitt was forced to put together an almost completely new orchestra. Already well-known from his radio show and recordings, Savitt quickly began to draw crowds on the theater and ballroom circuit. The group’s most popular early hit, written by Savitt and sang by Bon Bon, was the highly swinging “720 in the Books,” so named because that was the song’s number in the band’s catalogue.

As one of the first black vocalists to tour with a white band, Bon Bon faced much discrimination on the road. He often pretended to be the band manager’s valet in order to stay in the same hotel as the others. He refused to go much further, however, and didn’t tolerate the racism he came up against. During a performance in Kentucky, after he was refused service by the ballroom’s soda stand, he boycotted the show, only appearing on stage to sing during the thirty minutes of the band’s national radio broadcast.

Along with Bon Bon and Dale, vocalist Dorsey Anderson also sang with the band in early and mid-1938. The vocalists combined together on some numbers as The Three Toppers. When Dale fell ill in late August 1939, Savitt’s personal secretary, Barbara Stillwell, volunteered to fill in for her with the band. Savitt was so surprised at how well Stillwell could sing that he considered keeping her on as co-vocalist when Dale returned. That may or may not have had any bearing on Dale’s decision to leave the orchestra in September.[2] Peggy McCall briefly sang after Dale departed. Savitt’s vocalist department became a revolving door starting in late 1939, with many different singers coming and going. The orchestra often had three or even four vocalists at one time, some of them musicians out of the band.[3]

1940 to 1942

In 1939, Savitt left Bluebird and signed with Decca, abandoning his shuffle rhythm gimmick. He began to pick up top jazz musicians, including, in early 1940, former Artie Shaw saxophonist Georgie Auld along with arrangers Dean Kincaide and Paul Weston. He also hired African-American arrangers Eddie Durham and William Moore Jr. Auld left in early July after an altercation with Savitt, in which Savitt accused him of “blowing too damned loud in the section”.

Savitt was disliked by many of his musicians and vocalists, which led to the Top Hatters having a high turnover. Bon Bon became infamous for quitting and rejoining Savitt’s orchestra numerous times. Singer Allan DeWitt subbed for Bon Bon in early 1940, when the singer took leave due to “hemorrhoid trouble.” DeWitt stayed only shortly, however, before joining Vic Schoen’s orchestra in April, leaving Savitt without a male singer until Bon Bon returned. DeWitt had rejoined Savitt by June, however, where he shared vocal duties with Bon Bon for the next few months. The Quintones sang with the band in early 1940 but did not record. Savitt had no female vocalist at that time.

The Top Hatters were at the height of their popularity in 1940, with Savitt making the cover of Billboard on September 21 of that year. That same month, Bon Bon left, along with Durham.[4] When Savitt’s Decca contract expired in late 1940, he signed with Victor, making his first sides for the label in March 1941. In early 1941, Savitt featured a vocal quartet called The Toppers. In July, the quartet’s girl singer, Jane Ward, slipped and fell, breaking her ankle while getting on a horse.[5]

Savitt returned to his shuffle rhythm gimmick in mid-1941. Jack Palmer was vocalist from at least April to June of that year. Guitarist Dick Wharton also sang at some point before August 1941. DeWitt left in October. Bon Bon then returned, staying only a few months before leaving in February 1942. Joe Martin was vocalist by April. Dancer turned chirper Jeanne Blanche sang in early 1942, leaving in April to return to dancing.

Later Bands

Savitt reorganized in mid-1942 and added a string section to his band. The changed earned him another Billboard cover on June 27. Martin, also a violinist, remained on male vocals and sometimes played with the band. Actress Gloria DeHaven, then an unknown, sang in July 1942. Lorraine Benson joined Savitt in November 1942 but quickly left, replaced by Eugenie Baird, who stayed until early 1943. Betty Bonney took her place, leaving in May. Sax player Buddy Welcome also sang. Martin remained as male vocalist until at least March. Elisse Cooper replaced Bonney. Shortly after she arrived, Cooper announced her plans to marry and retire as soon as Savitt found a suitable replacement. Her husband-to-be, however, ended up in the army, and she put off her plans, saying she would stay with Savitt for six months and then go solo. Jerry Perkins was male vocalist in September.

In October 1943, Savitt disbanded in anticipation of a USO overseas tour, with expectation that he would settle into a musical director’s position at CBS on his return. When he discovered that the USO would only allowed him an eight-piece band on the trip, he called it off and reorganized his orchestra. Vocalists in mid-1944 included Welcome, drummer Harry Ferraro, balladeer Bob Lyons and female singer Kathleen Reagan. Two of Savitt’s violinists were female.

Savitt continued leading orchestras into the late 1940s, though his popularity dropped off after 1943. When the American Federation of Musician’s recording ban, which had begun in August 1942, ended in November 1944, Savitt’s band did not have a recording contract, and they didn’t enter the studio again until 1946, when they signed to the ARA label. Vocalist at that time was Bob D’Andrea. In 1947, the band was featured on the Old Gold radio program.

In 1948, Savitt found himself in debt to the IRS. In need of money to pay off his taxes, he cut his band to eight members, calling it a “swing chamber music” unit, and went on a series of one-night performances on the lucrative hotel circuit. Diane Richards was vocalist. Unfortunately, Savitt’s life was cut short during that tour when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in October while traveling to a show in Sacramento. He was said to be 39 years old.[6] Down Beat reported that Savitt’s estate was worth $4,500 at the time of his death.


  1. Sources are all over the place on which station Savitt got his start at. Later sources mostly say WCAU, but earlier sources have him at KYW. Savitt seems to have been at both, starting at one and moving to the other. ↩︎

  2. Savitt and Stillwell married in 1940. They had two daughters. ↩︎

  3. Trying to suss out Savitt’s vocalist history is extremely difficult due the constantly changing landscape of singers that he employed. ↩︎

  4. After leaving Savitt, Durham went to the union with a salary dispute, claiming Savitt owed him $900. The union threatened to expel Savitt, and the two sides settled for $600. ↩︎

  5. Down Beat referred to the Toppers as the “Ward trio,” while Billboard reported that Ward went by the last name Wood while with the Toppers. ↩︎

  6. Differing birth years exist for Savitt, ranging from 1907 to 1913. Obituaries at the time of his death listed him as 39 years of age, which would translate to 1909 for a birth year. ↩︎

Vocalist Timeline

Peggy McCall
Jack Palmer
Joe Martin
Jeanne Blanche
Gloria DeHaven
Lorraine Benson
Jerry Perkins

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. “Program Reviews: Home Talent Hunt.” Billboard 10 Oct. 1936: 9.
  3. “Savitt Top-Hatters Will Play at Roton.” The Norwalk Hour 12 Mar. 1937: 11.
  4. McIver, Ernest D Jr. “'Round the Radio Dial.” The Free Lance-Star [Fredericksburg, VA] 28 Apr. 1937: 7.
  5. “Philly Tophatters Swing It In Airliner.” Down Beat Jun. 1937: 25.
  6. “Notes for Coming Week.” The Montreal Gazette 20 May 1938: 10.
  7. “Crooner and Bandleader Indisposed.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 11 Aug. 1938: 1.
  8. “On the Stage.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 11 Aug. 1938: 9. Print.
  9. McClarrin, Otto. “Otto McClarrin's Seaboard Merry-Go-Round.” The Washington Afro-American 18 Feb. 1939: 6.
  10. “The Reviewing Stand: Jan Savitt.” Billboard 18 Feb. 1939: 15.
  11. “Typing To Chirping.” Billboard 2 Sep. 1939: 10.
  12. “She's Versatile.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1939: 12.
  13. Savitt, Jan. “U.S. Music, Except Jazz, Badly Digested Indian War Whoops.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1939: 4.
  14. Schurrer, Lou. “Detroit Local Adds Headaches To Musicians Giving Presents.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1939: 29.
  15. “Quintones to Sing As Prom Attraction.” Cornell Daily Sun [Ithaca, NY] 6 Feb. 1940: 1.
  16. Advertisement. “Decca Records Present.” The Bradford Era [Bradford, PA] 27 Feb. 1940: 4.
  17. Feather, Leonard. “Auld Joins Savitt.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1940: 7.
  18. Egan, Jack. “Here's Lowdown Stuff on Nation's Radio Eds.” Down Beat 15 May 1940: 6.
  19. “Gay Nineties Glamor, Music Revived in Film.” The Steubenville Herald-Star 23 May 1940: 16.
  20. Jovien, Harold. “Call It Even.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1940: 4.
  21. Davis, Dotty. “Bon Bon May Leave Savitt Soon.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1940: 13.
  22. “On the Stand: Jan Savitt.” Billboard 17 Aug. 1940: 12.
  23. “Jan Savitt and His Tophatters.” Billboard 21 Sep. 1940: Cover.
  24. “Bon Bon with Sonny James So is Durham.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1940: 8.
  25. “Savitt to Victor.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1940: 1.
  26. “Durham-Savitt Settle Cash Fight.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1941: 1.
  27. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 19 Apr. 1941: 12.
  28. Dexter, Dave Jr. “Bullish Bass Bowings Endanger Duke's Rep.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1941: 14.
  29. Cass, Walter. “Bands Battle in Sun Spots.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1941: 19.
  30. Abbotg, Charles. “Egan Wronged by Jan Savitt?” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1941: 21.
  31. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 23 Aug. 1941: 11.
  32. “Phila Houses Beat Strong Competish.” Billboard 11 Oct. 1941: 24.
  33. “Bon Bon Back With Savitt.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 1.
  34. “Night Club Reviews: Sherman Hotel, Panther Room, Chicago.” Billboard 7 Feb. 1942: 13.
  35. Jovien, Harold. “Bon Bon Reveals Desire For Postman's Berth As He Leaves Jan Savitt.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1942: 2.
  36. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 2 May 1942: 23.
  37. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 9 May 1942: 27.
  38. “Jan Savitt and His Topi Hatters Orchestra.” Billboard 27 Jun. 1942: Cover.
  39. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 27 Jun. 1942: 75.
  40. “Jan Savitt Gets On That Fiddle Kick, Himself.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1942: 6.
  41. “New Casino In Bang-Up Opening.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1942: 4.
  42. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 14 Nov. 1942: 23.
  43. “Savitt Gets Her.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1942: 13.
  44. Grennard, Elliot. “On the Air: Jan Savitt.” Billboard 26 Dec. 1942: 22.
  45. “Swing String Singer.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1943: 16.
  46. Cummings, Rube. “Nucleus of Savitt Crew Sparks Warrington Ork In Philly Radio Station.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1943: 13.
  47. “Vaudeville Reviews: Chicago, Chicago.” Billboard 27 Mar. 1943: 16.
  48. “Vaudeville Reviews: Strand: New York.” Billboard 17 Apr. 1943: 14.
  49. “Betty Bonney Goes to Wald.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1943: 5.
  50. “Elisse Cooper Defers Bridal, Joins Glaser.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1943: 2.
  51. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1943: 5.
  52. Kardale, Chick. “Along Chicago's Melody Row.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1943: 16.
  53. McLean, Frank. “WHMA.” The Anniston Star 10 Sep. 1943: 2.
  54. “Jan Savitt Band Figured to Fold.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1943: 1.
  55. “Savitt Band Re-organized.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1943: 1.
  56. “On the Stand: Jan Savitt.” Billboard 8 Jul. 1944: 17.
  57. “Rejoins Savitt.” Down Beat 4 Jun. 1947: 10.
  58. “Savitt Pares Personnel, Costs, Not Potentiality.” Down Beat 24 Mar. 1948: 3.
  59. “Jan Savitt, Tophatter Ork Leader, 39, Dies.” Down Beat 20 Oct. 1948: 1.
  60. Ronan, Eddie. “On the Sunset Vine.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1948: 9.