Sonny Dunham

Noted for his ability to hit the high notes on a trumpet, bandleader Sonny Dunham was given the nickname “Man from Mars” by members of the Bob Crosby Orchestra. Dunham, however, began his career on trombone, playing with local bands around the Boston area. In the late 1920s, he moved to New York and spent six months with Ben Bernie before joining Paul Tremaine’s orchestra in 1929, where he also arranged and sang. While with Tremaine, he switched primarily to trumpet, though continued to double on trombone for the rest of his career. In 1931 left to form his own group, Sonny Dunham and his New York Yankees. The band lasted only a few months.

In 1932, Dunham joined the Casa Loma Orchestra, becoming a popular soloist. In late 1936, he left to form another, more unusual group of his own, financially backed by his former Casa Loma bandmates. His new outfit featured 14 pieces, with ten of his musicians doubling on trumpet. The band failed to secure adequate bookings, however, and Dunham, who reportedly lost $20,000 in the venture, spent three months living in Europe before returning to the states and the Casa Loma Orchestra in early 1937. Dunham’s trumpet work on the band’s recording of “Memories of You” in December of that year is considered one of the all-time great trumpet solos of the era. He remained with Casa Loma until January 1940, when he again tried to form his own group.

Early Success and Swing Years

The new band went into rehearsals in February, and it quickly proved a disaster. Signing with the Varsity label, the group recorded only instrumentals. One early review of those recordings was fairly blunt, calling it “crap” and “vile exhibitionism,” though a second review was more forgiving. Dunham’s backer pulled out, and the band collapsed.

Dunham then traveled to the West Coast to take a job in a studio band. One night, he attended a dance promoted by Carlos Gastel, whom he had known from his Casa Loma days. When Gastel introduced him to the crowd, they began to cheer. Gastel saw Dunham’s potential and talked him into reorganizing. Starting in June, Dunham began putting together a new band, gradually shifting personnel until he had what he wanted. Dunham patterned the new orchestra after that of his musical inspiration, Jimmy Lunceford, with Gastel becoming the band’s manager.[1] Betty Van was its early vocalist along with sax player Rudy Cangie, who had left by November.

After playing several West Coast dates, the Los Angeles-based orchestra took their first out-of-town job in Salt Lake City that September, which came with NBC and CBS air time. The band struggled. When they made their first tour across the country in January 1941, they sometimes went without meals. Things began to turn around in early 1941 when they reached New York, where they went against the conventional wisdom that West Coast orchestras never found success in the East. Booked into the Roseland Ballroom for one week, their stay extended to six, and they were booked again for April, the most successful run that any band had made at that spot in three years. Meadowbrook owner Frank Dailey then hired them for twelve weeks starting in June with ten network radio spots each week.

The band’s star musician, aside from Dunham, was sixteen-year-old tenor sax player Eugene “Corky” Corcoran, who had been discovered and recommended by Lunceford.[2] Vocalists were Patsy Parker, whom Dunham hired in Chicago during the band’s cross country trip, and Ray Kellogg, with bassist Bunnie Donin singing novelty numbers. Parker was gone by early March, and Donin by July. The new band recorded on the Bluebird label.

In June, Dunham hired Harriet Clark, Charlie Barnet’s estranged wife, as vocalist. She stayed only two weeks. Her reason for departure was officially given that she’d received a film contract with 20th Century Fox, but the real reason was likely that she’d just learned of her pregnancy with Barnet’s child. To replace her, while on tour of the Midwest before their Meadowbrook run, Dunham picked up another singer in Chicago, Diana Mitchell.

While in the Midwest, Dunham also discovered trumpeter Pete Candoli, who became one of the band’s greatest assets. When the group returned to the New York area, Candoli ended up in the hospital with appendicitis, where he remained for six days before being released. During the band’s opening at the Meadowbrook, Candoli kept ice packs on his abdomen in order to play. Dunham’s opening broke records, further cementing the band’s rise in popularity, as did positive reviews of their newest recordings.

Mitchell left in September to get married, with Clark returning temporarily for a recording date that month and Carol Kay replacing her. The following month, Kay was seriously injured in a car wreck, along with five other members of Dunham’s band.[3] In November, Corcoran left for Harry James. Arriving, however, was young trombonist Kai Winding, who helped keep the band’s level of musicianship high. The orchestra was back at Meadowbrook in February 1942, with Clark rejoining them as vocalist that month. They returned to the West Coast in April, playing at the Hollywood Palladium and making several musical shorts. They also appeared in their first feature film, Universal’s Off the Beaten Track.

Clark left the band in May, and Dunham hit the road again in July for the Midwest and the East Coast, returning to Hollywood and the Palladium in October. Like many bands, the draft had begun to affect Dunham’s ability to keep quality musicians, and the orchestra’s sound began to decline. Dunham lost thirteen musicians and vocalist Kellogg to the draft in the last half of 1942.

After Clark’s departure, Felice Shaw had became the band’s female singer. When Shaw left in October to stay near her husband, Dunham offered the vocalist spot to Dorothy Claire, whose former boss, Bobby Byrne, had just entered the service. Claire took a month off for a minor operation before finally joining in November, becoming the star attraction in what was by then an otherwise less-than-stellar group. She had other ambitions than to be a member of Dunham’s band though. She made it known that she wanted to do musical comedy and set her agent to looking for appropriate work. Dunham wasn’t completely sure if Claire would stick around, and Claire’s preference for doing numbers as a single caused tension with the band’s other female singer, Mickie Roy, whom Dunham had brought in from California to replace Kellogg in December. Roy left the band after only one week, and Dunham rethought his plan to have two female vocalists. To replace Roy, he hired Don Darcy. With Claire and Darcy, Dunham finally had a strong pair of vocalists. When Claire took time off due to illness in early 1943, Paula Kelly subbed.

Decline and Commercial Years

Dunham’s band spent a three-month stay at the Hotel New Yorker in early 1943, which came with regular airtime on CBS. The exposure improved the orchestra’s popularity before embarking on a tour back across the country. In April, though, Dunham lost three quarters of his rhythm section to Jerry Wald with no ability to replace them until they arrived at the Hollywood Palladium in June. Having been dropped by Bluebird after the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban took effect in 1942, Dunham recorded four songs with the Hit label in January 1944.

In February 1944, Boyd Raeburn raided the band, taking both Claire and Darcy as well as four musicians, forcing Dunham to reorganize and further dropping the quality of his outfit. To replace his lost vocalists, he hired Pat Cameron and Billy Usher.[4] Cameron left before May, with Marion Morgan taking her place. Both Morgan and Usher then left in late May, with Ruth McCullough and Dick Dyer, from Mitchell Ayres’ band, filling their spots. Carolyn Grey joined on October 1st, proving a popular vocalist, but left in January 1945. Dunham replaced her with Marianne, a vocalist who went only by her first name. The band recorded two instrumentals for the Premier label in December 1944.

In March 1945, Dunham reorganized, cutting his salary expenses in half by getting rid of his higher-paid men. For the new band, he hired only New York musicians from union local 802 to save paying the extra compensation given to out-of-town musicians. He also stepped away from jazz and focused on popular tastes, telling Down Beat that he was tired of losing money.

We’re not going to put on funny hats, but apparently I’ve got to stress the commercial side if I want my band to click.

Marianne remained, and Dunham himself planned to sing as well. Tommy Randall had joined to handle male vocals by year’s end. Both Randall and Marianne left the band in November, with Pete Hanley and Nickie Shane taking over. Hanley stayed with the band until at least the end of 1948. Louise Douglas was female vocalist by April 1946, staying through at least March 1947. In 1946, the band also featured its own vocal group, the Sonnysiders.

Dunham recorded for the Vogue label in 1946 and 1947. In late 1947, along with three other name artists, he signed with Tune-Disk to record sides before the 1948 AFM recording ban came into effect. Tune-Disk, however, ran out of funds before any of the songs were released, and they didn’t fully pay Dunham his contracted amount. Dunham’s manager at the time, Shedd McWilliams, pressed the label in March 1948 and finally got possession of the masters, which were sold to the Embassy label and released in late 1948, after the ban had been lifted.

Dunham became increasingly unhappy with road conditions. In March 1949, trying to make his band more financially attractive to the Roseland Ballroom, he was forced to reorganize, at an expense of $700 plus rehearsal hall fees, to replace six men in order to make the orchestra all local 802 again. Roseland had promised him four weeks with an option for two more but then instituted a policy change and only booked him for three with no option. Dunham was furious and threatened to disband, which he did after the booking ended in April, filing for bankruptcy. He listed debts amounting to $69,612 and assets of $847. Included in those debts were $15,000 to former manager Gastel and $1,500 to bandleader Frankie Carle.

Dunham organized a new band in late 1949, just in time for the holiday season. In February 1951, he broke up his orchestra again and joined Bernie Mann’s new All-American band as a sideman. He then briefly formed another orchestra before ending up with Tommy Dorsey in September. Dunham continued leading bands throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. He eventually moved to Florida, switching back to trombone. Sonny Dunham died in 1990 at the age of 79.

Dunham’s sister, Louise, was a saxophonist who played with several all-girl bands in the 1930s. She passed away in late January 1940, just as Dunham was getting started with his new band. In the early 1940s, Dunham legally changed his name from Elmer to Sonny, both because he preferred it and because no one ever called him Elmer.


  1. Dunham saved Gastel’s life in summer 1940 while the two men and singer Betty Van were swimming in the ocean. Gastel swam too far and started shouting for help. Dunham and another man swam out and pulled him to safety. ↩︎

  2. In order for Corcoran to travel with the band, due to child labor laws, Dunham became his legal guardian. ↩︎

  3. This car wreck, along with a spate of other recent wrecks, prompted several bandleaders, including Dunham, to forbid his band members from driving between one-nighters in private automobiles. Musicians were often tired after playing all night, and driving was dangerous in that condition. ↩︎

  4. Usher and Cameron first met in Dunham’s band. They married in late 1944. ↩︎

Vocalist Timeline

Patsy Parker
Ray Kellogg
Diana Mitchell
Felice Shaw
Mickie Roy
Dick Dyer
Ruth McCullough

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. Walker, Leo. The Wonderful Era of the Great Dance Bands. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.
  3. Dexter, Dave Jr. “Casa Lomans Laugh at Criticism.” Down Beat Jan. 1939: 12.
  4. “Who's Who in Music: Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra.” Down Beat Mar. 1939: 25.
  5. “New York Chatterbox.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1939: 21.
  6. “Sonny Dunham To Start Band.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1940: 1.
  7. “Sonny Dunham Loses Sister.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1940: 9.
  8. “The New Records: Sonny Dunham.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1940: 14.
  9. “More Records: Sonny Dunham.” Down Beat 1 May 1940: 15.
  10. “Dunham Band Shaping Up.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1940: 8.
  11. “Sonny Dunham Saves a Life.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1940: 13.
  12. “Dunham Band In Utah Debut.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1940: 9.
  13. “Dunham Goes East With Band of Kids On Lunceford Kick.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1941: 8.
  14. “She Joins Dunham.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1941: 8.
  15. “Where's Elmer?” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1941: 8.
  16. “Dunham Band Set for Sensational Build-up.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1941: 2.
  17. “Barnet's Wife Joins Sonny Dunham.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1941: 2.
  18. “5 Changes in Dunham Band.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1941: 23.
  19. “Record Reviews: Sonny Dunham.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1941: 15.
  20. “Dunham Opener Breaks Records.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1941: 21.
  21. “Joins Sonny Dunham.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1941: 2.
  22. “Forrest to Harry James.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 1.
  23. “Kaye, Dunham Ban Travel In Autos.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 6.
  24. “Sonny Dunham Augments Band.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1941: 1.
  25. “Dunham Back To Meadowbrook.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1942: 4.
  26. “Harriet Clark Resumes Act.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1942: 2.
  27. “On the Air: Sonny Dunham.” Billboard 21 Feb. 1942: 21.
  28. “They Chirp for Sonny Dunham.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1942: 1.
  29. “Mac McDougal to Sonny Dunham Ork.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1942: 1.
  30. Holly, Hal. “Los Angeles Band Briefs.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1942: 13.
  31. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1942: 7.
  32. “Cab Calloway Draws Role in MGM Film.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1942: 6.
  33. Humphrey, Harold. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Down Beat 18 Jul. 1942: 63.
  34. “Sonny Dunham Crew Leaves Coast for Tour.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1942: 18.
  35. “Gal Replacements in Name Orks Getting Past the Talk Stage.” Billboard 8 Aug. 1942: 21.
  36. “On the Air: Sonny Dunham.” Billboard 10 Oct. 1942: 20.
  37. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 17 Oct. 1942: 24.
  38. “On the Stand: Sonny Dunham.” Billboard 24 Oct. 1942: 22.
  39. “Dorothy Claire Plans Operation.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1942: 4.
  40. Carter, Dick. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 14 Nov. 1942: 16.
  41. “Break for Dunham; Lands New Yorker.” Billboard 5 Dec. 1942: 20.
  42. “No Male Voices for Dunham.” Billboard 19 Dec. 1942: 24.
  43. “Dunham Using Beauteous Blonde, Brunet Singers.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1943: 11.
  44. “On the Stand: Sonny Dunham.” Billboard 16 Jan. 1943: 22.
  45. “Dunham Minus One Canary; Claire Gets Male Songmate.” Billboard 30 Jan. 1943: 22.
  46. “Dunham Vocals Still Unsettled.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1943: 5.
  47. “Dunham Loses Three to Wald.” Down Beat 1 May 1943: 1.
  48. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 8 May 1943: 14.
  49. “Vaudeville Reviews: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 19 Jun. 1943: 16.
  50. “Bands Dug by the Beat: Sonny Dunham.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1943: 5.
  51. “On the Stand: Sonny Dunham.” Billboard 25 Dec. 1943: 35.
  52. “Pop Record Reviews: Sonny Dunham.” Billboard 5 Feb. 1944: 60.
  53. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1944: 5.
  54. “Dunham's Duo With Raeburn.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1944: 1.
  55. Cover Photo. Down Beat 15 Apr. 1944: Cover.
  56. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Down Beat 15 May 1944: 4.
  57. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1944: 4.
  58. “Vaudeville Reviews: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 1 Jul. 1944: 25.
  59. “On the Stand: Sonny Dunham.” Billboard 8 Jul. 1944: 17.
  60. “Music Grapevine.” Billboard 7 Oct. 1944: 20.
  61. “Los Angeles Band Briefs.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1944: 6.
  62. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1945: 5.
  63. “Carolyn Grey Set for Pics.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1945: 5.
  64. “Dunham Plans To Sell a Little.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1945: 15.
  65. “Majestic Ogles Dunham.” Billboard 3 Mar. 1945: 12.
  66. “Sonny Changes His Vocal Dept.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1945: 1.
  67. “Sonny Dunham To Vogue.” Billboard 15 Dec. 1945: 13.
  68. “On the Stand: Sonny Dunham.” Billboard 11 May 1946: 22.
  69. “Sonny Dunham And Band Wax For Vogue.” Down Beat 21 Oct. 1946: 3.
  70. “Vaudeville Reviews: RKO Albee, Cincinnati.” Billboard 15 Mar. 1947: 38.
  71. Advertisement. “Vogue.” Billboard 20 Sep. 1947: 41.
  72. “Disk Talent Wheel Spins Madly.” Billboard 6 Dec. 1947: 18.
  73. “On the Stand: Sonny Dunham.” Billboard 10 Jan. 1948: 31.
  74. “Dun Tune-Disk.” Billboard 7 Feb. 1948: 22.
  75. “AFM OK's Tune-Disk Part Pay.” Billboard 14 Feb. 1948: 37.
  76. “Dunham Gets His Wax Back.” Billboard 3 Apr. 1948: 17.
  77. Egan, Jack. “One Man's Opinion, A La Sonny Dunham.” Down Beat 28 Jul. 1948: 2.
  78. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 21 Aug. 1948: 117.
  79. “Music As Written.” Billboard 6 Nov. 1948: 40.
  80. “Tex May Add Hanley.” Down Beat 29 Dec. 1948: 3.
  81. “Record Reviews: Sonny Dunham.” Down Beat 28 Jan. 1949: 15.
  82. “Ballroom Blues Top Bad Tour For Dunham.” Billboard 12 Mar. 1949: 26.
  83. “Music As Written.” Billboard 14 May 1949: 37.
  84. “Sonny Dunham Files Bankruptcy Protection.” Down Beat 3 Jun. 1949: 1.
  85. “Music As Written.” Billboard 17 Dec. 1949: 18.
  86. “Dunham Disbands, Joins Mann Ork.” Down Beat 23 Feb. 1951: 5.
  87. “Bob Hope Slumps At Cedar Rapids.” Billboard 30 Jun. 1951: 44.
  88. “Sonny Dunham Back on Road.” Down Beat 24 Aug. 1951: 5.
  89. “Music as Written.” Billboard 18 Sep. 1951: 18.
  90. “Dorsey Ups Ork to 22 For NJ Date.” Billboard 29 Sep. 1951: 26.