"The Old Smoothie. . . Today!"
by Christopher Popa July 2004
He organized his first orchestra in 1933, and for several decades which followed, Del Courtney was among the nation's popular favorites.
"It was because the band played a smooth type of dance music," he explained to me in 2004, on the telephone from his home in Hawaii. "And they said we were a smooth band, and they called me 'The Old Smoothie.'"
Nowadays, he has a new generation of fans who enthusiastically show up and move around the dance floor as he conducts a more swinging, 12-piece band which bears his name.
birth: Sept. 21, 1910, Oakland, CA
given name: Delmore Anthony Courtney
education: St. Mary's College, Moraga, CA; College of the Pacific,
Stockton, CA (Mus. M. degree);
and the University of California at
Berkeley (A.B. degree)
wife: Cornelia Yvonne Driggs,
wife: Yvonne Marie Antoinette JaMais
(singer "Connie Haines"), m.1966
memberships: ASCAP, 1963
residences: incl. 3856 Lyon Ave.,
Oakland, CA; Orinda, CA;
As a starting point in looking back at his life and career with me, it was noted that he performed for four Presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
"Yes I did," he said.
In fact, he says that was his greatest achievement.
"They were all at the Inaugural Balls, in Washington," he affirmed.
So what music does one select for a President?
"Well, for example, Ronald Reagan - we played for his last Inaugural Ball - he came up on the bandstand, shook hands, and I introduced him," he recalled. "And Nancy came up with him, and they said to me, 'Do the boys in the band know Nancy (With the Laughing Face)?' And I said, 'Yes, we do.' 'Well, could you play it for her?' That was about the highlight of that."
ASCAP Biographical Dictionary, Fourth Edition. (New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1980), p.101.
Berger, John. "Courtney still swinging at 90: Big-band leader credits 'the man upstairs' with his longevity, success,"
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Sep. 22, 2000.
---. "Dancing with Del Courtney: The legendary band leader charms the swing set Sundays at the Blue Tropix,"
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Jun. 1, 2001.
Popa, Christopher. Telephone interview with Del Courtney, Jun. 20, 2004.
Rust, Brian. The American Dance Band Discography 1917-1942, Volume One: Irving Aaronson to Arthur Lange
(New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1975), pp.355-356.
Who is Who in Music, 1941 Edition (Chicago: Lee Stern Press, 1940).
Courtney had taken his first piano lessons at age 9, and eventually earned a Master of Music degree.
"I started off as a teacher, but then decided to be a bandleader," he told me.
He was able to convince his father to let him try to make a living as a bandleader, performing on the road.
"Because of my love for music and the ability to play and conduct music, rather than teach it," he explained.
Like other leaders of the era, he had multiple responsibilities with the band.
"Yes, I played piano and conducted," he said. "You have to be a good businessman. You have to know a lot about music."
In time, success manifested itself in several ways for Courtney and his orchestra.
"We started a style and stuck with it," he remarked.
Though their strongest ties were with the San Francisco Bay area of California, where his band initially was hired by the Claremont Hotel, they appeared all across the country.
"I played at practically every major hotel in the United States," he stated.
The celebrity status he received was enticing.
"Yes, very much," he acknowledged. "It was being in the limelight, and meeting top names... having top names come into the place where you were playing, and it was very enjoyable."
One of the usual stops on his itinerary was Chicago, including the Blackhawk Restaurant on N. Wabash.
"The Blackhawk was a top spot for bands, and we played there about, oh, two or three times," he said. "We also played the Stevens Hotel ... [and ] the Empire Room at the Palmer Hotel. Our band was well-known and well-liked in the Chicago area."
He also wrote a book of memoirs he called "Hey! The Band's Too Loud," joking that he had heard that comment on a nearly-universal basis.
Responding to the so-called "swing" revival in the late 1990s, he again came out of retirement to occasionally front a big band.
Nowadays, approaching his 94th birthday, he climbs the stand for a monthly appearance at the Elks Lodge on Kalakaua Ave. in Honolulu.
"I still have a band, and I play once a month," he confirmed.
What became of his music library?
"I still have it, and still use it," he reported.
Singer Jimmy Borges [ r. ] is featured, along with various guests.
"I'm not in good health," Courtney admitted. "I spend a great deal of my time in bed, trying to reach 95 [he laughs]."
So does anyone still refer to Courtney in 2004 as "The Old Smoothie"?
"Oh, no, not really," he said. "Well, some people do."
Evidently, good impressions can last a long, long time.
They also had been early visitors to Hawaii, journeying there in the mid-'30s aboard the S.S. Lurline [ Courtney kneeling, r. ].
How accepting of his music were the islanders? (Remember that Hawaii didn't become a state until 1959.)
"Very much," he recalled. "We played a few Hawaiian songs in the course of an evening."
After a dinner guest, R. Alex Anderson, saw how sunburned Courtney got one day, he wrote a now-classic hapa-haole song about him, My Little Red Opu.
In later years, Courtney and his band appeared on television in programs sponsored by Kodak and Sylvania, and recorded the albums "Dancing 'Til Daybreak" (Capitol, 1958) and "The Bay Area At Night."
From 1959 to 1978, he was Music Director for the Oakland Raiders, leading a band during their halftime shows and being credited with the formation of the football team's Raiderettes cheerleading squad. He still wears a Super Bowl ring given to him by Raiders principal Al Davis.
Courtney then settled in Hawaii, intending to retire. But disco music had revived "touch dancing," so he agreed to play for "tea dances" at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The events were so popular that he kept doing them for 15 years.
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