Described as a shy and modest person, Kemp was proficient during his teenage years on several musical instruments, including the piano, cornet, and clarinet.
Later, with his own band, he would sometimes play his favorite, the alto saxophone, through an oversized megaphone with holes cut in the sides so his hands could work the keys.
By his twenties, his abilities had further developed so that he attracted attention not only in the U.S. but Europe as well; one of his followers in those early times was Edward, the Prince of Wales.
After Kemp organized his first band under his own name in 1925, with his college friends Horace "Saxie" Dowell and Ben Williams (saxophones), John Scott Trotter (piano), and Edgar "Skinnay" Ennis (drums and vocals), they all worked hard to make it a success.
John Scott Trotter (piano) joined them in 1929 and it was Trotter who, as the band's arranger, was credited with fashioning its distinctive style. He would remain with Kemp until 1936, when he was hired away by singer Bing Crosby.
given name: James Hal Kemp
birth: Mar. 27, 1904, Marion, AL
death Dec. 21, 1940, Madera, CA, from injuries received in an automobile accident
father Thomas Dupre Kemp, Sr., a railroad official, b.Dec. 24, 1864
mother Leila Ellyn Rush, m.1888
sister Leila, b.1892, d. of typhoid
sister Marie, b.1895, a pianist
brother Thomas D. Kemp, Jr., b.Aug. 8, 1902, d.Apr. 11, 1996
first wife Margaret Elizabeth Slaughter, m.1932, div.1938
daughter Sally Rush Kemp, b.1933?
son James Hal Kemp, Jr., b.1935?
second wife Martha Stephenson, “New York debutante,” b.1919?, m.Jan. 13, 1939
daughter Helen, b.Jul. 1940
education public schools, Charlotte, NC, graduated 1922; University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill, NC, majored in Business Administration
pet Andy, a wire-haired fox terrier, 1933
residences Long Island, NY, 1932; Morristown, NJ, 1936; Beverly Hills, CA, 1939
On July 2, 1932, Kemp and his band opened at the Trianon Ballroom on the South Side of Chicago, beginning with that same engagement a long and popular association with radio station W-G-N.
At first, the Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper wasn't sure what to make of him.
"Hal Kemp is said to be a trifle high brow," the paper remarked. "He forces his boys to read and he made them all join the Glee club while in school and that accounts for the fact that they are such a fine group of vocalists."
Later, the band moved into the Blackhawk Restaurant, located on S. Wabash in the Loop, and it was there that Kemp’s name really took off.
After being at the Blackhawk for almost a year and having phenomenal success, they closed there on September 16, 1933.
They made a short tour arranged by MCA (and even got to have two weeks' vacation) before returning to the Blackhawk for the fall and winter.
Kemp insisted that he would go home to North Carolina and "take off his shoes and sit."
The same working pattern was repeated again, only when the band departed the Blackhawk in April 1934, they were away for more than three months.
Then, back to the Blackhawk, where they stayed from June 17 through September 22, 1934.
Again, a few days later, it was out on the road, heading east through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York state, working their way to the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City.
Kemp and his orchestra began to set new attendance records at dance spots around the country and it was said that by 1940, they had, for example, appeared at more than 400 college proms.
Other members of Kemp's band included, at various times, Russ Case and Randy Brooks (trumpets), Ed Kusby (trombone), Lou Busch [later known as "Joe 'Fingers' Carr"] (piano), Dave Barbour (guitar), Bob Allen (vocals), and Hal Mooney (arranger).
In January 1940, Kemp hired a young girl, Janet Lafferty, as his new vocalist. It was
suggested that she adopt the stage name “Blair,” which was her home county in Pennsylvania. (As "Janet Blair," she went on to a successful acting career.)
Kemp once declared that, even in the life of an orchestra leader, there were hazardous moments. He told of one occasion in Dallas, TX, when the baton he was conducting with slipped out of his hand and its point lodged near his right eye, just missing the eyeball but penetrating the skin more than an inch.
While en route to an engagement at the Hotel Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, Kemp and another band member, tenor saxophonist Kenny LaBahn, 27, were injured in a head-on automobile crash on the Golden State Freeway in California on December 18th, 1940.
At the time of the accident his [ Kemp’s ] injuries, including a fractured left thigh and broken ribs, were not considered critical,” it was reported by the Los Angeles Times, “but it was necessary to place him in an oxygen tent [ two days later ] when one lung collapsed as the result of a puncture and pneumonia developed in the other lung.”
LaBahn was released from the hospital the day after the accident.
The driver of the car which hit Kemp’s Lincoln Continental convertible, Casimiro Azparren, 36, of Fresno, CA, was charged with “attempting to pass (a truck) with insufficient clearance” and, following Kemp’s death, with “negligent homicide,” too.
Fellow bandleader Kay Kyser, a friend of Kemp’s dating back to the University of North Carolina days, was one of his pallbearers. Others in attendance at the funeral included Rudy Vallee and Fred Waring.
In February 1941, both Victor and Columbia assembled Kemp memorial albums.
"Victor beat Columbia to the music stands by a split second, and tops it in another way-by including a good biography of Hal," the Chicago Daily Tribune commented.
Friends of his revealed that Kemp wanted to change the nature of his music, to move from ballads and novelties to primarily semi-classical and symphonic music. As time permitted, he had taken courses in composition and arranging at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and attended a few rehearsals of classical ensembles. He was scheduled to conduct a concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in June 1941, then hoped to announce his intention to form a new, larger orchestra - but, of course, fate decided otherwise.
Martha Kemp tried to move on in her personal life, marrying actor Victor Mature on June 17, 1941. However, in less than a year, their separation was announced - to her startlement.
"This is the first I've heard about it," she told reporters on February 7, 1942. "It is like reading in the gossip columns that you're going to have a baby. If you hear any more, let me know."
Ennis and Trotter, as guests, alternated with vocalist Allen conducting the Kemp band for the rest of the engagement at the Hotel Mark Hopkins.
MCA arranged for another singer, Art Jarrett, to take over as leader, with an opening on May 14, 1941 at (where else?) the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago. But the idea of retaining the Kemp style was abandoned within a short time.
In the liner notes for a welcomed 1959 Kemp reissue LP, James T. Maher wrote, “Today, the Kemp library of arrangements molders in a Hollywood garage. ‘It’s out here somewhere in Hollywood being eaten by silverfish, I suppose,’ Trotter said recently. ‘And that’s a shame.’”
That same year, Ennis and arranger Allyn Ferguson recorded an appealing tribute in stereo, intended for release by Mercury but instead issued on the Phillips label, “Skinnay Ennis Salutes Hal Kemp” (PHS 600-002).
It was followed in August 1960 by Trotter’s own recorded offering, “I Remember Hal Kemp” (Decca DL74076).
Hal Kemp Orchestra necrology
Cecil Van Nordstrand, pianist, d.1940?
Leo Moran, 30, trombonist, d.Feb. 23, 1941, septic poisoning
Skinnay Ennis, 56, drummer – vocalist, d.June 3, 1963, "suffocation after choking on a
piece of meat" while dining
John Scott Trotter, 68, pianist, d.Oct. 29, 1968, cancer
Saxie Dowell, 70, saxophonist, d.Jul. 1974
Lou Busch, 69, pianist, d.Sept. 19, 1979, complications from injuries received in an
Bob Allen, 75, vocalist, d.Apr. 24, 1989, throat cancer
Ed Kusby, 82, trombonist, d.Feb. 6, 1995
Hal Mooney, 84, pianist - arranger, d.Mar. 23, 1995
"Becomes Mother," Chicago Daily Tribune, Jul. 23, 1940, p.3.
Joseph E. Bennett, “The Brothers Kemp and the quest for El Dorado,” Joslin’s Jazz Journal,
May 1998, p.6+.
---, “The Brothers Kemp: The Search for El Dorado – Part 2,” Joslin’s Jazz Journal,
Aug. 1998, p.9+.
“Bob Allen, Bandleader And Singer, Dies at 75,” New York Times, Apr. 26, 1989, p.B5.
“Body of Hal Kemp on Way to Charlotte,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 24, 1940, p.6.
Dave Dexter, Jr., liner notes, "Hal Kemp and His Orchestra 'On the Air'," Aircheck ( Can )
“Funeral Held for Hal Kemp,” New York Times, Dec. 28, 1940, p.15.
"Garber Moves to Blackhawk Tomorrow Night: Kemp to Make Road Trip, Visit Carolina,"
Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 17, 1933, p.S4.
"Hal Kemp Tells of Dangers in Maestros' Lives," Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 26, 1933, p.S6.
"Hal Kemp to Bring Band to the Drake," Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 23, 1938, p.D2.
“Hal Kemp Wed to Society Girl,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 14, 1939, p.5.
"Hal Kemp's Young Folks At Home," Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 19, 1933, p.NW4.
"Hurt in Crash, Band Leader Hal Kemp Dies" Victim of Pneumonia at Age of 36,"
Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 22, 1940, p.18.
“Injuries Fatal for Hal Kemp,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 22, 1940, p.3.
James T. Maher, liner notes, “The Great Dance Bands of the ‘30s and ‘40s: Hal Kemp
and His Orchestra,” RCA Victor LPM-2041, 1959.
"Jarrett Takes Over Kemp Band; On W-G-N Soon," Chicago Daily Tribune, May 4, 1941,
"Kemp Returns to Blackhawk, W-G-N Tonight," Chicago Daily Tribune, June 17, 1934,
"Kemp to Leave; Agnew, Kyser Follow On W-G-N," Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept. 23,
"Memorial Albums of Hal Kemp Records," Chicago Daily Tribune, Mar. 2, 1941, p.G2.
Edward Moore, "Mr. Kemp Gives Reeds Wa-Wa," Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 24, 1933,
"New Orchestra Leaders Make Bows On W-G-N," Chicago Daily Tribune, Jul. 3, 1932, p.F4.
Michael Ruppli, compiler. The Decca Labels: A Discography: Volume 1 The California
Sessions (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1996), p.765.
Michael Ruppli and Ed Novitsky, compilers, The Mercury Labels: A Discography: Volume II
The 1956-1964 Era (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1993), pp.294, 296, 298.
“Obituaries: Leo Moran,” New York Times, Feb. 24, 1941, p.15.
"Separation Told," Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 8, 1942, p.8.
“Services for Hal Kemp,” New York Times, Dec. 23, 1940, p.23.
"Singer Skinnay Ennis Chokes on Meat, Dies," Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1963, p.B13.
Social Security Death Index.
"To Wed Musician," Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 24, 1938, p.7.
Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music
(Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research Inc., 1986), pp.252-254.
"Widow is Married," Chicago Daily Tribune, June 18, 1941, p.3.
Larry Wolters, "George Devron, Don Carlos to Drake and W-G-N; Kemp to Remain
Another Season at Blackhawk," Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug. 13, 1933, p.W4.
I would like to expand this tribute, if possible, with a new interview of someone who was important to Hal Kemp's life and career. Are you an alumnus of his band, a member of his family, or a collector who is knowledgeable about his accomplishments? Please contact me via e-mail