Autographed photo of Nat King Cole
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    Nostalgia: Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald road tours

    The bold red colors on the booklets were transfixing. They caught my eye before I even got to the faces on the covers, some of which I soon and instantly recognized.

    The incomparable Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan were on a cover with a flowing Salvador Dali-like piano keyboard. A young Ella Fitzgerald, her face turned slightly, smiled from the other.

    Both bore the title “The Biggest Show of ’53,” and the Cole program was a fall edition of the show.

    Nat King Cole autograph

    A Nat King Cole autograph inside the "Biggest Show" 1953 fall program.

    They were in protective plastic covers, propped against the wall on a vendor’s shelf at a nostalgia convention late last week, and I wasn’t exactly sure what they were. I was happy, though, to see something other than the reproduction DVDs of old movie and radio shows that predominated the convention.

    Here was a vendor who was selling original historical items untouched by modern technology. These were tour programs, he said, as he obligingly allowed me to remove them from the plastic to take a closer look. Inside were pages of bios and photos about the artists – some names very familiar to me, others not, but most I’m sure among the top recording artists at that time.

    Nat King Cole had autographed his tour program just beneath his photo.

    The front covers of the "Biggest Show" programs for spring and fall 1953.

    There was no price on either programs, and I didn’t even bother to ask the vendor for one (I found an unsigned copy selling on eBay for $75). I had lucked upon an autographed copy of a Nat King Cole photo at auction for pennies a year or so ago, so I wasn’t in the market for another one.

    I was more intrigued by the programs and the tours that had sparked them.

    Cole seemed to have appeared in a number of these “Biggest Shows,” which were produced by the Gale Agency in New York. They were called “one-nighters,” and performers would literally spend a night in big and small towns all across the country doing the shows. The tours featured top names in the industry, along with dancers, comedians and other supporting acts. Joe Louis was in a 1953 show with Ruth Brown. The Marie Bryant Dancers and the song/dance/comedy team of Stump and Stumpy appeared in another.

    Bio pages for Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

    An Aug. 29, 1953, Billboard article noted that the shows had gotten started with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) tours in the 1940s. Granz, a premier concert promoter and record producer who managed Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, brought jazz to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium in 1944, and spent his career promoting the art form and the artists who created it. On his tours, he refused to allow performances before segregated audiences, and he paid black and white entertainers equally.

    By the 1950s, the field had exploded, according to Billboard. Three road tours in the fall of 1952 alone – sponsored by JATP, Gale and one featuring Billy Eckstine – grossed $1 million. The “Biggest” winter show of 1952 – which also featured Cole – grossed $81,000 its first week of six days on the West Coast, according to Billboard, which seemed to report a lot on the money.

    Some of the supporting acts on the 1953 show with Ella Fitzgerald.

    The shows were a boon for the promoters, agencies and record dealers, but even more so for the artists, according to Billboard.

    “The attendant publicity handed them in every town they visit, the added deejay play their records get from jocks in the town and the opportunity to sing their recorded music before a live audience make a one-nighter engagement of import to every disc artist, and make the road show important to the dealer as well,” the magazine stated.

    The road tours extended beyond jazz to rhythm and blues, classical and popular music. Performances moved from theaters and concert halls to unorthodox places like auditoriums and even baseball parks, according to Billboard. A six-week “Rhythm and Blues” show in 1953 featuring Ruth Brown, Joe Louis, the Clovers and Lester Young was so successful that the magazine predicted that it would be repeated the following year.

    An inside page of the 1953 spring "Biggest Show" offers some behind-the-scenes photos.

    The tours, though, sounded grueling, with the artists spending a single night in each city from the East to the West Coast, with Midwest and South stops thrown in. One show featuring Eckstine and Ruth Brown in 1953 was scheduled to pull 65 one-nighters in the South, according to Billboard.

    The “Biggest” spring show – which featured Fitzgerald, Frankie Laine, Woody Herman, Louis Jordan – started in Los Angeles and wound its way through such cities as Seattle; Chicago; Buffalo, NY; Norfolk, VA, and Montreal. A total of 36 shows in all.

    An inside page of the 1953 "Biggest Show" fall program with Nat King Cole shows the featured artists.

    Around the same time, Cole, Billy May and others were scheduled to start out on the “The Record Show” at Carnegie Hall in New York on Easter Sunday for 25 shows that would take them to such cities as Philadelphia; Nashville, TN; Tulsa, OK; Jacksonville, FL, and Charleston, SC.

    These road shows were “the newest and lustiest branch of the entertainment business,” Billboard noted, as it urged local record dealers and distributors to cash in by sponsoring appearances by the singers at their shops.

    Saxophonist Illinois Jacquet performed on the fall 1953 "Biggest Show" with Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan.



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