For millions of Americans, the dropping of the New Year ball at Times Square tonight has become an annual tradition, accompanied by popping champagne corks, noise makers and confetti.
But for a certain generation of celebrants, the King of New Year's Eve is not Carson Daly or Ryan Seacrest or even Dick Clark, but Guy Lombardo.
Lombardo, who hosted New Year's Eve broadcasts for nearly five decades, beginning in 1929, was leader of the most popular and enduring Big Band in American history. Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians sold - by some estimates - over 400 million records, over 200 of which were top 40 hits, 25 of which went to number one.
Big Band legend Guy Lombardo leads his musicians, the Royal Canadians, in a New Year’s Eve performance.
"Guy Lombardo had four gold records and to this day has sold over 400 million recordings, and it's going to keep on going," said Joseph Enroughty, administrator for the official Guy Lombardo Society Web site (www.guylombardomusic.com). "Every year Guy Lombardo's number keeps going up and up and up. They outsold every other Big Band that ever came along, and they lasted longer than any of them."
But beyond the hit records and the decades of endless tour dates, Lombardo will forever be associated with New Year's Eve. By the time of his death in 1977, he was an American institution, so closely connected with the New Year that comedians sometimes joked that the holiday must have been invented by a Lombardo publicist.
Indeed, one of the most beloved New Year traditions - the singing of the ancient Scottish song Auld Lang Syne - evolved through an early Lombardo radio broadcast.
"He was playing on one network on New Year's Eve and another network wanted him for New Year's Eve, too," begins Enroughty. "They both wanted the Royal Canadians because it was the most popular band in the country at the time. But they obviously both couldn't have it at the same time, so they worked out an agreement where at midnight one network would sign off and the other would take over.
"To bridge the gap between the sign-off and the sign-on between the two networks, the band just played Auld Lang Syne, which was slowly at that time becoming their theme song. That was in 1929. A lot of people think we were singing Auld Lang Syne for many years before that on New Year's Eve, but as a whole it wasn't being done until Guy Lombardo played it that night."
Born in Ontario in 1902, Lombardo formed the Royal Canadians with his brothers Carmen, Liebert and Victor in 1925, with Guy as leader and Carmen as saxophonist and singer. They soon became famous for producing "The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven," touring the nation and playing dates in cities large and small, including at the now-nonexistent Hecla Park amusement facility in Mingoville, where they kept local folks dancing to songs like "Managua, Nicaragua" and "It's Love-Love-Love" for one memorable night on a Labor Day Weekend the late 1940s.
Among those who experienced Lombardo's sweet sounds was a young journalist named James Bacon, who was about to head west to Los Angeles to cover Hollywood for the Associated Press.
"I saw the show in 1948, just before I came out here," Bacon said by phone from his Los Angeles-area home. "All the big bands played Hecla Park and Sunset Park in Williamsport."
Fred Waring, leader of the Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians Big Band, was a friend and business associate of Lombardo's. Waring had deep ties to the area, having attended Penn State and later hosting a series of music workshops at the university. Before his death in 1984, he left all of his papers and most of his memorabilia to Penn State, creating the Fred Waring's America library.
State College resident Pete Kiefer worked with Waring for 30 years and is the former coordinator of the Waring collection at the university.
"Fred and Guy Lombardo were, of course, in the same business," Kiefer said. "In those days they were friendly competitors. It always amazed me, going through the hundreds and hundreds of pieces of correspondence Fred had, to see how the celebrities of that era would send letters and telegrams wishing each other good luck on the opening of a show or the release of a new record. They were so friendly to each other."
Guy and Fred even went into partnership with two other bandleaders to create a corporate entity that still functions today.
"They formed a music publishing company somewhere around 1936 or '37," said Kiefer. "I believe its original name was Words and Music, because they all wrote music and they wanted to control the use of it. By about 1940, Fred had bought them out and around 1943 or '44 it became Shawnee Press, which is still in existence."
Lombardo and Waring, Kiefer added, "were good friends. They each had radio programs, and Guy guested on Fred's program and Fred guested on Guy Lombardo's program. We, of course have recordings of every time Fred did a radio and television show. That's in the collection, and now and then when you watch these old recordings, you see Guy Lombardo popping up on Fred's show."
Kiefer himself witnessed a memorable encounter between the two music giants.
"During the second inauguration of President Eisenhower, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians were invited to be in almost every event during the inauguration, including the ball on Monday night," Kiefer said. "Each band played an hour, and in one of the places the Pennsylvanians played, we came in behind Guy Lombardo, and Fred and Guy greeted each other like old friends.
"I remember that very well. As Guy was ending, Fred was walking up to the stage and Guy was like, 'Oh Fred! How great to see you! I thought you were following me!' and all that kind of stuff."
Through 1940 - when he was replaced by the great crooner Kenny Gardner - Guy's brother Carmen continued to be the lead singer for the group. In the 1960s, however, he was lured back to the microphone for occasional live gigs, according to Bacon.
"I knew Guy when I was writing a column for the Hollywood Reporter in the mid-1960s," said former Lock Haven resident Bacon. "I raised a campaign to get Carmen Lombardo back singing in the band, and afterward Guy sent me a nice telegram saying 'Thanks to you, Carmen is back singing with the band.'"
Enroughty said when the band first started out, "they didn't have a regular vocalist, so Guy just elected Carmen as the singer. Guy told him, 'You're close to the microphone. You'll do the singing.'"
"By all accounts, Carmen was not a world-class vocalist," he continued. "He was very endearing, but a lot of people who hear him for the first time say, 'Oh, that's horrible.' But over time they realize that it's really a very special brand of singing. When he sings, it's like he's singing exactly for you and nobody else. There could be 100 people in the room and all 100 people will think he's singing just for them."
Like many of the Big Bands that thrived through the 1920s, '30s and '40s, however, Lombardo saw his record sales begin to decline during the mid-'50s Rock 'N Roll era. His last top 40 hit was "Hernando's Hideaway" in 1954, ending a 27-year track record of consistent chart success.
But he continued to tour relentlessly, and without a doubt the most important annual gig was his New Year's Eve show, broadcast live on CBS from New York's legendary Waldorf Astoria hotel beginning in 1954. Though millions had listened to him on the radio for the last 25 years, now Lombardo would become a bonafide TV star.
"When Queen Elizabeth visited the U.S. in 1955, President Eisenhower asked her what she'd like to see first, and she said she wanted to go to New York City and see Guy Lombardo, and that's exactly where she went," said Enroughty.
Lombardo's godson, Joe Van Blerck, played drums for the Canadians for the last few years of Lombardo's life. Now a commercial photographer based in Long Island, N.Y., Van Blerck said the New Year's Eve engagement represented just one night out of hundreds the band played annually, but clearly it was the most significant.
"Guy would say that New Year's Eve was the thing he had to talk about for the rest of the year," Van Blerck said. "Being in that band was pretty overwhelming. The thing that sticks out most in my mind was playing President Jimmy Carter's inauguration... Before us was either the Lynyrd Skynyrd band or the Charlie Daniels Band... It was an odd time for the Lombardos at that time."
Also then performing with Lombardo was Bill Troiano, who played tuba with the band from 1976 through '78. He's now a retired music teacher who plays in a few different New York-area bands today.
"It wasn't easy doing the New Year's job," he said. "You had to get to the Waldorf, be ready in the ballroom for rehearsals starting at around nine or 10 o'clock in the morning. And you're playing constantly. You have to play the guest artist's material - whoever the guest artist was that year - then you took breaks for the cameras to figure out what they were going to do."
That was followed hours and hours of rehearsal, Troiano said.
"Then we were off from maybe 5 p.m. 'till around 8 p.m., when we were back on the stage. Back then there were people - I thought this was so extravagant - who paid $100 a plate to eat dinner and dance to Guy Lombardo. I thought it was insane, but nowadays you can spend $100 at Red Lobster. Back then it was a lot of money, you know?"
Beginning at 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve, Troiano said, Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians played dance sets all night, though "you're not on television 'till 11 at night, and by then you're dead. I couldn't feel my face anymore, and I can only imagine what the trumpet players were feeling.
"So by the time we got on TV, I felt I wasn't really playing as good as I could. I was just physically tired. Then you're off TV at 1 a.m. but you still keep playing 'til 3 a.m. for the hotel guests. It was a long night. It was physically exhausting. But it was fun. I enjoyed it. And we were paid well."
Troiano described Lombardo as a good employer who treated the band fairly, but was not the kind to hang out with the gang at the back of the bus in between dates.
"He was pretty much all-business," he said. "He didn't really socialize with the band, even though we all rode in the same bus together. He sat up front with his brother. Kenny Gardner was up there, too. He'd say, 'Hello, how are you today?' basically cordial stuff."
Perhaps because Lombardo was a family friend, Van Blerck has somewhat warmer memories of the band leader. He described Lombardo as an easygoing, friendly and charming man who adored women and always had time for fans seeking his autograph.
"We lived on the same street in Freeport, N.Y., and my father and Guy were speedboat racers in the 1940s and '50s," said Van Blerck. "They became good friends and my parents built a house near him, so he was around a lot when I was growing up. In fact he gave me my first set of drums when I was about five years old."
As Lombardo aged into his 70s, his band continued to thrive, though his audiences were considerably older in his last years than they had been during the Royal Canadian's glory days of the 1930s.
But there were always a sprinkling of twentysomethings on the dance floors during Lombardo engagements, people who grew up listening to The Royal Canadians on their parent's record players.
"At our dances, when he saw a young couple, Guy went out of his way to get them to come by the bandstand or the stage, just so he could talk to them," Troiano said. "He liked seeing young people at his concerts, because by then most of the people who came were older. He lit up when he saw a young couple there."
And he continued to receive the respect and admiration of musicians around the world. Jazz legend Louis Armstrong remained one of Lombardo's biggest fans until the day he died.
In his 1977 book, "Made In Hollywood," Bacon said Armstrong once told him, "I dig Guy. Always have, ever since they starred in Al Quodback's Granada Cafe in Chicago. That band plays the tune. They give the melody first and it's beautiful. That's my style, too."
"Louis may have had something there," Bacon wrote. "The Lombardos have been going strong for more than 50 years, while some of their musical critics are parking cars or spitting out tacks on an assembly line."
During the last year of his life, Guy struggled with his health, and frequently was unable to handle the rigorous tour schedule the band had previously maintained, according to Troiano and Van Blerck. Luckily, friends like Waring and other Big Band legends were available to lend a hand.
"We had some famous guys - Fred Waring, Freddie Martin and Bob Crosby - do some gigs as leader near the end, when Guy got sick," Troiano said. "I'm 99 percent sure that Waring led the band, maybe when we were passing through Pennsylvania one time when Guy wasn't with us."
Guy Lombardo died in November 1977, just a few weeks shy of what would have been the last New Year's Eve TV special with which he would have participated. But CBS didn't want their highly-rated Lombardo franchise to end just yet. In 1977 and '78 the program aired on the network with the Royal Canadians, but sans Guy.
And the band continued to perform under different leadership, including Guy's brothers Victor and Liebert and Big Band veterans Teddy Phillips, Art Moody and Al Pierson, who has been leader of "Guy Lombardo's Royal Canadians" since 1989.
Indeed, New Years continues to be a busy season for this latest incarnation of the Royal Canadians, with which neither Van Blerck, Troiano nor any other former performer of Guy Lombardo's lifetime is associated. But the original band and its various permutations remains a powerful memory for those of us old enough to remember staying up until midnight on New Year's Eve, if for no other reason than to hear Auld Lang Syne performed by the band that made "The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven."