Introducing: The Scranton Sirens!

Vaudeville may have been on the way out – but jazz and swing was on the way in, particularly in the form of swing. Many speakeasies tried to put some kind of presentable face on themselves so they wouldn’t appear to be flat-out bars, and so they billed themselves as “cabarets” or “supper clubs,” where customers could enjoy fine music and dance rather than just gettin’ drunk. Many small bands sprung up to fill the bill at these clubs, and a lively jazz club circuit was born.

While smaller combos also performed, it was the “Big Bands” that were most popular – thus named because, well, they were bands, and they were big; usually about a dozen members. Unlike the more experimental, smaller combos, the Big Bands used straightforward, danceable arrangements of songs, usually favoring a couple violins for the melody, and were often helmed by a big “name” instrumentalist or singer.

As with vaudeville, the big-time Big Bands liked playing in Scranton, as it made a fine home base to venture out for gigs elsewhere in Pennsylvania, but still have a central spot to sleep (or, to gamble, drink, and carouse on the red-light district). But local performers also had ample chances to break into the business – when a visiting “name” band had a gig, they often contracted a local band to fill in for a half hour or so midway through the evening to give themselves a break. Or, if one of the Big Band members got sick, a local instrumentalist was drafted to fill in for a night.

One such local group in Scranton actually did very well for themselves, and launched the careers of several Big Band era greats. The Scranton Sirens Orchestra was formed just after World War I, by Billy Lustig, who’d been drafted out of law school into the army at the beginning of the war. Billy was also a decent violinist, having organized a small student band on campus; after the war, he was fairly certain he didn’t want to go into law, and decided to try his hand in music instead. The Scranton Sirens’ first incarnation included Billy on violin, a banjo player named Patsy Raymond, and a one-armed Irish tenor named Jack Gallagher. Using the Dixieland band song “Tiger Rag” as their signature tune, the Scranton Sirens built up a small local following over the course of the following year.

Their luck started to turn in 1919 when the band heard of a talented young saxophonist and clarinet player from Shenandoah and called him in for an audition. This saxophonist turned out to be Jimmy Dorsey, who was quickly hired; soon thereafter, the band’s trombonist, Russ Morgan, dropped out, and Jimmy mentioned that his younger brother Tommy played the trombone…Tommy was also brought in to an audition and after playing a near-perfect solo rendition of the ballad “When You And I Were Young, Maggie”, was instantly hired. One fringe benefit to the Dorseys joining the band was that they had a doting mother who often cooked up pots of Irish stew for the entire band after a gig. At this stage, the Scranton Sirens band now had nine members, including Billy on violin, the Dorsey brothers, trumpeter Fred “Fuzzy” Farrar, Irving “Izzy” Riskin on piano, and Sid Trucker, joining Jimmy on sax.

The band’s big break came in 1923, when they got an offer to play at the Crystal Gardens club in New York. They quickly got other offers to appear throughout the northeast, and were approached by the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit to appear at their clubs as well; at this time, possibly to make themselves more vaudeville friendly, the band also featured two little girls, a pair of sisters, as “dance soloists” who would perform during their gigs. Billy was already something of a showman himself – he sometimes amused children in the audiences with an unconventional bowing method; he would hold the bow to his violin between his knees, grasping one end of the violin in each hand, and sawing the violin back and forth across the bow. Apparently he was able to successfully play “Yankee Doodle” in this way.

The growing notoriety lead to a shakeup in the band in 1924. During the summer of 1923 they had a regular Sunday night gig at the Beaux Arts club in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where they were spotted by another band leader, Jean Goldkette, who approached the Dorseys about joining his band. Goldkette also lured Buskin, Trucker, and Farrar away from the band as well. Unbeaten, Billy found a new brass section, and added a bassist and guitarist; he also persuaded Russ Morgan to return. As the core of the band members were now mostly from Philadelphia as opposed to Scranton, the band had ready gigs in the Philadelphia area. However, dissention lead to another shakeup the following year, when the band members were split about whether to travel to a series of gigs in New Orleans. Lustig let go those that didn’t want to make the trip and got yet another round of replacements. But two of those who left didn’t do too badly – they were Mike Trafficant and Eddie Lang, who went on to play with the Paul Whiteman orchestra and ended up meeting a young singer named Bing Crosby.

Billy also happily took anyone back anyway; Tommy Dorsey rejoined the band in 1927, just in time for the band to play a series of performances in New York, following Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and in Chicago at a restaurant owned by Al Capone. Tommy Dorsey soon left again, snatched away by Paul Whiteman right before a New York gig. The Sirens trumpet player at the time, Wingy Manone, recommended a trombonist from St. Louis who was largely unknown then – a self-taught kid named Jack Teagarden. Billy hired him for the New York gig, and the band played at the Roseland Ballroom in New York for eight weeks. At the close of the gig, Teagarden was hired away by yet another band.

Billy had other side projects going, and after Teagarden’s departure, he decided to fold up the Scranton Sirens entirely and concentrate on other projects. He went on to play in other smaller bands, playing a regular gig at the Maxim Club in New York City and then going into radio with Russ Morgan, as part of the band for the Philip Morris radio show. In 1929, he lead an in-house band for an Albany radio station and continued to work in music until his death in the 1960’s.

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