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  • Saxie DowellSaxophonist, Bandleader, War Hero
  • Terrence S. Tickle (bio)

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Saxie Dowell (here) got his nickname very early, playing one of the first saxophones in Raleigh from the age of twelve, often at his father’s drug store downtown. He went on to become one of the most famous composers of popular and comic songs of the Big Band era. Publicity photograph, courtesy of the author.

[End Page 143]

“Boob boop dittum dattum wattum, choo/And they swam and they swam all over the dam.” Today, many recognize these lines from “Three Little Fishies” in the “itty bitty pool,” and the equally popular “Playmates,” from cartoons and children’s programming, but the composer, Saxie Dowell, was once one of the most famous composers of popular and comic songs of the Big Band era.

Horace Kirby “Saxie” Dowell was born on May 29, 1904, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he grew up singing duets with his mother in the church choir. He got his nickname very early, playing one of the first saxophones in Raleigh from the age of twelve, often at his father’s drug store downtown. He entered the University of North Carolina in 1922, where he became the saxophonist of the most popular band on campus, the Carolina Club Orchestra, led by James Hal Kemp from Charlotte. The band was no mere hobby for Hal Kemp and his band members. They were dedicated musicians who played on campus, in clubs across the state, and, during the summers, on transatlantic voyages. They were so busy, in fact, that Dowell was enrolled at UNC only for his first year. After that he became a full-time musician, although he continued to live at the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house. In those days, the rules on campus living were much more relaxed.

The Carolina Club Orchestra made their first transatlantic booking in the summer of 1924 and their first recordings in England for London Columbia that year. The band was at the leading edge of hot jazz styling at the time and had several bookings among the younger British royalty, including the Prince of Wales, the future King George. They hit the big time when sailing back to the United States on the RMS Berengaria, where the Prince sat in with the band on drums. When the Prince of Wales declared Kemp’s group his favorite band, the news services immediately wired the comment to the American papers. By the time the band arrived in New York the booking requests for the band were so great that Kemp’s brother, T. D., quit his job at Westinghouse and started the Kemp Agency, which later booked talents like Rudy Vallee, Ginger Rogers, and Al Jolson.1

The year after his transatlantic summer tour with the Carolina Club Orchestra, Kemp organized a smaller seven-piece ensemble, which became the forerunner of his nationally known orchestra, with Dowell and several new North Carolina talents. All of the new members joined as freshmen in 1925 and all were destined for national fame. There was Edgar “Skinnay” Ennis from Salisbury, who played drums but became more famous as a vocalist on Kemp recordings like “Got a Date with an Angel.” Ennis would leave the Kemp band in 1937 to start his own band and act as musical director for Bob Hope. Bandmate John Scott Trotter attended high school with Kemp in Charlotte and played with him in the orchestra at the Hawthorne Lane Methodist Church. Trotter was Kemp’s primary arranger, and the talent that moved the band away from the twenties collegiate sound and toward the more sophisticated big band sound of the 1930s. He left the band in [End Page 144] 1936 to become the musical director for Bing Crosby, starting with Crosby’s movie Pennies from Heaven. Trotter would continue to work in the movies and as music director of the “Kraft Music Hall” radio show. Ben Williams, a truly talented sax player from Concord, North Carolina, rounded out the band.2


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Hal Kemp (conducting) and His Orchestra became one of the most popular in the country. Saxie Dowell...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 143-149
Launched on MUSE
2010-08-13
Open Access
No
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